Friday, December 15, 2017

December's Column--Fighting the Darkness Without and Within

Stoke the fires within to fight winter gloom

By Dorcas Smucker
Register-Guard columnist
DEC 10, 2017

When I get annoyed at green fields, I know it’s time to fight back against the darkness.

I love Oregon, really. As a long-ago transplant from the Midwest, I am still in awe at the wildness of the Pacific Coast and the impossible magnitude of the Cascades. I like the secure sense of living in a valley framed by mountain ranges, and I love that there are always new waterfalls to discover.

But I have never learned to like Oregon winters — neither the gloomy skies nor the listless rain that hangs around but seldom works up the energy for a good impressive storm nor the damp cold that somehow chills my bones like Minnesota never did. Things that ought not to be wet are constantly soaked and dripping — trees, grass, cars, roofs, even chickens venturing out of the coop. And the way moss and mold creep over anything that stands still for a season — that is almost scary.

Every fall, it seems for a short time that things are progressing properly, as nature intended. Harvested grass fields are bare, acorns fall, temperatures drop, leaves drift downward, and rose hips emerge bright and red from brown wild-rose bushes beside the road.

Then the autumn clouds move in like a gray army, bringing a chilling and smothering of spirits. The days grow shorter, compounded by the end of daylight-saving time that cuts back the evening light by an hour.

Just when I think the bare fields ought to be frozen and covered with snow, they suddenly turn a bright, garish green.

You’d think I would find it refreshing, that splash of color. Instead, I find it annoying, taunting me with the fact that nature is all mixed up here, and this soggy winter will go on and on, verging on the edge of both fall and spring, without ever getting snowy and frozen for more than a few days, if at all.

When I waste emotional energy on green fields, of all things — that’s the sign that the encroaching darkness and mold have reached my soul.

Whether it’s seasonal affective disorder or just an unreasonable grumpiness, I have learned, after 20-odd years, it’s best to resist.

Giving in is easy, sinking into a self-absorbed and pitiful cocoon until spring. Unchecked, it can become clinical depression. Fighting back is tough but ultimately worthwhile.

Simple daily disciplines always come first, such as taking vitamin D, limiting sugar in my diet and going outside during the day.

I also choose gratitude, a simple discipline of the heart. Thanksgiving comes at an opportune time, bringing feasting and deliberate counting of blessings just as the last soggy leaves fall and the days grow constantly shorter. The holiday compels me to see, again, all that I’ve been given. It may be 35 degrees with sleet outside, my least favorite weather of all, but inside I can set the thermostat to 75, if I please, and the furnace does my bidding. We celebrate with a huge turkey from WinCo, an array of side dishes and a dozen friends and family, and I don’t have the time or desire to feel sorry for myself.

My third strategy is planning ahead for easy and fun activities, such as having my neighbor and friend, Anita, over for tea and conversation. Five family members came in the door, rattled around the kitchen, and left again as we talked at the table one afternoon. “I like how you just decide to do this, and then you do it, even if people come and go all the time,” Anita said. “You don’t wait until things are perfect.”

Waiting for perfection, I’ve found, lets the winter gloom spread like moss on an abandoned shed. Scheduling coffee with the sisters-in-law, a Handel’s Messiah concert, or half a day of secondhand shopping is a powerful antidote, even if the timing is inconvenient or the weather turns out to be terrible.

Even something as small as a London Fog from Dutch Bros, sipped in a car with rain streaming over the windows, brings warmth, indulgence, and a gentle boost of hope.

Lastly, the most powerful pushback of all is generosity.

It’s not surprising that the winter solstice coincides with Christmas, when we celebrate the light and hope of Jesus, the gift to a dark world. Giving becomes a personal form of light as well, dispelling the inner shadows. Choosing gifts for friends and family makes me think of others and what they need and enjoy.

Almost every winter, I host a giveaway online. I invite my blog readers to nominate people who have had a difficult year, so I can mail them a free book. The emails land in my inbox and I sit there in tears, reading of cancer, sick babies, car crashes, spouses abandoning their families, and a dozen other incomprehensible tragedies.

A book of mine will never make everything better, but I like to think it will feel like a little shaft of comfort, showing that someone cares. It dispels the selfishness in my spirits as well, proving the truth of Jesus’ paradoxical statement: “Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over …”

Some years, my husband and I participate in the annual “cookie project” of Gospel Echoes Northwest, a ministry based in Tangent. We go to a state prison and distribute cookies and handmade Christmas cards to inmates. There is nothing else like it for transforming your perspective and making your daily world — in any sort of weather — feel like a paradise of freedom and opportunity.

I may never come to love an Oregon winter. But choosing discipline, gratitude, deliberate fun, and most of all, generosity, will effectively fight off the invading inner gloom.

Around our walnut tree, during the longest nights of the year, quiet but determined daffodils already are pushing up from the cold wet soil. The prophet Isaiah still calls, “Arise, shine, for your light has come.” And when the evening sun breaks out from behind the clouds and slants across a flagrantly green ryegrass field, it is truly a beautiful thing to see.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The Happy Sad Giveaway Project

This is the season of long nights and short days, and it is also the season of gloom in weather and spirit in Oregon.

...but rainbows help.

I've learned that I need to deliberately choose light, just to survive. Today, when the sun was shining in grand fashion and the sky was blue, I went on a walk and also sat on the porch with the sun full in my face.

I also try to choose light in my spirit. As I wrote in my column for this month, to be published on Sunday:

Giving becomes a personal form of light as well, dispelling the inner 
shadows. ...

Almost every winter, I host a giveaway online. I invite my blog readers 
to nominate people who have had a difficult year, so I can mail them a 
free book. The emails land in my inbox and I sit there in tears, reading 
of cancer, sick babies, terrible car crashes, spouses abandoning their 
families, and a dozen other incomprehensible tragedies.

A book of mine will never make everything better, but I like to think it 
will feel like a little shaft of comfort, showing that someone cares.  

Ok, so I sent that off yesterday, and in a lovely bit of timing and affirmation, I got this note today:

A little more than 4 years ago, we had just buried our 31 year old brother-in-law after he drowned and I was really struggling with knowing how to deal with the grief myself not to mention how to help our eight children. I remember so well the day your book came in the mail. It felt like a light was handed to me in the middle of a very dark tunnel. That certainly wasn't the end of the struggles but several things gave me hope-your delightful writing and the fact that someone cared about me.

I cried, of course. And decided it's for sure time to post this giveaway again.

I've decided to call this almost-annual event the Happy Sad Giveaway Project, because it is always the oddest mix of tragedy and joy.

As mentioned, I sit at the computer and weep as the emails and stories roll in, but it is glorious to know that this is a little tiny actual thing I can do, and the nominating, helpless, concerned friends can feel like they are doing something tangible as well.

It's also a way of showing my gratitude for the fact that people have been buying my new book, totally of their own volition! I always find that amazing.

This is how it works:

You write an email ( or a letter (31148 Substation Drive, Harrisburg, OR, 97446) and tell me about someone in your life who has had a rough year and who might be encouraged by a book from me. If you like, you can specify which book to send, or tell me which ones they already have.

You also tell me the person's name and address.

I reserve the right to decline. But if I feel this is a qualifying recipient, I mail them a book.

A few rules: I'll mail them only within the USA. You can nominate someone in another country only if you provide a US mailing address.

Sunlight Through Dusty Windows is not eligible.

You can't nominate yourself!

The deadline is December 20.

Also: don't count on this to arrive in time for Christmas, because I'm busy with other book orders and events, and also I use Media Mail, which is slow and unpredictable at this time of year--but also much less expensive.

A list of titles is right here

One, two, three, GO! And be blessed!

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Two Book Sales

Local people:

There are two book sales this week and I'd love to see you there.

The first is at the Register-Guard building on Chad Drive. It's on Thursday, Dec. 7, from 4 to 6 pm.

The second is in the Atrium at the Lane County Fairgrounds. It's on Saturday, Dec. 9, from 10 a.m to 5 pm.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Letter from Harrisburg: Old Friends

Old friendships are life’s priceless gems

By Dorcas Smucker
Register-Guard columnist
NOV. 12, 2017

"I've made new friends, but there’s nothing quite like old friends who know you and your family and your past,” a friend of mine said wistfully on a recent visit to Oregon, at a lunch in her honor.

I agree. Most friendships are only for a season of our lives, it seems, but once in a while we are given a friend who was there early and never really leaves.

My cousin Kay is that sort of lifelong friend. From childhood family reunions to living in the far North as young moms to random events since, our paths keep diverging and then unexpectedly connecting again. Recently, we met once again, at a church women’s retreat in Colorado, where Kay lives with her family and I was invited to speak.

The event organizer, on finding out that we were cousins and longtime friends, asked Kay to talk briefly at the end of the weekend about our shared history. She told of living in Kansas and seeing these Minnesota cousins when we came to visit our grandparents, sharing a duplex and a private code with me years later, late-night ice cream, and much more.

“Who would ever have thought?” we said afterwards. Her sisters and mine have lost touch, for the most part, but she and I keep showing up at the same place and time, as though this gift is meant to continue.

My first memory of Kay is when I was 7 or 8 years old, at a family wedding or funeral in Kansas. She and her sister walked in wearing little pastel-colored plastic barrettes in their hair. Our family was too Amish for anything fancier than bobby pins, and I sat on the backless benches and envied Kay and Cheryl those gorgeous pink and yellow barrettes shaped like bows and flowers.

Kay was my sister Rebecca’s age, Cheryl and I were a year younger, and the four of us had a kinship that went beyond our common Yoder genes. We were all dreadfully poor, for one thing, unlike our comfortable relatives. We all attended public schools, when most of our Amish and Mennonite friends went to church schools, and we shared a sense of humor.

So we wrote each other letters, because all Amish and Mennonite girls had penpals back then, and we had wild slumber parties with cousins in Iowa. Dutiful visits to aged Amish relatives in Kansas were brightened by the prospect of seeing Kay and Cheryl’s family. When the sisters attended a short-term Bible school in Minnesota, Rebecca and I drove four hours through a snowstorm, at night, to spend a weekend with them. I slept in Cheryl’s bunk and whispered with her so much the dorm mom came and shushed me.

Our paths diverged, and I never saw Cheryl after my grandma’s funeral. Oddly, it was Kay, who had always been more my sister’s buddy, who formed a lasting friendship with me.

In her talk at the women’s retreat, Kay recalled the period that bonded us most — the year spent living in a duplex at a remote residential school for Native American students in Canada. Kay and her husband, Gaylord, and son Dallas were on one side of the house, and Paul and I and our son Matthew were on the other, with a shared basement. There were no phones to connect us to the outside world, but each building or apartment had an ancient crank phone and a specific pattern of long and short rings, like our own Morse code. Two longs and a short for the girls’ dorm, for example. Everyone heard every ring, and anyone could listen to the conversations.

Kay and I came up with a ring tone of our own: five short rings meant “Meet in the basement.” The whole campus was mystified about this strange ring tone that wasn’t on the list we all taped beside our phones. Our secret worked until someone caught on. One evening the phone clattered with five short rings, and she and I headed to the basement where we both waited, confused, for the other to say what they wanted.

It was a year not only of chats in the basement but also of tragedy. In January, someone set fire to the generator shed that supplied power to the campus. Not long after, the students erupted in anger one night, breaking windows and assaulting and seriously injuring dorm supervisors and other staff.

We were 125 miles from police, fire and medical services. Kay and I and our babies huddled and prayed, and ever after had that unique friendship that comes from surviving something terrifying together.

Those incidents made us question our roles in the North, the Native culture, and most of all in the school. It led Paul and me to move to a reservation even further north, at the chief’s request, to help them establish a school so the older kids wouldn’t have to move far away to get an education.

Oddly, there in that frozen village, the one food we almost never got was ice cream. So on a visit to the mission headquarters, where Gaylord and Kay now lived, I confided my ice cream cravings and Kay decided I must have some. Late in the evening we drove to town. Dairy Queen was closed and so was McDonalds. Finally we went to Safeway and bought a pint of ice cream, but we forgot completely about spoons. We tore up the lid into makeshift scoops and sat in the car in the snowy parking lot in our winter coats, in the dark, eating out of the same pint of ice cream, laughing and talking.

Eventually we lived on the same side of a lake in Canada, and our growing children played together. Mine got the most vicious case of chicken pox I’ve ever seen. Kay brought her kids over to expose them, then set up an infirmary just like mine in her living room. But instead of our crew’s week of blistered skin and high fevers, her children got about a dozen pox apiece and kept on playing outside.

When we hit a moose one night and our van burned up, Kay gave me support and courage, and Gaylord loaded up the shell of the van and hauled it away.

Then we parted ways again.

Years later, Kay mentored and mothered our daughter Emily when she moved to Colorado’s dry climate to fight depression and a long-term illness.

Last week, I stayed in Colorado an extra day after the retreat to have time to talk with Kay. As always, she was so busy with a stream of people coming to her house that we had to go away in the car to be alone.

We didn’t get ice cream, this time. Instead, we drove around the countryside and she showed me where her married children live and where a mutual friend died in a car accident five years ago.

As always, we talked fast and intensely. We discussed our children’s choices that make us either proud or worried. We talked of husbands and history, grief and growth, memories and milestones. We discussed our creative hobbies and extravagant hopes for the future.

When one of us said, “If I had the chance, I would do things differently,” the other assured her that we all did the best we could with what we knew.

In a world of transience and change, I am thankful for old friends. They understand, without long explanations, who you are and where you came from. They have read the entire story of your life and seen you at your youngest and your worst, but have stayed with you anyhow. They have invested deeply in your children.

Best of all, whenever you meet, they fill you up once again with grace and sympathy and laughter.

Kay and me

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

On Hosting: A Thanksgiving Poem

I make my sister's dressing every year
"Aunt Becky's Yummy Stuffing" it is called,
So full of melted butter that I think
On any other day I'd be appalled.

I find "Joe-Katherine's" make-ahead potato
Directions in the blue Grove City book.
And for the best pecan pie to be had
In Bonner's Ferry Recipes I look.

Carrie Gingerich gave the recipe
For butterhorns with lots of eggs and yeast.
I mix a double batch of it because
We're feeding many at tomorrow's feast.

I thaw the corn that, as my mother taught me,
I cut from off the cob with sweeping strokes.
And Mrs. Habedank in Home Ec said
The fork goes on the left for proper folks.

Each year I gather family, friends, and strangers
To crowd around our table, long and wide
We laugh and talk and learn to know each other
And eat too much and maybe more beside.

Today I'm thankful for the gifted women
Who taught me all I know of cooking's art.
And special thanks to Mom for showing me
That hospitality comes from the heart.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Final Week of Blog Tour

The home stretch begins! Here are the final blog reviews and giveaways for Fragrant Whiffs of Joy.

Monday--Kendra at The Days of My Life.

Tuesday--Luci at Properties of Light.

Wednesday--Su at Born to Know Him.

Thursday--we put aside blog tours and focus on people and food and blessings

Friday--Shari at Confessions.

A very happy Thanksgiving to each of you.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Blog Tour Schedule for the Week

Here's the schedule for all the stops on the Fragrant Whiffs of Joy blog tour.

Everyone is doing a giveaway, and most are open for a few days, so if you missed a post you can go back and enter the giveaway a few days late.

These bloggers are worth reading, giveaway or not!

Monday, November 13: Rosina at Arabah Rejoice.
Christine at Shall Run and Not Be Weary.

Tuesday, Nov. 14: Jolynn at Then We Danced
Gina at Home Joys

Wednesday, Nov. 15: Tina at her author website, Author Tina Fehr.
Aurelia at Gravel Road Musings

Thursday, Nov. 16: Emily at EmilyMiller85
(Just one today!)

Friday, Nov. 17: Lydia Jo at Lydia Jo, the Blog
Bethany at About My Father's Business

Saturday, Nov. 18--Ruthie at The Blonde Bookworm
Dorcas at The Delightful Cottage

That's all for this week, but there are still more coming next week!

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Two New Stops on the Blog Tour

Today we visit Anita Yoder at Tis a Gift to Receive. She recalls the one time we met and had tea together, and made me wish we could do it again.

The second stop of the day is Mary Ann Kinsinger's A Joyful Chaos, in which my book has the honor of finding a home in her special cupboard.

Both of these women are authors and bloggers, so be sure to check out the good things they have to offer.

And don't forget the giveaways!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Friday's Blog Tour Stops

The Fragrant Whiffs of Joy blog tour and giveaways continue: 
We have two reviewers for Friday: Rosalyn Schlabach at All of a Kind Mom.

And Gertrude Slabach at My Windowsill.
Rosalyn does lots of book reviews, from the looks of her previous posts.
Gert is a fellow author and a mom of six young adults.
And a sneak peek at Saturday’s reviewers: Anita Yoder at Tis a Gift to Receive and Mary Ann Kinsinger from A Joyful Chaos.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

FWOJ Blog Tour: Rachel at Wildflower Days

The Fragrant Whiffs of Joy blog tour begins with Rachel at Wildflower Days.

I love how she gets exactly what I was trying to say.

Join in for the giveaway!