Wednesday, November 25, 2020

How is Our Thanksgiving in 2020 Reminiscent of the First Thanksgiving 399 Years Ago?

Almost 400 years have passed since the First Thanksgiving. It's hard to imagine that Americans in the 21st century could have much in common with a boat-load of people who hadn't yet gone through the Industrial Revolution, let alone comprehend the complexities of the computer age. How can we compare in any way to their world in 1621?

In many ways, we live in a society that bears no resemblance to the one the Pilgrims knew, but perhaps in the ways that count we aren't all that different. Those who set sail from England in the Mayflower and made landfall sixty-six days later in November 1620 had left their families behind not knowing if they would ever see them again. Surprisingly only one died on the open seas, though the ship suffered extensive damage during a tremendous storm. 

Replica of the Mayflower, Plymouth, Massachusetts

When the Pilgrims settled at Plymouth (Plimoth, as it was spelled then) a few weeks later, they didn't know how they would be received by Native Americans. In addition, they lived aboard the ship over the cold winter months, rowing ashore during the day to build houses and returning at night to sleep. Illnesses prevailed in the wet and frosty climate. Forty-six of the original 102 died from colds, coughs, and fevers. None of them knew if they would survive another year of life.

Plimoth Plantation, Plymouth, Massachusetts
Re-creation of the Original Farming Village

Given their many hardships, it would have been easy for the Pilgrims to get entangled, counting their woes rather than their blessings at their harvest celebration. Yet we discover from extensive diaries that their first harvest was abundant, thanks to God and the Native Americans who helped them survive. While their numbers were depleted, and they were far from home, they found much to celebrate.

Edward Winslow's account in the Pilgrims at Plymouth is telling. "...And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet be the goodness of God, we are so far from that we often wish you [those in England] partakers of our plenty."

It would not always be so, and troubles would haunt the Pilgrims' lives in later years--drought, diseases, dissension with native peoples. They would continue to experience difficulties and loss. But, as Winslow so eloquently stated, there was much to celebrate, and they would wish to share their plenty with whomever they could at their first harvest feast.

Thanksgiving will look very different for many of us this year. Perhaps our families who would normally travel to spend the traditional time together are not. Friends or loved ones have been lost to COVID. We feel their absence. Others are having a hard time making ends meet after the loss of a job or business. They wonder if they will survive through another year. I want to assure you that we join in your sadness.

Yet even in the difficult times, we can find a ray of hope in those things that we may have overlooked. In many ways, Thanksgiving celebrates the intangible as well as the tangible--the people we've had the privilege of knowing, the joy in the smallest thing like a snowflake, even life and breath itself. Last but not least, Thanksgiving celebrates God's goodness and mercy in spite of hard times and the hope of the abundant harvest yet to come.

Psalm 118:1 Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; For His mercy is everlasting!


Thursday, November 19, 2020

What do J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights have in Common?

Fans of the Harry Potter franchise may recall that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's (Philosopher's) Stone kicked off the film series in September 2000 with a final scene at Hogsmead Station. Hagrid waves goodbye to the students, having lived through their first year at Hogwarts. The scene foreshadows the future as they continue their magical journey.

Hogsmead Station actually exists, but it's otherwise known to North Yorkshire, England residents as Goathland Station. Goathland is en route on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, one of their beloved heritage railways.

Book Cover

Warner Brothers Studio London

Though Harry Potter and Wuthering Heights were written more than 150 years apart, they share a setting in West and North Yorkshire, in which nothing kindles the imagination so utterly as the wild and untamed moorlands. I can attest to this, since I have been there several times. 

The first time I visited the Yorkshire moors, I was 17 and a student at the United World College of the Atlantic in Wales. I had to write an English Literature paper for the International Baccalaureate (IB) degree and chose Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights as my subject. The academic work was a wonderful excuse to spend a school project week in Yorkshire.

Book Cover

Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth

Yorkshire Moors

My romantic notions blossomed as the train pulled into York. I found a bed and breakfast, and the next day took a bus to Haworth, the home of the Brontë Parsonage Museum. 

The tour of the museum and surrounding moorlands held my spirit spellbound. For as I walked the moors on that drizzly day, I happened upon a blind old man with a cap and a cane whose ancestors knew the Brontës. He delighted me with his stories and intrigued me with his words about life on the moors. 

Old Man Walking Away

Over the years, scholars of English literature have tried to interpret the milieu Emily created with such passion and sometimes violent intensity. When Wuthering Heights first appeared on shop shelves, many thought the story too "vulgar" (not refined). Others since have cast the story as a spiritual metaphor. Postmodern scholars congratulate her for being a feminist before her time. I'm not sure any of them got it right.

My own encounter with the old man proved to enhance my experience and gave me a small glimpse into Emily's world of Wuthering Heights. He told of cold bleak winters and mild green summers, the forces of nature and an awareness of the supernatural that life on the moors elicits. These are compelling and repulsive at the same time--like Heathcliff and Catherine.

I believe her sister Charlotte came closest to interpreting her sister's work in an 1850 preface to the book long after Emily had died at age 30. I give only snippets to save time and space:

"I have just read over Wuthering Heights, and...have gained a definite notion of how it appears to other people--to strangers who knew nothing of the author...unacquainted with the locality where the scenes of the story are laid; to whom the inhabitants, the customs, the natural characteristics of the outlying hills and hamlets...are things...unfamiliar...It is rustic all through. It's moorish, and wild, and knotty as a root of heath...her native hills were far more to her than a spectacle; they were what she lived in...circumstances favoured and fostered her tendency to seclusion; except to go to church or take a walk on her hills...Her imagination, which was a spirit more sombre than sunny, more powerful than sportive, found in such traits material when it wrought creations like Heathcliff, like Earnshaw, like Catherine. Having formed these beings, she did not know what she had done..."

And therein lies the mystery, the moors, the magical journey...

For my part, whether Emily knew it or not, she wrote one of the most evocative tales of the duality in all of us--the capacity to exercise great good and effect extreme evil. Walking the wild and untamed moors somehow allows one to ponder these things of humanity, God, and the universe.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Veterans Day: A Day to Say Thank You!

By now you're probably aware today is Veterans Day, if you live in or are a citizen of the United States. If you've Googled anything in the United States, you've seen an interesting rendering of what looks like an American Flag on the homepage.

But why do we celebrate Veterans Day?

Originally called Armistice Day, it was declared in celebration of the end of World War I, "the war to end all wars," when the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919 between Germany and our allies. In reality, the fighting had ceased on November 11, 1918. But after World War II and the Korean War, President Eisenhower signed the name-change into law on June 1, 1954. The specific day of celebration has changed through the years, but at the urge of veterans, the day came back to rest on November 11th.
A visit to the US Department of Defense website gives a brief history of this federal holiday and reminds the viewer that the correct way to spell Veterans Day is without the apostrophe, because "veterans" applies to all--not just one--veterans who have served "the country in war or peace -- dead or alive -- although it's largely intended to thank living veterans for their sacrifices." 

But what sacrifices have men and women and their families made over the generations and why?

My father, Joseph S. Chonko, WWII

Dad, Home on Leave, WWII

In 2003, our family made a trip to Washington D.C., among many other places such as Gettysburg and Boston, tracing our nation's historical roots on the East Coast. 

On the steps of the Capitol

Of note in the picture above, the statue on the top of the Capitol is referred to as the Statue of Freedom and is considered the "crowning feature of the Dome of the U.S. Capitol" by the Architect of the Capitol website. She stands 19 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 15,000 pounds on a cast iron pedestal.

Designed by Thomas Crawford before he died in 1857, the statue was erected in 1863. Though the architect of the Capitol Thomas U. Walter originally proposed a Goddess of Liberty, Crawford suggested an allegorical figure of Freedom Triumphant in War and Peace.

The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center describes her as wearing "a helmet encircled with stars and topped with an eagle's head and feathers, the talons hanging at either side of her face. Her long, curly hair flows down her back. Her dress is secured with a brooch with the letters 'US,' and she is draped with a fur-trimmed robe. Her right hand holds a sheathed sword, the left a laurel wreath of victory and the striped shield of the United States." The cast iron pedestal also contains the words E Pluribus Unum, Latin for "out of the many, one."

Freedom's crested helmet and sword suggest she is prepared to protect the nation from the encroachment of forces that wish to enslave her. She is ready at a moment's notice to fight and protect the freedoms Americans have so highly valued since the Revolutionary War.

Americans may still debate what those freedoms should look like and what form they should take, but out of our many opinions, we still all agree that they are worth fighting for.

So, to all those who've served and sacrificed to protect and defend us, we say "Thank you!"

An interesting aside: Canada and Australia still celebrate November 11th as "Remembrance" Day, and Great Britain celebrates the closest Sunday to that date.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

A Historic Journey of Faith and Courage From Italy to North Carolina

Have you ever visited a place that so intrigued you that you just had to find out more about it even after you returned home? In my case, it took a while, but I blame the magnificent setting at a lakeside hotel in Varenna, Italy on the shores of Lake Como for setting me on a path of discovery several years later. 

Foxe's book of martyrs dedicates one page to the Waldensians, yet these relatively obscure people had a great impact on Christian Europe during the second millennium A.D. and helped set the stage for the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Their story of enduring faith and valor high in the Cottian Alpscaptivated my attention. I had to return to Italy to investigate further.  (Right: Lake Como from the Villa Cipressi.)

I headed to the Waldensian valleys west of Turin, Italy to talk to local scholars and visit the many museums and sites dedicated to the Waldensian story throughout the region.                                                                                                                                                                          
Waldensian Headquarters, Torre Pellice, Italy

I began my quest at the Waldensian Museum of Torre Pellice, which provides a journey through eight centuries of Waldensian history, archaeology, and ethnographic development--their religious dissidence, the Protestant Reformation, Religious Wars, Waldensian exile and their Glorious Return, their grant of civil rights in the nineteenth century, and twentieth-century events that changed the way the church engages with the world. With these pictures in mind, I set out to roam the rest of the valley.

Monument, Oath Sibaoud, Bobbio Pellice

Some say this courageous group banded together in 1170 A.D. under Peter Waldo, who took a vow of poverty and wanted the pope to consider their grievances. Others have suggested that these great men and women of faith hail from the first-century church and carried on the traditions of their ancestors throughout the first two millennium A.D.

After spending a number of days combing the area, I became even more convinced the Waldensian story needed to be told. For whether the Waldensian narrative begins in 1170 A.D., as is the official church position, or, in fact, their ancestry is as ancient as the first-century church, it is a real-world drama that breathes life into a steadfast faith that stays the course no matter the cost.

Cave of Faith, Angrogna Valley

 Explanation of the Cave

Their story became the impetus for my contemporary romantic suspense series I self-published in 2015 and 2018. I wanted to create compelling circumstances for my protagonists in the present that mimicked a need to finish the race as their ancestors had done through their enduring faith and courage in the past.

A remnant of Waldensians still exists in their home valleys in Italy. They welcome visitors to step into the past and discover their historical roots. You can learn more about them at the foundation office or Chiesa Valdese. They would be more than happy to answer your questions. 

But one doesn't have to go that far if they live in North America. A community of Waldensians lives in Valdese, North Carolina. Each summer they reproduce their history in an outdoor amphitheater where they present the drama From This Day Forward. They've also constructed to scale an outdoor replica of the historical sites in Italy on their Trail of Faith. There are also other Waldesnian-related museums as well as things to do at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Visit their tourist office to get more information.

Mural Telling the Waldensian Story, Town Square, Valdese, N.C

                                               Replica of the Cave of Faith, Valdese, N.C.

If you'd like to know more about my contemporary romantic suspense Waldensian Series, you can visit my website at or go to

(P.S. Pope Francis made peace with the Waldensian faithful in July 2015, when he asked forgiveness for crimes perpetrated by the church in past centuries.)