When Pascuala Herrera published her memoir, “Not Always a Valley of Tears,” two years ago, she didn’t know how this new phase of her life would go. Herrera, a Franklin Park resident, wrote about living with a physical disability, moving to Chicago from Mexico with her family as a child and developing a 30-year career as an educator at Harper College in Palatine while raising a family.
Since then, she has written several more books and become a grandmother for the first time. She also took up gardening, something her mother always had done, after her mother died.
Now she has released a new book in English and Spanish, “Life Is a Garden to Cultivate: The ABC’s Towards a Better Life.”
Herrera spoke with Chicago Catholic staff writer Michelle Martin.
Chicago Catholic: How was writing this book different from writing “Not Always a Valley of Tears”?
Herrera: This book really came out of “Not Always a Valley of Tears,” because as I was doing presentations on my memoir, a common question that I received when I spoke was, “How do you overcome your challenges and keep going?” My response was, “We all have that ability. I’m not superhuman and I don’t have any special talents. It’s all a matter of how we choose to live our life.”
That’s when I started thinking about the idea for this book about — you know, if I were to give a recipe for how I do this, what would I say to people? Then to organize my thoughts, I thought the easiest way is to do it was through the alphabet.
What I decided to do was be very honest and say where my own pitfalls were. That’s the interesting thing about life. Just like a garden, it’s never done or complete. You don’t just plant things and then you’re done. You always have to be doing something, and that’s true for humans as well.
We can’t just say, “OK, I did everything I could. I’m retired now. I’m done with life.” No, life is constantly looking around you and working on it. I still struggle, and I hope this book helps people to realize that.
Chicago Catholic: You said when you decided to organize this book around the alphabet, you made sure to pick words for each chapter that have the same first letter in Spanish and English. Was that difficult?
Herrera: Some letters were easy because there were so many choices, but for some letters there were very few and I had to be creative. I usually start off with writing in English, but sometimes there wouldn’t be a Spanish word for what I wanted, so I had to choose something else because I knew I wanted to do a bilingual book.
Sometimes I actually rewrote chapters, like for R I did “responsibility” and then I thought it sounded too similar to other chapters that I had already written, so I scrapped it and then I started “respect,” and I wrote it all, but I realized I already talked a lot about that in other chapters, so I ended up with “resolutions.”
That’s how it went with some chapters; with others, off the bat, I knew what I wanted to write about. “Attitude” was my first chapter, and I really wanted to write about attitude because I think it’s the one thing that we all have power over.
Chicago Catholic: What did you learn from writing this book?
Herrera: I definitely learned my weaknesses and the things that I need to work on. One of my issues is this whole feeling of time, and feeling like I have to keep proving myself. I struggle with quietness and just being still. I feel like I have do, do, do, and in writing the book, I realized that it’s OK to be quiet and to rest and to reflect and just be still, and it’s OK to not feel comfortable doing it.
When I started the book, I never thought I’d create my own personal creed. That was something that resulted after writing, not to worry so much, to laugh more, to not speed up time. I’m always thinking, “Ten more days until this or that.” I believe as a Catholic and as a Christian that all we have for sure is today, so definitely that is one area that I need to work on.
My daughter graduated from college, so we told her we would take her on a vacation and we’re going on a cruise next week. I’ve been so busy looking forward to it, but there’s a lot of good things happening now. Why do I have to wait until I’m on the cruise to by happy?
Chicago Catholic: What do you hope your readers learn from this book?
Herrera: That we are all here in this world to do the best we can with our lives. We can’t just be dependent on what happens to us and we can’t blame our circumstances or God or others for what happens in our life. Yes, we weren’t all born equally. You know there’s poverty, there is pain, there’s suffering, but in whatever life situation we’re in, we have some power to make the best choices for our lives. I reflect a lot on how people who seemingly should be suffering more or be more sad or depressed seem happier than those who are wealthy and have everything. I concluded that it’s because we individuals don’t really take into heart our own ability to direct our own lives.
I also hope that people learn that prayer or reflection is important. To me, I pray by reflecting on where I’ve been, where I want to go, what I did right, what I did wrong.
Chicago Catholic: You said you took up gardening in honor of, or in memory of, your mother.
Herrera: Yes. It was also as a result of writing the memoir, which was about my struggles and how I try not to use the disability as an excuse. For years, I depended on my mom to beautify my garden because we were next door neighbors. When she passed away, everything started looking drab and dark. So I said, “Why can’t I do gardening?” Certainly I can modify my space, like I did in my home and how I did things as a parent, so why not modify my yard?
I got a landscaper to build raised beds for me and put in concrete paths so that I could roll up to them. It wasn’t a big investment, because I have very creative friends who helped me.
This will be my third year, and I’m like excited about it, because I learned what my mom meant in how she viewed her life and how she really did enjoy the analogy of flowers and how beautiful they can be, and how they bring joy, and how there is always work to be done. … I wrote the whole book in my garden as I was gardening. I would sit there, thinking about a chapter, and I hadn’t come up with the title yet, then I would look at a plant, and say, “Oh, I’d better move it — those leaves are kind of dying. Let me move that one to the shade.” That’s exactly what we need to do in life: We have to make our changes and sometimes we thrive, sometimes we wilt, but then we do what we need to do to fix that. That’s where I came up with the title that “Life Is a Garden to Cultivate.”
Father Edward Dowling was a Jesuit priest who ended up becoming the spiritual advisor to Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, at a pivotal time. Despite not being an alcoholic, Dowling found a spiritual family in AA.
David Kennebeck had a front-row seat to the transformation of St. Mary of the Annunciation Parish during the first six years of the pastorate of Father Ron Lewinski. After Lewinski’s death, Kennebeck decided to tell the story of how Lewinski changed St. Mary of the Annunciation Parish. His book, “The Pivotal Pastor: Ronald J. Lewinski, Mission and St. Mary of the Annunciation Parish,” was released in November.
Father John Cusick, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and former director of the archdiocese’s Young Adult Ministry office, is the author of “Emmanuel: God-With-Us; Reflections on the Mystery of Christmas” (Corby Books, 2021). He wrote the collection of essays and reflections over his 52 years of priesthood. He never had any intention of publishing many of them, he said; he wrote them for himself, an exercise to help him approach the mystery of Christmas anew each year.