Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Moved to new address

I’m home!  From now on you will need to go to if you would like to continue following my blog.  I look forward to hearing from you there.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Reading just for fun?

The after-school program at Tembisa Baptist Church doesn’t have the sponsors that Arebaokeng has. They aren’t even sponsored by the church, which charges rent for the use of their old building and office space in a converted house on the property. But they run a crèche and feed a hundred children a day.

Friends from Grace Baptist Church, Kempton Park, continue to visit one morning a week to sing and play games with the little ones. I don’t think anyone has been reading with the school-aged children since I left.

When I returned last week, I brought my computer so the kids could see a slideshow of the pictures we took before I left in July 2008. I say “we” because they went off with my camera and took better candids than I would ever have gotten! Now they crowded around the computer and squealed with delight at the faces of themselves and their friends, some of whom you can see in the slideshow at the top of the left column.

I read The Christmas Story since tinsel and garlands of evergreen already decorate the shops here. We also read Lulama’s Long Way Home and laughed at the little girl’s clever ways of getting away from the dangerous animals she meets as she tries to find her way home.

“What was the point of that story you read?” one of the caregivers asked when the children were settled with books from the bin I left in 2008.

“It’s just for fun,” I explained. She looked disappointed. “But reading aloud in English helps them to learn the language, and on this page we practiced counting with the silly baboons.”

She nodded.

I continued. “I want them to think of books as fun. The more they read, the better they will do in school.”

A light passed over her face as though reading without a learning agenda was a new and pleasant idea to her.

It was mass chaos as the children read, exchanged books to read some more, or crowded around me to share their reading skills or just to touch my hair. “See how much they enjoy it,” I said. “Why don’t you pull the book bin out every week?”

Just maybe it will happen.

***Please note*** I will be discontinuing this blog after this trip to South Africa. You can continue reading about My Not-so-ordinary World at where I am already posting.  I hope to hear from you there!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

St. Francis Nursery School

This week I returned to St. Francis Nursery School in Boksburg.  I used to read there regularly back in 2006 and 2007.  I turned the project over to a colleague when I went to the States for a few months.  That colleague has now returned to U.K. so I thought I would stop by to see if anyone would like a story or two. 

The children were in the yard when I arrived.  As I approached through the garden Teacher Ruthie burst from the door, squealing like a three-year-old and running to greet me.

Unlike the community programs where I usually read, St. Francis is an institution—a home for abandoned babies and children rescued from emergency situations.  Most of the children are HIV positive, more than one discarded on a garbage heap by a parent too sick to take care of them.  A few are fostered, but keeping the children in an institution is a way of being sure they get the medications they need.

All these children are new since I was last here.  The ones I read to have “graduated” to Epworth, a home for school age children about forty-five minutes away.  Ruthie and her former colleague Louise go twice a year to visit “their” children, taking presents and spending time, trying to provide some continuity of relationships in the lives of the children.

Ruthie and I sat on the bench in front of the school.  “That one was found locked in a shack without food.” She pointed out a little boy about four.  “The neighbors called the police to break down the door when they heard him crying for days.  No one knows who his parents are or even his real name.”  When he first arrived, she told me, he would crawl into the suspended barrel on the playground and not come out.  Now he plays with the other children.

She pointed to a little girl, older than the others.  “She has a little brother.  We are looking for someplace where they can stay together.  Both parents have died.  The relatives rejected them because of their status.”  She means their HIV status, still a cause of fear and stigma here.

Ruthie is one year away from finishing a BA in early childhood education.  She wants to be a government inspector to monitor pre-schools and nursery care.  I just hope that doesn’t take her away from direct contact with the children.  She has such a big heart.

***Please note*** I will be discontinuing this blog after this trip to South Africa. You can continue reading about My Not-so-ordinary World at where I am already posting.  I hope to hear from you there!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Stimulating Minds in Alex

“Why do we read?” I asked the combined fifth-grade classes at Rose-Act’s Saturday’s Cool. This supplementary educational program for grades five through twelve serves the desperately poor township of Alexandra, near Johannesburg.

“To learn new things,” a boy said promptly, and I knew this was going to be a fun class.

“To find out about the world,” another said.

“To learn to spell.”

“It stimulates the mind.” (That one I definitely was not expecting.)

“To learn better English.”

“Hmm. Why do we need to learn English?” I asked.

A Zulu boy on the front row raised his hand. “To talk to people from other parts of South Africa,” he said. This country has eleven official languages. Several were represented in the class. Without English, that Zulu boy would have trouble communicating with the Tswana girl sitting next to him.

I told them about Litt-World last week and how people from Indonesia, Brazil and Nigeria could communicate because we understood English. “When you know English, you can’t just talk to people in South Africa. You can talk to the whole world!”

I had brought a stack of books, many from their library, to have a contest between the two classes. “Which book would you use to find the meaning of a word?

"I want to know if the tree growing in the yard of my new house will have fruit. Which book will I use?

"My neighbor has just found out she has HIV and she wants to know—” They had grabbed the book before I even finished the question.

After class the kids took my camera. (I get the best pictures that way!)

Later I went to the bookstore with Anneke, the Dutch woman working for IBM who is the volunteer librarian for the program. We had money to spend! It was given by the Vacation Bible School of First Baptist Church, Webster, Wisconsin, USA. Books are expensive in South Africa—especially the nicely illustrated information books we wanted. The money didn’t go as far as we would have liked. But the enthusiastic readers in the fifth grade were excited to know there would be new books in their library.

***Please note*** I will be discontinuing this blog after this trip to South Africa. You can continue reading about My Not-so-ordinary World at where I am already posting.  I hope to hear from you there!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Joy in Alex

I drove right past the Johannesburg College, Alexandra Campus on London Road. The slum of Alex stretched to my right. Warehouses rose along the road to my left. When I was sure I had gone too far, there was nothing to do, but turn around in the crumbling lot of a business and retrace my route through the heavy traffic. Believe me, I was saying a lot of prayers! But I found it.

The security guard held out his book for me to sign and say where I was going in the complex. “Actually, I’m not going in. I’m here to meet someone.”

“Someone from outside or inside?” he asked so suspiciously that I was afraid he would tell me to move my car.

“Someone who works with Rose Act, the group that is here on Saturdays.”

The guard smiled and gave me a thumbs-up. Rose Act has a reputation around here.

Soon Anna arrived, a tiny woman with a big smile. She is probably no older than I am, but has led a harder life. I gave her the cloth doll I had bought in Kenya. The plan is for her neighbor, an accomplished seamstress, to use it to make a pattern so some of the ladies in Alex can make a South African version to sell. Then Anna hopped in the car and we were off to read stories in crèches.

“Turn right here. Left at the stop sign. Left again. Now right.” She directed me through the narrow streets of Alex.

Our first stop was Sindisa’s Creche. Sindisa is a relative. Her house is in a newly built section of town close to the highway. This house was obviously built with a pre-school in mind. There were three large classrooms in back. The children were nicely washed and cleanly dressed. They sat still, without shoving. Of course they weren’t quiet—not after I brought out Water Hole Waiting and they spotted the monkeys on the front—but they listened politely and all their noise was shouts of recognition of what they saw in the book.

Second stop was Takalani. Takalani means “Be happy” in the Venda language. It is also the name of the South African version of Sesame Street. But this crèche consists of two cement block houses up separate alleys. I have read there a couple times before and was enthusiastically received. The children understood less English. Their teacher translated a little. Mostly the children just laughed and shouted the names of the animals they saw.

Dudonza is even further up an even narrower alley in the shadow of the huge barracks that once housed two thousand mine workers. Now no one knows how many crowd its rooms. Shacks line the outer walls of the barracks and spill into the street. The children here speak almost no English although a sunshade has been put over the tiny courtyard and the floor leveled and tiled since the last time I was here. The Dudonza children had a hard time identifying the hippos and giraffe in the pictures, but they shouted out the next number in the counting book Emeka’s Gift.

So much joy from one morning’s wandering through the alleys with a bag of books and a friend to show me the way. If I still lived in South Africa, I would be tempted to do it every week.

***Please note*** I will be discontinuing this blog after this trip to South Africa. You can continue reading about My Not-so-ordinary World at where I am already posting.  I hope to hear from you there!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Back at Arebaokeng

The Arebaokeng community project has a crèche (daycare / pre-school) and an after-school program for children who have lost parents to HIV/AIDS.  When I lived in South Africa, the children were cared for in an old house.  The dining room/classroom was a garage.  On cold days the little ones crowded into a tiny bedroom with no furniture.  When it rained, the center had to close because the roof leaked so badly there were puddles all over the floor.

Arebaokeng has the sponsorship of Spar, a prominent South African supermarket chain.  They have just moved into a new facility with three classrooms, dining hall, kitchen, office space, a wide veranda and playground equipment.  There is even a promise of computers to come.  And best of all—the roof doesn’t leak!

It was a delight to return and greet old friends.  I read Jane and Chris Kurtz’s Water Hole Waiting to the little ones.  They loved identifying the different animals, and Mama Monkey’s repeated, “Wait!” 

With the older ones I read The King’s Fountain by Lloyd Alexander.  It is the story of a poor man concerned that the king is planning to build a fountain that will divert water from the city so the people and animals will be thirsty.  He asks the scholar to go and explain to the king the damage that will be done, but the scholar is so caught up in his lofty ideas that he can’t get involved with the practical.  The poor man goes to the merchants who know how to speak cleverly, but they are too afraid of the king.  He goes to the strong man, but the strong man is all action without thinking through the consequences.  At last his little daughter convinces the poor man to go himself.  In the end his simple honesty convinces the king not to build the fountain.

Some of Alexander’s language is a little hard for these township children whose English is anything but fluent despite their schooling in English.  They weren’t sure what a fountain was.  There was no picture in the book since the fountain was never built.  Their teacher Liza and I had to come up with a place in the city where there was one they had seen. The lesson I wanted them to get was that even an ordinary person like them can make a difference if he has the courage to speak up and tell the truth. 

“Perhaps someone will say to you, ‘Those people are from Mozambique or from Zimbabwe,’” I explained.  “’Let’s go and hurt them.  They aren’t like us.’”  (Unfortunately the xenophobia that erupted last year is at the point of exploding again due to the pressures of unemployment.) I continued, “If you are like the poor man in the story, you will speak the truth. ‘They are like us inside.  It isn’t right to hurt them.’  Even though you aren’t big and important, you can make a difference.”

The children wanted to know where I have been for so long.  They have no concept of how far America is.  “I’ll be back next week,” I said. Liza suggested that they write letters for me to take to America.  I told them to include a return address if they would like an answer.  Contact me if you would like to respond to one of these eager children.

***Please note*** I will be discontinuing this blog after this trip to South Africa. You can continue reading about My Not-so-ordinary World at where I am already posting. I hope to hear from you there!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Musing on Litt-World 2009

Litt-World 2009 is over. Last week I:
  • pondered the implications for my WIP (work in progress) of novelist Davis Bunn’s workshops on writing the breakout novel.
  • took avid notes on the process of editing from a gifted Filippina editor, Yna Reyes.
  • lined up three possible workshops where I can teach skills to Africans who want to write for the children in their communities, including one in Kisumu, Kenya, the heart of last year’s post-election violence.
  • discovered interest in my HIV story “God Loves Me When I Hurt” from publishers in India as well as Burundi, Ghana and Kenya.
  • found promising writers from Nigeria and Indonesia who are eager for on-line mentoring.
  • enjoyed catching up with former student Nerea Thigo of Kenya (pictured).
  • laughed at the ingenuity of Czech publisher, Alexandr Flek, who set up a web-based club of Beta testers and donors to raise funds and field test his new translation of the Bible—essentially the first in 400 years. 
  • marveled at the faithfulness of the publisher who prints 2-500 copies of significant titles for the small population who reads Croatian.
  • enjoyed the gasps of Africans seeing the Great Rift Valley for the first time.
  • ate way too much, stayed up way too late.
  • Wished I had a video camera to capture Robin Jones Gunn and Alice Lawhead really getting into it with the African singers and dancers who helped us celebrate the last night.
It was a stimulating and exhausting opportunity that won’t come again for another three years.

The sun sets over the Great Rift Valley as our bus returns to Brackenhurst Conference Center from an outing to Lake Naivasha.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Litt-World 2009

November 2004 I sat on a beach in the Philippines pouring out my passion for stories for children affected by HIV/AIDS to David Waweru of Word Alive Publications in Nairobi, Kenya. We were both attending the Litt-World Conference sponsored by Media Associates International. Litt-World is a bi-annual conference for Christian writers and publishers from the majority world. My conversation with David Waweru led to the first of three writing workshops in Nairobi. It also led to some pretty major changes in my life. I came home from the Philippines and told my husband that I wanted to move back to Africa to be in the right context to write for these children. He graciously said, “Lets go for it,” and we spent 2005 to 2008 based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

This week I am back in Nairobi for another Litt-World conference. I look forward to getting together with former students who have become friends and to meeting new people concerned with writing for children in cultures from Albania to Zimbabwe. I will be meeting with another publisher who has expressed interest in some of my stories to find out what the next step is. I don’t expect this Litt-World to be quite as life changing for me as my first, but I am praying that I would build relationships that God can use for the Kingdom.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Danger of a Single Story

"How do you find African books to read to the children?" my Zimbabwean friend asked when she accompanied me to Tembisa Baptist Church.  I suspect she had grown up on the same kind of books as Chimamanda Adichie.  Adichie, a Nigerian short-story writer I am anxious to read, articulates so well part of why I am concerned with providing African children with books in which they will see themselves and their world.  The video will take you a bit longer than you normally spend reading this blog, but it's worth it.

(Thank you to Debi Alexander who pointed me to this video on Ruth Hubbard's blog. If you are looking for positive books about Africa to read yourself or share with children, check out my list on Goodreads.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sunshine and Rain

Sunshine and rain.  It takes both to produce a rainbow like this.  We were cruising south from Kirkenis, Norway, far above the Arctic Circle.  The ship sailed between rocky islands and the spectacular mountains of the coast, entering the occasional narrow fjord.  Mostly we saw the heavy clouds typical of this time of year.  My husband would have been disappointed if we hadn’t had one day when we crashed through the waves and spray rose higher than the decks.  Dinner was sparsely attended that night.  Even some of the wait staff were missing.  I made it through the soup course before retreating to my bunk (losing my soup on the way.) 

On our one sunny day, somewhere below the Arctic Circle my fellow photographers and I congregated on the back upper deck to take pictures of a hole high up in a mountain, hollowed out long ages ago when the level of the sea was much different.  A mist began to fall.  Suddenly the lofty hole was no more than a centerpiece to the 360-degree rainbow that circled the mountain.  Sorry I couldn’t back far enough away to give you the full perspective. 

These days I am praying for several friends and relatives with cancer or brain tumors.  My cousin, who was given 6 months when diagnosed, is now making medical history after three years.  He has had to quit work as a color chemist because of vision problems, but he continues to volunteer weekly in a local hospital.  He pushes patients’ wheelchairs, and I don’t doubt that he is an inspiration to all.  He and his wife trust God day by day and give thanks for the blessings of life that the rest of us take for granted.  Maybe only in heaven will we understand.

Sunshine and rain.  It takes both to make a rainbow.  Sometimes it’s hard to back away enough to get the full perspective.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Guest blogger: Kay Strom

Today is my birthday.  I am reminded by our guest blogger to fall on my knees once again and thank God for the precious family he gave me.  I hope you will join the Salvation Army in their

4th Annual International Weekend of

Prayer and Fasting

Stolen Identity by Kay Marshall Strom

Enormous eyes in a bony-thin face, and a baggy green dress that dragged the ground.  Because of all the cast-off children at the village school in India, the raggedy girl stood closest to our translator, he gently asked her, "What is your name?"

The girl stared. 

"Your name.  What is it?" the translator asked again.

The girl whispered her answer:  "I have no name."

A child with no name.  A little girl abandoned so young she could not even remember what her parents had called her.  She grew up begging at the train platform, snatching up the scraps harried passengers dropped, watching other children picked off by traffickers.  Now that she was seven or eight--perhaps even a scrawny nine--the traffickers had come for her.  But the girl screamed and kicked and clawed so ferociously that someone called the police.  Someone with clout, evidently, because the police came and pulled her away from the traffickers. Somebody in the crowd suggested that instead of putting the child in jail, the police might take her to the village school, which they did. They dropped her at the door and left.

Human trafficking, especially sex trafficking, is rampant around the world.  We think of it as an eastern European problem, or Indian or Nepalese or Thai.  It is.  But it's also a Western problem. The U.S. State Department estimates between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the Untied States each year, but concede that the real number is far higher. According to the U.S. Justice Department's head of the new human trafficking unit, there is now at least one case of trafficking in every state.

The little girl with no name was fortunate that someone responded to her screaming pleas.  What would you do if you heard a child shriek for help?  Of course, if she were a trafficking victim in this country, she wouldn't likely scream or kick.  She would probably shrink away in terror, or act submissively.  You might see wounds--cuts, bruises, burns.  Perhaps what would catch your attention would be the constant work: babysitting, cooking, washing dishes, scrubbing floors--never just being a child.  Or maybe you couldn't say exactly what was wrong--only that something about the child's situation made you profoundly uneasy.

Please, please, if you suspect a person is being trafficked, call 911 and report it.  Yes, it is okay.  Yes, even it you are mistaken.  In fact, eighteen states require citizens to report possible child abuse or neglect of any kind.
In the 1700s, Quakers led the fight against the African slave trade.  In 1885, the Salvation Army took up the abolition banner, and since then it has led the fight against a different kind of slavery. More and more, 21st century abolitionists are followers of Christ determined to see slavery of all kinds ended in our day.

Oh yes...  Before I left the school in India, I asked if we might give the little girl a name.  She is now Grace.

About the Author:
Author Kay Marshall Strom has two great loves: writing and helping others achieve their own writing potential. Kay has written thirty-six published books including Daughters of Hope: Stories of Witness and Courage in the Face of Persecution and In the Presence of the Poor. She's also authored numerous magazine articles, and two screenplays. While mostly a nonfiction writer, the first book of her historical novel trilogyGrace in Africa has met with acclaim. Kay speaks at seminars, retreats, writers' conferences, and special events throughout the country and around the world. She is in wide demand as an instructor and keynote speaker at major writing conferences. She also enjoys speaking aboard cruise ships in exchange for exotic cruise destinations.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Discerning Teens

My friend, Kim, and I have been sharing and praying for each other’s families for almost ten years now.  She recently wrote to share her concern about a current film.  I haven’t seen this film myself, but I value Kim’s discernment.

She writes:

I am writing to you today about something very important that God has put in my heart and the Holy Spirit has urged me to share with as many people as possible. My husband and I just went and saw the movie "Gamers." We like sci-fi, adventure shows, and the previews for this one looked great (future where death-row inmates have the option of becoming a "Gamer," virtually wired and "played" by someone else, and if they survive, they're free.) What the commercials didn't show is what happened before that, how this technology became available and "society" was formed (kind of like facebook), so people chose to let themselves be controlled by "players", people who sat in their house all day, making them do anything and everything, choosing their outfits (most half-naked), so as you walk down the street all you see are these people being controlled, having sex on the sidewalks, girls with girls, guys with guys, violence so disturbing I actually had to cover my eyes more than o nce. As we walked out of the theater, 5 barely 17-year-olds were behind us. I was so disturbed I felt overwhelmed that I had to do something, write a letter to the producer, email all my prayer teams. And I said afterwards to my husband, we are in the midst of a spiritual battle so strong, we have to teach our kids to be discerning, look at the big picture and think about such things. The movie previews were so deceiving, they looked very cool, especially for video gamers and techno teens. Paul (13) knew all about the movie and had watched the trailer online more than once. I left more determined than ever to warn kids to be discerning in how technology is subtly infiltrating their lives. I've had talks about this with my own kids when we gave up cable, but still we've got people having sex in commercials.

I truly believe our children and teenagers are much stronger, smarter and deeper than people give them credit for. We're in a war, and we need to teach our children discernment and equip them to go out there and be warriors for Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Challenge of Self-publishing

So I took the plunge. After long resistance, I signed on with Booksurge to self-publish a novel.  That means Crossovers should be available by Christmas after languishing for years in the proverbial drawer, rejected by publishers who don’t think they can sell a book about a boy who figure skates.

Why did I resist?

Self-publishing means the author takes on not only the financial responsibility of printing the book, but also the roles of editor, book designer, and distributor.

It can be a shortcut to avoid polishing a manuscript to the level a commercial publisher requires.  But I already have five commercially published titles and have actually been paid for editing other people’s work.  The Crossovers manuscript has been read by several critics—writers, figure skaters and even a former hockey commissioner.  My daughter who used to keep the typists of an insurance company in proper grammatical form is currently going over it.  Her father has instructed her to be brutal.  (I think that is revenge for my editing of his self-published book, Excellence in Theological Education.)

The book design problem will be handled by Booksurge’s templates.  I need only slot my information into their templates, and out pops a book cover.  Of course, that means choices are very limited.  The Booksurge people assured me that there are literally millions of stock photos available on the Internet.  Unfortunately I haven’t found anything appropriate for a juvenile novel about a hockey player who wants to learn to figure skate.  An enthusiastic adult skater has lined me up with a photographer.  We have an appointment to meet at the rink with a pile of skates right after they finish giving the ice its highest shine.  We shall see how realistic my cover dreams are.

The biggest problem in self-publishing is usually distribution.  Bookstores avoid self-published books like a first-time goalie scared of the puck.  A public speaker has a built-in audience that heads straight for the book table after the meeting.  Fiction is more problematic.  Too often the author ends up with a garage full of unsold books.  In this day of print-on-demand I don’t risk a garage full of books—just a lot of money spent and nothing to show for it.

The way I figure it, Crossovers will appeal to the niche market of figure skaters and hockey players.  They all hang out at the same place—the ice rink.  And they shop at the same places—the skate shops.  My marketing plan is to drive from ice rink to skate shop with a trunk full of books. lists 27 within ten miles of my daughter’s house.  I can do this.  It’s an Olympic year with an American men’s World Champion.  What better time to try?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Skating Values or Kingdom Values?

Every culture has its core values, standards and expectations. Those values need to be examined and not just assumed, especially by those of us whose first loyalty is to the Kingdom of God. Last weekend I plunged again into the figure skating world I talked about a couple weeks ago when I attended my first camp—two and a half intensive days of on-ice and off-ice classes that left me both invigorated and exhausted.

I am the only adult skater at my usual rink, so the first day I entered the locker room with the same feeling in my stomach as an outsider approaching an unknown culture. What will be expected of me? Am I going to make a fool of myself? When I arrived, everyone was dressed in black lycra stretch pants. I had brought nothing but practice skirts and dresses. “You goofed! You’re going to look foolish!” my brain screamed at me. I was relieved when a handful of other skirts appeared.

I won’t deny that to be slender (my husband would say ‘skinny’) is a value of the skating world. We almost all fit that mold, and those who didn’t were still on the lower levels of the sport. Outsiders might say we have an ‘unhealthy obsession with an unrealistic ideal of beauty’. Personally I think the sport attracts people with the body shape that can best handle the jumps and spins. Skating requires so much energy that if you are obsessive/compulsive enough to advance through the test levels, you will inevitably consume so many calories that you can’t help but be thin.

And we are ALL obsessive/compulsive. You don’t spend that many hours on the ice if you don’t have the drive to be perfect.

Being female is not a core value. Although only one man joined us for the camp, we all envied the woman whose husband skates pairs with her.

Youth is not a cultural value either—at least not of adult skaters. We admire the achievements of the elite skaters vying for national and Olympic medals, but we know that will never be us. Longevity and perseverance are stronger values. Although most camp participants were in their 30s and 40s and the Gold Level skaters were all in their twenties, I was not the oldest. Marcie was 64, and I only saw her sit out for one session—the off-ice jumping class.

Figure skating is addictive. During one of our (very brief) breaks someone commented, “It could be worse! I could be addicted to cocaine.” How much can I indulge my delight in the joy of physical exercise and artistic expression, without slipping over the line into unhealthy addiction? As a child of God, I should be asking how he wants me to spend my time and finances. That will undoubtedly include enjoying the body he created, but my identity needs to come from what he says is true of me and not from my failure to skate as well as the next person. My love for skating shouldn’t interfere with my God-given responsibilities to those around me. It comes down to the challenging question: What do I do when Kingdom values conflict with Skating values?

Friday, July 24, 2009

An Afternoon Tea Party

My daughter sells wonderful loose-leaf tea from a company called Lets Do Tea. Wednesday afternoon I hosted a tea party for ladies from my church. We sat on the deck with china teacups and plates of cucumber sandwiches and lime curd tarts and tasted different flavors of tea.

“Am I supposed to just swish it in my mouth and spit it out like wine?” Joyce asked. I assured her she wouldn’t get drunk if she swallowed.

We started off with an iced herbal blend called Passion Flair. Then we sampled the hot chocolate almond tea, and a mixture of green tea and blossoms called Treasures of the Inca. We finished off with After Seven, my favorite rooibos with hints of chocolate and mint.

Some of the women had brought a teacup from home to share what was special about it. Joyce had a Royal Albert cup from her first trip out of the country—to Canada. Jen had one that reminded her of when she used to live in California. My mother-in-law told how all the cups from her wedding china had broken over the fifty years of her marriage. She recently found replacements on the internet and was thrilled to be able to use them again.

My mug came from the Borders in Indianapolis where my critique group used to meet. I bought it then because the sides look like a bookcase filled with good books, a teapot, and even a cat sitting on one shelf. But now it serves to remind me of that group. There was a special chemistry that stimulated all of us to better writing. A couple group members were fellow-believers, committed to Jesus Christ. Others thought the Bible was nothing more than a collection of fairy tales. Together they held me accountable and demanded that I show faith in action and not rely on religious clichés or preachy explanations.

At the time I thought this was what all critique groups were like. I have discovered since that isn’t necessarily so. Sometimes one member dominates and is threatened by other talented writers. Sometimes the members have differing goals, or are more interested in talking about writing than in doing it. Or maybe the chemistry just isn’t there.

My Indy group has scattered. We all look fondly back on those Sunday evenings in the Borders coffee shop. I now travel to Maplewood Library in Saint Paul once a month to meet with a group of ladies who write for children and young adults. The relationships are growing, and they have already made helpful suggestions on the sequel to Glastonbury Tor. I may have to buy a Maplewood Library Tea Mug for my collection and invite them all for a tea party.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Another culture

A few days after leaving the sci-fi/fantasy world of Convergence I plunged into yet another “world within a world”. I skated my Adult Bronze tests that qualify me for the Adult Nationals figure skating competition in Bloomington, Minnesota, next spring.

No torn fishnet stocking or flowing wizard capes here. I saw more blue velvet and silver sequins. The hairstyles were less diverse as well. Everyone with hair longer than her chin wore a ponytail since hair in the face gets in the way of jumps and spins. No visible tattoos or body piercings. Figure skating judges tend to come from a generation that frowns on that kind of thing.

The hang-loose attitude of a crowd of gamers having a good time was missing in the silent, near-empty arena where judges sat with their clipboards, writing neat comments and scores that would determine whether or not I passed or needed to ‘retry’ the test at a later date. (There are no failures in skating, only the need to 'retry'.)

I passed—even though I found out twenty-four hours earlier that the rules have changed and the Preliminary moves-in-the-field test that I took years ago did not qualify me to take the new Adult Bronze Freestyle test. I tend to be obsessive/compulsive and have run through a version of those moves every warm up since 2003. So I had an hour lesson on Wednesday afternoon and tested in the evening. I even earned a few extra tenths of a point for ‘grade of execution’ before taking my sit spin all the way to the ice and having to ‘retry’ it.

After more than ten years, my family still stands politely on the outside of this skating world, wondering what on earth gets me up before dawn to skate around a chilly arena, obsessively practicing tricks that have no use in the ‘real world’ off-ice. There is certainly no Olympics in this old lady’s future. Those outside a world don’t share its values or partake of its worldview.

I participate in several other ‘worlds’—the world of children’s writers, the world of international missions, even my evangelical subculture. Each has its own customs, core values and standards that seem obscure to those outside.

What worlds do you move in that others in the mainstream culture might miss?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Cross-cultural in the USA

In case you haven’t noticed from this blog or my books, I am interested in different cultures—another time (Glastonbury Tor), another place (The Wooden Ox, Beads and Braids), another world in the midst of the familiar mainstream culture (Crossovers, my unpublished skating novel.) This weekend I plunged into yet another cross-cultural experience when I went with my daughter and family to Convergence—a convention of four thousand (4000!) science fiction and fantasy fans at the Sheridan South hotel in Bloomington, Minnesota. I was there primarily as nanny to watch my grandchildren when my daughter and her husband were otherwise involved, and to attend some of the panels on writing for this genre.

From Thursday night until Sunday, geeks and gamers, many in full costume, transformed the hotel into one giant party. There were role-playing games, computer and board games, discussion panels, mock battles with nerf swords, and two 24-hour movie rooms, not to mention three floors of themed parties around the pool area at night. I wasn’t surprised to see Klingons and members of the Star Ship Enterprise crew walking around. The samarai and kimona-clad tea servers came out of the Japanese anime tradition. There were gray-haired women in long wizard cloaks or butterfly wings, and a whole classroom of Hogwart’s students and professors. I hadn’t expected the large number in costumes from the Industrial Revolution, most with tears, burns or dirt smeared on them.

“It’s called ‘Steam Punk’,” my daughter explained. “The idea is the innovative experiment gone wrong.” (Think Sean Connery and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.)

My daughter and her friends run an election campaign of candidates you don’t want to see in office. Last year Batman’s archenemy the Joker won over Vizzini (Princess Bride) and Senator Palpatine (Star Wars) in a race that would have had Al Franken and Norm Coleman in court for months. This year it was Dr. Evil (Austen Powers film series), Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) and Dr. Horrible. If you have heard of the last, you are officially a geek. Forget TV and movies. Dr. Horrible is the beloved villain of three fifteen-minute internet segments of singing video blog (known as 'vlog' to initiates, and yes, I said SINGING video blog.) There were at least five versions of Dr. Horrible walking around ‘Con’, and he won in a landslide. Next year the committee plans to go with at least two female candidates. How about Cruela deVille, the Wicked Witch of the West and Sarah Palin?

Sunday morning I attended a panel called “Using Spiritual Gifts in Writing.” I had a feeling it would not be based on Saint Paul. The panelists were a pagan, a Scientologist, an Orthodox Jew who wrote a book of horror stories from the Bible (think Jael and the tent peg in Judges 4), and Taylor Kent, aka the Fandom Snark. When he introduced himself as someone who had converted to Christianity a few years ago, I had something specific to pray for.

For three days I ate bagels, raw broccoli and M&Ms and stood in line like a homeless person for an inch or so of soup in the bottom of a Styrofoam cup. (Geeks don’t eat; they graze.) I saw way more tattoos and boobs than I needed. But I had some good conversations with my daughter’s friends, and even prayed with a woman who had just lost her job. I do not feel “called” to a new ministry with the sci-fi/fantasy community, but I haven’t felt more culturally stretched since attending a rural Mozambican wedding. And I am very glad that God has his people there like Taylor Kent.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

So what is J. S. Bach writing these days?

I have long lamented the lack of time for all the things I would like to do. I once took Betty Edward's Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain onto the hills of Mpumulunga and spent enough time to know that I didn't have the patience. But photography! If I had another lifetime... If I could take pictures like the ones in National Geographic...

I was somewhat disappointed when our daughter did not go into architectural conservation and restoration since it is a field that has long fascinated me. I will be refinishing an antique dresser in the next couple weeks (if it ever stops raining), and a friend has assured me that reupholstering is "easy." There are quilts and calligraphy, wood carving and cabinetry, all skills I would love to pursue, not to mention all the books I haven't read and story ideas I would like to develop. Don't get me started on what I would do on the ice if I had the time and money to skate every day and take multiple lessons per week. If only reincarnation were true, I might have the time to develop a different skill in each lifetime.

A couple years ago it hit me like a speeding semi that God is Creator. Duh. What I mean is that it is part of his basic character. He created me in his image. Why do I assume that all that will end in eternity? God can't change who he is. Surely creativity will go on.

Last night I finished reading Andy Crouch's Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling. This evening I plan to start again at the beginning. There is too much meat for one reading. This book belongs on my shelf next to the writing books and Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water. It is about culture defining the limits of what is, and is not, possible, and about changing culture through circles of influence that start as small as two or three creative people thinking and acting together. Even the founders of MySpace couldn't guarantee the impact it would have on society. But as they created and their friends caught their enthusiasm and told their friends, the world has changed. As Christians, we want to change the world, but changes always start small with people in community thinking beyond their horizons of possibility. Culture Making maintains that creativity is a ministry as divine as preaching. Crouch tells us to examine whatever we are doing and ask, is this good enough for the New Jerusalem?

Long ago I asked the Lord to make my room in heaven a two-story paneled library with a fireplace, a teapot, and French windows opening onto a garden terrace. One of these days in eternity, I'm going to ask him to freeze over that Crystal Sea in front of his throne and let us do an ice show for his glory to the live music of Michael W. Smith and the heavenly choirs. Maybe my resurrected body will even be able to do a triple Axel. Who needs reincarnation when you have all of eternity to plumb the depths of his gift of creativity?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Handling Feedback--Try It; You'll Like It

The hardest suggestions to take on my writing are the ones that call for major rewrites. Often they mean abandoning favorite passages or whole themes. They take lots of time and may reshape the story in ways I'm not sure I want to go. My first reaction may well be "No way, Jose." Those are the times when I put the manuscript in the proverbial drawer (these days that's a computer file) and sit on it. I come back to it when my emotions are not so raw.

Years ago there was an Alka-seltzer commercial that started out with someone being encouraged to try some new food. "Try it; you'll like it!" Of course, the result was a need for Alka-seltzer. But that isn't always the case. When I first began showing The Wooden Ox to readers, one woman suggested I start on page 9. I had already cut two chapters of "essential" background information about the war, and I was sure I needed all that was left. I tried a rewrite starting on page 7, but the woman was right. When I started on page 9, it wasn't hard to work in the little from the earlier pages that was really essential to the story.

This is when I love the computer most. I don't have to abandon my original material. If the change affects the whole manuscript, I save the draft and make changes in a new one. If it only affects one scene, I take out the scene and save it as "unused [keyword]." Then it is always there to come back to. Starting a new draft on the computer gives me the freedom to experiment, knowing the original is still there if I decide I really do like it better. Most often, I don't. As in starting on page 9, the change really does make a better story.

More often than I like to think, I write excitedly but then stop believing in the story. Readers know it isn't working. I know it isn't working. It sits in my computer file as it sits in the back of my mind. One day I may pull it out and rework it. Or it may just be a bad idea, not strong enough to sustain interest.

So Kersten, this is how I handle my struggles with feedback. I sit on them for a while. Then I save my original and try the changes, taking into account how much the source knows about the industry. The stories we believe in are worth making better. May you grow in your writing and keep faith in your story.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Handling Feedback--Note the Source

"What do you do when you start struggling with feedback you've received?" my friend asked. If I believe in my story, I will use suggestions to make it better.

There are some reader suggestions that I reject outright. I am good at grammar, thanks to my eighth-grade English teacher. When a reader puts in commas that don't need to be there or changes all the condition-contrary-to-fact subjunctives to indicatives, I ignore it. (Although sometimes I am driven to my Writer's Digest Grammar Desk Reference to be sure.)

When it comes to suggestions of word choice or sentence structure that I'm not sure I like, I usually make the changes. I figure I am going to be back over this manuscript so many times that if the suggestion doesn't feel natural to me, I can always change it later to something that does, but I'll give it a try.

Then there are what my husband would call No-way,-Jose! suggestions--the ones that make your eyes pop and leave you speechless. You can't react if you ever want honest feedback in the future. I make a mental note even if I don't actually write the change into the manuscript. If another reader comments on that same passage, obviously something has to be done even if not exactly what the reader suggested.

The comments of an editor of the publishing house that has given me a contract on the book carry more weight than those of my neighbor. But even the neighbor's feedback matters because he represents readers. If one reader says the manuscript got slow around chapter 5, others might put the book down at that point and never come back to it (and never tell their friends what a good book it is, never give it as a gift, and never recommend that anyone buy it....) And just because the editor makes a suggestion doesn't mean you are stuck with it. Someone at the publishing house wanted to begin So That's What God is Like with "Once there was a little boy named Temba who lived in South Africa." I called them up and said, "NO WAY, JOSE!" (politely, of course.)

Feedback from a prospective publisher is especially valuable. First, it is seldom given since they are so busy. Second, following their suggestions may make a difference in the response of the next publisher you approach--or even gain you a second look with the first.

Next week we'll look at the major changes I DON'T want to make.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Handling Feedback--Believe in Your Story

A friend taking a writing class recently asked, "What do you do when you start struggling with feedback you've received?" As I get used to a new critique group--people I'm just getting to know, whose writing I am not yet familiar with--it is a question I am looking at as well.

A writer has to balance two concepts: the need to believe in herself and her story, and the fact that if she doesn’t listen, she won’t grow as a writer.

I do my best writing when I feel passionate about something—like the novel my agent is currently trying to place about an African figure skater whose parents have HIV/AIDS. It’s a good book. HIV doesn’t happen in isolation. It interrupts lives with dreams and goals that have nothing to do with this insipid disease. It drags down those who aren’t even infected, and sometimes infects them too. And it can happen to anyone.

“American’s won’t buy a sad book about a girl in Africa,” says one publisher.

“It’s a hopeful book!” I say in return. “It’s really happening. Americans need to know before it is too late.”

The publisher worries that he won’t sell enough books to cover the cost of production, but I believe in my story so I don’t give up. I have never been one to look at current trends and come up with a gimmick that will sell. My agent and I try another publisher. At the same time, I ask myself, “What can I do to make the book so good, they CAN’T say no?”

It is a good book, but I know it could be better. That’s why I ask readers to give me feedback. “I loved it! I think it’s so wonderful you're doing this!” may be encouraging, but it’s not helpful. “It gets kind of slow about chapter 5. I didn’t understand what you meant in this paragraph. What if you made one of the skating coaches American?” Those comments may be less encouraging, but they are more useful.

It’s easy to handle feedback when my response is, “Oh, yeah! Why didn’t I think of that?” It’s a bit harder when I like what I wrote and I don’t want to change it. But then if I refuse to change, why did I show it to the reader in the first place? Was I just hoping for positive strokes--someone to praise my writing and make me feel good about a book the publishers aren’t jumping to invest in? If I believe in myself and my story, I want to make it as good as it can be.

Next week we'll look at the specific ways this writer handles suggestions.

Friday, May 29, 2009

More than Christian Bobbsey Twins

Sometime in the mid 1990s when I attended one of my first writers' conferences, the speaker in the children's track made a statement something like, "Christian children's books are now every bit as well-written as those found in the secular market."

My mouth fell open, and I had to bite my tongue not to ask, "What books are you reading, lady?"

To be fair, modern books for children in the Christian market are better written than the expanded evangelistic tracts that passed for fiction in my childhood. And the series books that filled the children's shelves of Christian bookstores in the 1990s probably were as well written as their secular counterparts. But Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins aren't exactly the highest standards of literature.

In 1999 the Christy Award was set up to honor the best in Christian fiction in a variety of categories. In 2007 the first award for a young adult novel was given to Cathy Gohlke for William Henry is a Fine Name (Moody).

Christian literature for children and young adults has indeed come a long way. This year's Christy finalists include I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires (Moody), Gohlke's sequel to William Henry; The Fruit of My Lipstick (Faithwords) by Shelly Adina; and On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness (Waterbrook) by Andrew Petersen. The Newberry Award given by the American Library Association has been criticized for honoring only one type of book--introspective coming-of-age stories. These titles show that the Christy is at least looking at a broad range of styles.

I Have Seen Him in the Watchfires
, like William Henry is a Fine Name, is a "Newberry-type" book. Set during the American Civil War, it paints a powerful picture of tattered relationships and the painful results of hard choices. It is beautifully written with memorable characters and a plot that keeps you turning the pages to the tragic end. Robert is older now and must take his faith beyond salvation to full surrender. This traditional religious metaphor is given new power in the context of the devastation of war.

In contrast, Gillian Chang, protagonist of The Fruit of My Lipstick, is a brainy, twenty-first century student in a posh San Francisco boarding school. Strong voice is one of the first things a mainstream acquisitions editor looks for, and Gillian's voice bubbles over with enthusiasm and modern idioms. Her problems are typical teenage insecurities and the desire for a boyfriend. Readers will soon recognize, even though Gillian does not, that the boy in question is a jerk. Issues of emotional abuse are illustrated, but not explored in the depth expected in a secular novel. The tone stays light and centered on the mystery of who is selling exam answers carried by instant messaging between buyers and seller.

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness
represents the fantasy genre of YA fiction made so popular by Harry Potter. Andrew Petersen, a gifted singer and song writer, has an incredible imagination. His place names, personal names and invented creatures are creative and highly amusing. He has a good story to tell in which all is not as it seems, but the telling feels disjointed to me. He jumps from one point-of-view character to another. (Some of them are adults, which is strongly discouraged in mainstream writing for children.) The tension of one event is allowed to drop instead of building on it with inevitable results. I am a great lover of fantasy, but in my opinion this talented writer needs to spend more time polishing his craft.

None of these books will be short-listed for the most prestigious secular awards, but they are all miles ahead of the Christian Bobbsey Twins that have dominated Christian juvenile publishing for so many years. We need to request them in our public libraries, get them for our church libraries, and buy them for our grandchildren--anything to convince Christian booksellers and publishers that the market can sustain more than a safe read without explicit sex and crude language.

Watchfires has been classed by some libraries as adult fiction, no doubt because it includes rape and incest, although not graphically described or inappropriate to showing the real horrors of one person being treated as the property of another. The book will be enjoyed as much by adults as by young people. It would unquestionably be my choice for the Christy Award. But the question is, would it be the choice of teens? After all, they are the ones we want to impact with our writing.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Value of Children’s Literature for Twenty-first Century Africa

[Someone recently asked me for a copy of this article, originally published in Today in Africa magazine, February 2005. I thought others might be interested in the motivation behind my work reading with African children.]

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. ” Jesus used stories to make his point--The Good Samaritan, the Lost Sheep, The Prodigal Son. The story of the Good Samaritan takes six verses in Luke chapter ten. Six verses. And yet you can never look at strangers in quite the same way as you did before you heard it. Story has power.

Think of the role of traditional story telling in African culture. Stories are the way we pass on our values, our thinking about relationships and what is important in life, what kind of behavior is, or is not, acceptable. But story telling is declining in modern Africa. What will we give our children in its place? Television? Will we let their values be formed by MTV, cartoons and American shows with ‘attitude’? Providing our children with good books gives them an opportunity to see that the world has more to offer that the consumer goods and self-serving behaviors they see on the screen.

African children need stories about children like them—children who live in the townships, children going to school with a mixture of culture groups, children caught between the traditional world of their grandparents and modern urban Africa. A story about an adopted Canadian child will show a North American setting, and the value of being chosen and loved may well be missed by an African AIDS orphan in an adopted home.

Not all books for African children should be problem stories about the loss of dignity under apartheid or families torn apart by HIV disease. African children need stories that reflect the joy of the created world around them or that help them to laugh at life and the silly things people do.

Stories ask “what if.” They allow a child to get inside someone else’s skin. What if I lived in Soweto and my best friend had HIV disease? What if I lived in KwaZuluNatal and couldn’t go to school because I didn’t have a uniform? What if I lived in Zimbabwe and my family had a chance to own a piece of land? Or what if I lived in Zimbabwe and my family was being kicked off the land where we had lived for generations?

Story lets us see the world as other people see it. The point-of-view of a white child whose family farm is being broken up for settlement is completely different from the point-of-view of a black child whose family is getting their own land for the first time. What if these two children knew each other? What if they became friends and each had to deal with the pain and joys of the other’s life? That would make a good story.

Stories allow the child to ask ‘what if I did something I have been told not to do?’ In a story, a child can consider the consequences of stealing, of disrespecting elders, of putting his own desires ahead of God’s law. The story characters are stand-ins for the child himself, making bad decisions, taking risks, failing and growing. The reader learns through the story character’s mistakes without engaging in risky behavior himself. But be warned: Agenda driven stories with built-in moral lessons don’t ring true. Children see right through them as adult lies designed to manipulate them. The most effective stories wrestle seriously with questions and allow the child to discover truth rather than have the right answer handed to him.

Even when a story is made up—fiction—it can be true in other ways. My own novel, The Wooden Ox, is a made-up story about a family kidnapped by rebels during the Mozambican civil war of the 1980s. But everything in it happened to someone during those years, and the principle that God can be trusted even when you are tempted to doubt is true in the real world. Reading such stories aloud and talking about them as a group is a way of discussing issues without accusing anyone and making them feel defensive.

Not all books are fiction. There are stories of the lives of great men and women; there are stories of how the nations came to be; there are stories of how things work, both in nature and mechanics. These are called non-fiction. A lover of books is a lover of learning. The earlier we expose children to good books, the greater will be their love of learning. Laurence Darmani, author of four volumes of Stories from Africa, points out that children become readers when they see that the important adults in their lives, whether parents or others, value reading.

The development of African children’s literature has practical values. African children are growing up in a modern world where those who can’t read will be left behind. Reading is a skill that takes practice. The more you read, the more comfortable reading becomes and the better able you are to take on advanced study and jobs that require facility with written words and instructions. More interesting books that children want to read can result in better reading skills and greater success in confronting the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Democracy depends on informed citizens who can read the newspapers comfortably, getting multiple sides to issues and forming opinions about events that are happening outside their local community. Reading habits are formed in childhood. A strong literature for children will help to shape a strong democracy.

Good readers learn to use language effectively. Words communicate ideas that are much bigger than the letters on a page. The Nelson Mandelas and Martin Luther King, Juniors of the next generation--those who know how to make us see possibilities with the words they choose--will impact the way others think and feel, and change our world.

Books don’t require batteries or expensive equipment. Once children acquire the basic skills of reading, they don’t need the presence of a teacher for learning to go on. Books can bring learning to the most remote location.

Public libraries are a good way of sharing limited resources. Reading rooms can be effective if lending books is not practical in the local culture. The first children’s reading room in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, had 40,000 uses it’s first year.

Why spend our limited resources on books for children? Childhood is the time when character and habits are formed. Now is the time to create readers who will be life-long learners. The stories that are planted in their minds in the early years will shape the way they think of themselves and their world for a lifetime. They will bare fruit in time to come. “Train a child in the way he should go,” King Solomon said, “and when he is old he will not turn from it. ” When we invest in good books for children, we invest in the future of our communities.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Gaining Perspective

My husband had his gall bladder removed this week. He spent an evening in emergency a couple weeks ago in Madison, Wisconsin, halfway between home and board meetings in Chicago. Gall bladder symptoms look a lot like heart attack and within two minutes of walking into a local clinic they had him in an ambulance, dissolving nitroglycerin under his tongue.

He had had a similar attack the previous night after I served him waffles and sausage for breakfast, grilled brat-worst for lunch and pot roast with Yorkshire pudding and gravy for supper to welcome him home from his latest overseas trip. (This is the man who collects countries-in-which-he-has-eaten-pizza. Current count? 78) He got up long after jet-lag should have knocked him out and sat in front of a TV ball game I had recorded while he was gone. He would have liked to throw up and be done with it. I got up and made him mint and rosemary tea.

"I'll be fine," he said. "There's nothing you can do. Go back to bed."

I brought him a cup of tea and didn't mention our friend reading in bed while her husband died of congestive heart failure in front of the TV minutes after assuring her he was fine.

Eventually the emergency room doctors in Madison determined Steve was not having a heart attack, or other life-threatening problems and sent him on his way with instructions to see his family doctor. Due to my commitments in Indianapolis, he lived on oatmeal, un-buttered pancakes, grilled chicken and dry toast for a week before that could happen. They brought him a lovely vegetable platter at my $60-a-plate awards dinner.

Last Sunday I participated in the Race for a Cure with my daughter, grandchildren and a group of friends. For us it was less a race and more an amble among the strollers, wagons and 50,000 other people raising money to fight breast cancer. All around me were little groups with names like "Treasure Chests" or "Angie's Angels". They walked in celebration of a survivor (wearing a special pink T-shirt) or in memory of a loved one gone. Each of those 50,000 people had a story to tell. My cousin's daughter is fighting breast cancer right now. Her grandmother is a survivor.

Our pastor friend, Don Gerig, is blogging his journey with a brain tumor. A colleague from Africa recently retired to Australia only to find she has advanced pancreatic cancer. It all puts gall bladder surgery in perspective. In the future Steve may have to be a little more careful about the quantity of pizza he consumes.