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Practice Giving Thanks

Practice Being Thankful.  It’s a good deal!

By Sharon Sheppard

As a freelance writer and former teacher of writing, I’m occasionally asked to help people write letters.  I’ve never been asked to do a love letter or a “Dear John” letter, but one of the most extraordinary letters I’ve helped with did have to do with the heart.  Not a valentine, but the kind of heart that pumps.

While my husband was at Mayo Clinic recovering from a stem cell transplant, I met Scott, a young man in his 30s who had just undergone a heart transplant.   I asked whether I could interview him and write his story, and he agreed.  After the interview, he said, “I need to write a thank you letter, and I don’t know what to say.  I mean, it’s such a huge gift, how do you say thanks for a heart?  I don’t know where to begin.”

The family who donated their teenager’s heart had declined to meet the recipient of this gift, but the thank you letter was required by Mayo, and they would deliver it to the family.  Scott came to me with a rough draft, which needed only a little tweaking.  It was sensitively written and filled with abundant gratitude, as he expressed how important it was to him to be able to live to help raise his two little boys.  He had been at death’s door, and only a donor heart could save his life.  In his letter he told the grieving parents of the donor that his goal was to get out of the hospital in time to walk his five-year-old son, Chase, to school for his first day of kindergarten.  It was the most genuine and profound thank you letter I’ve ever read.

Most of us will not be required to write a letter of that magnitude, but we are constantly showered with gifts:  air to breathe, food to eat, stunning scenery and natural wonders we often fail to give more than a passing glance.   Many of us take the Creator and His work for granted.

Not long ago Forbes Magazine published an article written by Amy Morin, in which she cited a number of scientifically proven benefits of gratitude—physical, emotional, and even social.  Studies show that people who practice gratitude have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, higher levels of optimism and happiness, fewer physical aches and pains, and feel less isolated.  That sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

There is a Donor who gave His life for you and me.  It was an amazing act of grace—incalculable in value.  It was the act that made it possible for us to be forgiven for our sins.  No medication or treatment or white-washing of our sins could make us whole.  He died so we could live.  If we offered only one prayer on Thanksgiving Day, it should be this:  Thank you, Jesus, for dying in my place!  I don’t deserve it, but I accept your Gift!

The Apostle Paul gave us this recipe for happiness.  It’s found in I Thessalonians 5:16-18:

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.


Life is Filled With Transitions

Life is filled with transitions . . .

~ By Sharon Sheppard

Expanding or downsizing.

Starting a family or emptying the nest.

Starting a first job or retiring from a lifetime of working.

Sudden or long-anticipated.  Carefully planned for or blindsided.

Whether change is chosen or thrust upon us, delightful or tragic, change can be bewildering.

No matter how excited we may have been about that first job, when the day came, it was terrifying.

One of the scariest days of my life was my first day of teaching.  I was afraid those college students would quickly figure out that I didn’t know what I was doing.  And then what?

When I walked our youngest child to her first day of kindergarten, I heaved a huge sigh of relief, but I cried all the way back home.

I learned many things from my wise husband.  For example, when I dreaded something, he’s ask, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”  And then, “What are the chances of that happening?”

When bad things happened, he’d say, “Is there a silver lining to this?” “What can we learn from it?”

Before I became a widow, my husband worked hard to prepare me.  But even though his preparation was enormously helpful, I found that few things could truly prepare me for the tremendous sense of loss.  Though I will never truly “have it all together,” here are a few things I’ve learned from my transition to living alone:

  • If you are a person of faith, cling to God. Let Him become more real to you than He has ever been before.
  • Become your own best friend. Learn to savor aloneness by developing hobbies, interests, and inner resources that don’t necessarily depend on other people.  What have you always wanted to do?  What gifts or interests do you have that you’ve never fully developed? Travel?  Music?  Fitness? Crafts?
  • Find new purpose in life, a reason for living. This may involve volunteering, reaching out to others in need, helping others less fortunate than you.  You’d be surprised at what a difference a change in focus can make.
  • Cultivate your senses and learn to savor—new tastes, textures, aromas, musical (either as a performer or a connoisseur).
  • Don’t wait for others to come to you, reach out. But work toward creating a balance between enjoying your own company and enjoying the company of others.


Alice Koller says, “Being solitary is being alone well:  luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice….  Solitude is an achievement.  It is your distinctive way of embodying the purposes you have chosen for your life.”







Just a Little Snap

Back to School

By Mary Z

In my memoir, “An Upside-Down Heart,” I gave a snapshot of how life was in the late-forties…quite different than today. I went to District 32 country school, where grades one through eight met in the same room. Usually, there were 15 to 20 kids for all the grades, and of course there was only one teacher. We had a potbelly stove that heated our one room.  In the winter my sister, Sharon, and I walked the mile to school.  Our teacher sometimes had a basin of warm water waiting where we could soak and thaw out our feet next to the stove.  We had no such thing as indoor plumbing, so we used the two-hole outhouse, a short walk behind our school.                                   

Lunch time was interesting.  If you were willing, there would be a lot of sandwich trading.  Anyone who had something better than a pickle sandwich was willing to trade up. Typically, Mother packed an egg salad or Spam sandwich for me, and I would sometimes be willing to trade half my sandwich for an apple.  A lot of families in our neighborhood were extremely poor.  Occasionally, a milk delivery truck dropped off half-pint glass bottles of milk in the cloak room. Because there were fewer chocolate than white pints of milk delivered, there was always a race for the chocolate flavor.

Recess was the highlight! By the time I was a fifth grader, I was pretty mature.  My classmate Arlys and I had put away the Sears Roebuck paper dolls that we had cut out of the catalog and played with at recess. Now we had our personal diaries with little gold keys to lock up all our secrets. At recess we would take out our diaries and share our hopes and dreams. One of my secret dreams was to be a pastor’s wife, cherished and loved.

Children today may not have the same rural inconveniences I had, or the simple lifestyle, and Sears Roebuck dolls to play with as I did as a third and fourth grader, but children today are still full of dreams and desires to “belong and be somebody.” In my observation, there is a slow erosion for children’s well-being in today’s busy, device-driven, distracted world. May I suggest three ways that will help prepare our children and grandchildren for being more grounded and socially influential.
~ Encourage play time: Children need time to be imaginative and creative. Therefore, they need time alone to be free to explore and grow. Set limits around screen time and be sensitive about not over-scheduling your children with extra-curricular activities. Kids who play by themselves learn to have more fun on their own, and also playing by themselves brings a sense of calmness and well-being.

~ Encourage reading time: Children will learn to read and enjoy books if they are surrounded by them. Have a large array of interesting books at their reading level. Encourage them to read menus, road signs, movie names etc. Reading and time alone to create and imagine are the foundation for a child’s development.

~ Encourage sleep time: Children need to go to bed early during the school year, no excuses. It’s important for hormone growth because a child’s growth is produced in the fourth and final stage of sleep. Moreover, children will be more active in class and have better recall and memory when well rested. The habit of children going to bed early will have positive consequences throughout their entire life. By being aware of these practical principles, we are helping our children embrace a sense of security and a knowing that they belong and are important individuals.

                 “Children do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.”


Mary Z.

Lifestyle Secrets

Lifestyle Secrets

By Mary Z

I think it would be safe to say that most of us have secrets we are not so proud of, or would not want to share with the world. However, that reminds me of one of the quotes of the AA recovery program which states, “We are only as sick as our secrets.”

I deceived myself for years that my secret wasn’t hurting me or anyone else. I was a closet eater, though out in the world I was a pretending and in-control dieter. For years excess food had become a source of comfort, and a lifestyle–and a secret.  However, it backfired by fueling a bigger fire—the continuing of self-hatred.

My weight had fluctuated over the years, and at one time I weighed quite a bit more than 200 pounds.  But I didn’t weigh that now, so I could pretend there wasn’t a problem. Lots of friends would ask, “How do you keep your weight down so well?” Needless to say, they didn’t know the misery and vexation inside my heart. As Overeaters Anonymous teaches, “The irony of addiction is that it eliminates hunger and intensifies cravings.”

The truth is that a lot of us crave counterfeits to fill the voids in our lives, but life becomes increasingly difficult in this dark place of deception. Buried within and under the disguise of excess food was the continuing nagging lie, “You are not good enough.” Yet, the cycle continued my human effort, willpower, and promising to do better at controlling my secret. Coping skills developed as an attempt to manage deep wounds that do not vanish overnight. But God has been faithful to me and provided His Living Word, the Bible, as my roadmap.

I now have a lifestyle secret that has transformed my life, and that I want to share with the world.  I have faith in a God who claims, whatever the secret lifestyle, “I have made a way of escape for you. I will keep the temptation from becoming so strong that you cannot stand against it, and when you are tempted, I will show you a way out so that you will not give in to it.” (1 Corinthians 10:12).

I with the Apostle Paul declare that we are transformed into new persons by changing the way we think. Then we will know what God wants us to do and we will know how good and pleasing His will really is. (Romans 12:2)

Will you join me in accepting God’s way by declaring; “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God!” (Hebrews 10:9)

In Honor of My First Piano Teacher

In celebration of the month of MAY,

A Tribute to My First Piano Teacher, MAY Johnson

By Sharon Sheppard

The woman who patiently unlocked the puzzle of note-reading for this undisciplined young musician who had learned to play by ear deserves a (posthumous) medal.

The term musician is used very loosely here.  I began playing the piano as a young child on a homemade keyboard drawn out on butcher paper.  With carefully crayoned black keys in sets of twos and threes as markers, I could plunk out the tunes I heard in church each Sunday, though not nearly as intricately as red-haired Caroline Bundy played them.  I sat near the front each week watching with my eyes and listening with my heart as her nimble fingers rippled over the keyboard.  Someday, I determined, I would play like Caroline.

When I got a little more sophisticated, I created an octave of notes by filling drinking glasses with graduated quantities of water.  It was easy to tap out melodies with a spoon.

Then one magical winter day the parents of my dearest childhood friend, Shirley Beggs, hauled in their old upright piano and slid it onto the linoleum floor of our living room.  It was a painful tradeoff as Shirley and her family headed north to accommodate her dad’s railroad transfer to another small Minnesota town.

I lost and gained my best friend that day.

There would never be another friend like Shirley, but the ecstasy of having a real piano in our living room can’t be captured in words.  I played and played each day almost to the point of exhaustion until my dad would finally say, “Time for bed, Sharon.”

Eventually the day came when my parents decided that it was time I learned to read notes, an exciting, but threatening prospect.  I could already play.  Why did I have to learn a whole new system?

Our town of 350 people did not have many piano teachers to choose from, but fortunately, May Johnson lived just two blocks from our house, and she was patient, kind, and long-suffering.  There was so much to know, and I didn’t like all the constraints that note-reading required.

Each Monday after school I’d trudge over to May Johnson’s house two blocks from our own, with a crumpled dollar bill in my pocket.

What difference does it make which finger I use on which key?  It sounds the same no matter which finger plays the note!  If she would just play through the song for me, I could play it on my own without going through the agony of learning the names of the notes.

The worst part was the lousy time signature and having to count out the rhythm.  It was all so tedious.  But eventually it began to make sense to me.  And when she pulled out cardboard boxes of musty-smelling sheet music, my heart thumped.  Sheet music!  And the ability to play a song I had never heard!

May Johnson lifted out sentimental songs from the 1940s by Carrie Jacobs Bond, their covers adorned with pink cabbage roses.  “When you come to the end of a perfect day,” one began, “and you sit alone with your thoughts…”  Sappy, but I was learning to play by note.

It wasn’t long before I was playing one of Carrie Jacobs Bond’s most famous songs at weddings as a 14-year-old pianist: “I Love You Truly…”  Again, sappy, but I could play it. Reading the notes.

Though I eventually graduated to more advanced teachers, minored in music in college, and ultimately taught piano, I’ll always prefer the free-wheeling, no-rules method of making music.  Improvisation.  Jazzed up hymn tunes. Make it up as you go along.

Playing by ear.  Playing by heart.

©Sharon Sheppard, 2016






A Ray of Hope


During April’s Autism Awareness Month, I blogged about some of the challenges families often experience when they are unexpectedly called upon to transition into a lifestyle that includes raising children with special needs.

In honor of my daughter Carrie on this MOTHER’S DAY, let me share some of the joys of raising a special needs child.

My dear autistic grandson has always had a marvelous smile.  One day when he was about four, Carrie said, “Aaron, when you smile at me, you make the sun to shine!”

Like many kids on the autism spectrum, he has a wonderful memory for numbers, dates, and trivial facts. And when he wasn’t much more than a toddler, the family would often defer to him when they couldn’t’ remember exactly when something had happened.

“That was July 23rd,” he might reply.

And when they checked their calendar, he was always right.

One Sunday early in May, four-year-old Aaron was up long before his mother, checking the calendar.

“Mama,” he called out, running into his parents’ bedroom.  “Mama,” he said.  “Wake up!  It’s May 10th!  Happy Mother’s Day, Mama!”

Then he walked over to the window and peeked out.

“Oh, but it’s raining!” he said, his heart sinking.

Then he remembered.

“But I know how to make the sun shine,” he said.  And he ran to the bed and gave her that wonderful smile.  The kind that makes the sun to shine.

Now Aaron is a 21-year-old college student, and a couple of days ago I overheard Carrie and Aaron sparring with each other, good-naturedly teasing.

When Carrie left the room, Aaron said to me, “That’s one of the things I love about my mother.  I can give her a bad time, and she will give it right back.”

And that’s one of the things I love about them both.  They know how to make the sun shine for each other.

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY, CARRIE!        From your proud mother, Sharon Sheppard

©Sharon Sheppard 2016

Reflections on Special Needs Kids

Spring is a time of transitions . . .

A time for fresh starts, new enthusiasm, a time when all things seem possible . . .

From cold frozen ground and gray skies, suddenly new life springs:  tulips and daffodils and crocuses, trees sprouting tiny leaves of the most beautiful shade of green. . .

Life is filled with of transitions, some of them welcome, long-anticipated, joyful.

Others, well, not so joyful


Since April is Autism Awareness Month, here’s a reflection of a sad surprise that turned out to be a terrific blessing.


Talk about a major transition . . .

My Grandson is Autistic

By Sharon Sheppard

My daughter was sobbing on the phone so hard I could barely make out what she was saying.

“I took Aaron in for his two-year checkup today,” she blurted out between gasps, “and the pediatrician says he needs to be tested for autism.”        My heart plummeted.

Aaron had started talking at eight and a half months.  A genius for sure, we thought.

Then he quit talking at two.  Could be a hearing problem, we rationalized.

Not so.

Twenty years ago autism was a big scary deal.  It still is.

But back then it wasn’t as common as it is now, and there weren’t nearly so many good therapies for treating it.

Talk about a major life transition!  This one brought huge changes for every member in the family.  And even if the child is lucky enough to graduate from high school someday, parental responsibilities still don’t stop there.

Having a child with a disability is like having a grief that keeps on giving.

When friends are bragging about their child being in the “gifted” program at school, your child may be in the lowest reading group and spending hours in therapy.

Each new milestone the child doesn’t reach at the same time as his peers reinforces the grief.  It’s the death of one more dream these parents once had for their child.

While your friend’s teen is shopping for a prom dress and touting her high SAT test scores and college scholarships, your child may be longing for a friend—just one.

Parents of special needs children love their kids just as much as the rest of us love ours.  Maybe more.  They are willing to go without almost anything to be able to afford therapy and expensive medications.  And while their friends go to Disneyland or on cruises, parents of special needs children scrimp along on one income so one spouse can stay home full time with their child. It’s no wonder that disabilities take a serious toll on marriages.

But parents of special needs children are proud of their kids, too. Just not for the same things as parents of typically-developing children.  One day an autistic child may speak a word, and it’s the right one for the occasion.

And the parents will shed tears of joy.

One day not too long after my grandson had been diagnosed with autism, I

was talking on the phone with my daughter, who said, “It hasn’t been all bad, you know.”

“What’s good about it?” I asked.

“I might never have known the meaning of unconditional love if I hadn’t had Aaron,” she replied.

What a blessing!  What a remarkable gift!

I, for one, am proud to be the grandmother of this delightful young man who is now a college student—fun and funny and smart.  (Yes, he did learn to talk all over again, and he hasn’t stopped talking since!) He has been a tremendous source of joy to me.

April is Autism Awareness Month.  If you know of a family that has a child with autism, give them the gift of empathy.  Bring a meal to their home.  If it’s feasible, offer to care for their child to give the parents a night out. Teach your children to befriend children with autism or other special needs.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”  Matt. 5:7 (NIV)

For more information about autism, check out:


















20 yrs ago, it was a very big scary deal

Repetitive actions, obsessions, retreating into his own world

A grief that keeps on giving


The Secret to Eternal Life

The Secret to Eternal Life . . .

The resurrection of Jesus has given Him the authority to give the life of God to us, and the experiences of our life must now be built on the foundation of His life. It takes the omnipotence of God to live the life of the Son of God in human flesh.

The proof that we have experienced crucifixion with Jesus is that we have a definite likeness to Him, and walk in the light and obey all that He reveals to us.

“If we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection.” (Romans 6:5)

Happy Resurrection Sunday!!!


Mary Z.

Go For It!

A time for new beginnings . . .

Shortly after my husband’s death, our son and daughter were talking about some of the best things they had learned from their dad.  They both agreed that one of his most important gifts to them had been his Can-Do attitude.  He practiced this, and he instilled in them a sense that they could do or be anything they set their minds to.

During their college years, I had to admit that their idea of going up to Alaska to earn money during the summers—working on the slime line in canneries, living in tents or working on board small fishing boats in the treacherous waters of the Bering Sea wasn’t my idea of the safest way to earn money.  But their adventurous dad cheered them on.

After our daughter graduated from college and before she enrolled in graduate school, she decided to take a backpacking trip around the world (using some of the money she had earned in Alaska).  She set off alone, equipped only with her backpack and a small tent, working as she went, for one of the best adventures of her life.  She did, indeed, go around the world twice—once in each direction.  It made for some anxiety on our part, but we were proud of her independence, and couldn’t wait to hear all about it.

Early on I had also benefited from my husband’s Can-Do attitude.  When our children were preschoolers, and I was a stay-at-home mom, I confided in him that I had always wanted to be a writer.  Though I had earned a degree in English, I’d had no courses in creative writing.  That year for Christmas he gave me a correspondence course in creative writing from the University of Minnesota.  It was his way of saying, “You can do it.  Go for it!”

This course was the impetus I needed to develop some skills that eventually resulted in my selling hundreds of magazine articles—a dream I would probably never have had the courage to pursue without his encouragement.

So my point is this:  It’s a NEW YEAR, a time of new beginnings.  Dare to try something new.  Maybe for you it’s a quilt you’ve always wanted to make.  An ancestry study.  A college course you’ve been meaning to take.  Hot-air ballooning.  Volunteering at a hospital or nursing home.

Now is the time.  Go for it!

©Sharon Sheppard


Close Encounters of the Weird Kind


 Close encounters of the weird kind?

Are you dreading those obligatory holiday get-togethers where you’re thrown together with people you don’t like?

Here are 5 tips from an expert* for avoiding clashes with relatives and “friends” with whom you have nothing in common.

*The “expert” is not me.

You’ve probably heard it said that every family tree produces some lemons, some nuts, and a few bad apples.  You know the type—loud and obnoxious (especially after indulging in too much spiked eggnog), or maybe quiet and catty, but these relatives who have known you forever definitely know how to push your buttons.

They are inevitably from the other political party or religion, and they are out to show you up or set you straight.  They may remember all the stupid things you’ve ever said or done, and they have a knack for bringing up these embarrassing stories at the worst possible times.

Fortunately, King Solomon, who was much wiser than I, wrote most of the Bible’s book of Proverbs.  And though these wise sayings were written thousands of years ago, the advice contained in them is as applicable to life today as it was when this collection was first penned.

Here are 5 of my favorite proverbs for maintaining peace and tranquility at potentially contentious family gatherings:

  • Keep your cool! Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer quiets anger, but a harsh one stirs it up.”  Don’t take the bait.
  • Don’t argue. Family holiday gatherings are generally not the best occasions for debates on sensitive issues.  Solomon says in Proverbs 17:14: “The start of an argument is like the first break in a dam; stop it before it goes any further.”
  • Don’t engage with hot-tempered people. “Don’t make friends with people who have hot, violent tempers,” King Solomon advises (Proverbs 22:24).  It doesn’t pay.
  • Guard your words. “Be careful what you say…” (Proverbs 13:3).  Words heatedly and carelessly thrown out can’t be taken back.
  • Avoid gossiping. It can hurt others and can come back to embarrass you later.  Proverbs 11:13 says, “No one who gossips can be trusted with a secret . . .”


Verses from Proverbs are quoted from Today’s English Version.


P.S.  Some of the best advice my father ever gave me came from Proverbs 17:28 (the King James Version):  “Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise…”

Happy Holidays!

By Sharon Sheppard