Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Downton Abbey and the Dramatically Shifting Roles of Women

[spoiler alert – I do make some references to season 4 for those who are behind on the series]

I am equally fascinated by the upstairs and downstairs ladies of Downton Abbey. I adore Lady Mary and identify with the steadfast, loyal Anna (perhaps because I have a bit of a crush on Mr. Bates). I sigh over Edith’s personal tragedies and cheer for Isobel Crawley’s plucky (if somewhat naive) spirit. I smile at downtrodden Daisy and admire the restless, compassionate spirit of Sybil. And where would the show be without the Dowager Countess – the delightfully grumpy matriarch with her sharp, witty tongue?

The writers of the PBS series Downton Abbey have created an array of fascinating and complex female characters, perhaps the best array of female characters I have seen for a long time on television. They face personal trials and a changing world. They fight and stick together.  They challenge and change and grow and stretch. They make mistakes and pick themselves back up. They fail and try again.

The show reaches into different generations and across economic situations. We meet women at the lowest ranks like Ethel Parks, the maid gone wild who bears a child out of wedlock. Out of a job and dumped mercilessly by the father, she is left to support her little one in any way she can. She is not an admirable character, but even the coldest heart cannot feel completely unsympathetic toward her plight. In that time, and even sometimes now, there was no place for women in her situation. There future was a downward spiral. Even in the show, her only real solution is to give up the child.

It was in Isobel Crawley, Matthew’s mom, that I saw, again and again, the changing attitude of women toward their own gender and their role in society. Women decided that it was time, past time, for them to get involved – to help others – to change the world for the better. The show portrays this in the upper-middle class Crawley and in the privileged daughter of the estate, Sybil.

As the war begins, neither woman can stand by and watch. They feel they must do something – anything – to help. Sybil trains as a nurse. She wants to “do something!”  Isobel urges the opening of the Downton estate as a refuge for recovering soldiers. Her maid, catching the spirit, opens the Crawley home as a soup kitchen for the returning wounded and poor. The generous and impulsive spirit of these women breaks tradition and pushes social boundaries.

In Lady Edith, we see the spark of need for women to have their voices heard. Up until that time, women voted by influencing their husbands’ opinions. To speak aloud, to voice one’s personal and political opinions, was really unheard of. But Edith begins to write, first a letter to the editor and then a column. Her position in society opens doors, and it would not be long before women became political journalists and commentators.  It would not be long before they earned the right to vote. These women changed who we are today.

People have had mixed emotions about Lady Edith’s unwanted pregnancy in Season 4, perhaps an even stronger reaction than they did over Ethel's similar predicament. I was surprised that some thought it inappropriate for the time period. After all, her struggle on whether or not to keep a child born out of wedlock is as old as time. The burden, it seems, generally falls to the mother and her company of women. Notice how influenced Edith is by her grandmother and aunt. Their opinions weigh heaviest on her heart.

As someone who just finished writing about women in turn-of-the-century America, I find it fascinating to learn a bit about their English counterparts who lived during the same time period.

Across the pond and even the globe, we are a shared womanhood indeed, fighting similar struggles, learning difficult lessons, and working to articulate an honest voice, to do our part.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Girls and Books - My Childhood Favorites

I was a voracious reader as a little girl. I remember visiting the Thornton Public Library each week and working my way through first the young reader and then young adult sections. Finally, the librarian gave up and let me start checking out adult books, guiding me to some great choices.

Characters, specifically female characters, became my best friends. I immersed myself in their lives. I loved their courage, their feisty personalities, and their dramatic situations. They could do anything! Through books, I was able to do have adventures that were just not possible in real life.

Cracking open a "new" library book, with that oh-so-distinct library smell, was one of my favorite things to do.

Here are my favorite childhood heroines - maybe you can add your own?

Laura Ingalls Wilder

The books were classics, with the television series beginning in March 1974. I found out recently that the books, based on the true stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, were actually co-authored by her daughter Rose. They rearranged some events to make a more appealing timeline for the story. Spunky Laura followed her pioneer parents out of the big woods and across the plains. They encountered hardship as they forded creeks and lost their dog. Pa got stuck in a blizzard. Laura faced off and then befriended Native Americans. And she was satisfied with the smallest things - an orange and a shiny penny in her stocking for Christmas. I loved that she wouldn't take any grief from bullies and spoke her mind. That is why Laura tops my list.

Anne Shirley

Her eloquence astounded me. She would speak in long, beautiful, prosaic sentences. She had a bosom buddy. She was an orphan, but had an air about her that belonged to the aristocracy. Anne also got herself into predicaments, like when she accidentally served raspberry cordial to her best buddy Dianna and ended up getting her drunk in the afternoon. But, Anne had a true heart, and never let her cursed red hair get her down.

Nancy Drew

I wanted to be Nancy Drew. I would knock on the paneled walls of my 1960s suburban home and search for mystery. I loved her sweaters, plaid skirts and sensible loafers. I loved her friends Bess and George. To be a girl with such freedom! Nancy's dad had complete confidence in the teen letting her go on mysterious jobs with her own car and some good advice. They have computer games now for Nancy Drew mysteries, and they transport me back to my childhood obsession with all things mystery.

Cherry Ames

These were a more obscure series of mystery novels with a nurse as the main character. Cherry Ames was a nurse with crisp white uniforms and a "rosy complexion." There were 27 books in the series, published between 1943 and 1968. Many of the books were set during and after the war. Said one reader, "She was modern. She taught you that you could do anything. She was smart, and she was courageous, and she had a dedication to her calling. She would never, ever leave the side of her patients, even in a bombing raid." 

Mrs. Mike

My transition to adult-level reading began with one book - a thick, old-looking, hard cover book titled Mrs. Mike. It told the tale of a woman who married a Canadian Mountie and moved north with him into the wilderness. She was very brave - and did all sorts of things her proper upbringing could never have imagined. I remember, specifically, an amputation scene that sent chills up my spine. The book was realistic and inspiring. I was reminded that life could be very difficult, but that we can rise to the challenge when needed.

I'm sure there are many more. But these women molded my young mind and heart. They are books I've shared with my own daughter. What are your favorites?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

When Sorrow is Our Story

“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 1:21

This plaintive message, without explanation, was left by a popular Christian radio host on her Facebook page. The next day, I learned that Janet Parshall and her husband were grieving the loss of their son due to complications from cancer.

Later that same week, I received another heartbreaking social media message from one of my former students. Misty had been struggling for years with several miscarriages and then the death of her little Charlie. Now came another cruel life blow. She and her husband were losing their home and every single one of their earthly possessions due to an infestation of black toxic mold. To a young family, this felt like the final blow. Misty was sick. She was tired. She was grieving deep gut-wrenching loss.

“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” is so hard to say the second part.

Sometimes Christians can seem too perfectly happy. We create an illusion of satisfaction and fulfillment that becomes the subject of scorn and derision by those outside the faith.

Others begin to wonder, “Don’t they ever have a bad day? Don't they suffer defeat and desperation and grief and loss?”

These two women did. They dropped the facade. They pulled back the shade. They let us in. It’s not easy to do.

We want to be strong. We want to portray a steadfast faith – even in the face of desperation. But, I don’t think that is our calling.

In the days that followed, Janet and her husband left a message asking for prayer and expressing the deep sorrow they were facing in the home going of their son. In response, listeners left note after note saying they were praying and grieving alongside of the couple. Janet wrote, "When the pain overwhelms us, we are so cognizant that our 'brothers and sisters' are lifting us up in prayer."

The day after Misty’s plaintive Facebook lament, a quick-thinking friend set up a donation account on social media and funds and prayers and messages, even from complete strangers, came rushing in like a great tidal wave of comfort and support.

In their open grief and moments of weakness, they provided an opportunity for others to speak, and care, and give back. As one donor said, "Your story strengthens the body of Christ and joins us in unity."

I don’t think our personal story should always be centered on our ability to cope or put up a good front. It can also be found in our visible suffering. The times when we open our lives and reveal our pain are a part of our story – an important part.

We can’t hide it.

We all suffer.

And through that part of our story, in some mysterious and awe-inspiring way, God is revealed. Not a fake God full of puffed-up confidence and expecting perfection, but one who sent His Son to bear the weight of this sin-ravaged world.

The weight of child loss and toxic mold.

The burden of desperate cries and sleepless nights.

That’s the kind of story we need to tell. That’s the kind of Christianity that people are drawn to.

Even when our stories seem unspeakable: “blessed be the name of the Lord.”

If you are interested in donating to Misty's family, you can read more of their story and send a donation to help aid them in their time of distress at this address:

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A tribute to my friend Amy

Today is my friend Amy's birthday. She is no longer here with us - she is celebrating today in heaven.

 Last year, I received the stunning news that one of my long-lost college friends had died of a rare and aggressive form of ovarian cancer this past summer. At age 48, only a year older than me, she was far too young.

Amy and I attended Bible college together in the mid-1980s. We both loved writing and met in a fiction class. Together, we discovered and then adored Flannery O'Connor and her quirky dark depiction of the south. We attempted to write short stories of our own- and shared a fear of standing and reading them aloud in front of class.

When one of our creepier classmates stood and read his story that bordered on obscenity, we both averted our eyes - our shoulders shaking as we struggled to contain our nervous laughter.

Amy had dark, short, cropped hair and warm brown eyes. She had a pale complexion and a ready smile. She laughed easily - one of those people you meet and instantly feel you've known forever.

She was no only a year ahead of me in school, but she was also a bit ahead of me in the world of love. Amy had a very cool and interesting boyfriend named Eric. He was tall and lanky with a patch of white hair in the midst of the brown. They were inseparable. They would write their names together amyanderic, although it wasn't as corny or insufferable as that might sound. They just matched.

Amy tried to teach me how to cross-stitch. She was good at homey stuff like that - calligraphy, decorating, cooking. I wanted to learn to cross-stitch too, but I just didn't have the patience. Most of my projects ended up unfinished at the bottom of a drawer.

So -- since he was hanging out with Amy - Eric decided to cross-stitch as well. Pretty soon, some of his friends tried it too. And, before you knew it, his entire dorm floor of guys were stitching away like a bunch of crazy quilting church ladies.

When Eric decided to propose, he cross-stitched the question and put it in a frame for Amy. I know it became one of her favorite treasures.

In the years after college, Amy and I lost touch. She went on to work for a Christian magazine - I headed to grad school. Then we began lives as wives and moms - and I let the onslaught of those years create a distance. There was nothing wrong between us - we just didn't see each other. But, I always figured that when we both had time, we would get together again and pick up where we left off. It would be that easy.

How would I know that tragedy would take her from me - from all of us - far too soon?

Last year, her husband Eric and I got together to catch up. We shared tears - and he showed me photos of their kids. They have four - two boys and two girls. They are perfect - just as unique and creative and individual as their parents. They love music and reading and the arts. Her daughters have her smile.

C.S. Lewis once said, "Why love if losing hurts so much?" How right he is. Yet, even Lewis finally concluded that both loving and losing are an integral part of this life.

I will miss you, Amy. They say heaven's gain is our loss. May it be a quick and temporary loss, my dear friend. We count the days until we can see you again. Thank you for adding sunlight, sweetness, creativity and love to our lives.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

When the Road Before You Seems Unclear

This week, I talked to two women facing unclear futures.

One was a student in her senior year of college. She asked for prayer on Twitter. When we talked in person the next day, she confessed that her unknown future was spiraling her into panic.

 “I’ve always known what lies ahead,” she explained. “Now I don’t.”

My other friend confessed over lunch that she had too many different options ahead of her – equally compelling and frightening. She had returned to college as an adult and pursued her degree while raising children, commuting, and even helping arrange her daughter’s wedding. She had been crazy busy. Now that she had finally graduated, she was looking ahead to what was next. More school? Work? The choices were bewildering.

I can relate so well because I have been there. I always preferred to have a plan, a road map for my future. I liked being in school and knowing what my next assignment would be. I like looking forward to specific events, the planning. I’m motivated by the anticipation of a set future.

What scares me the most is when my personal road map is uncertain. The fuzziness scares me.

Last year, as I anticipated a change in my 16-year career and even a possible out-of-state move, I felt frozen by my uncertain future. It is at those times that I am most compelled to pray. I would pray to God as I drove the 20-minutes to my commuter train station.

My prayers were disjointed, breathy, even desperate.

“Show me what to do next.”
 “Help me see what is best.”
 “Can you just give me answers?”
 “I need a plan, now!”

I was impatient to know what was next. I hated moving forward blindly. It made me feel out of control. But the truth was, and is, I am not in control.

One of my favorite Bible passages is Psalm 32:7,8, “You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance. I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you.” That verse has been a tremendous comfort to me during times of uncertainty. It says that when I am scared, I do not need to rely on my own strength or capability. But, neither do I need to cower in fear. I can hide in God and go to Him as my source of protection and deliverance (vs. 7).

He is enough. The reason that God can be our source of comfort (really the only true source!) is found in verse 8. God is instructing me and teaching me in the way I should go. He knows already. He is guiding me. I just have to wait, be patient and follow. The other wonderful part of this verse is that God knows me and my specific situation.

He sees my worried heart. He knows our secret longings. He is working in our lives to order our steps. He will not let us do this alone.

 God knows our future, even when we don’t.

And that, my dear friends, is enough. It is more than enough.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

To my Beautiful Mom on her Birthday

My mom, me, and my sister Julie in our favorite vacation spot, Door County, Wisconsin.

It is my mom's birthday today. She is in sunny Florida, and I am in snowy Chicago. But, no matter how many miles may be between us, she is near to my heart. And that is not just a cliche. I have always been adored my mom.

Growing up, my mom seemed invincible. She and my dad were both school teachers. I loved to visit her classroom to help decorate or stamp papers or cut out construction paper letters, and watch her bustle around the empty classroom. Her students adored her. She would set up her classroom in such an inviting way that they loved coming to special education class. Some of them would even try to fake a learning disability just to be with Mrs. Storms. She had creative reward systems that motivated them. She cared about each one personally. For many years of her career, she taught at a private school, Glenwood School for Boys. Many of the boys came from difficult backgrounds and my mom became a sort of mother to them as well.

Two brothers who were in my mom's Glenwood class, Vito and Joe Delcore. Their family was originally from Italy, and their mother, who didn't speak a great deal of English, had just recently moved to the United States. She was so grateful for my mom's care for her sons that she baked and sent a lasagna meal to the school for her class. It was the most delicious Italian meal I have ever eaten, and the two brothers shone with pride at getting to feed their beloved teacher.

My mom was always the center of fun. She moved fast, had a positive attitude, and liked adventure. When we were little, we would have to do a little leap every few steps to keep up with her quick walking stride. But when mom went somewhere, we always wanted to go with because we knew something exciting would happen. Even an ordinary camping trip, with no electricity and freezing temperatures, turned into an adventure with my mom. After my dad burned off his eyebrows while attempting to light our gas camp stove, my mom hustled us into the station wagon and into the sleepy town to look for fun and heat.

We found a German bakery and a cozy restaurant where we watched the falling leaves and life didn't seem so bad after all. Later, snuggled into our chilly camper beneath piles of blankets and sleeping bags, I knew I wouldn't trade my family for anything.

My mom has walked through good times and very hard times, staying steady in her faith and positive in her spirit. She has always put us kids first, and always given so much love to our family.

I hope you know, mom, how much we all adore you.

Happy Birthday!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

A Thankful Heart

On this snowy, Chicago, Saturday morning, sitting at my kitchen table and still wearing my fuzzy bathrobe, my heart is filled with gratitude for all of the people who made publishing my first book a reality. On this day of my book release, I just want to say that I am tremendously thankful for all of you who helped make this little dream of mine a reality.

First, to each of these eight women – Fanny, Emma, Evangeline, Amanda, Nettie, Sarah, Virginia, and Mary - this book is about them and because of them. I want the honor to land firmly at their feet, for they are the ones who walked the long and difficult road of faithful service. They have my utmost admiration. I hope, some day, to be just a bit like them.
Second, I am thankful for my Moody Publishers editor, Holly Kisly. She believed in this project from the start and understood how important it was to tell the next genreation of women these stories. My editor, Karen Waddles, made sure my ideas were clearly communicated and that I ideas I hadn't intended were removed. Pam Pugh, a detailed editor, found mistakes and corrected them. With a book this historical, there is a huge potential for error.

Many people contributed to my research, especially Dawn Pulgine, Allana Pierce, Nikki Tochalauski, Carol Forbes, and Amy Koehler. Your expertise made it possible for me to find the records I needed. Special thanks to my audience development manager, Rene Hanebutt, and her able student assistants who are sending the word out far and wide. Janis Backing is setting up publicity interviews. The illustrated cover art is by one of my former students, the gifted Jonathan Critcher, and my author photo is the work of my talented and generous dear friend, Jill Obermaier.

There are men and women at each of these organizations who continue to do God’s work today. Thank you for your assistance in this project, but most importantly for carrying on the rich legacy these women leave behind. The Salvation Army, The Pacific Garden Mission, The Moody Bible Institute, and Bethune-Cookman University and Foundation deserve our support and prayers.

Beyond those who were directly involved with the project are those who inspired me, both as a writer and as a woman. I would begin to list them, but I am fearful of leaving anyone out of this long, long list. You are my friends, my teachers, my mentors, my students, my colleagues. You have poured into my life in rich and lasting ways.

To my mom, thank you for bringing me to church so often that we needed to have our own key. Thank you for your example of teaching and loving students in need. Thank you to Julie for showing me how to keep hope and stay brave in the face of personal struggle. To each member of my family, each and every one of you, and to my husband, Milt, thank you for believing in me and for the love and laughter you bring to my life.

And finally, to my daughter, Sabrina Rose, I believe you are a great woman.  You have a true heart and incredible intelligence. I am honored to be your mom.

My name may be on the cover, but it's not about me.

To God be the glory, great things He has done!