Monthly Archives: March 2021

Ten Lessons from a Writing Life

Yesterday I gave a talk to a church group about how the various things I’ve written in my life have taught me ten valuable things. I gave examples from my own writing for each one.

1. The world is full of fascinating people with interesting stories to tell.

As a writer, I have had the opportunity to interview NBA basketball players, politicians, politician’s partners, Hutterites, peace advocates, Olympic medalists, airline pilots, Buddhist monks, teachers and women who served as maids for Winnipeg’s wealthy in the early 1900s. These stories about interesting people were published in the Winnipeg Free Press, on travel blogs, in magazines and in my regular column in The Carillon.

2. Teamwork is important.

My novel Lost on the Prairie would not be coming out if it wasn’t for my wonderful editor Nandini Thaker and designer Jacqui Thomas who worked so hard with me to create a book I can be proud of.

3. Criticism can be very helpful.

When I wrote for the Faith Page of The Winnipeg Free Press I received many letters that criticized what I had written. It forced me to think carefully about what I believed, to learn to express myself clearly and taught me to be very humble.

4. Look at the world through the eyes of children.

Trying to see things as a child would can open up new perspectives and help you see things in entirely new and meaningful ways. I had to look at things from a child’s point of view when I wrote curriculum materials for children. I had to try to see the world through the eyes of a 12 year old boy when I wrote my novel.

5. Writing helps you get through difficult experiences

Writing about difficult life experiences like my mother’s death or how our family survived the tsunami in Phuket, or how I dealt with the foster care system as a teacher helped me process those experiences and deal with them.

6. The Bible may be an old book but it still has things to teach us.

That’s a truth I’ve discovered when I write sermons or devotionals for an annual meditation magazine.

7. Look for the positive.

I have had quite a number of my stories published in Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies and when you write those kinds of stories you have to look for the silver lining, for what is good and positive in life.

8. I can speak up about important issues.

I have noticed that particularly recently I have been using my newspaper columns in The Carillon to speak up about issues that are important to me and that I think society should address.

9. We are all connected.

Writing my daily blog has certainly proved this. Via a blog post I’ve reconnected with a childhood friend, my former students, connected with an employee of the British Supreme Court, connected with the writer of a film textbook and many others.

10. Being a life -long learner is rewarding.

My writing assignments have taught me about so many different subjects many I would probably never have explored if I hadn’t been assigned to write about them.

My job as a writer has enriched my life. I am grateful to Grace Mennonite Church in Steinbach for asking me to talk about my life as a writer last night. It was a good exercise to try and list the ways writing has made my life meaningful.


Filed under Writing

Would You Want Your Child To Be A Doctor?

“Would you want one of your children to be a doctor?” That was a question I asked Jillian Horton last night when I attended the Winnipeg Free Press online book club. We were talking about Jillian’s book We Are All Perfectly Fine. It tells the story of Jillian’s medical career and raises serious questions about the demands we make on doctors.

Dr. Jillian Horton author of We Are All Perfectly Fine

In her book we read about how Jillian attended a retreat for doctors in New York, at a point in her career when she was feeling really burned out. Over the course of the retreat, Jillian along with the other doctors in attendance, opened up about the guilt and grief and fear they felt about not always meeting their patients’ needs and not always meeting their own expectations of themselves.

Dr. Horton who is a professor of internal medicine at the University of Manitoba says the current medical system fails doctors. Doctors need to experience compassion just like everyone else and they must take care of themselves if they want to be effective in helping their patients. Being a doctor is an emotional job and doctors need to be able to face those emotions and deal with them. Of course the pandemic has only exacerbated the emotional stress on doctors.

Doctor Jillian Horton at the Free Press online book club yesterday. Ben Sigurdson from the newspaper and Chris Hall from McNally Robinson Book Sellers were moderating the event.

So given all the problems and challenges Jillian sees in the medical profession I wondered if she would want one of her sons to be a doctor.

She told me many doctors discourage their children from entering the profession. She wouldn’t necessarily do that but she would want to be very sure her child was passionate and committed to the field of medicine and she would certainly warn them about the pitfalls and perils of the profession.

My Dad on the phone taking a medical call while we had supper

I grew up the child of a rural family doctor and the demands on my Dad were incredible. He was on call seven days a week. Often we didn’t see him for days. He was off to the hospital to do surgery before we woke up in the morning, frequently missed supper because his office hours ran late and he got up during the night to make house calls. The only place we knew Dad wouldn’t get called away because of a medical emergency was at our cottage at Moose Lake because there wasn’t a phone there.

I think watching how hard my Dad worked and the sacrifices he had to make in regards to our family life in order to fulfill his professional commitments probably influenced his four children in making the decision not to become doctors. I know Dad was highly respected and appreciated as a physician. At least on the surface he seemed to deal with the emotional aspects of the job, but it definitely impacted our family’s life.

I found Dr. Jillian Horton’s book interesting and eye-opening. I think those who read it will come to a greater understanding of the stresses faced by physicians and their families and will gain a greater appreciation for the work they do.

Alan Alda and Dr. Jillian Horton- photo from the University of Manitoba website

Note: Last night Jillian referred to a piece she wrote in the Los Angeles Times about how actor Alan Alda and the series MASH taught her the value of humour in medical practice. It is well worth the read.

Other posts………

Writing As A Healing Art

My Dad’s Medical Bag

Living at the Hospital

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Filed under Books, Health

My Aunt and Winnipeg’s Polio Hospital

My aunt with my parents at her nursing school graduation from the Misercordia Hospital in 1953

In a recent e-mail my Aunt Mary recalled the time in the early 1950s when she was training to be a nurse at the Misercordia Hospital in Winnipeg. A call for volunteer nurses went out from the King George Community Hospital where most of the city’s polio patients were in care. My aunt said the patients in iron lungs needed to be under vigilant survelience due to the need for frequent tracheostomy suctioning. The director of the nursing school at the Misercordia encouraged her students to volunteer at King George during the hours they weren’t on call at the Misercorida.

The Old King George Hospital

My aunt volunteered and was assigned to two young men, both from the area of southern Manitoba where she had been born and raised. The men were from a Mennonite background, as was my aunt, and so sometimes she spoke their common cultural language Low German with them, which she recalls often helped to lighten the mood of their serious situation.

My aunt says that Ted Braun, one of the men she cared for was engaged to be married, and his worried finance was a frequent visitor. She remembers how deeply appreciative the two men were of her care for them. My aunt’s memories of her time at the King George Hospital were triggered by a recent article in the Canadian Mennonite magazine written by Will Braun who was a nephew of Ted’s.

The King George Hospital site is now home to the Riverview Health Centre

I was curious about the King George Hospital where my aunt had volunteered but learned it had been torn down and was now the site of the Riverview Health Centre. My husband Dave and I decided to visit the site on our bicycles and discovered that the front archway of the old King George Hospital has been preserved on the site.

There was a fence around the archway so we weren’t able to get too close .

Dave managed to get shots of one of the plaques with his zoom lens and it told the story of the King George Hospital built in 1914. It was considered one of the best and most modern hospitals in the world for treating patients with communicable diseases like the Spanish flu and polio.

The old King George Hospital was torn down in 1999 to make room for a new addition to the Riverview Health Complex. I am glad they kept the archway as a reminder of the important role the former hospital played in the fight against polio. For many Manitobans, their families and the medical staff that cared for them the King George Hospital was the site of life-changing events. It will still have a special place in their hearts and minds as it does for my Aunt Mary.

Other posts………

My Polio Vaccines

The Pandemic Story Behind a 105 Year Old Photo


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Filed under Health, History, Winnipeg

This Week……….

Human life is as short-lived as grass. Psalm 103:15

During the pandemic, it often seems my weeks flow by and on Sunday I think what did I even do in the last seven days? The calendar in my day planner is usually pretty empty, with at most one thing a day jotted down for me to remember.

It used to be jam-packed, especially at this time of year when I was busy visiting my university students in their schools and giving lots of tours at the art gallery. Sometimes at the end of the week, I just need to write things down so I know what I did. It is always more than I thought.

Went on a long bike ride probably 24 kilometres or so. It was chilly but invigorating.

Took our granddaughter for a nearly two-hour walk in her stroller.

We went out to Landmark to the home of good friends Fran and Marge for a marvellous meal around a fire in their backyard. They had made a delicious pork roast on the barbecue served with two delicious salads and a blueberry cheesecake for dessert.

My friend Marge has been working on all kinds of sewing projects during the pandemic. She’s made a quilt to commemorate Covid-19 and is working on denim picnic blankets as graduation presents for two of her grandchildren.

My most popular blog post this week was about my Mennonite great-grandmother who was born in a Jewish village.

Wrote a blog post every day.

Got Easter baskets and birthday presents ready to send off in the mail. Normally we make a spring trip to Saskatoon to celebrate Easter and the three spring birthdays of our grandchildren there. Of course, we can’t make the trip this year so a box of gifts has to take our place.

Worked on a new jigsaw puzzle, a trade with our friends Tom and Donelda. It features all of these interesting gnomes engaged in various activities. It is tough but I never sit down to do it without finding at least a few pieces to slip into place.

Lots of talks on the phone and via Zoom with my three siblings as we try to plan for the best kind of care for our Dad and share the joy of a new addition to our extended family.

Biked to a Ukranian deli we hadn’t visited before to pick up some perogies, perishky and cabbage rolls.

Read a chapter I had written for my work in progress 60s Girl to my writers’ group in our Zoom session. Overall they liked it but as always had some good suggestions for me to think about.

Baked a batch of cookies. Before the pandemic, Dave and I often didn’t have dessert but now we seem to need something sweet to go with our evening cup of tea.

Did the crossword puzzle in the Saturday paper.

Almost finished reading We Are All Perfectly Fine by Jillian Horton which is the book being discussed by the Winnipeg Free Press book club on Monday.

Went for a refreshing but slightly chilly walk at Oak Hammock Marsh with our son and daughter-in-law and granddaughter.

Arranged some of the items I’ve had published over the years on my dining room table so my husband Dave could take photos with his camera. This is for the new author website I am working on for the release of my book in May.

Attended a book club via Zoom where we interviewed the authors of the new middle-grade novel The Fantastic Zed Watson.

Went grocery shopping.

Wrote my Carillon column.

Watched two movies The Present and Super Nova. They both made me cry.

Wrote a talk I am going to give via Zoom next week at Grace Mennonite Church in Steinbach about my life as an author.

Another week starts today. I wonder what will fill its days?

Other posts…….

Missing the People We Used To Be

On the Boardwalk

Puzzling My Way Through the Pandemic

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Filed under COVID-19 Diary

A Rollicking Read and A Rollicking Interview

Rollicking means lively, amusing, exuberant and spirited. It is the word that kept popping into my head on Thursday night when I participated in an online book club for readers interested in the latest novels for middle-grade audiences. The book we were discussing was The Fabulous Zed Watson. Its authors Basil and Kevin Sylvester were our guests. Basil and Kevin are a parent and child writing duo and this is their first book together.  

One of the fascinating things about our time with Basil and Kevin was watching the interaction between the two as they fielded questions about their novel, which features Zed, a non-binary kid who loves monsters and flashy sweaters, and Gabe, a boy who is passionate about botany and favours pants with lots of pockets.

Photo from the CBC article about The Fabulous Zed Watson.

On Thursday night Basil and Kevin were clearly having a rollicking time as they answered queries from the authors, librarians and teachers who’d read their book. They bantered in an amusing way about their love of opera, their favourite kinds of ice-cream, their monsters of choice, a typical supper table at their house, and why they had set their novel in the United States.

Zed and Gabe, the heroes of Basil and Kevin’s book, The Fabulous Zed Watson have an absolutely rollicking time as well as they travel in a car with mechanical difficulties, try out as many kinds of ice-cream as they can, learn to appreciate one another’s music, explore a graveyard and meet the most fascinating people – chefs, pastors, librarians and mechanics.

 While Zed and Gabe are each really unique characters what they have in common is the love of a book called The Monster’s Castle. Four chapters of The Monster’s Castle and a poem about the book have been discovered but the rest of the book is missing. Zed and Gabe, piece together a set of clues they think may lead them to the complete manuscript of The Monster’s Castle and then set off on a road trip across the United States to find the missing chapters. Since they are just kids Gabe’s older sister Sam serves as their driver. 

Both Basil, one of the authors of The Fabulous Zed Watson, and the book’s hero Zed are non-binary and the novel is a good way for readers to learn more about what that means.  Zed’s interactions with the different characters they meet on their travels highlight the way non-binary people navigate the world.  

It was eye-opening for me to learn about, and as I have been describing the book to others in the last couple of days I have realized I still have a ways to go when it comes to using correct pronouns. That being said, I didn’t feel that the fact Zed is non-binary was necessarily critical to the plot. The book is primarily an adventure story about solving a mystery and growing a friendship.  

One thing I loved about The Fabulous Zed Watson is that it is packed with cultural references and I think kids reading it will be intrigued by that and want to find out more about Shakespeare, Winnie the Pooh, Star Wars, The Barber of Seville, Metallica, Mary Poppins, Monster Mash, Lord of the Rings and even the Bible. 

This is the third session of the Middle-Grade Lit Online Book Club I’ve attended. In the previous two, we’ve met author Angela Misri to discuss her book Pickles vs. the Zombies and Arthur Slade to discuss his novel Dragon Assassin. Coming up next month we have a story about a budding palaeontologist- Notes From the Field by Peter Lee

These book club sessions have been a rollicking good time so far. 

Other posts about middle-grade books………..

The Lotteries Plus One

Coop the Great

Family of Spies

Sadia – A Muslim Girl From Winnipeg

The Crazy Man



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Modeling Career-Different Perceptions

Can you, short of an earthquake hold a pose?  Are you willing to be centre stage for long periods of time? Are you comfortable having your body parts talked about? Can you be the object of intense scrutiny by a roomful of people for at least an hour?

I’ll never forget my first sitting as an art model. Before I took the job I did a little online research. One website suggested you consider the above questions seriously before becoming a model.

Many years ago the art teacher at the international school in Hong Kong where I worked, sent out an e-mail asking for volunteers to serve as a model for a drawing class. I was a little hesitant. Wasn’t I too old?

Then I read the story of Lala Lezli, a former dancer with the celebrated Martha Graham company, who modelled for California artists for fifty years. She was still working as a model when she died at age 92. I wasn’t too old to be a model.

I also found out art students need to learn to draw real people, not just the idealized human form. Models should be of all ages, races, shapes and sizes. Indeed when I hesitantly replied to the art teacher’s e-mail I was surprised by his warm response. He’d be happy to have me, model.

I asked if I should wear a special outfit, but the art teacher suggested I dress in a normal way. I’d read models should come prepared with interesting poses, but the art teacher had a pose in mind. He wanted me to sit on a chair on the elevated platform at the front of the room. He even arranged my feet and hands and told me which direction to turn my face.

 I walked into the class as the teacher was giving final instructions and was quickly seated so the students would have a maximum amount of time to work. It was surprisingly easy to sit still for an hour. I had a good view of the drawing tables and was fascinated by the progress being made on the dozen different images of me emerging on paper across the room.

It was interesting how each of the students perceived me in a slightly different way. No two sketches were the same. Just like in life, I thought. No two people perceive us in the same way and we have to accept and indeed appreciate that.

Other posts …….

Using the Other Side of My Brain

Paint By Number

My Husband is Famous


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Filed under Art, Education, Hong Kong, New Experiences

The Queen Who Couldn’t Bake Gingerbread

Have you read the book The Queen Who Couldn’t Bake Gingerbread? It is based on an old German folk tale.

King Pilaf’s political advisors say he needs to get married. He has very specific expectations for his future wife. She must be wise and beautiful and………. she must bake perfect gingerbread. However in the best interests of his country he agrees to marry Princess Calliope who although she has many fine qualities can’t bake gingerbread.

Princess Calliope on the other hand has very specific ideas about what she is looking for in a husband. He must be wise and handsome and play the slide trombone. She agrees to marry King Pilaf who is a ‘good catch’ when it comes to husbands even though he can’t play the trombone.

Both the king and his new queen agree to never mention the words ‘trombone’ or ‘gingerbread’ to each other but of course, one day they forget and a quarrel ensues. The monarchs retreat to opposite ends of the castle to ponder their disagreement.

After a time the delicious smell of gingerbread wafts through the castle and the mellow notes of the trombone are heard. The stage is set for reconciliation.

King Pilaf brings a peace-offering of the gingerbread he has baked and says the next batch should be even better. Queen Calliope plays a simple tune on the trombone telling the king that with additional practice she thinks she could become quite a virtuoso. 

Moral of the story?

You can’t change your partner but you can change yourself.

Don’t expect your partner to make you happy. You are responsible for your own happiness. 

Instead of getting frustrated with your partner because they aren’t doing something, learn to do it yourself. 

Other posts…….

Bucket List for Marriage

Marriage Statistics and Bible Verses

Can Your Marriage Survive Lollygagging?

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Filed under Books


You constantly hear his breath going in and out. 

Breathe stars Andrew Garfield and Diana Foy

My friend Gwen recommended the Netflix movie Breathe to me.  It is the touching true story of Robin Cavendish who contracted polio in the 1950s while living and working in Africa. He and his wife Diana are determined that despite his paralysis he is going to have a quality of life. How they go about doing that provides a lively and inspiring story of love and courage.  

The Cavendish family maintains a wide circle of friends

Not only does the couple manage to carve out a rich and full existence for themselves they help many others along the way.  The film is especially meaningful because it was made by Diana and Robin’s son Jonathan who is a successful British movie producer.  

Diana and Robin raise money to provide wheelchairs for many other polio victims

Jonathan said in interviews that he hadn’t really realized till he was making the movie how his parents’ example had brought about significant changes for people who were physically challenged, especially those suffering from the lingering effects of polio. 

Breathe is a particularly fitting movie for our current situation when a contagious airborne disease is impacting the lives of so many just as polio did.

One thing I found interesting is that throughout most of the movie there is this background noise of Robin’s ventilator breathing in and out for him. I could still hear it in my head even after the movie was over. It is a vivid reminder to the viewer that every breath we take is precious. 

Robin and Diana’s options and choices were severely limited because of Robin’s polio but they made the most of life anyway. They made Robin’s every breath count.  During a time when our options have been limited by COVID-19, we would do well to follow their family’s example. 

Other posts………

The Breath of Life

The Salmon Saved Him

What is Your Body Saying? 



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Filed under COVID-19 Diary

A Lose-Lose Situation

My nephew did an interesting story for City News last Friday.

My nephew Mark Neufeld is a reporter for City News. He did a story last week about a new Ipsos poll. It reported that across 28 countries 82% of parents feel there are routinely being judged because of their children. Here in Canada, 73% said they often feel judged either because of the way their children behave or the way they as parents manage their child’s behaviour

When my children were young I sometimes felt judged as a parent

I think anyone who is a parent knows what the poll is talking about. When my children were young and they did something that embarrassed me like failing to listen to their teacher at school or forgetting to be polite and respectful to an older relative or mischievously turning off all the lights in a gymnasium during a basketball game, as my one son did when he was about four years old, I felt like people were judging me. Like they were thinking, “What kind of parent is she anyway if her child behaves like that?”

My first year of teaching after I became a mother. Being a parent myself made me a lot less judgemental of my students’ parents.

And according to the poll parents aren’t delusional when they say they feel judged because 81% of people in the 28 countries surveyed admitted they do judge parents based on the way their children behave. I know I certainly did that during my first five years of teaching when I wasn’t a parent myself. If a student was ill-tempered or thoughtless or irresponsible I would tend to judge their parents thinking they must not have taught or role-modelled acceptable behaviour. Of course, when I became a parent myself that all changed. I had a whole new empathy for my students’ parents after I began raising a child of my own.

People are better parents if they don’t feel judged

Child Development Specialist Claire Lerner tells people who are judgemental of parents that if you want to love and support kids you have to love and support their parents because the way you treat them impacts the way they treat their children. If you are empathetic to parents they are more likely to be loving with their children. If you criticize them they may feel incompetent and react harshly to their children, leading to their kids feeling bad and quite probably leading to more negative behaviour.

Lerner tells parents not to let judgmental people influence the way they respond to their children. She says to reject the power of judgers, tuning them out and focusing on your child instead.

My nephew’s news report was a good reminder that judging parents is a lose-lose scenario for both parents and children. All of us can play a positive role in the raising of the current generation by supporting rather than judging their parents.

Other posts……….

Grateful for My Mom’s Support

Far From the Tree

Back Porch News

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Filed under Childhood, Family

My Mennonite Great Grandmother Was Born in A Hebrew Colony

One of my pandemic projects has been working on a genealogy that traces my family and my husband’s family back for five generations. As I do my research I am discovering all kinds of interesting things.

My great grandmother Margaretha Schellenberg Sawatzky (1873-1943) and her husband Franz Sawatsky (1869-1936)

One thing I’ve learned is that my great grandmother Margaretha Schellenberg Sawatsky was born in a village in Ukraine called Kamenka. It is referenced as being a Judenplan village. I was curious what that was.

According to the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Judenplan was a name the Mennonites gave to a project the Russian government initiated in Ukraine. Mennonite farmers were sent to Jewish settlements to provide training in agriculture. Six Mennonite villages were established for this purpose and one was Kamenka.

Margaretha’s parents, my great-great-grandparents Johann Schellenberg (1836-1914) and Helena Andreas (1835-1904)- photo source Mary Fransen

I found a map of Kamenka online and could clearly see the property that once belonged to my great-great-grandparents Johann and Helena Andreas Schellenberg. It appears the Mennonites lived at one end of the village and the Jewish families at the other end. The Mennonites had a school (Schule) and a cemetery(Friedhof) and a wood lot (wald) but there appears to be no school or cemetery or wood lot on the Jewish side of the village. The Mennonite homesteads all look much bigger than the homes of the Jewish families.

Source of MapChortitzu website

According to the encyclopedia article, the Jewish farmers were inexperienced in agriculture and the master farmers from the Mennonite colonies were tasked with teaching them how to cultivate their land, plant trees and properly pasture their cattle. I found a couple of articles online that made it seem like the Mennonite master farmers were well-received and benevolent. I find it hard to believe that there weren’t some problems with this plan. Weren’t the Jewish farmers resentful of being told their agriculture skills were inadequate? Would the Mennonite farmers not have appeared patronizing? I wonder if the program was successful in the long run?

I found a reference to the autobiography of Joseph Epp who apparently lived in what is called the “Hebrew Colonies” from 1860-1880 as a model farmer and advisor. He was in charge of Jewish-Mennonite relations.

The Epp autobiography is still in print and in his review of it Tim Fleming says of the Judenplan  “Epp lived in the Judenplan where the Mennonites were to live as examples and model colonists to their Jewish neighbors. The Jewish settlers resented this greatly and relationships were often very difficult with fault on both sides.”

I find it interesting that my Mennonite great grandmother was born in what has been referred to as a Hebrew Colony. I wish I knew more of her family’s story there.

I have already written a story about my great grandmother Margaretha’s Sawatsky’s death which was unusual but it seems her birth and early childhood home were unique as well.

Other posts………

Marc Chagall and The Fiddler on the Roof

Hyphenated Lives

De Ja Vu At The United Nations

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Filed under Family, History, Ukraine