Real Life Stories

Susie Finkbeiner: The Novelist You’re Going to Want as Your New Best Friend

I disremember exactly how or where I met Susie Finkbeiner. The Christian writing world is small in general, and it’s really, really small here in Michigan. We all bump into each other sooner or later. I’m so glad I found her!

photo courtesy of Susie's Facebook page, (I stole it without remorse.)
photo courtesy of Susie’s Facebook page, (I stole it without remorse.)

As soon as I met Susie, it was clear we could cause significant shenanigans if left unsupervised. Luckily, we’re always well supervised with husbands and our agent and about a hundred other people to make us behave. Which is sort of a bummer, but that’s how being an adult goes, I guess.

At any rate, we’re not here to talk about shenanigans today. We’re here because Susie’s new book, a Cup of Dust, releases this minute! Right now! I have a copy of the book to give away to a randomly selected commenter, and if you love well written fiction then you will love Susie’s work.

A Cup of Dust cover

Leave a comment below or on my Facebook page, and you’ll be entered into the drawing. So exciting!

I also wanted to interview Susie about her life’s work. I wanted to know how and why she decided to be a writer, because I think hearing about how others walk with God helps us in our own walk with Him. Here’s our conversation:

Can you tell us a little bit about each of the earlier books you’ve written?
I sure can! Paint Chips is a mother/daughter story of how life can build obstacles between us and how God can bring redemption.

My Mother’s Chamomile is about a family of funeral directors. It’s the story of mercy and comfort in the face of the worst days of life.

Now tell us about A Cup of Dust. What’s your favorite part of the book?
Oh, I love A Cup of Dust. It’s the story of 10-year-old Pearl living in Dust Bowl Era Oklahoma. It’s a coming of age in which Pearl learns that where you come from isn’t who you are.

I think my favorite parts of the book are when someone tells a story. There’s was a storytelling culture and I was so pleased to work that into the novel.

Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes! I come from an artsy family. My mom nearly studied fine arts at Michigan State and my dad is a published author. Being artistic was something we all valued when we were growing up. I’ve always loved stories, making them up and writing them.

However, I wanted to be a staff writer for Saturday Night Live when I was 8. That never happened. Alas.

At what point did you say, “Hey, I’m a writer and this is now my calling/career/thang!”?
I guess I really owned the writing career/thang when a play I’d written was published. I thought, “Well, I guess I can do this for awhile.”

Fortunately I never had thoughts that I could make a whole bunch of dough doing it. That would have been a bit disappointing, huh?

On dark days, what do you think about doing instead of being a writer?
I don’t really let myself go there in my mind. I have no marketable skills. I’m a terrible employee. I don’t like going to work.

However, on dark days I do eat stupid amounts of chocolate.

Did anyone think you were nuts for becoming an author? Did it change your path at all?
As far as people who are close to me, no. Not really. They knew it was coming. Also, because they love me, they’re supportive. I’m an awful human being when I’m not writing. I’m not happy at all unless I have a story brewing.

A friend of mine did bother me regularly to write a novel. I’m glad he kept pushing. It’s made all the difference in my life.

How much of your writing is directly related to your relationship with God? How does your faith fit your job?
You know, writing is my way of processing. Often I realize something God wants me to understand as I’m writing about creepy bad guys and quirky grandmothers. It’s pretty amazing when those sparks ignite as I’m typing.

Faith is the basis of my writing life. It’s impossible for me to leave it out of my writing, even if it isn’t an explicitly Christian story. Faith in Jesus is my worldview. It would be inauthentic of me if my writing didn’t reflect that.

Do you have a Bible verse that helps you focus when things get rough?
You know, I don’t have a particular verse for that. Usually I end up focusing on a verse that inspired the writing I’m working on at the moment. Either that or I’m reminded of a certain passage and look it up real quick (thank goodness for Bible Gateway).

What’s next for you?
Currently I’m writing the sequel to A Cup of Dust. After that I’ll resume research for a Vietnam Era book. I’ve been kicking around the idea for a funny memoir about high school. After that I have a few ideas for a novel or two. Ideas have never been my problem. It’s just having the time and focus to get them done.

If you’d like to learn more about Susie and her work, here’s where you can find her:

And don’t forget– if you’d like to enter the drawing for her latest book, A Cup of Dust, just comment below or on my Facebook Page.

Cup of Dust spines

Healing: A Few Years After a Church Split

A few years ago our church struggled through a complicated and difficult split. The reasons for the division were many, and there’s no need to rehash them on the internet. It suffices to say there was a time when I feared we’d never function well again. The loss was keen, the anxiety deep.

photo-1438030884032-8e6fc76046f5

Yet this morning in worship service I sat in the back of the room and watched people streaming in until the sanctuary was comfortably full. I realized that if I had been able to foresee this in the middle of the split, I would have felt a lot better. Even though it’s too late to go back and reassure the old pitiful, anxious, and cranky me that everything would turn out all right, it’s not too late to encourage others who might be going through the same thing.

Here is what I’d tell myself (and anyone else going through this):

Right now all you can see is loss. You see empty pews, empty classrooms, and a parking lot that is ridiculously large for so few cars. You don’t know what you fear more– losing the building to the bank or having to manage that enormous mortgage with half a congregation. You will get very, very angry at everyone who voted for the enormous mortgage and then walked out the door a few years later. You will resent the changes forced upon you, you will miss the sound of happy children chasing balls in the gym, and you will grow weary of trying to explain to your children why their friends are suddenly missing on Sunday morning.

You will, quite frankly, block a few people on social media simply to save your own sanity. I’m sure Jesus understands taking a little break from someone, yes?

Give it all some time. It might feel like the end of the church as you know it, but the Church will not be stopped by a few arguments or bad decisions. Our Foundation is secure.

In the near future, you will look around at a sanctuary that’s nearly full again. You’ll see new families who come with new strengths and weaknesses, new resources and needs. You’ll snuggle new babies. New staff will come and find a space in your heart. The music will be joyful again.

You won’t lose the building, but even if you do– so what? The Church is made up of people, of disciples. The pile of lumber we paint and heat can go back to the bank and we’ll find a different pile of lumber. Buildings are everywhere, so let the anxiety go.

One day you’ll look around at the brothers and sisters who stayed, who put their heads down against the storm and picked up the load with you. You’ll remember how they suddenly filled empty elder positions, started singing on the worship team, and filled the pulpit. You’ll be so overcome with affection for them you might be tempted to burst into tears as they hand you a cup of coffee between services. They will move from acquaintance to family. You will never regret staying with these people.

Because this is a relatively small town and a very small world, you will keep bumping into the friends who left. You will suddenly find them in hospital corridors, in the book store, and at the beauty salon. The weirdness will fade. You will be truly glad to see them. You will see the fruit in their lives and realize it’s good fruit, because they may be worshipping in a new location but they have not been severed from the Vine. This realization will bring you peace and warmth.

photo-1435265796918-0e3d3e4af435

Yet none of this healing will be possible without the Holy Spirit’s help. The bitterness and anger will grow and destroy you if you let it. Keep praying and reading the Word so you will be able to move past the brokenness into the peace that passes understanding. Take your focus off the anger, and put it where it belongs, on Christ. Pray for your church, your staff, and those who left. Pray everyone keeps their focus on Christ and his commission.

he-is-our-peace

Today was the annual Thanksgiving meal our church celebrates together. As we ate together I was truly thankful for the family around me. I still miss my friends who now worship elsewhere, but the grief is over. I ate too much turkey and cake and I celebrated what the Lord has provided. He is good, all the time. I pray you’ll find this in your own situation.

 

Mark and Becky Break Free: A Simple Living Case Study

What if, right now, you could make one decision that would catapult you right out of half your stress?

That’s right. One decision can make all the difference, my friends. You simply identify your greatest stressor and then boldly move to cut it out.

“That’s impossible,” you say. “It can’t possibly be that easy.”

Easy, no. Possible, yes. The real question is this– do you have the guts to make the decision and then follow through?

Because that’s where most of us actually run into trouble– we’re gutless. We know what needs to be changed, but we don’t have the strength to do it.

Today, for your encouragement and inspiration, I have a real, live case study. Mark and Becky just summoned all the guts they had in their bodies and climbed onto the catapult. Ziiiiiing! They launched themselves out of half their stress by selling their seven-year old house and buying an older one. A smaller house. A cheaper house. A house much, much closer to Mark’s job. A house that let Becky quit her stressful job and stay home with their boys, making daycare an obsolete item on the budget.

 

I couldn't be the mom I wanted to be and keep that houseOf course, if doing the right thing was easy, we wouldn’t need this blog post. We’d all be doing the right things and making nothing but good decisions. We’d be living on clouds and riding rainbow-colored unicorns, tra-la-la.

Mark and Becky aren’t riding unicorns or strumming harps. They’re bumping elbows in a kitchen that’s a tiny, inefficient box compared to their old kitchen. They’re getting used to an old basement that smells musty if the dehumidifier doesn’t run around the clock. They’re all sharing one bathroom and don’t have room for their beautiful dining room table. There have been snake sightings on the porch. Yikes.

Saturday we spent the afternoon at their house, and after the burgers were gobbled up I pulled out my interview questions. I asked about the blessings, and I asked about the challenges. Here’s what they had to say:

Q: Why? Why did you do this thing?
Becky: “Family was more important than stuff, and I couldn’t be the mom I wanted to be and have that house. We were chasing our tails, trying to keep up with daycare and the other expenses.”
Mark: “I told her, ‘I’m not married to the house. I can let it go.'”

Q: So how much have you cut your mortgage?
Mark: “In half. We cut it in half.”
Grandpa (who was sitting at the table and listening in. Did I mention Mark is my brother-in-law? He is.): “And they’ve cut their taxes by a third!”

Q: You’ve not only cut the mortgage, but your driving costs as well. How much did you drive before?
Mark: “I was driving 30 miles each way to work, five days a week.”
Becky: “I drove about 25 miles each way, five days a week.”

Q: And how much do you drive now?
Mark: “It depends on if I take the short cut or not. If I do, it’s 1.3 miles to work. And I come home for lunch, so that doubles it. If I go the long way it’s 1.5 miles.” (Insert his snicker here.)
Becky: “I don’t have to drive to work anymore, but I do still drive the boys to school in Portage. But I take the little, gas efficient car.” (Blogger’s note: the boys go to a charter school and haven’t had to change schools.)

Q: How much money are you saving in gas alone?
Mark: “Almost $350 a month! I put gas in the van every two months, whether it needs it or not.”

cabo-sean-in-hammock

Q: What other benefits are you finding?
Mark: “I’m eating healthier because I come home for lunch, where we actually have fruits and vegetables and stuff. No more Little Debbie treats from the vending machine. During the summer we eat lunch as a family, but now the boys are in school Becky and I have a little lunch date every day. Also, we love our new property. We have a lot more trees and shade.”
Becky: “Quitting my job means I don’t have to worry about finding day care all summer, which cost almost as much as I made working full-time. I have time to get organized now, so that’s what I’m working on now that the boys are back in school.”

Q: What about the challenges? 
Mark: “We cut our square footage from 1500 square feet to 800, and I really miss having an extra bathroom. This house is older and I’ve had to fix things already, like the faucets. The appliances are older, too.”
Becky: “Well, our pride has taken a hit.” (She smiled.) “But also, we have so little closet space here, and the kitchen really is a challenge.” (Blogger’s note: the kitchen really is a challenge. Designed by a someone who must not have cooked at all.) “And I had to get rid of my piano.”

So there you have the bare facts of their situation. They summoned their courage and made the hard decision, come good or bad. But reading their answers doesn’t give you the full experience of their story. You can’t see how much more relaxed they are, sitting on their small side porch grilling hamburgers and swinging on their porch swing. You can’t feel how Becky’s a totally different person now, much more like she was years ago when I first met her. You can’t hear the kids, running around and climbing trees and playing hide and seek all over their new property.

Yes, the hard decisions might mean four people have to share a bathroom and, quite frankly, that’s never fun. But peace of mind supersedes bathroom issues, right?

I hope you’re encouraged and inspired to sit down tonight and figure out what your stress is. Is there anything, and I mean anything, you can do about it? There might not be. You might be dealing with something far more difficult than a big house payment.

But if you do have the ability to make the hard decision for change, I hope you’ll do it! Then let me know and I’ll interview you next.

 

Decluttering for the Terribly Brave: Let’s Clean the Fridge

It’s lurking, right there in the kitchen. Every time you open the door, you cringe a little and then slam the door shut, pretending you don’t see the ancient condiments, the sticky shelves, and the food in cheap plastic containers that should have been thrown out right away but that voice in your head (she sounds suspiciously like Grandma) carped, “Wasting food is a sin. Save it and turn it into a nice soup this week.” So of course you listened to the carpy Grandma voice and now you have rotting food sitting in your fridge and no soup in sight.

No? Just me?

I don’t believe it. My fridge is a mess and so is yours. But not for long, my friends. We’re going to clean that thing right out and we’re doing it now! Well, I’m doing it now and taking pictures to prove it. You can do what you want; you’re a full-grown adult.

But full-grown adults always feel better with clean fridges, I feel. A clean kitchen doesn’t stress out out each time we walk into it. When we can find what we need to make healthy meals, the whole experience is simple and much more enjoyable. Join me!

clean the fridge

Step 1: Clean off the front of the fridge. My word, people! Why do we feel the need to pin everything to the front? I’m saving a few things: the friends we support in ministry, the cutie in Haiti who sends us adorable letters in return for tuition payments, and my hilarious magnets. Everything else goes.

Step 2: The condiments get a pass/fail grade. I went through a stir-fry stage a few months ago and thought I needed to buy fish sauce. I did not need to buy fish sauce. Because it’s sauce made out of fish. Ew. Also out: the pesto we didn’t eat (again) the runny, mostly empty bottle of brown mustard.

Step 3: Rotting meat and dairy is probably less than ideal. Out goes any meaty-animaly product from any date I don’t recognize.

Step 4: Leftovers that have actual possibility need to go to the freezer so they don’t become cesspools of botulism. I think that’s what happens to old leftovers, right?

Step 5: Show no mercy to the vegetable drawer. I know in theory a vegetable is healthy, but if you’re not going to eat it, you’re not going to eat it. Let it go, my friend. Let it go.

Step 6: Cull the miscellaneous. If we don’t have a specific, concrete reason to use it soon, we have no reason to keep it. Out, out, out! I nearly teared up at the thought of throwing out the almond meal and the flax meal. But my word, I simply have no idea how long they’ve been in there. Almost two years, at least.

Step 7: Swab the decks. Fill up your sink with hot, soapy water and scrub the shelves while they’re empty. Put back what food you are saving. Stand back, admire your work, and wonder why you need such a large fridge. Mental note: look for a smaller one when this one dies.

Doesn't the fridge look all mysterious and cool in black and white?
Doesn’t the fridge look all mysterious and cool in black and white?

Step 8: Do not allow children near the fridge for at least two days, to preserve that clean feeling.

And there we have it. Don’t we all feel better now? If you have the emotional strength, tackle the freezer. I don’t. Let me know how it goes.

Today’s question: tell me the truth, how long has it been since you cleaned the fridge? (I think I did this last summer.)

The Biltmore House: Wow. Mrs. Biltmore: Super-Wow!

2014-07-27 15.21.25

A few weeks ago we made a little side trip to the Biltmore Estate when we were in North Carolina. Because Eric is the one who 1) plans all details of our vacations and 2) has an actual understanding of geography, I announced blithely, “Hey, since we’re going to be so close, let’s go to the Biltmore while we’re in the South!”

And Eric, because he loves me and loves any excuse to go anywhere for any reason, said, “Sure. I’ll add it in to the plans.”

2014-07-27 14.17.08I spent two solid days in a freezing cold hotel for the conference while Eric and the kids cavorted around Charlotte. They were sweating while I was freezing, but Sunday was our day to enjoy North Carolina all at the same temperature. We jumped into the van, and an hour into the drive I started to get antsy. It turns out that Asheville isn’t actually that close to Charlotte. Good grief. So I whined a little like a child, but eventually we got there and it was totally worth it.

I’ve seen the Biltmore on TV more times than I can count. I’ve wanted to visit for ages. This was a long-held dream come to life, and I nearly whirled through the roped off hallways. I can’t remember all the details because I was too busy ogling the glory, but I think they have 35 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms. They had a rotisserie kitchen, a pastry kitchen, the regular kitchen, walk in coolers, and at least three pantries each the size of my entire kitchen. Serious money, folks.

After we left the main house and spent $65 for hot dogs and ice cream for 4 people (I kid you not), we drove a few miles (still on the estate) to the farm area and museum.

I quickly moved from awed to inspired. The Vanderbilts had more money than they knew what to do with, and George’s brothers ran the family empire while he just puttered around, traveling and engaging in professional level hobbies. He wanted to turn his estate into a working, self-sufficient farm so he built little houses and his farmhands lived near the farms and barns.

2014-07-27 16.10.21

And Edith Vanderbilt, the woman who entertained the highest levels of American society at her dining room table that could seat 35 guests, would often go to sit on the front stoops of these houses to hang out with the farmers’ wives.

Yes. Read that again.

She frequently left that huge, glorious house to go hang out with the farmers’ wives. She ate the cakes they baked for her. She brought them her daughter’s clothes when Cornelia outgrew them. She made sure they had a horse-drawn wagon to get the farm kids to school, she brought baskets of goodies to the mothers of newborns, and she started an after-work school program so the farmers could get good educations. She started a school for African-American servants so they could get certificates and higher placements in good houses.

But she did it at a level of one-to-one contact. She didn’t just send the wagon down to the poor area of the estate with the leftovers. She sat with them on their front porch steps. 

This story is reminding me of something…a person who left a truly amazing life to come to the commoners. Someone who made sure the commoners had what they needed, but did it while living among them. Can you think of anyone like that?

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8, NLT)