The month of May zipped by so fast.

It was a full month. It was a busy month.

Let’s start with this man and his talk at the Family History Conference: New Arrivals in a New Land, in Lancaster, PA, on May 20. John L. Ruth, historian and storyteller, told how three ships came sailing into Philadelphia harbor in 1717, three hundred years ago.

Most of the people in the room had at least one ancestor on that ship.

John Ruth speaking at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society Conference. May 20, 2017.

John Ruth speaking at the Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society Conference. May 20, 2017.

For me, the most intriguing thing John said, tongue partly in cheek, was this:

“Our people were too holy and busy to think of us coming later. They didn’t write things down. We are their spiritual children and have to try to recover some of their capacious spirituality. Try to write a few things down.”

John’s challenge stayed with me in the busy and holy days that followed.

I participated in Kairos Place, a program to encourage writers and writing at Eastern Mennonite University. For four days I focused on writing and on listening to other writers.

Vi Dutcher, in white, leads the daily centering time at Kairos Place, for EMU faculty and staff.

The daily centering time at Kairos Place, in the President’s Room in the EMU library. L-R: Gretchen Hostetter Maust, Janelle Mazariegos, Vi Dutcher (leader), and Paul Yoder.

And then it was time to gather up these two cherubs into my arms and play throughout the Memorial Day Weekend.

Grandson Owen, tree climber.

Grandson Owen, tree climber.

Granddaughter Julia reminding me of her Aunt Kate.

Granddaughter Julia reminding me of her Aunt Kate.

I swallowed sadness at saying good-bye to son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren by cleaning, making turkey soup, and inviting friends to help us eat homemade ice cream and strawberries we picked ourselves.

I met my spiritual director Sheryl Shenk.

She asked me whether my life was full or busy.

It’s both, but I left our prayer space with another question that stuck with me.

And a memory from the play Our Town:

 “EMILY: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”

STAGE MANAGER: “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”

Then I joined the other members of our newly-formed Threshold Choir and sang words of comfort and hope we are beginning to share with those in the last stages of their life journey.

I love the sweet music we make together.

Blue Ridge Threshold Choir

Blue Ridge Threshold Choir L-R: Sadie Showalter, Mamie Mellinger, Donna Heatwole (director), Barbara Moyer Lehman, Ann Yoder, Virginia Spicher, Mary Glick, me, Shirley Yoder.

Finally, on the last day of May, I met with these wonderful people.

Powderhorse Writers

Powderhorse Writers L-R: Me, Alison Brookins, Jennifer Murch, Valerie Serrels, Ted Swartz, Jim Clemens, Carolyn Yoder

This group of writers meets weekly.

We help each other write plays, essays, memoirs, and poems.

We offer gentle criticism and lavish praise.

We have fun.

Our next meeting is scheduled for my house.

I’ll be bringing all my leftover May questions, wrapped up in a draft of the keynote address I’ll be giving in August at the Brubaker Reunion. The Brubakers were on board the one of the ships that arrived in 1717.

When I agreed to speak, I proposed this description:

The “Purpose of Memories” answers the question, “Why should we care about our ancestors and the place they called home?”

Now all I have to do is answer my own question: What is the purpose of memories?

I am deeply grateful for the fullness of my life and the many people who so generously share their wisdom with me. I would love to know what this question or the others above evokes in you. Can you help? 

Thank you!

Shirley Showalter


  1. Elfrieda NEUFELD SCHROEDER on June 1, 2017 at 6:49 pm

    Shirley, your ancestors have been here for such a very long time, it is almost unfathomable! They are the true pioneers, and they reached out to us and helped us when we were in such dire need overseas. Making sweet music together, that’s what it’s all about!

    • Shirley Showalter on June 2, 2017 at 7:25 am

      I hope my ancestors were generous to yours, Elfrieda, just as Dutch Mennonites helped the poor Swiss after they lost their prosperous farms following war. John Ruth made the poverty very vivid with his stories. I was not aware how bad things were for the Mennonites of the Palatinate. (Just as your stories have informed me of the suffering and tragedy of your immediate ancestors.) The nuances of the 17th and 18th century migrations are hard to grasp, but historians are putting the puzzles of memory together piece by piece.

      And yes, let’s make sweet music together!

  2. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on June 1, 2017 at 9:46 pm

    What a Spring-ey month, Shirley. So much beauty and connection.

    I had at least 4 ancestors on that ship. I love to hear about the conference from one (you) who attended. It’s so important to remember we are all immigrants and children of immigrants.

    • Shirley Showalter on June 2, 2017 at 7:32 am

      Thank you, Dolores, for reminding me of one of the biggest impressions from the conference. We were undocumented immigrants. Had we not been helped by other Mennonites in better circumstances and by the invitation from William Penn, we might have languished in poverty and oppression under the princes in Germany.

      Hope you had a Spring-ey May and that June is busting out all over for you.

  3. June on June 1, 2017 at 10:35 pm

    My response to your question comes in a poem I have memorized.
    Tonight we are having stew of dreams.
    Leftovers spiced with time.
    Two different kinds of memories, and yesterday for wine.
    Tomorrow we may dine gourmet on promises that we have kept.
    Let us savour parts of every day, until all that’s love is left.

    • Shirley Showalter on June 2, 2017 at 7:41 am

      June, I edited the poem with the correction you sent. Did I get it right?

      I love the imagery of memory as a stew full of dreams, promises, with time as a spice. I also like the idea that every day we can savor the best of what we have been and done, boiling our lives down to the broth of love.

      Thank you for this thought!

      How do you interpret the line about two different kinds of memories?

      Who is the author of the poem?

      • June on June 2, 2017 at 12:55 pm

        The poem is called, eight lines for a family. I don’t recall who wrote is.
        I interpret the two different kinds of memories, as good memories and bad. That is why they are seasoned with time. As things don’t look as bad when you have let time heal.

        • Shirley Showalter on June 2, 2017 at 1:24 pm

          Thank you, June. Helpful!

  4. Audrey Denecke on June 2, 2017 at 11:28 am

    Appreciate your distinction, Shirley, busy vs.full. My summer calendar is populated with numerous planned connections. I’m so looking forward to our family reunion with paternal cousins in Calgary, Alberta, Canada in July. And, a group of maternal female cousins, are gathering locally for brunch soon to catch up with one another. Almost every week this summer has an opportunity to reconnect, with friends or work colleagues. My cup runneth over!
    And, I do find my 5-6 day a week writing space brings me deep satisfaction.
    Right now, work is slower than desired so I won’t say my life is busy (at least not as busy than previously accustomed to). And, I’m happy to say life is full.
    Conducting family history research is another source of joy and fulfillment. As my family genealogist, I would echo the encouragement to write down your stories. My father wrote down his memories of his younger days, experiences in WWII (rarely spoken about when he lived) and other moments. My mother wrote down a few of her often repeated stories and we have one tape of her singing a little ditty. These stories are treasures. One final request, my family has just completed over a year of periodic sorting through thousands of family pictures (some from my grandparents). Please, I implore you, label your pictures and list names of those in the image. Your offspring will so often not know who is captured in your photograph. We are also now compiling our family history, genealogical reports,pictures and stories. If you have or plan to do the same, it will truly be a great gift to your descendants.?

    • Shirley Showalter on June 2, 2017 at 12:42 pm

      Audrey, your life sounds full indeed, and you are a living testimony to the purpose of memories. You construct connection out of them. By sharing stories and pictures, you are saying to your family, “Your life matters. It is connected to a train of other lives and gives you a purpose beyond yourself.”

      What you are doing is so helpful. May you be filled with gratitude as you continue the work of family history.

      • Audrey Denecke on June 2, 2017 at 1:30 pm

        Thank you, Shirley. Yes, it is a gratifying work of love. I resonate with it as connecting work. It honors and connects us with our ancestors (and the arduous, risk-filled journey they undertook)while weaving in the stories of new generations. Thank you.

        • Shirley Showalter on June 2, 2017 at 1:45 pm


  5. Laurie Buchanan on June 2, 2017 at 11:29 am

    Shirley — Many people accumulate “things” during their lifetime. I collect memories because I believe they’re the only thing we can take with us when we die.

    • Shirley Showalter on June 2, 2017 at 12:56 pm

      Laurie, this is a fascinating idea. Are you talking about reincarnation? I’d love to hear more if you have time to expound. Thanks for the comment.

      • Laurie Buchanan on June 2, 2017 at 1:07 pm

        Shirley — To my way of thinking, memories are thoughts and thoughts are energy. (That’s why “what we think about, we bring about”).

        I embrace the idea that when we die our energy (including our thoughts) returns to Source Energy (divine love).

        If we happen to get another go-around (reincarnation), than our accumulated energy comes with us.

        Hence, the “object of the game” is to create as much positive, uplifting, constructive, and healing energy as possible.

  6. Lucinda J on June 2, 2017 at 12:01 pm

    Interestingly, an article I read once that stated that the number one predictor of whether a family is a happy one is if the kids know their family history. The article is called “6 Things the happiest families all have in common” published in The Week. Life is a story, and finding our place in that story is grounding and important to our emotional well being. A story without backstory is no story, and the same goes for a life without memories.

    • Shirley Showalter on June 2, 2017 at 1:00 pm

      This is super, Lucinda. Thank you. I found the article and share it so others can read it also.

      Your comment is eloquent: “Life is a story, and finding our place in that story is grounding and important to our emotional well being. A story without backstory is no story, and the same goes for a life without memories.”

      Is it okay if I quote you in my talk?

  7. Julia Spicher Kasdorf on June 3, 2017 at 11:04 am

    Lovely meditation, Shirley! And I love the photos, too. I wonder if your question is getting ahead of things. Following John Ruth’s warning, would it help to discover what you believe to be the purpose of writing?

    • Shirley Showalter on June 3, 2017 at 12:05 pm

      Best way to answer a question is often by asking another one. Love this one and will enjoy pondering it,Julia. I’m sure Powderhorse writers will love playing with it too.

      Thanks for gracing this blog with your presence.

  8. April Yamasaki on June 5, 2017 at 1:19 am

    I love reading and hearing what you’ve been up to, Shirley, and I’m reflecting on your question, “is your life full or busy?” Often it’s both, as you describe your own month. But a full life is not always busy, and for some, a busy life can sometimes still feel strangely empty. The distinction is well worth pondering. Thank you.

    • Shirley Showalter on June 5, 2017 at 11:39 am

      Always happy to see you here, April. I love the distinctions you draw and am glad you added them here since I didn’t define my terms.

      I invite you to ponder and write on this subject too if it intrigues you. Intention and attention are crucial to keeping emptiness at bay. Your Sacred Pauses and other spiritual practices have helped me. Thank you.

  9. Kathleen on June 7, 2017 at 12:57 pm

    I have been pondering your question about memories in these days. And then I discovered “Knowing is Belonging” (link below) that talks about being “tethered” to generations of family through memories. In my own reflection I’ve thought of the things that connect me to my family: things like my great-grandmother’s silverware that is in my cabinet – that I used at her house at Sunday dinner. I think of the stories told and re-told, of the grandchildren’s inevitable request to see “the tornado pictures” at the end of an evening slide show, of the tradition of cranking ice cream by hand on the family farmstead. I think of laying in bed at night listening to the echo of parent, aunt, and uncle voices telling stories and laughing in the rooms below. All of these memories are part of the bonds of love and belonging, bonds that “tether” me to the past and present, offering a place to stand and look ahead.

    Thank you for creating a space where questions like these can be asked and pondered in community.

    • Shirley Showalter on June 7, 2017 at 1:27 pm

      Kathleen, so good to have a comment from you, and what a helpful one! The image of a tether works so well. I appreciated the chance to read Abigail Pogrebin’s essay. Thank you!

      A few other nuggets for you: “memory believes before knowing remembers.” William Faulkner. You might also enjoy this one:

      I will be reviewing all these comments, gleaning insight from the many friends who offered their insights. Glad you could contribute and enjoy also!

  10. Elaine Mansfield on June 22, 2017 at 11:46 am

    Thank you, Shirley. I’m moved that you’re in a Threshold choir group. Our Hospice does this work and it’s so helpful. Unfortunately, because of hearing I can’t take part in singing or even listening any longer, except in dreams and memories. This songs keep popping up in my head.

    Ah, memories. The ones that stick tell me who I am, including ones when I was three-years-old. I always note the images and experiences my mind replays, large or small. They change in response to the present situation. They point me toward meaning and the teachings my soul is offering this time around. Sometimes working with memory is like the dreamwork I do with my Jungian therapist every other week. Digging, finding the gold, learning my lessons so they don’t have to be repeated endlessly, and treasuring the ways the path led to my life now. Thanks for another opportunity to explore a challenging question.

Leave a Comment