I recently returned from a book tour in northeastern Pennsylvania where my novel, The Common Hours, takes place. My arrival in Pennsylvania was timed with peak fall foliage, something which I had not seen since leaving the state in 2001. It was not only a visit to my past, it was a revisiting of the sights, sounds, and smells of a place far removed from my home in Phoenix Arizona.

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Pennsylvania fall foliage-photographed by Tina D. Stephens
Pennsylvania fall foliage-photographed by Tina D. Stephens

The day after my arrival I headed to 4th street in Williamsport where Otto’s Bookstore was hosting me for a book signing during Williamsport’s monthly first friday event. A misting rain and temperatures in the 40’s gave a classic feeling of fall. Throughout the evening people ducked inside the bookstore to take respite from the temperatures and to treat themselves to the hot cocoa, apple cider, and donuts provided by the bookstore owners. Sometimes customers would make their way over to my table to look at my books or to tell me local folklore and other tales of history. Otto’s Bookstore itself has a long history which began in 1841 as a store selling wallpaper and books. Phoenix is populated by newcomers, whereas the residents of rural Pennsylvania have generally lived in the same place one generation after another. Life and stories are passed down through the years and storytelling is a rich tradition in the Pennsylvania culture. Although my book is fiction, it dates to 1888-1889 in the Williamsport and the Pine Creek areas. During the event, I felt a strong connection to the history of Millionaire’s Row just up the street from the bookstore, and all the places and events around me which dated back to that time.

Tina Stephens with Betsy Rider at the Otto Bookstore in Williamsport, PA.
Tina Stephens with Betsy Rider at the Otto Bookstore in Williamsport, PA.

The next morning was a rainy Saturday. I had forgotten how the damp air formed a foggy ring on the windows and how eventually the rain would drip down the surface of the glass pane creating an abstract view of the world outside. It was a day to snuggle on the couch with one of my mothers home-made quilts and to sip coffee and read.

Rainy day.
Rainy day.

On Monday I hiked into the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon with my parents, who were providing my housing during the tour. It was a dark foggy morning when we left the house. I couldn’t tell if were under a heavy fog or under the potential threat of another rainy day. When I tried checking my phone for a weather update I couldn’t receive enough reception to load the information. By the time we reached the edge of the canyon the sun was burning through the fog. Dense strips of puffy white clouds were rising from the Pine Creek far below.

Pennsylvania Grand Canyon photographed by Tina D. Stephens
Pennsylvania Grand Canyon photographed by Tina D. Stephens

After a few pictures we hiked downhill into the dark forest. We were the first visitors of the day. The only sound was the occasional scurry of a squirrel in the leaves. Our footsteps were quieted on the blanket of pine needles, and damp leaves which coated the ground. Then we neared a stream where the water plunged off rock ledges on its way to the Pine Creek at the bottom of the canyon (or gorge, as the locals call it). The sound of the falls dominated our senses. When we reached the Pine Creek my father saw a bald eagle fly over. I put my camera down to follow my fathers direction to see the eagle, but it was already gone. Fortunately I would see a bald eagle later in the week. After a rest we hiked back out of the canyon. We drove home on dirt roads, passing a sugar shack where maple lines tapped into a tree ran to a large tank near a small wooden shack. We saw cornfields, barns, wild turkey and deer, under a clear blue sky.

Fall scenery near Wellsboro PA-photographed by Tina D. Stephens
Fall scenery near Wellsboro PA-photographed by Tina D. Stephens
On the green in Wellsboro, PA-photographed by Tina D. Stephens
On the green in Wellsboro, PA-photographed by Tina D. Stephens

My mother and me left early Tuesday to head toward Clarks Summit for an event I had at Summit University on Wednesday. We routed our trip to take us by Rickett’s Glen State Park where we planned to spend the majority of the day. The fog remained thick all morning as we hiked the trails in the glen. It was perfect conditions for photographing the many waterfalls in the park. At one point I mentioned maybe one of my characters would honeymoon here. My mother wanted to know if it would be Mat and Sarah. I smiled. I wouldn’t reveal any secrets about the novel today.

Ricketts Glen State Park
Ricketts Glen State Park

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After four and 1/2 hours of hiking and photographing, we had seen 11 of the 20+ waterfalls in the park. I showed my exhaustion more than my mother; she was quiet, but I groaned out load every time we climbed a hill. Following our hike we stopped at a general store where we treated ourselves to ice cream which we ate while sitting on a wooden swing on the store’s front patio. Our scenery was farmland in the glow of late afternoon light.

Farmland near Ricketts Glen State Park
Farmland near Ricketts Glen State Park

Wednesday was my event at Summit University. This was the place I met friends I still keep in touch with; this was the place I met my husband (of 24 years now). I sat in the coffee shop at the university, with my books on a table, greeting many new faces and seeing a couple of old ones too. My favorite, and unexpected, part of this event were the literature students who came in asking if they could talk to me about writing. In depth questions and conversations continued throughout the event. I was exhausted but it had been a rich experience.

Jackson Hall at Summit University
Jackson Hall at Summit University

Early Thursday I left pre-dawn to drive through dense fog to my former high school, Walnut Street Christian School. I drove over hills and around many curves, stopping once for wild turkey crossing the road. The sun rose over the mountains, slowly lighting the west hills and creeping down into the valleys. I arrived at my school. It had been 27 years since being here. Mr. Longnecker, my high school English teacher, now the principal, recognized me as soon as I walked in. A table had been put in the lobby, decorated with pumpkins and a lace doily. The school had sold 49 books ahead of my visit. Someone brought me coffee. I got comfortable and started signing books.school signing copy Then I taught the high school English class. I shared some of the humorous things I learned while writing a historical fiction and the students asked questions they had prepared ahead of time. In 1988 I graduated from here in a class of 4. One of the three boys I graduated with came from his work to visit me, and we reminisced. It was the closest thing to a class reunion I would ever experience and I suspect more meaningful. I spent the afternoon with my high school best friend who remained my best friend in college. Twenty some years had passed and we found our journeys in life had taken eerily similar paths in life. A renewed friendship had just begun.

wolfe's gen storeOn the last day of my trip I visited the Pine Creek gorge area where I grew up, and the area where John Richardson and his daughter Sarah (in my novel) moved. My parents came with me. The colors had been changing throughout my visit and the leaves were now at peak. A narrow single lane road hugged a cliff wall on one side and dove down to the Pine Creek far below us on the other side. We drove down into the town of Slate Run where we stopped at Wolfe’s General Store. They were excited to hear I had written a book which took place in their small town. Three books sold before the manager had time to write a check for the books. The manager wanted to know if I could come back the next day, but my flight was leaving early the next morning. They put extra copies on their bookshelves to sell.

We left to explore the rest of the town. I wanted to see the hotel across the creek which had been the inspiration behind Aunt Virginia and Uncle Harold’s hotel and restaurant in the novel.

Hotel Manor in Slate Run which was the inspiration behind the hotel/restaurant in The Common Hours
Hotel Manor in Slate Run which was the inspiration behind the hotel/restaurant in The Common Hours

We drove to the graveyard behind the hotel, walked along a stream which Uncle Harold and John had hunted. My mother looked at the mountains at one point and asked me where Matthew Stephens home was (except she referred to him as Mat). We talked and speculated for awhile about my fictional characters.

Fall in Slate Run, PA-photographed by Tina D. Stephens
Fall in Slate Run, PA-photographed by Tina D. Stephens

We left town heading further south on the Pine Creek. We stopped at the church in Jersey Mills where my father had pastored in my teen years, visited the parsonage, and walked the path along the creek where The Common Hours had begun to form in my teen mind many years ago. I found it overgrown and darker than my memories. Some acquaintances sent us to the Waterville Fire House where we would find friends I hadn’t seen in over 20 years. Preparations were underway for the Apple Butter Festival taking place the following day. Apples were piled on tables, and everyone was peeling and cutting apples, and telling stories to each other.

Preparing for The Apple Butter Festival
Preparing for The Apple Butter Festival

Word got around quickly that I had written a novel which took place along the Pine Creek. Everyone purchased a book and wanted to know if I could come back with books for the festival. I couldn’t, but my parents agreed to return with books. I was intrigued with the process of preparing apple butter and the experience of the atmosphere in that fire hall.

The rest of the day was spent enjoying the scenery in the valley. I was saying goodbye once again.

Waterville, PA along the Pine Creek River. Photographed by Tina D. Stephens
Waterville, PA along the Pine Creek River. Photographed by Tina D. Stephens
The Pine Creek-photographed by Tina D. Stephens
The Pine Creek-photographed by Tina D. Stephens
A stream near Wellsboro, PA-photographed by Tina D. Stephens
A stream near Wellsboro, PA-photographed by Tina D. Stephens

It was time to return to my family in Arizona and to write book two, The Waking Hours.

Tina Stephens

Author of The Common Hours

available on Amazon.com

 

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“Broken Shoes”-a lesson in gratefulness

In 1980 I thought my blue Traxx shoes from Kmart were the coolest shoes I had ever worn. They looked somewhat similar to the popular Nike shoe with the big check mark on the side.

traxx

Every year my parents bought me two pair of shoes for school; one pair of dress shoes for the classroom and one pair of sneakers for gym class. My parents always hoped my shoes would last at least 6 months. The blue Traxx didn’t last a month. A small crack quickly began to form across the tread under the ball of my foot. It wasn’t long before the crack was a chasm reaching across the entire sole. Without the budget to purchase new shoes my parents tried gluing them, but that didn’t even hold them together through a single gym class.

I remember the night my dad brought the silver duct tape in from the garage and wrapped my beautiful blue traxx in a very noticeable swath of silver tape. The next day I changed slowly for gym class and walked the dirt road to the baseball field behind our school. It was a hot spring day, the air was dry and still. I was looking down at my shoes as I walked on the road, kicking up a cloud of dust, that settled onto my shoes. The dust covered tape was still clearly visible. My classmates had run up ahead of me to the field. I wondered if they had noticed my shoes. Did they feel sorry for me? Would they make fun of me?

My beautiful shoes were broken.

I looked through the harsh sunlight at the field ahead of me. I had to go to class. I looked down at those ridiculous duct taped shoes and thought, “If I can be happy and proud to wear these shoes, I will be happy no matter what happens in my life.” It was an oath I would never forget.

At 10, I didn’t realize how many “broken shoes” in life I would wear or that I would need more than sheer determination. I thought the lesson on that hot spring day had been about holding my head high and bolstering through. But that isn’t what I had learned.

We all have “broken shoes”—things in life that have scared us or broken our hearts. Finding contentment or gratefulness with what we have gives us the power to thrive on the path of life. I had a choice that day to be defeated and bitter or to appreciate the things I had and to enjoy gym class. Every time I wear “broken shoes” and I choose to thank God for what I have, I gain empathy for others with “broken shoes”, and JOY on the path of life.

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Let us choose to walk or run the path of life today with gratefulness to God. Reach out a hand to someone who has fainted along the way; encourage the ones who have slowed down, and run alongside others with a smile. Because really, we all have “broken shoes” in this one wild beautiful road of life.

1 Timothy 6:6-10New International Version (NIV)

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.

Tina Stephens

Author of The Common Hours, available on Amazon.com

Finding Serenity in a Chaotic World

McWay Waterfall along CA HWY 1
McWay Waterfall along CA HWY 1

Recently I was able to visit McWay Falls in California, a rare “tidefall” which is only visible from a footpath at the edge of California Highway 1. This waterfall tumbles from steep cliffs onto a small beach washed by aqua-blue water. I couldn’t help thinking as I looked at it, how wonderful it would be to rest on that beach or to walk under the waterfall. I looked for a path down but it became quickly evident it was only accessible by water.

I have been reflecting on the importance of serenity, for some time, especially in our chaotic world. I started thinking about McWay Falls: a private beach and waterfall paradise. What I did not mention about McWay Falls was the crowd of people who clamored at the edge of the cliffs to take pictures of this beautiful sight. Similar to the crowd on those cliffs, I think there are a lot of people wanting to experience serenity in life only to find it seemingly inaccessable.

serenity

Like every human I’ve had many days where I have experienced stress. I had an experience a few years ago that made me realize I needed some serenity in order to be a healthy mom and human. I was busy with a big project at work when I received a phone call from the school principal. One of my kids had gotten in enough trouble that it required a meeting with me and the school principle. After the meeting with the principal, I dropped my teen off at the house, ran to the store to figure out dinner, then rushed back home to cook dinner. After eating, my husband and I started cleaning up and helping with homework. Homework involved two hours of Math, class projects, and tears. Eventually I escaped to the backyard, where I often retreat, to watch the sunset in peace. About the time I settled into my adirondack chair with my ice tea in hand, a police helicopter starting circling. I remember looking up and thinking “really?” That was the moment I began my quest to find the elusive serenity in my chaotic world.

During my quest I realized I was stuffing every down moment with answering emails, texts, and browsing social media on my all efficient smart phone. Not only was I busy with work and children, I wasn’t taking any time to relax and recharge. I started to take small steps in changing my habits. At first I was uncomfortable because I felt unproductive if I wasn’t filling every moment with action. I started with small steps which you will see below. I’m hoping to provide a boat today for you to find your way to the inaccessable beach.

  1. Enjoy morning coffee without my phone or tv. This is often done on the back porch where I enjoy watching the clouds or small wildlife that venture into the yard.
  2. Stand in check-out lines with my phone in my purse. This was very uncomfortable at first. I ended up seeing a few friends I would have missed if I had been on my phone, or I would simply enjoy a moment free from texts. Standing in line without the phone was an easy way to grab a peaceful moment in a busy day, and (as the mother of 4 teens) I stand in grocery lines often.
  3. Watch the sunset every night the weather permits. It’s easy to let a day go by where you never get outside except to walk from a building to a car. Going outside to watch the sunset reminds me how big the world is and how big God is. My problems or stress become small. Not only did God make this world, he made it beautiful like maybe he wanted us to enjoy it.
  4. Take a nap on my day off from work. Again it’s easy to think this is unproductive but resting will recharge your brain and your energy. On days I cannot fall asleep I lay down and read a book.
  5. Zen doodle or grown up coloring. I have always enjoyed doodling, I find it helps with my memory retention and creativity. I took to Pinterest this year to learn zen doodling. Here’s a link to my board. Tina’s doodle art board on Pinterest. You can also find coloring books online for grown up coloring. Don’t laugh, this has become such a big trend that these coloring books are often out of stock. Here are some zen doodle I drew which you can download and color. Please feel free to share your colored results to my email at tinadstephens@gmail.com.gypsywindDownload gypsywind pdf.underwaterDownload underwater .pdf
  6. Play the piano for fun. This applies to any hobby. Participate in something you enjoy not to learn something new, but to purely enjoy it. For me, playing the piano is very relaxing and enjoyable.
  7. Lie in a hammock outside and watch the clouds. 
  8. Sit in the grass on a blanket and read a book. 
  9. Take a walk or hike for fun, not fitness. I like to occassionally walk or hike when I can feel free to stop as often and as long as I want, to enjoy the scenery or a flower or some wildlife.
  10. Savor more memories to myself than the number of them I share on social media. I’m learning to take life in and savor it just for me or just for my family. As soon as I share it on social media I’m waiting for ‘likes’ or opinions. It’s good to keep some things in my heart where it can continue to warm my soul. I know that was really cheesy but I think you know what I mean.

10. Yoga or Holy Yoga. Stress can make your muscles knot up which can cause back and neck pain. Yoga is a great way to stretch and relax and it increases balance. Holy yoga accomplishs this while listening to relaxing christian music and to scripture being read. Here is the facebook page of a local holy yoga instructor whom I recommend. Holy Yoga instructor in Scottsdale.

That’s it for this Friday. Enjoy your weekend and find time for serenity in your life.  Go ahead, get on that boat and float to your deserted beach; you will be better for it (and so will your family).

Tina Stephens

author of The Common Hours, available on Amazon.com

-the photo I took above of McWay Falls can be downloaded as a computer desktop background to remind you about serentiy-

10 Ways I chose Joy when I was really depressed.

joy is serious

(unprofessional advice from a human who doesn’t have it all together)

Depression is something I have battled off and on my whole life. The years of 2013 and 2014 were unlike any other depression I have experienced so far, and now I refer to it as my Great Depression. I went to bed many evenings with a heavy heart and woke up feeling like life had been sucked out of me. There were a few days when I lost sight of the value of living. For me, 2015 has been a year of new thinking, a time of embracing joy.

Last month I went to an Imagine Dragons concert where the lead singer, Dan Reynolds, shared about his lifelong battle with depression. I have contemplated sharing my battle too for some time. After listening to Dan Reynolds and how encouraging his message was to me, I realized how important it was to let others know they are not alone in their struggle with depression.

I am listing below 10 ways I chose joy when I was really depressed. I made the list during those difficult years from reading newspaper articles and listening to people I respected. As I look over it, the list feels orderly and tame and does not reflect the chaos going on in my life at the time, or how difficult it was to put one foot in front of the other when I wanted out of life. These were choices I made to become a healthier person and to change my thought patterns.

Joy is not accidental, it’s the result of healthy choices.

I had allowed my emotions to be controlled by the circumstances around me and this was my effort to change. I do not regret making these choices. I now embrace life for the gift it is and hope to remember the lessons that will help me the next time I battle depression.

First I list them, then I explain them:

  1. Pay attention to my spiritual life.
  2. Be physically disciplined.
  3. Develop healthy friendships.
  4. Do acts of kindness or mission work.
  5. Be grateful.
  6. Develop strategies for bad emotions.
  7. Leave room for peaceful moments.
  8. Recognize the battle inside my head.
  9. Put the choice of joy in front of me.
  10. Recognize the contributing factors that put me in depression
  1. Pay attention to my spiritual life.

This was the first choice I had to make because no matter how much effort I put into life I knew God had to be the core and he was the source of my stregnth. It seemed God was silent but I knew the chaos was blocking my hearing. I had to keep listening.

It seemed God was silent but I knew the chaos was blocking my hearing.

My relationship with God has always been important but I was in a place where I did not even have the emotional energy to plan what I would read from the Bible every morning. I was given a daily devotional called “Jesus Calling” by Sarah Young. Every day I would read the thought for the day and the verses attached. Eventually I moved into reading the Psalms. I would flip the pages until I found a sorrowful Psalm and read/pray it. It was very comforting to think that David, a man after God’s own heart, had some really bad days too. If a Bible verse stuck out to me, I would spend days reading it. I had a running dialogue with God. Sometimes I sounded like a child telling God how awful things were. I remember lamenting, “God, I think I have learned enough lessons for now.” I knew he could handle my real feelings. Over time, the prayers changed as I learned to trust God more than I ever had before.

  1. Be physically disciplined.

I fought this step. Everything else in life hurt. Why should my muscles and my stomach hurt? Hot apple cobbler and lots of rest were all I felt up to. I had to force myself to make healthy choices knowing someday I would be glad I did it. I started with a goal of 3 days a week at a gym. As I gained strength, I pushed myself to more calories and time. If I messed up I didn’t tear myself down, I tried again the next day. I spent most of the 2 years failing to meet my goals, but I started every day trying again. Failing wasn’t the problem, giving up was the problem.

take-care-of-your-body

  1. Develop healthy friendships.

I wanted to isolate. I was sick of being asked “How are you doing?” , because I never had a good answer. I pinpointed some people in my life I could trust. Meeting for coffee or hiking gave us time to talk. At first, I admit I vomited my emotions on them, monopolizing the time. Then I began listening to their stories. When I began listening I learned I was not the only human to experience depression or difficult times. Sometimes I was shocked and encouraged when I heard other women voicing the exact feeling I was having. I was not alone in my battle.

  1. Do acts of kindness or mission work.

An act of kindness reminds me that I am not the only human on the planet, and we all need help at times. I was fortunate enough to have the unique opportunity to go on a mission trip to Guatemala during this bad time. I walked in villages where poverty was evident and I participated with a team that drilled a well for clean water and taught hygiene lessons with Living Waters International. These people were experiencing great hardships in life and yet they smiled and greeted us. There is nothing like helping those in need to put your life in perspective.

It’s not always possible to visit a foreign country. Locally I participated in activities with the organization Feed My Starving Children. Even more practical, I tried to open my eyes to the world around me; handing a bag of McDonalds food to a homeless person; helping an elderly person reach for something in the store; paying forward for someone’s coffee.

5. Be grateful.

No matter my circumstance there is always something to be grateful for. Sometimes I would make a list so I could remind myself of all I had. Depression is very in-focused so I also tried to make a habit of telling other people what I was grateful for in them. Gratefulness changed my daily perspective.

WhenYou'reLookingforJoy

  1. Develop strategies for bad emotions.

During my Great Depression my emotions were strong. I could be extremely happy, sad, or angry. My best strategy for anger was going to the gym. Many times I would hit the gym fuming and by the time I was finished my emotions would be regulated. Sometimes all I needed was a walk around the block. If my depression was hitting the red level I would reach out to a trusted friend. Sometimes a phone call, sometimes coffee, and sometimes hanging out at their home. Isolating in a red zone of emotions could allow room for me to make really bad choices. Survival meant staying in contact, staying accountable.

(On a side note, I found that jumping on bubble wrap or smashing old electronics can snap me out of a negative mood. I keep bubble wrap on hand at all times.) 

quote-jumping-for-joy-is-good-exercise-anonymous-295498

  1. Leave room for peaceful moments.

I am very self competitive. Achieving and moving is where I feel good, but it can tire me emotionally. I learned how important it was to leave room for rest. Rest can come in many forms. Here are some of the things I did: read a book on a blanket in the shade of a tree; take a slow walk around the block; float in the pool and stare at the sky; zen doodle (something I will share in my blog next week); take a nap on my day off; enjoy a hobby; visit a prayer garden. 

  1. Recognize how serious the battle inside your head is.

I have a rule: no serious conversations after 10pm and if something is bothering me in the middle of the night I pray about it, but don’t act on it. If it is still real the next day, then I act on it. If I only listened to what my head told me, I would be in trouble. I have a lifetime supply of negative comments that rehearse themselves on bad days; It’s worth fighting the battle of recognizing and combatting these unhealthy thoughts. I learned to balance things with good reading or listening or rehearsing my thoughts out loud to a friend or counselor.

  1. Put the choice of joy in front of you.

I am forgetful and need constant reminders to do things. If you visit my cubicle at work you will see what I call my “joy wall.” During 2014 I started collecting quotes or beautiful pictures online which I printed and put on a wall in my office. It is now covered with quotes and beautiful pictures that remind me to choose joy every day. Here are some of my favorites for you to download and print.

ordianry

joy verse

key to happiness 2

god is up to

  1. Recognize the contributing factors that put me in depression.

Now that I’m looking back at those years, I know it’s important for me to recognize what put me in that long depression. I know there will be other dark times and I hope the things I learned this time will shorten the severity or duration. I had allowed myself to be too tired for too long and I was adjusting to major life changes when we adopted our third child. Life at times is messy, really messy but here is hope. Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.

If you know someone who is struggling with depression, please be patient and kind.

Feel free to share this with a friend if you think it would help. Have a joyful day.

Tina Stephens

Author of The Common Hours, available on Amazon.com

A Common Hours Story: The Wind Stallion

  This is for my readers who finished The Common Hours and had only a small glimpse of Sarah’s Wind Stallion. 

a photo taken on the Pine Creek in Pennsylvania

The trees at the very top of a mountain, many miles to the east of Williamsport began to bow under the persuasion of a late-summer wind. Straight across the ridge the wind played with pliable branches. For no reason, maybe just for fun, it changed its course to lower trees whose boughs twisted and turned willfully. Down the mountain, the wind passed through one row of trees after another, a chorus of rustling leaves rising into the air.

Then the wind reached a quiet riverbank. It did not stop to ponder; it pushed across the surface of the still water, sending expanding ripples out ahead of it. On the far shore it reached a wooden dock where is waltzed with dead leaves.

A little girl was standing on the dock. Five-year old Sarah was holding her mother’s hand. She had been watching. Sarah smiled as the waltzing leaves danced across the dock toward her. When the wind and leaves reached the hem of her skirt they compelled it also to join in the waltz. Then the wind playfully lifted Sarah’s wavy locks of hair before it left to play in a nearby meadow.

Sarah watched it disappear knowing the secret that only her and the tress knew. It wasn’t only the wind that had passed her by. She had been in the presence of the Wind Stallion.meadow-blog

Tina Stephens

Author of The Common Hours

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