Deb Elkink

On this page, ENGAGE with me personally. I’ll post articles I hope you find winsome, as well as bits of news and musing about my current activity. I welcome your comments.

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In The Third Grace, my character Ebenezer MacAdam owns Incognito Costume Shop and individually recommends rentals based on a client’s personal character. He says,

I’d like to think the purpose of my costumes has been to reveal the real in this masked and disguised generation. But on a grander scale, I myself am being unmasked and my failure laid open to my own view. So many of my years I spent fearing to be discovered for the fraud I really am. Yet here it is the autumn of my life and I stand naked, as it were, before a Judge more kindly than myself.

Eb’s words issue from a conflicted spot in my own soul. I’d like to think the purpose of my writing is to speak a message of truth to this generation and yet—like him—the very act of my service exposes me to the truth of my own shortcomings. Doesn’t my choice of words (like his choice of costumes) say more about my own heart attitude than that of the reader whose heart I’m judging?

I, too, fear being found out for the fraud I really am.

It started early in my life—this suspicion that I wasn’t all that I wished I were or that I portrayed myself to be. When I memorized my spelling list and won the elementary bee, I was self-satisfied but suspected the triumph was a fluke. When I earned honours in graduate school, I delighted in the accomplishment but credited grade inflation. Innately knowing that proficiency can become the breeding ground of pride, I tend to demur: “Oh no, I’m not that talented. It was luck. I don’t deserve the praise.”

There’s actually a psychological label slapped on this condition when it’s pathological: “Imposter Syndrome.” I rush to say that I’ve not been diagnosed; most healthy people to some degree attribute success to luck, reject compliments, or think, “Anyone could have done this.” I suspect it’s a well-intentioned attempt at humility.

What’s the line between humility and hypocrisy?

Jesus denounced as hypocrites those who ostentatiously fulfilled religious responsibility for public applause, describing the sanctimonious Pharisees with hearts full of greed and self-indulgence as whitewashed tombs and dirty cups (Matt. 6:2, 5, 16; 23:25-28). The word “hypocrite” comes from the Greek stage, where an actor would hold up a mask indicating one emotion while displaying a juxtaposing facial expression revealing his true feelings. “These people honor me with their lips,” Jesus said, “but their heart is far from me” (Matt. 15:8 NIV). Hypocrites receive their reward in time; no reward awaits them in Heaven.

The deciding factor between true humility and the falseness of hypocrisy, then, seems to be the heart intention of the worshipper/writer; honoring the Lord with my lips/keyboard for temporal reward isn’t synonymous with bringing my heart close to Him. The very public nature of writing for reader feedback (comment on a blog, payment for an article, placement in a competition) forces me to investigate my motives.  

Does my façade match my heart attitude?

The sixteenth-century Reformer Jean Calvin wrote in his Institutes (1.1.1-2),

Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God . . . Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self.

The only way to know God is through His Word (Living via Written). Humility is seeing myself as I really am, in light of God’s gifting. When I look clearly and honestly at my own heart, I am driven back into the Bible, where I must face my motivation and ask myself truly:

Do I write for recognition by my readers or for reward by my Creator?

The stardust of long-awaited, hard-won, now-realized publication threatens to blind me. The only way I see to avoid hypocrisy—that veneer of false humility—is to face the “shaming nakedness” (as Calvin put it) of my own insufficient human efforts. This readies me for the revelation of the righteousness that exists in God alone, the thrill of embracing His gifts to me. I can see myself in perspective not as I measure up to my idea of authorial success but only as I see God’s flawless provision for my imperfection. On this basis I take joy in unearned grace (of salvation, of course, but also of ongoing achievements) while simultaneously facing my fear of exposure without hiding behind a mask of self-effacement. God is the ground of my humility, the Giver of all gifts for the purpose of His glory.

I find writing to be a humbling and unmasking experience.

(Originally appeared in a blog of Janet Sketchley)

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2 responses to “MASQUERADE: AM I A FRAUD?”

  1. Judy Crewdson says:

    All of this is so true! Loved the quote from John Calvin! Without God we are nothing.

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SAINT-CHAPELLE, Paris

FIND THE DIVINE IN PARIS

My favourite destination is known as the “City of Lights,” and God is called the “Father of Lights.” Merely coincidence? Hmmm, I think not . . . Paris, to me, is heaven on earth! I invite you to observe the following steps if you’re planning a trip to the capital of France:

SEEK OUT NATURE: Paris encompasses more than four hundred parks—some dating back to the seventeenth century. A tourist can hardly escape the requisite gardens of the Champs-Elysées, Tuileries, or Versailles–but keep a lookout for pockets of green that sprout up behind school gates or on street corners or atop department stores. In Paris I’ve strolled through a Japanese garden, I’ve watched nuns eat a bag lunch on a bench behind the Notre Dame Cathedral, I’ve tasted strawberries and petted goats in the children’s amusement park in Bois de Boulogne. Even the starry backdrop to the Eiffel Tower as I floated down the Seine at midnight reminded me that something exists beyond mankind. Nature has a way of extending my vision past pavement and progress to refocus my attention on a greater reality.

LISTEN TO THE MUSIC: Nothing transcends the bustle of humanity like strains of Debussy or Berlioz. Even if you (like I) don’t care to invest time and money in attending a formal concert when there’s so much else to do and see in the city, many inexpensive events are held in churches or other public buildings. Besides, Parisian buskers are some of the most talented musicians in the world: I’ve tapped my toes to accordion playing on the train, lounged on the steps of the D’Orsay Museum near a violinist making her strings sing, and enjoyed a full-blown orchestra in the underground hallways of the Métro. Live music is everywhere, and one of my favourite memories is of the jazz band in a smoky bar on Île Saint-Louis. Thomas Carlyle (a Scot who wrote a book on the French Revolution) once declared:

Music is well said to be the speech of angels; in fact, nothing among the utterances allowed to man is felt to be so divine. It brings us near to the infinite.

OGLE THE ARCHITECTURE: Medieval cathedrals were designed to turn illiterate eyes heavenward, a religious instruction fully employed all over Paris. Don’t neglect to pop into churches for a peek as you pass by. I did just that with the thirteenth-century Sainte-Chapelle, the stained glass windows of which tell the grand sweep of biblical story from the Creation in Genesis through to the Apocalypse of Revelation. I fictionalized this visit in one scene of The Third Grace, when my character entered the lower level of the

Gothic space, devoid of notable ornamentation, that cast no prediction of the celestial splendor she’d find upon climbing the dank stairwell. But upstairs, multi-colored sunlight fractured the air above her head, the stained-glass kaleidoscope surrounding her like a halo of rubies and sapphires and emeralds. She rotated in a slow circle, head tipped upwards. Fifty-foot windows soared around her within a framework of marble arches extending into the vaulted ceiling like the ribs of an overturned ship, a thousand glass pictures she couldn’t at first interpret for their sheer profusion.                          

GLORY IN THE VISUAL ARTS: Every arrondissement of Paris houses museums full of art. Online listings include close to two hundred official galleries throughout the city, making overload a real threat to a tourist’s peace of mind. So go easy when planning your itinerary and choose carefully—but let the art make its way into your soul. The Louvre, as arguably the world’s greatest museum, is a perfect starting place and, if you’ve got the stamina and can be satisfied with an overview, you can do a preplanned run-through in a few hours (although, of course, thoughtful enjoyment could stretch out for days). My first visit to the Louvre in 1989 showed me works from prehistoric pagan sculpture to Renaissance manuscript illumination, from the Baroque painters to the Impressionists, from pre-Enlightenment religious painting to the didactic style in the Age of Reason. The Louvre introduced me to the icon of my debut novel when I came across the marble statue grouping of The Three Graces, Greek goddesses that got me thinking about the essential, gritty earthiness of creation that contrasts the yearning we all have for the divine.

HEAR HISTORY: The limestone foundations of Paris were set into the Seine River over two thousand years ago, and the city has been the center of cultural history-making ever since, its ancient cobblestones feeling the soles of Celtic tribesmen and Roman soldiers, emperors, monks, artists, and wandering minstrel jongleurs. Paris has known plague and war, royal intrigue and peasant revolt, religious massacres and philosophical movements. Marie Antoinette was beheaded in Paris, and there Voltaire theorized, Robespierre revolutionized, and Napoleon Bonaparte militarized. The city is saturated in history, an integral part of any trip. Whenever I visit as a tourist, I’m reminded that God, who from His own throne in the heavens oversees the coronation of all earthly powers, is the King of kings who governs time and eternity.

RESPECT THE SLEEP OF DEATH: Nothing brings spirituality into focus quite like a brush with mortality, and two top tourist attractions come to mind. (Both of the real-life scenes below appeared fictionalized in my second novel, The Red Journal.)

  • You might choose the Catacombs of Paris—an ossuary (or “bone yard”) situated in the underground tunnels of abandoned stone quarries beneath the city, housing the carefully arranged consecrated remains of six million people. Carved into the rock above the entrance to the museum is the phrase “Stop! This is the Empire of the Dead,” and throughout the rather macabre tour you can read other such reminders of life’s brevity as “Believe that every day is your last” and of divine eternality as “God is not the author of death.”
  • I enjoyed a sunnier stroll through the Père Lachaise Cemetery, resting place of the likes of Balzac and Proust and Oscar Wilde, of composer Chopin and rocker Jim Morrison. Though a “city of the dead” with lanes and flowers and shady trees, this much cheerier graveyard is highly decorated in religious symbols: headstones and sepulchres are surmounted with statues of angels, crosses, praying hands, and Bibles; stone effigies of prone corpses and lively skeletons immortalized in marble hint at eventual resurrection; carvings of the dove of peace and the pelican of crucifixion spread their wings above the deceased as testimony to the Christian teaching of the afterlife.

PAUSE TO PRAY: While in Paris, I often find myself responding in prayer to the thumbprint of the Creator visible on so many of the city’s surfaces—when I trace His face in the natural elements of park or garden, hear the celestial strains of music, view art and architecture, engage with history, and observe death’s reality within urbanity’s vigour and vibrancy.

How do you experience spiritual reality when you travel? What stimulates you to consider the metaphysical when you visit foreign places?

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I was born for uptown living.

True, the view from the maternity ward of the Mennonite village that first heard me squawk showed only flat Canadian prairie—not a mall in sight. But my parents soon moved me and my sibs to the big city, and, by the time I was a teen, I could shop nonstop from store opening to store closing. During senior high, my dramatic extroversion kicked into full force and I fought laryngitis from constant chattering. College years in Minneapolis put the polish on my love of metropolis and led to summer studies in Japan—Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka—where I gloried in the lights and crush and din of clustered humanity.

So I was totally unprepared when my cowboy groom swept me down a long gravel road to the vast and empty sand hills surrounding his secluded cattle ranch, where the ceaseless wind and the endless sky would bring me face to face with myself.

Only months into the marriage—before I’d yet learned to help round up the herd on horseback or cook for branding crews of a hundred—I experienced a pivotal moment, a tipping point in transition.

I was baptized into rural reality.

It was a blustery morning in April during my first calving season on the ranch. Not suspecting the crisis in store for me that day, I’d kissed my new husband goodbye at the door of our cozy bungalow as he set out for chores. I’d admired my choice of wedding stoneware as I washed up the few breakfast dishes, wearing rubber gloves to protect my delicate hands. I might even have perused the latest issue of the fashion magazine that was my connection to civilization. Now here I was in the bathroom, steam rising about me as I removed my elegant trousseau robe and dipped my pedicured toe into the tub full of fragrant bubbles.

Out of the blue, my husband started hammering on the bathroom door and yelling, “Open up!” I barely grabbed my wrap in time as he and his father broke in with a freezing newborn calf—slimy and shivering violently. “Oh, good!” they both exclaimed in surprised tones of approval, as though marveling that I demonstrated such foresight and rural mettle. “She’s got hot water all ready for us!” And then they plunged that filthy beast into my bridal bubble bath—and, oh, how that ghastly creature’s eyes rolled in ecstasy!

(Had it, in fact, lived, it might well have been tethered, bottle-fed, named “Pie,” and fattened for slaughter—as had Georgie, Porgie, and Puddin’ before it.)   

This moment is symbolic of my own immersion into the grit and glory of cattle ranching, and the next two decades domesticated me out of my city ways. Sure, I longed for sophistication, fine dining, and foreign adventure (and in time my introverted, country-lovin’ husband—who’d never even eaten lasagna before meeting me—expanded his tastes to include classical music, foie gras,and international travel). But what I found during those years on the ranch I believe would have been lost to me had I remained a distracted city-dweller.

I was forced by the silence of the wilderness to listen for the voice of God.

Because of my upbringing, as a child I’d placed trust in Jesus Christ for the salvation of my soul. However, until my move to the ranch, my spirituality included a component of sociability: all my religious learning took place in a classroom or a pew or a youth group. Now my geographical isolation put most believers out of my reach. I managed to drive two hours on most Sundays for corporate worship, but I met God much more immediately and intimately through reading the Bible alone at the kitchen table, and raising my voice in prayer and song out in the wind among the sand dunes without another soul in sight.     

My conversion from the public to the pasture refined me.

Father, Son, and Spirit continue to transform me through Scripture by renewing my mind, taming my appetite for the constant stimulation of others, and testing me to develop my discernment and keenness in practicing God’s will (Rom. 12:2). I have no doubt that He would have effected this transformation even if I’d held on to my city-slicker status (2 Cor. 3:18; Phil. 1:6). And don’t get me wrong—I take every opportunity to shop for five-inch heels and silk scarves in Paris and Buenos Aires and Istanbul!  But I faced my “dark night of the soul” out on Canada’s western plains and grasslands, where I learned to embrace the holy loneliness necessary to true, communing fellowship with God and others.

Of course, there’s no sin in loving civilization (the Tower of Babel notwithstanding)! But to serve humanity properly, we must have our spirituality in order. To that end, you might want to follow these steps:

Step #1: Recognize your setting. I was predisposed to approach God through social relationships. Emotionally, where do you “live”? How do your lifestyle and friendships influence your spiritual outlook? What is your natural bent, and can you see the potential limitations of your viewpoint?

Step #2: Face your conflict. Admitting the profound difference between my life in the city and my life on the ranch helped me pinpoint my underlying problem: I can get side-tracked spiritually by an audience. What “calf in the bubble bath” are you facing right now? How are you reacting and responding to your circumstances? At what point has your one-on-one relationship with God broken down?

Step #3: Discover your resolution. Pastoral tranquility was just what I needed to shut out metropolitan noise and pay attention to the voice of God. What distracts you from listening to Him speak in Scripture? How can you adjust your lifestyle to hear Him better?  What will you do today to focus on your primary and foundational relationship with God?

(Article first appeared on the blog Patti’s Porch)

***

The Third Grace is set in the cities of Paris and Denver and on a farm in Nebraska’s sand hills, where the main character lives out some of my own urban/rural experiences (albeit in the opposite order–Aglaia raised in the country and migrated to the city, whereas I transitioned from city to Canadian sand hills–the boonies!). But this award-winning novel here:

US: https://amzn.to/3oS8PM5 Canada: https://amzn.to/3abtzdz

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3 responses to “HOW TO TAME A CITY-SLICKER”

  1. Pam M says:

    You had such foresight to get that water ready for the calf! I love your description of your journey to transformation and how the quiet and loneliness pushed you closer to the Lord. In response to your questions at the end, I am opposite. My natural bent is quietness and solitude. My”calf in the bath water” is Covid because it’s shown me that I do crave social connection much more than I realized. I believe that I need to talk with friends more to keep me accountable. I always thought I could go it alone but now I’m seeing that I need community for transformation.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Pam. I think it is wonderful how different each of us is, and how God leads us into closer relationship with Him in the way He chooses!

  3. Pam says:

    Yes, it’s amazing how God creates test and challenges custom made for each of us.
    Pam

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Let’s have a conversation with Aglaia (aka Mary Grace Klassen), main character in the book The Third Grace. She’s a designer at Incognito Costume Shop (rentals for parties, stage, and screen) in Denver, but she grew up in small-town Nebraska and her author (Deb Elkink) has finally allowed her to visit Paris . . .

Thank you so much for this interview, Aglaia.  Now that the book has been written, do you feel you were fairly portrayed or would you like to set anything straight with your readers?

Thanks for inviting me here. You can call me Mary Grace, if you find it easier to pronounce than ah-glay-ah. I go by both names now. I used to hate the name my hayseed parents gave me, so the summer I was seventeen, I decided to change it—and myself!—into the personification of grace. Aglaia is the name of a Greek goddess, you know.

As to your question, I think I wasn’t portraying myself very honestly to begin with, rubbing shoulders with influential Dr. Chapman like I was some sort of diva, and ignoring my boss’s careful warnings and my childhood friend’s overtures. But in self-defense, I’d worked hard at erasing my rural past, and—what with this work trip to Paris coming up—the last thing I needed was another reminder about that long-ago affair.

Actually, the author was brutal with me. She forced me to take a look at who I really was and where I was heading. And she caused me a great deal of pain when she flooded me with non-stop memories of that long-ago summer of love and loss.    

Do you feel the author did a good job colorizing your personality?  If not, how would you like to have been portrayed differently?

What a loaded question! Wouldn’t we all like to come across as something we’re not? My boss put it well when he said, “I spent so many years fearing I’d be discovered for the fraud I really am.” And he’s one of the most genuine people I know! It’s rather ironic that he’s in the business of disguises, isn’t it?

As for myself, I deliberately left the Nebraska farm girl far behind when I moved to Denver, and I’ve been climbing the ladder to success in the posh world of the arts ever since. So when Dr. Chapman—Lou—was up in my apartment that evening sipping wine with me, and my backward mother barged in with the smell of the barnyard and her ridiculous request, I almost choked with embarrassment. I think the author did me a service in the end, though. You see, I wasn’t facing myself. I’d been denying an aspect of my real personality that she insisted on showing me by putting me in some very uncomfortable—albeit exciting—situations.  

What do you believe is your strongest trait?

Definitely my creative imagination! It’s what’s taken me to an international level in artistic accomplishment despite my lack of academic credentials. I was born into a religious environment that looked down on “vain imaginings.” My dad didn’t even like to hear my brother and me sharing our nightmares at the breakfast table, for Pete’s sake, and I had some doozies—not to mention my conscious daydreams! Of course, sewing was valued at home, and early on it became my main outlet for expression. But I harbored a rich inner fantasy life, especially once François entered the picture with his own storytelling, whispering in my ear and filling my heart with a yearning for something more.   

Worse trait?

Again, I’d have to say my creative imagination. The flip side of the coin has been that I’ve almost drowned in my reveries, my soul overflowing with emotions and saturated with a dark obsession over mythology, sensuality, and troubling thoughts about God. I mean, with all these voices going on in my soul, who’s to say which one I should listen to, anyway? That’s the question I had to ask myself throughout this novel.  

If you could choose someone in the television or movie industry to play your part if your book was made into a movie, who would that be (and you can’t say yourself!)?

I think Drew Barrymore would be able to represent the conflict between my two selves, the country girl Mary Grace and the sophisticate Aglaia. Barrymore plays glam with a sort of self-conscious naiveté, doesn’t she? There’s a humility and rootedness about her. Also I think she’d really enjoy the food she’d get to eat in the movie—foie gras and cream sauces and French cheeses and even some good old Mennonite fare that still makes my mouth water! (For all her flaws, Mom’s a fantastic cook.)

Do you have a love interest in the book?

I’ll say, though he’s lived mostly in my mind. I mentioned him already—François, the French exchange student my brother invited to the farm that summer fifteen years ago. Boy, he was a breath of fresh air! All the girls in the village were crazy about him, but he chose me over any of them. I least, I thought so . . . Anyway, that summer ended very badly and I’ve been mourning on several fronts ever since. So I was so thrilled—and anxious—for the chance to actually look him up again.

At what point in the book did you start getting nervous about the way it was going to turn out?

Everything was going fine with my life until my mother pushed that Bible onto me. She had the silly idea that I could hunt François down in Paris after all those years and return it to him. Ludicrous! I could have shut her up by just dumping the thing—like I’d burned my own copy back on the farm when I decided to push God out of my life.

But when a museum postcard fell out of that Bible, picturing The Three Graces that François had been so hung up about, and then when I noticed his very own handwriting penciled into the margins of that book—well, I couldn’t resist checking it out. The first two of his phrases, noted right there in Genesis, read, “In the beginning, the gods created” and “Naked and we felt no shame.” Did I blush! I grabbed that book and kept it away from prying eyes until I had time to look through every one of those margins. My suspicions turned out to be right: François had jotted down many snippets that brought to vivid recollection all the seduction of that summer, step by delicious step!

If you could trade places with one of the other characters in the book, which character would you really not want to be and why?

Definitely Joel, my brother. He’s dead.

I don’t want to talk about it . . .

How do you feel about the ending of the book without giving too much away?

Well, put it this way: I’m satisfied that everything was neatly tied up. I sure was surprised at the turn of events in several of my relationships, though, and can’t say that I’d have written this book the way the author did. I’ll say this in her favor: She did allow me to have a good time in Paris (she loves that city, you know), and she let me take great satisfaction in my craft of costume design (she’s done her fair share of that, as well). Also, if I’d been left to my own devices without the author’s invention, I’d never have figured out the mystery behind the Three Graces! 

What words of wisdom would you give your author if s/he decided to write another book with you in it?

I’d beg her to bring back Eb—I’m talking about Mr. MacAdam, manager of Incognito Costume Shop. That man is so wise, even if he does remind me of a funny little Scottish garden gnome! And I think the author should send me on another exotic trip. I hear she’s writing up another book now with some fascinating foreign destinations! 

Thank you for this interview, Aglaia—or, I should say, Mary Grace.  Will we be seeing more of you in the future?

No, sorry but I’m too busy with my current successes.

(Adapted from an interview first appearing at Beyond the Books)

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Greek mythology tells of ambrosia, the food of the gods bestowing immortality, but I’d give up my place at Zeus’s eternal table for a bite of French gastronomy any day. My salivary glands activate just thinking about my next trip to Paris. Here are some foodie tips I’ve picked up that guarantee a nonstop feast while in that gourmet city: 

  • Plan ahead when necessary, but only if reservations are mandated. I dreamed of dining in the Eiffel Tower and so, in preparation for my first trip to Paris in 1989, I phoned ahead to the Jules Verne restaurant to book a table for two for my mom and me. The chef and his staff delivered a divine haute cuisine meal of quail pâté, tender fish filets in creamy sauce, a cheese board, and meringue with fresh fruit in a raspberry coulis. Another Parisian adventure in 2011 with my own daughter required reservations at Brasserie Julien, an Art Deco gem where the traditional French onion soup had a wine-laced bite and the sweet finish of melted Comté cheese. Neither establishment would have been accessible without reservations.
  • Be spontaneous whenever possible. I contend that the best food in Paris is found in the markets or along the sidewalks. During a family road trip in 1994, we grabbed many a warm and crusty baguette from the closest boulangerie to fill our bottomless pit of a teen son; the back seat of our rental Renault was carpeted in crumbs! French fries really do taste better in France, and heirloom tomatoes plucked from the shelf of a greengrocer smell of the sun-soaked garden. But I consumed my favourite Gallic fast food from a vendor on a curb near the opera house: crêpes hot off the griddle, sugary with crispy edges and dripping with butter.
  • Forget about calories; you’ll walk them off. The title of Mireille Guiliano’s classic French Women Don’t Get Fat is my mantra when I help myself to cheeses from Normandy, and foie gras from the south, and rich quiche Lorraine,and flaky pain au chocolat (the first treat I buy when I get off the plane). After strolling the Champs-Élysées hand-in-hand on a romantic stop-over in 2003, my husband and I celebrated our final-that-trip meal in Paris with a flute of nose-tickling champagne and a burnt-top, vanilla bean crème brûlée. And the wild cherry sorbet I discovered at Berthillon in 2006 is definitely worth the tromp across the Seine to Ile Saint-Louis! 
  • Don’t overeat. There’s more culinary delight around every corner, and dining progressively only multiplies the pleasure. I usually begin my morning in Paris with a café au lait and a melt-in-the-mouth croissant grabbed along the way, then picnic on gleanings from whatever specialty store takes my fancy: cured sausage from a charcuterie, yogurt from a laiterie, a wedge of cheddar-like Cantal from a fromagerie. Drinking wine in a park or on the banks of the Seine (if sipped discreetly) will not attract the attention of police. If in fact you feel bloated, grab some greens, as I did with my first salade Niçoise piled high with tuna and anchovies and eggs,from a random eatery near the impressionist Musée d’Orsay.But don’t forget to save room for chocolate—lots of chocolate—which might actually have been the ambrosia the Greeks dreamed about!  
  •  Do judge a restaurant by its appearance. I find that in Paris you can almost never go wrong when sitting to eat, so feel free to select an establishment based on the condition of the floors or the comfort of the chairs. One time my travel companion and I, ravenous after an hour or two of fasting, set out to find our supper. We passed over one location because a diner we spotted through the window eschewed his glass and drank straight from a bottle (how crass!), and we disdained a cabaret when we noted the absence of white linen. Finally we settled on a cozy bistro with a fixed-price menu. I ordered the mini pasta pockets stuffed with cheese and topped with creamy sauce and a pile of lardons (yummy bits of sautéed smoked ham). It so reminded me of my mother’s ethnic cooking (in Low German: Varenikje, Schmaunt Fat, Schinkje) that I exclaimed aloud, “The French even make Mennonite food better than the Mennonites!”
  •  Expect the unexpected. We devoured pepper steak glazed with burgundy sauce at Ma Bourgogne in the Marais district, and got talking to a guest seated at a nearby table who turned out to be a famous French singer (Emmanuelle Mottaz, top of the charts just then). She invited us up to her apartment for after-dinner decaf and a peek at her signed lithograph by her father’s friend, Salvadore Dali. Talk about dessert!
  • Linger. In my opinion and despite the vast epicurean choice in the city, the quintessential Parisian experience will always be “wasting time” at a sidewalk café. The waiters can be rude, dogs are always welcome, and tables are not necessarily clean, but this makes no difference when the platter or mug is set before you. For example, Café Charlot is positioned on a noisy street corner across from the foreboding exterior of the Pompidou Museum. Its renovated 1950’s décor with white metro-style tile walls is very cool, but even so I was unprepared for my first (or most recent in 2015) sip of their chocolat chaud. Bittersweet and thick as molasses, it excited my taste buds to such heavenly ecstasy that I was fairly transported to the Elysian Fields.

So, if you’re on your way to Paris, go hungry, make eating your destination, and expect gastronomic delights of mythical proportion!

***

(Like me, my main character in The Third Grace grew up under the marvellous cooking of a Mennonite mother and freely samples Parisian fare at every turn!)

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Are you planning a day trip to the countryside or visiting a farm? Go prepared! 

I was a bred-in-the-bone uptown city girl, attended a large Canadian high school, studied in the Twin Cities, shopped in San Francisco, and fearlessly strolled Tokyo’s Ginza at midnight. All the while I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the difference between a heifer and a Hereford. So when I transplanted myself upon marriage to a remote cattle ranch in the Great Sand Hills of Saskatchewan, I learned to survive the hard way. To save you other urbanites my pain, I’ve recorded the unwritten rules for city-slickers on the homestead.

  • Do watch your step. Of course, I mean more than taking care over where to place your high-heeled sandal when debarking the car—although it bears reminding that mammals and poultry, with their varying quantities of excrement, might have free run of the yard. No, I mean that you need to watch carefully and imitate how the farmers do what they do: When they whisper, don’t shout or you’ll scare the bull; when they run, you run. I remember the sport introduced to me on my first visit to the ranch—shooting birdies in the barn. I held back the tears as the sparrows fell one by one, but got over it quickly when I realized I was a natural dead-eye—the first “athletic” endeavor I’d ever aced!
  • Don’t glamorize. Maybe you’re a starry-eyed, tender-hearted, pesticide-free, agrarian-wanna-be who’s always dreamed of having a few acres and a cow so that you can live independently off the land. Get over it, at least for the day you’re visiting the farm. You can go back to buying cello-wrapped carrots from the natural-food market in the mall tomorrow; for today, when grandma asks you out to the garden to dust the cabbages (she means kill the cutworms), don’t forget to use bug spray on your own skin. Out in the country, it’s eat or be eaten.
  • Do eat what’s put before you. This might seem common courtesy, but in our age of macrobiotic ovo-lacto-vegetarianism (with gluten sensitivities thrown in), remember that farmers in economic servitude to low food prices tend to be intolerant towards finicky diners. Sometimes it’s best not to ask your host what you’re eating, but just assume it’s edible. If you turn up your nose at the plate of turkey with bread stuffing swimming in gravy, for example, they’ll likely get even. On our ranch, a regular revenge menu item was battered and fried “prairie oysters,” and I’m not talking seafood. They have a rather “nutty” flavour.
  • Don’t wear silk (or nail polish). Of course you’ll know better than I did that first time I went out to the ranch. My future mother-in-law had just churned the butter (seriously—some people still do this!) and asked me to knead out all the buttermilk, then pack the butter into one of those antique wooden molds. When I was done, my nicely lacquered nails were very patchy and my future father-in-law buttered his toast with flecks of brilliant red. Which matched my cheeks.
  • Do admit your citified inexperience. Country folk tend to put you to the test if you brag about your superior life knowledge. One smug visitor to our ranch swaggered when he boasted that he could easily wrastle a 130-pound calf to the ground and keep it immobilized while a red-hot branding iron seared its side. Funny how that guy ended up with a burn of his own through his designer jeans. I’m not saying this torture was planned, but I’m just sayin’ . . .   
  • Don’t assume their rural ignorance. Look, my husband (now decades off the ranch and just as successful in other pursuits) still wears patched denim when he pops into the city for groceries. It’s a mark of his status. Most rural folk aren’t known for their high style (even if their wives might be), but it’s a mistake to assume this means they’re uneducated or sheltered from culture. Although we now no longer keep livestock ourselves, we’re surrounded by working farmers and ranchers who—like us—travel internationally, study academically, work professionally, and think critically.   
  • Do stay out of the way and listen to instruction. All kidding aside, agriculture is serious business and you can get hurt if you don’t pay attention. Have you ever noticed how many cowboys are missing thumbs from getting tangled up while roping a calf? One of our neighbors smothered to death in a grain bin. The bucolic life is fraught with inherent danger, so do what I do when I’m unsure of procedure—watch from the other side of a glass window.
  • Don’t bring your yappy city dog along to the country. This is my husband’s contribution to the blog post. He recalls guests who found it cute when their Fifi barked the chickens into consternation or scared the milk cow into kicking over her bucket. In addition to the danger of your host farmer’s murderous responses, your pet might come to a nasty country end on the talons of an eager eagle. Be warned!
  • Do carry your own toilet paper. I know, it sounds ridiculous in this day and age. But if you go for the requisite horseback ride out in the hills, don’t assume that your host has been thoughtful enough to pack tissue—as can be confirmed by my traumatized brother, now a university prof in a high-ranking business school down east. His summer endurance test as a tender 14-year-old city lad on the ranch culminated in his rounding up the herd behind the real cowboys. When nature inevitably called, he resorted to using a two-inch-square remnant of orange shag carpet dug up from the bottom of a saddlebag to do the dirty work. It troubles him to this day. 
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Mascarons on the Pont Neuf along the Seine

MY FAVORITE NOOKS AND CRANNIES

I’ve been to Paris half-a-dozen times in the last two decades and can’t wait to lose myself again in its ancient, cobbled streets. I used to travel by schedule, but with scores of museums and countless monuments, cafés, shops, and adventures unexpected, I’ve learned that all I really need is a subway map. Here are a few tips on how to toss your stuffy agenda and find your personal memoir of Paris.  

  • Expect to lose your bearings. But don’t panic—just remember that the Seine River snakes through the city like a backbone and acts as the nerve center for all the sightseeing on the Right Bank and artsy interaction on the Left Bank. You’ll always find your way back to the river. On my first trip to Paris, I floated the length of the Seine on a batteau mouche, dining on crustaceans served by a jaunty waiter in navy stripes, while catching my first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower alight at night.
  • Make peace with the Métro system. This transportation net, first opened a century ago, is a complex of sixteen lines criss-crossing Paris with nearly 250 stations within the city limits, delivering its passengers from one arrondissement to the next in just minutes. Funky art nouveau signs point the way to underground stations uniquely decorated; take the Bastille stop, featuring a mural of the uprising that heralded the French Revolution. My main character in my novel The Third Grace found her “nook” in the Métro as she “pressed her back into the sloping tile wall in front of the tracks and waited till the hollow hum proclaimed the train’s arrival, its doors opening with a sigh to exhale and inhale its passengers.”
  • Wear comfortable shoes. This tip is embarrassingly obvious. However, I must mention it to prevent your making my foolish mistake in thinking a pair of little heels would allow me to blend in the first time I shopped in this capital of fashion. Wrong! I stood out like a tourist anyway, and today I take flats to wander shamelessly down streets dedicated to haute couture. Random window shopping (or “window licking,” as the French put it) along broad Avenue Montaigne gave me a snapshot moment: A French gentleman carrying a polished walking stick stopped dead in his tracks on the steps of Louis Vuitton to compliment me, exclaiming, “Belle!” I found another “crannie” in the trendy Marais district, where in a Ted Baker store I succumbed to a fabulous fall jacket in camel—while wearing flip-flops!
  • Buy a souvenir. It doesn’t need to an expensive designer label, however; watch for handmade jewelry from curb-side vendors or pick up an antique postcard from the bookstalls along the Seine. In a cardboard box at a neighbourhood sale set up in the middle of a street seemingly on a whim, I found a ragtag collection of antique perfume bottles with aromatic brown stains still in place. I purchased my son’s birthday present at the famous market known as Les Puces (“the fleas”): a WW2 aviation map made of fabric rather than paper in case of ejection into the sea. I resist the charms of the caricature artists energetically sketching bulbous tourist noses, but I make a point of buying a watercolor each time I visit Paris; a whimsical rendition of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica hangs on my bedroom wall from my most recent trip to Montmarte.
  • Keep your guidebook closed and your eyes peeled. Intimate glimpses into Paris’s corners sometimes bring sweet memories that can be missed while searching for “Must-See #7” on page 51. There’s nothing wrong with lining up for entrance to the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre Museum, but the best moments are often accidental. Do necessary research before you leave your hotel room or save it until after a day of spontaneously following your nose. I once glimpsed The Thinker as I walked past the entrance to the Rodin Museum on my way to some other site that I no longer even recall. In The Third Grace my character recognizes scenes from movies shot in the world’s most romantic city: the hotel lobby where Meg Ryan was robbed in French Kiss, the alcove where Harrison Ford declared his love in Sabrina. Take notes and photos along the way and make your own personal guidebook!
  • That said, consider traveling with a motif in mind. On one trip, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code was just hitting Paris, and it spawned a plethora of themed tours featuring the novel’s settings. I found it a little too kitschy for my tastes. However, planning an independent tour with my artist mom focusing on the Impressionists was helpful in organizing a short stay that would have otherwise been overwhelming. Mom introduced me to Sisley, Morisot, and Renoir, memorializing cubbyholes holding Monet’s water lilies and Degas’s ballerinas within museums that were too large for me to appreciate in the whole. Other themes pop: One night while ambling along the quay beside the Seine, I bumped into a line of mascarons—sculptures of ghoulish faces decorating Pont Neuf, a landmark in Paris (pictured above). The experience made it into my debut novel, when my main character “gasped at the fiendish ferocity of the 384 masks carved on the oldest bridge in the city, glaring down at her from their height like some ill-tempered gods.”

Finally, along the way be sure to smell the roses . . . er, champagne bubbles. Seize the day with lengthy breaks at sidewalk cafés to enjoy the bustle of passers-by, and sip an espresso or a glass of wine whenever you feel the urge. You won’t see everything on one trip anyway, so live like a Parisienne and savor the moment. I stumbled into Galeries LaFayette, a wonderful department store with its Belle Epoque architecture and wedding-cake tiers of balconies encircling the fabulous domed ceiling. I browsed purses, I sniffed perfume, I bought a small hand lotion that’s become my favourite brand (by L’Occitane de Provence). And guess what else . . . The wine bar beneath the cupola actually serves flutes of champagne before noon!

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One response to “GET LOST IN PARIS”

  1. Lori says:

    Oh, my stars! I’ve dreamed all my life of visiting this city. Now, I see one trip would certainly not be enough! Thanks for helping me get lost in Paris…even if just in my imagination.

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A NEW LOOK FOR GRACE

Fresh cover, same award-winning story . . .

. . . and same old author!

QUESTIONS ABOUT ME (DEB) AND MY NOVEL

(Adapted from an Author Interview by Michelle Griep)

A licensed pilot, speaker, cattle herder, academic editor . . . So Deb, why writing?

Actually I’ve been writing since I was a child, and all my growing-up dreams centered on becoming a novelist (from the time I penned my first story in elementary school through college communication classes). But I see life in itself as an adventure to be lived, with fiction writing just a result. So when I fell in love, when I birthed babies, when I’ve been presented with opportunities to fly or speak or round up cattle—well, how can I say no? Living heartily and writing at the same time hasn’t always been a possibility for me, as I’m not a great multitasker; there have been years during which I’ve written very little publishable material. So going to grad school at age 44 was a turning point, a way to kick-start serious writing from a firm theological base. I guess you could say I’d been paying my dues and felt I might finally have something of substance to offer the reading public, with the time to do it.

What’s your favorite part about the writing game? Least favorite?

I love daydreaming; I love plotting a piece and developing its characters, researching and anticipating its effect, and chatting about it and going to sleep with that story on my mind. My least favorite part of the process is self-promotion, so I’m delighted to have recently joined Mosaic Collection Books, an international circle of women writers supporting one another in not only marketing but also creating.

In your newly relaunching (debut) novel, The Third Grace, the heroine is torn between her rural upbringing and her search for self. How much of you is there in the heroine?

There’s a great deal of Deb in Aglaia. For starters, like Aglaia, I fell madly in love at a young age and have a tendency to romanticize circumstances. Like her, I’ve lived the tension of rural versus urban life and learned my own place in it geographically as it shaped my attitudes about myself and the world. (For example, when I relocated from city to ranch—in the opposite direction of Aglaia’s move—I adapted by changing my wardrobe like a costume, wearing Levis and checkered shirts for a while, and even tried to like Willy Nelson’s singing!) But, as with Aglaia, my basic self wasn’t ever annihilated and has had to be addressed—especially as it pertains to my relationship with a living God. Aglaia rebels; my rebellion has been slightly more subtle but just as condemning. Aglaia mourns; I’ve had my own brand of sorrow that elicits grief. Aglaia turns to the arts, imagination, and professional avarice for satisfaction of her soulish thirst; I, too, have been tempted to fall into idolatry of creation rather than Creator. Is there really anything new under the sun?

Where did you get the idea for the story?

When I first visited the Louvre museum in Paris in 1989 and stood transfixed before James Pradier’s marble statue grouping, The Three Graces, I knew I’d found the icon for my novel. The three figures immediately suggested to me a trinity of womanhood, triplets in a way, all made of the same “stuff” yet each looking at something different—each with her own focal point or perspective or philosophy. In Pradier’s rendition of the Graces, one looks downward at the earth, another upward at the sky, the third outward at others. They came to represent to me humanity as a whole and, in effect, the personalities of the three lead characters in my novel.

What surprises you most about being a published author?

My appetite. Have you ever tasted pan-seared foie gras on a toasted baguette? One bite of that incredibly rich bit of heaven is just not enough! As deeply satisfying as I find publication of my first novel, I’m surprised at how insufficient it is (and how quickly!) to quell the hankering for the next mouthful—to write my next novel and see it published, too. How can I stop at just a taste?

Got any writing advice for aspiring authors?

Yes—I’d like to pass along the words of an early mentor in college, who said:

“Don’t fret about not writing if you’re too busy living; it will all come out in the end.”

There’s no way of knowing who we or others really are unless we enter into our lives with zest and observation—a necessary preparation for writing, I think.

What question didn’t I ask that you wished I would’ve?

I wish you’d asked, “What kind of reader did you have in mind as you wrote this book?” I’d have answered:

Well, first of all, my intended audience for this novel was not readers of prairie romance, or those who are squeamish over sensual writing, or those who are confident of their position before God. All the while that I plotted and drafted, Psalm 61:2 sang through my mind:

“From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I.”

In other words, I wasn’t writing to those who already know where they stand in Christ, but rather to those who—having left their past behind—are still yearning for a destination beyond their view.

In my novel’s epigraph I quote G.K. Chesterton:

“Man has always lost his way. He has been a tramp ever since Eden; but he always knew, or thought he knew, what he was looking for.”

(What’s Wrong with the World)

I wrote The Third Grace for all the Aglaias out there—for women who, in pursuit of their own success and self-definition, have left their “Mary Grace” behind and are beginning to wonder if their background might after all hold some clue as to what it is they’re really seeking. On the first page, I dedicate my novel thus: “To all my lost sisters wandering alone out of earshot—His voice still calls.”

BACK COVER BLURB

The past casts a long shadow, especially when it points to a woman’s first love.

As a teen, Mary Grace fell in love with a French exchange student visiting her family’s Nebraska farm. François renamed her “Aglaia”—after one of the beautiful Three Graces of Greek mythology—and set her heart longing for something more than her parents’ simplistic life and faith. Now, fifteen years later, Aglaia’s budding success as a costume designer in Denver’s arts scene convinces her that she’s left the naïve country girl far behind—but “Mary Grace” has deep roots, as Aglaia learns during a business trip to Paris. Her discovery of sensual notes François jotted into the margins of a Bible during that long-ago fling, a silly errand imposed by her mother, and the scheming of her sophisticated mentor all conspire to create a thirst in her soul that neither evocative daydreams nor professional success can quench.

The Third Grace takes you on a dual journey across oceans and time–in the footsteps of a woman torn between her rural upbringing and her search for self.

AUTHOR BIO

I was raised, along with four siblings (in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada) by an entrepreneurial father and an artistic mother, both of whom encouraged creative expression. My first dozen articles and short stories appeared in paying Christian magazines after college, in my early years as a ranch wife—during which time I also learned to cook for huge branding crews, herd cattle, and fly a small plane. In 2001, when our three homeschooling kids were all back in the classroom, I returned to school myself to earn an M.A. in theological studies and then began academic editing of doctoral dissertations and journal articles. For about six years I wrote for a national professional quarterly, and other nonfiction work of mine appeared in various publications (one I’m especially proud of is Christian History).

The Third Grace, first published in 2011, won the prestigious Grace Irwin Grand Prize. My nonfiction book published in 2015 is titled Roots and Branches: The Symbol of the Tree in the Imagination of G.K. Chesterton. But my love has always been fiction, and my next novel, The Red Journal, was published in 2019.

I’m still producing, slowly but surely, with a collection of short stories now in the works and several novel plots up my sleeve. I currently reside with my husband in an empty nest on the banks of a babbling brook in southern Alberta—just a stone’s throw north of the Montana border—and write to my heart’s content.

(Adapted from an interview conducted by Michelle Griep: http://www.novelrocket.com/2012/01/deb-elkinkdebut-author-and-so-much-more.html)

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THE MOSAIC OF HUMANITY

 

Pantakrator Mosaic, Leon V1, 10th century, Hagia Sophia

 

When I was a teen, my artistic mother created a mosaic on the powder room wall: three gracious sisters in Grecian robes scooping water from a rush-lined river. Mom sketched the outline, selected the ceramic tiles for colour, snipped them to fit, and grouted the pieces into the pleasing design that still decorates my childhood memory.

More recently I stood in awe beneath domes decorated with the glorious ancient mosaics of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, a city once known as Byzantium spanning East and West on the shores of the Bosphorus Sea in Turkey. A church was first established there by Constantine in AD 325 on the foundations of a pagan temple. The current Christian cathedral took its place two hundred years later, with the Ottoman Empire co-opting it in the fifteenth century. Today, secularized Hagia Sophia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite damage by time, clime, and desecration, Sophia’s restored and redeemed mosaics are considered by art historians to be instrumental in the study of iconography.

The beauty of mosaic art lies in the grand sweep of the composition, not in the intricacy of its tiny tiles (or tesserae). Similarly, the beauty of humanity lies in the historical vista from Adam and Eve through every person onwards. Although each fragment, each story, has its irreplaceable function, I must admit that the tessera of me sometimes feels insignificant in the great montage of this earthly existence. Of course, focusing in on a detail of the overall pastiche (whether ceramic or flesh and blood) allows for close examination of an excerpt, but the main point is the interaction—the belonging—that makes up the whole.

Now, I was born—and thus belonged—to a nuclear family of five kids; we added our colour to the wider tableau of two dozen cousins clustering around the Christmas tree at Grandma’s house. I patched myself into a fellowship of urban schoolmates and a fabulous youth group. When I began sharing marital life with my cattle-rancher groom, I didn’t stop belonging to my birth family, my townie comrades, or the wider church, but I was adopted into a new community by in-laws who took me as their own and rural neighbours who inundated me with casseroles and community. Three more pieces were added to the mosaic with the birth and nurturing of children, and I was grouted into other scenes as well—writing groups, sewing circles, classrooms, and international friendships. The individual chips all fit together and contribute to the overarching artwork designed by God and built upon variegation.

It was into this mosaic of humanity that Jesus Christ—the Artist Himself—appeared from eternity to become one of us (according to Hebrews 2). He took on our nature—our clay. He assumed the characteristics that fit Him into the form and function of the world and its people, sharing in our experience, partaking in our sufferings. The Son called us to Himself as His siblings, children of God, and He made of believers a family belonging to one another. He said to our Father (v. 12):

“I will tell of Your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing Your praise.”

In this loving way, God saves us from the destruction of the Evil One—that iconoclast scheming to desecrate the image of Christ in us. Ultimately we belong not to the mosaic but to its praise-worthy Maker. One day before the end of time, each tessera of this life will be fully restored within the original pattern lovingly sketched out for the universe. Meanwhile, to maintain active fellowship with Brother Jesus, we must pay close attention to what we’ve heard in the Word lest we drift away from the Artist—that Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of our souls.

 

4 responses to “THE MOSAIC OF HUMANITY”

  1. i am Evangelist Farzana Peter from Pakistan i visited your website I am so blessed my husband Rev Pastor Peter Jon we welcome you by hearty richly for ministry work in Pakistan

  2. Pam says:

    I love your “Mosaic of Humanity” and your perspective on how we, like little clay tiles, all belong to each other and to our Master Creator. I often forget that I belong. I need this reminder that I’m part of a bigger picture, and that by sticking together, quite literally!, we reflect the image of Christ.
    Beautifully said, Deb!

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THE LAIRD ESTATE

It’s amazing to me how the geographical setting of a novel I’m writing can birth its way into my brain, almost convincing me it actually exists. In The Red Journal (just published last week), a mansion museum is the setting for much of the action. While I was imagining and plotting this aspect, I really needed a “map” to help me envision the museum, and so Lorenda Harder designed this sketch to my specifications. I included it in the front of the novel so that all my readers can get a good look at it, too!

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2 responses to “THE LAIRD ESTATE”

  1. Lorenda says:

    It was easy for me to envision creating this sketch of the Laird Estate. Your descriptions are so amazing! I am beginning to read it again and look forward to filling in more details in my mind and making even more connections.

  2. Lorenda, sorry that I missed this comment from you. Several readers have already told me how helpful (and lovely!) your sketch is as they read the novel. Thanks again for your close and artistic work, which really has a late Victorian feel to it–suitable for the backstory of THE RED JOURNAL.

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