Background of a Blurb; John D Roth

John Roth gathers stories. He wrote, for example,  Stories: How Mennonites Came to Be. In this book, he tells a big story by showing how history and theology weave through the lives of individuals. And, in a project called Bearing Witness, John collects stories of how people living today suffer for faith.

I was with John in Nicaragua once when he was talking to people about their stories. I noticed how well he listened and asked questions and then more questions to be sure he understood. People sensed, I could tell, that John knew their stories mattered and that he would tell their stories well.

So when John agreed to read my story and comment on it, I was delighted.

 “In vivid prose, Swartz offers readers an intimate window into the life of a passionate learner. Her hunger for a deeper understanding of the world around her—be it the culture of her Amish Mennonite upbringing, the lives of her students, or the complexities of modern science and politics—is truly inspiring. I highly recommend this memoir.”

—John D. Roth, Professor of History, Goshen College; Director; Mennonite Historical Library; and Editor, Mennonite Quarterly Review

Birth of a Book

The publication date for Yoder School is here! I’ve been waiting for this day. More than 50 years ago, on my tenth birthday, my parents gave me Elizabeth Yates’s book Someday You’ll Write. I read that book and set a goal to publish a book before I died.

Through the decades I thought of this goal . . . often. But I never wrote a book. Instead, I taught school, served on the library board, and ran a music camp. I volunteered at church and had children and then grandchildren. But I kept thinking about the book I never wrote.

Then I retired from teaching. And I had a decision to make. Would I try to write a book?

I started reading books about writing and attending writing conferences. I began to write every day, and gradually, chapter after chapter, my story emerged.

Five times I thought my manuscript was as polished as I could polish. And each of these times, my critiquers showed me that it was flawed, sometimes deeply. I kept revising. Then I sent my manuscript to a press I thought would accept it. But the book was rejected. Often I wondered if this book would be published.

But I was dogged. And I was helped by many people, especially my author son. And so this publication date has now come.

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Just a couple days ago, a package from Cascadia Publishing House arrived on my porch. My complimentary books, I guessed, were inside. For a moment I felt unsure, a little breathless. But when I opened the package, it was true. My book had been published.

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If you’d like to buy a copy, you can find one at the following sites:

Leaving Home

Those last months in western Maryland were a season of farewell. I found myself clinging to Gertrude, who promised to write to me. I asked my grandpa for stories of long ago. I walked in the woods to say goodbye, following my nose to the skunk cabbage by the pond and digging under leaves to find jacks-in-the-pulpit. I lifted the green hooded flowers with brown stripes to find Jack, always standing tall in the pulpit, even though nobody was listening. And in the night garden, I looked to make sure the Big Dipper still spilled stars and watched the night lights glint in the creek. In all these visits, I took pictures with my eyes so I could remember.

Finally, one day I found a comfort. I would buy some land, I decided, before we moved. Land that would wait for me while I was gone. Walking up the lane after school one afternoon, I found the plot I wanted. The lane, the creek, and a row of trees formed a triangle around a parcel maybe twice as big as my bedroom.

Later when I graduate from college, I thought, and come back to teach at Yoder School, I’ll build a small house here. I sat under the maple tree and looked around. Along the creek, shepherd’s purse plants waved in the breeze. Bees flitted in the daisies.

The land belonged to Luella and Meely, two ancient sisters with silver hair who wore ruffled aprons over their plain dresses and bustled around every Wednesday baking cinnamon rolls. They sold these cinnamon rolls for spending money. If I buy this plot of land, I thought, they’ll have even more spending money.

In my bedroom I climbed on my desk to get my piggy bank from the high shelf. The pink pig with a big belly, a red hat, and blue coveralls sat on its hind legs staring out of big black eyes. I was glad I had plunked my birthday money into the pig instead of spending it. I’d be willing to give up my entire savings for the land, I decided. My ancestors had lived in these mountains for over a hundred years, and I belonged here, too.

I held the pig in one hand and knocked on Luella’s and Meely’s door with the other. This was Wednesday, and I could smell the cinnamon.

“Come in!” Meely said.

And then I didn’t know how to start. So I stammered around explaining that I needed to own some land and I wanted it to be near my house and the triangle between the creek and the lane and the trees would work fine and I was prepared to give them all the money in my bank for that land.

Meely looked at Luella. Luella set the spatula beside the cinnamon rolls she had been frosting. She squatted down beside me and explained that, no, they didn’t want to sell their land, not even this little part of it, not even for all the money in my piggy bank—not even if I saved for another year.

I swallowed and blinked so I wouldn’t cry and said that, no, I didn’t want a cinnamon roll. And I fled.

Background of a Blurb–Shirley Showalter

Back when I thought I had finished writing Yoder School,  I reached out to Shirley Hershey Showalter, who had already published her memoir, A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World.

“Could you read this for me?” I wrote her. “And tell me if it’s ready to send to a publisher?”

Shirley had no reason to help me, except for a generous heart for a flailing writer. But she did. She asked insightful questions and, in a gracious and hope-giving way, made statements that were both hard for me and good for me to read.

And she set me on the way toward a much-needed revision.

So when Shirley agreed to write a blurb for the back of Yoder School, I was pleased.

“Because this story is so well-written, we the readers follow the narrator’s progress with the eagerness of a child at play.”

—Shirley Hershey Showalter, Author, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, in the Foreword

My Dad’s Diploma

Dad's Graduation

In this picture, I wish my dad had his diploma in his hands. Because that’s what I remember most of that day—the diploma he held, often close to the level of my eyes. My dad had worked hard for that diploma. And it was important, I could tell. My dad wore a graduation gown, the speeches were long, and people were snapping pictures. That’s the day I made up my mind. When I grew up, I’d try my best to earn a college diploma.

A First-Grade Lesson I Still Use

I finished my work before most of the other students each day. So sometimes I whispered with Nathan and Gertrude and Ruth. We had been assigned seats together between the first graders and the second graders. This whispering didn’t seem like a big problem to me until I opened my first report card for the year. I liked all my grades, except the one for citizenship. I had a feeling my parents­­ wouldn’t like that grade, either. They were big on good behavior.

To my surprise, they didn’t say anything about my bad mark that evening. After supper while Mom rocked the baby, Dad dropped to his fours on the braided rug to roughhouse, my little brothers riding him like a horse and him bucking them off. Then Dad turned into a growling dog, pinching his bushy eyebrows together in a dark slash across his face and chasing them up the stairs to bed. I usually played these games, but not tonight. In bed, I wondered, had my parents read my grade wrong? Not seen it? Was I conscience-bound to point it out to them?

The next evening, though, they asked to speak with me. In her rocker by the window, Mom pulled my brother’s holey sock over her wooden darning egg and wet a thread so she could push it through the needle eye. I watched the needle flash in and out of the sock closing the hole. Dad rummaged in the desk for a package. Then he sat on the couch beside me. Both of them looked at me.

They surprised me again. We think we know, Dad said, why you have a bad grade in citizenship. How could they know? They hadn’t seen me at Yoder School. We think, my mom went on, that you finish your work too quickly. Then you don’t know what to do, so you talk to Nathan and Gertrude.

I was overcome with relief. My parents understood me exactly. I wanted to climb up on my mom’s lap, but I just nodded. Then they showed me their solution. A beautiful, shiny, brand new workbook. About birds. With stickers (which I had never seen before) and puzzles and diagrams and facts. I was awestruck. A wondrous book instead of a scolding.

“Do your school work as quickly as you can,” my dad said. “And then do this workbook. When you finish with this workbook, we’ll find you another one.”

And,” Mom added, “don’t talk to Gertrude and Nathan.”

Background of a Book Blurb

The whole time I was growing up, I watched Richard Showalter from afar. In some ways our childhoods followed similar trajectories. We both lived for a time in the mountains, both knew what it was like to live in Mennonite communities and to look back into those communities from the outside. But Richard was always just a little older, a whole lot wiser, and way more adventuresome than I was.

When we were adults, I kept watching as Richard made critical choices to engage. He rose to one challenge after another—teaching and pastoring and living in Kenya and the Middle East. He became the president of a college and of a mission agency. And he wrote books. Richard, I could tell, wasn’t afraid to be different, but he also seemed to know how to avoid hyper-partisanship, to reach across differences for relationship.

Like I had as a kid, I kept right on trying to learn from Richard, a person ahead of me on the path. And so when he agreed to read Yoder School and comment on it, I was delighted.

“Yoder School is an extraordinarily insightful memoir of an inter-culturally-seasoned Anabaptist educator journeying from an Amish Mennonite mountain school in Maryland through urban mazes of Michigan and beyond. Her razor-keen excellence in educational pedagogy, fusing love for students with inspiring them to learn, forms a page-turning narrative.”

—Richard Showalter, Columnist, Mennonite World Review, and Writer, Teacher, Mentor