Drought

Drought

When I was about eight, we went through a few dry years. One summer especially, it was declared an official drought…and I hated it. I live in the mountains of West Virginia, and those mountains are used to being green. Being rural, we had a well. Drought for us meant being very careful with and anxious over our water tables, being watchful of any sparks or fires, and praying God would send rain.

I was too young to know or care much about the bigger concerns. What I knew was that the lush green grass I loved running through barefoot was dry, brown, and pokey. Running barefoot through it held no appeal. What I knew was that our neighbors liked to burn trash, and fire was already terrifying to me after a rather large one consumed the hillside next to our house on my sixth birthday. What I knew was that this was NOT how my world was supposed to be.

I remember praying every night–every night–with all the earnestness of an eight-year-old that God would make the grass green again. I didn’t actually pray for rain. I prayed for green. Because that was what I saw. That was what I hated–the brown grass. And I knew God could make it green again…even without rain, right? Every night I would pray, and every morning, I would run out to the dining room window and look out, eager to see my miracle.

Every morning, I looked out that window and saw the same brown, scratchy, crunchy, hated grass.

Here’s the thing. I didn’t give up praying. I didn’t get angry. I just huffed a breath and thought, “Maybe tomorrow morning. I’ll just keep praying.”

Those memories have stuck with me for more than thirty years. Why? I think, looking back on it now, it’s not really because the drought itself scarred me for life or anything. It wasn’t because I realize, looking back, that I should have been praying for rain instead of green. I think that time has stuck with me, because Little Roseanna knew something Grown-Up Roseanna needs to remember.

We need to keep praying. Day in and day out. Disappointed or fulfilled. No matter how dry our souls feel. No matter how barren things look. Every day we’re left with a “no” or a “not yet,” we need to say, “Maybe tomorrow then. I’ll keep praying.”

As I ponder those days, I also remember something else.

I remember my phobia-level fear–terror–of fire. It was a real thing. In this day and age, I can imagine parents taking their kids to a counselor to talk through it. Because every night when I went to bed, I would tie my favorite teddy bear’s scarf around my wrist, so that if fire came and I had to jump out my window, I wouldn’t leave him behind. I would line up a few favorite things beside that same window, so I could grab them on my way out. I gathered all the matches I could find and soaked them in water, thinking they’d be destroyed forever and save me the worry of anyone making even the smallest fire in my house. Christmas Eve candlelight service? I was a wreck. I thought my long hair was sure to catch on fire and I wouldn’t hold my own candle.

Still, my neighbors, parents of my best friend, had a fire barrel. They would burn their trash rather than pay to have it picked up, and this…was…TERRIFYING to me. Especially because in that year of drought, one day the burning barrel blew over.

Fire. Fire was spreading through that dry kindling that used to be grass, and we were outside playing and saw it happen. Cue all the screaming. The rushing this way and that, having no idea what to do. My friend and I searched wildly for her father, certain the whole world was about to go up in flames…when he came sauntering calmly over with the hose and doused it in about three seconds. He’d been watching all along. He was prepared.

Then, in the next week or two, I noticed something strange.

The patch of grass that had burned grew back…green. I was startled. Amazed. In wonder. Surely that one dousing with the hose hadn’t accomplished that green, had it? Was it the single soaking of water or the fact that the dead grass was burned away?

I had no idea. But it taught me something I never would have anticipated.

Sometimes it takes destruction to bring new life. Sometimes my worst fears have to be realized in order to get the thing I long for.

After that, my best friend and I would joke about how we just needed to do controlled burns of all the grass to bring it back to life–a little match here, then a bucket of water to follow. We’d chase each other around the yard, pretending we were lighting and then quenching restorative flames.

Maybe, just maybe, that was when I started to heal from that phobia. Because of a drought that wouldn’t go away no matter how much I prayed.

I was remembering all of this because the last few weeks have been hot and dry here in the West Virginia mountains–not at all unusual for the last weeks of summer. The grass began to brown, and it would crunch under my feet when I walked through the yard. As it always does, that sound, that feel took me right back to that horrible summer of drought. Then we had a day of rain. One day, one good storm…and I walked outside the next day, and that crunchy grass was soft again. Green had overtaken the brown. Life had been restored.

One storm. One good soaking rain. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

I know many people in the country are suffering from severe drought right now of the natural variety–I have a lot of friends in Texas who are desperate for rain. How many more are suffering, all over the country and the world, from spiritual drought? How many get up every morning, hoping to feel life and hope only to be met with the same brown, crackling, prickly world?

I get it. I’ve been there, both spiritually and physically. But be encouraged, friends, by Little Roseanna and her insights. Keep praying–pray for relief, pray for healing for the root cause, pray for it all. But also know that sometimes, those droughts are there to heal us in the most unexpected ways. Sometimes, being stripped bare, down to the nub, parched of everything we thought we needed, we’re finally able to dig out the roots of fear, of bitterness, of shame, of regret, of hate. Sometimes we need those droughts so that the cleansing fire can get rid of the chaff and healing–life-giving, pure, clean, flowing healing–can finally do its work.

Droughts don’t last forever. Neither do floods. Life is always cyclical, with highs and lows, the dry and the soggy, the too-much and the not-enough. Faith doesn’t change any of that…it changes us and how we see it. It teaches us to see not the lack, but the opportunity. It teaches us to trust in our good and faithful Father, who is always watching, even when we don’t see Him there.

I will never like the feel of crunchy grass under my feet. But I will forever be grateful for what God taught me about Himself through my drought.

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Thoughts on AI

Thoughts on AI

AI.

It’s a hot topic right now in all circles. Certainly in creative ones. And I’ve heard everything from “shut it down before it takes over the world” to “this is the best thing since the Garden of Eden.” As a creative–a writer, a cover designer, a blogger, and co-owner of a publishing company–I have my opinions. And while everyone has their opinions, which means mine isn’t worth more than anyone else’s, I wanted to weigh in. Because in my family, we’ve given this a lot of thought. Like, A LOT. So I’m hopeful that the perspective we’ve reasoned out will be helpful to someone else out there.

What Is AI?

AI stands for Artificial Intelligence; it’s been around for a long time at this point and is already integrated into most of the technology you use on a daily basis. For the purpose of this discussion, though, we’ll be focusing on the specific forms of AI that are igniting all this controversy–“chat bot” and the AI image generators.

ChatGPT, and at this point, many other language-based AI interfaces, is basically a program into which you type your question or thought or prompt, and the computer spits out an answer.

You’ve no doubt seen countless articles about what it can do, its weaknesses, scary examples where it claims to be alive, people using this in ways they shouldn’t, like to write legal briefs or school essays, and so on.

The image generators vary in their capabilities, but they work largely the same way. You type in a prompt like “ultra-realistic photo of a woman dressed in an evening gown from 1909 standing in front of an English manor house with a lion at her side, from the back, sunset lighting” and the program delivers you four possible images. You can ask it for more or click on one you like and ask it for refinements, or to zoom out, and so on.

 

But should we be using it? Is it really dangerous? Is it stealing from artists?

The Fears

Every single post or article I’ve read–and I’ve read A LOT of them at this point–that decry AI come down to one very important thing: they are afraid that AI will displace them.

Creatives are afraid that people will use AI to write a book or create art, and users won’t be able to tell or care about the difference, and that human artists will be a thing of the past. They’re afraid that they’ll lose their income, their purpose, and their creative expression to a bunch of bot-created garbage.

And let’s be honest. People will use it for that. Just like people have been pirating others’ creative work and passing it off as their own for decades if not centuries. People will put dozens of bot-created books on Amazon with their own name and count on people buying them. Oh, Amazon will crack down on them when they get complaints and take them down, but they’ll already have made some money. And when they take down one, they’ll just put up another. They’ll open new accounts when theirs get suspended. They’ll do anything for that easy buck.

It’s true. They will. You know how I can be sure? Because those people have already been doing the same thing, either with stolen work from the internet, public domain books, or the like. Those people will ALWAYS try to cheat the system, and they’ll succeed to an extent. But are they really a threat to legitimate artists and writers? Of course not. Because audiences are built through trust. Real creatives grow audiences who come back to them time and time again because those readers or art-enthusiasts love their work. That isn’t going to change.

But haven’t people been put out of work before by technology?

Yep. They sure have. Factories employ a lot fewer people than they used to. Cashiers have been largely displaced by self check-out. Not entirely, of course, because there are always those customers or items or parts of a process that still require a human touch. But it’s true that the numbers have changed. It’s a very real issue, and one that has to be addressed; honestly, changing technology has ALWAYS impacted the workforce, from the first factory that put cottage-industries all but out of business to today’s leaps.

Here’s where this new development is different–humanity needs to be creative. We are creative. I firmly believe it’s part of being made in the image of the Creator. And while we also need to work, we don’t need to do one specific thing. Yes, we absolutely find jobs we like and enjoy and don’t want to lose…losing those jobs is a horrible thing for anyone to go through. It’s traumatic when it happens, and my prayer is always that when it does happen, those people will find positions they like even more, that provide even better. Distasteful and scary as it is, the job force is constantly changing, with some positions being obliterated and new ones being created. My family was caught up in some of this too in recent years, so I know firsthand how it can affect people. But one thing we had to learn to ask was this: is that job part of your identity before God? When He looks at you, does he see cashier or factory worker or transportation manager? Of course not. He sees His precious child–that is our ultimate identity.

And creativity is part of that identity, because of His creative image He stamped on us.

No matter how good AI gets, humanity will still find a way to be creative. Writers are still going to write. Artists are still going to paint or sculpt or draw. That will not change, because it cannot. We, by virtue of being human, cannot just hand off our creativity to a machine and be content with that. We will keep creating because we must be creative. And as long as people keep being creative, other people will keep supporting it, because we also have a deep-seated recognition of the value of others’ creativity.

Use Versus Misuse

So, yes, people will misuse it…but does that mean it’s by nature bad? The internet is misused all the time, but can you really imagine your life without it?

The fact of misuse doesn’t mean the thing itself is bad. It’s just a tool.

You can misuse any tool–even to the harm of others. Hammers, chainsaws, pipe wrenches, crowbars…they’ve all been used for crime. But you know what else they’re used for? Building. Crafting. Creating. Fixing. Making things work.

Personally, I’m a big fan of indoor plumbing and a roof over my head, so I’m not going to begrudge the plumber his tool, nor the carpenter. I’m not going to tell my husband to cut up the firewood with a handsaw because chainsaws have hurt people. For that matter, I’m not going to say we all have to walk wherever we’re going because people have used cars to run other people down.

We can’t judge a tool for how people misuse it. So let’s look at what AI is actually bringing to the table and evaluate it objectively.

AI Image Generation

I’m a book cover designer. I use a lot of images in my work, most of which are what we call “stock photos.” Specifically, I use “royalty-free stock photos.” What this means is that photographers take images and supply them to a site that then sells them to consumers. With a standard license from this site, I can create images for commercial use that can sell up to a half a million instances of the image. If it goes above that, I’d need to purchase the extended license, but that rarely comes up. Royalty-based stock images are also photographer-provided, but the end user pays per impression; so an initial license would cover, say, 5,000 books, and after that they must renew the license for another fee.

There are FREE stock images in plenty of places…but most are not. Most expect to be paid for their work.

Guess what? People steal them. They use images, either on purpose or unknowingly, inappropriately. They use things for commercial projects that are NOT licensed for commercial use. But thankfully, that doesn’t keep people from still making their photography available for legitimate use. I’m glad of that. Because most of the book covers I create use 5-20 images.

Yes, you saw that right. The book covers I put together often have two or three images in the background, sometimes more like four or five. The model can be comprised of as few as 1 or as many as 8-10 different pieces. Then I’ll use vector images for flourishes, dividers, corners. I’ll get another to apply to the whole thing for texture or light.

The end creation is made up of the work of a lot of people…but none of those people have a right to that end work, only I (and my client) does, because I used those pieces to create something new. I used those pieces correctly, with permission, licensing each one. Or using free ones, I do that too. I use public domain (all rights have been released) images for plenty of things.

With the best AI image generators, I can tell it what I want and it’ll give it to me, to a greater or worse degree. Would I use it for an entire cover? Absolutely NOT, because those images can’t be copyrighted, which means someone else could use the exact same thing. But that’s the same reason I don’t use ANY stock photo for an entire cover. I always change something, so that my client’s cover will never look exactly like someone else’s.

Would I use an AI-generated image for part of a book cover? I would. And I have. Not for the whole thing, but for bits and pieces that I otherwise couldn’t create or would have had to spend days creating from this arm and that shoulder and this back and that set of hips. It’s a tool that can save me hours and days, and I’m not at all opposed to using it like I use public domain or stock images.

But How Can We Know It Hasn’t Stolen the Images?

Here’s the thing. All creativity is based on what we’ve encountered in the world. When I draw a flower, I’m basing it not just on the flower I saw in nature, but on the style of artists I admire. I may even base it entirely on another painting I’ve seen that I don’t even distinctly remember seeing.

Or, weirder still, I might draw that at my desk while, across the world, someone else is drawing something so very similar that we’d be considered copies of each other, without even knowing it. It happens ALL THE TIME. Creativity is never unique, much as we want to think it is. Ideas pop up independently at the same or similar times in different locations ALL THE TIME.

So no, I can’t say for sure that AI used only inspiration from public domain things. I can’t say it didn’t, either. I can’t say that what it created hasn’t been created before…just like I can’t say it won’t be created again by a human who never saw that AI image.

What I can say is that the more it’s used, the better defined its rules will become, and the more precise it will get. As with any technology, use means continual progress. And I’m okay with that.

I hear a lot that Fairchild’s Lady is very similar to The Scarlet Pimpernel. Which is hilarious, because I’ve never read it, watched it, or even come across a summary of it (until I looked it up to see if that was true). But sure, it’s similar. Because there are only so many variations of plots. We always make them unique…but they still sound the same in a short description.

AI is going to do the same thing. It will have commonalities with existing work, but that doesn’t automatically mean it stole from it.

What About Writing?

I’ve read, at this point, thousands if not hundreds of thousands of words created by AI. Sometimes, yes, they sound very, very similar to whatever I’ve asked it to draw from, which is a great caution not to use it as-is for something meant to be shared as your own.

But like any tool, you can get better at it and teach it to deliver something more original and unique. Something my husband has been doing a lot is saying, “Here’s an example of Roseanna’s writing. Now, in Roseanna’s voice and style, give me a written, virtual tour of Alnwick, Northumberland, highlighting the places of historical significance to tourists.”

ChatGPT then delivers a written tour. It selects the places most popular in the area, and it sounds close to how I would sound when describing it, rather than how the tourism sites sound. I then can take those descriptions, edit and add my own personal tastes and touches, and use it on my website. Why? Because it saved me literally hours of research and drafting. I fact-check it, but that’s quick. I edit and rewrite, but that’s quick too.

But that’s just for internet content that I really don’t claim any specific rights to.

Books or content I sell is a different matter. Would I use AI to write my novels? Absolutely not. I love writing my novels, and I love knowing that what readers enjoy about my novels isn’t just the plot or concept, but the bits of me I put in them. My faith, my insights, my epiphanies, my pain, my heart. AI can approximate all those things surprisingly well, but it’s never going to be as “me” as I am.

What it can do, however, is help me take my creativity to new heights. The advantage of AI is that it isn’t confined by the same limitations that my imagination is. So if I were to lay out a plot snag I’m having and ask it for suggestions, it would come up with some wild and crazy ones…and some very mundane ones…and everything in between. It would present me with CHOICES that I can then incorporate into my own ideas, and as with any brainstorming, it will help me broaden my mind from the often-fake limitations I’ve put on things and help me see beyond them.

It can help me outline. It can help me identify flaws. It can be a TOOL that shortens some parts of the process so that I can focus on other parts.

I personally see no problem with that, any more than I see a problem with Spellcheck or word processors in general, with critique groups or name generators or any of the hundreds of other tools available to writers.

What I create using that tool will be no less mine. But collaboration with ANY other thinker, be it human or artificial, will force me out of my own box and make me MORE creative. That’s nothing to shy away from or apologize for. It’s something to celebrate and embrace.

My Conclusion

I don’t think AI itself is anything to fear, any more than any technological advancement is to be feared. Can and will it be misused? YES. Of course. Because EVERYTHING is misused. That’s the fault of the humans, not of the tool. But the more it’s used correctly, the more refined it will become, and the more rules will be created to keep that misuse to a minimum, as with anything.

I’ve come across a lot of people using ChatGPT in ridiculous ways (“write a poem about this political figure”), just to try to prove a point. I call THAT a misuse too. One thing Chat is great at is learning what the user wants and delivering that. So if the user wants to play “gotcha!” it will provide something to “get.” But you know what that reminds me of? People in the 90s putting in odd search terms into the early search engines, to try to make it give bad results. Silly, right? Because what we want are GOOD results, and in this day and age, we can’t even imagine not having those search engines available.

AI will be the same way. As more people use it WELL, it will not only become better, it will simply integrate into our daily lives in ways that make those lives better too. As we test its limits, we’ll expand our own. As we let it lead us outside the box, we’ll soon find some walls coming down in our own minds. There will be those who try to use it to build walls, too, but they’re not going to get very far with it. They won’t be the ones shaping the future either of AI or of the world.

AI is here to stay. It’s been here for decades already. Now it’s finally to the point where it’s accessible to the common person, but that doesn’t mean the common person knows how to best use it…just like most of us use the internet to watch cute cat videos on YouTube instead of constantly educating ourselves on the wealth of knowledge stored within it. πŸ˜‰ But it is WORTH using, and using well.

More, I firmly believe that those who learn how to harness it and use it to expand their own endeavors will soon be leading the pack in whatever those endeavors are. Not because they’re cheating or using stolen material, but because they embrace the tool and figure out how to best use it for the things they love. This is like the introduction of tractors or the automobile or the internet. It’s a revolution that many won’t understand but most everyone will end up using in some form or another; some for entertainment, some without even thinking about it, some to create and innovate and increase.

Regardless, it isn’t ever the technology that we need to fear. It is, as it has always been, the people. People will cheat. People will steal. People will lie. But that’s no reason not to use something right.

I’m excited about what opportunities AI is opening up for us as creatives…because I know it will not displace us. Instead, I know it will help us to be MORE creative, to reach new heights, to focus less on drudgery and more on the fun parts. And the readers and art-enthusiasts will benefit from that too.

I’ve thought many times about how glad I am that I live in the computer age–I don’t have to write my books out by hand (though some still do) or on a typewriter (though some still do). I don’t have to rely only on out-of-date encyclopedias or my local library’s minuscule offerings on a subject, I can access EVERYTHING with a few keystrokes. Writers 150 years ago might have thought it unsporting, ludicrous, or not “true” creativity, because it wasn’t their way of doing things. That’s okay. I know that I’m only here, doing what I love, because they paved the way.

But I won’t make the mistake of claiming the same thing about the next technological revolution. AI is that next revolution, and I’m not going to fight it. Instead, I’m going to master it. I’m going to embrace it. I’m going to learn how it can make me better, not fear that it will put me out of work.

How about you?

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Forks…and Sharing Dreams

Forks…and Sharing Dreams

On August 21, we dropped our firstborn child off at college. Our college, the one David and I both attended. We drove into the lot we’d parked in a thousand times before. We walked her, our arms laden with her things, into the same dorm building I’d been in Freshman year. And then nostalgia really hit when we stopped at MY VERY DORM ROOM and her roommate welcomed us in.

Yep. MY ROOM. My daughter is in my same room! I hadn’t remembered the number, but there was no mistaking the door. Or the dark ink stain on the tile I failed at scrubbing off. Or the view from the window. (If only I’d carved my name into a board in the closet or hidden something behind some molding! What was I thinking?? LOL)

We got her situated, we attended the family reception, we chatted with the dean (who was a professor while we were there) and the assistant dean (who was our classmate!) and anyone else we recognized. Then we left her to settle in and we drove home and…here we are. Doing what parents have been doing for so long. Letting our baby spread her wings, in a place we know and love.

Being me, I find myself pondering when and why different realizations hit. For instance, do you know the moments I miss her most? It’s not at bedtime when she’s not there for family prayers–I can brace myself for that. It’s not in the morning when I no longer have to poke my head in to wake her up–I forgot to do that half the time anyway, when I was caught up in my own work.

It’s when I reach for a fork and, from habit, pass over her favorite one.

See, we have some mismatched silverwear, some of which was inherited from the grandfather whose house we now live in. When we moved in here, each of my kids picked a favorite fork. They were 5 and 8 when they did this. Xoe liked the one with the little stars on it. Rowyn liked the one with the tightly-clustered flowers that give the handle a black tone.

Over the last ten years, I trained myself to save those forks for each of them. It’s a silly little thing, but if I pull out the star or flower fork, I automatically put it back unless I’m handing it to them.

I still find myself putting that star fork back in the slot, even though Xoe’s not here to claim it later. And that’s when it hits. My girl isn’t here daily. She’s off on her own adventure.

Being not only her mother but an alum at her school, I want to know every detail–but of course, I rein myself in, LOL. David and I were talking about that last night too. All her life, she’s been hearing our stories of St. John’s. She’s been taught the lessons we learned and shaped by the reality we discovered there. But now it will become her story. Her lessons. Her reality.

On the one hand, that’s weird and even difficult from our perspective. But on the other hand, it’s so beautiful. Because that’s true not just of a college, right? But of life. Of faith.

All we can ever do is teach our kids what we’ve learned. But we can’t make them learn it. We can’t make them believe. We can’t make them put their hands in the Lord’s. We can show them, and we can demonstrate, and we can pray. We can instruct and shape them to an extent. But they still have to take their own steps. They have to embrace it for themselves. They have to decide

I don’t know what Xoe’s story will end up being while she’s at St. John’s. I don’t know the friends she’ll make or the truths that will settle in her heart. I don’t know if maybe she’ll meet someone who makes her heart squeeze like mine still does every time I weave my fingers through her father’s. I don’t know what her favorite thing will be, or what she’ll hate. I don’t even now for sure if she’ll love it or if she’ll decide it’s not for her after all.

What I do know is that life, family, faith…they follow a pattern for each of us. We all have to take those steps. Walk into our own destinies. We have to face our fears and wrestle our anxieties. We have to grab hold of our dreams and let them take us with them in their flight.

I miss my girl. Won’t deny that. And I’ll probably keep passing over that fork for who knows how long. But that’s okay. Because in this new chapter of life, I’m going to love opening my dreams to her in new ways. Listening to her stories of how she walks the same halls and sees things in them I never saw. How she’ll live the same dream but experience it in a whole new way. Just like I’ve been doing every time she shares something she learned about faith or love or truth or family.

In life, it’s never enough for something to be our parents’ or grandparents’, our friends’ or siblings’. For it to matter, we have to make it ours.

And when we do, it changes everything.

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41 Things

41 Things

We’re somehow to the middle of August again … which means at my birthday again. Which, in turn, means time for another post reflecting on the year–on things learned, things discovered, things loved, things hated. Today, I turn 41. The generally-dreaded 40 is behind me, and I’m somehow still getting older despite all my insistence that I’m still young. πŸ˜‰ But I love this post because it’s all about embracing the time. What has come, what has gone, what is on the horizon.

A birthday is about more than cake, more than celebrating simply still being alive. It’s about celebrating why and how and who and what. So without further ado, here are my 41 Things.

1. I’m Back!

Just before my birthday last year, I was diagnosed with a tumor on my pituitary gland. It didn’t take me long to realize that nearly all my health problems–exhaustion, weight gain, brain fog, etc–was caused by this tiny little adinoma. These things grow slowly, so it wasn’t considered urgent, and I didn’t actually get in with an endocrinologist until November. Which meant months of knowing what the problem was but not knowing how to fix it. I continued to use the keto diet to control the symptoms, until the endo did some tests, verified what kind of tumor it was, and happily informed me that it was the ONE kind that responds to medication. She wrote the prescription, I started taking it, and within six weeks, I was feeling like ME again. Energy levels back up. Yay! Within a few months, my weight stabilized. And then, glory hallelujah, my brain not only lost the fog, it kicked into full-on DRIVE. I feel more like me than I have in years. Ideas are swirling again. Stories bursting out. I’m praising God for giving me back myself.

2. Cabergoline

And that is thanks to a little tiny pill, which I cut in half and take on Mondays and Thursdays, called Cabergoline. It’s actually a treatment for Parkinson’s, but the micro-dose I take attacks that prolactinoma and kills it. I’ll continue the regimen for a couple years to make sure it really and truly goes away…and then will have to do occasional checks to make sure it’s not growing back again. Which is absolutely fine with me. Though the medication is known for a few side effects, I haven’t experienced any of them. Although it was pretty funny when the doctor asked, “Have you seen people who aren’t there or heard voices others couldn’t hear?” and my husband replied, “She’s a novelist. So…” LOL.

3. Best and Worst Month

It was a rough spring and summer for me though. The book industry is down 15-30%, and as a family who lives on that income, it’s been hitting hard. Then came the death of two of our cats (more on that later) and my step-father-in-law had a massive stroke. Our whole world turned upside down in a lot of ways. Late June-late July was ROUGH. And yet…in that valley, I found myself again. In that valley, I was nourished. In that valley, stories sprang up. One of my Patrons & Peers ladies observed that the mountaintops may be the beautiful vistas, but they’re often barren, really. It’s in the valleys that growth happens. That is certainly true of me. This valley season has been hard, the worst months of our lives in some ways…and the best in others.

4. SIX Books This Year!

Back in 2018ish, I signed two contracts for three books each, which meant 6 books due in 18 months. I did it, but it about killed me. (Okay, slight exaggeration, but I was so burned out by the last books that…well…they were awful, LOL. Both of them required heavy rewrites.) But I’ve done the same thing again in the years since, and it’s been better. So when I ended up with 5 on the schedule for this year–one more than my all-time high–I thought, “Okay. I can do this.” Then…THEN another one came along! SIX books under contract in 2023! It’s a lot. Like, A LOT. My due dates were March 1, March 15, May 1, Sep 15, Nov 1, and Nov 15. If you read that carefully, you’ll see that two sets are due within 2 weeks of each other, so obviously I have to actually get things done before those dates. As of now, I have turned in 4 of the 6. The September one is already off my plate, and I’m writing the November 1. And here’s the crazy thing…I’ve been working on an extra book too! More about that later. πŸ˜‰ I’m just amazed at how in this time that could be overwhelming, I feel great and am actually overflowing with ideas and energy. A nice change of pace from years past, for sure! (And the other crazy thing? I haven’t had any major rewrites for the last couple years. So I’m not only writing MORE, I’m writing BETTER. Praise be to God!)

5. Yesterday’s Tides Is in the World!

Every book I write is special to me. But some…some have been with me so long that I can’t help but hold them in a very special place in my heart. Such is the case with Yesterday’s Tides. I wrote the first version of it the summer of 2004, when I’d just graduated from college. The idea woke me up in the middle of the night, and I wrote half a book in 3 days. Every single time I’ve worked on it over the years–and it’s undergone quite a few rewrites!–it has utterly consumed me. I was so, so excited when I came up with a way to turn it into a historical and make it my first timeslip. I ADORE the stories I ended up telling with those familiar-to-me characters but some new plot. The cover is stunning. STUNNING. And so far, sales are better than any other recent book, so I have hope that it will continue to do well. But mostly…mostly I’m just so stinkin’ excited that Louisa and Rem, Evie and Sterling are REAL now. πŸ˜‰ They’re in the world. You can get to know them as I have. And so now, maybe you’ll get it when I say that every single time I’ve vacationed in the Outer Banks over the last two decades, I’ve seen Louisa there, in my mind’s eye. I’ve imagined Rem, out of place but loving it. I’ve smiled as I imagined Evie growing up on those shores. This book is so special, friends. And I’m so, so excited to finally hold it in my hands!

6. The Imposters Begins!

I’m also SUPER excited for the start of my new series! It officially begins in 8 days, but pre-orders through my store have already gone out, so I am totally counting it this year. πŸ˜‰ Especially because I’ve tried some new things that I’m so excited to show you! Namely, I’m putting together tons of information, games, activities, quizzes, a fashion column…all that ties in with the world of the Imposters. Keep an eye out for it on release day! A Beautiful Disguise is book 1, and oh my gracious, it was such fun to write. I love the cast of characters…including some circus animals to liven things up. πŸ˜‰ I’ve already written and turned in book 2 as well, and I cannot WAIT to dive into book 3! That will be my last contracted book of the year though, so one more to write first. πŸ˜‰ Which will be…

7. Unveiled – My first lead book for Guideposts!

Ever since I wrote my first book for a Guideposts multi-author series, I’ve dreamed of someday, maybe, getting to be the lead author on one. I’ve written several test-chapters for them, and if any of those see the light of day, I would get to write that whole first book…but those are all still unknowns. Then, out of nowhere, I got an unexpected email. Another author who’d written a first chapter had to decline writing the whole book, but the series was a go. Would I step in as lead author? On a fiction series about miracles in the Bible? Um…YES!!! So my next-up book is Unveiled, for the new Mysteries & Wonders series that will begin in 2024. And I–am–STOKED! This first book is about the temple veil being torn in two when Jesus died, and I’m so excited to use that existing first chapter as a springboard and finish the story!

8. And a Christmas book!

My other “surprise” contract in the past year was for a Christmas book! Now, I have Giver of Wonders, which is sort of a foundational Christmas story, about the original St. Nick…but I’ve never written a CLASSIC Christmas book, with Christmas trees and lights and presents and sweets and all that fun stuff. But my editor at Bethany House asked if I would, and I quickly came up with a Nutcracker-meets-Downton-Abbey-with-a-bit-of-Scrooge-thrown-in idea. πŸ˜‰ I wrote it in July in a mere five days and LOVE how it came together. It’s fun and light, no super stressful suspense or villainy going on, just as they requested. It’s called The Lady of Sugar Plum Manor, and the above title image is one I created for my own inspiration, not anything official. πŸ˜‰

9. How about a Fantasy novel?

And here’s the real kicker, while we’re talking about all the books I’m writing this year. On vacation in June–that hard month–I came up with a fantasy idea that wouldn’t leave me alone. I took 12 pages of notes. And then, when I’d turned in one book but didn’t have to start the next until after a conference, I thought, “Well, let’s just play.” So I started it. And wrote 15,000 words in a week. Then put it aside and wrote The Lady of Sugar Plum Manor. Then had another week when I’d thought I’d still be working on that but ended up with free time, so pulled it out again. And wrote 30,000 words. This is CRAZY! And so much fun. So. Much. Fun.

The story is about a half-mer sea king of the coastal lands who is 275 years old (but physically about 25-30 in appearance/health), growing stronger every year…but revolution is happening beneath the waves among the mer, and threatening his own kingdom too. My heroine is Arden, who has always lived in the shadow of her beloved younger step-sister, Jade…but when the mer kidnap Jade, Arden will do anything to save her–even face down the king and ride one of the legendary Great Golden Sea Hawks to try to find where she’s been taken. Little do they know that the revolution beneath the waves is the trigger for a new kind of power in the world, one prophesied thousands of years before… There’s a big heap of romance, “magic” that is a combination of technology-and-God-given-gift, an anaology to the blood of Christ, adventure, mermaids (who are people who wear tails, they still have legs), and just all the things. I’m having a blast. In case you can’t tell. πŸ˜‰

I’m actually going to be testing aspects of it like titles and covers and descriptions, soΒ  you’ll all get to weigh in on what you like best! I know not all of you are fantasy-readers, but for anyone willing to give it a try, I want to know that I’m hitting all your favorite notes in all the most appealing ways. I’m super excited to start this experimenting! I even designed a rather generic cover just to test some titles out on…here’s the first one I came up with, though I have a list of twenty-some others you’ll get to vote on too!

10. Ad-Crazy

How am I going to be testing these aspects? Through Facebook ads. My husband took a huge course on running them and has been studying and experimenting all summer, and we brainstormed how to use ads and surveys for books too–not just selling, but basically using them as a focus group. No idea if it’ll work, but we’re excited to try!

11. Reader Survey

But I didn’t wait for experimenting with ads to learn more about what my readers want. I LOVE knowing you guys better, knowing what resonates, what you love and hate…so I created a rather massive survey and shared it in my newsletter and I was so suprised when I got 125 well-thought-out responses! You guys were open and vulnerable and honest, and reading your answers to my questions warmed my heart, made me cry, made me laugh, inspired me, and best of all, armed me with some great ideas of how to best serve you all. THANK YOU!!!!

12. Classes for Writers

Another new venture this year was to spin all my writing classes off onto their own website. Somehow, the domain www.ClassesforWriters.com was available (how??), so we nabbed it, took a week to make it pretty and functional, and tried out some ads there too (no luck on those so far…). The user interface is much better than my old system, and I’m excited to grow my teaching from this new home!

13. St. David’s Christian Writers Conference

I only committed to one conference this summer–I got to be the keynote speaker at the St. David’s Christian Writers Conference, which was held up by Lake Erie. You guys, I have spoken at many conferences and loved all of them, but there was such a sweet spirit at this one. I had a wonderful time, despite getting the news about my step-father-in-law’s stroke while I was there. But everyone was so supportive and kind, enthusiastic about my teaching, and just generally wonderful. Can’t wait to go back someday!

14. Landing Pages for Books

This last year I decided to start creating landing pages for all my books/series (mentioned briefly above). I have one for Yesterday’s Tides which is up and live now, of course, but the idea actually came for The Imposters series, and that was the first one I started working on. You can take a sneak peek of it now, but some of the articles may not be live quite yet. πŸ˜‰ Planning the big, full reveal of it all for the book’s release!

15. Sea Glass Jewelry

I love to have tie-in products to my books in my shop…and I was happy to see that one of my favorite ideas also turned out to be a favorite of all of YOU! Since I released my Tidal Collection of sea glass prayer jewelry, inspired by Evie in Yesterday’s Tides, I’ve had to reorder countless times. The jewelry is beautiful and simple and timeless…and I do love the idea of “prayer jewelry.” The idea is that you dedicate each piece to whatever prayer concern is weighing on you at the time when you receive it. Then each time you wear it, it’s a reminder to pray for that person or concern, praise God for His faithfulness, or even pray through grief or disappointment. You can see the full Tidal Collection here.

16. An Award!

I don’t enter many contests–as in, any, if I have to be the one to do it. It’s a choice I made years ago. Still, sometimes my publishers enter me, and such was the case with Shadowed Loyalty in the Catholic Media Awards. Chrism entered me, and I was more than a little shocked when I won first place in the “Other Faith-Based Novels” category!

17. The Gatsby Tea

In May, I had the joy of being the guest-speaker for “The Gatsby Tea,” hosted by my local historical society. The tea party itself was beautiful and delicious, and then I spoke on some of the history behind Shadowed Loyalty. This was part of the society’s Gatsby weekend; the next night was a big gala David and I got to attend as the society’s guests, in exchange for that speaking. πŸ˜‰ It was such a blast!

18. Princess Covers!!!!

It’s no secret. I love designing princess covers…and so with WhiteCrown’s releases ramping up, that means I’ve gotten to do quite a few of them this year! I love finding a unique look and flavor for each book and am so excited about how these have turned out!

19. New Segment

This spring I decided to start a new segment for the newsletter–something JUST for the newsletter, that wouldn’t appear anywhere else. I asked people for the first couple weeks to let me know if they liked it, and I was BLOWN AWAY by the response! Dozens upon dozens of readers replied to let me know that they loved it. Thank you all!! That encouragement came at the perfect time for me.

20. TWO Highschoolers!

For this one school year, I had two highschoolers! Kinda crazy. Xoe was a senior and Rowyn was a freshman, and I was pretty much just an overseer. So proud of them both!

21. A New Bedroom for Rowyn

Okay, so same room, but all new gear. Rowyn was finally ready to pack up all the toys, get rid of the loft-bed-with-slide, retire the desk he’d made himself from a broken bookshelf, and go for a simpler, more grown-up decor. We sold the loft bed, which paid for the new bed and desk, and he now has a very streamlined look in there.

22. Blue Hair

Xoe has long talked about wanting some colorful hair, and this last year, she finally went for it, adding blue streaks to her bangs and underneath. I was all for it, though it took some getting used to visually. I really loved the shades of blue and green it went through as it faded! We just redyed it a couple weeks ago, before she goes off to college. Which leads me to…

23. SJC Legacy!

Xoe applied to and got accepted at 2 colleges. Honestly, I thought she was applying to my alma mater, St. John’s, just as a nod to me and her dad and the old dream–she’d been saying since she was 6 that it’s where she was going to go. But it was a way stronger dream than that, and after we visited in April for Admitted Students Day, we all knew it was where she’d end up. We’re so excited for her, proud to have a “legacy” child (that’s what we call second-generation Johnnies at the school), and can’t wait to see what friends she makes, what she learns, and watch her spread her wings.

24. And a Graduation, Too!

And in addition to college acceptances, we also celebrated Xoe’s high school graduation with her! My first homeschool grad, and we schooled at home from day 1. There were ups and downs to our schooling journey, of course, but I have treasured the years of learning and teaching alongside her and am so proud of all she’s accomplished. I waxed emotional about it a post called Onward and Upward, if you missed it before.

25. OmniPod 5!

Last year I shared how Rowyn, who is a Type 1 Diabetic, was finally approved for and trained on an insulin pump, which made life SO much easier! This year he got to upgrade to the newest version, the OmniPod 5, which is one of the first “smart” pumps that can interpret the data from his continuous glucose monitor (CGM) and respond accordingly, increasing insulin when his blood sugar is on the rise and decreasing it when he’s dropping. He just started it in June, and already his A1C is down a whole point! He’s loving it, and I am so, so proud of him–he does 100% of his diabetic care himself now, aside from me helping him get his Dexcom (that CGM) onto the back of his arm. His endo is INCREDIBLY impressed with him and his control and responsibility and desperate to convince him to be a counselor at diabetes camp next year, so he can show younger kids how they too can live life unafraid.

26. Bleame

Time for my silly product plug. πŸ˜‰ This summer I decided to give Bleame, a micro-crystal hair “eraser” a try. I love it. Now, I’ll be honest–there are places it just can’t get. I have a horrible time getting it to take the hair off my knees and the ridge of my shin. But that said, I still love it, because it also exfoliates, and it leaves my legs feeling SO INCREDIBLY SOFT! Every time I use it, I have to shove my leg at my husband and say, “Feel how smooth!” LOL.

27. The Plague

My family finally contracted Covid last August–our first and thus far only time. We all got it, it pushed our confirmation back three weeks, which was a bummer, and oh my gracious. I got it worse than the others, and it was just exhausting. No serious complications or anything, but I had a nasty sore throat, and it took me months to get my energy back. No fun! I’ll definitely be skipping that one again if I can help it. πŸ˜‰

28. Confirmation

Despite the plague-induced delay, our family rejoiced on September 18, when we were all confirmed together (and Rowyn was baptized) into the Catholic church! It was a day of joy and smiles and laughter (though our sponsors ran into a huge traffic standstill and literally ran into the church just in time for their parts), and we are all so, so thrilled to be in this new place. Same faith, but we’ve found new depths. It’s been a beautiful journey, every step of the way!

29. Communion of Saints

Though we’ve been attending our new church for almost two years now, there were a few celebrations that we experienced for the first time in this past year. One of them was All Saints Day on November 1. This is a Holy Day of Obligation, which means we all have to attend a service either the evening before or the day of. David and I actually did both, once with the kids and once without, and it was just…beautiful. More than that. It was an important reminder that we are not alone in serving God–not now in the world, and not throughout history. We are just the most recent of generations of believers, and this day is one where we celebrate the ETERNAL family of God, and all the believers who have come before us. A line of the Apostle’s Creed states “I believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” That communion part is just as important as the other pieces. Praise God that He has welcomed us all into His family, and that we serve Him with all the saints who have come before, all who live and serve with us now, and all who will come after!

30. Goodbye Sammy

In August of 2019, my husband heard a loud mewing under the bushes at our old church when he was mowing the lawn. A scraggly, tiny little kitty emerged, so filthy you could barely see her stripes. After a brief consultation, our family decided that, yes, we could absolutely take in a stray kitten, so we went over with a carrier, bought some kitten food and flea shampoo, and welcomed Sammy into the family. Over the last nearly-four years, she brought us immeasurable joy. Though we thought she was only 8 weeks old or so based on her size, the vet soon informed us that she was actually 6 months old when we took her in–she had adult teeth but was so severely malnourished that her growth was stunted. She never got big–her biggest, heaviest was 6 lbs. She was always kitten-like in both size and personality, and we laughed over her antics every day. She became a total cuddle-bug, always snuggling up on one lap or another. She really loved it when I’d wear a cardigan–she’d burrow in close to my side and disappear in the fabric. She’d spend hours sleeping like that while I worked and would let me carry her around in my sweater too.

Last spring, we noticed she’d lost a lot of weight. Both she and Ivy, one of our older cats, were congested, sneezing, snotty. I took them both the vet, and they thought it was an upper-respiratory thing, but said she could have something underlying it. To watch her weight. Well, she started gaining her weight back, and after another horrible month of snot and sneezes, she seemed better. Acting like herself again. But then she started shedding like crazy, had diarrhea…and within a week, she was gone. She died while we were on vacation (my MIL was coming down twice a day to feed them), and it ripped me apart. I loved that sweet little kitty so much, and it was horrible to come home and find she was gone.

From my reading, it sounds like she had feline leukemia, and I know that only symptoms can be treated, there’s no cure. I had to take comfort in the good years we had with her, in knowing that we gave her those years. In knowing that she was a gift to us and we to her. Still, I miss her. Our forever-kitten will forever be one in our hearts.

31. Goodbye Ivy

Less than a month after we lost Sammy, I noticed that Ivy–the other cat who’d been sneezing and snotty–had a bump beside her mouth. She’d been sneezing blood for months. I’d mentioned it to the vet, but they said it wasn’t uncommon with UR stuff in cats. So I didn’t worry. When I saw the bump, I thought maybe she had an infected tooth, because otherwise she seemed fine. Eating great, acting perfectly normal, aside from the continued sneezing.

So I took her back to the vet, and they said they’d sedate her and do a scan to see what they were looking at. They called the next day to say it wasn’t a tooth, it was a tumor that took up half her head. It curled around her eye, all through her nose, even under her tongue. The poor thing had to be in horrible pain, and they said that while there were things they could try to prolong her life, it wouldn’t ultimately do anything. She didn’t have long, and it would be miserable. They encouraged us to consider euthanasia, and to consider it quickly, because she was still sedated. They could do it then and she wouldn’t have to go through the discomfort of another round of sedation.

Our family had to make a very quick decision. Amidst many, many tears, we decided to take the merciful approach and let them do it then, before she woke up. David dug a grave while Xoe and I went to collect her. Another so-sad day, so quickly on the heels of the last.

Ivy had been my constant companion for 12 years. She was “my” cat. She was always wherever I was. She slept at my feet. She woke me every morning, purring beside my face. She was always on my desk, on my lap, right beside me. While Sammy was all cuteness and kitten energy, Ivy was all loyalty and affection and constancy. I miss her every day too. I can’t believe that in the course of a month, we went from 3 cats to 1. But here we are. Left with years of memories, anyway.

32. Parents

This summer my mother-in-law was working a lot of hours, and by the time she got home, she rarely had energy to cook. David mentioned that she wasn’t eating well, so I started taking dinner up to her whenever I cooked. It was a simple thing, an easy thing, and I liked knowing that we could so easily help take care of the woman who had taken care of David for so many years, and who had opened her property to us. Then at the end of June, David’s step-father had a massive stroke. He and my MIL had divorced several years ago, he has no other family, so David was the one on whom the burden of this fell. He was the one making medical decisions, driving 3 hours each way to visit him three times a week, listening as he struggled to regain his speech, arranging care…it was hard. In many ways, nothing else got done that month for David. And it took a toll on him, I won’t lie. But I also loved seeing him put everything else aside to take care of the man who had chosen to be his father. They’d gone through a rough couple of years, but he put that aside. And his stepdad saw it, appreciated it. He’s recovering well now, and I’m praying he continues to do so, and that somehow, through this horrible thing, good will come.

33. Patrons & Peers Creative Retreat!

Last October, some of the P&P ladies and I got together in Georgia for a creative retreat. It was a bit experimental, and some of the people who had planned to come ended up sick and unable to travel, but even so. We had such a wonderful time that within a day we were already planning the next one.

During the day, we all pursued our creative goals–some of us wrote, two quilted, one painted. We fixed and enjoyed dinner together and spent the evenings fellowshipping. We took walks and talked and laughed and planned. It was SUCH a wonderful time!

This year, our retreat will be in Avon, North Carolina–beach! WOOT! We’ll have the house for a full week, but we split most of the rooms up with a mid-week turnover, so that people could just come for a half week. We still have a few spots available! πŸ˜‰ If you’re interested in joining us for this time of creativity, reading, beach-going, and fellowship, you can still get in on the fun by subscribing to the group (there are some very small entry level options there) and then signing up for the trip! Travel is on you, but food and lodging are included. =)

34. The Expanse Books

Our family had watched the Expanse television series on Prime and thoroughly enjoyed it. David quickly gobbled up all the books too, but I kept putting off reading more than the first one because they’re just so LONG. LOL. Finally, over Christmas, I said, “Hey, how about we listen to the audio book together?” So we turned it on…and a new tradition was born. Over the next six months, David and I listened to all of the books together. It was such fun to experience them together, to get to talk about each chapter as we finished it. They were great reads (and listens), though definitely NOT Christian, so keep that in mind. They’re science fiction and such amazing storytelling! So, so glad we read them together!

35. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

On the way home from vacation this year, we turned on the first Harry Potter audio book and listened to it as a family. I’ve read all the books but no one else in my family had, so we thought it would be fun. And it definitely was! Perfect length for our trip, too. πŸ˜‰ We then watched the movie together a couple weeks later, and I’m plotting when we can listen to the rest. =)

36. Rereading (listening to) Twilight

For the last, oh, eight or so years, I’ve been thinking that someday I’d like to reread the Twilight Saga. I really loved them back when I first read them way back when, and I was curious what I’d think of them now. But honestly, I never reread books. I don’t have time. BUT…I do relisten to books, or listen to ones I’ve read before. It’s a whole different experience, and also uses different time. I listen while I drive, exercise, and do chores. Times I definitely can’t be reading. So I’ve listened to the first two and am in the third now and am enjoying them all over again. Pretty sure my thoughts have changed a bit, but even so. I can still appreciate now what I did then. And I’m having fun revisiting what had been such a sensation all those years ago. πŸ˜‰

37. Moscato

I have never had a moral issue with wine–Jesus not only drank it, after all, making it was his first miracle! But I’ve never liked wine, or any other alcohol. I love the bottles, the colors…just not the taste, LOL. My MIL got some sparkling Moscato for New Years a couple years ago, though, and I discovered that I actually like it. Probably because the alcohol content is ridiculous low. πŸ˜‰ It’s a sweet, bubbly white, and my husband (who does like wine) likes that we finally found something I’ll share with him. So now every other week or so we get a bottle of Castello del Poggio and share it over the course of a week. I also discovered I can handle a bit of amaretto too! I don’t like much, but a half-ounce or so is lovely now and then.

38. Duraflame in the Fireplace

Last autumn, a tractor trailor packed with Duraflame logs caught on fire on our portion of interstate, and the place where my MIL works received a ton of damaged boxes to sell at deep discount. She snagged a bunch of them for us, and we started using them in our fireplace in the evenings while we listened to those audio books together. Such a pleasant way to pass our winter evenings!! I’m of course sorry about that fire, but I’m pretty happy that it resulted in a couple years’ worth of cheap logs for us to use. πŸ˜‰

39. Recipes

I’ve really enjoyed adding recipes to the website this year! There have been times when I’ve thought being a recipe blogger would be fun, but I never actually wanted to give up all my other stuff to really do it. When I thought of a way to incorporate it into my existing stuff though, featuring tie-in recipes to my books…yay! I have a whole list of recipes I intend to add as time permits, and just a few weeks ago I was doing some testing for an all-new recipe to include in the back of The Lady of Sugar Plum Manor. Can’t wait to share it with you all!

40. Website Redesigns

This last year I not only gave my website a new look, which I love, I also just did a refresh of the look of WhiteFire’s store page, READ. We’ve got new deals, new looks, and we’re excited to connect with some new readers! So, you know…check out the bundle deals we offer there, and the fresh look of the pages too. πŸ˜‰

41. Blunt Bob Is Not for Me

I’ll end on a light note. πŸ˜‰ I love a good bob hairstyle. Over the years, I’ve tried pretty much all of the variations. All except the blunt-edged bob. So I decided to give it a try, ignoring the dubious look on the face of the hairdresser I’ve gone to since I was six. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, what I neglected to realize was that the blunt bob is great for people with fine or thin hair–it adds volume. But, um…I have incredibly thick, textured, full-of-body hair. Sure, I could get it to look okay in that picture up there–but it took a lot of work with a flat-iron to convince that bottom not to pouf out like a triangle, LOL. Lesson learned! I can do a stacked bob, a classic bob, a tapered bob, an asymmetrical bob…but no more blunt ends for this girl!

And there’s my list! I hope you enjoyed traveling through my year with me. It’s been one of some crazy ups and downs…mountaintops and valleys…hard times and good times. I’ve experienced incredibly joy and unexpected pain. There have been financial hardships, emotional hardships, blessings beyond compare, and lessons learned and savored. Year 40 is one I won’t soon be forgetting, that’s for sure.

I pray that this next one will be one where we grow ever closer to the Lord. Where He shows us where our paths will take us next. Where we’ll see Truths about Him and each other, and enjoy all the discoveries that come along our Way.

Thank you all so much for being part of my life!

The Weeds Within Us

The Weeds Within Us

In Jesus’s teachings, in many of His parables, He talks a lot about how sin and sinners are mixed into the world among the righteous. We know from the parable of the wheat and the weeds, for instance, that the Lord has said that they’ll continue to grow together until the final judgement, when He separates them.

I’d always read those at face value, let’s call it. That, as Jesus explains, there are the righteous and the sinners.

But there’s another layer of subtlety to it (don’t you just love how Scripture is so rich that it allows for all these layers of meaning??) that our pastor has been drawing out this year.

That it isn’t just THE WORLD that is filled with both righteous and sinners. It’s US too.

Within each of us, there is the goodness of God…and there is sin. Within each of us is corruption and incorruption. Within each of us is the virtue that pulls us closer and closer to the light of the Lord, and the tendency toward evil that’s always trying to drag us back into the darkness of the world.

A couple weeks ago, after a sermon focused on that idea from the parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, my husband pointed out very thoughtfully that sometimes–often?–it isn’t even just that we let those weeds grow among the good stuff. It’s that we tend those weeds with as much care as we do the wheat.

That pierced. Because I know it’s true in me. How often do I cling to–nurture, feed–the bitterness of an old grudge, because it’s strangely satisfying? How often do I cling to a comfortable understanding instead stretching into a new one? How often do I cling to old prejudices? Or embrace new ones? How often do I cling to the thought of me over them?

How often do we tend our weeds so carefully that we soon insist they’re not weeds at all? Look how tall they’ve grown! Look how hardy!

In the P&P group, as we show each other our gardens and favorite plants, we’ve had some moments of laughter as we share yards that are green more from weeds than grass, because that’s what actually grows. And in a lawn, I really don’t care if it’s more clover than grass in some places, because it’s just a lawn.

But in my spirit? In my soul? I ought to care. I ought to look with more care on what I’m growing, what I’m tending, which plants are healthy and strong. Because I don’t want it to be the sins.

Of course, the rebel in me asks, “What makes something a weed, anyway?” According to the definition, it’s used to describe plants growing where they are not desired, especially when they choke out the desirable plants.

Ahh. That’s actually really good. Because even if someone decides they do want that weed–we all know people who like their prejudices, their bitternesses, their agression, their selfishness, right?–that doesn’t make it a good plant because it’s choking out the MORE desirable ones.

When we nurture prejudice, it chokes out love. When we nurture bitterness, it chokes out forgiveness.

When we nurture selfishness, it chokes out Jesus, who pointed us always toward loving our neighbor and our God above ourselves.

For the purposes of the parables, I think it’s safe to say that the “desirable” plants are the ones that bear fruit. They are the wheat, the vines, the olive trees. They are the ones that sustain our spirits, not just our flesh. That draw us closer to Him and to each other.

The weeds…the weeds aren’t just the people that do otherwise. They are the parts of us that do otherwise. That lead us astray. Make us lazy. Blind our eyes to His loving Truth and substitute our own tarnished version in its place.

But we’re called to #BeBetter. We’re called to nurture the good seed instead of the bad. Will it still be there? It will. Because until we reach our final perfection in Him, we know we keep on sinning, keep on fighting that urge to sin. But we shouldn’t be fertilizing those. Pruning them. Maximizing their growth. We should, when we can, be weeding them out. And when we can’t, when like in that parable they’re too closely entwined with the good, we should pay attention to our seasons of harvest, at the least. Like a field, we don’t have just one at the end of our lives. We have many seasons, many harvests.

What have we produced this year? This season?

Evaluate it. Which parts are good? Which parts will nourish ourselves and our families and others…and which parts deserve only to be thrown into the fire?

When we put our trust in the Lord, He sees His own righteousness in us and that sanctifies and saves us. But He makes it pretty clear that we’re still expected to work always toward tending that garden plot of our lives, of our souls. We’re to be always striving forward, onward. And we can, because He lends us His wisdom and strength and goodness.

What weeds have we been tending too carefully, friends? Which ones are choking out His promises?

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The Value of Our Work

The Value of Our Work

God created man in His image. And He created us to work. We see that even from the first story of the first man. When Adam was placed in the garden, even before the Fall, he had tasks to do. He tended the garden. He named and cared for the animals. He wasn’t lazing about all day. He was working…but the work was easy and rewarding. Then, of course, sin entered the world, and with it, work became heavy and hard and not always rewarding.

Still, we do it. We do it because it’s part of our makeup. And we rant a bit about those who refuse to do it, right? I remember complaints about “kids today don’t want to work” from the day when I was a kid and I’m still hearing it now. Frankly, you can hear it from books and texts a hundred years old too, or two hundred, or three. There have always been those who don’t want to work–and they are always looked down upon by those who do. Work ethic is recognized as a virtue.

Think about that, though. A virtue is more than doing something because we have to or should. A virtue is when we long to do right, not just because it’s right, but because it draws us closer to God. Closer to each other. And yes–work can and does absolutely do that too. Because whether we’re tending a field or garden or writing books or filing papers in an office, whether we’re tending the sick or faulty mechanical things or answering phones, work is creative. Sustaining. Part of our nature. We need to work…and we need to reap the fruits of our labor.

This, too, is how God made us. He never intended that we sweat and toil for nothing. He meant us to be able to look with satisfaction on what we’ve accomplished–just like He did. When He finished His mighty act, He sat back and said, “This is good.”

We all want to be able to do that. We want to know that we’ve accomplished something good…and we want others to recognize that too. We want to know that by our efforts, our families are fed and clothed and society is a little better. We want to know that it means something.

As a writer–and as someone whose family survives on what I bring in from my writing and design work–I don’t spend my days in a field. But I do spend 10 hours a day at my desk, toiling with fingers on keyboard. I have perpetual back and neck pain, frequent headaches. It’s work. I love it…but it’s work. And that work becomes all the harder when society enters a phase of devaluing it. When a writer hears readers say they won’t pay more than a couple dollars for a book it took them six months to write, that hurts.

When a farmer is told that their produce is overpriced, or when government regulations tell them they can’t sell it, that hurts. When someone who has worked twenty years at a railroad is laid off and fired because the location is downsizing, that hurts. When a pastor’s church is shut down…when a doctor is sued for something that went wrong through no fault of their own…when a lawyer is called nasty names even though they work for others all day…it hurts.

We need to work. We need to reap the fruits of our labor. We need our work to be appreciated.

Here’s the thing though–we can’t ever make someone else appreciate what we’re doing. I can’t make readers agree with the new CEO of Barnes and Noble and say, “Books are not overpriced.” I can’t force anyone to consider the dozens of people who spent countless hours on each book that’s produced. I can’t make anyone do the math of hours put in by all those people, from author to editor to printer to accountant, and admit that $18.99 is actually pretty reasonable. I can’t even say, “Continue to undervalue us and we’re simply all going to go out of business and then you won’t have stories to read anymore.” Because you will. There’s a glut. There are plenty of self-publishers with lower overhead willing to sell for a couple bucks. I can’t say any of that with any insistence, because no one will listen.

But here’s what I can do: I can value YOU.

I can value the work you put in day after day. I can praise you for the beautiful house you keep. The wonderful meals you cook. The love with which your raise your kids. I can thank you for answering the phone at the office. For handling all the appointments. For welcoming me with a smile when I come in, anxious, before my appointment. I can see a train running along the tracks and breathe a prayer of gratitude for the hundreds of people whose efforts allow it to do so, so that the goods I consider valuable can make it to the stores. I can smile at the truck drivers who do the same, instead of grumbling at how I hate to pass them on the highway because they’re big and scary. I can appreciate the produce in my stores or farmer’s market or direct-from-farm shed, knowing that the five dollars they ask me for that watermelon represents months of planting and tending and care. I can offer a kind word to the cashier. I can thank the customer service person. I can appreciate the wisdom of the doctor. The study of the lawyer. The yearning of the teacher to impart knowledge.

None of us can make someone value US–but we can value THEM. And if we all focus on what work others are doing instead of what they aren’t…if we stop complaining about prices and lazy people and how it would be so different if we ran things…if we tend the dreams of others and dare to dream ourselves…well, then, I think we’re even more like Adam than we think. Because then, the garden we’re tending isn’t just the plants and animals. It’s the people around us.

And I know we’ll see a far different, even more rewarding fruit. Because when we value each other, the reward is love. Life. Eternity.

When we value each other, we truly live in the image of God…because He values us all as His beloved.

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