Mission may be impossible…

Good morning, Ms. Dunlap. We have learned from various unnamed sources that somewhere in your 1.5 acres of woods and tall grasses there are four Chuck-it balls, at least 10 tennis balls and two big black Lab/Shepherd dogs.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find the dogs and all the balls before they get washed out of the yard in the first heavy rain of the fall. As always, should you or any of your team be caught or killed, we will disavow any knowledge of your mission.

Good luck, Jan.

(Cue Mission Impossible music theme)

 

Natives and dogs are happy here

Restoring native habitat is one of the joys of our life on our new property in the Texas Hill Country. Now in our second fall here, I especially love the tall grasses that blanket the open spaces of our yard, and boy, do we have a lot of them! The grasses reach up to my chest in September and October, which means we have a sea of grasses beyond our back porch. My favorites are the muhli, which look like sprays from fountains right now.

The dogs get a real kick out of running through the grass first thing in the morning, too. They emerge wet from patches of grass covered in dew, while I’m decked out in my tall rubber boots in an attempt to keep my feet and legs dry. Michael, our not-yet-two-year-old Lab/Shepherd mix, has become ball crazy, and while he manages to usually find a ball in the yard, it’s not always the one we just threw. And then, sometimes, he gets distracted on his way to the ball, and ends up chasing Gracie instead. Hence, we have at least a dozen, and probably many more, balls out in our yard somewhere. Every morning when I set out to locate the missing tennis and bright orange Chuck-it balls, I can’t stop the Mission Impossible theme playing in my head.

Gee, maybe it’s time to call in the special ops team for help. Anyone have a direct line to Tom Cruise?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hurricanes and treasure…

When my husband and I were considering retirement locations, I immediately ruled out Florida because I never wanted to have to deal with a hurricane threat.

Three weeks ago, we had to deal with a hurricane threat… when Hurricane Harvey charged into the Texas coastline.

Thankfully, by the time Harvey made it to the Hill Country, it was a tropical storm that dropped a mere 6” on us over three days. But the experience of watching a hurricane approach, not knowing where it would leave a trail of destruction, will be one I don’t soon forget.

Everyone in the path of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma won’t forget it, either. My heart (and many donations for relief) go out to all those who are suffering the aftereffects of losing homes and normalcy, and I’m grateful I’m not in that situation. The possibility of losing so much in the blink of a hurricane’s eye, however, does make me consider what I treasure most in life, and it’s not my cellphone or even my family photos. The material stuff is window dressing, and while I would miss my favorite kitchen knife and cutting board or the bowl my daughter made for me in her high school ceramics class, and it would be awful to have to replace a car and a home, it’s all transitory. People themselves, and my relationships with them, are what matter most to me, and as long as they survive, I’m okay.

I don’t know if anyone says it better than Jesus did as quoted in both Matthew 6:21 and Luke 12:34 – “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” May we all recognize the true treasures in our lives and thank God for them!

(This devotional appeared first today at https://wichitafalls.faithhappenings.com/soulcare/devotional/61475)

 

 

 

Johnny Appleseed, move over…

Harvesting wildflower and wild grass seeds has been on my bucket list for a long time. When I finally took training to be a Minnesota Master Naturalist, I figured my turn would come in the following summer’s end somewhere in the prairies…but we moved to Texas before I got the chance.

Little did I know that within two years, I’d be gathering the seed heads and pods from my own backyard. No driving two hours each way to get to the Minnesota prairies; all I have to do is step off my back porch and I’ve got days’ worth of harvesting. Thanks to all the bags of native seeds that my husband sowed our first year in our new home, we’ve got an awesome acre of mixed wildflowers and grasses.

So guess who gets to cross an item off her bucket list? Me!

Leaving a legacy

I’m not sure if my harvesting delight lies in living out the opening scene of the old TV series Little House on the Prairie (sans the homemade dress) or because I find walking in the yard such a soothing activity. (My husband says it’s my woo-way inclination to zone out amidst nature.) Mostly, I love the idea that we’re restoring native habitat, even if it only covers an acre and a half in our neighborhood. We’re already seeing an increase in butterflies and birds in our yard this summer, thanks to our determined efforts to plant more native plants and trees on our property. To think that we might have a thriving native oasis after a few years pleases me immensely; I like to hope our love of nature will be our legacy to our children, friends and neighbors.

(Besides, I couldn’t have written seven Birder Murder Mystery novels about birding and conservation and nature without it rubbing off on me, could I? Especially after researching and writing my fourth book, Falcon Finale, I became obsessed with the idea of legacy. I realized I wanted to leave behind me something more substantial than perfectly-folded laundry, and habitat restoration sounded like it had real possibility.)

On the path to stewardship

When I think more about how I came to this point in my life, I can see how different pieces of my life have combined to lead to me wandering my back yard, a canvas seed bag in hand and a big hat on my head. I loved playing outside when I was a kid. My husband has been an avid gardener his whole life, and though I haven’t always shared in the activity, I learned a lot from him about plants and birds and rocks and things. (Hey, wasn’t that in a song by America?) We encouraged our kids to enjoy nature and be mindful stewards of their surroundings and their personal gifts. And my whole life, I’ve always found God in the great outdoors.

Stewardship is what I can do today for a better tomorrow. Knowing that my actions will help restore natural habitat gives me both happiness and meaning, and so I’ll slide my gloves on again in the morning and spend a few hours pulling seed heads. In my mind, I can already see the results in our yard in the years to come…and it’s beautiful.

Have you thought about your legacy lately? Can you do something today to bring it a little closer?

 

 

 

Beyond the fence

Deer often visit our yard.

“You’ve got to come see this,” my husband called to me from around the corner of the house one morning. I followed his voice and found him pointing at our front yard fence. A large section, newly installed, had been pushed in overnight. But before I could express my dismay, my eyes wandered beyond the fence…to see the 200-pound Axis deer that lay dead between the fence and the road. Clearly a victim of a speeding car on a very dark night, the buck had apparently been fatally hit and knocked into our fence, where it had left a large, lasting impression.

Later, as I reflected on my first glance at the scene, it struck me that despite the deer’s size and its proximity to our fence, the big animal was not the first thing I’d noted – instead, I had focused on our damaged fence. Rather than immediately looking at the bigger picture, I’d zoomed in on what I expected to see: our fence. My mind had automatically narrowed onto the familiar.

Look for the big picture

I suspect that is a very human response – to focus on what is known, to see what is expected. Yet Christ repeatedly exhorts us to welcome the unexpected, to look for the big picture, to stretch beyond our fears in a complete trust in God. “But I tell you,” Jesus says in Matthew 5:44, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Could any instruction have been more unwelcome than this to the oppressed Jewish community of Jesus’s time? But by obeying this command, “you may be children of your Father in heaven,” Jesus explains in the following verse.

In other words, when we try to see the big picture that God sees, and do as He directs, we become most fully His own people.

Push beyond the familiar

Perhaps the most famous example of someone being pushed beyond the familiar into the bigger picture of life in God is St. Paul. Fanatically focused on persecuting Christians, he was literally knocked off his horse and blinded by the light of Christ. (Read about it in Acts 9.) When he regained his sight after his conversion of heart, mind, and spirit, his vision of his own life and the life of the early Church grew into the big picture of God’s plan for salvation through Christ. His former narrow focus on wiping out Christ’s followers totally transformed into an all-encompassing attention to advancing the Kingdom of God. Now, that’s seeing WAY beyond the fence of the familiar, wouldn’t you say?

Lord, help me to see the bigger picture of your will in my life and learn to welcome the unexpected in faith. Amen.

(This reflection originally appeared at https://wichitafalls.faithhappenings.com/soulcare/devotional/60632. I often contribute devotionals to FaithHappenings.com and if you like what you’ve read here, please check out the site online. It’s a clearinghouse of Christian inspiration, books, speakers, events, concerts that offers you local information across the US, and you can subscribe – it’s FREE – to receive daily reflections.)

 

 

 

 

Regrets of an author

A decade ago – before my first novel was published – I read about the promotional events of established authors with more than a touch of envy. For a while, it seemed like every best-selling novelist was going on a Caribbean cruise with their most devoted readers, with the author’s expenses paid by the cruise lines. Other famous writers were paid to host ski weekends at glamorous resorts, or welcomed their fans to a luxurious spa vacation. I even heard about a relatively unknown novelist who got paid by a tour company to spend a week touring Ireland with her readers.

Erin Go Bragh.

One of these days, I used to assure myself, I will be published, and the requests to accompany readers to exotic destinations will come pouring in. Hawaii would be nice. Or Tahiti. I’d even consider a cruise down the Nile or a trip to Australia’s Outback.

 

When dreams come true…

And then in 2008, North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc. published my first Birder Murder Mystery, The Boreal Owl Murder.  Lo and behold, within six months, I did indeed receive my first invitation to go on a cruise as a guest author.

To the Arctic.

In January.

Very funny, I thought. One of my friends had clearly set up the invitation as a joke. After all, I lived in Minnesota at that point – any time I wanted to experience bone-biting cold in January, all I had to do was walk to my mailbox at the end of our driveway.

Two weeks later, I had an email from my publisher. They’d received an inquiry from a Norwegian tour company asking to verify my email address because they hadn’t heard back from me about their Arctic trip invitation.

It wasn’t a joke. I was invited to go on an adventure cruise to the Arctic in January. Sub-zero temperatures, rubber rafts, and stormy seas. Probably icebergs and polar bears, too. Maybe even killer whales.

Fortunately – I mean, unfortunately – I couldn’t make the trip because I had a previous commitment…to survival. I passed on the Arctic cruise.

 

Maybe I should have given it a bit more consideration

Now it’s years later, and I’m more experienced as an author. Book events and speaking gigs are a way of life when I’m promoting a new book. No one has yet offered to give me a free vacation in return for my hosting readers at a secluded tropical location, but I can still hope. In retrospect, I realize I probably should have gone on that Arctic cruise to connect with new readers. I can handle a little cold.

Of course, it’s also August, and I now live in Texas, where I’m sweltering in 100-degree heat. Icebergs don’t sound all that bad.

Maybe the email address for the Norwegian tour company is still somewhere in my files…

 

 

 

Is death your greatest fear?

Not to be morbid, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about death. (Yes, it’s very hot and dry right now in central Texas, but I’m not finding skeletal remains in the front yard – yet – so my ruminations about death cannot be connected to the weather.)
I’m reading a book, and it asks the question: “What is your greatest fear?” Not surprisingly, death ranks as the second greatest fear for most people; speaking in public snares the Number One spot on the list, according to the author.
(Not for me – I love speaking in public. From the first time I gave a humorous reading at a ladies’ luncheon when I was in high school, I’ve been addicted to making people laugh; getting chuckles from an audience gives me a rush of power that is second only to successfully parking parallel.)

Fascination with life after death

When I try to pin down my greatest fear, though, it’s not death, either. Call me a fatalist, but I have always believed that when my number is up…well, it’s up. I’ve never doubted that I’m going to heaven to be with God, and I know it’s going to be wonder-full. So why would I fear death?

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, I’m not alone. In their study, 72% of Americans believe in an afterlife, and that number includes ‘non-religious’ respondents, among whom 37% say they believe in the existence of heaven, a place where they are rewarded for living a good life. Interest in an afterlife has also fueled phenomenal sales for books and memoirs about near-death or after-death experiences and led to popular TV series and scientific research projects. My own conversations with my sons about my Christian faith and the intersections of science with the supernatural/spiritual was the seed that eventually resulted in my thriller Heaven’s Gate (which, by the way, has now been nominated for a 2017 Christy Award in the suspense category! Have you read it yet?).

Where are all the do-gooders hiding?

So, here’s my question: Given all the attention that heaven receives in our culture and a wide-spread profession of believing in it, why aren’t more people making a concerted effort to get there? In other words, if you believe heaven is a reward for doing good, why aren’t more people actively seeking to do good?

I think the answer, in part, is because ‘doing good’ doesn’t make sensational headlines. ‘Doing good’ is often a quiet, secret thing. Contributing to a community in positive ways is such a way-of-life for so many people, that they don’t consider it anything special, when in fact, it really is. I know that when I consciously look for good, I see it happening everywhere, so, whether or not the media reports it or our culture celebrates it, I think there are tons of people doing good because they believe in heaven. Like I do. And when I let the reality of heaven influence my daily behavior, I act differently. I work at being more generous, kinder, more grateful.

So why would I fear death? In my mind, in my heart, I believe that death will be the door to the Kingdom made perfect that I will inhabit forever. My audiences will always laugh. My parallel parking will be effortless. What’s not to like?

Do you believe, every day, in heaven?

 

 

 

Awe-full at the Houston Space Center

Not something you see every day in the parking lot: a 747 with a space shuttle on its back. Talk about a traffic-stopper.

Next stop: Mars!

My husband and I visited the Space Center in Houston this week, and it renewed my wonder and respect for everything NASA has accomplished since its inception. To be able to touch a rock that came from the moon, and appreciate even half of what that represents in human effort, imagination, and sheer guts, is an awe-full experience! One of the exhibits we especially liked modeled the surface of Mars and reviewed NASA’s projects that are aimed at putting humans on the planet. After seeing the exhibit, it’s clear that the movie The Martian borrowed extensively from accurate information collected by NASA scientists. The idea that I might live to see a person on Mars is mind-blowing…and reinforces everything I’ve ever believed about the incredible power of imagination to create new realities.

Brave hearts

Touring the Space Center in Houston also reminded me of the intrepid nature of humankind. When you see a Mercury capsule up-close, how can you NOT marvel at the risk astronauts take when they launch into space? My husband, stunned by the fragility of the Mercury capsule on display, said that early space travel was akin to sending someone into space in a tin can. What were we thinking?! When you examine the capsule, it’s terrifyingly evident that mere inches separated a person from the enormity of outer space. Not to mention those first astronauts who walked out of their capsules into the infinite darkness…just trying to think of that experience rocks me to the core! How much trust would that require in the humans who enabled you to do it? How much faith in yourself, and in God? Another movie I’ve watched comes to mind: Gravity. In that film, I caught a glimpse of what it might mean to experience total aloneness, floating in space, with only the bare resources of mind, body, and spirit at hand. The concept still sends shivers down my spine.

Touching the stars…or the moon, at least

In a similar way, I went speechless when I saw the Apollo module on display. It had actually traveled in space, to the moon and back, its skin beaten by cosmic radiation and the raw forces of nature. As a life-long astronomy fan, I’ve always been fascinated by the stars, the limitless frontiers of the universe, so to stand next to something that had physically entered those reaches of space was a humbling moment for me. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t resist the exhibit’s invitation to touch a tiny sliver of rock from the moon – it, too, had been somewhere I could only imagine. In a way, it felt like touching a dream, but one that has become very real. I have no intention of ever walking on the moon or Mars, but knowing that it has been – and will be – done, expands my own horizons, as well as the world’s.

Because I spend a lot of time outdoors, enjoying and appreciating the natural world, I don’t often think of human accomplishment as something of awe. NASA’s Space Center changed that for me. When I look at the star-studded skies tonight, I’ll be giving thanks not only to God for a magnificent creation, but for the amazing character of good women and men who have led us to explore and claim that creation more deeply.

 

 

Get the Batmobile ready, Alfred…

“We need some bat houses,” I told my husband one evening after spending a few hours in the backyard donating blood to hungry mosquitoes. “I’ve never been crazy about bats, but if they could make our yard habitable for humans in the evening again, I’m willing to roll out a welcome mat.”

A few days later, we found exactly what we needed at a nature store in a nearby town: wooden bat boxes.

“This one will accommodate up to 150 bats,” the store’s owner informed us, holding up one from her inventory. Then she picked up another. “And this one will house 300.”

I looked at the relatively small boxes, no more than about five inches deep and eighteen inches high. I imagined hundreds of little bats stuffed in the box, ready to swoop out and devour mosquitoes.

“Let’s get these two boxes to start,” I said to my husband. “I need to work into this whole bat landlord concept before we host a colony of thousands, however. Four hundred and fifty? I can do that.”

“And you need guano to attract the bats,” the helpful woman added. “It comes with the houses.”

I gave her a look of disbelief, not to mention disgust. “You’re going to give us guano?” I tried to figure out how we would be able to breathe in the car on the way home.

“It comes in dry packs,” she said. “You just add water.”

Okay then, I thought. We could do this, even though somehow, I’d just never imagined myself paying for bat sh….guano. But I’ve been working at expanding my horizons since we moved to the Texas Hill Country to live closer to nature. Rehydrating guano was simply going to be another new experience.

Imagine that.

Or not.

“The guano is free,” the store owner assured us with a big smile as she rang up our purchase.

Good to know. I was not going to have to pay for dried bat excrement after all. Yet, for some unfathomable reason, that didn’t especially make me any more excited about the prospect of reconstituting and actually applying the stuff.

A few days later, my husband nailed the bat houses into place among our trees and (may God bless him richly all the days of his life!) prepared and spread the guano on the little roofs. So far, I haven’t actually seen any bats enter or exit our houses, but our neighbor has observed bats flying around our yard, so I’m optimistic that we’re on the bats’ radar now, and that by next mosquito season, we’ll have our own squadron of airborne vigilantes.

Which leaves only one thing missing in our newly-friendly bat yard: the bat signal.

I’m checking online for it now…

 

 

 

Welcome to my new website!

Nine years ago, my first Bob White Birder Murder Mystery was published, launching me as an author – a dream I’d had since I was five years old and first stepped into a public library. I was astounded at the sheer volume of books on racks and decided right then I wanted my name on a book’s spine in a library. It took me another 48 years to get there…

Since then, I’ve written six more Birder Murders, an international best-selling memoir, Saved by Gracie, about how our dog helped me overcome anxiety, and the first two books in my supernatural Christian thriller series, titled Archangels. Along the way, I’ve blogged on my own website, guest-blogged for many others, and contributed devotionals to FaithHappenings.com for their subscribers.

In the last two years, I’ve also experienced a major life change: my husband retired from his career in high tech in Minnesota, and we moved to the Hill Country in Texas. Life is different here in many ways, and I find it is changing me, as well, so I decided it was time to revamp my website to better reflect who I am now as an author. It’s pretty simple, really, because what I want to do with my life is:

Laugh.

Live in awe.

Practice gratitude.

Love God.

In the months ahead, I hope to blog on a regular basis about those four topics. Sometimes I’ll tell funny stories, and sometimes I’ll offer more serious reflection. As always, I hope to entertain you, my reader, and share with you the wonder and mystery of life. To that end, I’m even going to throw in photos for laughs, for inspiration, for sheer beauty. If you like what you read and see, please subscribe to the blog by clicking on the RSS feed on the right side of the page. If you really like it, please share and invite others to visit this website. Thanks!