For Mom, on her birthday …
My mom has always been an enthusiastic, talented decorator. As a child growing up, I watched her fill our home with beauty and color, a palette of brightness, yet soothing and always homey and comfortable. And she did it over and over and over again. With no formal training in interior design, she nonetheless incorporated into our home new styles, new designs, a blend of contemporary and antique, patterns with flowers, stripes, plaids, fabrics of all kinds, and lots and lots of color. She has genius and magic.
I’m not sure where she got all her talent because Grandma’s little house in the country seemed to have the once-hung-always-hung decorating principle. The oriental pictures Uncle Charlie brought from overseas remained above Grandma’s couch from my childhood through adulthood, as did the circular mirror beside the front door, as did the silhouette portraits in the hallway. Their familiar furniture was unchanging, Grandma’s chair near the kitchen and Grandpa’s recliner in front of the TV. Oh, Grandma put up holiday decorations for Christmas and even little pilgrim candles at Thanksgiving and tacked a cardboard bunny on the fridge at Easter, but her major gifts were more along the feeding of the multitude than fabric swatches and paint samples. Her furniture and pictures stayed put.
I started to realize that Mom had bona fide skills in beautifying the decor of every room in a house when we moved from our small home on Garver Drive to the big two-story house on Tillotson Avenue. I was six years old and to my young eyes, the new house was huge and dark and every room seemed to be gray with imposing heavy furniture. It was rather scary and menacing. I didn’t want to move from our light, safe, cheerful little home. But for Mom: wow, so much to do! So many possibilities! She had a decorating vision for each room: the kitchen, the dining room, the living room, the den, the two bathrooms, the four bedrooms, even the full basement. Her goal was to turn that big intimidating house into a welcoming, peaceful home. And she did!
Mom was a budget decorator. As a stay-at-home mother raising four kids on a coach’s salary, she was an expert at finding bargains and sale shopping. Except for the couch, Dad’s La-Z-Boy and our beds, none of our furnishings were bought in furniture or department stores. Instead, she and her friend Mac often went “junking,” traipsing around to old junk and thrift shops, coming home with treasures of walnut and oak and mahogany – chairs, chests, bureaus, but especially washstands and old picture frames. These objects usually had about a half dozen layers of paint that Mom would strip off to reveal charming and valuable craftsmanship. The restorations and transformations were dramatic. I’d watch her perform this magical removal as I sat on the basement steps. “Don’t you ever do this,” she admonished as she peeled away the colored layers with a piece of broken glass. She was very careful. She was brave.
This was the conundrum, however. Some furniture Mom stripped and stained, and some she painted. At one time our living room was furnished with beautifully restored antiques, while our kitchen table was surrounded with orange (yes, orange) chairs, and the dining room had aquamarine blue table and chairs (and buffet!). It was a fact: our home was original, nothing pedestrian or ordinary about it.
When Mom couldn’t find something at a good price, she improvised. She was innovative, clever, creative, and resourceful. Mom made curtains, hemmed drapes, sewed together throw pillows – all on the same Singer sewing machine she got the year she married Dad in 1953. So clever was Mom that for our summer trip from Indiana to Texas she even made curtains to hang in the back windows of our Ford station wagon! Purely functional, mind you, to keep out the sun, but also quite charming. I can tell you, our vehicle was clearly identifiable in every camping ground.
If I were to guess, I’d say our kitchen and maybe the bathrooms had at least seven or eight layers of wallpaper by the time we moved. Mom could have been hired as a professional wallpaper hanger. Although she did enjoy a decorating challenge, she once hired a professional to hang new striped wallpaper on the stairway walls because she thought she couldn’t do it. When all was said and done, however, she ended up showing him how to do it and completed the job herself. Never underestimate the power of a determined decorator. I watched him shake his head in amazement that she had showed him a thing or two. “I don’t think you should pay me,” he muttered.
Mom’s skills weren’t limited to sewing curtains, painting and wallpapering; she also dabbled in upholstery and even caned a small rocking chair. Well, almost. She finished the seat but not the back. Good effort though. She painted walls and furniture like some women painted their fingernails. She rearranged furniture in every room in the house so often that we kids (and Dad) didn’t dare enter a darkened room for fear of tripping over newly placed couches or washstands. She had an eye for picture and art placement on walls, she arranged fresh and silk flowers and knew instinctively what looked best where. Symmetry could be suitable, but anything in groups of threes was also appealing. She was an artist.
Throughout the 26 years living in the Tillotson house, Mom decorated, redecorated, and re-redecorated every room, even remodeling to create new rooms that she could decorate and redecorate. Dad didn’t seem to mind all the changes and helped with major projects, as long as at the end of the day he knew where his “king’s” chair was located. Mom provided the vision, Dad provided the labor (for the most part) and together they torn down walls to join a walk-in closet with the smallest bedroom; they remodeled the garage into a family room; they turned the den into another bedroom so each of us kids had our own room.
But no one in our family (except Mom and Dad) had a bedroom-for-life; in our household it was more like musical bedrooms. For a time, I had a lavender room across from the upstairs bathroom, then I had a hot pink and chartreuse room at the end of the hall, then I had the small bedroom-joined closet, then finally, home from college I had the downstairs bedroom/office. Actually, all that bedroom-moving gave Mom more occasions to paint walls, make curtains, and hunt for the perfect bedspread. And when my sister or I had a dream for a “perfect” bedroom, Mom was there with added imagination and ingenuity. She even allowed the boys their unique decorating fingerprint: a gigantic poster of Walter Payton in one bedroom and an orange shag bedspread in another. Sometimes Mom just shut their doors.
As a kid, I thought everyone’s mom could do what mine did, but I soon discovered that many of my friends’ moms had severe decorating deficiencies. Not that their homes were drab, but there was often a sameness to them. My friends often marveled that rooms in our house were constantly being changed and rearranged. Their observations and comments hinted at jealousy.
Throughout my entire childhood, our always-decorated home provided an environment of cheerfulness and ease for our whole family and our friends and our neighbors. Everyone loved coming to our home because it was beautiful, comfy and cozy, pleasant and relaxed, and rich with love. Mom did more than decorate our home with design and paint; she gave us all color and texture, beauty and value. By surrounding us with change, she improved us, enhanced us, restored us.
She decorated our lives. And still does.
To Think of All
To think of all He chose to leave
Shekinah glory, His Father’s face,
To walk as man and bring to us
Amazing love, His Father’s grace.
To think of what He came to do
Becoming weak to make us strong
To heal the sick and raise the dead,
To give us our salvation song.
To think of all that He endured
His lowly birth, a human frame,
To bridge the gap our sin had made
Redemption came, in Jesus’ name.
To think of all that was to be
His tortured death, His sacrifice
He shed His blood, He took our shame
To grant to us eternal life.
To think that He was God’s own Son
The perfect gift, the very best
His is the birth that matters most
We now know joy, we now are blessed.
– Jama Kehoe Bigger
On Thanksgiving night, I was in my bed, cozy and thankful, my tummy still full of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and wild rice. As I thought about the calendar turning to December and the Advent season, I asked God how I could share these four weeks of Advent with my four grandchildren (and with you!). He said to my heart, “Share your favorite Bible verses with them.” So, that’s what I’m doing.
Advent is the period of four Sundays and weeks before Christmas and means ‘Coming’ in Latin. This is the coming of Jesus into the world. I wanted to use the four Sundays and weeks of Advent to share my love for each grandchild (and for you!) and help us remember the real meaning of Christmas. God’s LOVE coming to us in Jesus. Advent is a time of expectant waiting, knowing fully the amazing gift God is about to deliver and yet, at the same time, a period of slowing down to savor the season. It’s an opportunity to set aside special moments to fully experience the joy and the miracle of Christmas, to focus on Christ’s birth.
These are my special moments for my four grandchildren: Advent “messages”:
December 3. Week One: You are strong.
You can do all things through Christ, who strengthens you. Philippians 4:13
The joy of the Lord is your strength. Nehemiah 8:10
Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Ephesians 6:10
The Lord is your strength and your shield; your heart trusts in him, and he helps you. Psalm 28:7
December 10. Week Two: You believe.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may overflow with hope. Romans 15:13
You believe in him. You are filled with a joy that cannot be explained. And that joy is full of glory. 1 Peter 1:8
Jesus said to him. “All things are possible for the one who believes.” Mark 9:23
The Scriptures tell us that no one who believes in Christ will ever be disappointed. Romans 10:11
December 17. Week Three: You are prayed for (by Jobu!)
This is my prayer for you: that your love will grow more and more. Philippians 1:9
I haven’t stop praying for you, asking God to give you a wise mind and spirit. Colossians 1:9
I know your soul is doing well and I pray that you are doing fine in every way. 3 John 2
I can’t stop thanking God for you, every time I pray, I think of you and give thanks. Ephesians 1:15
December 24. Week Four: You are loved. (by God!)
God says, “I have loved you with a love that lasts forever. I have kept on loving you with a kindness that never fails. Jeremiah 31:3
God’s love has been poured into your heart through the Holy Spirit who has been given to you. Romans 5:5
But God is rich in mercy, and he loves you very much. Ephesians 2:4
Lord, show your love to us as we puts our hope in you. Psalm 33:22
As I cherish each of my dear grandchildren, may they (and YOU!) cherish these Advents messages with scriptures which I so cherish.
<clears throat and announces> today is World Gratitude Day.
Life can be hard. I know.
But I also know this: the more we practice gratitude in the face of fear, adversity, loss and disappointment, the more we increase our capacity for joy, even bolstering our immune system and boosting resilience. Seriously. There have been studies!
And when our expectations collide with reality, gratitude can protect us from stress and even depression and help us create a new way of seeing, being and living.
Gratitude makes us nicer, more trusting, more social, and more appreciative. As a result, it helps us to be healthier, to make more friends, and to deepen our existing relationships.
And for me, it’s in the Bible: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Yes, life is still good and there can still be gratitude, even when difficult stuff happens.
After years of leaning into gratitude, I know I’ve only scratched the surface of this powerful principle. I realize my pursuit of gratitude isn’t an accident, as much as preparation for what has come my way during these last few years. Preparing to see me through – because when it comes to the struggles of life, we need gratitude to be our companion.
We all have own challenges and difficult days. Yet, even in my darkest days, my instinct is to feel grateful for the things that I do have and for the things that are going well. I let gratitude be the doorway to hope; once hopeful, I find strength and the will to take one small step that moves me to better and easier times.
Because this is what happens:
Words of gratitude lift us above circumstance.
Sometimes the wall of difficulties we face appears too tall to scale. But the presence of gratitude lifts and carries us. We become stronger, more agile, infused with what we need, not just to face the barrier, but to search for a way around or over that we hadn’t considered before.
Words of gratitude refocus our attention.
They change our perspective. We’re never off on the wrong foot when we step out in gratitude. We can’t think negatively when we focus on the positive. We’re less judgmental, resentful, or divisive when we’re thankful for our relationships (especially the complicated ones). Sometimes it’s easy to focus on our hurts or sorrows and miss all of the other places that good things are happening. It’s possible for good things and hard things to co-exist in our lives. We show wisdom when we can focus on being thankful and noticing the good, instead of concentrating on the bad.
Words of gratitude bring us joy.
Those who live in gratitude have the most joyful lives. It’s impossible to miss the joy when we’re on the lookout for blessings. We won’t miss out on the moments when we’re present and rooted in each one as it comes.
Time and time again, that’s what I discovered. I found that whenever I navigated any rough terrifying circumstances with gratitude—even through storms and difficult Joseph-experiences and hard places, I was encouraged, strengthened, braver.
So, my hope and prayer for today is that no matter what our struggles storms hurts dark places, that we’ll choose to face all with gratitude, with discovering ONE moment of thankfulness. A moment outside ourselves, above our circumstance. A moment looking for a blessing.
When we steer our way with gratitude, we declare that the darkness does not win.
Today: I challenge us to live from a place of gratitude and joy.
Let’s have more gratitude. More understanding. More compassion. More grace. More mercy. More community. More forgiveness. More kindness. More charitableness.
Let’s not be cruel or hurtful or selfish or judgmental or isolating or thankless or intolerant or vengeful or rude.
Let’s keep our perspective. Our humor. Our appreciation.
Let’s be brave.
Let’s fill our hearts and minds and souls with gratitude.
My Midwest Writers Workshop story
I could go on and on about the impact Midwest Writers has had on my life. In some capacity, I’ve been part of MWW for 40+ of its 50 years — an attendee, a presenter, a committee member, and then director. MWW is part of who I am. And I am grateful. And now, my news: I am retiring as Director of Midwest Writers Workshop, passing on my leadership baton.
MWW is all about the people — the faculty, the planners, the writers. My people. My friends. Although I always found all my employments rewarding (as an English composition instructor at Ball State, as owner and operator of my own business, Bigger Writing Services, as an assistant at BSU’s E.B. & Bertha C. Ball Center, helping with Magna cum Murder Festival), I also always had so much passion and energy for my work with Midwest Writers. And the influence and friendship of committee members and authors didn’t just enhance my life, but that of my husband, my sons, my parents.
Here’s what I can tell you about why I love MWW, why attending a writer’s conference can help your writing journey…. or how I became one of the first MWW success stories ….
I never pitched an agent. I never wrote a proposal. I never wrote a query. I never mailed the manuscript to the publisher. I never submitted any sample writing, any biography, any synopsis. I never followed the professional protocols for turning a manuscript into a book. And yet, one day I received a phone call from an editor at Fleming H. Revell publishers. An editor I had never met. A publishing house I had never submitted to.
“I love the first chapter and the chapter The Date, and we want to publish your manuscript,” he said. (This call came two weeks before I got married. It was a very good summer!)
What? My manuscript? My untitled manuscript? Not your typical path to publication. But a pathway made possible because of my trips through Midwest Writers Workshop.
It was 1976 and I was a 20-year-old college student with a desire to write and an idea for a book, an English major at Ball State University. That summer, an (accidental?) bumping into a friend-of-a-friend, a casual conversation about writing, a mention of a writers’ conference (in my very city, at my very university), a leap of faith, a saying “yes” to a scholarship, to a new adventure, all led to me sitting in a classroom in Ball State’s Carmichael Hall, listening to author and humorist Tom Mullen talk about writing for the inspirational marketplace.
I had found a mentor.
Life-changing. That’s what Midwest Writers Workshop was for me. That class, that creative environment, that support and encouragement from faculty and committee and participants was like water and sunlight and nourishment. It made me grow. I was hooked on the importance of a writer’s conference, the value of Midwest Writers Workshop. For the next few years, I registered and signed up for classes in nonfiction and poetry. I learned to be a better writer, listening, asking questions, taking notes. I kept growing.
I found writer-friends. And become part of the MWW community.
Then in 1979, the inspirational writing class I attended was taught by Floyd Thatcher, an editor with Word Publishing. He was friendly (just like Tom and all MWW faculty seemed to be!), offered keen advice on tightening my writing, and believed in my story.
Eventually, after rewrites and rewrites, I summoned enough courage to mail my (unnamed) manuscript to him, with a new opening chapter. When he called and said, “I was moved by your story, but it’s not quite what our company publishes,” I almost dropped the phone. Until I heard his next sentence. “But I hope you don’t mind, I mailed your manuscript to another editor I know.” Then I did drop the phone.
A few weeks later, Victor Oliver, editor at Fleming H. Revell, called.
And I had found a publisher.
And I became not just a writer, but an author.
This path of mine to publication, this walkway was created with stone after stone. Courage. Registering for the workshop. Courage. Asking for advice. Courage. Revising editing improving. Learning. Courage. Sending out my words. Courage and hope. My story. Attending MWW was my right first step out of the sometimes secluded life of writing and into a community that was chock full of resources, connections, inspiration. And above all, friendships.
And now, as I head into retirement as MWW director, I am proud to have been their Official Cheerleader.
Praising, clapping, rooting for, and seeking to empower others in their writing journey. Personality testing has classified me as an extrovert with traits well suited for cheering, as an Enneagram 2, a Helper: enthusiastic, spontaneous, energetic, and understanding. Those tests indicated that I readily give affirmation and encouragement, that I focus on possibilities and have a contagious enthusiasm for ideas and people and activities. That I’m passionate and love to help other people explore their creative potential, what motivates them, what inspires them, and what they envision achieving in life.
In other words, I’m a cheerleader.
Sometimes I feel like Jenny in Forrest Gump, cheering and yelling, “Run, Forrest, run!” Sometimes I feel like those in the final scene of the sports classic, cheering and chanting, “Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!” Sometimes I feel like the crowd cheering and shouting, “Rocky, Rocky!” Always raising the spirits of others, always urging them on. Sometimes it’s with the message: no matter what life throws at them, they should get back up and carry on and that they are responsible for the direction their lives take. If they want something in life, go and get it.
Sometimes it’s a reminder that even an underdog can have his day, and that they can do anything they put their minds to. Sometimes it’s an understanding for the struggles that hardship brings and the unbridled joy of seeing all their hard work and perseverance pay off.
I’ve taken great pleasure in watching writers see their dreams come true. It’s as if their dreams become mine, and my investment in them and cheering for them is real and significant. Their dreams take up residence in my heart. I cheer and do (mental) cartwheels when they succeed, and I feel disappointment for them when roadblocks stand in their way.
This is what I know. Every(one) writer needs encouragement. Every(one) writers needs cheering.
As The Official Cheerleader for the Midwest Writers Workshop for decades, I’m telling you that’s exactly what I’ve done. I’ve cheered for you and encouraged others to cheer for you. And I’ve believed in you when you didn’t know if you could do it. Plain and simple. I believe you are a winner. You can do this thing.
Through all these many years, through all these Midwest Writers Workshops, it has been my great honor to serve a cheerleader for so many on their journey as aspiring writers to published authors.
I will savor the dreams come true on behalf of my writer friends. Nothing compares to cheering them and watching them cross the finish line—battle weary and out of breath. But doing the thing they love.
There is nothing quite like being a cheerleader. And this Scholarship/Author Event Fund will help continue my cheerleading.
Thank you, my MWW friends.
(In the spirit of Literary Citizenship, get the book, read the book, review the book.)