50 thoughts on turning 50 #29: T.H.I.N.K.

Eugene de Blaas (1843-1932) The Friendly Gossip

Eugene de Blaas (1843-1932) The Friendly Gossip

Someone posed a question on Facebook recently, asking how you know when the story you’re about to tell someone is actually gossip.

Gossip. It’s a topic I’ve actually thought about quite a lot over the years.

I was at a women’s Bible study once, many moons ago. While I had been a Christian for a long time (at least in label if not necessarily in understanding), it was my first Bible study ever, my first women’s event ever, and I was really new at this church. The women broke off into small groups for prayer – another new thing for me – and started going around the table and sharing fairly lengthy stories about people they were requesting prayer for. Details that included at least first names as well as specifics about situations, illnesses, etc.

One women started talking about her baby sitter, requesting prayer for her while revealing where she lived and some specific details about her family. Turns out, I was pretty sure she was talking about a friend of my daughter, and when the story was finished I asked a question about the girl. The woman leading our group turned to me and said, “Joanne! We’re not here to gossip!”

I’m sure I turned 50 shades of red. I didn’t know any of these women, had never been to a Bible study before and was mortified that I’d been found out as an ignorant Christian. This was gossip?

The truth is, I had sat through some very detailed “prayer requests” that, if you really think about it, were just gossip. That they were shared in a Bible study didn’t change that fact. But in my zeal to learn how to be a Christian, I also learned how to share and receive prayer requests.

Yup, I learned how to be a better gossip in church. Continue reading

50 thoughts on turning 50 #28: Signs, signs, everywhere signs

EPA award 2015

Not quite two weeks ago, I was on a deadline for my humor column and battling a solid wall known as writer’s block. No amount of thinking, free writing, talking to the dogs or crying got me and farther than a few sentences for the column that was due on April 5th.

Some writers claim that there’s no such thing as writer’s block, preaching that “butt in chair” will get the writing job done. That’s a great start. But when you have to write something coherent, and funny, writer’s block is a real thing.

So there I was, banging my head against the wall trying to finish one of the dozen column ideas I had, when I thought about going on hiatus from the humor column. I’d just signed the contract for my next book – this is a local history book with a focus on Mt. Hope Cemetery – and I was thinking that maybe trying to mix two genres was going to be more difficult than I thought. I can’t just turn on the funny; it’s a lot of work and there’s a lot of mental “funny” that goes on before I sit down to write the column. I’m typically not a great multitasker, creatively speaking. I need to be in research mode full time to get the book done on schedule.

I finally got the column done, sent it to my editor – and that night learned that a humor column I wrote had won a first place Evangelical Press Association Higher Goals Award in the Humorous category. The column? “Insomnia: things that keep me awake at night”, which I wrote during another episode of writer’s block.

EPA award 002

What the judges said about my winning column. The irony was not lost on me that the column that won, while I was battling writer’s block, was a column about writer’s block.

A long time ago, in a religiously focused life, I would have taken that as a sign from God that I should not give up writing the column. And in some ways, it was a validation for me to keep writing the column while working on the book. I love writing humor, and knowing that what I write makes readers happy is important to me.

But the history book makes my publisher happy. I mean, he’s really excited about it, so the fact he gave me a contract when I pitched the book was a sign, too, right? Plus, I’m really excited about it; it feels like the right time for a project I’ve been working on for a couple of years. And I think the people I’m writing about who are dead in the graves would be excited about it, if they were able to have an opinion. (And one of them may have an opinion, given something that happened when I was walking around the grave site, talking out loud.)

But then I go back to the humor sign. What if I have writer’s block next month? And the next? What if I should have signed the contract for a different book idea I’d also pitched (which was more humor-focused)? Uh oh, did I make a mistake?

Back when I was looking for God’s direction in literally everything, I saw almost everything as a sign from God. Do this. Don’t do that. It started to feel like the song by Five Man Electric Band:

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

It led to a condition I call Paralysis By Analysis. All of these signs got confusing, to the point that I was afraid to make any decision. I mean, I want to do what God wants me to do, right? And if I don’t do what God wants me to do, He gets mad, right? But how was I supposed to know what God wants me to do? So I ended up doing nothing, or at the very least not trying new things or exploring things outside my comfort zone.

As I’ve matured, and especially as I hit my 40s and now 50, I’ve learned that you can read anything as a sign, especially if you’re already inclined to second guess your decision.

So Lesson #27? How do you read the signs? Maybe there aren’t really any signs at all, except the ones we erect ourselves.

How do you know what does God want you to do? I think God wants you to honor him by using your talents, by taking advantage of every moment life gives you, by making other people happy and seeing God in you, in whatever way that is. Do people see joy? Kindness? Integrity? Faith? Humor? Those are the signs we need to be looking for.

Theologically sound? Probably not. But as we all know, I’ve never claimed to be a theologian and my spirituality lately is a little outside the box. I am, after all, the person who walks through cemeteries talking to the people buried there. But do consider this: don’t spend so much time looking for signs that you miss the adventure.

And because I know the song is now stuck in your head, here’s the whole thing.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. Read more here.

And the winner is … me?

EPA award 2015

Imagine my surprise this week when, while congratulating writing and publishing friends on their wins at the recent Evangelical Press Association Awards in Denver, I scrolled through the list of Higher Goals winners in the Humorous category and saw who won first place – ME, for my column “Insomnia”.

I had forgotten then the publishers of Refreshed Magazine had entered my columns in this year’s contest. I was surprised at not only the win, but … first place??

Lamar and Theresa Keener, publishers of Refreshed Magazine, took home numerous EPA awards and deserve loads of congratulations for their hard work and dedication to putting out such a high quality magazine. I’m honored that they include in their Refreshed family!

Buckets and buckets and buckets of gratitude are due my editor, Lori Arnold, for her patience, grace and willingness to put up with my quirks and writers block. There’s no greater blessing a writer can have than an excellent editor who laughs at her jokes.

This is my third EPA award, but whose counting? Well, I am, because if I’m being honest I’m still always amazed that people read my scribbling. The biggest thanks, of course, goes out to you, dear reader, for reading my musings and ramblings so that I don’t have to get a real job.

You can read my column every month in Refreshed Magazine, both in print and online.

And the next book is …

Mt. Hope Cemetery, October 2014 (c) Joanne Brokaw

Mt. Hope Cemetery, October 2014 (c) Joanne Brokaw

As regular readers of the blog know, for some time now I’ve been fascinated with Mt. Hope Cemetery – the geography, the peace, the history, walking the dogs there. It’s spurred my own genealogical research but also research into some mysteries and murders, locals ties to national stories, interesting stories about everyday people and just random weirdo stories.

I’ve blogged about my adventures in the cemetery and I’ve always been surprised by the number of people who are as fascinated as I am with the things I uncover.

Well, if that’s you, then you’ll be happy to know that my next book is a go, and it’s going to be about people buried at Mt. Hope! It’ll be published once again by Wordcrafts, whom I adore working with. Continue reading

Raising funds to cover vet bills for the dogs injured in the Add En On kennel fire

Screenshot 13WHAM FB page

Screenshot 13WHAM FB page; click photo to read the story

This past Sunday, a devastating fire destroyed local animal kennel Add En On in Mendon, NY. While some of the dogs and cats managed to be saved, sadly more than a dozen didn’t make it out alive.

Those who did survive and who needed medical treatment were taken to Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Services in Brighton, NY. Unfortunately, one of those dogs had injuries so severe he needed to be euthanized.

If you’d like to make a tax deductible donation (note that some of the crowd sourcing sites are not tax deductible) to cover the veterinary costs for the dogs who were injured, you can do through Rochester Hope For Pets. In the designation box, make sure you designate it to OTHER and specifically write in there that it’s “to pay for emergency expenses for the dogs injured in the Add En On fire.” The money goes directly to the charity which then disperses the funds as designated.

Make sure you designate your donation to help the dogs injured in the Add En On fire.

Make sure you designate your donation to help the dogs injured in the Add En On fire.

Rochester Hope for Pets is a local charity that offers financial assistance and grants to pet owners to help cover one time needs. It’s the charity I designated to receive my publisher’s charitable contributions from the sale of my books and I’ve also made donations – because I was a recipient of a grant when Scout died, which covered his final expenses.

And one last note: you do not have to take your dog to an animal hospital within the Monroe Vet system to have your expenses considered for a grant. That’s important to note. If you have a need and would like to apply, visit their website for more information.

50 thoughts on turning 50: #27 We are the sum of our ancestors, at least when it comes to fear

Turns out that if you scare the bejeesus out of a mouse, its offspring will be afraid of the same things.

Turns out that if you scare the bejeesus out of a lab mouse, its offspring will be afraid of the same things.

I remember, many years ago, watching an episode of “Touched By An Angel” in which the angel Monica is counseling a young girl brought up in difficult circumstances who is fearful that she’ll go on to live the same life her parents led. Monica assures the girl that just because her parents before her made bad choices in life, it doesn’t mean she has to follow in their footsteps.

“We are not the sum of our ancestors,” says the soft spoken Monica.

I wrote that quote down (as you know, I’m a quote junkie) and have mused on it often over the years. We are not the sum of our ancestors. Or are we?

According to a study out of Emory University, researchers have used olfactory conditioning to study whether or not fear can be passed on genetically to offspring. In other words, if your great grandmother had the bejeesus scared out of her by spiders, does that explain your own spider phobia? Continue reading

Caledonia Jane Doe identified, and the next chapter of her story begins

In 1979, the body of a young girl was found in a cornfield in Caledonia, NY. She had been shot in the head and in the back. She remained unidentified for more than 30 years. Today, she was identified as Tammy Jo Alexander.

In 1979, the body of a young girl was found in a cornfield in Caledonia, NY. She had been shot in the head and in the back. She remained unidentified for more than 30 years. Today, she was identified as Tammy Jo Alexander.

In November 1979, the body of a young girl was found in a field in Caledonia, NY. She had been shot and dragged into the field, and then shot again. For more than 30 years, she remained unidentified and her case unsolved.

Until today. Her case is still unsolved, but we now know that the girl is Tammy Jo Alexander, a teenager from Brooksville, Florida who was last seen in 1977.

For three decades, the Livingston County Sheriff Department has followed thousands and thousands and thousands of leads, never giving up in their attempt to identify the young woman and track down her killer.

According to news reports, a girl who went to high school with Tammy Jo contacted Florida authorities to ask if anyone had ever reported her missing. Apparently, no one had. Ever. With that new missing person report, police in New York were able to heat up their investigation and, using DNA from Tammy Jo’s sister, identify their Jane Doe.

With a name, I can search for information. Here’s Tammy Jo Alexander, c. 1977, the year she went missing and two years before her body was found in Caledonia. She was 13 years old when she disappeared from Florida.

Tammy Jo Alexander, c. 1977, the year she went missing and two years before her body was found in Caledonia. She was 13 years old when she disappeared from Florida.

I mused about the case of Caledonia Jane Doe back in 2010 on my blog, when I was reflecting on my own life, my own wasted opportunities, my own sense of going through the motions of life rather than living them. Her story haunted me; Who was she? Where did she come from? Were her parents looking for her? And what would she be doing right now if she hadn’t met with such a tragic end?

My goal, at the time, was to research and then write about her story. I didn’t have any hope of solving a case or even shedding light on it. I just felt like there was  story to tell and I should tell it. Over the almost two decades I’ve spent writing, I’ve done countless feature stories for magazines and newspapers. I’ve interviewed celebrities and regular folks. I tell stories, often stories people can’t tell themselves.

But when I started researching Jane Doe, I quickly realized that I was out of my element. No person to interview. No name to Google. Almost no place to begin and, if I’m being totally honest, no idea where to start. I’d never researched a police case before, and I wasn’t familiar with places to even begin, or what to do with the information once I found it.

So rather than charging full steam ahead – which is what I felt like I should do – I put the folder on the desk and moved on to other things. But I never forgot about her.

Over the last few years, I’ve got more savvy about researching local history and genealogy, developed better techniques for managing mountains of information, newspaper clippings and notes (I love paper, so my filing system involves lots of folders and boxes). I dove headfirst into stories about women in the Rochester area in the 19th century (Emma Moore and Sarah Bardwell being chief), and while I never forgot about her, Caledonia Jane Doe stayed on the desk.

But I confess that as I watched the press conference today in which the Livingston County Sheriff announced that they had identified Caledonia Jane Joe as Tammy Jo Alexander, I felt a twinge of regret that five years ago I didn’t stick with my own research.

The important thing is that the unidentified body found in the cornfield thirty five years ago now has a name. Her headstone will have a name and my folder labeled “Caledonia Jane Doe” will be replaced with a new one labeled “Tammy Jo Alexander”. My curiosity is piqued again. Why did her family not report her disappearance? Where was she in the two years from when she was last seen in Florida to the time she was found in Caledonia? Her story is still waiting to be told.