Are You Headed for Burnout?

Like so many other people, I was certain burnout would never happen to me. I loved writing. It was my calling and purpose to write these books, and burnout wouldn’t happen to someone who was doing God’s will.

Right?

Wrong.

Or else writing and independently publishing that series of biblical fictionalizations wasn’t God’s will for my life.

Because in the final weeks of editing the second book of the series, panic set in. You can read more about my request for extensions and my decision to forgo writing the fourth book in these other posts.

I persevered because I had to but the joy was gone.

And thanks to an insightful book by fellow author and writing coach Becca Syme, I might get off the slide before ending up in the pit.

As someone who’s been in the pit of depression, I tend to get claustrophobic even thinking about such a place of despair.

What is burnout?

There’s probably a definition for this somewhere. To me, it boils down to this:

Being emptied of the passion that once fueled creative endeavors

It probably looks different to a lawyer or businessperson who gets burned out. And I know it happens to pastors and doctors, not just people in the publishing industry.

Maybe it’s happening to you right now.

According to Becca Syme’s book, it happens when you use up all your energy stores.

Energy isn’t inexhaustible. We create a certain amount of energy to fuel our body every day. In fact, you eat food because your cells need energy, and conversely your brain activities and emotional functions feed on energy too.

If you consistently burn more energy than you have on hand, you’ll dip into your energy reserves. This is energy you stored on your last vacation, or when you took a nap every Saturday while the sun was shining.

Keep using more than you produce for weeks on end? If you aren’t taking time to replenish the stores, you’ll use them up. And when you do?

Burnout

Who gets burned out?

Anyone can get burned out. This isn’t something only professionals or artists are susceptible to.

As Syme explains in her book, every person has a “plate” that they can fill with daily activities. And all people are NOT created equal when it comes to plate size.

She’s a CliftonStrengths coach, and she says a person’s strengths determine their plate size. Sizes range from one to ten, with most people having plates in the three to eight range.

You know that person who can do ninety different things with a smile on their face without ever seeming to get tired? They probably have a size nine plate.

Syme warns that once you suffer burnout, your plate size will be diminished for a while. It might even be permanently reduced.

That’s something a Type A person like myself doesn’t want to hear!

What? You mean I might have to slow down? Not do everything? But, no, that’s not possible. I must do all the things.

Except when I use up my energy stores. And emotional tolls make more impact on your energy stores than doing all the things.

Yes, I was on the slide and headed for burnout.

How to combat it

Have you ever tried to get off a slide once you started down it?

I haven’t. I mean, I might have considered it, but momentum took over and the next thing I knew, boom! I was at the bottom.

The slide into burnout is the same. Once you hit the point of no return. That moment when illness strikes or something big hits and zaps the remainder of your energy reserves.

Fortunately, I pulled back and started seeking information before that happened. Syme gives five areas to consider and reconfigure about the way we expend energy in order to “slow” the slope into the pit of burnout.

I’m hoping I might avoid the pit entirely. That’s why rather than working on rewrites and sending out my romance manuscript for beta input, I’m reading her book. And I’m brainstorming about:

  • What is my Why?
  • How do I define success?
  • How can I measure success according to that definition?
  • What do I need to quit?

And a multitude of other questions recommended in her book Dear Writer, Are You in Burn Out? If you think you might be on the slide, grab the book. Quick!

Syme is quick to recommend therapy, counseling and coaching for writers who pick up her book. I’m one of those people who tends to exhaust all avenues before seeking professional help.

Is that good or bad? I don’t know, but I do know that I’m seeing a glimmer of sunlight behind the thundercloud that’s been shrouding my creative spirit for several months.

Thanks, Becca. Your insight saved me from the pit.

What’s your plate size? Are you pushing past your energy limits on a consistent basis? Be careful, friend. Burnout CAN happen to you.

Reflection Book Two is Live Today

Say hello to Martha of Bethany. She’s the second Bible woman to be featured in my Reflections series, books from the heart and for the heart.

Tagline

Sister and Servant: A Life of Sacrifice and Love

Blurb

Martha was never meant to be the head of her household, but a plague left her as the main caretaker for her piecemeal family. She is too busy juggling responsibilities to worry about her siblings Lazarus and Mary’s expectations that Yeshua of Nazareth is Messiah.

Then she meets Yeshua face to face. A single look from him and Martha’s heart knows that he is Israel’s Messiah. But undone work awaits, and Martha ignores the guilt of placing her worldly obligations before G-d—until Lazarus lies gravely ill.

The Lord’s Anointed arrives too late to save Lazarus but asks Martha to place her faith in him. She believes he’s the One but is still amazed when he calls Lazarus from the dead, proving to all he is Messiah.

Still, many don’t believe, and word of Yeshua’s miracle ultimately leads to his crucifixion. Martha’s family is shattered once more by a beloved’s death. Will faith allow her to set aside the weight of responsibility without stopping her loving service for others?

 

Today’s the day. Although the paperback version has been available for several weeks, today is the official release day for this book.

Snag a copy now. You can get it for your Kindle or for your other digital reader.

If you’re one of my advance readers, today’s the day you can post your reviews everywhere. Will it live up to the five-star expectations that book one received?

Check out those reviews here.

Do you have your copy?

When the Passion is Gone

Passion is the stuff of romance and marriage, right? It’s also the heart of great creative endeavors. So what do you do once the passion jumps a train and head south?

I know it sounds like this could be the title to a bad movie. Or maybe another Bridges of Madison County story line.

But this is the tale of the life I’ve been living for the past five months. And I’m beginning to wonder if it has a happy ending. Or if the only way out is to quit being an author.

Notice I didn’t say quit writing. Although I don’t get much joy from it these days, I know I’ll always spill my innermost thoughts onto the page. That’s the way the good Lord made me to process things.

What is Passion?

Passion is not just for love, romance and sex scenes. If you’ve got a gift, passion should be part of your daily life.

In this case, I’m referring to dictionary.com‘s sixth definition of passion: a strong or extravagant fondness, enthusiasm, or desire for anything.

In my case, the passion is for creating stories. Writing words into a string of compelling sentences that form paragraphs and chapters the evolve into a story.

If you follow my blog, you know I’ve been working on a series of biblical fictionalizations for the past year or more. These stories are finished and will be rolling out on Amazon and other major sites over the next few weeks.

I mistakenly thought I would be able to begin a new project. The final phases of rewriting and polishing the two new stories in the series sucked all the passion for writing from my heart, mind and soul.

Where did it Go?

Did the passion dissipate into thin air? Did it get captured within the pages of those books I struggled to finish?

I hope it didn’t vanish. I pray some spark infused the words of those books. Otherwise, all the slogging through hard days and making myself finish will have been for nothing.

I do think artists (and I rarely consider myself one) can complete works without passion. But I do think it shows through.

I pray that I prayed enough while hammering out those last edits, making those final rewrites and polishing those four hundred printed pages. Because my prayer was the God’s grace would shine through, not my passion for the subject. I prayed that God would receive glory for every jot and tittle on the pages.

Mostly because I didn’t have any passion left.  But also because He called me to that project. He gave me the seeds for those stories.

I think the passion dried up. I did so much of the work in my own power, rather than relying on God’s strength, that I ran my creative well dry. I don’t think it’s God’s fault, either. He was hanging around at the edges of my furious activity, offering to partner with me, to grant me everything I needed for each day’s work.

Truthfully? Writing romance has become so easy that I don’t really rely on the grace of God for it.

But this wasn’t romance. And there was no writing these projects without God’s empowerment.

Can I Get it Back?

Some days – like the day I’m writing this – I want to say: “Nope.”

But that would be giving myself more power than the One who created, called and gifted me to create stories.

Instead, I’ll take a page out of the Apostle Paul’s manifesto. “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9b)

If you’re not familiar with the context of this quote, here it is. Paul had some affliction (much debate about what it was, but I’m inclined to believe it was his poor eyesight since they didn’t have the technology we do to improve such things) and Paul asked God to remove it. In fact, he asked the Lord three times to remove it.

Finally God said, “Paul, I’m not going to take that away because my grace is sufficient to help you overcome the limitations it causes” (2 Corinthians 12:9a – my rendering).

God’s grace got me through this hard project. God’s grace is sufficient to refill the well of my creativity.

But God works in His own time. There’s no rushing Him or putting deadlines to His plans. So, while I’m waiting for the rush of passion in my soul’s creative well, I’m doing being proactive, too.

I’m starting a book about writer’s burnout today, and I’ve chosen the word “Rest” for 2020 because I know I need to refill my well. But that doesn’t fulfill the contracts I already have.

I’ve pulled back from submitting a new proposal to my publisher because I honestly don’t know if I could write three books for her this year. But I have a novella in revisions. I wrote it in 2018 during National Novel Writing Month, and it’s got a few dozen holes. This means I need about six to eight new scenes to fill them, and I’ve been shying away from that.

Not because I don’t have ideas. But because the very idea of creating sucks all the energy from me. I know I’ll need to take it slow, write one scene per day.

I keep hoping the joy for writing will flood back to me. But so far? Nothing. When the passion is gone, it’s gone.

Have you ever lost your passion for something you knew was your calling? How did you get it back?

We’re Finally Seeing 2020

Happy New Year, friends.

I like the idea of seeing things with 20/20 vision in 2020. If God hadn’t announced my word for this year so clearly in November, I would have probably run with the idea of perfect vision or clarity or something like that.

But God said, “You need to rest, daughter.”

And sometimes I do what He tells me.

But those of you who know me know the idea of taking a break, time off, extended down time and all that is synonymous with rest is NOT part of my mindset.

Well, it hasn’t been. And that might be the reason why this year, God has called me to rest.

What This Means

No, this doesn’t mean I’ll be sleeping in every day or working only two days per week (although that sounds fabulous). It doesn’t mean I’m taking a vacation from all things work-related for 366 days.

It does mean that I’ll be away from my keyboard, office and social media accounts at least 48 hours every week until further notice.

I need to unplug. I need to stop thinking about what’s happening with my author page, my fan group or my book rankings.

In November and December, I completed a 40-Day challenge. Since then, I’ve been more focused on my spiritual health. And I’ve realized that one of the reasons I’m suffering from burnout is because I didn’t tune into the voice inside me that cried for more time in prayer, meditation and scripture reading.

Instead, I fed into the part of me that wanted success. The part of me that thought indie publishing a series of biblical fictionalizations was a grand idea. You can read how that turned out here and here. And since the second and third books are coming soon, you might learn more about it in future posts.

I’m going to be listening more to my body. When it says I need to “Move away from the computer” and “Stop working on that today,” I plan to do those things.

I hope it means I’ll be enjoying more reading and crocheting. I hope I’ll finally finish that big scrapbooking projects of my family’s vacations I started a few years ago. BUT…if those things start creating stress for me, I’ll dump them too.

What This Doesn’t Mean

I’ll be at my desk. I’ll be writing. Having a year of Rest doesn’t mean I won’t get any work done. In fact, I hope it means I’ll get more work done. Meaningful work. Creative work.

And even though I’ll still be up at 5:30 on weekday mornings doing my workouts, I’ll have a different motivation. I won’t be doing it to lose weight or get slim or be better. I’ll be doing it because it makes me feel great. Those lovely endorphins that get released during exercise are better than any prescription happy pill I’ve taken.

This month, I’ll be revising the next book in the First Street Church open world. It needs quite a bit of love, but I plan to have it to beta readers by mid-month. I’ll also be submitting a proposal to Sweet Promise Press for a solo series. You’ll be the first to know if it gets contracted.

I’ll be writing. I have one book that is slated to release on September 18. Once I finish writing it, I don’t know what’s next. That’s part of my “rest.” I’m trusting God to show me what to write when the time is right.

Until then, I’ll finish the projects I’ve started.

I know I talked about taking a break from writing in earlier posts. I hope that’s not the case. But I won’t be forcing words onto the page.

That means things around this blog will be scarce. Or they won’t. If I’m inspired to write, I’ll do it.

What does “rest” mean to you? Do you have a word of the year? 

Three Reasons Indie Publishing’s Not for Me and What It Taught Me

Back in January, I admitted this would be a year of “building” for my brand, but I had no idea how much being an indie author would tax my creative soul.  The reality of “indie publishing” measures up differently than the perception. At least for me.

Isn’t that true of many things? Christmas is the “most wonderful time of the year” until you’re over budget for your gifts, over-booked for  events, and over-eating to cope.

Or maybe I’m the only one who struggles with keeping the joy of the season present while juggling all the things.

That’s exactly what this year of indie publishing has been for me: a struggle. Sadly, the joy of writing is gone and although it’s only been a couple of weeks since I released the first of three indie books, I’m not seeing the positive “gains” so many authors claim motivate them to take this path.

That’s the biggest reason this path isn’t for me. The next reason is that I’m NOT a fan of doing it all. I want to focus on what I’m good at, not try to learn how to be the boss of it all. And I HATE missing deadlines!

Doing it All

Some people love to do all the things that producing a book involves. What are these things?

  • Writing the manuscript
  • Hiring editor and proofreader
  • Cover design
  • Marketing Plan
  • Formatting interiors for different versions
  • Uploading files
  • Creating ad campaigns
  • Getting the word out

And there’s more. Obviously, writing is the holy grail of being an author. I haven’t written anything too creative since August. That’s when I finished the first draft of the third book in this indie series.

That’s also about the time I realized I didn’t have a story for book four. I had a couple of scenes. But I’d just spent weeks (and I do mean literal WEEKS) getting the perfect cover designed. I had to write this story. Didn’t I?

After all, I’d negotiated a three-book editing contract with my first-choice editor. I owed her a third manuscript in November. But I didn’t even have the first manuscript ready for my September deadline.

So far, this “doing it all” thing wasn’t working for me.

Missing Deadlines

I am the person who is always early. I never wait to the last minute to do anything. The more a deadline looms over me, the more panic sets in and my ability to create and work flees into deep hiding.

So, I swallowed my pride and asked for an extension.

And my gracious editor granted it. Twice. Yep. She’s amazing. If you need an editor, I can’t recommend her highly enough.

“I’ve had authors wait until the night before their manuscript is due before asking for an extension.” What? That’s just plain rude. Especially since I was nowhere NEAR finished with the story that was due in a few weeks.

Two-month extension? She granted that for book three of the series (and book two of the contract). Then she agreed to substitute a Christian romance from my Sweet Grove Romance series (she edited book one of what has grown to five stories) for the “story that wasn’t.”

Recently, I had to push that date back again because in working through the revisions for the romance, I realized I’d short-changed my hero and needed to rework and rewrite (in a big way) his half of the story.

Facing Disappointment

I was thrilled to have a book with my name alone on the cover, wasn’t I? This was the dream I’d been writing toward for six years.

That’s why I listened to other indie authors and booked a coffee cafe for a book release party. I’d have two new paperbacks to offer for sale (not to mention a box-load of anthologies I’d ordered from my publishers because I KNEW I’d sell them – HA!) and there’d be cute cupcakes.

They were cute and delicious but ONLY one got eaten at the event.

I wrote press releases and sent them to the local papers. The papers ran the stories. I posted announcements in the local post office, at area businesses and all over social media.  But the Google form I created for RSVPs didn’t fill up as I expected.

The best decision I made: not to order 100 books like one author suggested.

No sense rehashing the poor turnout. Maybe I’d picked a bad night. Or maybe the place was off-putting.

It’s my nature to second-guess everything, over-analyze my part in it.

Eventually, I let myself FEEL the loss.

This was not what I pictured for my first book release. And after the pain lessened, the lesson reminded me that I’m not a PR guru, and I WANT a traditional publisher who knows how to handle all this for me.

Learning from it All

Time to move on from that. I still have two more books to release in this series. There won’t be any more public appearances unless someone asks me to come to the library or bookstore. My creative soul prefers to hibernate in my office anyway.

Here are the important lessons I’ve taken away from this project:

  • I don’t want to be an indie author. I need to pursue a traditional publisher for all future projects.
  • Release events are meant to be fan-inspired not author-driven
  • Biblical fiction is not my genre
  • Nonfiction is not my genre
  • A speaking platform is not where my career is headed
  • My joy in writing regular romance is waning
  • I need to create new stories to feel joy
  • Planning is a strong suit but not joy-inducing
  • Too much revision and editing is like a knife in the back to my creative self

As I write this, my passion for a new project of any sort hasn’t returned, although I have written a couple chapters of a new sweet romance for a proposal. I’m still wondering what I’ll write next if this proposal is rejected.

Maybe I need a sabbatical from writing. I never thought such a thing would happen.

What I’ll take is a sabbatical from writing for publication. As soon as I finish these two projects, I’ll write whatever comes. Somewhere, I’ll rediscover the joy and passion that fueled me for the past six years.

Six years without a true “break” from a schedule of projects. I guess it’s time.

What would you like to read from me? What is your favorite genre?

My 40-Day Challenge

Am I the only one to notice this trend of challenges? Whether it’s a 21-day no sugar challenge or a 30-day clean eating challenge or my own 30 days focusing on gratitude challenge, it seems like challenges are everywhere. I recently finished a 40-day challenge.

I purposely left what type of challenge it was out of the title. I wanted to draw readers in before they said, “Whatever.”

It’s based around the book DRAW THE CIRCLE by Mark Batterson, and I was skeptical about it at first.

After all, forty days seemed to echo Lent to me. And I’m neither Catholic nor Protestant, so I’m always leery of investing in “programs” designed by these mega groups.

But it was a prayer challenge, so I suppose those large religious groups might have a bit of expertise in that area. Or they should.

Why This Challenge?

I kept a prayer journal for several years, but about two years ago, I went through something difficult. It seemed like every prayer got a big negative answer from the Lord.

It discouraged me. I didn’t feel like praying to a God who wouldn’t honor my “promise prayers.” Yes, I was praying prmosies and verses and asking the Lord to perform them in my situation.

But He didn’t. Because He wanted me to move out of that situation (but we like our comfort zones, don’t we?) and that was the only way it would happen.

I’d been becoming more spiritually restless, too. When my passion for writing – my gifted calling from God – disappeared, I decided I needed Him more than ever. And I was the one who had moved away. I had stopped praying faithfully.

So when I saw this title, I decided it was time. To go along with my gratitude focus of thirty days in November, I would do this prayer challenge for forty days. I already know it will continue long after I finish the “guide” that goes along with it.

I’m not giving up on those circles I’ve drawn. I’m going to circle those requests in prayer until the Lord answers.

Why Now?

This answer is two-fold:

  • I need it now and
  • Finishing the year with something new is a good way to find my word for the next year

I love November. I love coming up with reasons to be grateful every day. The more obscure or unlikely these things are, the happier they make me.

And I was drowning in disillusionment. I’m Peter whose walk on water was interrupted with sudden sinking.

“Save me, Lord!”

And prayer is the only way I could call out to Him. He gladly grasped my flailing hand. Although I haven’t seen other answers to my specific requests, I’ve changed.

Prayer changes the person who prays. That’s the biggest and best reason to take up a prayer challenge. It doesn’t have to be this long. Even a seven-day challenge could return you to the center of God’s will.

What I Learned?

On the fifth day, I made a crazy specific request and “circled it” in prayer for the next three days. It had an expiration date: November 8. The answer to my prayer was a resounding, “NO!” Caps and exclamation point intentional.

The next day, I wondered what I was even doing. I wrote out the answer beside the circle with the original request, and I was pretty mopey.

About twelve days into this thing, I thought, “I can’t come up with forty different prayer requests. They’re already starting to sound the same?”

Which drove me to this request, “Turn my focus to others.” It shames me a bit to admit this. I’m supposed to be interceding for others regularly. Many of those first days’ requests were for family members.

By twenty two days in, I realize God was stretching my faith. Different characters and verses were echoed everywhere I went, and because I was listening, I heard them.

Now that the challenge is over, I’m back on track. I’m continuing with the circles I drew in the journal and adding new ones daily as I’m burdened. I’m out of my box, checking in with people to see if God has answered my prayers for them.

And I’m writing again. But I’m still in need of rest. And what I learned the most during this challenge is to LISTEN as much as a pray. God has something to tell me, and it begins by a narrowed view of my future. He’s shown me my “next step” for writing. After that? I don’t know.

I’ll try to keep you posted right here on this blog.

What sort of challenges have you seen? Have you participated in any of them? Do you think they’re good or just another type of “New Year’s resolution” that’s sure to be broken?

Third Glimpse behind the Curtain

Tomorrow is my birthday. Let’s celebrate by ME giving YOU another free peek inside my latest book. A Pondering Heart is the first in a series of biblical fiction that stretched both my faith and my writing ability.

But you don’t care about that. You’ve read chapter one and chapter two, and now you’re ready to keep reading. Today, you’ll meet Joseph of Nazareth. What man would believe the tale he’s about to hear from his “wife”?

If you enjoy these samples, please comment. I’d like to offer the same for the next two books, but not if they aren’t worth reading.

Here’s chapter three of Reflections Book One:

What a welcome home! I bolted outside and heaved into the waste bucket until I thought my stomach might rend in half. I vomited until all that came out was a thick green slime. It burned my throat as it erupted from my mouth.

It was beginning. I pressed my sleeping shift against my stomach. Elisabeth warned me to expect as much as a month of nausea, usually just in the mornings. She kept flat bread beside her sleeping couch, claiming it helped to have something in the stomach before trying to stand up in the mornings.

I didn’t know if I would be able to convince Anna to let me leave food beside my bed. Even if she allowed it, my brothers might eat it before I did. Those three were always hungry.

I clutched my stomach and returned inside. Tonight, Father and I would meet with Joseph. He had built a new house in town beside his shop. Father told me Joseph had been traveling for much of the time I was visiting my cousins. Did he wonder why I left so suddenly without a word to anyone?

Father told me nothing of his plan to approach the subject of my sudden pregnancy. Neither of us expected Joseph to uphold his end of the espousal agreement, not that we spoke our doubts aloud. An honorable man like Joseph bar Jacob would find infidelity an unacceptable breach of contract. How could I defend my virtue when my body told a different story?

Darkness fell early. Father and I walked to the village and down a small street far from the town’s center to a sturdy brick building. Joseph’s house (would it ever be mine?), a simple two room box, had sturdy wooden furnishings. Two pillows were nestled together near the hearth. Father lowered himself onto one of them. I stared toward the ground and nearly missed Joseph’s gesture for me to sit on the other pillow.

Father shook his head.

“Thank you,” I said, raising my eyes as far as Joseph’s beard, “I will share with Abba.”

Joseph nodded. “Would you care for wine, Father Heli?”

“Not at the moment.”

I squatted beside Father on the edge of the pillow, my back resting against his side. Joseph folded his legs beneath him and nodded to Father respectfully.

In the light of the candles flickering on the nearby table, I studied this man, my betrothed. Flecks of gray dotted his dark brown beard, which he kept closely trimmed to his face. His skin was sun-darkened and weathered.

Pale brown eyes stared at Father. The planes of his face were broad and masculine, accentuated by his neatly trimmed hair, which hung to the collar of his robe in the back but was brushed away from his face in the front. It wasn’t a traditional haircut, but it made sense for a man who bent over wood and stone, working with tools all day.

The two exchanged greetings and small talk, while I watched Joseph from beneath my lashes. I pulled my shawl further forward to camouflage the inappropriate staring.

“This is more than a social visit,” Father said.

Joseph nodded. “Of course.”

I felt Father glance toward me. I clenched my skirts with suddenly cold hands. Tightness in my chest made breathing difficult.

“Something unexpected has mired our betrothal agreement,” Father said. “In days to come, you will surely hear many unflattering accounts of loose behavior and speculations against my Mary’s character. An honorable man should never learn things in such a manner.”

Joseph tilted his head toward Father, but his eyes swept in my direction. Heat clawed up my neck and burned my cheeks.

“Just over three months ago, Jehovah’s messenger visited Mary.”

A whisper of wind could have knocked me backward at that moment. Father said we would keep the truth from everyone, and yet he was telling Joseph. I glanced toward my future husband, wondering how he would react to the unbelievable account.

His face didn’t change while Father repeated the angel’s declaration. A calloused brown hand smoothed his beard. He cupped his chin in one hand, a finger straying to cover his strong mouth.

Father’s direct approach shouldn’t have surprised me. Of course he would tell Joseph. How else would he explain my condition?

“Mary is with child,” Father said. “Although she has done nothing to violate the marriage contract, the law gives you the right to divorce her.”

Joseph’s brown eyes filled with emotion. I guessed it was disbelief. My experience spotting Anna’s disapproval and condemnation made it easy to rule out those emotions. He rested his gaze on me, and I tried to shrink into my robe, wishing for a larger shawl to hide my embarrassment.
If he spoke to me, what would I say? The whole thing sounded absurd when Father admitted it aloud.

“You realize how incredible this sounds?” Joseph drew each of his words out, as if carefully selecting them.

“Yes. Precisely why no one outside this room knows about it.”

Not exactly true. I had wanted to tell Father about Elisabeth’s prophecy, but the trip had worn me beyond fatigue. Too tired to eat dinner, I had gone directly to bed when I arrived the previous day.

“You are claiming she is carrying the Messiah,” Joseph said.

“I claim nothing. I am simply repeating what happened.”

If what Elisabeth said was true, I would see this son rise to a position of importance. If Jehovah knew how scared the thought of being set aside by Joseph and shaming my father made me, would he still choose me? After all, I was no one. And now, his special child would be worse than an outcast and raised by a woman considered to have a loose reputation.

“I’m expected to believe my wife is pregnant but didn’t have marital relations with another man?”

Father’s silence made my stomach clench. Bile burned the back of my throat. I gritted my teeth, keeping the churning acid from making an escape. If I vomited here, I would die.

“I expect you to accept my word, one honorable man to another.”

Silence filled the space around us. It was so complete I could hear the fire hissing against the lard on the candle nearest to me. Father expected too much.

“A large request, Heli,” Joseph said. His face unreadable, voice unchanging; the man’s emotions mystified me. Did he think Father lied to him?
No arguing—it was an amazing tale. So why should he believe it? Especially with his honor at stake.

By some miracle of faith, if he agreed to marry me, people would say we had prematurely consummated the wedding contract. If he broke our agreement, folks would believe I had stepped out during the engagement.

“I will respect whatever decision you make.” Father never once dropped his gaze from Joseph’s.

Silence dripped. Time dragged. My feet itched to run away while my stomach tumbled, threatening to disgorge the lentils and bread I’d eaten for supper.

“I will consider your words and weigh my options,” Joseph said.

He rose smoothly, bowing his head in reverence to my father. I scrambled to my feet, steadying Father as he stood. Creaks and groans sounded from his joints, reminding me that he was no longer a young man. How much had my predicament aged him?

Tears burned my eyes, blinding me from seeing the final exchange of glances between the men. I dared not spare a single look toward Joseph. Let his dismissal of me arrive in a writ on the morrow. It would be easier than hearing him denounce my father’s honor in person.

That night, again, a flood of tears soaked my pillow. Is it true Jehovah keeps them all in a bottle? He will have to wring my pillow to capture the innumerable drops shed since his pronouncement.

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Happy December, faithful reader of this blog.

Welcome to chapter two of A Pondering Heart:

Anna huffed, arms crossed over her chest, when she shuffled down into the small room she shared with Father. Father and I had spent time together in the evenings since before my mother died. He taught me to read, write, and do sums. Some might accuse him of defying tradition (only men need these skills). However, teaching his daughter—who in turn taught her sisters—was a necessity. With all the labor required to keep the farm going, he didn’t have energy for the record keeping.

I scanned the largest room in my father’s house rather than looking him in the eye. I recalled all the hours of sitting here to eat with my family. I recalled sitting around the fire listening to Father’s deep voice teach us the stories from the Torah. Now, the silence pressed against me like a weight. If I listened closely, I could hear my brothers whispering in their bed behind a hanging goatskin less than twelve spans away.

My father’s hand patted my shoulder, and I turned my gaze toward him. Black eyes dwarfed the portion of his face not covered by his mostly gray beard. Heli bar Matthat, my father, concealed a host of emotions behind those dark eyes. I blinked to keep the tears stinging my own eyes from betraying how weak I really felt.

I knelt like a common servant at his feet, my hands clenched together. My heart felt lower than the hardened earth beneath my aching knees. He was sending me away to Elisabeth. I hadn’t seen her in seven years. She came to care for Jesse after Mother died giving birth to him.
Elisabeth, wife to a priest, had no children of her own and could be spared to spend several months with a widower and his three children until a more permanent caregiver could be found.

“I will arrange for you to travel with a merchant.” Father’s voice, low and gravelly, revealed what his face did not: disappointment, a hint of despair.

“Abba, I swear I’m telling the truth.” I sounded like my youngest brother, Caleb, tattling on Jacob, who was closest to him in age.

Father’s warm, calloused finger tilted my chin upward. The waning candlelight reflected off moisture in his eyes.

“I have always known you were special, Mary.”

My lips trembled, smiling at his words. The tension gripping my heart loosened, making it easier to breathe. He believed in me. Warmth swelled my heart.

“You must not tell others,” he said.

A knot twisted my stomach. Not tell others? But once my condition became evident, they would believe the worst about me. Did Father expect me to bear their judgments silently? Heat flooded my face as if I stood before an open flame.

“They will believe what they want,” he said. “It is the nature of people to believe the worst. If you tell them . . .”

I watched his throat wobble beneath his whiskers. My shame would be his shame.

“Abba, no,” I said, unable to keep a tear from streaking down my upturned face. “People will speak ill of you. I can’t bear it.”

“If I can bear their scorn, you can bear it.” His harsh tone startled me. “We know the truth. Nothing anyone says will change it.”

“But Joseph . . .”

Tears choked me. The thought of seeing pain in his gentle eyes raked across my soul. His opinion of me mattered almost as much as my father’s. Joseph was older, but he had pursued me specifically, even though other girls had more appealing dowries. He would know we hadn’t been together. He would think I had . . .

More heat flooded through my face and spread down my chest until I thought I might burst into flame.

“We will meet with him together,” Father said. “I will explain your situation to him. Just the three of us.”

“I’m sorry.”

How could calloused hands be so gentle? He pulled me up, holding me on his lap as he often did with the young ones. I couldn’t remember the last time I was held this way. Safe, for the moment, in his arms.

“Never be sorry when Jehovah’s plans are not your own.” His warm breath, smelling of wine and thyme, tickled my cheek. “His ways are not our ways, daughter. They are higher. We can’t understand, but we can obey.”

My chin shivered, making answering him difficult. “Yes, Father.”

My father’s reputation would soon lie in ruins. And it was all my fault. No man would ever marry me. I was sullied. I tried to imagine sharing this house with Father and Anna and the young ones, carrying my own child bound to my chest. Anna would dislike me even more. It would be worse than a death sentence.

And so I sobbed late into the night. Did I even weep this much when my mother died? My pillow muffled the anguished sounds, so my siblings slept undisturbed around me.

I spilled so many tears that night I doubted the straw inside the linen cover would ever be dry again.

* * * *

Trudging up the switchbacks behind a donkey cart lost appeal by the end of a single hour. Forget spending three days enduring a similar view. Father’s merchant friend sang or spoke softly to the animals, two mules with bulky packs and the donkey pulling the small, rickety cart. He might have been alone for all the attention he paid me. Perhaps he didn’t mean to slight me. After all, most of his time on the road was solitary.
Apparently, the fee Father paid the man to escort me to the remote village didn’t include conversation. The void left plenty of time for unwelcome thoughts to invade my mind. The meditations swarmed like flies on a pile of goat dung.

One thought kept repeating: everyone would think the worst of me. People talked about the Messiah coming, born to a virgin of the tribe of Judah. No one understood how it could happen. None of them would believe the goat-herding daughter of Heli—namely me—would be the vessel Jehovah used.

If I hadn’t spoken to the heavenly messenger, I wouldn’t believe it. I pictured my best friend, Sarai, telling me she was pregnant by the Holy Ghost. (Isn’t that what the angel had told me?) I would want to believe her. Why would she lie? Yet, I knew it would sound like boasting. If I couldn’t imagine believing my own best friend, how could I expect anyone to accept the story from my mouth?

Father believed me. For now, that would be enough.

The meeting with Joseph would wait until I returned from my visit in the hill country. I had not seen Elisabeth, my cousin, since after my mother’s death. Had it really been so long? I counted my brother Jesse’s birthdays and decided it had been seven years.

Elisabeth’s kindness helped our family through a difficult time. After Mother was gone, she stayed with us for two months. She’s the one who found an acceptable wet nurse for my brother Jesse and showed me, just a young girl then, how to take care of a family. Yes, a girl of six years was expected to bear the responsibility for two children and a farm house.

Even then, she had been an old woman, my grandmother’s age. Yet, the heavenly messenger said she would soon bear a son. How could one such as she bear fruit in her womb?

It was a miracle of God, the messenger had said. How would she feel? Would I be able to help her? Would she believe me if I told her about the messenger? Somehow, I knew I would find comfort in her bosom.

And so I climbed on, breathing dust through the thick wool of my shawl, which I pressed tightly over my mouth and nose. I endured the rocks cutting into the soles of my sandals. When my ankle twisted in a rut, I pushed the pain to the back of my mind. I focused on what lay at the end of my journey: a mother’s warm embrace offered by Elisabeth.

Perhaps, I would have solace of my own to offer her.

Or maybe I wouldn’t speak about my problems, as Father had instructed. It would be months before my body revealed the secret. Joseph should be the first to learn of it. I wondered if he would think I betrayed my vows while on this excursion. Did it matter?

I sopped up a tear with a corner of my shawl—one I hoped wasn’t dusty. My heart ached at the thought of wounding Joseph.

When Joseph set me aside, no other man would want me, not even for a second or third wife. My fatherless child would chain me to spinsterhood. Father’s reputation would suffer, making it more difficult for him to make a match for my sister Mary, who was little more than a year younger than me. I would be shunned by the women in town. Being my friend would be tantamount to social annihilation. Who would risk it?

After a third full day of travel, we neared the end of the journey. Night fell before we reached the small dwelling Elisabeth shared with her priestly husband, Zacharias. Flickering candlelight offered welcome from behind the wooden shutters. Exhaustion made my legs feel like boulders, and the small pack of belongings on my back pressed down like a sleeping goat. Wrestling with my worries hadn’t helped.

I knocked on the wooden door. The mules snorted and stomped behind me. The merchant delivered me to my relatives. His part was done.

With the light behind her, I couldn’t distinguish the features of the woman who opened the door. Her voluminous robe covered her midsection but not the fact that she was expecting. A mound pressed against the front of her dark blue caftan. Her hair, pulled securely into a roll at the base of her neck, was mostly white with only a few dark threads running across the top.

“It’s late, child.” She tugged me into the house. “Zacharias has already retired for the night.”

I wanted to apologize, but she shushed me and hustled me toward the table where the dripping candle offered light to the room. Her fingers tugged my pack from my back, but I pulled it to my chest, unwilling to let her bear it in her condition.

I greeted her. “You look well, cousin.”

The shake of her head stopped. Her dark eyes widened, and the front of her robe bounced. The child moved! I wanted to reach out and touch the squirming mound but restrained myself. Anna had despised it when anyone touched her stomach when she was expecting.

“Blessed art thou among women,” [Luke 1:42]Elisabeth cried, dark eyes glowing with a strange sheen, words echoing with authority.

“And blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” Elisabeth threw her arms wide, as if to embrace me. “And whence is this to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”[Luke 1:42-43]

I allowed her to hug me, amazed when her child kicked through her skin and clothes and into my side. Tears leapt into my eyes. I had been more emotional in the past four days than I had been since my mother’s death. If Father’s wife’s pregnancies were any indication, it would only get worse as my condition progressed.

Even as I reveled in her warmth, I wondered how Elisabeth knew I was expecting the Messiah.

“Your greeting?” I tried to ask about it.

“Lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.”[Luke 1:44]

Her interruption didn’t stop the babe’s churning. Did it hurt to have something rolling inside her like that?

I stepped back. My shawl dropped to my shoulders. Elisabeth’s spotted and wrinkled hands cupped my face. Her calloused fingers smoothed away the moisture worrying my cheeks.

“Blessed is she that believed, for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from The Lord.”[Luke 1:45]

A strange peace engulfed me, and words poured from my mouth. For the first time, praise blotted out the fear.

The Lord had chosen me. It would not be easy, and most people would criticize and mock me. None of those things mattered. The Messiah was coming. God had promised this blessing to our Father Abraham, and now his ancient promise was being fulfilled. One so mighty could surely sustain me through the tumult ahead.

Both of us were crying when I finished my pouring out the praise to our Lord. Not tears of sorrow—tears of joy and shared comprehension. God had a special purpose for the sons we carried. Bearing the scorn of neighbors seemed a small price to pay in exchange.

As I write these words, once again I must say, “Blessed be Yahweh, whose words are as sure as the sunrise.”

Enjoying the story so far? Grab your copy now. REFLECTIONS: A PONDERING HEART is available in paperback, eBook and audio.

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Merry Christmas from Mary

This month, I’ll be giving away the first three chapters of the first book in my Reflections series. That’s right. If you follow the blog, you’ll get to read the first three chapters (one per week) without investing more than your time.

Of course, I hope you get invested in the story. I hope you love it like so many readers who’ve left ONLY POSITIVE reviews about the story.

Reviews like this one:

But now, as I’ve promised. Here is chapter one of A Pondering Heart, Reflections Book One:

The day my world changed began like every other day in recent memory. An orange sun rose over the brushy hills. Pasty clouds chased each other across the blue expanse of sky. A refreshing chill from the autumn air nipped my cheeks.

I meandered along the worn dirt path. My destination was the same as every morning: the cave beneath the terraced hillside where my father planted his crops. Over the past three years, the path had worn to little more than a rut beneath the constant traffic of my sandal-clad feet and the goats’ sharp hooves.

At the mouth of the cave, I swung the wooden gate toward myself and ducked to keep from knocking my forehead on the rocks. Not that I was tall, but the entrance wasn’t even six spans high.

When I entered our makeshift stable, the milk nanny rubbed her nose against the wool girdle that secured a water bladder to my hip. I pushed her away, scratching her forehead to ease the rebuke. She whined. One look at her engorged udder explained her urgent desire to follow me out of the pen. With one hand on her leather collar, I secured the gate behind me. Not a moment too soon. The other goats pressed their faces through the wide rungs. Their persistent baas echoed around the cave.

I patted a few of their heads. Pushing the shawl back onto my shoulders, I knelt to begin the task of milking. A hummed tune lifted my heart and kept the bleats of the kids in check. My thoughts wandered to the dream I had about my wedding last night. Rather than my face being hidden, the face of my groom was covered with a veil. Some say dreams have significance. If that’s true, what did this one mean?

Soon, the udder hung limply, and the nanny pushed her nose into the enclosure. I never had to tie her as long as her kids were penned up. Most of the young ones were meat goats, not her babies at all, but she seemed to adopt them anyway. The goat knew mothering better than Anna, my father’s wife. But I shouldn’t complain. It would harden my spirit, and if my stepmother had taught me anything, it was that I didn’t want to become bitter.

I carried the pot of milk through a narrow tunnel into a cool room. Light filtered through several fissures. I strained my eyes to make out the large pot and small jar sitting on a ledge in the wall. I placed the fresh milk beside the other containers and reached into the large pot.
The sour smell of curdling milk stung my nose. The curds were still too small and soft. At least one more day before the cheese would be ready for draining. One less thing on my list of responsibilities for today. I sighed. I loved making the cheese almost as much as eating it, but I hated listening to Anna complain about the smell when I brought it into the house to mix in the herbs and salt.

I scuttled back to the main cave, wiping my hands along my skirt. The goats bleated as I opened their enclosure. My little flock surrounded me, snuffling at my girdle, hoping for a treat. I laughed, fondling their ears while leading them into the scraggly grass surrounding our home. Now that the harvest was well past and Father’s winter wheat plucked its head in the midfields, foraging became a chore. There wasn’t much fodder, since they had been grazing these fields for a month. The time for selling the young ones neared. Luckily, the market for goat meat never waned in Nazareth.

With a critical gaze, I studied the three male kids. I would need to choose the most perfect one and keep it for Pesach, still four months away. Since I had begun caring for the goats, Father always let me decide which one was unblemished and fit for sacrifice.

Gamboling, frolicking, nipping at each other, the kids led the way to the watering hole. Adults pulled chunks of grass, wayward leaves on the bushes, and even strips of bark along the way. All around me, the pasture looked forlorn. It was nearly time to stake my herd closer to the house, where they would clean up the remainder of Anna’s vegetable patch. Of course, I would need to be doubly certain she was finished with it. For such a small woman, her rants stung like a whip. At least she saved most of them for me or my sister, Mary (how confusing to have two Marys in the house), leaving my not-quite eight-year-old brother Jesse unscathed.

The sun rose, and my breath no longer misted in the cool air. I glanced at the sky, measuring the height of the sun. Still plenty of time to sweep the floors before Anna trekked to market, leaving me in charge of the young ones and preparing the midday meal for Father.

I herded the goats back into the cave, promising to give them another chance to graze before dinner. Maybe I was crazy for talking to them. They weren’t human after all. But life could be lonely on a farm.

I pulled the jar of fresh milk from the cool room. Amazing how a single hour in the dark space dropped the temperature. I carried it in the crook of my elbow.

When I left the cave, a draft pushed the scents of goat, manure, and moldering straw away from me. I didn’t mind the smell of the goats, but fresh morning air always relaxed me. My shoulders sagged, and I trudged away from the cliffs, never too anxious to return to Anna’s domain.
As I rounded the bend, I glanced up at the dusty track leading to the house. What I saw froze me in place.

A most unusual man blocked the path. His white flowing robe reflected the sunlight. Golden-white hair haloed his sharp, pale features, which sparkled with iridescence. Eyes the color of the sky, seeming illumined from within, pierced me as easily as a sharp knife.

“Hail, thou that art highly favored.”[Luke 1:28] His voice shook the ground. Or maybe that was just my legs trembling.

My heart thumped against my ribs, and my breath gurgled in my throat. I clenched the pot, unwilling to let my morning’s work fall prey to my terror.

“The Lord is with thee,” the man continued. “Blessed art thou among women.”[Luke 1:28]

My mind spun, waking, at the strange greeting, from the paralysis his musical voice caused. How was a farmer’s daughter highly favored? Certainly the dung caking the soles of my sandals sang a different tune. Who was this man to assure me of my relationship with Jehovah? Yes, I prayed each morning and night, as Father had taught us all, but how could this one know that?

Most disturbing was the final part of his greeting. Only one woman would be considered blessed among the daughters of Eve and Sarah. I was not that woman. I was just a girl.

“Fear not, Mary.” He extended a pale hand toward me. “For thou hast found favor with God.”[Luke 1:30]

Was this a heavenly messenger? I loved Jehovah as much as any of my friends, but why would the Almighty give honor to a girl like me? A haze of unreality veiled my mind.

“And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.”[Luke 1:31]

Now I knew the messenger had the wrong house. I couldn’t have a baby, because I didn’t have a husband. Yet. Was he accusing me of being intimate with a man? My face flushed.

“He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David.”[Luke 1:32] I admit I gasped at this. “And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”[Luke 1:33]

My stomach dropped to my feet, and my arm lost all strength, sending the clay pot plummeting to the earth. It splattered near my toes, sloshing goat’s milk onto the barren ground. The words proclaimed by this messenger echoed the prophecies of old and the promises made to my father’s great-grandfather. The phrasing matched words spoken by my father’s deep, warm voice during our evening devotions. A similar thrill evoked by those recitations tingled along my skin.

This messenger spoke of the Messiah, but what he said couldn’t be true. I could prove it to him.

“How shall this be?” When I asked about this delicate subject, heat flooded my face, and I couldn’t look directly at the man. “Seeing I know not a man?”[Luke 1:34]

I was betrothed, yes, but I remained innocent. I might be a simple farm girl, but I knew how children were planted in a woman by the man’s seed. And I had never been with any man in the intimate way reserved for married couples.

I pictured the kind face of my betrothed, and my heart skipped in my chest. He was godly, handsome even, but we had never even touched hands. To lie with him as a married woman? I couldn’t imagine it.

The Lord’s messenger didn’t seem surprised by my question. He continued without pause.

“The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee.”[Luke 1:35]

A verse Father shared from the prophet Isaiah rang in my mind: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”[Isaiah 7:14]

My mouth dried like summer-parched ground. I forced saliva in, swallowing past the pomegranate in my throat.

“Immanuel?” It still came out as a whisper.

The angel-I can hardly believe Jehovah sent an angel to me-nodded and said, “That holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”[Luke 1:35]

My mind, whirling and bucking, refused to process the full meaning of these words. Even as I’m jotting the whole thing down now, it seems so unreal. A fantastic dream.

“Thy cousin, Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age,” the man in white said. “This is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.”[Luke 1:36]

Elisabeth? She had been an old woman when last I saw her. Older than Father. Women that old were beyond childbearing years.

The angel gave a slight nod of his head. He must have seen understanding glimmer in my eyes.

“With God nothing shall be impossible,”[Luke 1:37] he said.

Elisabeth had miraculously conceived. According to Jehovah’s messenger, I would experience a similar conception. Similar, but not the same. The Spirit of God would father my child. My hand flew to my flat stomach. With fingers buried between the folds of my gray robe, I wondered how it would be possible. Had it already happened?

The man in glistening white garments waited. Did he expect me to have a return message? My throat constricted again. What could a poor girl say to the King of Glory?

Finally, I found my voice. It sounded stronger than I felt.

“Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” I said, bowing my head toward the angel, “be it unto me according to thy word.”[Luke 1:38]

When I looked up, the path before me was empty. The house was only a few steps away. My foot throbbed, waking me from my stupor. My smallest three toes had blackened ends. A puddle of thick white liquid slowly soaked into the ground.

Who can I tell about this? I can’t tell Joseph. He would never believe such a tale. Who would?

Enjoying the story so far? Grab your copy now. REFLECTIONS: A PONDERING HEART is available in paperback, eBook and audio.

Happy Thanksgiving

Today this author is with her family. She’s enjoying some fresh-roasted turkey with a large helping of her sister’s homemade cornbread dressing.

It’s delicious. And time with family along with dressing and gravy make this MY favorite holiday of the year.

Even better, this is my beautiful granddaughter’s first Thanksgiving and she’s spending it with Lolly and Pop (and her parents and adoring great aunt Connie).

There is plenty of food. We’re laughing around the table while we play games and enjoy spending time together.

Yes, there is football on the television. The “old men” are downstairs watching that while we’re upstairs laughing and socializing. Which do you prefer to do on holidays – watch TV or socialize?

Today is also my sister’s birthday. She LOVES hosting family dinners, and since she lives in Lincoln City, Oregon (within steps of a Pacific Ocean view), we’re happy to accommodate her. Also, I baked a cherry cheesecake dream for her “birthday cake.” Sure beats pumpkin pie!

Aside from telling her “Happy Birthday,” I’d like to acknowledge that she’s my biggest fan. She owns every book I’ve written. She will read them all even if I decide to write some genre she doesn’t read all the time.

That’s what a “fan” does!

Now, on to this idea of being thankful. I’ve had a difficult, transitional writing year, but I still have much to be thankful for. I hope you enjoy my recap of the top five blessings of my year.

#5 – A Money-Making “Traditionally Published” Book

(As a side note, this book has MORE reviews than any of my others. Is that why it has sold so well? Could be! So if you read a book, please leave a review. It helps the author. Really.)

 

#4 – Persevering to Finish my Indie Series

#3 – A Home for my Heart

#2- Regular Time with My “Core Unit”

#1 – Becoming a Lolly

I’d love to hear about five things you’re grateful for this year. One thing I’ve learned about gratitude, the more people share it the bigger it gets. It’s hard to be grumpy when positive vibes blind you.

What’s your favorite holiday?