A plain and joyful face: in which we meet Sheila Petre

Sheila J. Petre is one of my favorite Anabaptist writers. She has a delightful way with words, she’s human and fallible, and she’s shockingly funny.

Sheila lives in Pennsylvania with her husband Michael and their seven children ages ten and under. In addition to nurturing these favorite people, she gardens, writes, laughs, hosts foreign exchange students, and preserves her household’s food and sanity, though not in the same jars.

Today I’m sharing an interview for which I interviewed her for. (Help, Sheila? I need your way with words over here.) Some of you already know her writing; it has appeared in several magazine publications. Sheila recently released a brand-new book called Thirty Little Fingers: Seasons of Young Motherhood, and that’s what I want to talk to you about.

Tomorrow she and I will be offering you a chance to win (ahem: earn) a copy of this delightful read. But for today, I’d like to let you behind the scenes into our interview, and some little-known facts about an author-friend I’ve come to love very much. So here we go.

1. What does the J stand for in your name, Sheila?

I was born in May, but named after my mom, Laura June, who was born in June. Since we named our second daughter Laurel June, she will now have to say her middle name is June because her moms’ middle name is June because her mom’s middle name is June because she was born in June. Thus we complicate things for our children.

2. Why do you write?

Because it’s something I can make a success of. I’m horribly competitive, and don’t like doing things that I can’t succeed at. I rather flop at sewing, so I stopped doing it.

Alternate answer: I am almost obsessed with giving. Writing is one of my most natural ways to give. I see it not as a spiritual gift (which I must exercise or fall out of the will of God, as some would believe), but as an expression of a spiritual gift, which is in this case, giving.

…And when?

Any time of the day, and as often as I can. Once, at Michael’s recommendation, I tried to wake early to write. Some weeks later, he agreed with me that this was not working: He doesn’t like grouchy women.

It’s the question people ask more than any other, how I find time to write. Slowly over the years, I have begun to acknowledge the grace of God more publicly, more freely. He manifests it to me in various ways: Michael’s encouragement of my writing; my particular church setting; my maid; my children’s general health and well-being.

3. Have you published other books?

I wrote Transplanted in 2011 at the request of Delmer Martin, a widowed friend; it’s his first wife’s life story. From Joy…to Joy, published in 2012, is a small compilation of poetry detailing the journey through grief. Vignettes is a directory of 200+ Anabaptist women writers, now in its second edition. Thirty Little Fingers is the first that is exclusively mine.

4. What is your favorite response to your books?

My favorite response to Thirty Little Fingers so far was from my cousin Anthony, who edited it for me. I heard through the grapevine that Anthony’s wife was glad he read the book because now he is finally convinced that she is normal.

5. What corners do you cut to eliminate the things that just don’t matter, and focus on the things that do?

I wear disposable diapers on my babies. I quit having the cloth diaper discussion some years ago, so I’ve eliminated the energy that goes into having that discussion, too. My mother-in-law, who loves to sew, does a lot of my sewing. We as a church don’t have a lot of mid-weekly functions, and I don’t have nearly as much company as I wish I did. I don’t have girl-parties. It matters less and less to me what people think about what kind of a housekeeper I am. (Translation: My house is often a mess.) I grew up the next-oldest of eleven, and in recent years, I have been increasingly grateful for the ways my childhood taught me efficiency in running a household with many members.

6. Tell me a little about your kiddos?

They are average in all but height, intellect and physical appearance, wherein they are a little above average.

There is a small cache of job-treasure-hunt papers in my kitchen, in Rachael’s handwriting, which say things like “I’m hiding on the table. Please get these dishes off of me quick! Fast! HURRY!” And “You need clothes tomorrow. Get them.” And “The calendar needs changed. Please change it. It isn’t October anymore but November!” Laurel has been cackling over Laurel stories out of the book for the last week, particularly those wherein she trumped a preschool Rachael. Joshua still has one of the most beautiful smiles you will ever be bowled over by. Older women regularly want to kidnap Isaiah; they don’t know what a homebody he is, pure introvert. Allegra is four, one of my favorite ages, and would subsist on junk food if we let her. (Sometimes we let her.) Benjamin is my most good-natured and I am happy to tell you he can go potty in the potty chair now. Stephen, ah, I love all my babies more, younger, something Michael claims I’ve said with all six of my last ones. He can’t be right; I wouldn’t have said it with Rachael, since I had no others to compare with her.

7. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

Have you ever met a woman who would change only one thing about herself if she could? Physically, I would have slenderer ankles. Spiritually, I would always be sure I have the Holy Spirit within me. Personality-wise, I would be less competitive, and I wouldn’t be so selfish in conversation. Circumstantially, I wish I lived closer to my mom.

…And what do you like most about being you?

Physically, I like my face most, because it is such a plain face, not homely and not gorgeous, which has spared me hours of trauma associated with either extreme. Circumstantially, I like most that, whew, what don’t I like most? I like my family, house, church, maid, midwife, friends.

8. What do you like most and least about being a writer?

I like most that it brings me into contact with so many interesting people, and least that I meet too many people to meaningfully connect with them all.

9. What’s one thing you wish you could do, but probably never will?

Again just one thing? Give birth to twins. Ice skate. Write poetry in another language. Wear boots to church. Permanently organize my closet full of children’s clothes.

10. Favorite color?

Blue or purple or maybe maroon.

…Favorite food?

Grilled steak with mushrooms and mashed potatoes. Either that or HoHo cake.

…Favorite leisure activity?

Nursing my baby while reading a book. Playing scrabble with my older children or Blokus with my younger ones. Preparing or receiving mail. Shopping for food or gifts (if there’s enough money in the checking account). Curling up in front of the fireplace to read a book. I would say “writing, writing, writing,” but writing is more than a leisure activity for me anymore.

…Favorite word?

Home. If I could have two, all home.

11. Any guilty secrets you’d like to share?

Besides how much grilled steak I can put away in one sitting? I’m a very disorganized thinker. And conversationalist. Writing has become an exoskeleton for me, and I can go back and straighten my thoughts later. Also, my mom would tell you that from a very early age, I have liked to shock people. Conveniently for me, in Pennsylvania Mennonite housewife culture, sometimes the quickest way to shock people is by being honest.

{shrieks of laughter from Shari, who may or may not have found this to be true}

Now I know you folks are fond of shocking honesty, so prepare yourselves against the morrow. Tomorrow I’ll tell you more about Sheila’s new book!

Fragrant Whiffs of Joy giveaway result

Well, that was a long week. Some of you kept saying “Is it too late to enter?” and I thought Friday took its good old time coming…

Thanks to everyone who joined the whimsical side of the giveaway! We have a winner! Congratulations to Betty Yoder, who will soon receive a free copy of Fragrant Whiffs of Joy in the mail.

I am the final stop on Dorcas’s blog tour, so now it’s time to choose the practical option. To order Fragrant Whiffs of Joy or any other book by Dorcas Smucker, contact her at dorcassmucker@gmail.com, or 31148 Substation Drive, Harrisburg, OR 97446.

Fragrant Whiffs of Joy sells for $12 each plus $2 postage. Checks or PayPal accepted. Also available on Amazon.

A full listing of books is available here on Dorcas’s blog, along with a Christmas special that’s good through the end of December.

Thank you for your kind words in the giveaway about her blog and mine – we will probably like you for a long time now. And again, thanks for joining the fun!

Giveaway: Fragrant Whiffs of Joy

Update: As of 1:00 pm on December 1, 2017, this giveaway is closed.

Confession: Sometimes I need to be reminded that it’s going to be okay.

This is not the same thing as pretending it’s okay when it’s not, as I wrote in my last post – I mean I need to be reminded that it’s going to be okay in the end.

I’ve never been sure if I’m a pessimist or an optimist, because I try to put a good face on everything, especially if you meet up with me in real life, but hidden inside myself I’m often sure we’re all going down, boys. My husband, on the other hand, has more than his share of snark and cynicism, but underneath it all, a constant certainty that we’ve turned the corner. He’s relaxed, it’s going to end well, and life is good.

What do you call that?

I love his steady perspective and rely on it more heavily than anyone guesses (except him) (and sometimes not even him), but from time to time I really need to hear a woman older than me say that it’s going to be okay. What is the “it”? It’s mothering, pastor’s wife-ing, mistakes, canning season, science experiments in the boys’ bedroom, wintertime, life. It may not be easy, but it’s going to be okay.

This week I remembered why I love Dorcas Smucker so much as an author and a friend: she’s a beautiful optimist. The ugly kind of optimist is the one that denies any hardship or pain, but delights in throwing solutions around. Stop crying, hon. Chin up. The beautiful kind of optimist is the one who’s seen a lot, handled a lot, freaked out a lot, and come full circle to the satisfying rest of experienced living: not much is worth hyperventilating about. Relax, hon. Cry, breathe, smile. Try again.

Dorcas recently released a new book, Fragrant Whiffs of Joy, a fresh collection of the newspaper articles she writes for the Eugene Register-Guard. She’s stopping by here today (kum ba ya, my Lord) to share a copy with you.

When I sit with Dorcas, which isn’t nearly often enough, she usually has a cup of tea in hand. She’s been an important sounding board for me in writing, mothering, and letting go of shame.

The book itself is like a cup of tea: relaxing, fragrant, warm. She writes about her ninety-eight-year old father, her six grown children off to college, her blackberries, her jam-packed schedule, and her cats. She sends texts to the wrong people, wilts in the heat of summer, makes lists, buys too much fabric, assembles a pot roast to put in the oven. You can see her bustling around, loving people, laughing with children, canning grape juice. And saying, “It’s going to be okay.”

This book contains my best-of-the-best, all-time favorite Dorcas Smucker quotes, the one that has graced a chalkboard on my wall for two years: “This is what it means to be an adult, I think: to make peace with the life you didn’t foresee, to see spiritual significance in the daily repeated tasks, and to find fulfillment in doing them well.” That’s from one of my favorite chapters, “Love on a Plate and Fragrant Whiffs of Joy.” (p. 13)

Another favorite chapter, that kept me laughing upon multiple re-readings, is “Heavy Burdens in a Hot Summer,” in which Dorcas pulls back a memory of directing a Christmas play. One young girl acted the part of a poor mother clutching her baby through a snow storm. Dorcas writes,

She had one line to say: “Oh, I am so weary and cold.”

Thankfully I had a sense of humor, and the girl who played this part was not easily discouraged, because for some reason she could not recite that line. “Oh I am so tired and hungry!” she would say before collapsing into the snowbank: a pile of quilt batting from the sewing circle, covered with a white sheet.

“No, no.”

Back up the aisle I sent her. A slow turn, and toward the front again, into the wind: “I am so weary and tired!”

“No! WEARY and COLD.”

“Oh, I am so cold and hungry!”

I am not sure that she ever got it right, even on the night of the program. I should have let her ad lib, I guess, because she had the right idea. The original line is now seared into my memory, and I always think of it at times like this.

Sometimes, in certain seasons of life, it feels like we’re all weary and cold, fighting our way into the winter wind. Our shawl isn’t nearly enough protection, and we are about to collapse into the snowbank with the baby in our arms… It seems we will never reach the front of the church, and we certainly won’t hear the miraculous chimes when they ring in the steeple on Christmas Eve. Health issues, difficult relationships, financial stresses, caregiving – all of these can seem like trials that will never end. (p. 60)

I think you need this book.

If you’re interested in owning a copy, you have two choices: one whimsical and one practical. First, you may leave a comment below and be entered in a drawing to win one copy that Dorcas and I are giving away today. Second, you can order the book directly from Dorcas – that way it’s guaranteed.

Or you can try the first option first, and if that doesn’t work, go on to the second. That ought to do the trick.

Dorcas’s earlier books (also delightful) are available on her blog:

Ordinary Days
Upstairs the Peasants are Revolting
Downstairs the Queen is Knitting
Tea and Trouble Brewing
Footprints on the Ceiling
Sunlight Through Dusty Windows: The Dorcas Smucker Reader

To order a book, contact Dorcas Smucker at 31148 Substation Drive, Harrisburg, OR 97446, or dorcassmucker@gmail.com. Fragrant Whiffs of Joy is priced at $12 each plus $2 postage. Checks or PayPal accepted. Discounts available for combination orders. Also available here on Amazon.

Would you like to own this book? Please drop a comment below; I’d love to hear from you.


I was given three copies of FWOJ – one to give to a blog reader, one to give to a personal friend who had a tough year, and one to keep. Giveaway will close in one week. Open to US residents only. Winner will be chosen by random.org.

Update: As of December 1, 2017, this giveaway is closed.

Books worth reading

Confession: I haven’t posted book recommendations for a long while. I’ve been waiting for a theme to emerge, but instead of coalescing they seem to be diverging. I had better share a few titles now before we get any farther afield.


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

I bought this title before Jenny’s birth and tucked it away for a post-partum treat. Those early days of nursing and quiet, I savored a story that runs the gamut of human emotion and experience. All the ingredients are here: wartime, romance, classic literature, and the British Isles… An orphaned child, a secret society, laughter and tears in difficult times. It’s well-written and funny and heartbreaking, worth reading and re-reading. (And yes. After you read the book you will be able to say the title without feeling like you’re lost in Peter Piper Picked a Peck.)


Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
by Atul Gawande

This is an important book. If you’re interested at all in the issues surrounding human aging, medical ethics, and end of life, it’s a must-read. (If you’re not interested in the issues now, you will be someday, I promise. So you might as well get a jumpstart.) Mr. Gawande, a surgeon, writes easily and intelligently about geriatrics and what it means to have lived a good life. Most of his material is story. He raises excellent questions, and, without making it sound like easy street, offers some good paths forward.


3 Day Potty Training
by Lora Jensen

This one wasn’t for pleasure, but for information. It’s short (44 pages) and not highly polished, but it’s practical and informative and best of all, it works. I tried it at the recommendation of my brother John—tried the book, that is, and then the method on our twins last year about this time. I’d never go back to my former method. Did I even have a method? This one is accident based, and focuses on positivity, presence, and praise. No negative vibes, and no turning back. Potty training is WORK and the three endless days are Hades, but it is worth it. I can’t tell you how much I dreaded training two kids at a time, but this instruction made it manageable—though I admit I still couldn’t have done it without The Boss. We had twenty-four accidents the first day, ten the second day, and one the third day!

Clarification: This title is available only as an e-book. You can use a Kindle app on a smartphone or view it on your computer.


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
by Robert M. Pirsig

Reminiscent of Moby Dick, with a slow story line generously interrupted by soliloquy and irrelevant perambulations, Zen is a quiet book tackling human problems in a technological world. I love it. This is my second reading, at least.

 

 

 


The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead

I’m still not sure if I actually recommend this one. I found it on a Best Books of 2016 list. It is well-written and gripping, but in many ways a dirty book, full of lines I’d rather forget. The other books I’ve read on the topic have been elaborately researched, trying to convince me of the period’s evil by their factual detail and real-life gore. Instead, this author spins a dramatic novel, imagining the railroad was a literal underground transport system, hinting at layer upon layer of horrific moral darkness, and by some exaggeration and caricature making the reader feel what it was like. It’s ugly, and he means it to be ugly. But I include it here for discerning readers because it gave me two gifts: first, a gut level sense of what it meant to be human property, and second, a good look at the underbelly of the American dream, corrupt and territorial from the beginning.


News of the World
by Paulette Jiles

Another Best Book of 2016—but this one I fell in love with. Against a wild frontier backdrop spangled with lanterns, horse-drawn wagons, and a gunfight, the author skillfully crafts the story of a child torn twice out of her culture, first captured by native Americans and several years later reclaimed by white strangers. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd takes on the job of transporting this uprooted, volatile girl hundreds of miles to her kin. The Captain is quiet and graying and dignified, long on honor and short on change. His character is the best I’ve met in fiction for years. Plus I’m fascinated by the thematic undertone of how children belong…

Speaking of children, here are a few titles for them.


The One Year Bible for Kids, Challenge Edition
produced by Tyndale

My boys wanted devotional Bibles, and this one’s my favorite. It’s hard to find kids’ devotionals with enough Scripture; most seem to be inspirational thoughts written by humans, with a Scripture verse or two tucked in for good measure. I wanted to get the boys into the Word, and this layout is great. It chooses 365 “key chapters” from the Bible, so your child is reading highlights of Genesis to Revelation in one year, roughly a chapter per day.

 


Seeing Fingers: the story of Louis Braille
by Etta DeGering

Galen and the Gateway to Medicine
by Jeanne Bendick

 

 

 

If you’re in search of worthy biographies, these two are keepers, a mix of educational and delightful. Each is written in a fresh, inviting style well-suited to young readers, and captures the period, not only the man. Bendick has written companion books on Herodotus and Archimedes.


Number the Stars
by Lois Lowry

And I finally dipped into the works of Lois Lowry! Some discretion may be needed in what age of child to hand her stories to (as in The Giver, a rather dark utopia, if you can believe I stumbled upon another of those), but Lowry is a gifted author. Number the Stars is a memorable tale of courage and hope in Nazi-occupied Denmark—a story my boys enjoyed as much as I did.

 


And that’s the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong… Wait, where was I? Oh yes. It’s your turn to pass book recommendations on to me. What should I read next, please?

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Roe v. Wade, and the lullabye my mother taught me

Open thy mouth for the dumb in the cause of all such as are appointed to destruction. Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy. Proverbs 31:8-9

Confession: I’m not sure if I am reading all the dark stories on purpose, or if I am being unconsciously drawn to them because of where my heart is, or if I am walking with purpose through divine literary appointments.

It is difficult to write of abortion without being either gruesome or weepy. But if anyone has a right to try, it is Norma McCorvey. You may not know her by that name—she was called Jane Roe in the famous 1970’s legal case Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion in all fifty states.

She wrote I Am Roe in 1994 to celebrate abortion rights and to tell her life story, stripped of the lies on which her case was built. She wrote Won By Love only three years later, to recant her earlier beliefs and give glory to Jesus for healing and forgiving her.

I just read both. They are painful books, the first full of stories of abuse and despair, and the second uncovering the horrors of the pro-choice world. But they also made things clearer to me.

  • They clarified both sides of the abortion issue—why people fight for this right, and why they fight against it.
  • They clarified my own commitment to the holiness of human life, from conception on—and my commitment to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.
  • They even clarified my own childhood, and the memories I have of my mother’s concern about abortion.

Roe v. Wade was decided in the first months of my mom’s married life. In the late eighties and early nineties when the legal battle resurfaced, she listened to Tilly by Frank Peretti, with tears dripping off her face. And she taught her children to sing a song called Lullabye for the Unborn.

Reading Norma McCorvey’s story reminded me of the song, and so I searched for it. I found the lyrics, just as I remembered them, but what I really wanted was a link to someone performing the music. I could not find one anywhere online—and so I decided to sing it myself.

I was more frightened than I look.

I wanted to sing it without mistakes, but I couldn’t.

And I offer it because Mr. Johnson’s message is worth hearing, even 36 years after he wrote it, and because all babies deserve life.

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If you could say one thing to the frightened mother of an unborn child, what would it be?