Many folk like to know beforehand what is to be set on the table; but those who have laboured to prepare the feast like to keep their secret; for wonder makes the words of praise louder.

—Gandalf, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

The banner photo above of my family resembles a corporate poster cliché. All we need is the giant caption: BELIEVE. Rugged human spirit conquers the mountain, triumphant over odds and doubts. With arms aloft in celebration, the victor in such posters looks too fresh for such gritty work. My family photo is not so slick. Our boast here atop 14,000-foot Mt. Evans is a study in caution. It’s very windy up there. Heights make my stomach flip, which is why I’m glued to the rock. We look rested and have on street clothes at that height because we drove with our Colorado family most the way up, on what is the highest paved road in North America.

My favorite sight was Mr. Marmot, who met us on a final bend in the snaking drive. As he skirted a cliff’s edge, the spiking Rockies backdrop dwarfed the little guy, upright at attention. Like a Walmart greeter, his part seemed to be, “Welcome to my place humans. Please enjoy your visit.” Hollywood couldn’t have cast a funnier contrast to our hulking Yukon’s meek ascent.

To get to the very top, we did have to hike the last steep feet, along with the horde in our Forest Service-timed admission. It was breath-taking! Just coming to the Mile High City from the lowly Texas Hill Country was enough of an atmospheric adjustment. The Swedish guy gasping beside the trail with bottled oxygen came prepared. He would agree with everyone else, though, that the rewarding view was worth the slog. We could see forever.

Looking back over the winding, unexpected path of my past gives me a worthy view, too. The seeming random progression of each phase in hindsight looks like the schema of an omniscient architect, who charted my destination with a series of open doors, often in the form of suggestions made by others. My only task was to walk through them. More than once, major turns were sparked by a simple question.

Have you considered…?

At lunch to celebrate a successful event sponsored by my employer, GTE, our nonprofit liaison asked what I was going to do next. I had planned to go back to D.C. after two years in the Bay Area. “Have you considered the mayor’s office?” she asked. “I hear there is a job opening.” Her nudge kept needling me, so I applied. San Jose Mayor Tom McEnery attracted a lot of attention with his humor, charisma, and quixotic tenacity to save a crumbling downtown. Young adults would flock to work for him. With no inside track, no campaign connections, and no family status, no one was more surprised than I was that I got the job.

Tom, as everyone called him, was an enigma to me. He nonchalantly walked into a meeting or press conference and briskly owned it. His wit could deflect anything. He was gracious about my mistakes and never disappointed me with moral failings. I learned from him not to be part of the problem. If I had a complaint about something, I should work on the solution. He always took the high road.

As popular as Tom was, he had to tilt against entrenched opinion. San Jose had been left in the dust of Silicon Valley’s success. Many doubted that anything could be made of the downtown ruins—or that anyone would want to go there anyway. When San Jose surpassed San Francisco’s population in 1989, a State legislator scoffed that “San Jose couldn’t carry San Francisco’s jockstrap.” Everybody laughed.

In a rare moment of repose, we waited for a ride on a Plaza Park bench near the fountain outside the Fairmont Hotel, the 5-star crown jewel of Tom’s redevelopment push. His vision becoming a reality, I asked him how he managed to overcome the slings and arrows to get there. I thought my question was the tee-up for a major exposition. His brief reply surprised and stuck.

You have to keep your eyes on the horizon above all the noise.

—San Jose Mayor Tom McEnery

By his own design, Tom’s second term was his last. Believing that perpetual incumbency had allowed his hometown’s decline, he spearheaded and won the campaign for two-term limits. I landed at the Technology Center of Silicon Valley, a stubbornly slack component of downtown’s rebirth, which long frustrated city leaders because it flew in the face of the successful tech titans behind it. Finally, someone had the ingenious idea to open a prototype named for the Valley’s legendary start-up venue, The Garage. A large-scale grand opening, massive rebranding initiative, and one-year anniversary extravaganza—all within 16 months—left our staff exhausted. It was then a colleague’s “what are you going to do next” sparked another turn.

Tech programs and exhibits director Jan Berman and I were discussing new options. She encouraged me to do nothing for a while, to travel and take time to think. “I want to get back to my writing roots,” I said. A tech visionary in her own right, Jan was in talks with New York-based Scholastic to open a West Coast product development office. She was determined to stay out of the box. As an idealistic young educator, she was stung by the lack of inspiration in her school. “It’s a shut up and color kind of day,” she heard one veteran declare in the teacher’s lounge between drags on a cigarette. Jan invited me to try out for her new Scholastic venture by writing a spec piece for review by her New York supervisors.

Once on board, I immersed in High Tech Reports, researching, writing, and grappling with how to make complex topics appealing and digestible for teachers and their students. After having taken a year off for travel, and now paying Palo Alto rent, I could barely afford toilet paper on that free-lance income. But the soul-pleasing work made up for it. Plus, this pivot to the “most trusted name in learning” turned out to be a mind-expanding doorway into a new world of possibilities. It also was a twist of good fortune that, in addition to Jan, gave me another treasured mentor and now friend for life.

Over time, I became more acquainted with Lynda Greene, The Tech’s former educational director and my supervisor on the Literacy Place development team. I admired her outlook and stealthy grit. Despite her challenges growing up, she made the conscientious choice not to blame others, but to be a benevolent force in the world. The picture of diplomacy and excellence in leadership, Lynda became the template for the woman I still aspire to be.  

One morning I was greeted by a serene Lynda who was sporting a new hair color I had never seen. I’m pretty sure the other-worldly tint would be alien to Pantone. The day-glow-orange-rust was amplified even more because it was on her head. The rest of her sported her usual classic ensemble, a soft coral turtleneck, autumn-hued scarf, and creased grey wool slacks. Didn’t she feel embarrassed or the need to explain that hair? Evidently not. She glided through the day like “nothing to see here.” As a result, no one on our bustling collegial team said a word about it.

Her “keep calm and carry on” manner mightily impressed me. Growing up in the South, my mom and her peers would not step out of the house without “putting on their faces” and fluffing their bouffant crowns. My cohorts and I diverged with looser styles, but not without a lot of commentary, such as, “Are you going out like that?” Or, “Your hair looks weird.” Even when I was well into my 30s, mom would say, “Why don’t you put on some lipstick?” The subtext was that public appearance was paramount for social acceptance and love. Some day your life might be falling apart, but looking your glamorous best would triumph over all: “Wow, at least she still looks great!” or the more popular, “Looking good is the best revenge.” Of course that’s not true.

Remembering Lynda’s poise that day has helped me more than once. It gives me strength and a diffusing chuckle when I have to go into an unfriendly room. I’ve told her how much her unusual hair day meant to me. Even still, maybe out of loyalty to her long-time stylist, she never divulged where the radioactive coif came from or how she got rid of it overnight. In keeping with her propriety, I never asked.

These days Lynda is working through the challenge of a lifetime after the loss of her adored “Ritchie.” Pediatrician and cardiac specialist Dr. Richard Greene passed away last summer. His well-earned reputation, and astute reading of new parents and their needs, made him the coveted doc of everyone, including decades of dads on his favorite team, the San Francisco 49ers. Richard is irreplaceable. We won’t get over missing him.

Lynda stays real, acknowledging the difficulties of carrying on now. Remarkably, she does. Not long after Richard’s passing, and around her 70-something birthday, she agreed to develop and launch the Education Opportunity Fund (eofund.org), and serve as its founding executive director. While family is her first love, “Education Opportunity for All!” is the banner across her professional life. I want to be like her now more than ever.

The Literacy Place program that Lynda helped shape was a bold and inventive reading curriculum. I began to realize similar approaches could be applied to improving children’s spiritual literacy. How is it that children grow up in the Church to become adults who don’t understand why Jesus is such a big deal? How is it possible to be in a relationship with a God we can’t see? Why does he let life hit so hard?

That was me. Such ignorance left me rudderless. I believed at 16 that if I was going to make it in this world, I had to operate by my rules and my wishes. While my professional life flourished over the next two decades, my personal life sputtered and tripped. Those painful years with my back against God led me to the end of ideas and myself. I missed him. I longed for his presence I knew as a child. The course veered again, and I started seeking him on it.

One day peeling carrots at the kitchen sink, I was ruminating about being 38 and what the next 40 years could possibly hold. Like a breaking news interruption, an answer not of myself interjected on my mind, “You have no idea.” Not much later, what must have been God’s pronouncement, came true because only he could have orchestrated it.

A friend from church organized an early morning Labor Day hike up Castle Rock, inviting others who also invited their friends. It was just my kind of thing. On the way up, three of us broke ahead of the sprawling group, a woman I knew and a guy I did not. We talked about puzzling parts of the Bible. The more he talked, the more I wished my friend would stop interrupting or fall behind. His knowledge and insight were like none I had heard before. I liked how he worked the discussion, but there was something more. After that I couldn’t stop thinking about him and the connection I felt. Later, I learned that early morning hikes are not his thing at all. He had responded to the invitation: “Sounds like fun, Anita—I’m not wild about getting up that early in the morning but I can make an exception 🙂 See you all then.” Providence brought us together that day. On our first date seven months later, Michael and I agreed we either would be best friends for the rest of our lives, or we would get married. Seven months after that—and after he honored me with a proposal in front of my entire family—we did.

Michael vowed to never leave me and to help me be what God made me to be. I promised that I would respect him always and my love for him would be stronger than death.

About a year after we married, I enrolled in Fuller Seminary for a masters in theology, with an eye toward developing children’s church curriculum. In the meantime, we were fervently praying that God would make us parents. With my age, the odds weren’t great. We had to be prepared he might say no.

A dreary place would be this earth were there no little people in it; The Song of Life would lose its mirth were there no children to begin it. No little forms like buds to grow, and make admiring hearts surrender; no little hands on breast and brow to keep the thrilling love-cords tender… Life’s Song, indeed, would lose its charm, were there no babies to begin it; a doleful place this world would be were there no little people in it.

—John Greenleaf Whittier

A colleague practically grabbed me by the collar one day and told me to get a grip, that at 40 my fertility had “fallen off the cliff.” Her exact words. As luck would have it, we were practically next door to one of the world’s leading fertility clinics at Stanford University. She rattled me enough that Michael and I met the doctor who helped her. We went the full IVF route, but doubts were high. Conception is a miracle on a good day. We knew that science could put a sperm and an egg together. Only God can give the life.

The day arrived for our first-round test result. The nurse called and told me the test was positive. I shouted, “WHAT?” like something had gone terribly wrong. She said, “That’s what you wanted isn’t it?” I still laugh about that. So few get pregnant on the first IVF round. God was right. I really did have no idea.

That consuming new role astonished me, and still does. Like the swift removal of a surgical bandage, nothing prepared me for the painful ripping away from self. New motherhood legends about no time to bathe or brush teeth were true! I felt more helpless and less equipped than I had in a long time. I had to buckle up and remind myself, “Anna gets to be the baby.”

Everything was new. Our first visit with Dr. Greene just days after coming into the world. Her first visit to the ocean. Our goofy games. I relished seeing everyday miracles through my daughter’s beautiful eyes. Nothing prepared me for such profound wonder. I experienced a kind of love I had never known.

Ideas to nurture spiritual literacy in the underserved 0-7 age group began taking shape. The science was settled that reading to a child from birth manifested a multitude of cascading cognitive and developmental benefits. Why not spiritual benefits, too? I hand made the first book with Jesus’s words that every child and exhausted parent need to hear: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” I’m no crafts person, but I had no other choice. At the time Anna was born, Christian publishers had long abandoned the board book niche, the most durable format for infants and toddlers. Board books are the most complicated and expensive to make. They also have a set ceiling price the market will bear, which ensures first runs of titles will be money-losers.

Do you view your child as a primarily physical or spiritual being?

You might think, “What difference does it make to have Christian board books? Children that young don’t know what you’re reading anyway.” But I know. Parents know. We grow along with our children when reading together. Learning about how we are made to be in a relationship with God shapes how we will parent. Do you view your child as a primarily physical or spiritual being? That’s a question for every parent.

Michael and I felt pressed to fill the gap. The company name, Graham Blanchard, honors our paternal grandmothers. Etta Theresa Graham, my dad’s mom, and Lessie Blanchard, Michael’s dad’s mom, both died when our dads were under three. It’s every new mom’s biggest fear, right? That she won’t be alive to care for her child. The name still serves as a daily reminder that we can trust God to take care of his lambs.

Our development team had outstanding credentials. If anyone could make a new idea happen, they could. We took the uncommon path of offering stand-alone trade books that also worked together as a Bible study or curriculum. Each title fits a category that has cohesion with all the others as an evergreen starter set. The team insisted I have author credit, but the results are the work of the team, which makes everything better, a lesson I learned well at Scholastic.

These books were the toughest ever to create. With concise economy, every word and illustration had to do something. Furthermore, in conveying spiritual concepts, you can’t leave room for mistaken impressions that can wind up being ideas hard to unlearn well into adulthood. Children can handle symbolism and abstract truth. They do it all the time. But children are also exacting realists. When Anna was barely three, we went to a Stanford University museum. I instructed her: “Here, you just use your eyes, not your hands.” At the first stop, she stretch her eye out to touch a mummy tomb. She was so adorable following instructions! I died right there. It was an important lesson for me.

With 10 board books, two activity books, and a parent’s and teacher’s guide, the Learn, Absorb & Praise™ Board Book Collection was complete. We supplemented it with a ton of free content on our website and in social media to spring off the books into what everyday life with God could be like.

Along the way, we discovered that expecting and new parents needed support, too. They do plenty to prepare for a newborn’s physical life, but what about the spiritual life? It’s not on the list. Thus, we launched the Newborn Promise Project with a book, group study, supporting videos, podcast and app to support them.

We didn’t expect a profit, but we hoped to gain adoption by parents, churches, and organizations over time to achieve momentum and meet a need. That didn’t happen. Strong endorsements, great reviews, and a national marketing and distribution plan didn’t translate into sustaining sales. Pouring money into the venture was no longer tenable.

God was in the work, or it wouldn’t have gone as far as it did in such a tumultuous industry. All along the way, Michael and I trusted God’s purpose no matter what the outcome. We have to believe God achieved it. Today, I oversee the relationship with our loyal distributor who keeps the books on the market. I donate to anyone who wants them. My plan was to produce new content and advocate for childhood spiritual literacy for the rest of my life. But you know what? God had something entirely new in store. And if the Graham Blanchard work had continued apace, I would not have been available for it.

Life is not as idle ore, but iron dug from central gloom, and heated hot with burning fears, and dipt in baths of hissing tears, and batter’d with the shocks of doom, to shape and use.

—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H.H.

In 2011, the same year we formally established Graham Blanchard, my brother Stuart was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to life. I describe those days as a nuclear explosion in our family. Michael was a godsend, our backbone during those difficult years. The other saving grace was God’s dramatic intervention in my brother’s life just weeks before his arrest. No one believed Stuart’s fantastical story. He was suffering from PTSD after two tours in Iraq and became erratic. Hearing the voice of God is a tip-off to psychosis. I believed him, however. That’s what God does. Today, his mental health long restored, my brother still has the most fervent faith of anyone I know.

Stuart and the men he associates with in daily prison life have been wrecked and put back together by Jesus, who helps them survive and thrive. They understand that the terrible suffering of Jesus allows them to have forgiveness and spiritual freedom. They have peace and joy in their hearts that no one can take away, no matter the other privations. Many wonderful volunteer efforts keep them going. Stuart and I sprinkle in laughter as much as we can. One of our running gags is who can tell the biggest groaner of a dad joke (Michael is my trusty supplier). Stuart delights in Anna’s teenage eyeball rolls. She has been visiting him with us since she was 8, in a lounge that is as welcoming as a bus station, which isn’t so bad compared to the rest of the place.

Make no mistake: Incarceration is a barbaric practice. When you see it up close, it’s unbelievable that such an archaic punishment still exists. On a massive scale right under civilization’s nose, humans are treated like caged animals. There is more outrage over zoos. People at their lowest point—sometimes innocent, sometimes grossly depraved—are dehumanized for years with minimal support.

The system dehumanizes the guards and others who work there, too. After his arrest, Stuart was stripped and beaten, then later slammed into isolation for weeks without explanation or aid for what were probably broken ribs. They just laughed, took pictures, and ignored requests for care.

Considering all the progress humankind has made over thousands of years, you would think we could come up with a more effective way by now. The money society pours into the system goes to buildings and salaries, not providing psychological or chemical treatment, or fostering victim healing. It just perpetuates a looping turnstile.

An inmate friend of my brother’s and now mine, Roger T. Johnson got tired of seeing guys come back. Rather than grousing, he did something about it. He submitted the papers and received Tennessee nonprofit incorporation status for God’s Love First, an inmate-driven program to reduce recidivism. Alienated and enraged at 23, he stabbed to death his pregnant girlfriend. He now has surpassed the inmate’s dreaded threshold of being inside prison longer than he was out. Roger has come a long way through his growth as a man of faith. His natural aptitude and leadership skills are as impressive as a college grad’s, and he has used them with persevering effect. Amazed at what his team has done with so little, I offered to create a new website to convey their impact (godslovefirst.org).

Life hits hard, right? The road’s horseshoe curves come out of the blue and sometimes cause collisions that result in lingering trauma. I don’t know how people survive them without faith. I tried early on, and it nearly crushed me. My “no thanks” to God’s love and kindness back then is unfathomable now.

The trouble is that those who dream don’t do, and those who do don’t dream.

—Ishmael, Coromandel!

During my senior year at UT Knoxville, I interned as a staff writer in TVA’s downtown headquarters. I often gravitated at lunchtime to the stately library for creative refreshment. On one visit the book Coromandel! jumped off the shelf. Not many titles end with an exclamation point. I took it home to find out why.

The protagonist, Jason, was an illiterate young serf who earned beatings by his lord’s servants for poaching and exploring beyond his turf. He was lured by the crafty peddler Voy into trading his slim savings for a map to Coromandel, a coastal land of fortune and freedom. Well into Jason’s journey of swindles, mishaps, and a measure of dumb luck, he met the old scholar Ishmael, who observed, “The trouble is that those who dream don’t do, and those who do don’t dream.” Enticed by the idea, Ishmael joined Jason’s quest until they finally climbed the summit of what they believed was Maru, the magic mountain overlooking their final destination. Surely now they would see the coast of Coromandel.

Instead, the peak opened to an infinite view of another dream-like series of mountains in the misty distance. A wisened Jason felt a strange contentment. “Whatever happens, people will find me easy to deceive—God be praised—because I want to believe, because I know now that the magic mountain is always the one beyond the one you have climbed, the coast of Coromandel is always over the horizon. If it were not so, magic would be at an end and a man could only dream, or only do—but never both.” Those words hit me at a time I needed dreams. I was reminded of them a few years ago when I took the photos just above.

Walking through my final days on the UT campus, uncertainty about the future ate at me. I needed gainful work to support myself, but it had to be meaningful work that made a difference. I also was ready for adventure in a new place. There was no Voy to direct me with a magical map. So, I sat on a curb with students streaming by and did what I always do to sort colliding ideas: I wrote the first thing that came to mind.

I know exactly what I want to do, I think. I know exactly where I want to go, almost. Squirming and worming my way to an answer. Will I be one of life’s watchers or will I be a dancer?

Retracing my path from today’s vantage point, it’s plain to see that all the open doors in my path were, in fact, only one part of God’s grace. The people he put on both sides have been the real treasures. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for them all—and for God. He continually makes everything new. Maybe that’s why I’m most at home in the present, with an eye to the future. I always feel like I’m just getting started.

When Anna was very young, she asked me, “As I grow older, do you grow older, too?” Like Anna, I’ve wondered about the aging process. I’ve seen how it affects different people who have different temperaments. My mother, Sue Gregory, was my best role model for growing older. When her long-time store clerk job soured in her 60s, she quit and blossomed into a whole new life of learning and growing. The small hometown amenities were few, but she made the most of them. She took Zumba classes at the county’s senior center, where she also pursued a long simmering desire to be a painter. I never even knew she could draw.

She and a group of friends took road trips to the Smokies and cruises to Alaska and Hawaii. Ten years older, my father didn’t hold her back. He had a vast history library for good company. His enthusiasm already played out in a far-flung military career, he stayed behind and welcomed his bride home with a bouquet. Lessons learned from him were duty, hard work, and responsibility for outcomes. They each had a sense of humor, though their brands were different. Sometimes when dad’s jokes seemed ill-timed by the weight of a situation and fell flat, he would tag on with a trailing laugh, “just a little levity.”

On December 30, 2013, I woke up to a stream of voicemails, the news in each one progressively more devastating. The last was my mom saying, “Callie, I’m dying. I love you.” She answered her phone in the cardiac ICU. “You’ll do anything to get me home for the holidays,” I said, for a little levity. I told her not to die because Anna needed her. “She has you and Michael,” mom countered. Everyone said she held on until we could get there to say goodbye.

You’ve never seen anything like her last 24 hours. One by one she speed-dialed everyone she knew to gleefully tell them she was dying, what they meant to her, and to thank them. Any grievances now non-issues, she settled old accounts with forgiveness. Surrounded by family, and after a hymn and a prayer, she slid into the next life with her Lord and her own mom and dad. Five years later, my dad went, too. We all miss Sue and Clyde.

Mom showed me how to be one of life’s dancers. Grand-parenting was her greatest love, and I believe the highest calling a person can have. It’s a duty and a joy. Mom said it was like loving me as a child all over again. I can see what she means. Being a late-comer mom, however, my grand-parenting role will be much further down the line if at all. For now, different adventures await as daily life takes on a whiff of change.

Last month, as Michael and I celebrated our 20th anniversary, Anna turned 18. She’s the sharpest wit in the family, so I knew she would smile at a certain greeting card. On the cover, a perturbed wet cat says, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” On the inside he consoles, And if that doesn’t work out for you, tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life.” Anna graduates from high school this spring. A brilliant poet, fiction writer, singer-songwriter, and visual artist, she has her whole life ahead to explore and make meaning of it. She wants to help people. Meanwhile, Michael’s data science leadership at a growing industry darling rewards him as much as ever. We expect big things to take shape there this coming year.

Change is the indication of life.

—Helen Keller

The time is right for me to step through a new door. Stuart’s 10-year navigation through the appeals process, plus many miracles along the way, earned him an evidentiary hearing in early 2022, his last best chance. For the first time, he has a talented attorney willing to fight for him. The newfound hope gave me the fortitude to wade through the dreadful case details and help with the final pro se petition. The Graham Blanchard pause gave me the time to plunge into legal research, investigation, and writing over the past several years. Along the way, I discovered an intrinsic fascination with the work, and a passion for law captured me. Who would have guessed my heart would be turned to a career that’s fodder for the true crime genre I have never liked?

My family’s 12 years of interaction with the criminal legal system have given me a well-spring of ideas for structural improvements. I can see a framework for a new kind of holistic defense practice that helps the first-time accused and their families rebuild their lives. My most trusted advisor, Michael, encourages me on. The people I don’t know, who are at their weakest point sitting in jail with no hope, also urge me down that road. There’s no time to waste.

I don’t want to be a watcher on a twilight cruise—I still want to dance. I don’t want to stop dreaming. But I also want to do. Faith, family, and purpose are my fuel. Like Jason’s mountain-top view that opens up to yet another series of peaks, my arrival at this place and time appears to be at once a culmination and a new beginning. No one is more surprised than I am. I really had no idea.

—Callie Grant, December 2021

Oil painting by Sue Gregory