The Medal She Deserves

I’m often asked what gave me the idea for my new novel, Lifelines. My answer inevitably reveals that one of the characters, Anna Fawcett, is largely modelled after my mother. Yes, she really is that wonderful!

Some years ago, Chatelaine, a Canadian women’s magazine, published a cover article called “Women We Love.” It featured the achievements of about twelve Canadian women of all ages. On the cover was one of them – Margaret Trudeau, and how she has coped with and overcome bipolar disorder (two failed marriages) and there were others who had been advocates and fundraisers for one non-profit organization or another. One young actress with a young baby had visited Africa and nursed a malnourished African baby, thereby becoming an advocate for breastfeeding. I realize the magazine couldn’t begin to formally recognize all of the hidden and obscure women who have made an impact on the world and so were limited to those whose accomplishments were well-known. But I had my own “Woman I Love” to honour.

Dear Chatelaine;

I read with anticipation your piece on “Women We Love” only to be disappointed to find not one tribute to a wife and mother. How narrow your focus was, heaping accolades only upon those women whose achievements are overt, public or materially measurable . What a sad commentary on our feminine culture to discover, after all, that only certain choices in a woman’s life are valid worthy pursuits. In fact, the message seemed to be that only those pursuits which are not traditionally feminine are worthy of honour.

Let me tell of a woman I love. My mother, Anne Krahn, never went beyond high school, yet instilled in her children a love of poetry, grammar, history, nature and classical music. She knew nothing of “save the earth” environmentalism yet frugally recycled and reused for decades before it was fashionable.

Mom never sculpted but on the impressionable clay of children’s minds and hearts, never created great works of art except for the flowers and food that went to bereaved and suffering neighbours.

No speaker’s bureau ever recruited my mother yet she is the best motivational speaker we know. Through the years, family, friends and near-strangers have called to hear her encouragement. Her patient listening and wise, loving counsel have sustained many and I’m pretty sure, saved at least one life.

In 60 years she has never earned an income yet she leaves a priceless legacy of encouragement and unconditional love. Living all those years in a small Manitoba community, primarily caring for her husband and family appears insignificant by your standards but four children and their spouses, 17 grandchildren, 7 great grandchildren and many relatives, friends and neighbours know differently.

Her husband with tears calls her his treasure, her family blesses her and the community honours her. Her daughters and granddaughters aspire to be like her.

There is no adequate temporal reward for a lifetime of integrity, love, joy, peace, faith, humour, patience, humility and self-control. If there were, many would give it to my mom.

Photo of Mom

A very happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

(Details on Lifelines here: http://www.eleanorbertinauthor.com )

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Angry!

For such an affectionate, good-natured little boy he can sure get a mad on!

http://www.indigopixies.com/  (not my grandson)

My two-year-old grandson’s eyebrows slammed down onto eyes narrowed to mean slits. Face darkened with rage, his usually-smiling mouth tightened. He struggled in his mother’s arms, fierce and ferocious, yelling, “NO! I WON’T!!”

We were on vacation, visiting our beloved grandchildren last month when the memorable scene took place in their family’s living room.

The sheer force of will in one scrawny little body was astounding. And hilarious. I don’t think I’m inaccurate to say none of our seven children defied us outright like that. They tended more towards passive resistance or sneaky “apparent” compliance, which carried with it problems of its own. So this in-your-face toddler fury was a new thing to me and a sight to behold!  But a little alarming too. After all, if that temper weren’t dealt with, what might it look like at 16, or 25?

My daughter spoke into his ear, then left him and headed for the kitchen.Whatever she said to him, less than a minute later he bounced up, scampered after her and said in happy tones, “I changed my attitude!” And he really had. What followed was his usual friendly, cheerful obedience.

Oh, to be able to “Presto! Change-o!” like that!

I was reminded of that scene a couple of days after we’d returned home.

Three weeks before, we’d left the snow behind and enjoyed lovely spring weather for more than a week in Texas. We spent time as guests in 5 homes, some old, some new, but all were equipped with finished walls and real closets. All had counter-tops and cupboards and smooth, unsplintered floors.

On the way  home, we headed north again, returning to the land of winter-white. Most difficult for me, we came back to all the features of our ongoing renovation that the above contrasts reveal. I looked around, seeing the unfinished, the inadequate, the inconvenient, the unhidden-by-closet-doors… and despaired.

My pattern of depression is to allow negative thoughts (“realism,” I call it in those moments) to take over my mind and then feed the monster. Thoughts rush forward as fodder for the joy-devourer –

Not one room of my house is completely finished, after almost 13 years! It will never be finished! 

No other woman I know has to live in these conditions. Am I such an unworthy wife?

I don’t think I can stand this anymore.

And just to be sure I’m down for the count, I borrow from the past to make comparisons to young parents we visited.

I’m even a failure as a mother.

For hours, I rejected every prompt from God’s Spirit to be content and thankful.

“NO! I WON’T!!” my mind shouted. And suddenly I pictured myself as God saw me: my spirit scrunched up, fierce and ferocious, self-pitying, angry and tight.

It wasn’t Presto, Change-o. It took about a day and a half before I recognized what the Enemy of my soul was doing to me. But the memory of my grandson’s tantrum and his speedy recovery shamed me into a quicker restoration than would have happened years ago.

I prayed. I confessed my ugly ungratefulness. I repented. And I was free!

He changed my attitude!”

What a relief it was to return to a state of contentment, my spirit lighter and filled with joy.

“I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to … abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13)

 

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Awesome!

“Isn’t it egotistical for God to insist on people praising him? Is he so insecure that he has to hear compliments all the time?”

Atheists and faith-hostile television personalities have asked these and similar questions in recent years. Answering the question by saying, “God created us for His glory” only begs the question. I’ve wondered, myself, about lines of scripture that command us to:

“Praise the LORD! Praise, O servants of the LORD, Praise the name of the LORD!”

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photo by Monsieur

Watching the snow silently cover my world in the past week, coating every branch and bough and softening the stark winter landscape into a puffy white fairyland, I had a moment. One of those chest-swelling sensations that fills you with wonder and marvel and inexplicable joy. I’ve experienced such moments many times before. The extravagant brush-strokes of neon splendour in a lush and wild prairie sunrise. The softer-than-warm-air skin of a newborn, that when you kiss his cheek, makes you wonder if your lips have made contact. Hoar frost twinkling and dazzling in the pink light of a winter’s dusk. All these make my heart-strings begin to play the Hallelujah Chorus.

I’m not alone in that response.

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Magnificent photos of the Pillars of Creation, “three giant columns of cold gas bathed in the scorching ultraviolet light from a cluster of young, massive stars in a small region of the Eagle Nebula, or M16” elicit the same reaction. Every single viewer’s comment in the long list of replies was one of awe, marvel, wonder. It’s the most natural and fitting response. Most left a simple, “Beautiful!” But one comment resonated with me.

“Sometimes I encounter such beautiful images that it’s so overwhelming and makes me want to cry at the beauty and awe of such a sight. This is one of them.”

Pioneer photographer, Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley who created the first photograph of a snow crystal on January 15, 1885 experienced such a moment too. It took years of practice combining the new technology of photography with microscopy, learning to handle the snow crystal quickly and efficiently before it could melt away, getting enough light on the subject and adjusting the camera’s aperture for a sharp image.

“The day that I developed the first negative made by this method and found it good, I felt almost like falling on my knees beside that apparatus and worshipping it. It was the greatest moment of my life,” Bentley said.

Symmetry, intricacy, beauty, grandeur — these evidences of a creative power so far beyond ourselves call for songs of loudest praise. That’s why it’s not unseemly for the Creator of it all to urge us to engage in worship (“worth ship”). He is entirely worthy of our honour and praise.

To think that “The LORD [who] is high above all nations, His glory above the heavens… humbles Himself to behold the things that are in the heavens and in the earth” (Psalm 113) by entering His own creation produces another of those moments of heart-stopping, trembling awe.

“Glory to God in the highest!”

 

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The Mess of Productivity

This was my kitchen table last week.

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Yeah, I tidied it up a bit for the picture. But it sure was messy. I’m working on Christmas gifts and a quilting project using my dad’s old ties. There are interview notes for a news story I was working on, preparations for a women’s Bible study I lead, papers to bring to a Toastmasters meeting and government business to attend to.

Back in the days when all our kids were still at home, it used to get far worse — heaped with schoolwork, baby toys, sewing, business papers, LEGO, crumbs…

A proverb from the Bible brought me contentment in those days with the way things so often looked, and it did when I read it again the day I took this photo. “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.” (Prov. 14:4)

The idea here is that a lot more farming can be accomplished with oxen, but that growth comes at a price — animals need to be fed and watered, housed, trained and protected.

Back then, I had plenty of mess and responsibility, but I also had plenty of oxen (children) so more could be accomplished. All that growth and productivity doesn’t come without mess, both material mess and emotional, relational mess. But eventually, something new, improved, home-grown rises out of all the detritus. From the messy table of yesteryear have grown our adult children who bring us joy and make it all worthwhile. And from last week’s messy table?

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Princess dresses for my twin granddaughters to play in.

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The Down and Dirty on my Homeschooling Career

Today I’m being interviewed by fellow home educator and fellow writer, Loretta Bouillon, https://lorettabouillon.wordpress.com/  about my 25 years of homeschooling.

Her questions took me on a trip down memory lane complete with a load of emotional baggage. There’s so much I could have said but, I mean, it’s a blog post. Not a 3-volume epic trilogy.

I’d love to know how some of you would have answered these questions…

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How to Write a Novel in a Gazillion Easy Steps

“What if…” That’s the question that’s the gleam in the eye of a writer when they begin writing a novel.

“What if renowned atheist Richard Dawkins lived next door to my mother?”

That was the question that popped into my mind as I read Lee Strobel’s book The Case for a Creator back in the summer of 2009. I wrote a page and a half of what I thought would be a short story… and left it.

Ideas kept coming, however.

  • What if the atheist professor had a shameful secret in his past?
  • What kind of influence does one solitary, loving, consistent Christian have in this world?
  • What is the value of human life, especially when that life has some disability?

Other story threads began to weave themselves into a plot that expanded beyond short story length:

  • a teacher in a crisis pregnancy
  • a character patterned after my own son with Down Syndrome (what actually does go on in the minds of people with mental disabilities?)
  • unique and colourful neighbourhood characters who are impacted by a simple woman who lives biblically.

I’d wanted to write a book since 1971 when I optimistically numbered a stack of pages 1 – 100. (I filled seven of those pages. Years later as I was reading a pioneer story to our kids, I was horrified to recognize what I had written as a child sounded an awful lot like that book I read to them!)

 

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Now here it was in my mind — a novel! All I had to do was write it down. How hard could it be? I’d read books that left me thinking, “I could do better than that.” On my way to publishing this book, I learned a few things.

  • Novels are much harder to write than you think. Pacing (the order and timing at which things happen in the novel) is really difficult to get right. Consistency is another critical thing — you can’t, as one astute reader of an early version of my manuscript noticed, have a character buying salt ‘n vinegar chips only to crunch down on nachos a paragraph later.
  • The book you read in a couple of days, the writer has sweated over for years, composing, revising, dreaming about, rearranging, proofreading, editing..
  • A novel is an invitation to join the writer in a journey to an imaginary world. The author knows and has lived with these characters intimately for a long time before introducing them to you via a book.
  • When writers talk about their characters not behaving as they’re supposed to, or the plot taking turns unplanned by the author, it’s not just an affectation. It really happens. Weird. My main character misbehaved early on. I found it almost impossible for me to write for a long period of time directly from the perspective of a super-antagonistic atheist. So I redirected that system of thought to a lesser character and made my main character more of a searcher-of-ideas.
  • Truth is stranger than fiction. Real life people are so interesting and many-faceted that no author could make them up. The fiction disclaimer you see in the front of novels (“This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.”) is quite true. But it’s also true that the characters in the novel are composites of real people — a sort of cobbling together of many life experiences and stories all bound together by the plot in the author’s imagination.
  • Those typos and little inconsistencies you notice as you read? They’re nothing compared to the mess it started out as. Everyone needs an editor!
  • Best places to write? At the public swimming pool while waiting for my son. In the guest room I shared with my youngest son at my daughter’s house, after a day spent with my twin granddaughters. In both those cases, I was away from home, without its demands or responsibilities. And the “white noise” of water or snoring seemed to help block out distractions.
  • A patient, encouraging husband is a wonderful thing. He was the one who heard my wails of despair when the word count seemed too small, and cries of joy when it grew by leaps and bounds. And I’ve lost count of the many times he heard me say, “It’s finally done,” only to hear my pen scratching away in the night when a new idea struck me.

Well, it really is done now. Once the cover art is complete, my novel, Lifelines, will be on its way to typesetting and publication. It should be coming out in the new year. I plan to add contact information to my blog, but if you’re interested in reading the book, leave a comment with your email address and I can let you know when it’s ready to order.

 

 

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Renovations: The House, The Heart, The Blog

Much like my life, this blog has morphed into something unexpected.

When our youngest son was born with Down syndrome in 1997, I remember thinking, “we are not going to become a Down syndrome family.” What I meant by that is that I didn’t want the disability of one of our seven children to define and describe all of us. I was resisting a label not of my choosing, much like someone whose expectation had been lifelong marriage would resist the label “divorced.” I was bucking the idea that I was not in control.

But in the 18 years since then, I’ve learned that I most certainly am not in control – neither of my life nor of the lives of any of those in my family: God is. He uses the experiences of life to influence and form us. Taken together and over a lifetime, they do define us and describe us.

Now a different kind of curve ball has begun to define me and my family. We’re “the ones whose teenage son was killed in a hit-and-run accident.” I’m aware of this less from the comments people of our community make than by the careful avoidance of that topic even though they know, and I know they know.

This blog was begun, as I’ve written before, to chronicle the renovation of our old house and the lessons in contentment God has taught me through it. For many months I made no mention in my posts of the tragic death of our son. That was because it didn’t fit the light-hearted approach I took to the struggles of living amidst a major remodelling.

But the posts I’ve finally written about Paul’s death and the subsequent court case are  the ones most read. I don’t really know why that is. Perhaps the deepest fear parents have — loss of a child — prompts them to read about it in someone else’s life. I can understand that. To be forewarned is to be forearmed, my mother used to say. Yet, to me, it felt somehow self-serving (“look how much I’ve suffered”) or opportunistic (“read all about my son’s death so I can get a blog following”) to broadcast such tender vulnerability.

I’ve come to see that labels and categorization are great on your spice shelf, and not so helpful to define life. So I’m changing the subheading of my blog to better reflect what God is really about in my life: Renovating my home and heart.

I’ll be trying to show the progress we make on windows and walls, without avoiding mention of the deeper trials and tears.

The latest — exterior siding — Yea! (The areas left undone await a verandah roof and the bandboards under the eaves. Next summer’s work

Please don’t think me callous and flippant if one post is on our new exterior siding, and the next one deals with aspects of grieving! Cause that’s just how life is, right?

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