In the City, part 1

city Christmas story

The bus lurched to a stop, nearly throwing the young couple standing at the front into the greenish windshield. The woman, who was not only pregnant but overdue, cried out as she stumbled into the metal handle that worked the doors. The man, off-balance himself, tried to steady her without falling down the corrugated stairs. He shot an angry look at the driver before they dismounted, but the driver only grunted as he swung the doors shut behind them and lurched back into traffic.

It had been a long trip, and they were not used to traveling. So they stood for a minute near the curb, their single battered suitcase in hand, not quite ready to enter the swift currents of people that flooded the sidewalks, not quite sure which direction they should aim for once they did. They had never been to Chicago before, and they wished they weren’t here now.

Joe and Mary Davidson were from tiny Princeton, Iowa. He was a welder, as his father had been. She was an old-fashioned girl, quiet and intelligent. Joe worked at the smallest branch division of a large, multi-million-dollar, nation-wide company, where he was one insignificant name way at the bottom of the organizational chart. In a world divided neatly into workers and bosses, Joe was clearly a worker.

It was Joe’s job with this company that had brought them to Chicago. A new, young Ivy-Leaguer had taken over at the top, and in a show of power thinly disguised as “company spirit,” he had decreed that everyone attend the annual convention. This year it was in Chicago.

Mary’s pregnancy was no excuse for Joe not to attend. Every employee, from CEO to mailroom clerk, was expected to be in Chicago this weekend. Whoever wasn’t could expect to find somewhere else to work come Monday morning. It was that simple. So Joe and Mary found themselves making the journey.

Still standing at the curb, they looked around for a few minutes in frustrated apprehension. Then they smiled weakly at each other, grasped hands, and stepped gingerly into the current, where they were quickly swept away by the tide of humanity.

Somehow they managed to find the hotel that had been booked by the company. Joe looked around in the lobby for anyone he knew or anything that seemed familiar, but, finding no one and nothing, he worked up the courage to face the desk clerk on his own. He waited quietly by the counter for the man to look up from his computer. After a few minutes of being ignored, he shifted his balance and tried to make an unobtrusive noise. The clerk looked up.

“Yes?” he asked, confused by the presence of someone like Joe in a hotel like this.

Having now got the man’s attention, Joe wasn’t sure what to do with it. “We’re—uh—we—,” he indicated his wife, “—we need someplace to stay,” he stammered.

“Sorry, we’re booked.” The man returned to his work. “Big convention this weekend. No rooms left.”

“Yes, see, that’s why we’re here,” Joe began. “We’re here for the convention.”

“Oh, why didn’t you say so?” The clerk put on his customer-service smile and looked attentive. “What’s the name?”

Relieved to finally begin feeling as if they belonged, Joe gave the man his name and waited while he looked up their reservation. He grew just a little bit worried as the clerk punched in code after code in an attempt to call up the Davidsons’ records. He wondered if everything was going to be alright.

city Christmas story
Original artwork by Sharon Ruane, copyright 2010. Artist note: “I like the jumbled city because it feels confused like Mary and Joseph do.”

Continued next week

Thanksgiving Top 5 (2015 edition)


One of the blessings of freelance work is the variety of jobs I get to do and the variety of people I get to work with. Each Thanksgiving it’s become a tradition for me to choose five projects from the past year that I’m particularly grateful for. This tradition gives me an opportunity to review my year, remember my work, and reflect on the good people in my life.

So, these are the…

Top Five
projects I was thankful to work on this year

Deer Creek Christian School branding

PrintDeer Creek is a small private school that had to re-think its identity in order to thrive rather than simply survive. By the time they contacted me, they had already done much of the groundwork—the key constituents had already been discussing values, vision, mission, distinctives, buy-in, and “living the brand.” They just needed help communicating it all. We started with business cards and then discussed the benefits and costs of direct mail, a quarterly newsletter, and social media. Their budget is small, but their dreams are big. Brainstorming with them was a reminder that a brand can succeed independent of budget, that investing in people doesn’t have to cost money, and that the process is as important as the goal.

Thank you Deer Creek!

Dying Like Jesus

It’s a real treat for me to work with someone who has his own ideas but also respects mine, because then a project becomes a true collaboration. Chris Spoor is an old friend, my former pastor, and a retired hospice chaplain. He began working on a book for people facing death, and he came to me for help editing the manuscript so he could submit it to publishers. We had many email conversations, but we also scheduled a number of phone calls—because Chris often wanted to discuss what I was doing to his book. Sometimes he disagreed with my editing choices. Sometimes he just wanted to understand my reasoning. And sometimes I had to re-think my editing when I heard what he was really trying to communicate. Through it all, because of our mutual respect, we were each able to contribute our best work, and no one’s ego got in the way.

By the way, the title is one example of how this kind of collaboration plays out. Chris did not have a title on his manuscript, and he was open to suggestions. I put Dying Like Jesus forth as a possibility. Chris wasn’t thrilled with it, but we used it on a couple of the submission proposals we sent in. Later, Chris suggested Seven Words for the End of Life as a title. I don’t think it has the same intrigue as Dying Like Jesus, but I’m willing to live with it for a while and see if it grows on me. Neither of us knows yet what the final title will be. Chris and I work well together because we both want what’s best for the book, and we both respect each other’s strengths. That kind of collaboration is rare, and I really appreciate it.

Thank you, Chris!

Living Springs sermon series slides

I maintain the website for Living Springs Community Church, and that gives me the opportunity to create banner ads for each new series of messages. Now, I don’t consider myself a “real” designer. That is, I don’t draw or paint or create my own designs. But I do like taking pieces of existing images and combining them to create something new, and I like choosing fonts that contribute to the message. The banners below are a few of my favorite creations from the past year:


I don’t often get a lot of lead time to create a banner, and sometimes the descriptions are kind of sparse. But Living Springs trusts me to work with whatever they give me and come up with something. (In fact, one of the pastors told me he’s always eager to see what I come up with!) There’s no routing process or approval committee, and I appreciate the freedom to just do my best to create a visual representation of an intangible concept.

Thank you, Living Springs!

Medi-Mex brochure

Brochure_MediMex_300When a friend and former co-worker asked me about updating a brochure for a nonprofit that provides medical supplies to impoverished areas of Mexico, she sent me as much resource as possible—their existing brochure, their Facebook page, a recent newsletter, and an explanation about the process their board would go through to accept and approve a new brochure. All of that, plus my own experiences in Mexico and with nonprofits, helped me write a brochure that uses story to connect donors and volunteers with the people who receive the supplies they bring.

I was given plenty of lead time, which is really helpful. In fact, the brochure pictured at right is only the first draft that I sent back in time for a December board meeting. I enjoyed the work I’ve done so far—playing with different type treatments, choosing compelling photos, and telling the Medi-Mex story in a new way that I think will be effective. Plus, it’s always fun to work with old friends.

Thank you, Michelle!

Oak Tree Leadership website

OakTreeLeadership_570Sometimes, it’s just fun to clean up code! When Jason Perry gave me access to his website, I could see that the code behind it was a mess. I spent a few hours sorting it out and cleaning it up, which I found strangely gratifying. Along the way, with Jason’s permission, I simplified and clarified his message by pruning duplicate information and organizing his many projects into logical categories. And I designed a less literal banner image (again by combining existing images and fonts) that conveys growth and leadership, with a new tagline that has dual layers of meaning.

(previous header image)

Working on websites is fun because the results are immediate and visual. Page by page I could see the difference I was making, and the end result was a clearer message via a more efficient website.

Thank you, Jason!

Other thanks

So far, my Top 5 list has never contained all the projects I’ve worked on in a given year. I hope you know that though my list is short, my gratitude is not. My thanks extends to all the interesting people who have requested my help with their interesting projects this year. I am grateful for the work, but mostly I appreciate your trust. Thank you.

I’m grateful, too, to all of you readers, subscribers, commenters, and friends who make up my online community. That community is very real to me, and I thank you for it.

My Thanksgiving prayer for all of you is that your tables will be filled with more than you need, your homes will ring with laughter and love, and your hearts will respond by blessing someone else even more generously.

Happy Thanksgiving, all!


Just sitting there

just sitting there

“People aren’t taking time for mental reflection anymore…they aren’t slowing down and stopping…they’re not just sitting there. When you have no external input—that is a time when there is a creation of self, when you can try and figure out who you really are. And then once you do that, you can figure out how to present [yourself] in a legitimate way, instead of just dealing with everything as it comes in.”

Amber Case, Cyborg Anthropologist
2010 TED Talk: We are all cyborgs now

I get annoyed by [usually older] people who make broad generalizations about younger generations who are too wrapped up in their phones and social media and the interweb. Yes, there is some truth to the stereotype, but much of the criticism is based on assumptions, such as:

  • All “young people” use technology.
  • Only young people use technology.
  • Young people use technology for frivolous reasons
  • Digital experiences and “real-life” experiences are mutually exclusive.
  • Real-life experiences are better than digital interactions.

I’m not going to address those fallacies in this blog, but I wanted to share them as a backdrop against Amber Case’s quote, above. The difference between Case’s criticism and most of the criticism I overhear is that Case is pointing out a real consequence—and it’s not a consequence of simply being young or of using your iPhone a lot.

It’s a consequence of too much input, from any source.

No matter how old you are, if you don’t have some time for “just sitting there,” you reduce your opportunities for defining yourself. Too much external input—whether from Facebook, or reality TV, or senior group outings, or sports clubs—prevents us from knowing ourselves and developing ourselves.

Too busy

busyI confess that I’m too busy right now. I don’t have time for “just sitting there” with my thoughts, and I think my writing is suffering.

I have about 42 blog posts in “draft” stage because I haven’t had time to just sit there and fully develop the thinking that prompted them. They remain half-formed, incomplete ideas. I don’t want to give up on them because I think they are important and potentially interesting. But I can’t release them into the world in their current state.

So for now, they are just sitting there.