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!

Changes coming down

Confession: I am missing something from my days. It’s called Margin.

What a funny thing margin is, always hanging around the edges, not out in the open where it’s easily calculated or measured. You don’t know what you got till it’s gone.

I’m starting a few changes to my blog for the next few months.

The first one is that I’m taking a break from advertising. Most of my ads were due to expire at the end of May, and instead of renewing or soliciting new ones, I decided to let them phase out. There are two reasons for this—one is that I’m tired and the other is that I partly hate myself when I advertise. I’d be interested in your feedback on this. Advertising is such a great idea, up front; and I truly think it’s been good for me, and you, and businesses. But it takes work to maintain, especially since I’m handpicking the businesses. And sometimes I feel like I’m selling something (myself maybe), when all I really want is just to write. I started running ads last August, so we’re going on a year now and I’m ready for a break.

The second change is that I’m taking a break from blogging.

(This is one reason I’m breaking from the ads—how else can I take a writing break?)

I’ve had a recess in mind for some time. The original reason was that I am interested in writing Other things, and I never have time to do both—but now I don’t have time to do either, so that’s kind of funny. After I’ve given heart to all the other things in my life I don’t have any left to put here. I’m being a wife and a mommy. Writing is an important way for me to process life, but having margin is even more important; I feel the need to cut something out until we settle into this new normal.

Also I have a few personal issues I need to work on, like reading more Scripture, coming close to my church community, and cleaning my bathrooms. I’m going to get right on those.

This is the first open-ended break I’ve taken. I’ll jot a line in a week to tell you about the coffee giveaway results.

I’m not sure when, but I’ll be back.

I’ll miss you,
Shari

Productive controversy

There’s no doubt about it: Mennonite bloggers are getting braver. Ooh, and this is a good thing, for voices to be found and viewpoints to be expressed.

It does have its issues.

I read three articles in the past couple of weeks, by three of them—

(Don’t you love the lumping all-conclusiveness of “them”? As though they are one of a kind?)

Correction: I read three articles by three different bloggers in the past couple of weeks. Though their topics differed widely (from Anabaptist ministry to multi-level marketing), each presented a fairly pointed critique of a problematic situation. Each posted an appeal to a wide group of people. Each was brave, and well-worded, and raised important though controversial issues. Each was followed by quite a hubbub of agreement or disagreement.

Only one article was difficult for me to read. Though I agreed with many of its points, I found myself on the defensive throughout the article. Surprisingly or not, this one sparked the sharpest feedback, with numerous people objecting to the “attitude” of the writer while others found her “funny” and “spot-on.”

Hmm.

I am thinking about this now.

On social media, it’s so easy to slant the rules. For example, “My blog is my own space for airing whatever I wish to address.”

??

We never give that right to physical spaces, as if “in her house” or “in his pulpit” or “on that street corner” a person may say anything, at any length, to anyone, without accountability…? I don’t think so.

However, I seldom question the “right” to speak, but the courtesy of the speaker.

What do you think? What makes it possible for you to hear a viewpoint you disagree with without becoming defensive in response? Does it have anything to do with the speaker? Does it have anything to do with your own heart?

Of course the same questions may be asked in any social group, not only online or in the media. Families, churches, and businesses all have to find ways of communicating differing opinions productively. How do we do this? What adjectives describe the kind of pushback people can actually hear and receive?

Personally, there are two things that (rightfully or no) put me on guard against the proponent of a viewpoint, especially online.

First is facelessness. If you are going to claim the right to speak, and particularly to criticize, it’s only fair that we can see you—your real face, your true name, something of your actual self. I may be too incautious here personally, having never been burned by masked gunmen or irate readers showing up at my physical-address-which-I-was-too-free-with-online. But I’m frustrated by the number of times I show up at someone’s site only to find no identifying information whatsoever. No real name, no photo, no history, nothing by which the writer could be caught hold of and taken to account.

Now—I’m Mennonite, right? Which means I don’t properly know you until we’ve discussed your grandfather, your older sister who went to Bible school with my big brother, and the farmhouse you lived in as a child.

But isn’t there a happy medium between the two? Must we have full disclosure or… lurking? We are becoming a generation of eels, uncatchable, untraceable, slipping in and out of deliberately blurred backgrounds. I think I understand our wish to escape our histories, to be known only as “ourselves,” but it’s simply not possible. (Nor is it the way to influence people and situations.) We can’t reinvent ourselves to suit. We have real lives, guys—with real faces, real ancestors, real problems.* Can we have them online too?

*(Sometimes the faces, the ancestors, and the problems are all the same thing. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

The second turnoff for me is ire*, though I have trouble with this one myself—biting my tongue until I HAVE HAD IT UP TO HERE WITH THESE IDIOTS AND NOW I’M GOING TO SPEAK UP. This doesn’t work, does it? It only makes your listeners raise their shields. And then their swords.

*(The definition is worth clicking on!)

If the explosion approach isn’t successful in real life, with collegues or church families or close friends, it’s not going to work in the cyberworld either. Oh yes, I have the right to speak! but depending on the tone I choose I may find no one to listen. (And then it’s fun to label them “intolerant” of “a valid viewpoint no one is willing to consider!”—but could it possibly be my method?)

It’s so easy to demand a respect for myself and my position that I am unwilling to extend to others and their ways. If I am so passionate as to pour ire on those who disagree with me (cynicism, belittling, blame throwing), I need to take a deep breath and a large chill pill before putting the world through what I have to say.

(Shari Zook, take note.)

I like to hear different opinions. I like when they are well said, when they are respectful, when they are meaty. I don’t even quite believe all our words have to be “kind.” The last time I checked, Jesus’ flaming epithets of “whited sepulchres” and “dead men’s bones” probably had the emotional effect of a punch—though I am not so wise and good as He is, by a long mile. Truth in love is at times sharp-shooting and intense, but there’s a long stretch between cowardly and brutal. Can we permit others the space to disagree with us without making them feel like utter nincompoops?

What makes controversy meaningful? productive? good? What pushes you to engage with a speaker or writer you disagree with?

*****

Your turn! Here are the questions I asked above.

What do you think? What makes it possible for you to hear a viewpoint you disagree with without becoming defensive in response? Does it have anything to do with the speaker? Does it have anything to do with your own heart?

Families, churches, and businesses all have to find ways of communicating differing opinions productively. How do we do this? What adjectives describe the kind of pushback people can actually hear and receive?

What makes controversy meaningful? productive? good? What pushes you to engage with a speaker or writer you disagree with?

The Daily Lampoon

From Meadville, Pennsylvania, this is Omi Werd reporting.

*****

The staff and team members at Confessions were blown away last week by heavy winds of unprecedented interest. Mrs. Zook, author of Confessions, stated herself both “delighted” and “a little overwhelmed” as page views temporarily skyrocketed and comments flew thick and fast. Zook wishes to thank the community for its [mitigated] support and [unmitigated] patience during this time.

Both agreement and disagreement were eloquently voiced online, with some readers participating in a discussion thread on the topic. “The community really came together,” says Zook.

“I expected to strike, you know, a very small nerve,” said Zook in a statement to reporters, “but this has taken me completely by surprise.” Pleasant voices of agreement were appreciated, as were pleasant voices of dissent, and our first hit-and-run commenter added an authentic and delightful twist. Says Zook, “My writing has been called many things, both complimentary and uncomplimentary, but ‘whiny rhetoric’ is a new one. Totally dig it!”

When asked where she wants to go from here, Zook mentioned upcoming plans for titillating posts on birthday cakes and bar stool cushions. “So we’ll definitely keep the excitement rolling. There’s plenty more where that came from.”

Until then, the Zooks can be reached at their local bomb shelter.

Yarn

Sometimes my life spins past me
Like a ball of yarn bouncing too fast
For me to catch a tail
And weave the stories that make sense of it all

The colors are mixed. The dark the light and the heavy
The scarlet threads of celebration
All twist in circles round an ever-spinning ball

When I stop telling, still the threads coil and loop
Some of them wrapped beneath and lost, some grown more vibrant and substantial in the circling
I watch in fascination and think perhaps I will let them go, let them grow
But suddenly I catch a little thread and that one ties to another and another
And there I am, weaving again

I used to worry that if I wove too fast I would run out
Would come to an ending thread hanging in air
But I see now that the faster I weave
The faster life spins the yarn back to me

There will always be more to tell
Which could be a panic all its own
But I think I am happy here
With yarns to last a lifetime.