Monday, December 31, 2012

Quite shocking, really,

I sat next to him on the sofa looking at the final draft of my book cover. We talked a bit about the excitement of writing a book and actually getting it published. Then he said, rather slowly, “You know, I’m a little shocked.”

And I knew by his tone what he was thinking. So I said, “I know; how could a nice Christian lady like me write a book about murder with a cover like this? Right?”

He chuckled. “Yeah, that’s what I wondering. It’s kind of shocking.”

Don’t think I haven’t posed the same question to the mirror. I mean, shouldn’t I be writing gentle devotions, morality plays, children’s poems about Jesus, and inspiring essays instead? Well, I’ve done all of that and with some success. But let me explain about mysteries, murder mysteries in particular, and why I write them.

First of all – murder is awful. The worst thing one person can do to another is to wrench life away. Furthermore, it’s not even remotely funny. And yet, here I’ve written what I myself term “a comic-cozy.” How does this square with a basic belief in love and life. Well.

It begins with God. Yeah, God. One of the big questions I have for Him is this. Of all the things you allow us to do why is one of them that we can kill each other? It seems like that should be the province of you alone. I find it mystifying and horrifying and it piques my interest more than it should. I have not yet received my official letter from the Man about the issue, so I, and maybe you, are left to wrestle with it. We have been given minds after all. So I suppose it comes down to this . . .

Humans have the ability to kill each other. Out of the whole population most of us don’t and the rest of us are astounded when it happens. After the shock and dismay wear off we breathe deeply and look around. And what’s the first thing we want to know when a murder is committed? We want to know why. Ordinary people have ideas, theories, and conjecture and hope that if they can find the answer to “why,” it’s good enough to satisfy.  But where does an ordinary person go for that answer?

We go to the police detective, the sleuth, the private eye and sometimes another ordinary person – the rank amateur. The one like us who might even put a similar theory to ours into play. Together you and she tackle the foul deed and bring the vicious killer to justice. The safest way to do that is vicariously – in a book.

Between the pages of a novel, we can work our minds around horrifying acts and imagine the problem solved to our satisfaction. The cozy mystery writer takes us right into the middle of daily circumstances and uses the objects and people at hand to meet the enemy head on. Inside the pages our detective, our sleuth, or rank amateur can face something awful and attempt to make sense of it – to find out why. And we’re right there helping them do it. Chances are it will never translate to anything real in a reader’s life, but somehow it helps.

I write mysteries. I infuse them with humor to help mitigate the horror. To show that the ordinary and the chilling can meet on the same battleground and the weapons we have at our disposal, including the occasional goofy Rashawna moment, will be used to bring justice.

It ends with God there. At justice, not resurrection, but at a just resolving of the dastardly deed. We are the only tool he has on this earth and those of us who choose to use our abilities for combating evil will always have his ear. That’s where we find what we need to help solve the mysteries of this life, including the murder mystery.

Tom, thank you for asking the question. God and I are working on a better answer, but for now I hope this helps.

PS: If you don’t know what a “Rashawna moment” is, you haven’t read my book. If you have, I hope you enjoyed every one of them.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Chin Up! You Ain't Got it So Bad!

It's 'a comin'. Another year. Even though I wrote this a while ago it suits for contemplation as the number 2012 rolls into 2013 with all that might bring for us. 2012 was, for me, a very good year. I have faith, hope, love and excitement about 2013.

I hope you do, too! This is a little long, but perhaps you find some value in it.

I was so excited to open my sister’s email. After months of painstaking research, she’d finally found the name of the ship our grandfather had traveled on from Sweden almost ninety years ago. The whole family was behind her as she researched names, dates and places that our ancestors had attached themselves to. She was even able to post pictures that she’d requested from yet other relatives. It was astounding to see the family resemblance in those old black and white photos where folks must have been told "now don't smile!" This set me to wondering more about the lives of the family members that went before us. What I found has been a boon to me as I struggle, along with so many others, in these wacky times. Think unemployment, insane gunmen, political scandals ( that go viral – yeesh!), budget deficits – you name it.

It puts me in mind of all the things my ancestors didn’t have; insurance of any kind, appliances, electricity (my maternal grandparents didn’t have electricity until the 1950’s) and countless other modern conveniences that we think we need or deserve. And yet they survived and even thrived. That same maternal grandmother bore six live children and lost twins at five months gestation. With the exception of my youngest aunt, they were all born at home. How on earth did these people make it? I have to laugh when I compare the years in which we’ve lived. My husband’s dad grew up in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City in the 1930’s and lived through the Great Depression. Good times were having a dollar for gas (if you even had a car) and a friend who knew how to make bathtub gin. Truthfully, we are sometimes dwarfed by the old folks shadow!

Now don’t get me wrong, I love modern life. I mean, after all, I’m writing about all this on a computer, a contraption my grandparents wouldn’t have had a clue could even exist. I also think it’s wonderful that I can get in touch with my sisters across the country or my friend across town simply by touching a button on my cell phone and saying, “Hello.” But harkening back to the brave souls who lived their lives trusting God and each other that things would work out makes me realize my own frustrations are nothing, like gnats on a banana or something. So here’s what I’ve challeneng myselt and resolved to do.

Keep my chin up. Nobody likes seeing a down-in-the-dumps face all the time. Where I can give cheer, I will. Where I can cut down on consumption, I will. Where I can pass up   a bargain, I … okay, okay that’s going a bit far. But at every turn where I start to feel weak and whiney, I’ll think of my dad’s Mom, who came over from Sweden quite young on a boat to a country where she couldn’t speak the language. She had no money and probably only one good dress. I’ll think of my mom’s Mom, who spent countless hours in her sweltering rural Minnesota farm kitchen every summer canning vegetables from her garden so her family would have food all winter. Both of these women woke up every morning with a list of chores as long as my granddaughter’s licorice whip, and I’ll be darned if I’ll complain. After all, I can plop my dishes into my dishwasher and drive off to the library to pick up a good book that I’ll have time to read because a machine is taking care of the grease on my glass casserole dish.

We can all look at those who have gone before us and gain from them a sense of what makes life good. It’s taking care of your own and giving them as good as you got. My husband is semi-retired and I work three part time jobs so we can get the bills paid every month. This would be nothing to my grandparents and great grandparent's generation. Part of the good life is the hardness of it. Good grief, how could we rise to the challenge if there were none? We give our children so much when we share with them our struggle stories, the ones that let them know you can get through hard times and come up okay on the other side. And in time they'll add tales of their own to help forge a unique family heritage.

My Mom died last year and going through her things with my five sisters was sad, but also eye opening. The pictures of herself, Dad, her nine children, and seventeen grandchildren told the story of her life. Looking through them brought memories galore including the good, bad and ugly things that we all shared. Mom’s life was daunting at times, but she hung in there. As her oldest daughter, can I do less? And I thank my sister, who is 16 years younger than me, for caring enough to delve into our ancestral archives to find little golden bits of our past. She'll be in the family story book for sure. 

Image: digitalart                                                                        Free Digital Photos

Sunday, December 23, 2012

In Those Days

This morning we had a thought provoking sermon the catalyst for which was the song, Mary Did You Know. The pastor made it clear before he read from the Gospel of Luke that we were not to understand the first three words of the passage, In those days, with some other words that often begin a story, Once upon a time. Oh, no. We are not talking human fancy or a fairy tale here. We're talking reality, straight up.

As we listened to the song I noticed the woman in front of me dabbing her eyes. It distracted me momentarily from my own tear inspiring thoughts. You see, when you understand what that Baby came to do, it releases all kinds of emotions. Tender ones. Anxious ones. Sometimes angry ones.

And when I came home I remembered the following poem I wrote  years ago. The idea of an earth hushed and still at Jesus' birth has always captured my imagination. So I had to form it somehow with words. Not as eloquent as in Mark Lowry's song, but my own at any rate. I hope you find something in them.

May God bless your Christmas with His always abiding Love.

Still, Still Night
By Susan Sundwall

Someone comforts a baby
Born in the still, still night
Someone lies in a manger
Beneath a new star’s light

Someone keeps a vigil
Guardian strong and good
There with ox and cattle
Lowly creatures of God

Angels near them hov’ring
Close in the still, still night
Shepherds tremble and wonder
Fall on their knees at the sight

Empires, kings and princes
In every age to come
Will bow to pay him homage
God’s only, holy Son

And yet a tender moment
Before He owns our plight
Someone comforts a baby
Born in the still... still... night.

If you would like to read my Christmas story, Mary's Sparrow, you'll find it here 


Image: phanlop88                                                             Free Digital Photos

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Go Ahead - Flash Somebody

A few days ago my friend and fellow writer, Linda O’Connell, posted a link on her Facebook page. I clicked on the link and was treated to a “flash mob” Christmas performance in a mall. I watched, remembering the time I participated in such an event back in 2010.

Flash mobs have been around for a while now. I remember how excited my Mom was the first time she saw one. The chosen music was from Handel’s Messiah, The Hallelujah Chorus – in a mall somewhere seemingly begun by God Himself working in the hearts of mall shoppers to spread the Word and the joy of the season. At least that’s the way Mom and I wanted it to be.

The second time I watched I noticed all the singers had little round badges on their shirts. And good strong voices. Hey! Was this thing orchestrated by someone other than God??

Sure it was and I’ve gotten over that shock. Silly me. But when Linda posted her link the other day and I watched yet another “mob” I saw with different eyes. The beautiful blond who stood up from her little round table by the escalator to begin the singing was not my focus this time. Nope. As the camera panned I saw a young woman pull out her cell phone to snap a picture. I saw a large black man stand up and begin to sing even though it was obvious he didn’t know all the words. His participation was not scripted.

I saw teens stop and hang over the side of the upper level wall, grinning. Many other busy, harried shoppers turned from their conversations or store windows to smile. More began to sing and most of them knew the words to Go Tell it on The Mountain. A little chill went up my spine.

As the clip wound down, I felt a sense of wonder and hope. Because with all the bad news that’s been out there lately, the awful stuff, even with that; the news of Christmas, the tell it everywhere good news, is still in the hearts of lots and lots of people. As though they really do know what this celebration is all about. They’re out there in the malls singing about it. On the spur of the moment, orchestrated by – God?

And then I thought briefly of the breakfast at Denny’s with my husband after we dropped my sisters at the airport a few weeks ago. Over the waitress’s voice, the rustling of menus and the clank of forks on plates, there came the gentle strains of O Holy Night. Quietly. Unobtrusively. But there, right smack in the middle of everybody’s breakfast at Denny's out there on Wolf Road. Amazing.  

So I’m going to clean like a crazy woman for the twenty one people coming for Christmas dinner. I’m going to wrap and bake and decorate. I’m going to fuss, just like you are. And even though no flash mob will likely appear in my kitchen to boost me up. Still. I know He’s out there, waiting. For heads to turn and hearts to calm so the real meaning of it all can seep in.

Maybe I’ll even flash someone in the grocery store later today, too, all by myself. What do you think of Joy to the World?

Image: Free Digital Photos

Monday, December 17, 2012


It can be difficult to describe beauty. I’m not sure why. We all know what it is and can agree on commonly shared ideas of beauty like seeing stunning sunsets or inhaling the scent of deep red roses. Still, there’s an ethereal quality about the term that demands a broader definition. The concept surrounds us from our very beginning.

Babies and toddlers possess a beauty that helps us cope with the non-stop care they require. We are never so needy as when we are small and we’re probably never so beautiful, either. Think of the extraordinary instances that secure children in our hearts. That first tender smile when you realize it’s just for you. The explosive giggle as you turn yourself inside out to delight them. The damp curls at the nape of their necks after a bath. Yeah, stuff like that.

But the years roll on and the beauty of bright eyes, velvet skin and baby soft hair fades as we approach about age seven, have a few missing teeth, and would rather run and play than take a bath. Little girls howl when Mom wants to brush the knots out of their hair and little boys hate dressing up. Beauty is the furthest thing from their minds.

In the teen years all that changes. Suddenly there are others besides parents and Grandma to please. Clothes, shoes, faces and hair have to be perfect in order to attract those “others.” In their hands is the responsibility of producing the next generation and physical attraction necessarily comes first, often on a superficial level. Sometimes I’ll look at old family pictures of Mom or Grandma as very young women and wonder if each took care to look just so for the camera. Perhaps they practiced a smile or two in the mirror beforehand. Or maybe the camera caught them unaware and captured the most natural portrait of their beauty. Either way I hope they felt stylish that day, smiling happily for the photographer. I always wonder who they were hoping to attract.

Most teens will eventually discover that looks alone aren’t enough. They stretch and grow and long for other attributes, learning soon enough that physical beauty cannot replace kindness, humor, intelligence, and a strong sense of self worth. We can excuse this short-lived but necessary vanity. 

The middle years creep in and then we’re afraid our beauty is beginning to fade. Whole industries have been built around this fear and we don’t have to go too far to find just the product or procedure for smoothing our skin, flattening our stomachs, and getting white teeth or glossy hair. Men and women in their forties, fifties and sixties have no excuse for not looking ten years younger. What a burden.

No one seems to take into account nowadays the beauty of old age. However, that deep-in-the soul beauty we gain by simply living – and for a long time – offsets the shallowness of those who cannot see it.

I once knew a woman who had nothing at all to display in the way of physical beauty. She was much older than me with stringy hair and a bad complexion. Her eyeglasses were thick and her shoulders were stooped. Her name was Grace and it didn’t seem like the name fit at all. Until she spoke. Not only was her voice rich and clear, her words were full of experience, faith and yes – wisdom. I met her at a Bible study and I loved it when she added to the discussion. The sound of her voice was like a bit of Heaven dropped to earth. No one cared what she looked like. Years later, when news of her death reached me, I was sad for those of us she left, but knew that heaven was that day enriched.

We’ve heard the sayings, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and “beauty is its own excuse for being.” Both statements ring true and don’t apply solely to human beauty, of course. We’ve been given a wonderful world, wide and compelling. The first thing any of us must deal with, however, is each other; before anything like a deep red rose, a snow capped mountain or rolling ocean waves are experienced. When beauty is shown first in love, acceptance, humor and joy, from parent to child, from friend to friend, and lover to loved, that’s where we begin to really see and appreciate the created world. That’s when we begin to know what beauty is.

If you know someone with little beauty in their lives - give them some of yours.

Image: Free Digital Photos

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Little Christmas Baking

My secret name is "Grandma Food" and with good reason. I delight in being able to get up a good meal or bake something wonderful and satisfying for my family. My grandchildren - as did my children before them - know that if the old Tupperware pie taker is sitting on the kitchen table, it's most certainly filled with cookies. Very recently, like yesterday, I loaded it up with frosted sugar cookies. Last week it was gingersnaps, a soft chewy cookie I've made for years.

In the coming days I'll re-fill the container and add to the cookies other goodies, like the one I'm sharing with you below. It's the date nut bread recipe handed down from my mother. When I was a little girl she'd make it, wrap it in foil, and we'd nibble on it until it was nothing but crumbs. Dad taught us to slather it with butter. He was always able to take food to the next level. If he were still around I suppose he'd be "Great Grandpa Food." I even seem to recall that this date nut bread recipe was orginally from his sister, our Aunt Delia.

Anyway, maybe you'll give this one a try. It's dark and delicious and a great morning treat with a hot cuppa Joe. And do indulge in a nice slather of butter if you want to treat yourself!

Christmas Date Nut Bread

1 package whole pitted dates
1 cup very hot water
¼ cup soft shortening
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 2/3 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teasspoon salt
½ cup chopped walnuts

Chop the dates finely. Place in bowl and cover with hot water. Set aside.
Combine shortening, sugar, egg, and vanilla. Stir together flour, baking soda and salt. Add alternately to date mixture then add nuts.

Bake at 350 in greased and floured loaf pan for an hour or until inserted paring knife comes out clean. Cool in pan for about five minutes then turn out onto rack. Cool completely then wrap in plastic, then foil to keep.

Image: stockimages                                                                          Free Digital Photos

Monday, December 10, 2012

From Scrooge to Ebenezer

This is an edited version of a piece I wrote many years ago. It still echoes my feelings about the subject.

It’s amazing that every Christmas we still see Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol" being presented in some form or another. After all, the story was written in 1843, but it so resonates in our hearts that we can’t let it go. So what’s the deal here?
Ebenezer Scrooge is a guy we love to hate. He epitomizes the workaholic whose nose is always to the grindstone; the one who never has time for a friend, a party or a child. He reminds us of every bad teacher we ever had. You remember the ones, unbending, sticklers for the rules and never giving anyone a break. Dickens wrote about a man who was just about as bad as he could be. Cold hearted and stingy, Scrooge was a businessman without compassion or mercy. Why, he didn’t even care if Tiny Tim lived or died! Remember the line, the one George C. Scott uttered with a sneer, in one television movie version?
“Then let them (him) die and reduce the surplus population!” 
Good grief. Could a man who thinks like this every be an example for us? Oh, yes, my friend. He could and should be.
In the old hymn, "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing," the word Ebenezer is used in a way that puzzled me, so I made it my duty to look it up. Of course I imagined it meant stingy or arrogant in keeping with my hard-wired notion of the character in Dickens’ story. But I had to laugh when I read the definition, “stone of help.” It was a most revealing moment. For, if you know the story well, you know how it turns out. You also know the road Ebenezer Scrooge had to take to become a stone of help and it began in his childhood.
Ebenezer lived in a single parent home. His father resented him because Ebenezer’s birth had caused his mother’s death. Maternal death happens far less often today but most of us are not strangers to the stress and heartache of parenthood, single or otherwise. We don’t even want to think of how often children bear the brunt of a parent’s frustration, loneliness and often – rage.
Charles Dickens genius was in recognizing this universal condition and showing us one of the results of a loveless upbringing in his cold, heartless character. But he didn’t leave Ebenezer there. He used the past, present and future to put us all on a familiar pot-holed path. In each of those potholes is a ghost. You know what yours are, I know mine.
One by one they come at us and show us the choices we’ve made. Well, at least that’s true for the past and present. The future is what we’re always challenged to change. Same old rut, falling further into the darkness, or stepping towards the Light. Your choice. And Ebenezer's.
But stepping towards the Light, we find out, brings joy. It’s the same amazed giggling joy that Ebenezer felt when the third specter left him and Christmas morning dawned. It’s my favorite part of the book and every movie or play I’ve seen about it. When Ebenezer rushes to the window and sees the sunshine, our minds shout—Sonshine! We can’t help it. Only the miraculous joy of the extreme change of heart and habit that Ebenezer Scrooge experienced can explain it. He even jumps on the bed! In his long scary night of the soul he came to the realization that he would no longer allow himself to be bound by his own ill-forged chains like his dead and wandering business partner, Marley. And part of this unabashed joy came from knowing he was free. Part of it was knowing that he could now express love, show gratitude and yes, share his wealth with other people - freely.
The story of "A Christmas Carol" is a story of transformation and redemption. We’re never too young to learn from it and never too old to be able to ignore its message. Let's keep Christmas in our hearts this year and help others along the path to becoming a true Ebenezer. Then, perhaps, it may be said of us as Dickens said of Scrooge at the end . . . and it was always said of him that he kept Christmas well, if any man possessed the knowledge.

God Bless

Image: Chris Sharp                                                               Free Digital Photos

Thursday, December 6, 2012


Television. Thinking about being on television; that little far off, some day vision in my head. Reading the email that says: “Do you want  to be on TV?”

The stopping of the heart when I open that email and realize it’s not spam, but a real request from the publisher of one of the anthologies that includes my story about pranking my sister. When I was a stupid kid.

The decision and the (still) hammering heart. Sure, “I’ll do it!" I respond. How hard can it be? I think to myself. Just talk. Simple, right?

The elation at being asked and accepting the opportunity soon gives way to what I actually have to do and that’s when the nerves kick in. Or try to. I’ve been striving to overcome that awful shaky nervousness that makes my voice quiver and my face flush for years. Years.

I want this to go well, like my book launch. I want it for me, but I also want it for the publisher, the anchor, and anyone who might be watching. I want it more for them than for me. So . . .

I pray. To do well for the sake of others. Get the focus off Susan and onto this fun, fun book titled Not Your Mother’s Book – On Being a Stupid Kid, for which I qualified many times over in my youth. Other NYMB authors have gigs on their local stations, too. I pray we all do well.

For you, our readers. So, Scat! Nerves. Smile for the camera. Tomorrow is show time.

Thanks for watching!

(Friday, December 7th, FOX23 at 7:45 televised from the station in Albany, NY)

Image: Free Digital Photos                                                            Salvatore Vuono

Monday, December 3, 2012

Hello December

When I first began writing I didn't know exactly what I'd do best so I tried a little bit of everything - you might call it the tapas method. You know what that it, right? It's small servings of food, canapes (a really old fashioed word), appetizers, or snacks. The idea originated in Spain and was quite popular here for a while.

Anyway, one of my tastly little writing canapes is poetry. I looked outside this morning, and even though the temperature is on the warmish side, the sky is leaden. Which made me think of the following poem, one I wrote early on and sold to Capper's. It was the first thing I ever sent to them and they snapped it right up, much to my surprise! So I thought I'd share it with you. Even if you live in warmer climes, I think it will touch a chord. Especially if winter and the holidays go hand in hand in your mind.

December's Snowflake Dance

I heard it whispered on the wind
and searched the steely leaden sky.

I caught the scent of coming snow,
and upwards cast a watchful eye.

The golden days of autumn gone
as swiftly as a passing glance.

I lingered in the chilly dusk
to catch December's snowflake dance.

Kind of short, but to the point but it gives a nod to what's coming. I like winter until about mid-February but what I like seldom comes into play if Old Man Winter wants to hang around a bit longer. We'll see what happens, eh?

Image: Free Digital Photos