Letter to My Firstborn Daughter


I sit here at the kitchen table, listening to you playing in your crib when you’re supposed to be asleep. But you can get away with just about anything these days, as I contemplate how quickly our lives are going to change when your little sister comes into our world.

Every ten minutes when you are out of that crib, you look up at me with your fountain ponytail dangling over one brown eye and pout out those lips. “Hold you,” you say. And I put down the dish or the broom or my book or my laptop, lifting you up where you can wrap your legs above my big belly.

You and I have had such a journey these past two and a half years. We have cried and laughed and giggled and painted our toenails matching pink. We have waded in the ocean and hiked until sweat saturated our temples (well, I hiked; you just rode along); we have splashed in the fountain and read a library’s worth of books, only to start all over and read them again.

How many diapers have I changed? How many hours have I spent training you to not need diapers only to have you stare at me through the toilet paper roll you treat like a telescope? How many nights have I sat up rocking you as your fevered body felt like a furnace in my arms? How many times have I kissed your dimpled knees and elbows, soothing away the imaginary “owies” that were really just another excuse to be held and for me to hold you?

There are a thousand and one moments such as this, a thousand and one memories I hope to entrap in my heart and mind: you calling me “Honey”; you dragging your blankie across the grass like a train; you acting like you have the strength to wrangle the leash of our akita, when I barely have the strength to do it myself; you playing so gently with your stuffed animals and dolls, insisting on “yotion” so you can rub their feet; you telling me “Good job!” whenever you barge into the bathroom when I really wouldn’t mind a little privacy; you patting and kissing my belly and saying, “Hi, sissy.”

I could continue listing until you wake up from your nap (for you are now quiet!) and still not cover everything that makes you who you are. You fill our house with such joy, little one, even when you wake up at 6:00 a.m. like this Saturday and call for me until I come and bring you to our bed.

I will never forget your blond curls spilling over the shoulders of your monkey pajama shirt as the two of us made waffles this morning. As the fog hung over the mountains and the fresh cut hay hung heavy with dew. I will never forget you wanting to help me by tasting the blueberries and the chocolate chips I was placing on the waffle batter. Or how you watched every move I made, waiting to duplicate it one day when you have a home of your own—when you have children of your own.

And I pray, for this reason and for so many others, that I do right by you. That in all your lifetime you will never once doubt just how loved you are, for though our lives are going to change in the coming days, my love for you will remain as constant and as unchanging as the moon.

I’ll love you forever, my daughter,

Your mother (or “Honey”)


For Better or . . . For Change

This seven-year-old picture is a great depiction of how my husband and I approach large change.

This seven-year-old picture is a great depiction of how my husband and I approach change.

This past weekend, my sister-in-law let us each take a personality quiz on her computer. I got a great kick out of standing behind my husband’s shoulder and mentally (and sometimes verbally) agreeing or disagreeing as he selected various choices.

Earlier, I had taken the same quiz and admitted that I was pretty inflexible. My husband, on the other hand, believed that he was flexible. My sister-in-laws and I rolled our eyes and smiled behind his back, for he is as routine-oriented as I am—if not more so.

However, since I’ve taken the quiz I have realized why we each believe we have different levels of flexibility.

My husband is greatly flexible when it comes to the large changes in life, whereas large changes almost debilitate me.

I’m so afraid I’m going to make the wrong mistake that I have a tendency to never make a large change at all.

For instance, my husband was sure we were meant to be together almost from the instant that we met.

I was not so sure.

I had distinct moments of clarity where my spirit seemed to be confirming where our lives would one day end up: the summer day he rescued me when I almost toppled over a waterfall, the Sunday afternoon I watched him get baptized in the creek beside his uncle’s church, when he taught me how to shoot a revolver in the sun-shimmered field ringed with mountains, hiking together in the rain, sitting on the roof and looking up at the stars in Bogota, Colombia.

And then reality would clamp down and I would panic and run so fast in the opposite direction that my feet would leave a Road Runner plume of dust in my wake.

So marrying my husband really came down to an issue of relinquishing my control and knowing that to join my life with this tall, quiet-mannered man would be one of the best decisions I would ever make.

And I was right.

Nevertheless, almost six years later, the two of us remain as different as night and day—and not just because I am rather short and . . . well, not so quiet-natured.

Right now, we are on the road for a last minute babymoon. I considered postponing the trip a few days because our toddler daughter, fighting a cold, had such a rough night. But my husband didn’t want to change our hotel reservation along with our other plans.

I took a sip of my decaf coffee and gave him a rueful look over the rim. “Didn’t you click ‘flexible’ on that personality quiz?”

“Actually, yes,” he said, acting miffed. Then the two of us laughed and decided we would pack up our bags and head north. And so we have.

Every once in a while, he stops flipping the radio dial and glances over at me. “You okay? You need to stretch out on the mattress or something?”

Then I just laugh.

Before we left, he placed a gigantic blow up mattress in the back of the minivan so I could “stretch out” whenever it suited my pregnant fancy.

And again I know that we might be as different as night and day—tall, short; dark, fair; introverted, extroverted—but for all of our various approaches to life, we are indeed the perfect fit.



You Might Be Nesting If…


Two weeks ago, my toddler daughter pointed to the kitchen window and said, “It’s waining.”

I stopped cooking and glanced over at the speckled glass. “It’s not raining, Baby,” I said. “The window’s just dirty.”

To be honest, I could care less about windows, baseboards, and organization.

And yet, the funny part is that I am very clean. I sweep the floor daily, wipe down the countertops, make sure the toys are picked up and pillows fluffed on the couch before I can switch off the lights in the living room and head off to bed.

However, now that I only have a month left until my due date, something’s switched.

I have started nesting and therefore have become a compulsive organizer.

So, if you’re expecting, here are some signs that you might be nesting, too:

1. Your husband has become accustomed to you verbally adding things to your to-do list, even if it’s midnight, and you’re both in bed.

2. It’s suddenly essential that you clean your baseboards when you’ve never paid attention to them before.

3. It’s not enough to vacuum the carpets; you must clean them with equipment borrowed from your mother-in-law.

4. You cart all excess to Goodwill and then shop for baby items that counter what you purged.

5. You can’t put a fork away without organizing the whole silverware drawer.

6. The refrigerator has never been so clean.

7. You throw away half of your husband’s socks because they have holes in them.

8. If you don’t do something productive toward the arrival of the baby, you feel like your entire day’s been wasted.

9. For the first time in your life, you want a squeegee so you can wash the windows.

10. Almost all of your “to-do” list gets checked off by your husband, who is more mobile than you are. Very, very convenient, let me tell ya. ;)

Any other signs that someone might be nesting?


I Was Here ~ Leaving Our Mark Through Oral History

i_was_here_by_rachelcroft015-d47n9cl Last week I received a letter from a ninety-two-year-old war veteran—written on his forty-five-year-old Smith Corona—which asked if I knew how he could go about recording his life.

He shared with me his highlights, his history, and it brought me a little sadness to see ninety-two years reduced to a page when that span of existence surely deserved a book.

Nevertheless, weeks away from giving birth to our second little girl, I knew there was no possible way I could tackle a project such as his while also working on my own novel and taking care of a toddler.

So I wrote him back with information for a friend of mine, who would possibly be interested in ghostwriting his story. After I mailed the letter, I smiled while remembering my husband’s grandfather Amos Stoltzfus, who’d also wanted his life placed in a book.

Grandpa Amos didn’t let his eighty years or Amish background stop him from recording his story through a voice recognition system that translated memories into pages.

He passed away before all of his life history could be recorded, but I believe it was the process itself that brought such fulfillment and not the satisfaction of having reached the end.

And then I wondered what it is about our human nature that causes us to yearn to preserve our past as a bulwark against the rising tide of mortality.

What drives us to create? What drives us to record? What drives us to leave our indelible mark on the shores of civilization? We were here; we were here; we were here. . . .

As a mother, I am aware of leaving my imprint on the world through my child and the child I’m about to birth. And yet, the need to create even beyond reproduction is still there.

Each day I sit on the front porch with my laptop and work on a story, it’s as if I am fighting to mold something larger than myself—something that will outlast the rigors of time.

And at times, though I am ashamed to admit, I miss having a day spread out before me to write on the front porch for six hours instead of two. I miss reading literary fiction instead of the thousandth reciting of Goodnight Moon.

However, when my daughter lays her reflective-gold curls against my chest and snuggles in deep while sucking her thumb, I begin to tell her a story about when I was a little girl. And in this oral history, I can feel the bulwark being fashioned against the relentless tug of life’s tide.

And the sweet simplicity of it is far more beautiful than any composition.



Why I Write

10336594_766854816700487_3390029812252542009_n My writer friend, Susan Cushman, who hosted me when I went to Memphis for a television interview and book signing last year, tagged me in a blog series that asks three questions. I hope you enjoy my answers and please share your own answers in the comment section. I would love to hear from you!

(1) Why you write.

I write to better understand our world and my place in it—something I’ve done since I was six years old and kept a diary with a tiny gold locket and a picture of cherubs on the front. I write because I’m always watching for characters and listening for stories, and – when I find them, which I often do – I feel compelled to write these stories down, though I change the names to protect the innocent . . . and the guilty. I write because I want to offer others hope as they search for fragments of beauty in their life’s ashes.

(2) What you’re working on.

I just turned in the first installment in a three-book series that revolves around the Anabaptist (Mennonite/Amish) belief of Pacifism, or non-resistance, which will release with my publisher, Tyndale House, in spring 2016. The following books will release around every six months. The belief of Pacifism means that no one will take up arms to defend themselves, even if this means giving up their lives. However, when a cataclysmic event takes the 21st century back to the Stone Age, and the foundation of civilization crumbles, the Old Order Mennonite community of Mt. Hebron in Montana must come face to face with their corporate beliefs and decide if those beliefs of non-resistance are their personal beliefs because they are just or because they have never come up against anything which caused them to resist them.

(3) Your writing process.

I like to follow a loose synopsis but not an outline, and I guess I’m structured in the fact that I try to write and read every day. Monday through Friday, I get up at 6 and write in the living room with a cup of coffee. My two-year-old daughter gets up at 7, so my husband prepares her breakfast and has some special time with her until he leaves for work around 8. I do social media and respond to emails during her bath time, then I start writing again at 11 when she takes a nap, which sometimes lasts until 1 or—miracle of miracles!—even two. On the weekends, I sleep until 7, take a break from social media, and spend my daughter’s naptime working on blog posts or interviews, like I’m doing now. I read at night, until 10 on weekdays, 11 on weekends, averaging about three books and two audiobooks a month.

Reading inspires my writing process like nothing else. I keep a book next to the bathtub, one next to the bed, one in the diaper bag and/or my purse. Since my daughter’s birth, I haven’t had quite as much time to read, but I’ve made up for that by listening to audiobooks in the car or while I’m cooking. Hearing the story rather than reading it is almost more rewarding, in a way, as so many of the performers put their entire heart into the work (like the wonderful narrator, Tavia Gilbert, in The Outcast and The Midwife; I love working with her!). If I’m ever having a dry time creatively, taking a day or two to read or listen to a quality piece of literature refreshes me completely. For instance, I read The Orchardist while I was working on the first draft of The Midwife, and those lyrical passages reminded me that writing is an art form, and we should give it the respect and time that it deserves.



The Beginning of Our Lasts

DSC_1489 This week, I started the nonfiction audiobook by Anna Quindlen, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. Of course, I was only half listening due to the fact that my toddler was in the backseat demanding snacks and water and for me to hit the play button for her DVD of Curious George.

However, one section stood out to me. The section about girlfriends. Quindlen said—and I’m merely paragraphing here—that if you ask a woman how she gets everything done, she will claim that answering emails while getting her hair cut is the ticket. Or that having a to-do list is the way to go.

You get the idea. Quindlen ran down through a whole array of suggestions, and then she said, “But if you ask a woman how she gets through her days, she will have one answer: girlfriends.”

DSC_1481 I thought of that sentence last night as my book club sisters and I sat around the outdoor fireplace at our home.

We have been meeting for almost six years, and we love each other deeply, but we are about to disband.

We have continued meeting despite moves and job changes and babies and life. Yet now our unofficial leader is moving overseas in the fall, and there’s no way we can continue to go on.

And so we have made out a list of lasts: one last hobo pack/s’mores night at my house, complete with a slumber party and a pancake breakfast; one last sushi and ice-cream night; one last pool party with all the kiddos running around in their ruffled bathing suits and multi-colored floaties making them appear to have mutant arms. . . .

One by one, we are slowly but surely checking off these “lasts.” Each are bittersweet, and yet I feel that we cherish them all the more because we know another won’t come around again.

DSC_1510 This morning, after our pancake breakfast, I hugged my book club sisters goodbye and called my mother, who is in Pennsylvania with her younger sister, who has been battling cancer for over a year.

“Jolina, Cheryl went to be with Jesus this morning,” she said, and I was so shocked, I just stood barefoot on the porch and looked at the detritus of the previous night’s festivities: foil, charred logs, a sodden graham cracker, which my toddler daughter attempted to eat until I absently drew her away.

“It—it happened so fast,” I stammered, not even able to cry, for we had all remained optimistic until the cancer spread to her brain. Still, I did not think she would lose the battle so soon.

“I watched Little Women last night,” my mom said, weeping. “I forgot about that scene where the sister dies.”

The tears began streaming down my face then; I had not forgotten.

When my best friend was diagnosed with cancer, we watched that movie together—one of our favorites—and during that scene, I laid my head carefully in her lap and wept as she stroked my hair, praying that she would not be taken from me.

My best friend has not been taken from me. She is actually on her way here, as I sit on the front porch and feel the drizzle of rain on my face and listen to the birds calling to each other in the distance, a near-perfect requiem.

And I am reminded of what Anna Quindlen said: “But if you ask a woman how she gets through her days, she will have one answer: girlfriends.”

She is right, and when my best friend arrives, I am going to hug her and hug her and hug her—drawing comfort from her warm presence and thanking God, once again, for letting her remain in my life, where each day is a new beginning and not the beginning of our “lasts.”

My mother and her sister, Cheryl, back when they sang together.

My mother and her sister, Cheryl, back when they sang together.

This week, I challenge you: if you have a sister, a best friend, or a group of girlfriends who are like your sisters, take some time to call them, or write them a letter, or swing by their house for a hug. You don’t need a reason. We just need to share the love that composes this blessed, fleeting life.


Giveaway Time: The Midwife, The Outcast, & The Scarlet Letter!

2dc68ec304fcc002622e1e8ce7ff0dff Hello, friends!

Well, this has certainly been the week for giveaways!

My publisher’s generously offering a giveaway of my newest novel, The Midwife, a copy of my bestselling and award-winning debut, The Outcast, along with a beautiful copy of The Scarlet Letter, my inspiration for The Outcast.

Just simply place your name in the widget below, and you’re entered!

Best wishes to you all, and I hope you have a great weekend!


What This Writer Learned From Pulling Weeds

IMG_1963 Every day, before my toddler’s nap, we walk out to the garden hand in hand.

She loves to sniff the tomatoes and pop them off the vines when they are nothing but hard green marbles, barely sprouted from the yellowing flower.

She gets the biggest thrill out of scattering the hay my husband placed around the plants and wrenching the plants themselves out by the roots, believing that she is helping me “weed.”

The other day, pausing in my own weeding to watch my daughter rip and snort with glee, I started thinking that this garden is a metaphor for the writing life, so here are the things I learned:

1. Sometimes it takes two pairs of eyes to separate the weeds from the vines.

My sister-in-law and I were discussing gardening last night, and she mentioned that she didn’t realize that weeds will actually choke out the crop if not contained. This made me think of writing, of course, and of how necessary it is to have another set of eyes to look over a manuscript during the writing process to help keep the weeds from choking out the plot’s life-giving vines. My husband has edited every manuscript before I submit it to my publisher, and I am convinced by the magnitude of work that I have to do once he’s finished that I would be up to my neck in mandatory rewrites if he did not help me.

2. Rain helps loosen the soil.

IMG_1960 I love going out to the garden after a soaking rain because the weeds pull out so effortlessly in comparison to when the soil is parched. Comparatively, reading nourishes the writing process and allows us to pull those weeds out of the manuscript where we might not have seen them so clearly before.

3. Don’t pick the fruit before it’s time.

My daughter and I are both so eager to eat the fruit of our labor that the time from planting to consuming the harvest seems to be dragging by. However, I know that we would be incredibly disappointed with marble-sized tomatoes and green cantaloupes that wouldn’t have any of their ripened sweetness.

IMG_1959 So we are going to wait some more.

Therefore, writers, don’t rush the process. Give yourself plenty of time in between the planting and the consuming stage to really make sure your final project is just as “ripe” as it should be. You will be glad you waited!

Gardeners, writers, any other suggestions you would like to share?



Ten (FUN!) Things To Do In The Last Ten Weeks Of Pregnancy

Baby Massage

This week, my husband and I watched home videos. In them, our toddler-age daughter was a chubby infant, usually scrunched faced and fussing, which was her default mode for the first ten months of life.

I have to admit, those videos filled me with equal parts nostalgia and panic.

Those were the hardest months my husband and I ever lived, and we both said we did not want to go back.

And then we laughed, somewhat hysterically, because we are starting over in less than ten weeks as we prepare to meet our second baby girl.

After shutting off those videos, I decided I wasn’t going to make baked oatmeal for the next day’s breakfast as I had planned. Instead, I was going to be wild and crazy and take my book and soak in the tub until my toes pickled.

Sitting there, my belly rising out of the water like an island, I decided I would make a list of things I needed to do before the baby was born.

But instead of the usual boring things (freezer meals, spring cleaning, getting clothes out of storage, ect.), I would make a list of fun things.

So, here goes. First things first:

1. Take baths.

I remember, about four months after my daughter’s birth, taking a bath while eating a bowl of yogurt and fresh fruit and reading from the beautiful hardback of The Shoemaker’s Wife. I could hear my daughter crying almost the entire time, but my husband reassured me that he had everything under control. So I just turned the water up to full blast and kept on reading. It was one of the first times after giving birth that I realized life would indeed become normal again.

2. Eat a seven-course meal. With chopsticks.

One of the reasons my experience as a new mother was so difficult was because I taught my child to eat around the clock because I didn’t have confidence in my own nursing abilities (I should’ve known things were working out when my sweet little girl started resembling a sumo wrestler). Therefore, even during suppertime, I would be holding her to my breast and trying to eat without spilling rice in her fledgling hair. Date nights with my husband became even sweeter, as I not only cherished the quality time we shared but also eating a meal with two hands.

3. Watch a matinee.

One of my closest friends and I went out for ice-cream, walked around town, and watched a matinee (The Vow) a few hours before my water broke. I was four days overdue, so we knew I could pop at any moment, and sitting there in the darkened theatre—feeling my baby ripple inside my womb—I was so aware of how fast things were going to change, and I was glad I was keeping busy rather than sitting around, fearing the unknown.

4. Hold hands with your spouse.

I’m just going to be honest: Your marriage hits the back burner for a while until you can find the right setting as new parents. I remember, one date night, leaning against the window of the car and telling my husband that I missed him even though he was sitting right there beside me. That vulnerable moment drew us incredibly close, as we talked about how things had changed, and we held hands as we went around town, doing romantic things like getting Chinese take-out and stopping by the grocery store for milk and a loaf of bread.

5. Go on a babymoon.

In the same vein, I do think it’s essential that a husband and wife set some money and time aside before the baby’s arrival to invest in each other. Now, that doesn’t mean you need to use up your vacation days or break the bank. It could just be a weekend getaway at a local B&B or a cabin at a state park. You won’t regret it—promise!

6. Sprawl across the bed.

Our daughter slept in our bed in a very firm co-sleeper with reinforced sides for the first six weeks of her life. I remember my husband and I both sleeping rigidly (if we slept at all) because—despite those reinforced sides that would’ve been difficult for Hulk to breach—we were scared we were going to roll on her. So sprawl across the bed while you can!

7. Get your sleep.

I’m sure this goes without saying, but your sleep patterns are going to change a wee bit after your baby’s born. So sleep in while you can! I am a firm guardian of my sleep. Even on deadline, I make sure I get a solid eight hours because you never know when you might be pulling an all-nighter with a sick child or a child who has his/her days and nights mixed up.

8. Wear a shirt without buttons or zippers.

It was rather astounding how many items in my wardrobe I couldn’t wear after our daughter was born because – since she fed on demand – I never knew when she would throw a hunger strike and demand to be nursed within twenty seconds or else.

9. Get a massage.

Twelve days before my due date, we discovered our daughter was footling breech. In addition to elephant walking around the house, lying on an inversion table with peas on my belly, and scrubbing baseboards, I also went to a chiropractor who adjusted my torqued pelvis and followed it up with a heavenly massage that left me drooling and mascara-smeared on her table. I loved it so much, I signed myself up for another chiropractor appointment and massage after my daughter was born. Just make sure you sign up for a babysitter, too!

10. Spend quality time with your other children.

And herein lies the beauty of giving birth, giving up sleep, hand-holding with your spouse and inaccessible clothes: I am so positively enraptured with my little girl, who was indeed a demanding infant and now such a wonderful toddler, I am mourning the fact she’s not going to be my only little girl for much longer.

Each day, I find myself holding her tight and kissing her face until even she—a physical-affection person to the max, just like her mama—pulls away and looks at me as if I might be a few fries short of my Happy Meal.

So I often try to do something special for just the two of us: a picnic in the park followed by a splash in the fountain. Picking flowers (weeds). Walking out to the garden hand-in-hand to look at the tomatoes that are still as green as they were the day before.

All of these things cost next to nothing but the moments are priceless.

Soon, my expectant friend, you will get to have moments like these with your own child, and you will know—as I know—that whatever other sacrifices you have to make are so, so worth it.

Veteran mamas, do you have anything else you’d like to add to this list?


And congrats, Cindy (the 27th entrant in last week’s drawing)! You won the double audiobook giveaway from Oasis Audio! The Midwife was #5 on their June bestseller list. :)


What I’ve Learned Since The Outcast’s Release + Double Audiobook Giveaway!

548905_689533577728480_2000388233_n I once heard that launching a novel does not change your life, but it has. Almost one year ago—July 1, 2013—my debut, The Outcast, was born, and in many ways I feel like I was reborn right along with it.

Honestly, I did not enjoy that launch season very much. The same as with the birth of my firstborn daughter, I pushed myself too hard and my expectations were too high.

I expected my daughter to sleep through the night by twelve weeks old, and I expected The Outcast to be on the NYT bestseller list by twelve weeks old.

Let me tell you, neither happened.

I spent energy I didn’t have to spare, trying to wrench open doors that were not willing to budge.

1012218_10151738960151335_1029652026_n I bemoaned trivial details and didn’t celebrate the small victories.

I set the joy of writing aside to pursue marketing when—carefully modulated—I could’ve done both.

The Outcast has no doubt been successful, but I believe that most of this success could’ve happened with me just sitting on my front porch, enjoying the journey rather than pushing on doors.

So, guess what? The Midwife, my sophomore novel, is twenty-nine days old, and I’m sitting on the front porch, enjoying the journey.

1234686_375883259204353_1505030404_n My husband commented this week that this launch season has been so calm. He almost seemed afraid to admit this—as if to jinx everything and stir up a publicity-crazed tempest of a wife—but I just smiled and nodded, breathing a sigh of relief that he was right.

Part of this is because I’m thirty weeks pregnant with our second little girl, so there’s only so much waddling around and wrenching of doors I can do to make things physically happen.

Another part is because the past year has built my trust in my publisher, and I know they are working at wrenching open doors that I don’t have the power to open on my own.

1016963_10200980573450997_722113179_n Another reason is because—though I never want to become apathetic about promoting my work—I believe that the art of writing must always come first.

I am not a publicist or a social media guru. I enjoy these aspects of my career and know they are important.

But they are not as important as the words and the worlds that they create.

One of the people I most respect in my publishing house asked me last summer how my debut author experience was going. I admitted I was having trouble juggling it all, so she told me to simply stop. To say no. To instead focus on the stories because she would rather have my stories than my efforts to promote them.

I am a slow learner, so it’s taken an entire year for her words to sink in.

And yet, now I’m heeding them.

1238148_611934675525836_682576540_n I am doing all of the publicity work I love: connecting with readers through book signings and social media, doing radio and newspaper interviews, and writing guest posts, but I am also working on a story and therefore I am doing what I know I was made to do—typing away on the front porch as hummingbirds zip around my head and the crows squabble over the rain-watered garden.

This is art; this is beauty. This is the process that should always come first.

Writers, did it also take you a while to realize that writing must come before publicity? How do you juggle both?


In honor of the end of audiobook month, Oasis Audio is generously offering a double-pack giveaway of both The Midwife and The Outcast. Just share what you’re reading right now to enter!