DEAR READERS: When I meet people, the question I'm most often asked is how I know what I know.
People are curious to learn how I do my work as an advice columnist — and where I come by the confidence and sense to answer the myriad questions that land on my desk every week.
I'm not a psychologist, a trained counselor or a member of the clergy.
I got here the hard way, by living my life with as much integrity as I could muster and making my share of mistakes.
I traveled the back roads through marriage, divorce and personal disappointment. But I was paying attention, listening and learning how to be happy.
I've been touring the country recently to present my new book to readers. My book, The Mighty Queens of Freeville: A Mother, a Daughter, and the Town That Raised Them, (2009, Hyperion), is the answer to the question of how I know what I know. My memoir tells the story of my experiences as a single mother, raising my daughter with the help of the many women in our family.
These women — my mother, aunts and sisters — all reside in my small hometown of Freeville — a rural village of 458 hardy souls in the blustery region of upstate New York.
Through the years, when my own life has fallen apart — and it has, a few times — my family helped me pick up the pieces and reassemble them into something new. They comforted me, guided me and fed me bottomless cups of watery coffee while we all figured out what to do next.
My book is about how I struggled after my divorce, won and lost jobs, and how my daughter, Emily, and I learned from each other as we both grew up.
My family watched Emily careen her way through her youth, encouraged me to take chances with new careers, helped us pack boxes to move to new homes — and suffered with me through a 17-year odyssey of sometimes hilarious blind dates.
My childhood was spent on a dairy farm that failed in agonizing stages after my father left our family. As an adolescent, I watched as our possessions were auctioned off to the highest bidder. My mother pushed up her sleeves and went to work as a typist in an office to put food on the table. Then she put herself through college.
Just after my own graduation, I had the unique experience of attending my mother's college graduation ceremony. She later got a master's degree and retired as a college professor.
The funny, opinionated and quirky women in my family showed me by example how to live a good life. This was done gently, without judgment, and accompanied by the copious servings of casseroles and pie.
Regular readers of the "Ask Amy" column have had glimpses into my personal life as I have sometimes used my own experiences as a way to illustrate answers to reader questions. Now you can fill in the gaps.
My little book is being passed between generations of family members and shared in book groups. It is starting conversations between friends. Readers are writing to me to say that my story inspires them, or that it reminds them of their own story.
One of my proudest moments happened recently, when I stood in a bookstore parking lot in snowy Dayton, Ohio, and called my family to tell them that our story had become a New York Times best seller.
When people like the advice I give, they commend my common sense and small-town values.
But I contend that we all have common sense — and values are values, no matter the size of the town or the makeup of the family.
I come from a faith practice that values witness and testimony, and I've come to see my advice column as a place where strangers can tell their story and bear witness to each other. The willingness to share our stories has never been more important than it is now — when so many of us are facing tough times and uncertain futures.
My own story has a very happy ending, and it's the kind of ending each of us deserves and each of us can have — as long as we can take — and lend — a hand. With Mother's Day coming up, this would be a good time to locate the "Mighty Queens" in our lives — and thank them.
The book's Web site features opportunities to share your stories, along with a short film I made about my "Mighty Queens." Interested readers can click on www.mightyqueens.com or "follow" me on Twitter.
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