Relationships are like the flower bulbs we plant each autumn here in the Northern Hemisphere with the promise that they are living things and eventually will grow into a beautiful part of our daily journey. That’s the hope when we as parents meet our children again as adults. Whatever we thought these relationships were as we first nurtured them as children—they might someday surprise us in wondrous ways.
That’s the magic of Love Will Steer Me True, which Jane and Ellen Knuth have subtitled, “A Mother and Daughter’s Conversations on Life, Love and God.”
They’re talented writers and literally cut to the chase: The book opens with Ellen, as a young adult, on the verge of leaving her Mom behind in an airport in Michigan to start a new life in Japan as an English teacher. Jane bugs her daughter, as parents do, needling her anxiously until the two part.
Years later, the two women would look back over what happened in those years of separation, drawing from letters and journals and other records, and reconstruct chapter by chapter how they survived everything from a nuclear disaster in Japan to Jane’s sudden celebrity as a Catholic author back home. Perhaps more importantly, the book is about how they overcame Jane’s anxiety that Ellen wasn’t becoming a proper young Christian—until the two finally manage to meet again and regard each other for the first time as mature adults. Are you a parent? You’ll put down this book with a hopeful sigh.
And if that description doesn’t make you want to order a copy of this book, right now, then perhaps you haven’t stopped to think hard enough about the way that relationships in your own life have developed—and can develop—over the years. That’s really the second narrative in this book for each of us as readers—a host of personal echoes you are likely to hear in your own memory as you experience the words, the conversations and the experiences in the Knuth’s journey.
Here’s another reason to buy this book and support their work: The majority of people who read books with real-life spiritual themes are women, yet major publishers insist on pushing a majority of male writers our way. Some of those books are terrific. But, often, those books repeat our all-too-common pattern of a man standing up in a pulpit telling everyone how we should live our lives. It’s refreshing to discover such talented women writing such an engaging spiritual memoir—and, as readers, we should support these discoveries.
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed both Jane and her daughter Ellen Knuth. Here are …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH JANE AND ELLEN KNUTH
ON ‘LOVE WILL STEER ME TRUE’
DAVID: You two are so talented! Jane, you’re a math teacher and a community volunteer, and Ellen, you worked as a teacher in Japan for years. But you’ve also developed very compelling voices as writers. I’m not alone in saying that. Jane, your first book, Thrift Store Saints, was published while Ellen was in Japan and won praise nationwide. A lot of our readers would love to be able to write like you two. What’s your secret?
ELLEN: My mother always has been a storyteller. We were raised in the grand Irish tradition of telling stories around the dinner table. She had been writing magazine articles and other things like that for years before her first big book. I was in Japan when it was published, but when I got my copy of her book, I realized that these were the kinds of stories I might have heard around the dinner table. My mother just writes like she talks to people.
JANE: That first book did change my life and Ellen was on the other side of the world when it happened. The interesting thing is that both of us were teaching eighth graders when a lot of the events described in this book took place. One way we bonded was over our work as teachers.
As you’ll see in the book, we were not communicating very well in the beginning. I was talking on one level and she was talking on another level. This is the story of how our conversations became real again, how we could talk openly, authentically and come to a healing of hearts and relationships over several years. Finally, I asked Ellen if she would be willing to write a book with me and the experience really was fun.
‘I’ll PRAY FOR YOU’
(FOR BETTER OR WORSE)
DAVID: Here’s a good example and, I’ve said this to people myself: “I’ll pray for you.” As a Mom, Jane, I know you meant this to be reassuring. But as a daughter, Ellen, when you were younger and you were getting ready to head to Japan, this often sounded more like a threat than reassurance.
JANE: Before Ellen went away to Japan, we were able to talk on some levels. But if I mentioned God or I would say, “I will pray for you,” she would tense up.
She told me: “You don’t think I can handle this. You don’t think I’m an adult.” And I didn’t realize she was taking it that way. My religious language was placing a barrier between us that I didn’t even realize was contributing to a distance between us.
ELLEN: That’s true. When I was younger and Mom said, “I’m praying for you,” I equated that with worry. I realize that I tend to pray about things that are stressing me out—and when Mom would say that to me, it actually led to more stress in my life.
I would actually draw away from what she was saying. But then, when I moved to Japan, I came into my own adult life and I began to realize that prayer is another way of saying, “I love you.” Prayer is more than just worry and anxiety. As I began to understand prayer as an expression of support, I became more open to welcoming that. And that ties into the title of our book, Love Will Steer Me True. It’s thanks to love in many forms that we finally take our feet as adults and find our path.
One of my favorite Bible teachings is the one that deals with the difference between praying on street corners and praying in private. I’ve always defined religion as very private and personal in my own life. That’s where my prayer and meditation takes place. People who spend more time alone praying or meditating ultimately understand themselves better—and it allows us to look outside of ourselves in new ways. You can more readily identify with others and you can begin to see more ways to help and assist others. You’re more empathetic.
JANE: Christianity teaches us that we should spend private time with God and absorb that strength and wisdom and then that can flow through you.
DAVID: Prayer in families is very common. Our colleague, journalist David Briggs, recently reported in his column about research into religion that nearly 9 out of 10 Americans who are involved in their churches also regularly pray for their families. And among all American parents with teens, 8 out of 10 pray for their teens at least a few times a week.
JANE: That report doesn’t surprise me. I know that it’s easy, these days, to get the impression from TV that people aren’t praying anymore. But when I think about it: Every parent I know prays for their kids. I think most people are hopeful about their families and they pray about that. It’s nice to see a report like this one that confirms that lots of people are still praying.
ELLEN: And I’ve come to see that prayer as an act of love is very helpful. That’s different than prayer just as an act of worry. And it’s not good to get into an argument and threaten a person by saying: “Well, I’m going to pray for you!” That’s using prayer as an enforcement tool.
Actually, it can get into a situation in which people are praying counter to each other. In our family, we often pray: “May this come out as it should come out.” That acknowledges that often we cannot even fathom the best outcome in the situations in which we find ourselves.
INTO THE DISASTER AREA
DAVID: Let’s talk about a situation in which you found yourself, Ellen. You were working in Japan during the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. First of all, the town in which you lived and worked as a teacher was not in this part of Japan, but ironically your family background led you to want to help people remaining in that region. You volunteered to join one of the teams going into the disaster area to help out.
You bravely made a commitment that you would volunteer in that region, but then you admit in the book that you grew nervous as the trip approached. In one of the chapters you wrote for this book, Ellen, you say: “Now that a volunteer organization had agreed to take us on, the work boots have been purchased, and the departure date has been set, I’m pretty nervous. It has only now occurred to me that I have no experience, and by extension, no useful skills that can be applied to a disaster zone. What am I going to do? Emote over rubble? … For the first time ever, I regret not taking a single welding class. I’m also worried I won’t be able to handle being in an area of devastation. I’ve never had to face such a situation before.”
Then, after your chapter, Ellen, I had to chuckle at the chapter written by Jane, who was safe and sound back in Michigan. Jane says, “I am lighting a ton of candles this week.”
Then back to Ellen in the book: As it turns out, you quickly find useful work that you can do in that area. You and your teammates take on tasks like hauling fresh, safe water to people inside the zone. Can you tell us a little more about this—first Ellen?
ELLEN: The area in which we worked was not at the epicenter of the whole disaster. But we were in a devastated area and it was very tense to go through this whole experience. It’s hard when you’re inside a disaster area to be clear about the information coming in all around you. I had to chart my own course through this.
JANE: I was back here thinking: Oh my! You train your kids to be concerned about others and to help others and then your kid contacts you from Japan and says, “Mom, I’m going to volunteer to go into the nuclear zone and help out.”
Of course I had always wanted her to become a volunteer—but I was envisioning something like a nice safe soup kitchen! This was something so different than what I ever expected!
DAVID: In that volunteer effort, the real challenge turned out to be getting along with the other volunteers. I won’t spoil the book for readers, but the whole journey turns out to be tougher than Ellen imagined.
JANE: We were proud of her and amazed to learn about all she went through in that process. It was neat to see her come to a realization of why trying to work with a community of people can be so difficult. It’s not that people are bad; it’s just that relationships can be difficult and especially so under difficult circumstances. She began to understand something about why her father and I are still so involved in the church and in Christian community. It’s sometimes difficult, but we’re committed to it.
ELLEN: That experience was a turning point in my life in being able to make my own decisions, to chart my own course. It also was a big step in the process of my parents coming to respect my decisions as an adult.
JANE: Ellen never was what you’d call a rebel and we always loved each other, but there was a distance between us. This book is about the journey we were on together until we came to understand each other again as adults.
For me as a parent, it used to be that I would think about Ellen and that meant: I’m anxious! I’m worried about what is happening in my daughter’s life.
And now? I’m not worried when I think about my daughter. I’m curious.
ELLEN: In the end, one of the most important lessons we learned is that we all need to spend more time carefully listening to each other, rather than getting hung up on the differences we think we have. I hope this book will be read by people my mother’s age and people my age, too.