In the writing word, cliches are frowned upon. They are a fallback for the lazy writer who cannot come up with something original to say.
And yet, one particular cliche has been on my mind since Tuesday night—don’t take life for granted.
Last Wednesday, October 19, my friend Stacy Simmons went in for a surgery to remove a growth from her abdomen. She had originally been told the surgery would take place in November, but somehow an opening had appeared in the schedule. Stacy posted how excited she was that Jesus had answered her prayers to do the surgery as soon as possible. The doctors didn’t think the growth was cancerous, but I can imagine Stacy wanted it out of her body. It probably felt like a ticking time bomb.
The surgery went well, and the doctor removed a 27-lb growth. Whew! What a relief that must have been. That’s like carrying triplets.
Tuesday morning, I texted Stacy to let her know I was thinking of her and had said prayers for quick healing and good results from the doctor on testing the growth.
Tuesday evening, I received this text in reply.
“This is her daughter. She passed away today from complications.”
I couldn’t process it. Had my phone been hacked? Hers? Surely this wasn’t real. Somehow, this was a horrible prank.
I scrolled back through my previous texts. I had definitely messaged Stacy’s phone. My text history was chock full of her typical encouragements.
“Wishing you all the best tonight. You’re gonna be awesome!!”
“Thank the Lord!! I’m so happy for y’all!!!”
“Holy smokes!!! That’s so amazing!!! I’ll be happy to tag team it with you.”
Her vibrancy and infectious enthusiasm shouted from my iPhone screen.
Had someone found her phone? Answered me this way to be terribly mean?
I called a mutual friend and asked her if she’d heard anything. Her tear-choked gasp told me my answer.
I looked at Stacy’s Facebook page.
There it was. A message from her family, confirming the news. “Due to complications from the surgery…”
How was this possible?
Whether your religion teaches you the dead in Christ wake up sitting at his feet, or sleep until he returns, the dead person is immediately at peace. Stacy is fine. She’s either with or waiting for the Lord she loves.
But, oh. The rest of us.
This shock is too sudden. Too cruel.
I’m so glad I followed the prompting that urged me to send her that message. I’m grateful her family knew people loved Stacy and were concerned for her. How they wake up each morning and take their next breath with this sudden hole rent in the fabric of their lives, I cannot fathom.
So, back to the cliché … don’t take life for granted. Tell the people in your life you love them. Make the extra effort to spend time with your friends and family, even if it’s not particularly convenient for you. Tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us.
And Stacy, please save us a seat. We’ll see you again one day.
Do you ever see Christians on TV praying eloquent prayers and think, “They’re perfect”? They serve the poor, dish soup in a shelter, collect shoes for the homeless. I try doing those things, but life gets in the way. Best-laid plans and all that.
Those perfect people sometimes make me feel defensive, and I resent instead of admiring them. God, in the Old Testament, and Jesus in the New, repeatedly used flawed people to carry out their work. Perfection is not required. A willing heart is.
Characters in my stories sometimes make wrong decisions. They’re selfish. They don’t turn to God right away when things go wrong. But they try. They call out to God eventually and learn through life experiences they can trust him.
I experienced this a while back. I sell my books in Kroger grocery stores. Passing shoppers stop at the table I set up and chat with me. This day, a youngish man walked directly to me (which was odd… most wander by with a cautious eye, unwilling to commit until they’re sure why I’m there). Nothing about my display makes it obvious I write Christian fiction, so I’m unsure what drove him to my table. Straight on he came, though.
During our conversation, I learned he was visiting Texas from his home state of Florida. He’d been here only three days and had been to four different churches. I asked if he came to speak at those churches, but he didn’t. Just attending. I was confused about his purpose, but he was so enthusiastic, I gave up making sense of it.
He asked if he could pray for me.
He put one hand on my shoulder and gripped my hand in his other. He asked if I had any pain.
This threw me. I was unprepared. Surprised, I tossed out the first thing I thought of. “My hip flexor sometimes hurts.”
He began praying. Loudly. Using all the “Christian-ese” words like “hedge of protection” and “healed by Your stripes.” I flinched inside.
You’re drawing attention to us.
People are probably staring.
Then I heard a whisper in my heart.
Listen to his words. Claim the promises he is calling down for you.
I listened. To the holy nudge and to the young man. A smile crossed my face as my new friend claimed healing for my body. He was so sure. Why couldn’t I be the same way? I was just like my characters. Stubborn. Unwilling. Unsure.
He finished his prayer, and I hugged him. Whew. Quite an experience. I wished for that faith.
Ten minutes later, a sparkling feeling—imagine what Tinkerbell’s wand might feel like if it touched you— fluttered through my hip joint. I kid you not.
I was afraid to move. Movement would be a test to see if my hip really had been healed, revealing my doubt. And, if I doubted, would it cancel out the healing?
I so totally identify with the Roman soldier who told Jesus, “I believe.” Then, in the same breath, begged, “Help my unbelief.”
I believe Mark shared this story to tell us it’s okay if we sometimes waver. We see with this story we can ask Jesus for help.
Help me believe, Jesus. I want to believe.
And when we pray in his will, he answers that prayer.
Don’t worry if you’re not perfect. God doesn’t demand perfection. He asks for an open heart. That we can do.
My latest book, A Father’s Gift, is now available on Amazon. Book two in the San Antonio series, it continues the story of Abby and Manny who you first met in Protected. Originally published in the Christmas anthology, Christmas Love Through the Ages, it is now a stand-alone book published by Elk Lake Publishing, Inc.
If you missed book one, (Protected), for a limited time, you may download the eBook version for only $0.99. Check them out.
July in Texas. Christmas sounds mighty pleasant right about now. It’s HOT here, and anything that takes my mind off 100˚ weather is welcome. I’m always up for disappearing into a good book. If you’re the same way, you’re gonna love this!
Happy Christmas in July! Welcome to my blog in the 2022 Christmas-in-July Reader Blog Tour & Giveaway, which runs July 15-22, 2022 (contest closes at 8 p.m. Eastern on 7/22). At the bottom of each author’s blog post, you will find the name of a Christmas song. Write them all down and provide all song titles (26 in total) on this Google form. See below for a list with links of all participating authors!
Note: You must grab all the song titles from every author in the 2022 Christmas in July Reader Blog Tour & Giveaway to be eligible to win the grand prize of a $520 Amazon gift card, plus a copy of each participating author’s book OR first place prize of a copy of each participating author’s book. At the end of this blog post is a link to the next blog, and so on, to the final blog post (26 authors in all).
I’m pleased and honored to play a part in the Christmas-in-July blog tour. I am giving away a copy of Texas Heirloom Ornament. This three-novella collection traces a family of Texas women from 1920 to present-day. In my story, In All Things Charity, Alexis invites Matthew, the handsome basketball coach, to join her family for Christmas. Joyful bells turn to warning sirens when his biggest regret walks into the party, casting a dark cloud over their budding romance. Is their love strong enough to withstand the truth? And can love truly cover a multitude of sins?
Here is a sneak peek into the story of Alexis and Matthew.
As he approached the library, tapping footsteps emanated from the math wing. He slowed, peering down the dim hallway. It had to be Alexis. He’d seen her head this way after the games. No one else was in the building, not even the janitors. The school had emptied faster than the donut boxes Admin brought to early morning faculty meetings. Sure enough, she appeared, back-lit by an emergency exit sign over her head as she passed through the double doors leading from her darkened hall. She studied some papers she held in her hand as she walked.
A shriek loud enough to scare the pigeons off the roof pierced his eardrums. He recoiled, heart in his throat. Something thumped against his chest.
“Holy Moses, Alexis! Calm down. What did you throw at me?” His pulse stuttered, but quick on its heels was an unbearable desire to laugh. He clamped his mouth shut.
“Sweet chips and salsa! Matthew, is that you? What the—” Her hand went to her throat, and papers littered the floor where she’d dropped them. She glared at him with a slit-eyed gaze, a soft light from an overhead skylight glowing on her cheekbones.
“What kind of cuss word is that?” He gasped the words without giving away his amusement, but it was a losing battle. Laughter shook his shoulders. He snorted, and that was all it took.
Alexis hid a smile. “Are you laughing at me?” She straightened in mock-offended silence.
He gave up. He laughed so hard he staggered against a brick column in the foyer in front of the library, tears streaming from his eyes.
Now, it’s time to for my Christmas song title: Home for the Holidays
Save the holiday song titles from each of the 26 blog stops, and when you reach the final blog, enter all the song titles on this form for a chance to win the grand prize of a $520 Amazon gift card and a copy of each author’s featured book OR first prize of a copy of each book.
Sign up for my blog here: https://paulapeckham.com/category/stories/
Surprises await everywhere, every day. We simply have to watch. Not sure you agree? Read on.
My brother invited me to attend Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic music festival in Austin. Despite my extreme misgivings about spending an entire day in 100˚ heat, I accepted. Seeing Willie was a bucket list item, and time was running out on that one.
We arrived around 3:30 pm, armed with water bottles, sunblock, and my Mexican wide-brimmed straw hat, but were delighted to discover our seats were already in the shade at the Q2 Stadium. One major blessing!
I’ve never been a huge country music fan, so I knew none of the acts for the day except Willie. Nevertheless, I settled in to enjoy the day. I’m a people watcher, and believe me, there was plenty to watch. Took about five minutes for me to decide a local drill team must’ve gone out of business and held a fire sale on their knee-high white cowboy boots. ’Cause, friend, approximately one in ten of the young women in attendance wore a pair. The only thing missing was the fringe down the sides.
Don’t get me wrong—they were cute, paired with airy short dresses that I’d have been happy to wear if I didn’t want to subject the surrounding people to the sight of my crepey, post-50-something skin all afternoon. There were just a lot of them. The overabundance detracted from the cute impact after a while.
I went to the concourse to get some food. While walking around, I came upon a distressing scene. A man, probably in his 60s, lay on the ground. A younger man stood near his feet, weight shifting from side to side, his hands clasped on top of his head as he watched, concern flooding his face.
The stadium medical team tended to the older man, quickly pulling open his shirt, running for an AED machine, inserting an IV to administer fluids. The man’s skin was gray, and after three convulsive paroxysms of his chest and stomach, he stilled. One medic began CPR.
A man behind me prayed softly. I backed up to stand next to him and gripped his hand. The fact there were now two of us seemed to imbue him with the confidence to speak loudly, strongly, claiming the promise that where two or more are gathered, God is there with them. Our fingers clung tightly, and I fought the tears pooling in my eyes.
I never heard the medics yell “Clear!” nor did the man’s body jerk as if they shocked his heart. They loaded him onto an ambulance stretcher and wheeled him away. As far as I could tell, he never moved again. All I could think was how excited he must’ve been to see Willie Nelson later that night. Dying on the concrete floor of a stadium most likely hadn’t been on his bingo card for the day.
People passed by with hardly a glance at the frenzied activity taking place at their feet. Were they more considerate than I to not stand and watch? Or did they not care? Daniel, the 6’ 4” Hispanic man who prayed so ferociously, gave me a tearful hug and left.
Music from Tyler Childers pounded on the other side of the bleachers. Life continued. Within moments, the medical team had all the plastic wrappings from the AED machine cleared and thrown away. It was as if nothing happened. Stunned, I returned to my seat.
Moments later, cameras projecting on large video screens on either side of the stage showed a young man kneeling in front of his girl, holding a small box up to her. She clapped her hands across her mouth, then nodded. He stood and embraced her, and the entire stadium cheered. The seesaw of emotions left me a bit whiplashed.
Later, a young woman moved to the back of the floor area where there were no chairs and danced to the music, alone. A young man in cowboy boots and a straw hat apparently took it upon himself to rescue her from her solitary celebration and raced across the open zone, skidding to a halt in front of her, boots sliding on the protective flooring laid on the soccer field. He placed the two beers he carried on the ground, then leaped to take her in his arms. She happily complied with his twirls and spins, following his lead as they danced together to the sounds of guitars and a harmonica. When the song ended, he gave her a short bow, collected his beers, and returned to his seat. Duty done, problem solved. Made me smile.
Jason Isbell took the stage. I knew none of his songs, and the overly loud, distorted projection from the enormous speakers made it difficult to understand all the lyrics. However, I could clearly hear the chorus in one song.
“Cover me up and know you’re enough to use me for good.”
Unable to discern what the song was truly about, I felt like those words were a prayer. Use me for good. Daniel prayed for the unknown man on the floor. The young man pledged his love to his girlfriend. The rescuing cowboy wanted to create a sweet moment for the solitary dancer. And all those white boots made girls across the stadium feel pretty.
Willie came on at 9:00 and sang for an hour. He was winded and stayed seated in a chair. But he is an 89-year-old country music icon. I’m glad I got to hear him perform.
Before the night was over, I’d held the hand of a stranger, laughed and sang with others. Never seen any of them before. Will undoubtedly not see them again. But I always want to be used for good. Took my lessons from a stadium full of cowboys, cowgirls, and country music singers. There is always an opportunity if we just look for it.
And, if you’re not a Willie Nelson fan, listen to this song, performed with his son, Lukas. And, sir, who may have died on the floor at a concert on Independence Day, let these words sing you to heaven.
I served on a federal jury several years ago. I didn’t even mind because it got me out of my classroom for three weeks, and it was a particularly tough year. I wrote some musings about my experience once the trial was over. A friend reminded me of that collection of thoughts the other day. So, here is a resurrection of my memories of that good ol’ time. Enjoy.
Things I learned while on jury duty:
It is a long way to Dallas.
It pays to be nice and make friends. I left my purse at home one morning, and Pedro, the attendant of the lot I used each day, let me park my truck there for free until I could find someone to borrow the money from.
Women in Dallas have only one toe, and it is right in the middle of their feet. I know this to be true because of the pointy-toed, spike-heeled shoes they wear. There is not room in those shoes for more than one toe.
Reading glasses make a very effective crowd-control tool when used correctly. I learned from observing Judge Lynn if you perch them right on the end of your nose and glare menacingly over them, you don’t have to actually say anything. This maneuver is particularly effective on jurors who return late from lunch (not me!).
It is a very long way to Dallas.
You can ride the train to Dallas, but you must be at the Vickery Street station at 6:15 am to get to the courtroom on time.
If you walk around the Vickery Street train station at 3:30 pm to familiarize yourself with everything so you won’t miss the train the first time you ride it the next day, you’ll feel like you’ve just stumbled into the Stephen King book The Stand, because there will be no one around but you.
Walking around in a marble-floored, high-ceilinged, empty train station building in broad daylight is creepy.
If you pee against the protective shelter while waiting for the train (not me!), the train conductor, who spies you doing this while he waits for the scheduled time to head to DFW airport, will not be happy and he will call the Transit Police. The Transit Police will come and take you off the train while everyone else looks on, handcuff you, and take you away.
Riding the train was not as much fun as it was cracked up to be, despite it being a very, very long way to Dallas.
The Spanish word for before is antes (pronounced “awn-tez”).
The Spanish word for after is despues (pronounced “dez-pwez).
The Spanish word for tools is heramienta (pronounced “air-raw-may-en-ta”).
The Spanish word for cocaine is cocaine (pronounced “co-cah-een-ah”).
The Spanish word for heroin is chivas (pronounced “shee-vas”).
The Spanish word for well, as in, “Well, when you spoke to the FBI, you lied to them, didn’t you?” is bueno (pronounced “bway-no”).
The Spanish word for o.k., as in, “O.K., let’s look at your testimony again,” is bueno (pronounced “bway-no”).
The Spanish word for good, as in “Good, we’ve established that you lied to Mr. Delapaz,” is bueno (pronounced “bway-no”).
The Spanish word for no (duly reported and translated each and every time) is no, (pronounced “no”).
You can get a crick in your neck driving for 30 minutes along I-30, trying the whole while to position your head in just the right spot behind your rear-view mirror so you don’t have the sun glaring straight into your eyes. This, however, is an advantage when you walk around at lunch as it forces you to hold your head at a snooty, self-important angle, which lets you fit right in. It also helps if you’re wearing pointy-toed, spike-heeled shoes.
The Seinfeld “Soup Nazi” now lives in Dallas and owns a Greek restaurant two blocks from the courthouse. Be ready with your order when it is your turn and, whatever you do, do not ask a question about the menu.
Courtrooms are very cold.
Blankets, coats, and mittens are allowed in courtrooms.
Cell phones are not allowed in courtrooms.
You can sneak your cell phone past the security guard on the fifteenth floor if you keep it in your coat pocket (accidentally, of course) if you wait until there are several important attorneys all trying to get through at the same time you are.
It is a very, very, very long way to Dallas.
It is extremely hard to not watch the news, read the paper, or listen to NPR (even if you don’t normally do so) when someone tells you not to.
It is extremely hard not to talk about something that totally consumes your every waking moment for three weeks.
It is imperative to not wear pants that have become ever-so-slightly too small for you when you are forced to sit still for eight hours.
A certain lethargy steals over your body around 1:30 – 2:00, forcing your eyes to flutter as you valiantly fight to stay awake. This will happen every day, like clockwork, and will last approximately 20 minutes. It will also earn you a glare from over the reading glasses.
Vitamins, a Gingseng-Gotu Kola capsule, and an Arizona Energy tea at lunch will help combat the early afternoon nap syndrome but will not completely alleviate it.
Wiggling around a lot will help you stay awake.
Tapping your knuckles repeatedly—and hard—with your pen will help you stay awake, although it tends to annoy jurors sitting next to you.
Chewing the inside of your cheek will help you stay awake.
Taking a water bottle in with you and drinking from it will help you stay awake. Unfortunately, you only get one bathroom break after lunch, so this maneuver has its pitfalls.
Frowning with intense concentration and looking back and forth between witnesses, interpreters, and attorneys will help hide the fact that your eyes are fluttering.
Listening to a trial where you learn the names of a lot of Hispanic people—many of whom have the same first name; many of whom also have a nickname; many of whom have two last names, either of which might be used by any given witness at any given time—is sort of like reading a Tom Clancy novel.
Making a flow chart helps keep everyone straight. It can also be recopied each day from 1:30 – 2:00 to keep you awake.
Being a teacher gives one excellent practice at picking out when someone starts to lie.
Swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth (we don’t say, “so help you God” anymore) doesn’t have the effect one would expect on the veracity of testimony given.
Lawyers aren’t necessarily good at math. We waited a moment or two for our prosecuting attorney to do mental math and figure out what 30 kilos times $20,000/kilo is.
Jurors are not permitted to call out answers.
It’s an extremely long way to Dallas.
Restating a question five times by changing the first few words will not magically make a different answer come from the witness’s mouth. For example,
“Mr. S, you were afraid of R. A., weren’t you?”
“But isn’t it true, Mr. S, that when you found out E. A. and J. R. were going to set up R. A., you got scared?
“But in your grand jury testimony, Mr. S, when you said, ‘Are you crazy?’, it was because you were afraid of setting up R. A., a known drug dealer, wasn’t it?”
“But Mr. S, didn’t you walk out of J. R.’s apartment that night because you were afraid of R. A.?”
“You were frightened of setting up a known drug dealer, weren’t you, Mr. S.?”
Witnesses, even when they are self-confessed drug dealing, conspiring, scam artists, can be funny and smart-alec when they answer, “For the fifth time, dude, the answer is no.”
Jurors who snort with laughter at funny, smart-alec answers made by self-confessed drug dealing, conspiring, scam artist witnesses will earn themselves a glare over the reading glasses.
Jurors are not allowed to make objections, even when a question has been re-asked five times and answered the same way each and every time.
Jurors from Mississippi use the phrase, “He musta been fed with a sling-shot when he was a baby,” to describe very focused, intense, no-nonsense attorneys who repeat questions five different times in an effort to wring out a “yes” from the witness.
Never, ever, ever take your car to an auto repair shop that has any of the following characteristics:
It is made of corrugated tin.
It consists mostly of a field, a fence, and a shed.
It looks like it has been repainted several times with very brightly colored paint.
There aren’t many cars sitting around waiting to be fixed or cleaned, and the people running it don’t look very busy.
There is a pick-up truck parked anywhere across the street with a person using binoculars sitting in it, watching.
In fact, never, ever, ever take your car to be fixed anywhere besides Christian Brothers Automotive or Pep Boys, just to be on the safe side.
When people get busted in a drug raid, everyone there gets busted, so don’t ever, ever, ever take your car anywhere to be fixed other than Christian Brothers Automotive or Pep Boys.
It’s okay to use the f- word in a courtroom, and it won’t even earn a glare over the reading glasses.
It’s sort of creepy to sit five feet away from a drug dealer and watch him get mad and start using the f-word when the defense attorney hammers away at his testimony.
As a writer, it’s helpful that I have a family member who edits Christian publications for a living. I have my own, personal, built-in networking machine. (Thanks, Lori!) I recently enjoyed the opportunity to share an article with the magazine, The Journal: A Resource for Ministry Spouses.
I wrote the story, Courage to Stand Out, from an event that occurred almost a year ago. Now that I’m not teaching, I miss my chances of spending time with fun teenagers. A fellow church member, Linda Nowlin, asked me to drive our church van to Cleburne, Texas, to deliver gifts. Linda volunteers with CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocate), as do I. Linda has also accompanied me to Mexico with my mission team, so we’ve worked with each other on multiple occasions. (More networking!) Our youth had collected several presents to donate to children in foster care.
This story is what came to me after listening to the girls chatter on the way home. My takeaway? Never be afraid to be different. God made each of us exactly the way we are, so embrace your difference. Check it out on page 16.
We receive messages throughout our lives, messages that tell us what to believe. About ourselves. Our lives.
Maybe those messages are genuine. Maybe not.
This weekend, I got two different messages from two different people, but they both pointed the same direction.
The first happened by accident (or was it?). I attended the Mt. Zion Writer’s conference via Zoom. It started Friday at 10:00 am and finished Saturday at 6:00 pm. We had the option to sign up for a 15-minute session with an agent or an editor and pitch our books. I signed up. My appointment is on Monday. Friday afternoon, I slipped away from the conference to take a friend to the airport. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get back into the Zoom link if I closed it, so I left it open and blanked my camera. (Learned some tricks this year from students doing school online.) I figured I’d make it back in time to catch the last hour.
When I returned home, much later than I expected (because there were wrecks like every five minutes on the highway between my house and DFW airport), my screen had a message on it, inviting me to a breakout room. The conference was over for the evening, but the agent/editor appointments were happening.
The invitation confused me because I was positive my appointment was Monday, but I followed the link, thinking it must be something else. It took me to a breakout room with three other people. Two were talking, one had her camera blacked out. No one said anything to me when I popped in, but continued their conversation, so I lurked, listening. Turns out, the one talking was pitching her book to the other, who I assumed was an agent or an editor. Since no one yelled at me to leave when I appeared so unexpectedly, I sat there and listened, thinking I’d take notes on how to best pitch a book.
When they finished and the author left the room, the agent/editor person spoke to me. She asked me to tell about my book. I confessed I probably wasn’t supposed to be there, but that I had an invitation waiting for me on my computer when I stepped back to my computer, so I clicked it. She invited me to pitch my book, anyway. As we talked, I realized I knew who she was.
I heard her speak last year on a different online conference hosted by Kentucky Christian Writers. Her name is Deb Haggerty, and she presented a class titled Publishing 101: How the Publishing Process Works. She has a very interesting background. She is a published author, a blogger, and speaker, but at age 68, she bought a publishing company called Elk Lake Publishing, Inc. She is now the Editor-in-Chief of an independent, royalty-paying Christian publisher.
I was invited to pitch my book to a publisher. By a woman who re-invented her life at 68 to become something new, something that interested her, something she felt God led her to be.
I told her I remembered hearing her speak, and how impressed I was to learn her story. She encouraged me it is never too late to do what you want to do.
Even if you don’t know what you’re doing.
If you don’t know, learn. Dig in your heels, buy a comfortable office chair, park yourself in front of a computer, and learn.
A reinforced fact for my life—it’s good to get the perspective of experienced people who have lived through things you haven’t.
The second message came from the polar opposite end of the universe. Our eight-year-old granddaughter, Emma, spent the night. She came home with us after my husband’s birthday dinner at my mom’s. By the time we got home, it was almost 10:00.
We packed a lot of adventure into the few hours we had.
We read four books before bed. She wanted to help me choose books for an article I write each month, recommending books for various age groups. Emma looked at some of her favorites, then we read some she’d not seen.
She noticed things I might not have, like the colorful artwork in one book (When God Made You, by Matthew Paul Turner) which she thought was beautiful, and the expressions on the mouse’s face in Frederick, by Leo Lionni. Emma wondered why he looked sad.
When we woke around 7:45 the next morning, she asked Papa to teach her how to make pancakes. Not the mixing part. That part is boring. The flipping part. She wanted to learn how to flip them. So we made a few disasters, then a couple of “taco” pancakes, and finally, we had success. She practiced until we used all the batter. Mission accomplished. She felt good about herself. Anyone want a pancake?
Next, I asked her to color the picture she drew for me the night before while we were at Granny’s. She had drawn an elephant, which reminded me of the hippo her father had drawn for me while he was in art class in high school.
She was conscientious about the colors she chose and took her time coloring so the shading came out even.
Her next project (it was maybe 9:00 by now) was a tug-of-war toy for her dogs, Jenny and Shug. She asked Papa if he had any material she could cut into strips, then braid. He brought her a pair of old blue jeans, and she cut three pieces of fabric about two feet long. I suggested we sew or staple them together at the top so it would be easier to braid them. She chose to sew. I got a needle, some thread, and a thimble to help her force the needle through the dense layers of material. I showed her how to wrap the thread around her finger, then roll it off into a twist that she could scrape into a knot. It took several tries for her to get it, but she wasn’t interested in hurrying. She wanted to learn. She had the strips braided in a snap. Then she sewed the ends to keep the braid in place.
With that project completed, she asked if I knew how to knit. I do not, but used to know how to crochet. We sat and watched a YouTube video (a quite good one titled How to Crochet for Absolute Beginners: Part 1, by simplydaisy). We decided we needed to watch it again, so we sat through the entire thing a second time. Feeling confident we could do it, we chose a color of yarn and sat down to attempt it on our own. Immediately, it became clear we didn’t remember what to do, so we watched the video for a third time.
Emma showed no frustration, no impatience, didn’t throw the yard and the crochet hook down to look for something easier to do. We just tried again.
And we got it. She crocheted a bracelet for herself. Then she crocheted one for her mom. We even added a button to the second one, now that we knew how it worked.
A new fact for my life—it’s good to get the perspective of an eight-year-old.
When I get the same message more than once, especially in the same weekend, I sit up and take notice. The septuagenarian and the eight-year-old both taught me to have patience when trying something new, to follow through, to push past the mistakes and figure it out.
To see more for yourself than you might have originally imagined.
To believe in yourself.
And, by the way, Deb Haggerty asked me to send her my proposal and my book.
A picture is worth a thousand words. You’ve heard this phrase before. And you probably took it to mean something along the lines of “a picture can show us something better than words can tell us.”
If you’re an author, you probably expect me to launch into a lecture about “show, don’t tell.” We’ve all heard that criticism about our work before. Spoiler alert: that’s not where I’m going.
It’s a great phrase though, right? If left to our own devices, we could look at a painting and interpret what the artist wanted to convey. We don’t need a typed explanation. (Okay, maybe with some art we do—I’ve seen some pretty strange paintings hanging in museums.)
Leonardo da Vinci had a go at using the phrase. In his estimation, a poet would be “overcome by sleep and hunger before [being able to] describe with words what a painter is able to [depict] in an instant.”
This phrase tells us to use our eyes to get our message, not words on a page. It exhorts us to use our senses. To think for ourselves.
But maybe—sometimes—our interpretation is wrong.
Look at this picture. What thousand words does it say to you?
Forget a thousand. Pick five. What five words come to your mind when you see this man? Be honest. And if you know who he is, keep your lip buttoned. Don’t ruin the surprise for the rest of us.
Got your five words? OK. Jot them down. We’ll come back to them later.
Let’s take a look at a different picture. Come up with five words to describe these guys. Take ten if you need to, since there are two of them.
I would venture to guess your words this time around were friendlier, more positive. If you’re my age or older, you probably recognize this pair. The tall one is Art Garfunkle. Fuzzy hair. Baby-faced smile. Nerdy name. Not the same vibe as the first guy.
The short one is Paul Simon. He has made his living as a musician for the past six decades. He won sixteen Grammy Awards, he is a two-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Time selected him as one of the “100 People Who Shaped the World,” and Rolling Stone ranked him eighth in their list of “The 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time.” Very respectable.
And he wrote The Sound of Silence.
The song is gorgeous. It’s incredible. It’s poetry.
Garfunkle described the song’s meaning this way: “the inability of people to communicate with each other . . . so what you see around you are people unable to love each other.”
In case you’ve lived your life under a rock and have never heard this song, here is a link to a live performance in 1981. Pay attention to the lyrics.
The inability of people to love each other is a failing of the greatest magnitude. In Mark 12, when a teacher of the law asked Jesus which of the commandments was most important, Jesus answered, “The most important one is this. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’”
But he wasn’t finished. He also said, “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
Remember the five words I asked you to write? Jesus’ five words may have been, “Love God. Love your neighbor.” Jesus didn’t qualify the neighbor part by telling us what they should look like.
I’m afraid sometimes the five words I come up with are not words that lead me to love my neighbor. Sometimes my words are racist or criminal. Thug or terrorist. Sometimes words like stupid.
And I could nest all those words under a category titled “Different.” From me.
Society teaches us to fear different. But that’s not what Jesus modeled. He really upset some folks by hanging out with the wrong kind of people. Different. He talked to the wrong kind of people. Different. He ate with, worked with, loved the wrong kind of people. Different.
I want to follow Jesus. I want to live my life the way he did. I want to love the way he did. I want to be different. So, I have to see my pictures with different eyes. Think different words. Be open to the surprises I will find when I do.
Our friend at the beginning of the post? His name is David Draiman. He was a surprise for me. He is the vocalist for the metal band Disturbed. The band has debuted five albums at number one on the Billboard 200. They have sold over 17 million records worldwide. If you Google the band or search for their music videos on YouTube, you’ll see exactly what you were expecting. Metal music. Loud singing, almost screaming. Bad language. Not exactly my cup of tea.
But what might surprise you is David grew up in a Jewish household. He went to Jewish schools where he expected to receive rabbinic ordination. He trained as a hazzan, or precentor, taught in the vocal arts to lead the congregation in soulful prayer. He started pre-law studies at Loyola University. He graduated from the University with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Government, Philosophy, and Business Administration.
Were any of those words in your list of five? Mine either.
Let’s challenge each other to move past our initial, knee-jerk reaction to the pictures we see and dig deeper. Maybe we find some surprises. Maybe there are more things we share than we expected.
Like Paul Simon and David Draiman. Paul Simon wrote The Sound of Silence in 1964. It hit number one on the Billboard charts and was added to the National Recording Registry in 2012 for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.” Fifty years later, David Draiman sang a cover of it with his metal band. It hit number one again. Listeners have streamed the song over 54 million times, and viewers have watched the music video on YouTube over 500 million times. (I’m pretty sure I’m responsible for at least 20, maybe 30 of those views.)
Looking at those two pictures, we would never in a million years believe those two men had anything in common. Nor would we expect the cover of the song to be something just as powerful and emotional from Disturbed as the original from Simon and Garfunkle. We would’ve been wrong.
So, go forth and be different. Be curious. Dig a little deeper.
And sit back and enjoy the precision, beauty, and power of this man’s voice.
We live in a tough time. Covid-19 strikes almost 39,000 people each day. On January 31, almost 10,000 people died worldwide in a single day. Over 2,000,000 people have lost their lives across the globe in the past year. Lock-downs or social distancing continue to affect jobs, and many people remain out of work. In some households, putting food on the table is a genuine struggle. My church handed out food twice a week throughout the summer to help families eat.
Amid all this life-and-death trouble, losing a pet can feel like a minor issue. What’s the loss of a dog or cat compared to your neighbor losing their parents? A child?
Grief is grief. Pets play a huge part of our lives. I bet you can remember losing your first pet. Mine was Droopy, a red-and-white Basset hound who came to live with us as a puppy when I was two years old. He was my dog. He died when I was sixteen. My mother sent me and my two brothers to my grandmother’s for the day, then carried him to the vet where they put him to sleep. It took me a long time to forgive her for not letting us know what she planned to do. I didn’t get to say goodbye.
I’ve seen a rash of stories on Facebook in the past few months where my friends have lost a pet. Despite the maelstrom surrounding us, in our little bubbles, our world comes crashing down on that day. It hurts. We’re devastated. Hearts break.
The Bible doesn’t say whether animals go to Heaven, but it’s hard to imagine that a creature so loyal and full of love for us wouldn’t be welcome there. Whether it’s biblically correct, I like to think my furry friends through the years—friends who have held such a huge part of my heart—wait for me there until I arrive. It comforts me.
Lady was my first dog after I divorced. I had moved out of my apartment and into a house. With a fenced backyard and no grumpy landlords to say otherwise, I was free to own a pet. We brought Lady home as a newly weaned puppy, and she lived with us for almost fifteen years. Letting her go was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.
I wrote this story with her in mind. It brings me peace to picture her with Jesus. If you’ve lost a pet, I hope it brings the same to you. This is for you Keith, Deb, Jodi, Sara . . . and anyone else who is now missing a piece of their heart.
The dog padded along the dusty trail beaten into the ground. Her paws pressed clover- leaf-shaped prints into the dirt. The wheat-topped grasses lining the path waved like ribbons floating at the 4th of July parade she always attended with her humans. They curved under the weight of their seeded tops and nodded bows to her as she passed, paying homage. Iridescent dragonflies darted from landing pad to landing pad, their colorful bodies flashing in the sun, like jewels with wings.
The dog paid them no mind. Where was she and how had she arrived here? The last thing she remembered was her man human carrying her to the car and laying her on the red-and-black blanket they used at the beach. Her humans drove her to the place with the astringent smells that hurt the inside of her nose. She didn’t enjoy going there, but friendly people always talked to her when she came. She remembered being there . . . then, nothing.
So, how did she get here? Stiffened by age, her legs moved with an awkward inflexibility, hips swaying to compensate for the ungainly movement. Her head bobbed like a metronome with each step, her tongue peeking out as she panted with exertion. Where were her humans? She kept walking, pushing forward, searching for an answer. Her brow furrowed with worry, a silent companion as she continued down the path.
She hiked up a sloping hill. At the gentle summit, she stopped and peered into the glen below. There! A human, a man. Not hers—she could tell that from his scent, pleasant, but unfamiliar. Nevertheless, his presence calmed her. His brown skin gleamed in the sunlight, his hair curled like a poodle’s, a beard covered his chin. Her long tail wagged, but uncertainty glued her feet to this spot. The feathery golden-red fur fluttered as it drifted back and forth. Did he know what this place was? Did he know where her humans were? He turned, as if sensing her there, although she made no sound.
She wasn’t a barker, never needed to be the center of attention. Her humans never had to scold her. Lady differed from the immature, attention-seeking hounds she met at the dog park her family visited on special days. Young dogs. She scoffed at their greenness. An obedient dog knew how to behave, how to present herself as a complement to her humans. Humans who cared about their dogs took the time to teach manners and to instill a sense of pride into them. Her humans had.
A memory surfaced—graduation day from Obedience School. Her humans had placed a cardboard cone hat on her head. The elastic band stretched under her jaw with an annoying bite, but she didn’t shake the decoration off. She smiled into the camera her humans pointed at her when she pleased them. Their pleasure at her accomplishment pleased her. Lady could STAY and SIT. And LIE DOWN. The lessons were unnecessary. She could’ve done all those things if her humans had let her know that’s what they expected. But she wanted them to feel good about the feat. Lady attended the obedience classes and never let on.
Where were they? The worry returned. The human waiting farther down the path calmed her, but could not drive the concern away completely.
As if he read her thoughts, he smiled and waved, calling to her. “Lady!” His wide smile split his face, and his eyes crinkled in friendship.
It startled her. Her ears perked up, and she stilled. How did this human know her name? When she met other humans on the street or at the park, they called her names like girl or pup, which was ridiculous. It had been ages since she was that young. The nicknames were whimsical and silly. However, they seemed to mean it as a term of endearment, so she accepted the names with grace, wagging her long tail to show them she didn’t mind.
The man clapped his hands at her with invitation. “Come!”
Try as she might, she could not remember meeting this human before. Despite that, it was not in her nature to be disobedient, so she continued moving toward him down the path, opening her mouth so he would understand she was pleased to see him.
“Ah, good girl!”
She approached him. He kneeled and invited her to come closer, grasping her furry head between his hands and ruffling her ears. Lady smiled then in earnest, wondering how he knew she particularly enjoyed when her humans did that for her. Her tail wagged harder. This human put himself at her level and patted her with both hands. She felt certain he could answer her questions. She licked his hand—only once—so he would know she appreciated his attention.
“Pretty Lady.” He scratched her head. “We’ve been expecting you. Come with me. There is someone I want you to meet.”
She knew the word come, so she fell into step with the kind man, struggling to keep up with his long steps as he strode farther into the valley below. He pushed his way through the nodding grasses and allowed her to take the easier path, carving a smooth passage down.
As they rounded a curve, joyful noises of many dogs, barking, snipping, and baying to each other in play reached her. Her ears perked up again. Was this a new dog park? Would her humans be here? She ignored the pain and quickened her steps. It had hurt her joints for quite some time now to move that fast.
Finally, she could see the animals her ears had announced. There were dogs everywhere in the field before them, chasing, jumping, rolling, and playing with complete abandon. There were no fences, no benches. Also no other humans. Her nose busily cataloged the unfamiliar scents. Her pack nature compelled her to join the joyous play of the others, even as her heart sank with the realization her family was not here. She glanced up at the human beside her, wondering if he had any answers.
His calm gaze met hers, as if he could read her mind. “Come with me. The person I want you to meet is just around the bend.”
She walked beside the man, watching the dogs as they passed. Some stopped in their play and looked her way, but none approached her. Strange. It was as if they were reluctant to hinder her progress. Lady focused on making her steps sure. She feared stumbling and revealing a weakness.
An unfamiliar person came into view. He saw them coming and turned to face them fully, giving them his total attention.
“Peter!” His voice was joyful. “Bring me our new friend.” His kind gaze settled on the dog’s face.
Her heart leaped inside her chest when she heard His words. Who was this man? She had never seen Him before, but His fragrance tickled her delicate nose like a bouquet. The same instant euphoria she experienced when she stumbled across the path of some wild animal on her walks with her humans filled her with excitement. It overwhelmed, suffusing her entire being, far outweighing the bliss she normally felt when scenting a squirrel. Her tail wagged so forcefully her hindquarters wagged with it. The pain from her joints didn’t register. She burst forward unselfconsciously, wanting only to be near Him.
He kneeled as she bounded toward him and enfolded her in an embrace that pulled her close to His chest. She licked his face with ecstasy, barking with short, excited yelps, wiggling like a salmon on a hook.
An astonishing sensation flooded her body the moment His hands touched her golden-red fur. The constant pain she had grown accustomed to these past few years melted away like the fuzzy white seeds of a dandelion floating on a summer breeze. Confusion and love warred inside of her chest. A tinge of fear in the face of this unexpected and all-consuming surge of emotion swept through her and she rolled onto her back, tucking her tail over her exposed belly.
He squatted on His heels and cupped her jaw in large, calloused hands.
“Lady.” His voice was gracious. “I’m so glad to see you. We’ve been expecting you. I want you to be happy here while we wait for your family to join us. And they will arrive someday soon. Look!” He placed one knee on the ground and leaned on his thigh, allowing her to roll over and regain her footing.
Astonishment at the ease with which her body responded caused her to stumble. Her head cocked to one side and her ears lifted. The pain had disappeared, no twinges, no sharp bites from her joints. Her muscles reacted as quickly and surely as they had when she was a pup. Another joyful bark escaped, her surprise overriding the careful control she usually exerted. She turned to follow His pointing finger. A woman ran down the embankment she herself had just traversed so painfully, calling to one dog. A jaunty Beagle responded to the sound of her voice, turning and pelting toward her with excitement, his tongue lolling from the side of his open mouth, his legs launching his body with ever-lengthening bounds. Their reunion was emotional. Lady glanced up at the dark-skinned man who still kneeled by her side.
“You’ll stay here with me. You’ll live here until your family comes. We’ll have fun together. We’ll take walks, you can play with the others, and I’ll come each day to visit you. I will love you fully and completely in their absence. Consider yourself as important to Me as you’ve ever been to your family. I created you, and you are Mine. Welcome.” He stood and gazed across the field at the other hounds. A look of love and pleasure warmed His face.
She sat at His feet, caressing the grass underneath her with her silky tail. She stared at Him with worship in her eyes. Her worry melted away. Her humans would come, eventually. Joy swelled inside of her. She now understood the euphoria of the others.
He laughed and waved His hand toward the field, giving her permission to join them. She bounded away gracefully, unable to sit still for a moment longer, all pain vanished from her bones. A puzzle piece she hadn’t realized was missing had dropped into place and completed her. Love had been her constant companion before, and now it had found her again. It was like coming home.