Christine the Storyteller

“As a young child,” Christine wrote about herself, “I was so quiet and reticent that my maternal grandmother thought there was something wrong with me. I suppose I lagged on those charts that they now use to track baby’s progress, at least in terms of speech. But thrown in the Wiebe household, always thick with books and conversation, I eventually learned to talk and read children’s books.” She adored Blueberries for Sal, and Blue Willow, and many more.

The trauma of losing her father when she was six years old reinforced Christine’s tendency to turn inward. Although she infrequently spoke, she listened intently. Her spirit communed with the wild things in her environment – trees, birds, flowers, butterflies. All her life, she was inwardly delighted with simplicity, with anything beautiful – a colorful afghan our mother crocheted for her, clean sheets after a warm bath, the curve of a line on a white page, colors, lazy summer afternoons fishing with her brother, a song line, moving her body in a prayerful dance, a cloud shapeshifting across the sky. Her sensitive soul was attuned to the thoughts and feelings of others, and she often identified with emotional distress and deeply wanted to help people feel better physically and spiritually.

Christine was a beautiful pale blonde child, a sweet, quiet, passive, dutiful, thoughtful, pious child. As a senior in high school, she struggled under a stern music teacher, anxiously witnessed the Sturm und Drang of her older sister’s individuation from her strong-willed mother, happily looked forward to wearing a dark blue crushed velvet bridesmaid’s outfit at her other sister’s marriage, started feeling aching joints, then found herself in a hospital bed, diagnosed with a disease with a long, strange name. It was during this time that she began writing a journal – a red Kahil Gibran Diary for 1972. Her first entry: “My ultimate goal is love which springs from a pure heart and a clear conscience and sincere faith.” And so began a lifetime of writing. One of her early journal entries, in 1972, was a record of our discussion of what it would take to follow a vocation of writing, something that drew us both. We knew from observing our mother at her typewriter that it would take discipline, hard work, and awareness of ourselves and the things around us.

joanna and christine
Christine also read and re-read, and copied into her journal, a letter which our late father, Walter William Wiebe had written to me in 1960, when he was away from home working on his Master’s degree.

“Poets,” he wrote, “differ in vision and feeling. Being a poet is a quality of the soul.

“1.) Sensitivity, and sympathy towards things and people

“2.) Intensely aware of life. He responds to these things as the other keys on a piano when one is struck – sympathetic vibrations.

“3.) Vision, which is awareness plus insight and understanding of deeper meanings of the things the poet is aware of.

“The poet sees beyond time. He is the describer, interpreter, and prophet, all in one.”

Chris said, “The idea of creating something is exciting to me, but I need more experience to evaluate it better. I think I will try it for awhile to see if I am a writer.”

Christine eventually practiced nursing as a way to support herself, and creatively heal spirits and bodies. Yet over the ensuing years, the tug to write—and also draw, and dance, and make music – was strong.

November 19, 1978 (Christine’s 24th birthday)

The gospel (in mass) was the parable of the talents. This story has been very meaningful to me as I think about my gifts and what I should do. Hearing it on this special day burned the desire deeper in my soul. I know I’ve been given gifts of writing, music, speech and drama. I am so careless with them, even burying some in the ground. Today’s gospel was a question for me: What are you doing with the gift of life? It was also a prod to get moving, creating, writing, singing.

January 8, 1979

I’m glad I’m doing more writing. There’s a part of me that gasps for air if I do not listen to its response to each day.

February 26, 1980

When I grow up

I want to be a person

who rocks babies
and laughs at ironies
and travels far to
India and England
to stand in awe before
Cathedral and temple
and runs to meet her confidantes
who drinks tea before bed
and doesn’t hold tightly to things

but grows ever more giving

and ever more aware of the

world family.

I want to love very much
this life in front of me.

I want to write about it all.

February 28, 1980

I eat poems for breakfast

April 8, 1979

It is painful to write. To search one’s heart and dredge the darkness for a few treasures, buried, thoughts, discarded metaphors. Painful to bring it all to life again.

Nov. 15, 1981

I think I should go ahead with writing, even though I don’t know what thing I could do with it. It seems important to follow this quiet, elusive, insistent, urge to write. Nursing is so easy. What do you do? people would ask me. I am a nurse. How comfortable to have my little tag. But to say, I write – what is that? What do you write? I write stories. How nice, they may say, thinking, how lazy. Writing is so much harder. But at least it is something I feel I could do very well – better than many.

December 3, 1981

I told Jeff yesterday I was thinking of dropping the MFA idea and going into nursing. He thought it was a great idea. As I told him, I felt some release and some excitement. I don’t want to sit by myself at a desk for the rest of my life. Right now I think I’ll go in the nursing direction, and it’s exciting. I feel free to write what I please, and do a thousand other things.

February 2, 1982

Just now had a sudden realization/admission that I don’t want to write artsy stories to impress other adults. I want to write, but I’m still not sure what. I’m more of a realist. Don’t want to write unless it’s tremendous, poetic, inspired, must be written.

April 16, 1982

In an essay by Annie Dillard I discovered something that hit home: “If you want to write you have to go after your life with a broadax . . .” My immediate thought was, “I should not go into nursing; it would leave no time to write. I should place writing above all else. Get a part-time job and write.”

But there are people who have had other professions and still had time to write. Doctors, scientists . . . And it seems to me the best way to write is to become embroiled in life. If I’m always standing back, viewing from a distance, saying, “I don’t need to get involved because this isn’t my true occupation, “ I will fail to learn some things. And furthermore when she says: “Go after your life with a broadax” I immediately thought in general terms. It’s true I should not plan too frantic a career, but I also must plan time to write this day. Go after today with a broadax.

March 8, 1983

Last night I had a wonderful thought about what I can do after I become a nurse: get a creative writing degree. Surprising I didn’t think of it before, but midwifery loomed so large I didn’t have room for writing. Now that I’m going to Northwestern and will be through in 1 ½ years, I feel more space. In fact I see my whole life stretching before me, and know I’ll be dissatisfied if I do not answer a deep call within myself. There are stories in me, but so far they are only shadows.

January 30, 1985

What’s the best that could happen? I would have regular and fairly lengthy times of solitude in which I would reflect, read, write, draw and create. I would write poems, articles and stories. I would have friends who write and we would encourage each other and learn from each other. I would write and illustrate children’s stories.

March 18, 1985

Today I realized that all the pain I’m going through is only part of a book I’ll write. I know why the caged bird sings. It is because she knows she’s going to die.

March 17, 1987

A little thought, maybe not so little: I was sitting in my red chair wishing for someone in my life to say, “You really should be writing, Christine.” It came to me that I have to reach a point when I can say that to myself – when I take myself seriously. I’ve gotten so much praise in the last 24 hours, but it partly feels empty or unimportant. So I am a good group leader? So I am sweet and kind? So I am attractive to men? If I wrote a story or poem and was praised for it, that would mean something.

September 28, 1988

I’m enjoying the choir but it gets so late, and I’m always tired on Thursdays. This has been a frequent conflict: deciding between something I love to do (music), something I have to do (work), and my health.

Dec. 10, 1988

If there is one thing I want to do, what is it? Write poems, learn to draw, pray.

Jan. 31, 1990

Part of me sits down to write, and the other part says, “How long do I have to sit here? Please let me go and do something easier. I want to eat lunch.”

April 20, 1990

At a Writer’s Conference in Kalamazoo, Michigan – I am inspired to write again, “to develop an ecology of living that includes writing,” as Peter Ingalls said.

July 19, 1990

Mother sent me an encouraging letter about writing. She also said, “You are being healed in more ways than one.”

July 27, 1990

I don’t know why it is that when we start talking about books I feel so wonderful. I thought tonight that this is what we will do in heaven; sit around and eat and retell stories and ask questions and laugh and eat some more. Then I realized that this was heaven.

October 1, 1990

Doubt comes between me and becoming really brilliant.

In the summer of 1991, Christine took a vacation at my Connecticut home, during which time she told me, “I don’t know if I want to be a nurse anymore, I’m sick of seeing sick people, and if I could do anything, I’d write and draw.” I invited her to extend her stay to three months, so she could do just that. She said, “If I stayed for three months, I’d never go back to Chicago.” She liked living with me, in my little Cape Cod house, surrounded by quiet and green trees. She said, “Here I can say anything I want.” We watched The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Avalon, saw no less than twelve July Fourth fireworks across Long Island Sound, visited Ellis Island, told each other our dreams. She wrote every day in her journal. She also wrote poetry, and an article for her church bulletin. She drew a wonderful little picture of Aries, our cat. And after twenty days she flew back to Chicago, to re-enter her high-energy job as a nurse. There are numerous reasons for going back to Chicago, she said. But above all, she said she still felt she was called to be a healing person in a spiritual context, which “has more pull than anything else I’ve done, and I want to do it. I think my energy for this has a lot to do with my development as an artist, which is the pull I feel here.” As she spoke, the light changed from clouded to luminous in the evening haze.

As a writer, she had to work through the separation of her true call to write, with the message we received from our mother and father that we needed to write to reach our potential. The message that our writing was a way to “save the world”. Our father worked under the motto, “A drop of ink can make a million think.” Christine once said, “I sometimes wonder if I am just writing because Mother did, and I have to do something of equal difficulty.” But at various times, Christine realized that she had her own reasons for writing:

“I write because I have to let off steam. I write because I have to say something. I write because I can enter other worlds and invite friends to do the same.”

“I write because I love leaving a trail of wet ink. I like to see the words form under my wiggling pen. It’s magic. I write because I like to be alone in the afternoon when the sun is coming through the venetian blinds onto the ferns in the living room. I write because I like to be alone now in the evening, with the calls of children ricocheting in the dark. I love to savor this solitude.”

“I write because I’ve had an interesting life so far, and I’d like to tell the story. I write because I am starting to hear other stories, but I want to take the time to hear them. I write because I don’t know how else to make sense of my life.”

September 8, 1991

I haven’t written any stories lately, but I don’t feel unhappy about it. I’m having too good a time with everything else. (She was leading a Healing Arts group for her parish – 35 people showed up for the first session)

October 20, 1991

I need a computer. I have known this for a while, but it is becoming clearer to me. If I want to write on Tuesday and Friday, I need a computer. I talked with Diane…and said I would like to write and illustrate children’s books. I know I would enjoy it, because I’ve already enjoyed it. I find my present work very satisfying, but mostly because of the creation involved. I think I am pretty good with individuals in need but there is a certain element of fear in those interactions. I am pretty much a loner. Some of my happiest times are alone. I have always thought about writing. Today I believe in myself. I feel sometimes my times with people who need me are distractions from my first love.

September 6, 1993

“The line of words feels for cracks in the firmament.” – Annie Dillard

That is helpful as I try to write my story. I wrote eight pages this weekend. Is it good? Maybe some of it. More time! I want more time.

Do not hurry. Do not rush.

Do not worry. Keep to the task.


Thanks for stories.

Thanks for time and space.

I feel when I write that I am blind, and I am slowly feeling with a cane over a path of words, or images.

Sept. 12, 1993

I stayed at home and wrote this morning. I feel so good when I do it. It seems to do more for me spiritually than going to church.

Oct. 16, 1993

I haven’t quite found my rhythm yet! I feel a certain desperation when I am not writing, and some urgency when I write. Back to my garden. There is lots of time. Only those I allow can come in. I can relax. No one can take this writing from me now – not even myself.

September 24, 1993

“We are preparing for bed … in Liberal, a city on the rim of Kansas. Outside rain patters by the basement window. The lights have gone out, so we are writing by candlelight. Our red Le Baron convertible is parked outside, filled with the flotsam of a day’s travel. We drove to Greensburg, and saw the world’s largest hand-dug well. I climbed to the bottom, felt the cool stone blocks, and threw a penny in the water. I wished that I would publish a story this year. “May your wish be as big as this well,” Diane called from the stairs. More than one story published? A book? A famous magazine?

Oct. 1, 1993

(In Taos, NM)

I feel a call to write and draw. I want to do it so badly. How? How? How to disengage myself from nursing? ‘Don’t think. Don’t stop. Just paint.’ When I get away from normal life, the desire is so strong. I feel trapped when I get home.

In 1994, Christine and her friend Cindy Snider shared an exciting day touring Chase County with a cowboy guide. Christine was overcome with the beauty of the Flint Hills, and wrote a travel report which was printed in the local newspaper. She had begun a graduate level creative writing program at Wichita State University, and was happily engaged in writing the story of her life since she first contracted systemic lupus erythematosis (SLE) in 1971, and how she managed to stay alive with that wolf inside her. But then she experienced a cardiac arrest. Her heart was caught with arrhythmias, pulsing rapidly, but not letting any blood through. As with her earlier health crises -- a kidney infection, a massive heart attack at age 30, and a mild stroke in 1990, angina, a botched angioplasty, and ongoing struggles with the long-term effects of the disease and the adverse effects of medications such as gout, osteoporosis, congestive heart disease, arthritis and cataracts -- the cardiac arrest also arrested her writing career.

In fact, she had to learn to physically write again. Her coordination was so poor that she could barely read what she had scrawled in her journal. But she was writing again – daily journal entries which detailed each small step toward healing, following guidance from her holistic and allopathic healers, from Dr. Andrew Weil’s book Spontaneous Healing. She described her progress in learning the meditative practices of Centering Prayer taught by Fr. Thomas Keating. She paid attention, writing her small steps forward in her journal. And the steps backward. “Healing is a bit like climbing a mountain: long upward stretches, a few steep descents, then more steps upward. Eventually you get to the top and can see for miles. There are even great lookouts from rocks along the way.” Next, she began to write letters to her family and many friends. Christine often would write out the letters in her journal, pray over them, and revise them, sometimes several times, before copying out a final draft. But beyond these letters and journal entries, in a tight, shaky, crabbed script so unlike her earlier graceful, legible cursive, she thought her life as a writer had ended. In 1998, Christine began the practice of yoga, also suggested by Dr. Weil. From the first day, she saw that the yoga exercises made her stronger, so she continued the practice. That fall, with a group from the Church of the Servant, she began working through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Faithfully and joyfully she wrote the three pages of journal writing each morning, writing anything that came into her head.

January 16, 1997

I wrote to Diane today and I read The Life You Save May Be Your Own (by Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic writer Christine greatly admired, who also had lupus) and made meatballs with spaghetti sauce which I will serve tomorrow when Cindy comes. I am doing many things that I enjoy, but little that will help others. I want to find something I will do that will be useful.

I still think writing stories will be the best thing. If I could write a true story, I would have accomplished much.

February 25, 1997

I went with Donna to Taco Grande because I have only $4. It was sunny and pleasant and we talked about the difficulty women have in affirming themselves . . . I have fought off a good part of it, but there is still the thought that I am not good enough. I never achieved great things as a nurse or a writer. We discussed what our missions were. I said that I wished God had spoken to me when I had the cardiac arrest. Now I wonder if perhaps she did, and it will take me a lifetime to figure out what was said.

I believe my mission is to tell stories.

March 31, 1997

My brushes with the afterlife have made me feel that it would be wonderful to go home. This world is not my home, heaven is. But every time I die, I’m more convinced that I want to stay alive.

I want to stay alive to tell stories.

March 12, 1998

“Maybe I should not lay aside my desire to write. This morning I read the parable of the fig tree. The owner wasn’t willing that it produce nothing. Let me give it a little fertilizer and give it one more year, he said. Perhaps my life is a little like the fig tree. What have I produced? Nothing that I can think of. I’ve been kind and loving to some people, and that is good. And perhaps God thought I’d had enough chances, and thought it was time to take me home. But maybe I pleaded with God to give me one more chance and another year. Rita Roble (her spiritual advisor) said the purple circle that I see when I meditate could be a sign that I need to create. That felt helpful. She also said that I was healed because there is still something for me to do – or be, she added. That was helpful too.

March 19, 1998

I read a passage from Mere Christianity in which C.S. Lewis states that pride is the greatest sin. It struck me, for I see that I am beset by pride. I wanted to be the great writer, to do something wonderful with my life in the Catholic church. Now I am pretty far from Catholics, and I will not write anything great. I am brought low. And yet God is near.

March 21, 1998

I cleaned my desk today. I’m not quite sure where the strength came from. My desk has been a mess for months, years even.

August 23, 1998

A few months ago I could not write

The delicate muscles in my hand

hung onto the edges of the letters,

stopped in the middle of words

although my brain saw the

graceful route they should flow.

Writing now flows easily,

but still with the constant pressure

Nov. 23, 1998

One of my dreams is to convince my doctor and hopefully a bunch of other people that there is much we should learn and use about alternative therapies. If I could only convince them.

Tell your story as well as you know how.

Nov. 26, 1998

Today it feels like I should tell my story to the doctors, but I am afraid they would say, “an interesting case study” and go back to their forecast of doom.

No. I’m not going to die until I’m good and ready.

Jan. 16, 1999

I have given myself to various groups and volunteer activities, which have been great, but now I wonder about writing. Will I ever reach my secret writing garden?

I am in it. I can write morning, noon, and night in the silence that collects around me.

What shall I write, God?

Tell your story, from the first to the last.

Jan. 17, 1999

Carol said that the editor of The Mennonite was open to publishing articles by women, but few women offered. I wonder if I could write something for the Mennonite paper. About prayer? Funerals? Death and dying? Being a Catholic in a Mennonite world? I am thinking now that I can write for some of the smaller publications, while I wait to be published on a book level . . . I think one place will lead to another.

February 14, 1999

Today in church I said, “It’s very hard to deal with these things when death is close by.

Don S. then said, “Yes it is, when you’re feeling bad about yourself.”

That wasn’t what I said. I said when your energy drains away. But I certainly felt bad about myself. All my desires cut off. I had done very little of what I felt called to do.

And what did you feel called to do?

Write my stories, history, unleash the secrets from my past.

Draw, make pictures. There’s a part of me that wants to do that.

Dance. I once thought of being a liturgical dancer.

Write (right – another sign) now I feel called to work toward healing.

June 29, 1999

My legs are very tired. This morning I mailed 25 pages of my book How to Stay Alive to Amy Hertz, an editor at a New York publisher. But that didn’t tire me much. It was going to the Drivers License Examining station and standing up for 45 minutes, maybe an hour, while I waited for my turn. It was fairly simple to get a validated license, with a new photo and my new address. I felt thankful that I could stand all that time with my heart steady. Now if only my feet would settle down, or rather redirect the fluid to my kidneys and bladder and out my urethra.

July 2, 1999

I wonder how my book will do. I have high hopes for it. I wonder about starting a writer’s group. But then I think, I’ll probably be the best writer there, and get no encouragement to go forward.

Write, my little one, write.

I will create a writing time. In the morning.

The early morning is good, although I often sleep in or go for a walk.

It seems to me I have been given a big story about healing. I would like to be able to write it down, so that others would see it as a possibility for them. If my Aunt could see it. That is my hope. She has, a little bit. She sounded hopeful on the phone. I’d like to tell her about the blessing of being, accepting handouts. God loves you just as you are.

Write. You are working on a major work. No, it’s not the book you finished and you won’t have all the pieces for a few years, but keep writing.

In her copy of Neil Donald Walsh’s Conversations with God, Christine bookmarked a page which contained the advice that “Thought control is the highest form of prayer. Therefore, think only on good things, and righteous. Dwell not in negativity and darkness. And even in moments when things look bleak—especially in those moments—see only perfection, express only gratefulness, and then imagine only what manifestation of perfection you choose next. In this formula is found tranquility. In this process is found peace. In this awareness is found joy.”

Just as Walsh described, Christine was very conscious of the importance of the stories she told herself. “Why am I still alive?” she would ask herself. Her sister Susan, a medical doctor, has written, “For many years, she thought that her active denial of the disease was responsible for her continued survival. The forecast of doom (severely shorted life expectancy) was always there, but she “didn’t live in that story.” Instead she created for herself a life story in which the main characters are health and wellness rather than illness and disability. As her sister, I have seen that she does not deny the reality of lupus in her life. In fact, she is always very clear about the facts of her health status and the discipline required to maintain a health-promoting lifestyle. Over the years she has developed a gift for selectively focusing on the most positive aspects of her life experience – enjoyable relationships and creative experiences. This precarious balance of knowing the hard truth but choosing to live in a better place is the defining reality of her life.”

Our cousin Rebecca wrote me soon after Christine died, telling me about her “first and only summer” with her. They were in Atlantic City with a group of Tabor College students, all getting some experience in East Coast city life while they earned some money as hotel and restaurant employees. They shared a tiny, long room, with Christine in a big twin bed near the door and Rebecca in a comfortable cot at the foot of her bed, all in a line. One afternoon after her morning shift in the restaurant, Rebecca came into their room to see Christine busy drawing and coloring butterflies. There were pictures of butterflies all over the room. “I didn’t know what to make of it,” Rebecca said. Decades later, as Rebecca herself was hanging about eighty ten-inch butterflies all over the church where she was ministering, she realized that Christine had been praying. “God must have heard her prayers! Chris has crawled out of the chrysalis any number of times and spread her beautiful wings—and we’ve all been awed at her resurrection.”

I feel sad when I see the unfinished stories Christine left, the poem fragments, the stacks of journals and letters in which she proclaimed over and over again her love of writing. With a healthy body and a longer lifespan, Christine would have matured into an accomplished writer with many publications and a wide audience. Yet she did tell a story, a true story. In living a life of increasing consciousness and integrity, she told a story that was tremendous, poetic, inspired, and must be written.

Undated journal entry:

“I have lived through a novel in the past year. I have emerged from it, not unscathed, or rather, been born from it, still showing traces of blood.”

JW, September 12, 2010, Evanston, Illinois

About the Author

Joanna Wiebe

Joanna Wiebe obtained a degree in journalism in 1976 from the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas, and worked as a writer at the Wichita Eagle & Beacon and The Sun, in Wichita, Kansas. She has worked as a freelance travel writer, a ghostwriter for the William Morris Agency in New York City, and has written materials for high-tech companies such as Pitney Bowes, IBM, Apple Computer, Gartner Group. She also taught technical writing at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario. In 2005, she became an Information Architect for Orbitz Worldwide. She has also authored poetry, essays, and book reviews. Her first book is Wild and Precious Life,a memoir of her trip to Guatemala in 1976. She is at work on a second memoir about the summer she lived as a teenager at Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, IL. She has two blogs: www.joannawiebe.com and www.onemind.com