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!

Advent activities 2017

Most years at Christmastime, I enjoy putting together an Advent calendar for my family.

The calendar varies from year to year – sometimes I focus on quiet reflection and sometimes on lively activity; sometimes I hang the activities in a long paper chain, or make a poster with flaps that open. I try to create a mix of inward-focused and outward focused ideas (bringing our family joy and bringing joy to others), and I customize it to include the holiday activities already in our plans – like a whole heap of music, as you will see.

Sometimes I try too hard and it stresses me out. But the kiddos and I love having something special to do each day, to build our joy in the coming of Christmas.

Here’s our family’s Advent list for 2017:

  1. Go ice skating as a family.
  2. Cut paper snowflakes.
  3. Attend a candlelit hymn sing.
  4. Prepare a baked item to give to a pastor or teacher.
  5. Create a Nativity scene from an unusual material (marshmallows, snow, metal, paper mache).
  6. Invite guests into our home to sing carols and share a snack.
  7. Make a handprint wreath.*
  8. Make music on stage.
  9. Spend the day with people we love.
  10. Listen to live Christmas music.
  11. Prepare a hot cocoa bar (chocolate spoons, various toppings and dippers).
  12. Make Christmas cards for people who will never give back to us.
  13. Write letters to Jesus.
  14. Play Handel’s Messiah on CD, in its entirety.
  15. Celebrate the birth of a human child.
  16. Drive to look at Christmas lights, with snacks, in our PJ’s.**
  17. Go Christmas caroling.
  18. Spend time praying for needs around the world.
  19. Invite one guest to dinner.
  20. Plan a family cozy night: popcorn, spiced cider, books.
  21. Eat a snowman / gingerbread man lunch.
  22. Watch a Christmas movie.
  23. Read holiday books from the library aloud.
  24. Draw names and give a “certificate of service” to one member of our family.
  25. Give what we have: Gather a basket of household items to share with a neighbor or friend.***

Additional ideas that might still fit into Christmas vacation after the 25th:

  • Care for someone else’s baby.
  • Send mail to cousins and friends.
  • Sing in the streets.
  • Draw names; give each family member $1.06 and take a jaunt to the dollar store for an impromptu mini-gift exchange. (This is my mom’s idea and I think it’s wonderful.)

Do you use an Advent calendar for your family? What simple activities bring you joy in December?


* Trace a handprint from each person in our family, cut out multiples on pretty paper, glue into a wreath with the fingertips facing out.

** The Christmas lights will not be eating our snacks, and our snacks will not be inside our PJ’s. I hope a few well-placed commas made that clear. Also I hope we are not in an accident that night.

*** We plan to gather items we’d like to give away: new soaps, some tea or hot drink mixes, homemade goodies, any household items that come to hand, maybe the piano – I don’t know – and show up at someone’s door with it all in a basket. This will be nicer than it sounds, I promise. If any of you mock me I may show up with it at YOUR door, so there.

A word from the aged: How you’ll know

Thank you so much for your kind words this week. I liked hearing from you, and in everything that you are experiencing I wish you joy. <3

I wrote this post a couple of weeks ago, a wrinkled and graying self-portrait. I wrote it but could not bring myself to publish it; I feared shocking the world with the darkness. Now I am light enough to share it, and parts of it make me grin, as they were meant to. So – don’t forget what I said last time. We are loved. And next week we will move on to brighter things.

I hear the echo of the old folk’s voices, and this is what they say…


You will know you have become an adult, son, when one day you notice there is no one standing over you saying good job, honey. Way to go. You’re so amazing and talented, look at you. This will be your first clue that you have arrived: the non-cheering.

You will know you’re an adult when the work you get paid for is so small a fraction of your real work that you’re not sure what to call what you do. The real work never ends and sometimes at the end of the day you cross it all off the list whether it’s done or not, because it looks better that way; maybe your priorities changed since morning. People will not know precisely what you do. They will ask, and look polite, and not know. They will become recipients of your work without knowing it, and when they notice it at last they will not know that you did it.

Now you are an adult. This is how we live here.

If a friend says Ah, we were just talking about you, and We thought you’d be the right person, and You’re so good at… you will not feel flattered anymore; you will shoot a glance at the nearest exit because you will know. This is not about you being good. This is about work needing to be done by someone, and they picked you as the person most likely to offer least resistance.

You will know, because you will wake up one morning and discover that you have become a cranky old toot, and it was easier than you thought it would be. You will be unfailingly nice to people (mostly), because you have your big boy shorts on and that is what you want to do, but inside you will at times be burnt to a crisp by the feelings you cannot feel, the scorching ironies you cannot point out. You will have seen what is true. People are rude and worthless and unbelievable. To you. And you go on.

You will see yourself there among the worthless ones. You did not emerge from your cocoon with wings, and you will increasingly feel you are simply making the best of a bad situation. You hoped to be a kinder person than you are, a better citizen, a truer friend.

You will feel like a fraud and a fake much of the time, because you have invested a lot of energy into things that did not turn out like you thought they would; people do not always see this and you cannot always talk about it. When they praise you, it will hurt a little. You will become unable to touch certain places in your mind without wincing, and sometimes people will be clumsy and jog one of them.

You may find you prefer a cup of coffee and silence to any activity in the universe.

Your books and music will turn subtly darker, like your coffee, and your silence, and your universe.

When young people talk, you may bite your lip to keep from telling them it’s not like that in the real world. You will feel pity sometimes when you should feel joy.

Speaking about what you are thinking will be harder. The easy babblers with the fresh faces will assume it is because you are not thinking, but this is not the case. There are too many words to choose from, and none without consequences.

You will know that of the many paths you could have walked, you happened upon one: not the best one, but one. Though you did not know everything then, you lived, and life chose for you. There are many things you will not be good at now, much you will never experience firsthand. Your life has a shape, and keeps you.

That is how you will know you have become an adult.

Congratulations. You have arrived.

Now turn, son, and walk back the way you’ve come. Unlearn your life’s slow training in self-preservation and wisdom and skepticism. Reach to touch. There was another truth you knew before you knew the truth. For the rest of your life, your task will be to uncover trust in each of the places you were burned – to smile, to become like a little child, to watch for the new day.

School lunch system

Confession: If there is one thing that tries my soul, it is thinking of enough ideas for my children’s packed lunches during the school year.

Ideally, I would move toward turning that responsibility over to them. But it has been hard for me to figure out how to do so while a) monitoring what they pack, b) getting out the door in time, and c) avoiding insanity as we all trip over each other making our own ham sandwiches at 8 am.

To tell you the truth, we are lucky. At our school, we have the option to buy hot lunch from the cafeteria two days out of five each week, for most of the year. This is an amazing gift and leaves only three days to pack, if they like the lunch enough to sign up for it. But still, I will not let that fact put a cramp in my whining.

This year, thanks to the forethoughtful questions and ideas of my friends Shaunda and Jolynn, I thought more about our plan than usual. A week before school I had no strategy at all, but by adopting others’ intelligent ideas and adding in our own, we found a method we really like.

Here’s what we do.

Each Saturday, the school kiddos and I spend an hour or so preparing lunch ingredients for the coming week. Someone might bake cookies or bars, and package them in serving sizes. Maybe someone else makes single-serving fruit and Jell-O cups. Another child cuts up fresh fruits and veggies and bags them. (Yes, they keep just fine. Even apples, if dipped in a mild salt water, can last the week nearly white.)

When I make our traditional pizza supper Saturday evening, we wrap some extra dough around tasty fillings and bake them, to make individual stromboli, crescent rolls, or hot pockets. These we wrap and put in the freezer.

I also buy easy-to-pack things: string cheese, yogurt cups, clementines, granola bars, trail mix, chips, dried fruit, cookies. I did not say all of it is healthy.

We put everything in the fridge, freezer, or pantry, easily accessible.

Then I update a lunch list to hang on the wall for the week (click to view). Their choices change every week based on what we made and what I have on hand, but my list has standard categories – here are the choices for a fresh fruit or veggie, here are the salty snacks, here are the desserts. No, you cannot pick three desserts.

Each school morning, I prepare only a main food for them (a sandwich, a bowl of re-heat-able food, or often, one of those baked sandwiches we made). The kids look at my list and pick three or four side options to go with it, and fill their own lunchboxes. (They mark things off the list so they don’t repeat. If I want them to repeat, I put it on the list multiple times.)

WE LOVE THIS METHOD.

In a couple of years, I hope to do it informally, without the printed list. For now, I still have to monitor the packing. It is not seamless. One of my children likes piggy-backing extra goodies if I don’t watch out. One is poky in packing, and needs to be hustled along. But it’s so nice to have all our options laid out, and to get the children involved in the process. They are more excited about their lunches than they used to be, and mornings are smoother.


How do you simplify lunch packing? What foods do your children love to take to school? I’m ready for some fresh ideas on homemade or simple sides.

Giveaway: Linette’s Boredom Jar

People of earth, I bring you tidings of great joy.

If you are a reader of my comment section, you’ll recall some of us were talking about Linette Horst’s Boredom Buster Jar, and what a lifesaver it would be for the summer. After communicating with each other, Linette and I have decided to let you in on the fun.

Linette spent hours gathering more than 300 ideas for summertime activities for her own children, and one other family she loved. Then she realized other moms could benefit from her list as well. She gave a few sets as gifts, shared them with extended family, and so on.

Her activities include things like doing a chore, making a craft, playing a game, doing something outside, researching a new idea, or having fun with food. Most ideas are free, most use supplies commonly found in a household, and adult assistance is minimal. The activities are designed for ages 4-12; so obviously younger children will require more assistance than older ones for things like reading a story or making cookies. Only a few ideas are duplicated.

Linette is concerned about sending glass jars in the mail (running the risk of breaking them), and about cutting thousands of slips of paper. So what we are offering is the colorful, full-page list of ideas, for you to cut up into your own jar. However, if you know Linette personally and would like to arrange a pick-up for a filled glass jar, she would be happy to negotiate on that.

Linette is offering one package free of charge on my blog (winner chosen at random). She is selling additional packages for $10. I think that’s a great price for what the set includes:

  • Thirteen colorful pages with over 300 activities
  • A supplies list for items you might not have on hand
  • An adorable vinyl decal to put on your own jar (“Mom I’m Bored” as pictured)
  • Free shipping to anywhere in the United States

This would make a wonderful gift for a young family – perhaps for a busy mom-friend, your pastor’s wife, a secret sister, your children’s Sunday school teacher, or anyone else you’d like to bless. If you save the slips of paper, you can use them again and again.

I received a Boredom Jar as a gift from Linette and I’m so excited to let my children start using it. Plus my house will get cleaned along the way, from what I can tell…

If you would like to order a set for $10, please contact Linette Horst at randyandlinette@aol.com. Put “Boredom Jar” or something similar in the subject line, to avoid the suspicion of being a spammer. (You wouldn’t want that.)

If you would like to enter the giveaway drawing, please leave a comment below. I always like to require something of you when you enter a giveaway (nothing ventured, nothing gained) – so this time, please tell me one thing your children are good at doing on their own: something fun/ creative/ thoughtful/ skilled/ helpful/ or anything like that. If you do not have children, think of “the children for whom you intend this jar” and tell me what they’re good at.

And yes, you can wait to order your own set until you hear if you won this giveaway. {Grin.} Again, the email address for contacting Linette is randyandlinette@aol.com.


Giveaway ends in one week, at midnight on Wednesday, July 5, 2017. Open to any person with a US mailing address. Please note that neither giveaway nor purchased set includes a glass jar. Feel free to share with friends who may be interested. Winner will be chosen by random.org.