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 of my family resembles the corporate poster cliché. All we need is the giant caption: BELIEVE. Rugged human spirit conquers the mountain, triumphant over odds and doubts. It seems so pat. With arms aloft in celebration, the stock photo victor looks too fresh for such gritty work. Did the camera just happen to be passing by? Of course, 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 pasted to the rock. We look so rested because we drove with our Colorado family most the way, 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 background 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 Hill Country bumping out of the Texas plains was enough of an atmospheric adjustment. The Swedish guy gasping beside the trail with bottled oxygen had a good idea. He would agree with everyone else, though, that the rewarding view was worth the pain. We could see forever.

Looking back over the winding, unexpected path of my professional life gives me a worthy view, too. The seeming random progression of each phase now looks like the work of an intentional designer, who charted my destination with a series of open doors, usually 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, 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 beef 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.” Everyone 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 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 everyone 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 public grand opening; the market research, development and launch of a name change and advertising campaign (to The Tech Museum of Innovation, aka The Tech); and another large-scale public event for the one-year anniversary, all within 16 months, left everyone 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 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 between drags on a cigarette in the teacher’s lounge. Jan invited me to try out for her new Scholastic venture by writing a spec piece. 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 a year off for travel, and now paying Palo Alto rent, I could barely afford toilet paper on the 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 gave me a treasured mentor and 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 conscience choice not to blame, 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, likely a soft coral turtleneck, autumn-hued scarf, and creased grey wool slacks. Didn’t she feel embarrassed or the need to explain? 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 face” and fluffing their bouffant crowns. My cohorts and I diverged with looser styles, but not without a lot of commentary. “Are you going out like that?” “Your hair looks weird.” Even when I was well into my 30s, mom would say, “Why don’t you put on some lipstick?” The impression was that public appearances surmounted anything. Your life might be falling apart, but looking your best makes everything just fine. You can still be loved and admired. Of course, I found out that’s not true.

Remembering Lynda’s poise that day has helped me more than once when I needed to keep my chin up walking into an unfriendly room. The mental picture of her gives me strength and a diffusing chuckle. 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 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 like the world. 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.

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 done it.

A friend from church organized an early morning Labor Day hike up Castle Rock, inviting others who also invited their friends. Hiking on the edge of the Santa Cruz Mountains was just my kind of thing for a long weekend. 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. I later found out that early morning hikes were not his thing at all. 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 honoring 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 on the phone told me that the test was positive. I shouted, “WHAT?” like something had gone terribly wrong. She was a little defensive. “That’s what you wanted isn’t it?” I still laugh about that today. 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. Anna’s 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 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. I handmade the first book with Jesus’s words that every child and exhausted parent need, “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 new 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—what makes us human.

Michael and I felt pressed to fill the gap. Our content development team had outstanding credentials. If anyone could make a new idea happen, they could. They insisted I have author credit, but the results are the work of a team, which makes everything better, a lesson I learned well at Scholastic.

These books were the toughest ever to write. Every word must do something. Furthermore, with spiritual concepts, you can’t leave room for mistaken ideas. Children can handle symbolism and abstract truth. They are also exacting realists. You’ve got to write what you mean as clearly as you can. When Anna was barely three, we went to a Stanford art museum. I instructed her, “Here you just use your eyes, not your hands.” At the first stop, she stretch her eye to touch a mummy tomb. I died right there.

The book industry has changed in many ways except one. Without a new lineup each season, a publisher drops off the radar screen. It was never our plan to be a spit ’em out kind of company. Each title would have cohesion with all the others and would never be relegated to the backlist bin. The Learn, Absorb & Praise™ board book collection was fairly complete. We didn’t expect a profit, but we hoped that as we rolled them out over time a title or two would catch on enough to float the rest. That didn’t happen. Great reviews didn’t translate into great sales. Pouring money into the venture was no longer tenable.

I was deeply disappointed by the outcome. My heart’s desire was to feed hungry lambs. God was in the work, I know, 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 had to believe God achieved it. Today, I oversee the relationship with our loyal distributor who keeps the books on the market. I donate books to anyone who wants them. I’m still sad. But you know what? God had something entirely new in store. If the Graham Blanchard workload 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 was 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 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 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 embarrasses me now.

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 a young serf who earned beatings by his lord’s servants for poaching and exploring beyond his turf. He was lured by the old peddler Voy into trading his parents’ slim provisions for a map to Coromandel, a coastal land of fortune and freedom. Voy told him, “The trouble is that those who dream don’t do, and those who do don’t dream.” After several adventurous years of swindles, mishaps, and a measure of dumb luck, Jason and two others in his troop finally climbed the summit of what they thought would be the gate to their final destination. Surely now they would look out upon the coast of Coromandel.

Instead, the apex opened to an infinite view with another dream-like mountain in the snowy distance, which they probably couldn’t reach in a lifetime. 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 above.

Walking through my final days on the UT campus, uncertainty about the future ate at me. I needed 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’m going, almost. Squirming and worming my way to an answer. Will I be one of life’s watchers or will I be a dancer?

The end of my college path split into two roads: journalism or public relations. I stood there like Frost, looking down each as far as I could to imagine the outcome. Journalism would be the road where I would track, expose, and inform. Eventually, a stellar career could lead to a lucrative job in an interesting corporate or political post. But, little would it pay an entry level writer. Public relations would start with a corporate salary and benefits. But, the journalism road would be fairly closed after that. It became time to just go and see what happened. So, I flew to New York, interviewed for both, and took the assistant editor job at a trade publication. After one day at work, I knew I had made a terrible mistake, and left on the next People’s Express with my parents’ hearty endorsement. That’s a story with an interesting twist that I should write about another time.

One year later, I was sitting down with legendary journalist Eleanor Clift. In my role as GTE’s public affairs representative, I worked with Santa Clara University’s Academic Dean on a minority recruitment program. He had invited Ms. Clift as a guest speaker and included me at their post-event lunch. I told her about my ongoing dilemma, wanting to be a serious journalist, yet liking work that involved developing programs and new ideas, along with the salary I needed to pay Silicon Valley rent. Her response freed me. She said this world has two types, those who do, and those who observe and write about it. She said both paths are important to society and have equal value.

Retracing my path from today’s vantage point, it’s plain to see that the decades I was turned away from God he had my back. The open doors were, in fact, only part of his grace. The people he put on both sides were the real treasures, always at the right place at the right time.

I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for all the people in my life—and for God. It’s clear to see how he continually makes everything new. Maybe that’s why I’m most at home in the present and future. I always feel like I’m just getting started.

Daily life has 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 card. On the cover, a perturbed wet cat says, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” On the inside, he advises, 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. She wants to help people with her work. 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.

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 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 with law. Who would have guessed my heart would be turned to a career that’s fodder for the true crime genre I have never liked?

Change is the indication of life.

—Helen Keller

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. You really do either use it or lose it. It’s a physical law of nature I’ve witnessed over and over again in loved ones’ lives. Michael’s Uncle Howard, a WWII fighter pilot, became an electrical engineer and raised a family with his wife Betty. In his 60s, Howard went to law school, passed the California bar, and became an attorney, riding his motorcycle to and from the office each day. He and Betty lived with gusto until their last breaths. Don’t get us started. Our family can, and has, gone on for hours with lore about those two. I learned from Howard and Betty that life can stay fun no matter how old you are. It’s a mind game. Like the plastic flowers in Betty’s backyard greenhouse, which she revealed to me with a delighted, knowing grin.

My mother, Sue Gregory, was my life-long role model for aging well. She vexed us by being the worst speller in the world, who could mop up the floor with Michael and me in a game of Scrabble. She knew her strategy! And as a result was a much sought-after bridge substitute. When her long-time store clerk job soured in her late 50s, 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. Each week she practiced how to use water colors and oils. Her works were labors of love. She was thrilled when a friend or family member wanted to have one of them.

She and a group of friends traveled together on perennial road trips to the Smokies and took cruises all over the place. My father didn’t hold her back. He had a vast history library that kept him company. His enthusiasm already played out in a far-flung military career, he stayed behind, did laundry, 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, he would tag on, “just a little levity.”

On December 30, 2013, I woke up to a stream of voicemails, the news of each one progressively more devastating. The last one 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 Michael, Anna, and I 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 standing grievances now non-issues, she settled old accounts with forgiveness. Surrounded by family, after a hymn and a prayer, she slid into the next life with her Lord, to be with her own mom and dad now. And so, she taught us how to die. My dad joined her five years later. 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 could 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.

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 accused and their families rebuild their lives. It sounds crazy, I know, this drive at 59 to become a criminal defense attorney, but there’s no time to waste.

I don’t want to be a watcher—I want to be a dancer. I don’t want to just dream. I also want to do. My most trusted advisor, Michael, encourages me on. If he didn’t think I could do it, or thought I shouldn’t, or just didn’t want me to, I would take that as a sign from God to wait for something else. The people I don’t know, who are at their weakest point sitting in jail with no hope, also urge me down that road. Faith, family, and purpose are the fuel.

Like Jason’s mountain-top view that opens up to the next peak, my arrival at this place and time appears to be at once a culmination and new beginning. No one is more surprised than I am. I really had no idea.

—Callie Grant, December 2021

Oil painting by Sue Gregory