Bookends: Satisfying, Surprising, or Stultifying?

I’ve been doing a lot of de-cluttering lately.

Beginning of a new year, returning from a semester away,

it’s time to cull books, which leads to rearranging wall hangings and other objects of art.

Like these:

These brass bookends were an inauguration gift from my brother- and sister-in-law.

These brass bookends were an inauguration gift from my brother- and sister-in-law.

I saw these beautiful bookends in a new way this week.

They commemorate a momentous time in my life, the day the Goshen College community formally initiated me

into the role of president,

after having called me a year earlier.

I am touched anew by the thoughtfulness of Welby and Sharon, who special ordered these replicas from the doors of the Library of Congress

and chose the words engraved on the bookends.

It has been twenty years since my inauguration.

Now is the time for two other inaugurations, the first in Washington, DC this week,

of which I will have more to say later,

and the upcoming inauguration of President Susan Schultz Huxman at Eastern Mennonite University.

The text from Ecclesiastes struck me forcefully in a new way as I begin to teach a course,

What better words could there be for a teacher?

It so happens that the class I am teaching, Honors Worldview, is also a “bookend.”

From the syllabus:

This course forms the “book end” to the first Honors course called Ruling Ideas in which students are challenged to define “why do you believe what you believe?”

As a “capstone” class, Honrs 401A Worldview reviews the answers to this question and adds another: what do you believe you are called to become? And how will you continue asking and answering this question in the future?

Finally, I am thinking about the bookend of place as I look out the window of my beautiful, temporary, campus office:

Being here on the campus I first knew as a student 50 years ago always makes me nostalgic.

Being here at the invitation of a former student who told me he was going to grad school and coming back to take my job, makes me smile.

Replacing the student who replace me. The circle of life.

Replacing the student who “replaced” me. The circle of life.

The first time I sat in Mark’s chair and gazed at the amazing collection of American Studies artifacts he has accumulated over the years, I wanted to read every book and study every object.

Of course, I won’t.

Professors have never read all the books on their shelves.

And some of the objects they love, they neglect until the right day comes.

Like my inaugural bookends above, for example.

From the window in the office, I can see the Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community.

Mark's office.

Mark’s office.

Will that be my next stop in life?

The circle has turned almost completely to its beginning point in my life.

But not quite.

Like an essay that begins with a great hook and returns to the same theme in the end, our lives resemble circles.

But here’s the thing.

Mark and I both studied with Professor Bill Stott at the University of Texas at Austin.

I have always remembered Professor Stott’s advice about essay writing:

“Don’t tie that ending up into a tight little bow at the end.


bring the circle round until it ALMOST touches,

then send it out like an arrow in search of something new and surprising”  —

make it a bookend, in other words, that never stops looking for new words, new worlds, to hold.

What book end(s) are you looking at in life right now? Do you identify with Bill Stott’s advice?

With the quote from Ecclesiastes above?

Shirley Showalter


  1. Melodie Davis on January 19, 2017 at 7:40 am

    I love Stott’s advice not to tie an essay all neat but “send it out like an arrow in search of something new and surprising.” Great words to think about as I write blog posts, columns, or actually anything. I think of one of the first pieces of published writing I did in the church newsletter where I tried to use some creativity, which caught the eye of my pastor’s wife, who suggested that her son James, as editor of our school paper, ask me to write a column for that paper … which led to the road I ended up traveling. Sometimes we don’t know bookends –or see how that was life direction until later … right? Thanks for the reflections!

    • Shirley Showalter on January 19, 2017 at 8:20 am

      Thanks for starting the conversation early this morning, Melodie. Hope you are looking at the glorious Shenandoah Valley sunrise. It’s amazing.

      I love the story of how you found your own calling to write. Often students assume that calling is locked up inside and only we have the key. In reality, others often observe something we do and call it forth.

      As a writer, you know the power of a good zinger at the end of an essay. I hope to share this post with Bill in appreciation for all that he taught me about writing. His book Write to the Point is connected to his name above.

  2. Bill Stott on January 19, 2017 at 10:32 am

    Shirley, my dear, I’m hugely touched that you remember and cite my remark. In fact—no surprise here—you strengthen its metaphor.

    Now a bit of self-promotion. I recently revised, updated, and expanded by one-third WRITE TO THE POINT, and, hoping to be of some influence beyond the grave, offer it for sale, as an e-book, for $2.99 (see I set the price so low because, as I say in a note that starts the book, “I wanted the book to be so cheap that readers would buy it impulsively and have few regrets if the book let them down.

    I’m send you, Stuart, and Mark each a copy with my admiring love, and I offer free copies to the first ten teachers who, pleading poverty, ask you to ask me for one.

    • Shirley Showalter on January 19, 2017 at 11:32 am

      Wow, Bill, thank you, not only for this gift, but for this offer to others. I will happily pass along this offer, both here and on Facebook. What an opportunity not only for teachers but also for writers who value clear, direct communication.

      You found a great zinger to end on in your last paragraph above. Just like I remembered: “bring the circle round until it ALMOST touches,

      then send it out like an arrow in search of something new and surprising”

  3. Linda Maendel on January 19, 2017 at 11:10 am

    OK, I’m a teacher, I love to write- (perhaps some have seen my book, Hutterite Diaries),can’t honestly plead poverty, as I have a roof above my head, have never gone hungry, plenty to wear….oh, but I love freebies, especially when they can enhance my writing. Thank you, Bill.

    • Shirley Showalter on January 19, 2017 at 11:36 am

      Linda, you are first in line to get the free book. I hope you’ll find not only inspiration but practical gems like the one in this post that you can teach others and apply to your own writing. I hope Bill and others check out your book. Hutterites may actually have solved poverty better than any other communitarian group in history. But that desire to find a freebie is universal. 🙂 I predict you’ll find great value here.

  4. Carol Bodensteiner on January 19, 2017 at 11:30 am

    Professor Schott captures the point of essay writing more perfectly than any I’ve seen. It is, indeed, an analogy for life. The bookends I’m examining at the moment hold options for creativity. Are there more books I’m meant to write? If so, which ones? Is it time to turn to the visual arts as an interlude or as their own full-blown outlet? I’m keeping my mind open to the possibility.

    • Shirley Showalter on January 19, 2017 at 11:53 am

      You would recognize a writing gem when you see one, Carol, after all those Iowa Writers Workshop summer seminars and two published books!

      I am so interested in how you will listen for the next call of your heart. And I know you have many other friends online who are following your crossroads path. Which bookend will you take for this section of life? I’m staying tuned!

  5. Audrey Denecke on January 19, 2017 at 1:15 pm

    Bookends and Circles, I find value in each metaphor.
    We can use bookends to hold a set of books (or mark a period of life events) and then expand the space between them later (more beloved books; new insights on or value discovered from those life events).
    Circles: Circular journey, unbroken circles, circle councils. I too am attracted to Professor Scott’s counsel,”… bring the circle round until it ALMOST closed, then send it out like an arrow in search of something new and surprising.” It both offers an invitation for others to enter in and encourages continued exploration. Thanks too, Professor Scott, for sharing your expanded work WRITE TO THE POINT at such a low price point.
    The March on Saturday, as you know Shirley I will be participating in Chicago’s sister March, is a circle moment for me. I have, as social justice advocate in the 1970’s marched for women’s rights and civil liberties, etc., yet that bookended period was an incomplete circle (no ERA, major but incomplete progress). And now it brings me great joy to see others stepping up and into leadership into the space of the unclosed circle. And I too step back into the new circle moment open to the new and surprising possibilities for progress. I too wonder where my next steps will take me. I’m excited and energized.

    • Audrey Denecke on January 19, 2017 at 1:17 pm

      Correction March on Saturday

      • Shirley Showalter on January 19, 2017 at 1:22 pm

        Corrected above.

    • Shirley Showalter on January 19, 2017 at 1:29 pm

      Audrey, thanks for breaking apart the two major metaphors in this piece, showing how they are similar and yet different. I know that the circle image is important in many cultures less linear than ours. Could be grist for another blog post in the future. The Circle of Life, The Tree of Life.

      The bookends have the definite advantage of expansion and embrace.

      You are experiencing a powerful bookend in the upcoming march, and possible new circle (since the goals of the past marches were not completely fulfilled). I hope we can compare notes before, possibly during, and after the Women’s March on Washington. I’ll be remembering this event in May, 1970, as I march.

  6. Merril Smith on January 19, 2017 at 2:44 pm

    Those bookends are lovely, Shirley. I think your post could have me thinking in so many different directions. The most obvious bookends for me right now involve both time and place. Since our “baby” now has a house, it’s made me think of when my husband and I first bought and moved into ours. My father was still alive, my mother was very different from how she is now, and I was pregnant with our older daughter. Circle of life. Of course, houses, like people, change over time. Today my husband and son-in-law put in a new vanity in our bathroom. This replaces the one that was there when we moved in–almost thirty years ago.

    I’m afraid tomorrow’s event may bookend the end of many things we hold dear, but I’m hoping when people look back from the future, our nation and our world will not be Before DT and After DT.

    • Shirley Showalter on January 19, 2017 at 2:55 pm

      Merril, I hope readers here will check in to your lovely poem post about the amazing gift of a new home your daughter and her husband “won.” It’s such a happy story in the midst of many unhappy ones. (Yes, I too fear that our country’s history is at stake in this next administration.) Hence I will march on Saturday and do what small things I can to speak on behalf of those most vulnerable. It’s good to know you share the conviction that we must not let a minority president end what is most precious in the American republic.

      • Merril Smith on January 19, 2017 at 3:02 pm

        Thank you for your kind words, Shirley. It is a happy, “feel-good” story.

        Younger daughter and I will be marching in Philadelphia; older daughter will be marching in D.C.

        • Shirley Showalter on January 19, 2017 at 6:17 pm

          March on with your daughters! Mine is in her second trimester of pregnancy and will be staying home. Daughter in law will join the NYC march.

  7. Lois Kauffman on January 19, 2017 at 5:06 pm

    Beautiful!! Glad you shared.

    • Shirley Showalter on January 19, 2017 at 6:17 pm

      Thank you, Lois. Glad you commented!

  8. Marian Beaman on January 19, 2017 at 8:32 pm

    For a second there, I thought I was gazing at the detail of Ghiberti’s bronze Gates of Paradise we saw in Florence. But no, something fancy commemorating your (anticipated) service to Goshen College. I must say Welby and Sharon were extremely thoughtful – and artful. Congrats on all of these artifacts: what an accomplished woman you are!

    From my writing chair I can see the mottled-green marble bookends stamped with the college insignia when I retired from Florida State College at Jacksonville. They are heavy, each one weighing 5 pounds, holding up about a dozen books, including The Emotion Thesaurus, the Church on Bossler’s Corner and Real Essays: Practical Suggestions for Teaching.

    Bookends to me represent completion, order: between the two something begun, something finished. And bookends come in pairs. In this phase, I see just one bookend marking a beginning with fluttering pages not yet stitched together, a grand metaphor for my life now, unpredictable and at times chaotic, a sign of growth, I trust.

    Behind the shiny brass for all (like you) who embrace life, there is sacrifice, perseverance, and struggle. Not surprisingly, I applaud that!

    • Shirley Showalter on January 20, 2017 at 12:08 pm

      Marian, it could be that the LOC doors were influenced by Ghiberti, but these two are gates to different kinds of paradises. The one on the left is named Intellectus on the back. The one on the right is named Humanitas. I am hoping to get more of the backstory from Welby and Sharon. The gift, indeed, is an amazingly thoughtful expression of many of my most cherished values, and I cherish it, and them, for it.

      I’m not surprised that you, too, were gifted with special bookends from the place where you labored with such love and devotion many years. I’m sure that the manuscript you are working on now (and writing is such hard, hard work!) will enjoy its place between bookends in many places. It will certainly be honored in my bookcase.

      Can’t wait to see what arrows fly from the circles you are completing.

  9. Lisa Enqvist on January 20, 2017 at 3:43 pm

    As usual, your writing sends arrows of new thoughts also to me – across the Atlantic. Thanks for the quote “…bring the circle round until it ALMOST touches…” (I just saw Bill Stott’s book on Kindle and bought it – just as he hoped readers would do!)
    I can’t boast of any visible bookends – ending of career for instance. In just one week I will be ending one ‘career’ if it can be named that. Someone will release me from the responsibility of finding sponsors for children at a Children’s Home my husband and I started in Thailand 42 years ago.
    Another ‘bookend’: my youngest son called yesterday to thank us for the gift he received for his 40th birthday – and announced that he and his new wife are expecting their first baby. (The mother has severe endometriosis. Thanks for prayers.)
    I’ve taken one more step towards developing my memoir, which includes a portrait of my father, the most stubborn visionary missionary, after the example of Hudson Taylor. My 40-year old son, though he is an adopted Amerasian kid, has that same stubborn spirit, though he has used that strength in other ways. I used to say when he was little; he is 105% like his grandfather! I hope his children will find positive ways to use the same ‘gift’! I think I am finding new ways to use mine!

    • Shirley Showalter on January 20, 2017 at 7:18 pm

      Ah the gift of a stubborn visionary spirit! They make great characters in books, Lisa. I will indeed hold up your daughter-in-law. May she and the baby make it all the way through the pregnancy, healthy and whole.

      I sense some relief from the responsibility with the orphanage. Congratulations on long years of service to others. May the energy you used to help the children now be useful to you in writing your memoir.

  10. Sherrey Meyer on January 21, 2017 at 8:32 pm

    Shirley, what a beautiful remembrance of what must have been an exceptionally high day in your life as an educator. I think the givers of the gift knew what would be perfect to engrave these bookends with.

    This post shows you know how to fill your quiver with the “write” pens and when ready, you pull back your bow, and let fly with never ending arrows filled with inspiration and motivation.

    The one sure thing I know is that one bookend exists for me currently–the one at the beginning of my memoir project. I am growing closer to the matching bookend that will hold it all together–publishing. Although this last year gave me pause to wonder if I’d even finish, I can now see the arrows skimming the skies saying “you can do this!” My finish line will represent the need for new bookends, and I don’t know what they will be, but I know as I think of bookending my next project I’ll also be thinking of you, someone who has taught me much about writing, about life, and about faith.

    Thank you, dear friend and sister.

    • Shirley Showalter on January 23, 2017 at 12:54 pm

      You took that metaphor to new heights, Sherry. ? Sorry for the delay in my response. The march on Washington took all my energy on Saturday. I appreciate your words about the value of life, writing, and faith.
      Right now, I’m sorting out how to make sense of an incredibly beautiful, inspiring, day. And what I may be called to do in the future.
      I love the fact that you are feeling the book end might be within your reach. I am here cheering you on!

  11. Laurie Buchanan on January 24, 2017 at 11:13 am

    Shirley — A little off kilter, a little wabi-sabi, Bill Stott’s advice very much appeals to my way of thinking:

    “Don’t tie that ending up into a tight little bow at the end. Instead, bring the circle round until it ALMOST touches, then send it out like an arrow in search of something new and surprising.”

    The photo you shared—Replacing the student who “replaced” me. The circle of life.—is delicious food for thought. I strongly suspect I’ll be chewing on throughout the day.

    • Shirley Showalter on January 24, 2017 at 11:33 am

      Laurie, I think Bill Stott had you in mind when he said these words. You condense such perceptions into nuggets of resonating thought.

      Glad one of my own triggered yours today! Keep writing wherever you may be. Love your adventurous spirit. Wrote about awakening spirit in my own reflections of being at the march in Washington today. Because of my Thursday class schedule, I think I’ll be joining you on Tuesdays at least until the end of this semester.

  12. Elaine Mansfield on January 25, 2017 at 2:10 pm

    Shirley, with fewer books around, the bookends will be more visible. I’m weeding books like crazy, but still order more. There is–slowly–a net loss and a few empty shelves.

    I love this quote: “Don’t tie that ending up into a tight little bow at the end. Instead, bring the circle round until it ALMOST touches, then send it out like an arrow in search of something new and surprising.” I survive these challenging times on the promise of surprises–positive ones to balance the difficult ones.

    Your post reminds me of a piece I once wrote called “Bookends of a Marriage.” I’ve learned that just because there is a funeral, the marriage doesn’t end. And just because there is a big election loss, political possibilities and responsibilities don’t end. The endings simply spiral into new beginnings. Thank you for reinforcing this in your always positive way.

    • Shirley Showalter on January 25, 2017 at 3:35 pm

      So encouraging to have you interpret the bookends in this way, Elaine, bringing your own loss as well as what I perceive to be our country’s loss into the framework of possible new beginnings. Will try to keep this thought in mind as I continue to get news updates of old circles of the social safety net being attacked.

      Peace and joy!

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