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Samson and the Mountain (Adventures in Grammar #2)

This is the story of Samson, a very independent boy. Samson does everything by himself. Even when he really needs the help, he insists on doing everything on his own.

“I’ll do it by myself!” he declares, with bright eyes and little fists.

Samson loves to climb. He climbs trees, rocks, the doghouse in his yard, jungle gyms, monkey bars, everything. Even when the things he climbs are high, intimidating, and even scary, he climbs everything on his own.

“I’ll do it by myself!” he declares, hoisting himself skyward, swinging upside-down by his knees, reaching for the next branch.

One day, Samson decides to make his biggest climb yet: The Mountain. It is a very long climb, and Samson is still a very small boy.

“You might need some help on this one,” says Samson’s big brother Josiah.

“What if we come along just in case you need us?” says their papa.

“Rouf-rouf-rahoo,” says Woody, their dog.

(Ruff translation: You don’t have to do this alone!)

But Samson shakes his head. “I’ll do it by myself!”

One sunny summer morning, Samson fills his backpack with the things he’ll need for his climb: plenty of snacks, a canteen full of water, a flashlight, and a raincoat just in case.

“Are you sure you don’t want any help?” asks Josiah.

“Or any company?” asks their papa.

Samson shakes his head. “I’ll do it by myself. I’ll climb the Mountain all by myself!”

“Raou-ruh-raou,” says Woody.

(Ruff translation: Good luck!)

Samson carries his backpack to the base of the Mountain. He looks up at the summit. “I’ll do it by myself,” he whispers.

Not too far behind Samson sneak Papa, Josiah, and Woody. They know that Samson wants to do it by himself, and they don’t want to stop him. They just want to stay quietly close by, just in case he needs them.

Samson starts his climb. He hikes all the way to a small stream and stops for a snack.

When Samson opens the backpack, though, the bag of snacks spills out into the stream. “Oh, no!”

The package of snacks floats down the stream, where Josiah fishes it out. “I’ll hold onto this in case Samson needs it,” he says.

Upstream, Samson shakes off the loss. “I’ll keep going,” he says. “I can still do it by myself.”

Samson, followed by Josiah, continues up the mountain.

The sun beats through the trees of the mountainside as the morning passes. A little farther up, Samson stops to rest on a rock. He pulls out his canteen of water for a drink.

No sooner does Samson take a few swigs from his canteen than a snake slithers out from under the rock and hisses at him. Samson yelps and drops the canteen, which rolls away down the hill. “Oh, no!”

Amid the trees below, Samson’s papa catches the rolling canteen. “I’ll hold onto this in case he needs it,” he says.

Samson shimmies away from the rock, watching for snakes. Even though his voice wobbles a little, he says, “I can still do it by myself.”

Samson, along with Josiah and their papa, persists in his hike up the mountain.

As the day slides into afternoon, heavy clouds roll along in the sky. Samson grits his teeth and opens his backpack again. “I’m not that far from the top now. I’ll just put on my raincoat—”

But a sudden gust of stormy wind pulls the raincoat right out of his hands. “Oh, no!”

The raincoat ripples along down the trail. Woody leaps and carefully catches a sleeve in his teeth. “Ruh-roh,” he growls around the fabric.

(Ruff translation: Well, this is quite an unfortunate setback! I’ll bring this coat along in case he needs it.)

Samson shivers as a raindrop pelts his nose, but then he scowls. “I’m going to do it by myself!”

Samson, as well as his papa, his brother, and Woody, keeps going.

A rainstorm wets Samson as he climbs, but he doesn’t stop. The rain passes, and the sun is just beginning to sink in the sky when he finally steps onto the summit of the mountain.

Samson looks out over the sunset, squares his shoulders, takes a deep breath, and smiles. “I did it! I did it by myself!”

He looks around.

He’s alone.

There’s nobody to celebrate with. Nobody is there to keep him company. Nobody is there to join him for the hike home.

Samson rifles through his backpack. All that’s left is his flashlight to guide him back down the wet, snaky mountain path in the darkness. His legs and arms are very, very tired. His stomach grumbles. His throat is scratchy. His shoulders are still quite damp.

And he is lonely at the top.

Samson’s chin trembles. He turns on the flashlight and blinks it through the twilit trees. “I wish—I really wish I hadn’t done this by myself.”

Then, Samson’s family emerges onto the summit. “You didn’t,” Papa says, handing him the canteen.

Josiah holds out the package of snacks. “Here, I saved these for you.”

Woody steps forward, wagging his tail, and drops the raincoat at Samson’s feet.

Samson looks at his papa, brother, and dog as they gather around him. “Thank you.”

Together, they eat the snacks and drink the water. Samson bundles up in his raincoat to stay warm for the climb down. Then, Papa hoists Samson onto his back and takes Josiah’s hand. Woody sidles close beside them.

Then, Samson and his family hike down the mountain together, grateful for each other and thankful that none of them had to climb the mountain alone.

Thanks for reading this story of Samson the Independent! I thought I could illustrate the impact of singular-versus-plural verbs through a character who insists on being separate and independent at every turn. Subjects and verbs must agree in sentences, meaning that they must both be singular (“he says”) or plural (“we say”).

You might have also noticed that this whole story is told in present tense (says/climbs/is, rather than past-tense said/climbed/was). I chose to tell the story this way because singular and plural verbs often look the same in past tense—“he climbed” versus “they all climbed,” for example—but they are clearly different in present tense: “he climbs” versus “they all climb.”

That brings us to today’s topic…

 

In tricky sentence structures, how can you tell whether to use singular or plural verbs?

A singular noun is a person, place, thing, or concept. It can also be a mass of something uncountable, like “coffee” or “clothing.” A singular subject—the active noun in a sentence—requires a singular verb. Examples:

  • Samson does everything by himself.
  • The sun beats through the trees of the mountainside as the morning passes.
  • Woody leaps and carefully catches a sleeve in his teeth.

 

A plural noun contains more than one person, place, thing, or concept. It is often countable, like “cups of coffee” or “shirts.” A plural subject requires a plural verb. Examples:

  • They know that Samson wants to do it by himself.
  • Heavy clouds roll along in the sky.

 

Now, there are some trickier structures that tend to throw people off. First, the subject typically comes before the verb in a sentence, but you can also invert a sentence so that the verb comes first. It still has to match the subject, though. Examples:

  • Not too far behind Samson sneak Papa, Josiah, and Woody.
  • “Are you sure you don’t want any help?” asks
  • No sooner does Samson take a few swigs from his canteen than a snake slithers out.

 

And here’s the really tricky thing: The subject of a sentence also might not be the closest noun to the verb. If you’re unsure, find the verb and ask, “Who or what is doing this action or holding this state?” Example:

  • The package of snacks floats down the stream, where Josiah fishes it out.

Even though “snacks” is closest to the verb, “package” is the subject, and “of snacks” just describes the package. My rule-of-thumb to find the subject is that if a noun follows a preposition (like “of snacks”), it’s almost never the subject. It’s describing the subject.

 

Furthermore, and is the only conjunction that forms a compound (plural) subject and requires a plural verb. Other conjunctions and phrases—or, nor, along with, as well as, joined by—remain singular. Whatever noun comes first is the subject, and anything that follows only modifies it. Examples:

  • Samson, followed by Josiah, continues up the mountain.
  • Samson, along with Josiah and their papa, persists in his hike up the mountain.
  • Then, Samson and his family hike down the mountain together.

Only the “and” in this last sentence creates a plural.

 

I hope that this story helps you remember a few common rules for singular and plural subjects and verbs. Ask yourself if your subject is independent like Samson or joined by “and” to something else.

Thanks for reading! Check back on March 26 for our next Grammar Adventure.

In the meantime, happy reading and happy writing!

XOXO

Joy

 

A Tale of Three Sisters (Adventures in Grammar #1)

In a faraway land, there once lived three sisters, each quite lovely and quite contrary. They were always arguing—with passersby and with each other.

The youngest sister was called But. Her name was a sore spot; it often made her the rump of jokes. She always crafted quick, clear arguments, but she interjected a lot.

The middle sister was named Although. She loved poetry, the way the words washed into each other. She liked the sound of flowery arguments, although their logic was sometimes harder to follow.

However was the eldest. She was pensive in her arguments and preferred to think through her words before speaking. Her younger sisters tended to bubble over; she, however, loved the power of a good dramatic pause.

One warm spring afternoon, the sisters sat in the shade of a yew tree outside their home, weaving blankets and words.

Although eyed But’s blanket. “Although your pattern is pretty, I think my style of weaving is faster.”

But shook her head. “I’ve nothing against yours, but mine is definitely the fastest.”

However smiled while she listened to her sisters’ squabbling. Her fingers wove quickest of all; she wouldn’t bother jumping into the argument just to say so, however.

At that moment three travelers rode past. So taken were they with the lovely sisters that they dismounted their horses and bowed deeply. The sisters were pleased, and they invited the travelers to tea.

In the sisters’ parlor, conversations wove around the room. The youngest of the travelers, a charming man with ink on his cuffs, gazed into But’s eyes. “Milady, has anyone asked permission for your hand in marriage?”

But stared back. “No one has, but whom would they ask? My hands are my own.”

“Of course,” the young man stammered. “Well… Would your hands have any interest in becoming a lawyer’s wife?”

But eyed his ink-stained sleeves and his kind face. “They would not,” she said, “but they would have great interest in becoming a lawyer… and perhaps, one day, a wife.”

The first traveler’s face lit up. “I can help you learn if you like,” he offered. The other sisters were so happy for But that they invited the travelers to stay for dinner.

Inside the dining room, laughter rippled through the air. The second traveler, a stormy-eyed lady with a fine ruffled collar and swords at her waist, knelt at the table beside Although. “Milady, your poetic words and ways fill my heart like the sea fills my soul. Would you consent to travel the world with me?”

Although smiled. “Although I have never desired to sail the wild ocean, I feel I would always find safe harbor with you. I shall.”

The second traveler’s face brimmed with delight. The other sisters were so glad for Although that they invited the travelers to stay for stargazing.

Outside in the mild evening, a comfortable quiet settled over everyone. The oldest of the travelers, a man with gentle eyes, leaned closer to However. “I have loved and lost before,” he began. “I am older and sadder than I used to be, yet my heart still yearns to love. If I gave it to you… would you give me yours in return?”

A shooting star whistled across the sky above them. However cast her eyes down. “I cannot make such a weighty decision so quickly.”

The third traveler’s face fell. The others looked soberly at each other.

However,” she added, “you may ask me again at another time.”

He looked up hopefully. Another shooting star whisked past overhead.

The fragrant days of spring passed around the sisters’ home. But left for the city with her suitor to earn her letters as a lawyer, but she returned home every so often, always with ink smudges, heavy books, and a content smile.

However’s suitor visited frequently, bringing her gifts of lilacs and daisies and lilies and roses to set upon her table. However was always happy to see him. When he asked for her heart, however, she always deferred. “Another time,” said she.

The days warmed into the gleam of summer. Although sailed out of the harbor with her love to travel the world and fill it with poetry. Although the seafaring life pleased her greatly, she returned home every so often with sea glass and shanties and stories.

However’s patient suitor still visited often, bearing baskets of berries and sweet summer fruits to share on stargazing picnics. However was always elated to see him. When he asked for her heart, however, she continued to put him off.

Finally, the air began to blow cool, and the leaves turned to fiery shades. The summer was surrendering to the dreariness of autumn. However’s suitor knocked once more on her door, this time empty-handed.

“I have nothing left to offer you,” he said sadly. “I have brought you the most beautiful offerings that spring and summer can tender, and now cold autumn comes. If you have no further interest in my heart, I would ask that you return it.”

However stepped out. “I could never give my heart to someone so fast and all at once,” she said.

Her suitor turned away.

She laid a hand on his shoulder. “However… I have given you a piece of my heart with every kind word and every thoughtful act. My patient, gentle love, you now possess it all.”

His eyes lit up like stars at her words. The brightness of autumn bloomed around them, no longer dreary in the slightest with their hearts to kindle and warm each other. They were married as soon as But and Although could be summoned home.

However, who loved the power of a good dramatic pause, had found something she loved much more.

And they all lived happily, merrily, and still a bit contrarily, ever after.

I hope you liked this little tale of three sisters! The word nerd and folktale fan in me really enjoyed writing it. I wanted to start this blog series with a commonly confused topic; I always review the but/although/however conundrum when I’m tutoring. In conversation, we tend to use them interchangeably, but they each have a distinct grammatical job to do.

So… (rubs hands together—here we go!)

 

How are “but,” “although,” and “however” actually different?

 

But is a coordinating conjunction. Some English teachers call these “FANBOYS” conjunctions (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So) to help students remember them.

Coordinating conjunctions are used to join two independent clauses (complete thoughts) when the thoughts have equal weight in the sentence. Examples:

  •    She always crafted clear arguments, but she interjected a lot.
  •    The sisters were pleased, and they invited the travelers to tea.
  •    “I’m older and sadder than I used to be, yet my heart still yearns to love.”

 

Although is a subordinating conjunction. There are many, many subordinating conjunctions! Common ones include although, because, since, if, when, while, and so on.

Subordinating conjunctions are also used to join independent clauses, but they do so by making one clause subordinate (dependent)—meaning it’s no longer a complete thought on its own. Commas are placed after subordinate clauses but typically not before them.* Examples:

  •    I can help you learn if you like.
  •    She smiled while she listened to her sisters’ squabbling.
  •    “Although your pattern is pretty, I think my style of weaving is faster.”

*There are, of course, exceptions! An exception even appears in the story: “She liked the sound of flowery arguments, although their logic was sometimes harder to follow.”

This is an example of an adverb of concession. When an independent clause is followed by a contrasting clause, it does receive a comma to support the logical turn in the sentence. English, amirite?

 

However is a conjunctive adverb. What does that mean? Well, adverbs are modifiers: they change how another word (usually a verb) is used in a sentence. A conjunctive adverb modifies the meaning of a whole sentence. They are standalone words and phrases like however, on the other hand, as a matter of fact, thus, therefore, first of all, and so on.

Conjunctive adverbs are used to fill in the logic between two complete thoughts. They can be placed anywhere in a sentence. Since they stand alone, conjunctive adverbs are set apart from the rest of the sentence with commas. Examples:

  •    She, however, loved the power of a good dramatic pause.
  •    She wouldn’t bother jumping into the argument just to say so, however.
  •    Finally, the air began to blow cool.

 

I hope that the characterizations I’ve given to these words throughout the three sisters’ story—But as a quick-minded interrupter, Although as a poet, and However as a lover of dramatic pauses—will make it easier to remember their various purposes.

Thanks for reading! Check back on February 19 for the next Grammar Adventure.

In the meantime, happy reading and happy writing!

 

XOXO

Joy

Adventure Time!

Happy New Year, reader-friends!

It has been quite a while since I posted on this blog, but I had a busy year of writing in 2018: started some new projects, attended some fabulous conferences, won a couple of lovely awards, and completed a lot of editing and proofreading work. I’m glad to be back here now, and I have an exciting new blog series planned to share with you in 2019:

ADVENTURES IN GRAMMAR!!!

What, that’s not exciting?

Wait, where are you going?

snow white

Let me explain. As a writer, a proofreader, and a language arts tutor, I know that grammar is not the sexiest topic out there. It doesn’t even crack the Chalkboard Hot 100. However, that is exactly why I think it’s important to write about.

In my work, I review several common grammar and style issues with almost every high school student I tutor. I often catch the same errors when I’m proofreading the work of adults. These are components of the English language that native speakers often “know” but seldom understand on a structural level.

sleepy baby

Uh-oh. Stay with me. We’re getting there!

I’m putting together a monthly blog series for 2019 and calling it “Adventures in Grammar” because I’m going to discuss commonly misunderstood or misused bits of grammar—through creative storytelling.

I’ll use surprising, exciting, humorous, and perhaps even heartwarming examples to make those grammar topics clearer. I’ll probably also use a fair number of .GIFs (since this elder millennial finally learned how to embed them!). My goal will be to provide useful long-term information that sticks in an entertaining way.

Sound good?

If you’re intrigued, check back next Tuesday (January 22) for our first Adventure!

 

XOXO,

Joy

Sixteen Things to Tell My Sixteen-Year-Old Self

Today is my 32nd birthday, or as I’ve been thinking of it, my “double-sweet-sixteen.” And that’s gotten me thinking about my first sweet sixteen: who I was (and wasn’t), what I knew (and didn’t), and what I would tell myself if I could go back to February 2002.

With that as inspiration, I’d like to share the following list. Here are the sixteen things I would like to go back and tell my sixteen-year-old self:

  1. Be kind to your siblings. You will develop stronger bonds with each of them, especially when you just let go of the need to be “right.” And you will always need each other.

 

  1. This summer, you are going to have the experience of a lifetime: a month studying in France. Your mother is letting you fly around the world by yourself at age sixteen. If you ever doubt that you have a cool mom, just remind yourself of that.

 

  1. You won’t have weird white spots on your teeth when they take off your braces. Stop worrying about it.

 

  1. Try not to be discouraged when you don’t get the high school choir solo or role you had hoped for. There is so much wonderful, heartening music ahead of you, and you will learn the beauty of collaboration.

 

  1. Hold onto all those good friends in your birthday photo. Through living in different towns, different states, different seasons of life, you’ll stay close in different ways—but you have a fortunate habit of finding good, kind people.

 

  1. Appreciate the heck out of your exceptionally well-funded, well-staffed, safe school.

 

  1. The Columbine school shooting happened less than three years ago. 9/11 was six months ago. There will continue to be times when the world seems irreparably darkened, like cruelty and division will win. Keep looking to those who are helping others, who are giving of themselves, who are fighting hatred with love to make the world brighter. You will always be able to find those people, and you can always keep trying to be one of them.

 

  1. Treasure this time of living with your wise, gentle grandma. She is one of the best friends you’ll ever have. And you’ll keep wishing you could ask more questions of your grandpa, but even when you can’t literally “ask” them, they’ll keep getting answered.

 

  1. You will become a parent. It will be so, so different than you think it will be. It will be ten times harder, but a hundred times more joyful. It will make you think differently and more deeply about your own mother and what she means to you. It will make you a better person.

 

  1. You think those “going into labor/OMG, can we even make it to the hospital?” scenes in movies and sitcoms are humorous? Oh, just wait.

 

  1. Anxiety will happen to you. It will fold you up like a sheet of paper, and you’ll think it’s going to tear you in half, but you will remain whole. And as you learn to appreciate being whole, you will grow stronger.

 

  1. Don’t limit your beliefs. Study them. Ask questions of them. Grow in them.

 

  1. Keep writing. Keep reading. Most importantly, get better at listening to those who are different from you. If you’re going to be a storyteller, you must be a sincere listener first.

 

  1. Don’t worry; Hanson will keep making records. You maybe won’t keep chatting about their music on AOL Instant Messenger, Mmmbop5916, but you’ll keep on loving it—on CDs, on mp3finder, on iTunes, on Youtube, on Spotify… and on whatever comes next.

 

  1. You’re not going to find “the one” in high school like every single millennial teen movie insists you are. Calm down. That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. (And P.S., in about two-and-a-half years, you’re going to meet “the one,” at a college you’ve never even heard of that will end up being one of the best places you’ve ever been.) Be patient with fate and true love and all of it, and don’t settle for anything less.

 

  1. Be patient with yourself. It will take at least another sixteen years before you really start to get better at this, but try. Keep going. You are not yet the person you are meant to be. And that’s good, isn’t it?

 

Love,

Joy

The Importance of “Show, Don’t Tell”

Three Sundays ago, I had the pleasure of attending a writers’ retreat. One of the workshops there focused on the concept of “show, don’t tell,” one of the bedrock principles of effective writing. “Show, don’t tell” means that a writer should describe characters and actions in ways that draw readers into the moment. A writer should avoid giving the reader information in ways that feel distant or list-y. For instance…

TELLING:

Lucy stared up at the top of the mountain. It was the tallest mountain she’d ever seen. She was doubtful that she’d ever make it to the top. But she had to. Trevor needed her to.

SHOWING:

A cool mountain wind stung Lucy’s eyes. The fiercest mountain in the territory hulked in front of her, just daring her to try climbing it. That hazy, snow-capped summit might as well have been the moon. But if she didn’t make the climb, Trevor was as good as dead.

See the difference? The first version is clinical, distancing, and choppy: “Lucy stared,” “It was,” “She was doubtful,” etc. There’s no connection that pulls the reader into the scene.

The second version incorporates sensations and emotions without spelling them out for the reader. We don’t need to be told that Lucy’s staring up at a mountain if we get the sensation of the wind coming down and stinging her eyes. We don’t need to be told it’s the tallest mountain she’s ever seen if we picture it “daring her to try climbing it.” Is she doubting herself? Heck yes, she is! And we know it because we can picture it as she does, so far above her that it’s practically the moon.

“Show, don’t tell” is so central to learning to write stories that entire books have been devoted to the subject. All writers, of all abilities, backgrounds, and paychecks, are still continually honing this skill.

(Except maybe Stephen King. He seems to have it down pretty well.)

The reason I’ve had the importance of “show, don’t tell” spinning around in my brain lately, however, is not purely fictional.

Because truth is stranger than fiction.

Two Sundays ago, I enjoyed a special occasion at my church: an outdoor service. The unseasonably warm late September weather was a nice bonus. I sat on the dewy ground, Saturday’s grass-clippings stuck to my sandals, while we all sang and prayed our way through an hour of worship.

The thing about our church is that it’s a beautiful, centenarian stone building smack in the middle of an urban bus route. It’s noisy all around us in the neighborhood, and parking is a weekly source of frustration. During a typical service, the taupe-painted plaster walls dampen the intrusive sounds of buses, car horns, and sirens. The traditional altar, the arched woodwork, and the stained-glass windows depicting Jesus—reigning in heavenly glory in one frame and affectionately gathering a group of children in the other—all serve to frame our minds for worship. They tell us that we are in a church.

And personally, I love that setting. I love the quietness it brings into my lungs, the reverb of the music, the thrum of the old, gleaming organ, the soft cushions and hard backs of the pews, the peaceful feeling of my own smallness.

But last Sunday was different.

There were no cushions or pews, no thrumming organ. There were no thick plaster walls to hold our music in—or to hold the noise of the world out. No roof to block the noise of the life-flight helicopter on its way to the nearest hospital. The construction work down the alley proceeded as usual; plywood scraps dropping into a dumpster punctuated the verses of our hymns. There were bugs and sunglasses and kids on blankets. When my toddler got fidgety during the sermon, I walked with him under the trees and admired the crabapples.

Most of the signs that told us we were in a church had been left inside.

The teen members of our congregation led several “campfire”-style songs, accompanied on guitar. Our custom of kneeling at a prayer rail was replaced by filing to the center of the grass and standing to receive communion. Our pastor knelt on the ground with the children for their special message at the end.

The Biblical lesson discussed with the children (and all of us) was Jesus’ story of the master who, at the end of the day, paid his laborers equally for their work whether they had worked the full day or arrived halfway through. It was a lesson that by our world’s standards seems to advance bold unfairness—why should someone who came late receive the same?

The point made in the Gospel is that it shouldn’t matter to us whether our labor is equal to that of our neighbors, but that each of us receives what we need to live. And that it should not be up to our world’s flawed concept of fairness to decide what our neighbors should receive. And that grace isn’t meant to be doled out based on what we think we or others have “earned.”

For the record, it made perfect sense to the kids.

The past year has been a turbulent one in our world, particularly within the borders of the United States. There are questions of fairness, of fundamental rights, of safety, and of painful, inescapable history that we are grappling with as a nation. There seem to be shortages everywhere:

  • Shortages of patience and the willingness to give others the benefit of the doubt
  • Shortages of compassion towards those who are suffering
  • Shortages of clean drinking water (see Flint, Michigan and Puerto Rico)
  • Shortages of generosity by those who have more than they could ever need
  • Shortages of time and money by parents working extra shifts to give their children a better life
  • Shortages of respect for refugees and immigrants, who have fled Hell on earth and still somehow find the strength to hope for the promise of America
  • Shortages of welcoming for LGBTQ+ individuals within churches, the places where they should feel the fullness and wideness of God’s love more than any other
  • Shortages of trust in our neighbors, our friends, and our families

One thing there seems to be no shortage of, however, is fingers capable of pointing blame. There are literally billions of glibly derisive Facebook posts (“Stay triggered, snowflakes”), angry press conferences and viral videos, and ill-advised tweets to choose from. It is so easy to blame, so easy to get angry, that we spend hours in “flame wars,” sometimes stewing days later over what we should have said. There’s no room to show kindness amid that much telling of anger.

We have allowed ourselves to become a nation of Tellers.

We try to tell others why we are right. We try to tell others why they are wrong. We try to make sure our facts are correct. We try to point out when their facts aren’t. We do all this because we believe in what we have to say. We try so hard, and we tell all day, and at the end of it our voices are worn out and no one has actually heard anything.

Since my out-of-church experience two Sundays ago, one of the hymns we sang has been stuck in my head. “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love.”

It’s a song of unity, about reaching out and spreading the Gospel not through words, but through actions. The refrain is simple, and it’s been stuck in my head for days. And the more I think about “show, don’t tell,” the more I see how it applies to much more than my writing.

There are a whole lot of well-meaning ways that Christians tell people who they are. Some self-identify with a smile and automatically say things like “thoughts and prayers.” Some quote Scripture and share “type AMEN if you agree!” statuses on social media. Some wear crosses and WWJD bracelets and put bumper stickers on our cars.

Now, you might read those last few items and thought, “But wait, aren’t those things showing Christianity?” I would say that they are not. They’re just… labels. They’re visible telling. They are not actively engaging with and showing love for the world in ways that the Gospel instructs.

That’s not to say that these forms of telling are not valuable—they are! But I would say that visible telling like the examples I listed should be the starting point for living one’s faith, not the destination.

Furthermore, these contemporary symbols of Christianity run a very real risk of doing the opposite of what they intend. If a Christian wearing a cross treats someone cruelly or dismissively—especially someone who is homeless, cast out, or vulnerable—they misrepresent the central kindness of Christianity. If a wealthy Christian announces that they are “praying for the people of ___” after a tragedy but takes no worldly action to help, then they are behaving not like Jesus and his disciples, but like the Pharisees who persecuted them. If a Christian types “AMEN” for sentiments like “People who don’t work for their living shouldn’t get handouts!” then they are tragically misinterpreting the teachings of Jesus.

And the trouble with using those symbols is that if a person professes to be “of Christ” but does the opposite of what Christ taught, they’re not just telling their faith instead of showing it. They’re showing the world around them exactly what Jesus rejected: hypocrisy.

Last Sunday, a cowardly act of mass murder was committed in Las Vegas, Nevada. The killer, by all previous accounts an unremarkable, older white man, managed to murder almost 60 people and wound over 500 more, thanks to the incomprehensible weaponry that he was able to purchase legally, before fatally shooting himself.

There are a whole lot of potential threads for discussion from the circumstances of this tragedy, some more charged than others, and I don’t want to pull on any of them right now. I don’t want to be just another teller in the face of endless sequel-fatigue surrounding mass shootings in America.

What I want is change.

Another lesson from the writers’ retreat: Know what your main character wants and then make sure they take decisive actions to get it. Don’t make your character wish and hope really hard for something that subsequently falls in their lap. Don’t make convenient sidekicks and plot twists do the hard work for your character. Don’t let others solve the problem.

Don’t wait for others to solve the problem.

I am learning, now more than ever, to take that lesson to heart for my writing and for myself.

And that takes me back to a common expression, now being heard in the face of natural disaster in Puerto Rico and unnatural disaster in Nevada: “thoughts and prayers.”

There are tellers who use the phrase “thoughts and prayers” and tellers who criticize the phrase “thoughts and prayers.” Unfortunately, the climate for discussion on the internet means that tellers on either side may instinctively deride the tellers on the other for their disrespect and godlessness, or their sanctimoniousness and hypocrisy… and on and on and on.

But as a praying, thinking Christian, I believe that neither side is wrong. Here’s why:

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” 1 Corinthians 12:27

The lesson of that verse is that followers of Christ are called to be his body on Earth—to engage fully and compassionately with the world around them—so that Christ’s love may be visible to all even if his body is not. This is echoed in St. Teresa of Avila’s 16th-century poem (“Christ has no body but yours; no hands, no feet on earth but yours”) and in the modern idiom “be Christ’s hands and feet” to describe the work of Christian churches.

So, if a person’s “thoughts and prayers” are the starting line for acting with kindness and courage in the face of a conflict or tragedy, then that’s walking the walk. That’s showing.

But when individuals professing to be Christian throw out a phrase like “thoughts and prayers” in a tweet or a prepared statement and then fail to follow it up with action, there is no showing to go with their telling. They are waiting for someone else, Divine or worldly, to solve the problem. They don’t acknowledge that their own actions might be the intended instruments of solution.

They’re letting their mouths do the work of their hands and feet.

Worse than that, if the most powerful of those individuals act in ways that contradict their words, such as accepting vast donations from gun lobbyists while offering “thoughts and prayers” and taking no action to prevent future tragedies, then they aren’t just telling instead of showing. They’re disrespecting their own faith and allowing countless people to be harmed, even killed, in the process.

If this triptych of unusual Sundays has shown me anything, it’s that I need to act the way I would try to write a main character to act: through decisive words and actions that demonstrate kindness and courage.

I have tried to remember that feeling of church without walls and show grace to others regardless of what my worldly mind might argue they have “earned.”

I have tried—continually—not to give in to anger and despair.

I have tried to shift my telling into showing, to do hard work, to find small ways to solve small problems and support the solving of bigger ones. I have found ways to donate and volunteer. And dozens of generous, kind people have guided me through all of it.

There are nights when I fall into bed with a smile thinking of a good thing that got done that day, and there are nights when I know I need to rest and try harder tomorrow. But I think (I hope) that means that my hands and feet are moving, at least.

Whether you are a writer, a Christian, an American, or all or none of the above, I want to thank you for taking the time to read this far. And I want to encourage you, regardless of what you believe or do for a living, wherever you live, whatever you have or lack, that you have something to show this world. You have a way to help heal it, if you will find the strength to act, day after day, with kindness and courage.

Well, I think I’ve probably done enough telling here. It’s time for me to click “publish,” then get up and get going. My hands and feet need to get to work, and I hope that in some small way, this post has heartened you to do the same. Let’s walk the walk together.

The world sometimes needs to be told what we think. But for the world to change, it needs to be shown what we believe.

Thank you again for reading! If you are interested in finding ways to take positive actions in your community, here are some suggestions:

  • Donate supplies or money to natural disaster relief. If you have the resources to donate funds, then the Red Cross, UNICEF, United for Puerto Rico, Save the Children, and One America are some examples of reputable, impactful organizations. You can also look for emergency supply collection drives in your own community. Pittsburgh’s Roberto Clemente Museum ran a huge drive last weekend, and it only cost me a brief, cheap trip to Aldi and a quick jaunt to the drop-off to contribute some diapers and bottled water. Alternately (if you’re less squeamish than I am), you can donate blood to the Red Cross like my husband does.
  • Volunteer through a church or neighborhood organization. No matter your beliefs, you can find a group doing good and start doing good with them. Start with an email or two to groups like Habitat for Humanity or Big Brothers, Big Sisters and see what their needs are. If you want to work through a church, see if yours supports a local food pantry or serves a monthly dinner at a homeless shelter. At my church, we’re also looking into starting a weekly “homework help” program for the surrounding neighborhood.
  • Help a refugee in your community. Refugees from war-ravaged countries have gone through destitute camps and multiple years of vetting to arrive in the United States, and they need help settling into life in America. Start with a Google search for “How can I help refugees in [your city]?” Last November I found Pittsburgh’s Jewish Family and Children’s Service; JF&CS provides a range of invaluable community services including a volunteer program for working directly with refugee families. Thanks to that program, I’ve spent six months meeting with an amazing young family of five from Syria; we practice English and watch our children play together.
  • Join a local chapter of an advocacy group. This can be a great way to stay plugged in to ways you can actively help a cause that is important to you. For instance, I just joined Everytown for Gun Safety and found out that there is a local chapter that meets monthly.
  • Build community where you are. Random acts of kindness can go a long way. Every Christmas Eve, my mother leaves a bin of blankets, water bottles, ready-to-eat foods, and other necessities outside an urban church with a simple, small sign: “Please take what you need.” It’s not through any larger organization or program; she just decided one year that it was a tradition she wanted to start. And remember, no act of kindness is too small to make a difference to someone else.
  • Use your own skill set. You don’t have to single-handedly build a house or put out a forest fire to make an impact! I have friends at church who knit and crochet shawls and blankets to give to families in need. If you like to cook or bake, take meals to families in a tough time. If you’re looking to get some exercise in, see if you can take a neighbor’s dog for a walk or a jog with you. If you’re an extrovert, head out to local events to participate. If you’re an introvert, think about what you like to do or make at home and then think about who could benefit from it. If you have expertise in a subject or field, see if you can tutor in an after-school program in your neighborhood. You can write letters to elderly friends, or veterans, or inmates, or your elected representatives, or all of the above. Write them with kindness and courage!

I firmly believe that persistent actions of kindness and courage like these can change this world for the better. Let’s get to work.

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Page One

Shh, this is a sneak peek!

It’s the first page of my latest completed young adult novel, A Beastly Beauty. I’m excited to share a bit of it with you!


My night of freedom had arrived, and I wasn’t wasting a moment. The gate clicked behind me. At last I was on the right side of our estate walls again—the side where the rest of the world awaited. I nudged my horse’s flanks, and he snorted.

“All right, Domino,” I whispered. “Let’s go.” My heart leaped as he broke into a gallop. We were going to town.

If I could kiss the full moon with gratitude, I would. Once each month, the curse I had lived with since birth was contained. Between moonrise this morning and moonset tonight, I looked like a human instead of a nightmare.

The wind whistled through my hair as I urged Domino on. He was likely as sick as I was of trotting in sedate circles around the courtyard like a tethered pony.

He leapt over a log, bouncing me in the saddle. My stomach flipped at the feeling, but this wasn’t a night for nerves. It was a night for dancing and billiards and… Maybe this night would be the night. The night I had grown up dreaming of.

The night I’d find a way to break the curse.

We rode off the crest of the hill, leaving our estate behind. Inside the stone wall, the castle’s upper windows were dark. In a few minutes my father, the frosty Marquis of Molinas, would settle into his bed for the night. But his secret daughter, the invisible Isabella, was already gone.


A Beastly Beauty is a gender-swapped, Stockholm-syndrome-free retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” (featuring a villainous fairy godmother and her glass-slippered underling).

Just A Chair

This is a chair.

Just a chair.

Its seat is made of straw.

Straw is not a strong material.

The first Little Pig built his house out of piled-up straw. He is presented as an example of recklessness and shortsightedness. For good reason—who would build a house with something so weak?

Each piece of straw in this chair could break with one quick pinch.

But this chair is one-hundred-and-forty-three years old.

So how is it still holding itself together?

The many pieces of straw are thatched, woven together, coming to the center from all different directions. They each had to bend in order to be put together. Each piece must continually do its part to bear the load.

Together the straw can bear the stress of a whole person’s weight.

I wasn’t around one-hundred-and-forty-three years ago, but I would guess that not all the straw came from the same plant. Doesn’t matter. When they’re all bound together, the pieces do more than they ever could alone.

Just a chair.

I bought this chair today, in a remarkable stroke of luck, at an estate sale south of Pittsburgh.

Its previous owners purchased it from a little place in London, England…

Image result for st. paul's cathedral london

This chair was delivered to St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1874, where it served as a pew chair with four thousand of its straw-thatched brethren for almost a hundred years. When the chairs needed to be replaced with more modern seating, they were sold as a fundraising effort for the Cathedral.

In the course of those hundred years, this chair was used for the service for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and the funeral service for Winston Churchill in 1965. In less ostentatious times, it was used by thousands of regular people sitting, reading, thinking, praying, talking, and listening. People seeking and finding their purpose.

This chair was nearly destroyed multiple times in the London Blitz during World War II. Most notable among them was September 12, 1940, when a time-delayed bomb landed in St. Paul’s. The bomb was powerful enough to level the Cathedral.

A bomb disposal unit managed to destroy it safely in a remote location. Many hands came together to protect the Cathedral, the heart of the city.

And the Cathedral stayed up.

Image result for st. paul's cathedral london blitz

This is a chair.

After one-hundred-and-forty-three years, multiple bombings, and a trip across the Atlantic, this thatched-straw-on-wood probably shouldn’t still be a chair.

But it improbably is.

Many fragile pieces, coming to the center from different directions, with the shared purpose of supporting something greater and more precious.

Just a chair.

And a chair is just a place to sit.

Or a place to read.


Or think.

Or pray.

Or plan.

Or talk.

Or listen.

Or all of the above.

Because straw piled up is weak, but straw woven together is strong enough to resist time, stress, and war.

Woven together, bending towards each other, bearing with each other, we can support something greater and more precious. And that’s not just a purpose.

That’s a just purpose.