About this time last year, I learned that my sweet Mini Australian Shepherd, Tippy, had osteosarcoma in her left knee. This sent me on a journey in which hope, grief, change, and love have intermingled, and ended with the soon-to-be publication of A Good Community.
Now, I’m sure some of you might be thinking, “Your dog died. Big deal. It’s only a dog.” Those who have pets know otherwise. When you share a home with an animal you and the animal bond. You have a relationship with them, and when something bad happens to them, you feel bad. It’s as simple as that.
Let me also add that I’m no stranger to that intermingling of grief, hope, change, and love on the human level, too. It would be weird if I weren’t. After all, I’m cruising into my elder years. But I had a particularly big dose of grief during from 2004 through 2006. My dad died in January of 2004, my mom followed him in August 2005, and finally, I lost my first dog, a blond terrier mix named Gremlin, in April of 2006.
That big wave of loss moved me to seek emotional shelter. I left the position I had in a local congregation. Working in ministry is emotionally and spiritually demanding and I just couldn’t balance that with all that loss. I did, though, keep my other job as Media Coordinator at the Greater NJ Annual Conference and returned to Fairleigh Dickinson University as an adjunct professor in the Core Studies Department. Both of those position demanded less emotional and spiritual energy of me, something I badly needed at that time.
Six months after Gremlin died, I made another change: I adopted Tippy. You see, a friend of a friend had agreed to adopt two puppies from a breeder who suddenly found that both of her females had become pregnant. The plan was only to breed one female. Obviously, the stud had gone above and beyond in his job description!
I had told my friend that I wanted to wait six months and then look for another dog. She saw the availability of these puppies as coming at the right time. And so, I became a dog mama once again.
But things continued to be topsy-turvy from 2006-2008. Raising a puppy involved house training and keeping Tippy from chewing up pencils, not to mention eating the skirt on my couch and anything else she could get her teeth on (she was a power-chewer) was a challenge. I took her for training at Pet Smart. Although labeled as the “ADHD Dog,” because she would start barking whenever she got bored, which was after about a minute, Tippy graduated from basic and intermediate training classes. I have the photos of her with her graduation mortar board hat to prove it.
Then, in 2008, I learned that the woman who owned the house in which I was living wanted to rent it for a more money to help boost her income. Boom! – I began looking for another position in a congregation, one that this time would put me closer to my guy, Dan.
And that is when I came to work at First United Methodist in Somerville, NJ, move into the parsonage they provide for the Assistant Minister, and live only a half-hour away from Dan. I’ve been at First UMC for the last eleven years.
Everything rolled along well until Tippy had her diagnosis. It was followed by an amputation of her left leg and, after a discussion with the oncological vet, we decided to give her chemotherapy because the cancer seemed contained to her knee. However, the vet warned me that if one or two cells managed to sneak through, we would see the cancer metastasize. Tippy had just turned twelve and was otherwise healthy, so we started the chemo treatment.
That dog rocked the chemo. Animals don’t have the same reaction as humans, probably because of the drug dosages, but also because they’re just not human. There was no hair loss, for example. But what really amazed me was that Tippy did not experience any nausea or lethargy. And this gave me a reason to hope.
But when her chemo ended this year in April, and when we had her three-week follow up and radiological exam, it showed otherwise. The cancer was in her ribs now. And, within a couple of weeks, I could see the disease was progressing, that Tippy was in pain, despite the medication, and so I made the tough decision with which all too many pet owners are familiar: I decided to euthanize her. Anyone who has done this will tell you that it is heart-wrenching. You know you’re doing it because there’s nothing else you can do and because the animal is in pain and does not understand why. On the other hand, you’re killing your beloved pet. It’s tough, even if it is “only a dog or a cat or a guinea pig.”
So what’s this got to do with my new book?
Not surprisingly, the emotional roller coaster ride had an effect on my writing, not to mention other aspects of my life. As far as A Good Community is involved, the past year slowed my writing process way down. It’s amazing I finished the book at all! But in a way, writing also gave me a chance to focus on something else. Holding the print proof in my hand yesterday gave me an honest to goodness sense of accomplishment.
The past year has been rough. For one, I totally neglected my health for ten months. For another, I often found myself sobbing helplessly when I was alone. And yeah, I still miss Tippy, even though I since have adopted a shelter dog: a two-year-old coonhound-beagle mix named Vida, who is an absolute joy. Here’s a weird side note. If Tippy was sweet, Vida is even sweeter. The shelter attendant who suggested that I take Vida for a walk knew what she was doing. She knew a good match when she saw one. Apparently, so did God.
The habit of writing, a homeless dog, great friends, a terrific family, a gradual return to routine, and faith that God walks with us through the difficult times (even though we may not be aware of it) has seen me through.
This latest life change has birthed a new book that continues Maggie’s story and connects the issues of the 1860s with those of today. For me, the new book also symbolizes this new chapter in my life. Interestingly, at the end of A Good Community, Maggie finds herself stepping into a life change, too.
Is art imitating life here? Maybe. But I think it more correctly might be a case of art reflecting life. As I move forward, so does Maggie.
Thanks for reading this little rumination, friends.
See you next week.
Image from Pxhere.com
It’s been a tough couple of weeks with regard to getting my new book out there. I had planned to print and distribute through IngramSpark, but things just didn’t work out in a manner that worked well for me. No recriminations. Choosing a company to print and distribute is rather like finding someone to date. The other person can be perfectly nice, but somehow just doesn’t click with you. That was the case for me when it came to IngramSpark.
So now I’m back at Lulu, which has done all my print books, anyway. (Note: I put eBooks out on Kindle. Sometimes you can’t fight City Hall, which in this case is Amazon). The good news of making the change is that I’ve ordered a print proof from Lulu and as soon as I get it and approve it, A Good Community will be out in print form. I will release the Kindle version at the same time.
As I’ve said before, indie authors need to “do it all” when it comes to getting their work out there. It’s frustrating and chaotic at times, but I suspect that most of us would write regardless of our ability to publish our work. We do it out of love. Anything that follows is gravy.
Now for the second thing.
Let’s talk about Maggie.
In the new book, we once again find her trying to do the right thing – and once again it gets her in trouble. But that’s the problem with doing the right thing. First, it isn’t easy. Second, it doesn’t always lead to popularity. In fact, it probably will lead to the opposite reaction.
And yet, throughout literature of all kinds, including literature found in the Bible, the theme of “the right thing” crops up again and again. Let me go a little theological on you. Currently I’m leading a study based on the late Rachel Held Evans’ book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. By the way, this is a great book if you cannot accept a “literal” interpretation of biblical literature but sense that it must be inspired or important to the point that it won’t leave you alone. Something I read the other day in the chapter on resistance really struck me.
Sadly, I can’t give you Evans’ direct quote about love, because I helpfully left the book at the church office, but in one chapter, she says something like this: the most radical act of resistance that one can do to upend the soul-stealing, life-quenching, greedy excesses created powerful and wealthy forces (i.e., the Empire) is to practice love. In short, Jesus presented his followers with a model of God’s intention for Creation that stands in direct opposition to the Powers running the world. This kind of resistance leads us to love others (including our enemies), practice mercy and kindness, create justice, practice generosity, and all other activities that lead to life and health.
Jesus’ approach to life is what my character Maggie wholeheartedly accepts and strives to embody in her own. And because she does this openly, it puts her at odds with the attitudes and practices of her time.
Like us, Maggie lives in a difficult, confusing, and violent era and, to be candid, I use her to explore how we might practice love today. It should surprise no one when I say that the issues of 1860s America are still at large in our time. I believe these things are still with us mainly because we only dealt cosmetically with them, rather than making the difficult, deep changes required for love to flourish.
So, although I make my stories entertaining, they have another level in them, one that I hope challenges readers to go out and, as Maggie might put it, “strive to live by the law of Love.”
Have a good weekend. And, please, do something out of love, too. One small thing might make a world of difference.
My little experiment of writing a short story for Halloween and posting it as a serial, was interesting, if not a bit exhausting. Doing a quick, lightly edited and revised story was a demanding and scary activity. Not sure it was the best thing I’ve ever written, but when I dare to read it in the coming months, I’m sure I can polish it and bring it up to snuff.
Unlike “All Hallows Eve,” the upcoming Saint Maggie novel, A Good Community, has had a lot of thought and a great deal of writing, as well as revision and beta reader commentary. One reader said family matters had forced her to stop reading in the middle of the second to last chapter, and she was itching to get back to see how it all turned out. That’s always a hopeful sign!
The book will be printed through IngramSpark. Sadly, I hit a slight roadblock in getting a paperback proof copy. Eproofs are all right if you’re dealing with an ebook, but for a paperback, I like to see the cover and interior just to make sure everything is okay. So, if I can get that fixed and get my hands on a hard copy, the book should be available within a month.
In the meantime, here’s what the front and back cover, and spine will look like. Thank you, Erin Vieth Brochu of Vieth Design!
As for the blurb, I’ve written it out below, so you don’t have to mess with stretching the image.
Maggie Beatty Blaine Smith is a woman with a big heart. She used to run a rooming house and happily welcomed “down on their luck” boarders. Maggie also is a white woman who lives and works with her friends Nate and Emily Johnson, who are black. Because the boarding house had been located next to Blaineton’s town square, the people living in there were clearly visible, meaning that the town folk wrinkled their noses at Maggie’s establishment and labeled her as an eccentric do-gooder.
But now it is 1864. The members of her household have become more prosperous and they all have moved to the edge of Blaineton and into the spacious confines of Greybeal House. And Maggie is free to pursue her loving, welcoming lifestyle without having to face the town’s disapproval.
So, when Mary and Addie, two orphaned girls of color, show up, Maggie and Emily take them in without a thought. Upon learning that the girls need an education, the two women decide to enroll them in the Blaineton School, only to discover there’s a problem: the school no longer takes black pupils. Worse yet, the only other educational option for children of color has been closed down.
Maggie and Emily quickly come up with a solution: start a privately funded school not just for Mary and Addie, but for all of Blaineton’s black children, one that will be far away from prying eyes. But word soon begins to spread about the school, talk morphs into resentment and anger, and things rapidly spin out of control. When controversy finally threatens to blow Blaineton apart, Maggie is called upon to unite the town.
Obviously, I’m looking forward to the book’s release. While the subject matter is about racial and social justice, there is plenty of character interaction, humor, and nineteenth-century ambiance to pull you along, as well as the aforementioned “how’s this all going to end” dynamic.
I’ll let you know more about the release date as soon as I can. In the meantime, if you like my stories and novels, please tell your friends, buy a copy or two as a holiday present, and drop a review over on Amazon, since their analytics are set so that books with only a few reviews disappear into the ether – something which seems to have happened to mine. Reviews do matter.
It’s not easy being an indie author. Basically we have to do everything from writing, to making sure we get the thing edited, to printing, marketing and publicity. I do all this while working at a “real” job as an assistant pastor. Of course, it is the kind of job that follows me home and won’t stay nicely in the church – but I knew that going into my calling.
The point is, a number of my author friends are working and writing at the same time, too. I don’t think any of us expect to become fabulously wealthy from it. That seems to be something reserved for those who are already fabulously wealthy and famous who happen to write books. Rather, we do it because we love telling stories. To borrow a little theological terminology, writing is a calling. It’s something we do out of love and dedication, and because we can’t help it. After all, if we don’t write, the ideas and storylines will build up inside us and – BANG! – we’ll explode and make a nasty mess all over the place.
Okay. The part about exploding isn’t true. Although, as my sister has told me time and again, she believes I will go crazy if I don’t write. And I guess she knows me better than anyone else. So perhaps we can say authors write to stay mentally and emotionally in balance. It’s how we deal with the stuff life throws at us.
So, given all of the above, if you know any indie authors, please give them a little love. They will appreciate it, believe me.
I’ll be back in a few days, now that I’ve recovered sufficiently from churning out a quick short story over Halloween week.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder