Hamilton (the musical) taught all of us about history. It also teaches English grammar.

Anyone else out there a Hamilton fan? I’m obsessed. Not only is the music appealing, emotional, and interesting, but it’s also so incredibly smart.

For example, the rhyming shows up in odd places. Patterns are unusual and unexpected.

Watch this one—

“She courted me
Escorted me to bed and when she had me in a corner
That’s when Reynolds extorted me
For a sordid fee
I paid him quarterly
I may have mortally wounded my prospects
But my papers are orderly.

And Lin-Manuel doesn’t give a pfft about echoes—

“I never spent a cent that wasn’t mine
You sent the dogs after my scent, that’s fine.”

Brilliant. Simply genius. I could listen to this musical every day for the rest of my life and not grow tired of it.

But when I first listened to the music, one part confused me.

I received a Hamilton CD for Christmas in 2019, just as I started my writing journey. I hadn’t joined a critique group yet, hadn’t started relearning all my grammar rules, so I didn’t get what Lin-Manuel Miranda was saying. Read this verse Angelica writes to Alexander:

“In a letter I received from you two weeks ago,
I noticed a comma in the middle of a phrase.
It changed the meaning. Did you intend this?
One stroke and you’ve consumed my waking days.
It says, ‘My dearest, Angelica.’
With a comma after dearest.
You’ve written,
‘My dearest, Angelica.’”

This puzzled me. What’s the big deal with a comma? I’m so glad you asked.

To explain this, we must use fancy English-class words we learned 40 years ago. (Okay, maybe that’s just me. You may actually remember this word.) We have to talk about appositives.

I heard you sigh from here. Keep reading. I’ll show you how I simplified this rule so I can remember it, thus saving myself from looking it up each and every time I come across it in my writing.

First, the definition. An appositive is a noun that describes another noun.

My friend Lin-Manuel Miranda dropped by.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, a famous writer, created Hamilton.

When an appositive is essential to the meaning of the noun it belongs to (restrictive), don’t use commas. When the noun preceding the appositive provides sufficient identification on its own, use commas around the appositive.

Let’s look at my first example again.

My friend Lin-Manuel Miranda dropped by.

I have more than one friend. If I leave out the appositive, my sentence says, “My friend dropped by.” Saying “my friend” is not enough information for you to know who dropped by. I don’t put commas around the appositive because we need that information.

However, in our second example, it’s different. Read it again.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, a famous writer, created Hamilton.

Lin-Manuel Miranda IS a famous writer—we all know that—so we don’t need that information. We use the commas to set aside the extraneous information (non-restrictive).

Let’s do another one.

Our vice president, Kamala Harris, is the first woman elected to the position.

Our vice president is a relatively precise identifier, so Kamala Harris is not considered essential.

We can live without the information supplied by the appositive. Use commas.

Famous composer Lin-Manuel Miranda won a Grammy Award for the Best Musical Theater Album in 2016 for Hamilton.

The way I constructed this sentence, I must include Lin-Manuel’s name in order to know which famous composer we’re talking about. Since we need his name, no commas are necessary.

Clear as mud?

Now, back to Angelica. What got her so hot and bothered?

“My dearest, Angelica …”

Alexander added the comma, showing he didn’t think it necessary to explain who his dearest was. He could live without that information. In other words, no other person in the world could be his dearest, so including her name was unnecessary. She was his dearest.

Scandalous! My mnemonic to remember?

Need it? No commas. (Both words start with N.)

Can live without it? Commas.

My mother, Sandy, just traveled to Alaska.

I know who my mother is. I can live without the extra information. Use commas.

My friend Tammy Spradley is an even bigger fan of Hamilton than I am.

I have lots of friends. We need the information. No commas.

I’m bookmarking this page because I know I’m going to have to check myself again at some point. Feel free to do the same.

“When you love what you do, it’s not work anymore.” Horse hockey.

American filmmaker Lawrence Kasden, screenwriter for several Star Wars movies, made the following statement, and it’s 100% true.

If you think you’d like to write, the first thing you must do is abolish your ego. That’s hard, but you’ve got to try. Because from day one, someone somewhere will gleefully tell you what is wrong with what you just wrote. And most of the time, they’ll be right. If you allow it, on the first day of your new career, you’ll learn something.

Those criticisms are hard words to hear because you’ve just poured your soul into what is on that paper. You’ve opened yourself up, allowed people to see inside your psyche. You make yourself vulnerable. So when someone starts methodically ripping your work to shreds, it hurts. But the pain is necessary.

I had to go through a very detailed psychological evaluation once for a company who planned to hire me. When I read his report, one line jumped out at me. He said, “Bristles at criticism.”

My response? “I do not!”

Oh. Wait. Point taken.

My default reaction to any criticism is to defend. I have learned to shut that down as quickly as I can and force myself to LISTEN. I don’t have to agree with the criticism I receive from critique partners, and I may decide to ignore their suggestions. But I have to listen. Because the plain truth is, I don’t know everything. Probably, they don’t either, but they might know THIS, so I need to hear their words.

Deb Haggerty, the editor-in-chief at Elk Lake Publishing, Inc., posts helpful articles for her authors on our private Facebook page. I always read them. If the boss thinks something is worth sharing, then I pay attention. She recently posted a link to this article, along with the pithy caption, “Please, please, please read the following article!” (And, yes, she spent a valuable exclamation point, giving the impression she felt passionate about it.)

So I read the article and added it to my growing list of things an author must know.

https://us5.campaign-archive.com/?e=8b905fac2e&u=7b5222d5ce3ad8e5630c9f2d4&id=b17505630b&fbclid=IwAR16a2_ltLLcuIW0vx_H37RM2F2JIbMo8mV5J2Vv0QXvR_vCUx7h8zDiJGE

So, swallow your pride. Admit you just learned something. Now, go forth and start hunting. And may the force be with you.

Oh, won’t you stay with me?

Social Media is a “build it, nurture it, engage them, and they may come and stay.”

I stole that quote from Seth Godin (and that lyric in the title from Sam Smith). Seth Godin is an American entrepreneur, best-selling author, and speaker. He should know what he is talking about, as he essentially invented commercial email. As authors, we know we need to build some sort of social media platform because that is how we will gather our ever-essential followers. Whether you’re an author looking for readers, or a baker looking for cake customers, you need a method of reaching people and snagging their interest. The challenge is then keeping them hanging around for more.

According to marketing experts, if you want to gain name recognition, you need to post something on Facebook or Instagram at least two times each and every day (five times if you live on Twitter.) Ahem… please do NOT go back and notice the date of my last post on any of the above-mentioned platforms.

Enter the major problem most of us have.

Thanks to Terri Main, owner of the WordMaster Academy, I have a list to help you crank out content to fill those thirty posts per month.

Step one: Break your topic/genre into subtopics. Let’s say you write romances that take place in Victorian England. Your list might include:

  • Fashion
  • Economy
  • Architecture
  • Class Struggles (a biggie in Victorian England. Just read Dickens)
  • The Workplace
  • Marriage rituals
  • Politics
  • The legal system
Sign me up! (Not)

Those are a few ideas to get you started. Someone interested in Victorian England might be interested in any one of them.

Step Two: Choose one of those subtopics. (Or use the main topic if you like)

Step Three: Fill in the blanks below.

  • A Joke about _______
  • An Image about _____
  • A video about ______
  • A link to an article about _____
  • A review of a book/movie/TV show about ______
  • A blog post about ____ (Remember when writing blog posts, copy and paste them into the status box on Facebook and attach a photo. Links get fewer views than original posts with images)
  • A cartoon about_____
  • A picture quote about_____
  • A discussion question about ______
  • A survey about ______
  • A poem about ________
  • A piece of flash fiction about _______
  • A background piece about a problem you faced writing about _____
  • Something you learned researching _______
  • A tip for people writing about ______
  • A pet peeve about how ______ is portrayed in movies/TV/Books.
  • A Facebook Slideshow or Picture Gallery about _____
  • A post you made six weeks or more ago about _______
  • A post you made on another social media platform about ______
  • A guest post from someone else interested in the subject.

There are twenty blanks to fill in that list. If you create a post for each one, that gives you 10 days worth of content. Repeat that for two more subtopics, and you have a month of posts.

So how long will that take? I’ll do a run-through right now and time it. Since I set my book in the 1860s, in Texas, my characters either are or interact with cowboys. I’ll answer the first five prompts and see how long it takes to do. Ready, set, start the timer!

Post 1, Day 1: Cowboy cartoon.

Now I’ll think up some copy that ties this to my story. “Manny probably wished for something this easy to catch during his cattle-driving days.”

Day 1, Post 2: An image about cowboys.

Texas sunset

My copy with this photo might go something like this: Texas is known for its gorgeous sunsets (although someone told me it’s due to the completely unromantic reason of dust in our atmosphere). I like to think of what Manny or Abby might have seen each night as they made their way home from roaming on their property. Back then, a family could claim 120 acres just by filing with the General Land office.

Day 2, Post 1: A video of a cattle drive. My copy would go something like this: “In the beginning chapters of Protected, Manny and his best friend, Jonathan, are heading home from driving a herd of cattle to Kansas. They spent two to three weeks on horseback, eating from a chuck wagon, on their way to the meat market. It would’ve looked something like this.”

Day 2, Post 2: A link to an article about the life of a cowboy in 1866. I would write something like this to go along with the article. “The cowboy of Hollywood was far more glamorous than the real-life cowboys of the 1800s. Read on to discover facts it might surprise you to know.” https://www.frontierlife.net/blog/2020/10/26/cowboy-life-in-the-1800s-primary-sources

Day 3, Post 1: A review of a book/movie/TV show about cowboys. I would write: “Ask anyone on a book recommendation website or Facebook page for a book about cowboys, and you’re going to hear about Lonesome Dove. It is the quintessential story about cowboys, particularly for dialogue. If you want to write a story with a cowboy in it, read this book first. Maybe read it twice so you marinate your brain in cowboy-speak. You’ll love it.”

https://www.amazon.com/Lonesome-Dove-Larry-McMurtry-audiobook/dp/B07BGQGG7R/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=lonesome+dove+book&qid=1640747337&sprefix=lonesome+dove%2Caps%2C571&sr=8-1

Stop. My timer was at 18 minutes, 2 seconds. I’m one-sixth of the way through. So, I’d need between 1 hour, 45 minutes to 2 hours to complete a full month’s worth of content for my Facebook and/or Instagram feeds. That’s doable. Set a reminder on your phone for the first day of every month and crank it out. Then it’s simply a matter of copy and paste to your social media of choice, and you’re done!

Let’s do a pinky-swear challenge. I’ll try it if you will.

It’s a long way to Dallas.

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:

  1. It is a long way to Dallas.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!).
  5. It is a very long way to Dallas.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Walking around in a marble-floored, high-ceilinged, empty train station building in broad daylight is creepy.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. The Spanish word for before is antes (pronounced “awn-tez”).
  12. The Spanish word for after is despues (pronounced “dez-pwez).
  13. The Spanish word for tools is heramienta (pronounced “air-raw-may-en-ta”).
  14. The Spanish word for cocaine is cocaine (pronounced “co-cah-een-ah”).
  15. The Spanish word for heroin is chivas (pronounced “shee-vas”).
  16. 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”).
  17. The Spanish word for o.k., as in, “O.K., let’s look at your testimony again,” is bueno (pronounced “bway-no”).
  18. The Spanish word for good, as in “Good, we’ve established that you lied to Mr. Delapaz,” is bueno (pronounced “bway-no”).
  19. The Spanish word for no (duly reported and translated each and every time) is no, (pronounced “no”).
  20. 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.
  21. 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.
  22. Courtrooms are very cold.
  23. Blankets, coats, and mittens are allowed in courtrooms.
  24. Cell phones are not allowed in courtrooms.
  25. 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.
  26. It is a very, very, very long way to Dallas.
  27. 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.
  28. It is extremely hard not to talk about something that totally consumes your every waking moment for three weeks.
  29. 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.
  30. 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.
  31. 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.
  32. Wiggling around a lot will help you stay awake.
  33. Tapping your knuckles repeatedly—and hard—with your pen will help you stay awake, although it tends to annoy jurors sitting next to you.
  34. Chewing the inside of your cheek will help you stay awake.
  35. 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.
  36. Frowning with intense concentration and looking back and forth between witnesses, interpreters, and attorneys will help hide the fact that your eyes are fluttering.
  37. 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.
  38. Making a flow chart helps keep everyone straight. It can also be recopied each day from 1:30 – 2:00 to keep you awake.
  39. Being a teacher gives one excellent practice at picking out when someone starts to lie.
  40. 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.
  41. 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.
  42. Jurors are not permitted to call out answers.
  43. It’s an extremely long way to Dallas.
  44. 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,
    1. “Mr. S, you were afraid of R. A., weren’t you?”
    2. “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?
    3. “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?”
    4. “But Mr. S, didn’t you walk out of J. R.’s apartment that night because you were afraid of R. A.?”
    5. “You were frightened of setting up a known drug dealer, weren’t you, Mr. S.?”
  45. 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.”
  46. 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.
  47. 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.
  48. 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.
  49. Never, ever, ever take your car to an auto repair shop that has any of the following characteristics:
    1. It is made of corrugated tin.
    2. It consists mostly of a field, a fence, and a shed.
    3. It looks like it has been repainted several times with very brightly colored paint.
    4. There aren’t many cars sitting around waiting to be fixed or cleaned, and the people running it don’t look very busy.
    5. There is a pick-up truck parked anywhere across the street with a person using binoculars sitting in it, watching.
  50. 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.
  51. 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.
  52. It’s okay to use the f- word in a courtroom, and it won’t even earn a glare over the reading glasses.
  53. 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.
  54. It’s a long way to Dallas.

Authors in Kroger stores program

Are your sales on Amazon flat? Do you feel like you’re shouting into a void when you promote your book?

If only I had access to the general public on a regular basis where I could sell my books.

Have you ever thought that? Indie authors, traditionally published writers, or hybrids—we’re all looking for reliable, effective means of getting our work out into the world.

Well, I have a solution for you! It’s called “Authors in Kroger Stores Program.”

This program partners with Kroger grocery stores. (Right now, locations are limited to Texas and western Louisiana, but Oklahoma is coming soon.)

Authors pay a yearly membership fee of $75.00. You then pay $25 for each book title. This gets your book entered into Kroger’s vendor program. Once you have registered your title, it’s a done deal. You pay only once per each book ISBN.

Authors set up a table inside the store and sell to passing shoppers. You retain 62% of the sale.

December is the perfect time to enroll in the program. It takes about thirty days to get everything into the system, so you’ll be ready to sell in January. This will give you a full twelve months of usage from your $75 membership fee. If you enroll in April, your renewal will be due in January, regardless of whether you got a full twelve months out of your membership fee.

How it works:

You pack in what you need. Table, chair, decorations, books, etc. You set up. You pack back out when you’re done.

You make a copy of your book’s back cover where the ISBN number is located. You give interested shoppers a copy of the cover which they use to buy the book at the register. The cashier scans the bar code, the shopper pays, then she brings her receipt back to your table and you hand over a book.

You can set up shop any day of the week, but the most popular are Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Prime times are 3:00 – 7:00 on Fridays, and 10:00 – 3:00 on weekends. However, you can set up whatever day works best with your schedule. If you’re having a booming sales day, you may stay longer than you scheduled. If your sales are flat, you’re free to pack up and head home for the day. They arrange the schedule so only one author is there at a time.

Two of my friends in ACFW DFW Ready Writers have taken advantage of this opportunity, and they’ve both sold books by the hundreds. It requires a time commitment, but marketing our books is a continual hustle, and this one pays off.

Interested? Contact Ray Depew at 845-699-6664 or at rayd792002@yahoo.com. Ray is not affiliated with Kroger. He is an author, like the rest of us, but has put this program together to make the unending job of marketing a little bit easier.

So, get out there and promote yourself. Good luck and may the sales force be with you.

Courage to Stand Out

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.

https://tinyurl.com/3afsskv8

Texas Heirloom Ornament launch party!

Save the date. More details to follow as soon as Painting With a Twist confirms the availability of the artwork we’ve chosen. When they give me a thumbs up, I’ll pass along a link so you can register.

To make it more exciting, I’m doing a raffle. We’ll have two lucky winners. One will win a frame for their lovely painting, and the other will have their registration paid for. To be entered in the drawing, send me a) a photo of yourself holding (or even better, reading!) a copy of Texas Heirloom Ornament or b) your Amazon receipt from buying it (if it didn’t arrive in time for the party).

Seating is limited, so sign up soon! I hope to see you there.

I Need Your Help!

I am planning a launch party for my second Christmas anthology book (available October 12 on Amazon). I was invited to take part in the collection with Texas authors Jessica White and Sara Meg Seese. We titled the book Texas Heirloom Ornament, and it chronicles the stories of three generations of Texas women. Each story takes place around Christmas.

The first one, In Small Things Liberty, is set in 1923. Following is In Large Things Unity, which takes place in 1972. The collection wraps up with the third novella, In All Things Charity, in 2015. An heirloom Christmas ornament connects the three women in the stories as they pass it down from generation to generation. There is also just the slightest thread of feminism as each heroine deals with challenges from her particular era.

We are organizing a Painting With a Twist party, but they offer several options. Please tell me your top three choices of the following paintings. Also, let me know if you’d be interested in an invitation!

Thank you for your help, and I hope to see you there!

Option 1 – Bulbs of the Season
Option 2 – Christmas Love
Option 3 – Christmas Once More
Option 4 – Christmas Tree
Option 5 – Enchanted Christmas Tree
Option 6 – Holiday Shine
Option 7 – It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
Option 8 – Rustic Merry and Bright
Option 9 – Simple Christmas
Option 10 – Snow Bird
Option 11 – Trim the Tree
Option 12 – Whimsical Winter

A Picture Is Worth 1000 Words

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.”

La Scapigliata – Leonardo da Vinci

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.

Simon & Garfunkle

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.

The Woman at the Well

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.

Be surprised.

All Dogs Go To Heaven

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.

Droopy; my dad, Paul; and me – 1970

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.

Eddy & Lady, 2000

Coming Home

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.