My Weigh or the Highweigh

Back in 2017, I wrote this blog post about the church community begun by Gwen Shamblin Lara. I considered it a handy-dandy tutorial in how to recognize a cult. I’m not the only one who thought so, either: there are, I believe, two documentaries talking about the cult and allegations of abuse that came out of it.

I haven’t watched either one, because I’m less interested in her cult than I was in the way she made a name for herself in the 90s: she designed and taught a Christian weight-loss program. A friend told me about how, at Bill Gothard’s “training center” in Indianapolis, all of the girls in her group—most were teenagers or very young adults—were put on Gwen’s Weigh-Down Diet. “I was nearly anorexic by the time I got out,” she said.

In 2021, I saw the news that Gwen Shamblin Lara, her current husband, and a few other church leaders (including her son-in-law) were killed in a plane crash.

I give all of that background to explain why, when I saw her original Weigh Down Diet+ book in the thrift store, I was curious enough to buy it. I wondered just what thousands of church people—mostly women—were taught about how to lose weight in 1997.

(Note: I often see people give Content Warnings before discussing diets, eating disorders, weight-loss, and other food-related topics. Just in case that’s something you would appreciate, please be aware that these subjects are brought up in a shockingly casual way.)

(Another Note: Every time she mentioned the title of her diet and workshop, she inserted a cross symbol. In order for me to do that, I have to upgrade my WordPress account and activate a plug-in. I’m not doing that. We’ll have to settle for the + symbol.)

On one hand, I’m the target audience for The Weigh Down Diet + I am, after all, a middle-aged woman who carries around extra weight.

On the other hand, I’m not the target audience because I don’t care all that much about food. I like eating, but ultimately what I’m after isn’t the food itself; it’s the comfortable feeling of being full. Food doesn’t have an inherent pull for me. I’d be just as happy if could photosynthesize everything I needed. In this book, Gwen is definitely addressing people for whom food is a major pleasure and pain. Indeed, I’m not sure she realized there were any other kind of people.

But since I’m about thirty pounds “overweight,” that makes me eligible for Gwen’s diet. So I read the book as if it applied to me. It didn’t take me long to come to the conclusion that this woman should never have been giving eating advice to anyone.

She wasn’t unqualified. She was a registered dietician, so she had been educated in food science. But one aspect of her personality came through loud and clear: once she decided on an idea, nothing could shake her from it. She decided at some point that the food-science field had gone badly wrong because they didn’t acknowledge God in any of their studies and recommendations. Since she held that missing key, she felt justified in questioning every conclusion they put forth, and deciding when she was right instead of them. (Which was always.)

But that wasn’t what first stood out to me. What first raised a red flag was how she described her body. She said that extra weight always concentrated around her waist and never to her legs where she really needed it, so she looked like “a potato on sticks.” It made me sad that that’s how she saw herself. Then she moved on to talking about her eating in college, and a whole host of red flags unfurled. She was horrified that she’d put on ten to twenty pounds since her high school days—you know, back before she was a full-grown adult—but at the same time, her university meal card gave her access to food twenty-four hours a day. She could not stop herself from eating all that “wonderful food.”

(Now, I’m speculating here, but I’ve had cafeteria food, even at a university. It’s adequate and sometimes good, but not wonderful. I suspect that she came from a background of deprivation, whether from poverty or otherwise, and it wasn’t so much the amazing food as the unlimited access that she couldn’t handle.)

She tried various diets and “exchanges,” but couldn’t stick to them. She’d often “use up” a week’s worth of points in one weekend. Then came the chillingly casual sentence, “I knew no end to fullness, and I tried throwing up my food after a binge, but I was not coordinated enough.” She admits that despite her light tone, it was a “a very insecure time for me.”

So she sought out nutrition and therapy to deal with her obvious issues… oh wait, haha, no. That’s not what she did. What she did was find a “very skinny” college friend and study how she ate.

This friend—whose only health qualification was that she wasn’t fat—sat down to eat her first meal of the day, around noon. She chose a McDonald’s quarter-pounder and ate about half of it. Then she decided she was full, wrapped up the rest, and threw it away. Gwen was amazed, and resolved that she, too, would be a “thin eater” and would learn to stop eating as soon as she was full.

This was the revelation that finally got her weight under control. She lost those twenty pounds, and they stayed off. She got married and got pregnant three times with very big babies, but always lost the baby weight. She had the secret, and this secret would work for anybody. Anybody. If you are overweight, that means you’re a chronic overeater, and the only solution is to stop eating when you’re full. If you have trouble doing that, God will help you. Stop making excuses. The end.

Of course, it wasn’t the end, because Gwen wrote a whole book and created a whole workshop on this idea. So what, exactly, was the Weigh-Down Diet+? (Never forget to add that little cross!)

To be honest, the basic premise isn’t bad—especially for 1997, when restriction dieting was practically a requirement of womanhood:

  • Eat for hunger, not for emotional comfort
  • Wait until you’re hungry
  • Eat half the portion you’re accustomed to
  • Eat until you are full, then stop
  • Eat anything you want; no eliminated foods, no diet foods (except diet drinks between meals)

The idea is that you separate actual physical hunger from emotional or spiritual needs that you may be interpreting as hunger. As you get to know your body, you can recognize hunger cues and also discern what food your body is really asking for. So you eat to satisfy your body, which means you eat less and lose weight, and you never gain it back again.

I don’t think that’s such a bad outlook. Granted, everybody approaches food differently, so you’d have to take into account allergies, tastes, coping mechanisms, miseducation, etc. But it seems like a good baseline approach. If Gwen had stopped here…

…but she didn’t stop here. The Weigh-Down Diet+ (that cross starts to look kind of weird after a bit) goes astray almost immediately.

The first glaring problem is how Gwen regards thinness. “The motivation to be thin is not vanity,” she explains. “It is natural. God has programmed us to want the best for our bodies.” So if we just let our bodies be our guide, then we’ll naturally lose weight. Because – you’re following this logic, right? – because everyone’s natural ideal God-ordained weight is “thin.” Your body “knows that you are overweight and, therefore, will only ask for small amount of food.” Your body “loves the decrease in volume of food!”

If you’re not thin, it’s because you’re ignoring your body’s design. You overeat, and you need to stop that. Gwen did! She wrote that she got to the point that she found the thought of overeating “repulsive.” And that’s not all she finds repulsive. The terminology she uses when talking about how “we” or “you” overeat is very telling:

  • “Try to stop guzzling from sixty-four ounce thirst busters.” Note that overweight people don’t drink, they “guzzle.”
  • “Before the Weigh Down Workshop+, your stomach did not know if it was going to swallow 10,000 calories, or just swallow a liquid diet drink…” Ten thousand calories? If someone is eating that much, it’s probably due to factors that a mere “workshop” is not going to address properly.
  • “If you are looking for good health, then know that the single most related factor to disease and even early death is overeating.”
  • “Try looking up from the food. Enjoy the company. Have you ever been at a dinner where all you saw was the tops of people’s heads as they had their faces buried in their plates?”
  • “Instead of ripping off the top of the package and then throwing your head back and dumping the M&Ms down the hatch…”
  • “Don’t tell me you haven’t broken in a buffet line or jumped out of the car to get ahead of the next group of people going into the same restaurant.”

She insists that all food is good, but only when physically necessary. The first step of the Weigh-Down Diet+  is that you don’t eat until you feel a real hunger cue. This, she explains, can take anywhere from forty-five minutes to thirty-six hours. If you haven’t felt a hunger cue in three days, she suggests eating a small meal anyway. She also touts the spiritual benefits of fasting (tossing off the casual note that if you have anorexia, you shouldn’t skip meals). She reminds her followers that it’s okay if they feel a hunger cue but can’t eat at that moment; it’ll come back, don’t worry! If you wake up hungry in the night, try praying instead. While she does have special (short) sections for conditions such as diabetes, hypoglycemia, and medication, her overall attitude is that not eating is better than eating. What could possibly go wrong with this idea? Nothing, because less food means more thin!

She absolutely shuts down any suggestion that a person’s weight could be linked to genetics, or that personal trauma might make it difficult to overcome unhealthy eating habits. These ideas merely trap a person into giving up, because what’s the use of fighting against genetics or trauma? No, Gwen clears out all this modern permissiveness with her workshop and book and weird cross symbol, to inform you that it’s just a matter of loving God more than you do food.

That’s the second very big problem with this diet. Gwen proclaims that it will work for absolutely everyone. But a key concept in her method is that the way you learn to resist emotional eating is that you turn to God instead of food. If you feel tempted to eat when you’re not hungry, you should pray. You learn to replace the pleasure and fun you associate with food, by cultivating pleasure and fun in God. Her recommendation for those who suffer from bulimia, for instance, is “Replace the intensive desire to eat with an intensive desire for God, and the bingeing will end. As a result, the bulimia will subside.”

I’m sure that, somewhere along the line, at least one person pointed out that none of this works if you happen to not share her faith. But Gwen decided that it was the right answer, so everybody else is wrong. In Gwen’s world, thin people loved God, and loving God meant you became thin.

There’s no middle ground, by the way. Either you’re a “thin eater” who can stop in the middle of a candy bar if you feel full, or you sneak food and binge until your stomach hurts. Either you’re unselfish with your food and time and love, or you’re a totally self-centered cretin who takes the biggest and best food for yourself and doesn’t care about how anyone around you feels. Either you love God to the point that you have flirty conversations with him, or you worship the refrigerator and don’t care about obeying God.

(She claims in the second half of the book that she discovered this secret of weight loss when she started obeying God. But, um, Gwen? I read the first part of the book. You discovered this secret because you wanted to be skinny.)

The second half of the book actually has very little to do with food, and everything to do with bringing your thinking into alignment with Gwen’s particular brand of 90s Christianity. She’d start out talking about eating, then veer off into how we should accept trials and suffering, including in a marriage with an unloving spouse or a miserable job. She brings up addictions and depression, then she wanders into a rant about how “self-care” is really just an excuse to be selfish, and how women are natural caregivers and will never get tired if they’re doing what they designed to do. Then ZIP we’re back to overeating again! It’s dizzying just to read it. I imagine it was a whirlwind to hear her in person—an intensely cheerful woman with small-framed body, tall blond hair, and utter conviction in everything she said.

She tackled enormous subjects such as dysfunctional families, trauma, addiction, demon possession, and depression. Well, “tackled” is the wrong word. She threw her thin little body into them, bounced off, and then skittered around them by saying that all it took to find freedom was to love God more. For instance, she said that it was illogical that past sexual abuse could manifest as overeating, and it was just “an excuse” for people who didn’t want to give up their love for food—if that gives you any idea of the skill and finesse with which she handled these topics. I skimmed the last couple of chapters because there was no reason for me to read someone talking about things she had no business addressing.

Throughout the book, she cites no sources for any of her claims, but reassures her followers over and over that all this really works. She says, rather confusingly, “How do I know if I am right about this? Just try it for yourself,” and that’s pretty much all the support she offers for her ideas. She talks about how content she is, and her close connection with God, and her happy family. But I’m 46 years old and a weary recipient of many a grandiose promise from smooth-talking speakers with something to sell me. I now keep one thought uppermost: You might be lying.

I also have the benefit of hindsight. I can see how she careened out of the mainstream and created her own church based on being thin and obedient. At least one child died from “discipline” in that church. I also know that she divorced her first husband and remarried. So tell me how all this solves All the Problems?

But she really did claim that. She dazzles the Wei+gh Down+ W+orksho+p devotees with this picture of success:

…You feel more at peace. Someone at work said your face looks different, you are reading your Bible more, and you are communicating with God a lot more. Anger is leaving, and your marriage is better as you are able to love more and think about the needs of others more. You are starting to go through church doors again, and suddenly the preacher has improved his sermons. Even God’s creation looks more beautiful—especially the sunsets.

Gwen Shamblin Lara proclaimed that she was setting her followers free from the tyranny of diets and food. All they had to do was line up for a hefty serving of spiritual guilt and oppression. And really, that’s a pretty small price to pay to be thin.

Gallery of Infamy

Some of the more bonkers quotes from this book.

God did not accidentally leave the Four Food Groups out of the Bible!


The stomach is a pouch made out of three layers of muscle, and it is located right below your sternum bone—the bone that is broken open in heart bypass surgery. [Note: this is the only mention of heart bypass surgery in the entire book.]


I even rate bites in each category. For example, I searched around in the pork for the juiciest pieces. Since I was approaching full by the time I got to the brownie, I ate the bites that had the most pecans in them. I left some of every food category on my plate, but the juiciest, best morsels were in my stomach. My plate looked like it had been dissected! And what was left was not appealing. Skinny people eat this way. [But most people… don’t.]


Skinny people are well aware of their unpopular position in life. [Because people like Gwen hold them up as effortlessly conforming to beauty standards AND Godliness!]


Ironically, I know the world tells me that I should be dying from eating beef and putting real cream in my coffee, but I am a-l-i-v-e! In turn, some nutritionally-obsessed people who shop in or operate health-food stores look like they are dying! Why? It seems to me the more we try to monitor our health, the unhealthier we get! … Sensitivity to volume is the dietary habit of most ninety-year-olds. You may know some overweight sixty-year-olds. But how many overweight ninety-year-olds do you know?


Death to self, or our will, is the core of obedience: ObeDIEnce.


We are not what we eat! God has programmed cows to crave grass—does that mean cows turn into grass? No! They not only remain cows, but they produce more cows and produce calcium-rich milk. … Cardinals are programmed to eat sunflower seeds, but they turn into cardinals. Robins eat worms; mockingbirds eat grasshoppers, and they all live to sing about it.

Late Check-Out: cozy ghost stories

So, good news! I’ve released a new book!

It’s good news for me because I thoroughly enjoyed writing these stories, as I talked about in this post. It’s good news for you because now you get to read them.

What, you may ask, is a cozy ghost story?

Well, I love ghost stories, but mostly because of the glimpses they give of someone’s past life. In my world, ghosts aren’t out for vengeance or even justice; they just got lost on the way to the afterlife. In Late Check-Out, Cynthia and Jen try to figure out what is holding a spirit to the material world — while also running a restored 1930s roadside motel. Oh, and it turns out there might be something even bigger going on right under their noses.

Each one of these stories is a bite-sized mystery, the kind of thing you’d read while curled up with tea and cheese toast. They’re light stories with stories with — I hope — a bit of a surprise to them.

Thanks to James from for the excellent cover design and fast turnaround time.

The stories are available now on Kindle, and will be soon in print-on-demand.

The Blessed Neverending Work of Women

A while ago, this post drifted around my newsfeed. I didn’t like the post, but I ignored it… until it showed up one too many times. Then I sat down to write out why it irritates me.

It’s the kind of thing that sounds inspirational. It pretends to be lifting up women, encouraging them and giving them a new and revolutionary perspective. What it actually does is refuse to acknowledge real problems in the status quo. It doesn’t want women to try to change anything. It just wants women to play mind games and play along.

Playing mind games is a tried-and-true spiritual discipline featured in many women’s devotionals.

So here’s the post, along with my commentary in italics.


[Title lost] by Heather Farrell


Have you ever noticed how in the scriptures men are always going up into the mountains to commune with the Lord?

Yet in the scriptures we hardly ever

hear of women going to the mountains.

Well, for one thing, the Bible was written by men who probably didn’t inquire closely into the daily habits of the women around them.

But we know why — right?

Because the women were too busy

keeping life going;

they couldn’t abandon babies,





and a thousand responsibilities to make the climb into the mountains!

Because there was no one else who could do any of those things, even for a short time. NO ONE.

I was talking to a friend the other day,

saying that as modern woman

I feel like I’m never “free” enough

from my responsibilities,

never in a quiet enough space

I want with God.

Her response floored me,

Her friend said, “Sometimes life just overtakes us, and I’m glad God is there in those times. But when I get the chance, I ask my husband/family/friends/church to handle things so I can take time away from everything for a little bit.”

Oh. Wait. That wasn’t her response? Nope.

“That is why God comes to women.

Men have to climb the mountain to meet God, but God comes to women where ever they are.”

Ooh. My mistake. I forgot that women are SPECIALER than men. Those silly men have to leave all their responsibilities behind for a while! Not women! They aren’t men!

It’s absolutely impossible for women to set down all their responsibilities. There’s NOBODY ELSE who can take over for women for any time whatsoever.

I have been pondering on her words for weeks and have searched my scriptures

to see that what she said is true.

God does in deed come to women

where they are,

when they are doing their ordinary,

everyday work.

He meets them at the wells

where they draw water for their families,

in their homes,

in their kitchens,

in their gardens.

He comes to them

as they sit beside sickbeds,

as they give birth,

care for the elderly,

and perform necessary mourning and burial rites.

You know what this means? It means that God doesn’t want women to ever stop working. Men can stop working, but not women.

Even at the empty tomb,

Mary was the first to witness Christ’s resurrection,

She was there because she was doing the womanly chore of properly preparing Christ’s body for burial.

In these seemingly mundane

and ordinary tasks,

these women of the scriptures found themselves face to face with divinity.

Yup! Do your chores! Don’t expect any time off to grieve because there’s nobody else who can do those chores. NOBODY.

So if — like me — you ever start to bemoan the fact that you don’t have as much time to spend in the mountains with God as you would like. Remember, God comes to women.

Therefore, don’t pay attention to how tired or burned out you are, or how your work never ends, or how you’re supposed to meet with God when there’s no space for it. Don’t you know how satisfying it is to commune with someone while you’re also on the phone, washing dishes, waiting around for kids’ activities to finish, grocery shopping, cooking meals, and cleaning the bathtub?

He knows where we are and the burdens we carry. He sees us, and if we open our eyes and our hearts we will see Him, even in the most ordinary places and in the most ordinary things.

He lives. And he’s using a time such as this to speak to women around the world.

And what he is saying, apparently, is… Women, stop whining. Men aren’t as PRIVILEGED as you are. They have to abandon all their cares and responsibilities in order to meet God! (Fortunately, God makes provision to keep things going while they’re gone, isn’t that good of him?) You, on the other hand, can keep on working all the time! Isn’t that great?

Furthermore, you have to feel great about your crowded life burdened with chores and expectations, because this is the way it’s always been, and there’s no way to change it. There’s no other option for today’s women. Nobody to help carry the burdens, nobody to cover for her. Nobody at all is available.

So just “keep life going” all the time and watch for God. He’ll be there!

Just make sure you’re not so busy that you miss him. That’s why men go off to the mountains to find him.

Describing Things (10 – 12)

These descriptions are a little longer. I got caught up talking about some of my favorite finds.


The first public school in the city was built in 1908. This one wasn’t the “endowed” school built several blocks to the east, a grand structure with a central portico and dome, where the children of wealthy white citizens attended. Nor was it “the Negro school,” constructed at the north end of the city, a big red brick box. The “public school” was somewhere in between those two extremes, both in location and style. It was three stories high and almost a perfect square, a solid and stolid building. The severe silhouette was softened by rows of arched windows, a decorative ridge along the top, and peaked dormers at regular intervals. The cream-and-burgundy color scheme, including inset brickwork delineating each level of the building, gave the massive block some architectural flair. The school was built to impress the poverty-stricken kids who attended here—both as a sense of pride, and as a reminder of what the city had bestowed upon them.


By the time I noticed the house, it had lost all personality. It was the same style as a thousand others built around the same time, a two-story white house with three unadorned windows lined up over an unremarkable front porch. A short, gnarled tree grew in the narrow lawn, stretching cantankerous limbs most of the length of the house. A tall pine stood nearby; almost as if in mockery of the other tree, this one had been sheered of all its branches and was now just a twenty-foot-tall stump.

The homeplace had not always been so bleak. Down the dirt driveway, past a weather-darkened shed, was a small pond and a grassy field that extended to a line of trees. It was easy to imagine a small vegetable garden behind the house, fenced off from the roaming chickens, and girl catching grasshoppers for her cat on a summer day. Like the old pine tree, though, this place had been stripped of its vibrancy. It now just awaited the inevitable end signaled by the large yellow FOR SALE sign posted in its front yard.

I took this picture in 2018. The house has now been torn down.


I’d seen the old house for years, every time I drove to the bank or the grocery store. It was a big house, two stories high and three rooms deep, with an extra wing on one side and outbuildings out back. A single slender chimney was set far back on the peaked tin roof; a fireplace in that position would have trouble heating such a large space, suggesting that the extensions were built once heating didn’t depend on fire.

The house was empty, but still appealing. Its siding was painted white, with light-blue trim around the windows and doors. Instead of a front door centered underneath the double-level porch, this one was set into the corner of the house, flanked by two lights and two empty flowerboxes. White ruffled curtains still hung in the glass panes.

When it was announced that the highway was expanding, I knew that the old house was doomed. I went to see it while it was still standing. I wondered if a farming family had lived here—now vanished along with any trace of farmland. Or perhaps it had been a boarding house with a motley collection of residents. I imagined a boarder coming home on a cold winter evening, shivering her way through the front door, and hurrying up stairs, down hallways, and past bedrooms to find the warmest part of the house.

As I walked along the porch, I noticed something scratched into the concrete. 9-25-53. Someone had loved the place enough to mark a date in stone. Even though I hardly knew the house, and knew nothing of the people who had lived here, I was glad I could tell it goodbye.


Previous posts: 1-3, 4-6, 7-9

Describing Things (7 – 9)

The more I practice this little exercise, the less intimidating it gets. I still don’t have the easy style that other writers do, but at least I’m enjoying myself now. Any building is more than just the arrangement of windows or the color of the siding; it was somehow part of someone’s life, and that’s what fascinates me about these old places.

Please note, by the way, that I have only the sketchiest knowledge of how to tell when a building or house was constructed, so I just use whatever estimate best suits my purpose. You can’t tell me no because you aren’t my mom. (But my mom has a very good sense of architecture and history and probably could tell me.)

Previous posts: 1-3 here, 4-6 here.


The little porch was just big enough for two rocking chairs and a well-mannered dog. Lacy woodwork and elaborate corner columns gave a tasteful flair to the otherwise common-sense framing. The railing, constructed of whimsical cutout designs on teardrop-shaped panels, lined up neatly and in good order. All this decorative woodwork had probably been mass-produced and shipped by train to finish a house built from a kit. But that wasn’t the sort of thing one talked about on this porch.


Brighton Avenue was a casual jumble of history. The houses that lined the street reflected every era, from an eighteenth-century daub-and-log cabin, to late nineteenth-century townhouses with more window than wall, to a little 1920s peaked-roof cottage. Twentieth-century power lines crisscrossed the sky, while the street below was full of compact twenty-first century cars hurrying through their busy lives.


The house was mostly windows and rooflines. There were tall narrow windows, large square windows, double windows, single windows, half windows, and corner windows. Two squat windows peeked out from under an upper dormer, and an extra one overlooked the front porch swing. These windows were compassed about by an enthusiastic variety of rooflines. A flat porch roof underscored crested dormers, and all was crowned by a spreading upper roof piled high with peaks and gables and overhangs. What was life, the architect seemed to say, if you didn’t make room for windows and roofs?

Describing Things (4 – 6)

More practice in the art of description, using photos from my walks around town.

#4. The old house was pink. It wasn’t flashy; if one had to paint century-old bricks pink, this was definitely the right shade. Otherwise, the house was rather plain, a rectangular box topped by a peaked roof with a chimney sticking out of the center. It didn’t even have a porch, merely an oversized brick doorstep ornamented by a single urn of mums. Squeezed in among newer homes and an ever-expanding city street, this old home had nothing going for it except its coat of paint. It should have receded into invisibility. Yet it still caught the eye.


The three houses marched up Campbell Street in a line. They were built in the traditional style of four windows across the upper story, and three windows plus the front door on the ground floor. A porch below echoed the peaked roof above, and a stubby chimney on either end kept the balance. Crowning the whole well-ordered assembly was a front gable with an arched-and-winged window in the center.

Despite their obvious shared pedigree, however, time had not treated them all equally. The first house was in good repair, with pale yellow siding, burgundy shutters, and a new metal roof. The second house was painted light blue, its shutters a darker dusky blue; it too had a metal roof. These two homes were connected by a small breezeway building between them, and had been converted into apartments sometime in the past.

But the third house was not so fortunate. No one had modernized its roof or repainted its walls. White paint peeled off its wooden siding and its shutters were missing. This third house had not prospered in the same way that her sisters had.

The first house actually has five windows across so doesn’t exactly match the other two; but as fiction goes, I smudged the details so they’d blend better.


#6. Just off the busy street was a small triangular courtyard where two buildings clustered close to a towering ivy-covered wall. A wrought-iron gate, flanked by stone topiaries, opened the way to a smooth flagstone pathway that curved through ornamental grasses to a tall, narrow doorway at the other end. There, a pocket of a porch lay hidden away from the anxious city.

Describing Things (1 – 3)

I love writing, and by that I mean, I love creating characters and crafting their interaction with one another. When it comes to description — setting a scene, or (to use that threadbare cliche) “painting a picture for the reader” — I loathe writing.

Describing a landscape, a building, or a even room is hard for me. I haven’t improved much from my thirteen-year-old self, who once described a house as “a cedar house with colums [sic] in front” and a room as having a wall and a chair. The words I need aren’t easily accessible for me. It’s… a house. It’s wood-colored. It’s got windows and a roof. Look, here’s an idea — how about if I just list the elements of the setting in brackets, like this: [a house, some trees, and and red front door]. Now readers can arrange it however they like!

As I’m working on a new story idea, I realized that I would be moving my character to a new location for each story. This meant I’d have to set some scenes and paint some word pictures. Since brackets aren’t an option, I could either labor through descriptions and hate every minute of it, or I could take some time to practice the art and get better at it.

The other day, as spring is settling in around here, I walked a couple of blocks in the old section of our city and took pictures of buildings that caught my eye. Back home, I practiced describing them. After all, if I found them interesting enough for a photo, surely I could communicate why in a paragraph.

I’ll be posting the photos and my descriptions here, because It’s turned out to be an entertaining little exercise, and I do think it’s helpful. Besides, this way I get to show pictures of some of the interesting old buildings around here.

Here are the first three.


124 Robinson Street been built as a stylish little duplex many years ago. Two bay windows faced the street, each flanked by a real wooden door. A small square window was set above each door. Everything was painted light yellow and framed with ornamental white trim, giving it an understated charm. Yet time had taken its toll. The brick steps were darkened with weather and grime from the street. Rusting metal awnings shaded the windows and doors; one awning was bent in the middle, and another missing completely. Ground-floor windows, originally allowing light into the basement level, were painted shut with sloppy white strokes. All these years later, the building was just too tired to keep up appearances anymore.


The hulking building had been built for dreary governmental business. About forty years ago, some enterprising developer renovated the interior into apartments. It was a smart use of existing space, although it never quite shed the feeling that one’s neighbors might stop by at any time with a question about the Hodson file. The exterior of the building remained unchanged; the only disruption of its utilitarian symmetry was a twelve-foot wall that jutted out from the side of the building in a warped semi-circle. Usually the gate was closed, but today it stood partially ajar. The opening gave a glimpse into a grassy courtyard, a startling oasis of nature within a desert of brick and concrete.


A row of three brick townhouses stood along the sidewalk. Matching sets of five concrete steps led up to three small square porches, each framed by brick and wooden posts. The single ground-floor window suggested a bay window without quite committing to it. Across the upper story, three windows across the flat façade mimicked eighteenth-century colonial manors. Each window featured a pair of shutters, painted dark green to contrast with the cream-colored window trim, and—to their credit—each with a real mechanism to shut them. The roof was steeply pitched, with a squat dormer window in the center. At the back of the last unit, a brick chimney rose above the sharp peak of the roof. It was hard to tell if it had been a real chimney, or was just added for effect. In all honesty, the townhouses looked a lot like modern buildings dressed up in historical costume.

More will follow as I work through my photos. I’ll probably never paint pictures for my readers; but maybe I can learn to dash off a quick sketch for them.

The True Spirit of Writing

About a year ago, after giving me the bad news that my novel needed a lot more work than I expected, my editor added, “I know you know this, but it’s just a reminder — you can write just for fun. It doesn’t always have to be a big and important idea.”

Well, I shelved the novel, and found myself with nothing to write, important or otherwise. Eventually I produced the mini-collection A Bowl of Pho just to prove to myself that I really could bring a project to fruition, but it wasn’t really enough. Then I stumbled on a book that turned everything around.

It purported to be a collection of recipes transmitted to the author by ghosts. The book was transparently fiction although it claimed to be real, and all the recipes sounded like they came from the Mt. Olive Baptist Church Women’s Bible Study cookbook from Centralville, Ohio, circa. 1963. It was a terrible book and I loved it.

I’ve always been a fan of ghost stories, which is connected to my longing to be able to see and know the past. According to this book, some ghosts stayed on earth because they were attached to something and couldn’t let go. Obviously all of these stories involved recipes of some kind, but it fired up my imagination. What if a ghost was attached to a baby who had her name? What if a ghost never realized that her shift at the diner was over? What about somebody who was sure she was so essential that she had to stick around and make all the right decisions?

From that seed of an idea, a new project flourished. Not only did I write ghost stories, but I was able to put together a collection of stand-alone stories with a unifying thread that tied them together into a larger story. I’ve wanted to write this kind of thing for years, and in 2021, I did it.

In tone, they’re much closer to Go Right and A Bowl of Pho than The Fellowship. Yet I do still touch on themes of women’s empowerment, racism, and faith — not because I feel I need to, but because my stories deal with humans (both alive and dead), and those are human issues.

I’m still deciding exactly what to do with my ghost stories, but rest assured that you’ll see them in some form sooner or later. I can’t wait to share them. Not because I think it will change the world, but because they were born from the sheer joy of writing.

Offensively Nerdy

You are the reason why people laugh at homeschoolers.

Someone recently informed me of this fact. And that wasn’t all! I was also informed that my family is an embarrassing stereotype, that we aren’t diverse enough, and that we are “cringe.” It was certainly an enlightening afternoon on the internet.

It started with a post about Teacher Appreciation Week. DJ and I were featured as part of a series on homeschooling parents. We answered a few questions (years we’ve homeschooled, favorite book, a piece of advice, favorite memory, etc.), and our answers were posted with a family photo.

It was the photo that did it.

In the picture, we’re all posing with books or plushies or other items that reflect our interests. It’s a bit goofy, but that’s part of the fun. At just a glance, you get an idea of the different personalities and interests that make up our family. You also get the idea that we’re a nerdy bunch of people. We are, and we embrace that fact. It’s a pretty good picture of us and we figured others would enjoy it too.

What we didn’t expect was that a few people on the internet would find it completely baffling. Despite the fact that the Q&A clearly identified us as the family pictured, a couple of women thought it was a stock photo of a “stereotypically nerdy 90s homeschooling family.” They were insulted that they, real homeschoolers, might be associated with this embarrassing fake family photo. They commented as much.

DJ and I quickly entered the thread to let them know they’d blundered. Not only was it a photo of a real family, but that family was reading the comments. We were gracious about it. After that, their only real recourse was to make awkward apologies and drop the subject.

Oh, hang on, my mistake. It seems there was one other option: double down on their opinions. All of them responded by expanding on the fact that our photo was embarrassing. They explained that we were the kind of stereotype that they had to push back against. People like us made life harder for people like them. We were the reason why people laughed them.

At the same time, they didn’t think that DJ and I had any reason to get upset about their opinions. After all, all of them said things like, “I’m sure these are lovely people, but…” and “I’m not judging the people, just the photo.”

One commenter even stood her ground on principle. She “refused to deny the reality” that we were an embarrassment to everyone else. I’m sure she thinks we’re lovely people, though.

It stung, I won’t lie. Yet like Elizabeth Bennet in my favorite novel (as identified in the Q&A that none of these commenters appeared to read), I saw the humor in it. Along with Lizzie, I could laugh at these people echoing Darcy’s dismissive, “She’s tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me.” These people were comically obtuse. They continually insulted us… oops, I mean our photo… without understanding that they were making themselves, not us, look bad.

But it could have gone very wrong.

Firstly, I’m at peace with who I am, but I wasn’t always that way. For years I disliked myself, hating being “the dorky one” and wishing I was prettier or more interesting or—yes indeed—cool. Had this happened to me in those previous seasons, it would have devastated me. No matter what dream I tried to pursue, I’d have those nasty voices in my head telling me I was a nerdy stereotype, and that others resent me because I make people laugh at them.

Secondly, what if any of our kids had seen these comments? Sure, I could explain that these commenters appeared to have deep insecurities, and the problem was theirs, not ours. But how much of that would a teenager really take in, when they could actually see the unkind words being hurled at them? There’s no humor in that situation. We would be furious, and rightly so.

As it was, the situation resolved much better than it could have. Our friends weighed in, commenting on how much they appreciated our family. Complete strangers jumped to our defense. And other complete strangers ignored the drama, instead reading our Q&A and responding with their own favorite books or memories. Meanwhile, the admin of the post stayed busy all afternoon, hiding the astonishingly rude comments.

Gradually, things calmed down. The trolls, having gnawed on our egos enough to assuage their gaping hunger, disappeared. So did their comments, thanks to the admin.

Yet one woman hung on. She’d been one of the first to comment, saying that “she was sure we were lovely people, but…” that it was a silly photo. DJ cheerfully agreed, adding that he kept it in his office and he enjoyed it. You’d think this would have taken care of the matter, but no. Every time someone would post their dismay at the rude comments directed at us, this lady showed up to clarify that all she said was that the photo is silly, that it was an odd choice, that she questioned why it was chosen.

Even when I responded to her directly, she clung to the thread like a bug on a windshield. (She shouldn’t be upset by that comparison because I said she was like a bug, not that she was a bug. I’m sure she’s a lovely person.) When the admin pinned a general comment reminding everyone to interact with grace and kindness, this woman replied again.

So I addressed her: You have now stated that opinion four times. The choice of a photo doesn’t affect your life, but your continued insistence that it’s “odd” and should be removed does in fact affect mine. We like this family photo, and if you don’t, feel free to move on. Your opinion has been seen. Please stop now.

Surely, I thought, she’ll let go and let the wind take her away. See if you can guess her response:

  1. I am very sorry. I didn’t stop to think how it made you feel.
  2. I don’t know why it bothers you so much, but fine. I have other things to do.

Yes, it was 3, ensuring that everyone understood the truth: that she obviously did think she’d put her foot in it, but was unable to admit who tracked in the bad smell. At this point, I had to laugh again. The admin brushed her off the windshield, and I could relax. By the next day, it was over—a little Facebook tiff over the fact that our family photo triggered a few people’s “bully the nerds” response.

One of the reasons why we chose to homeschool was because we knew some of our children wouldn’t conform to traditional expectations. We didn’t want them to be targets simply because of who they are. Well, what do you know—here were fellow homeschoolers coming for us because they didn’t like how we looked.

There are bullies in every community. Fortunately, many more people in our community were quick to run to our side when we needed it.

I’ll probably never encounter these trolls again, either online or in real life. That’s fine by me. But if by some chance it does happen, I know what I’ll do. I’ll straighten my shoulders, blast Taylor Swift singing Mean, and I’ll see all those lovely people…

…right out the door. Good riddance.

Handle Men With Care

On Facebook, I came across a question from a wife (I’ll call her Melissa) whose husband (Blake) makes demeaning jokes. You know, hilarious “clean” humor like this:

On the original post, a woman did point out how demeaning it was to women. A man responded, “Take a hike.”

Melissa explained that she’s asked Blake not to make these remarks. His reply is, “It’s just a joke. It’s not a big deal.” It embarrasses and frustrates her, and she wanted to know what she could do about it.

Lots of women had lots to say. Many pointed out that if it “wasn’t a big deal,” then he could stop since it obviously bothers his wife. But he won’t stop, meaning that there’s more behind it than lame attempts at humor.

One woman said that she and her husband set aside regular times to discuss their biases and figure out problems in their communication. They work on a puzzle together while doing this, keeping their hands busy and making it easier to talk.

Another woman said she asks the jokester to explain why, for example, #13 on that list is funny. (“It’s funny because the woman is lazy because it’s her job to wipe the dust off the T.V.” Ha ha.)

But one woman weighed in with some advice straight from the “godly marriage” teachings I got as a teenager and young wife. The details can change, but one basic principle remains: the worst thing a woman can do is make a man feel bad about himself.

I mean, sure, he’s the head of the family, has the final say in major decisions, and is — no exaggeration — responsible before God for his wife’s spiritual health. But at the same time, he’s as fragile as a glass ornament. A wife can destroy her husband by contradicting him, disagreeing with him, or communicating anything less than devotion to him.

Therefore, in this conflict, Melissa must approach it carefully. As follows:

Let’s discuss.

  1. When your husband continues to do something that you’ve told him you don’t like, the first step is to figure out where you are wrong. Your attitude probably isn’t 100% pure, which means you’re partly to blame. It’s always very important to establish the wife’s blame in the situation.
  2. Approach your husband and ask him to discuss your reflections when he is ready. This is about you and your issues now.
  3. Don’t expect a massive change immediately. Obviously you’re aiming for a complete overhaul of his attitudes and behavior… even though your stated goal is merely for him to understand why jokes that cut down women aren’t funny and it embarrasses you when he tells them.
  4. Continue to ponder and understand your own beliefs, even though your husband isn’t required to think through why he won’t stop telling demeaning jokes.
  5. You must gently and respectfully state your disapproval if he makes these jokes around you. If you’re snappish or sarcastic, go back to #4, do not pass Go, and do not collect $200.
  6. You can respect your own convictions, even though he doesn’t have to. Also, note that it’s “doing what what you believe is right.” Avoid implying that your husband’s behavior has larger social consequences and this isn’t about your hurt feelings.
  7. You don’t have to speak up every time. Don’t overdo it.
  8. Keep praying! God will keep growing you! Because the problem here is… you?

It’s not that this whole thing is bad advice, taken in parts. It’s good to think through your own reaction before approaching your spouse. It’s also impossible to change someone who doesn’t want to change, so all you really can do is draw your own boundaries and know your own mind. But that’s not really what this is saying. Instead, it shoves all of the emotional work onto Melissa and requires nothing of Blake. There’s not even the expectation that he should change his behavior out of regard for her.

In patriarchal thinking, a man is the strongest protection a woman can have; but she has to handle him with the utmost care or she’ll damage him. A woman who stands too firmly on her own personhood is a woman who can destroy her marriage, her man — and by extension, herself.

Better for her to focus on her own fault, turn the conflict into her own “issues,” and keep praying that he listens to God better than he listens to her.

Sure, it short-circuits communication and lets unresolved conflicts fester. But if it gets too bad, just make a few jokes. That always lightens the mood.