Gray Days

It has been cloudy and cold this entire month. I moved to Florida to get AWAY from this weather, but it occasionally finds me. Looking out at the gray clouds see in the picture reminded me of a time from my past, a week of gray, cold weather when I was a teenager. This was before I had ever heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which I believe is part of what was going on with me. It is a short story that you may be able to relate to. 

It was late January my freshman year in high school. As I sat in the front passenger seat of the car in the school parking lot, I looked out at the gray sky and shivered.

Heavy, dark gray clouds hung below the lighter grey sky. It was hard to tell where they ended and the gray concrete blocks of the building began. Even the trees, bare of their leaves, were a grayish black. How many shades of gray were there?

It had been this way for about a week, and I wondered when it would end, even if it would end. I could handle cold if there was at least some sunlight to warm my soul, if not the air.

The cold gray outside reflected how I felt inside – dull and lifeless. All I wanted to do was crawl into bed, pull up the covers, and not emerge until it was sunny and warm, there was color to be seen, and my soul brightened up.

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Painted Bones

Growing up in the country, we always had a couple of dogs, our version of an alarm system. For a treat, Momma would give them bones leftover after cooking roasts and pork chops, and they’d carry them into the yard and happily gnaw on them for hours. Sometimes my sister and I would step on them while playing outside. It hurt for a minute but was just a part of our life.

Until that afternoon.

I was five or 6, my sister three years younger. Daddy was mowing the yard, and Great-Aunt Kate, who lived with us, was walking around outside checking on her chickens and flowers. Suddenly, there was a loud “clunk” as the mower picked up a bone and forcefully threw it out the side of the mower and into Aunt Kate. Daddy stopped the mower and jumped off while yelling to Momma to come help. Aunt Kate had been badly hurt.

After they got her in bed, my sister and I were given the job of walking through the yard and picking up all the pieces of bones we could find, to prevent this happening again. As we found bits and pieces, we proudly piled them on the steps to the back door. When we thought we had found them all, I told Momma, who thanked me and told me we could go back to playing.

My sister, however, had another idea.

Gathering her watercolors and brushes, she proceeded to paint the bones we had collected. Nothing fancy, just transparent blotches of colors on the dirty, chewed bones. Momma came out as she was finishing, and oohed and aahed over them, telling her what a good job she had done.

A few days later, a friend visited to see how Aunt Kate was doing. As Momma described all that had happened, she showed her the painted bones. The friend looked at them 0and said, “how creative!”

It was creative to see the bones differently, not as trash, but as a canvas to create on. It was creative take something that had caused pain and beautify it. And what I felt was that since I didn’t think of it, I was not creative. I think I’ve always believed that you either are creative, or you aren’t. It isn’t something to be learned or developed. And since I didn’t have the idea to paint the bones, I wasn’t creative.

Every time I have difficulty writing my stories, my first thought is I’m not meant to be writing and need to just move on to something else. Every time I look at Instagram and see the beautiful photographs, see the creative ideas people have for sharing their stories, I wonder why I have trouble coming up with ideas to post, and think, yet again, that I’m not creative. But I am tired of holding myself back, tired of assuming I’m not creative and want to challenge the assumption I’ve held for too many years.

I want to expand my definition of what creativity is. It isn’t just about seeing old bones as a surface that can be decorated. Taking leftovers and making a good meal out of them is creative. Finding a way to bring in more money is creative. Finding a way to change your life, however slowly, is creative. Some of us may naturally be more creative, but it is a skill we can all learn. Maybe it is more like a muscle that needs to be exercised, developed, refined.

In 2018 I want to challenge myself to explore being creative. Tell myself, as often as I need to, that I am a creative person. Accept that some days writing is hard, and keep working on it anyway, because that is what creative people do – keep working and trying different things.

Let’s see where a creative mindset will lead me!

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Toy Trains

Christmas morning in front of tree with toy train on floor

Christmas morning in front of tree with toy train on floorI don’t remember Christmas when I was two years old. Pictures show me smiling as I sit on my new tricycle. On the floor around me are my other gifts, including a small train track with a few cars on it.

According to the story, my dad wanted to get me a toy train set for Christmas. “You can’t give a girl a train set!” my mom told him. “Why not?” he asked. He thought it was a fine gift for any child. As the second of 3 boys, he wasn’t around girls while growing up so his reference point was what he and his brothers had played with.

I am sure you can imagine who actually played with the toy trains. Growing up he always had to share with his brothers, but this time he was in charge. In fact, I’m not sure if I ever played with it, and since I had one sibling, a younger sister born 7 months after I received it, my dad probably played with it more than anyone.

Twenty-five years later, my mom mentioned that several of their friends were putting train sets under their Christmas trees as decoration. She thought it was a fun idea, and of course, my dad was fascinated to watch them go around. That gave me an idea.

My dad was always hard to buy gifts for. If he asked for anything, it was something practical that he needed. A homemade card meant more to him than anything that could be bought, and in later years, his usual reply was “just come home for Christmas.” So buying him a train set, one that was his – no sharing with brothers, no pretending it was his daughter’s gift – seemed the perfect opportunity to give him something fun and completely unexpected.

The look of joy on his face when he opened that gift is one of my favorite Christmas memories as an adult. I didn’t often surprise my dad, but the train set did. It was a larger than the one I received, both in the number of cars and the size of them. After Christmas, he carefully padded the top of the dining room table, placed a large piece of plywood on top, attached the track, and played with the train set for months. He added more cars, and more track to handle them. Eventually, it entertained the grandchildren as it ran under the soft glow of the Christmas tree lights, letting a third generation share the joy of toy trains at Christmas.

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Candy Canes

There were always candy canes in our stockings on Christmas morning. According to Momma, Santa not only put gifts under the tree, he also filled our stockings and left a candy cane at the top.

Each December, we pulled our stockings out with the rest of the Christmas decorations. Handmade for us by Grandma, we hung them on the mantle above the fireplace waiting for Santa’s visit.

Christmas morning, we’d open our gifts, then turn our attention to the stockings. Removing the candy cane from the top, we’d pull back the plastic wrapper, put one end in our mouths, and enjoy the peppermint sweetness as we emptied our stockings. Playing with our gifts, we’d continue sucking on the candy canes, which grew shorter by the minute. The last of them would be in our mouths as we helped pick up discarded wrapping paper and bows with sticky fingers.

Years passed. My sister and I grew older and learned who actually put gifts under the tree and filled our stockings. Later, we moved away, got married and had children, events that added more stockings to the mantle. Momma and Daddy moved to a new house, one with a mantle large enough to accommodate all the stockings. We still woke on Christmas morning to find a candy cane in each stocking. It was a tradition we loved and expected.

Then one year, Momma called me and my sister aside, lines of frustration showing on her forehead. “I need you to go to the store.”

What’s up?”

I can’t find the candy canes anywhere.”

Do you want us to help you look?”

I’ve already looked everywhere! Maybe I forgot to buy them after all.”

We told her not to worry about it, grabbed car keys and headed out. We fought a packed parking lot, a crowded store, and a long wait in the check out line to keep the tradition alive another year.

After I divorced, I didn’t bother buying candy canes at Christmas. I was alone some Christmas mornings and had no place to hang stockings. Besides, Momma had them in the stockings at her house. Even after meeting my boyfriend, and moving in together, I still don’t buy candy canes. He isn’t concerned about decorating for Christmas and he doesn’t like sweets, so there was no reason to renew the tradition.

But now he has a grandson, and I’m thinking the time may be right. I’ll make a stocking, find a place to hang it, and put in a candy cane on Christmas morning, saying that Santa left it just for him.

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Morning Fog

We always reserve the same campsite, our home away from home. There is comfort in knowing what to expect, where the fire pit and hook-ups are located, and how we need to back in. It may not be adventurous, but since we only go for two days, the familiarity helps us relax and enjoy the time.

As the seasons change, the campsite also changes. How the sun hits the camper at high noon, which shades need to be closed to keep the sun out, how green the trees and shrubs are to block our view of neighboring campsites. And this morning, there is something new. Stepping out of the camper, I don’t notice it, but turning to walk down the hill to the bathhouse, a light layer of fog is visible, beginning about 15 feet above the ground. It doesn’t block out things out, just gives a misty haze to the trees and the rays of sunlight streaming through. 

It is quiet this morning. The only sounds are cars and trucks on nearby roads, planes flying overhead, and birds chirping up in the trees. The fog adds to the stillness.

It is chilly out, so I sit by the dying campfire. Plenty of heat still radiates off the wood, so my front is warm while my back is cool. I move my chair closer, and lean in, feeling the sting of the intense heat on my face.

A wiff of food cooking reaches my nose, and I realize I am hungry. A man and dog walk by, and I hear camper doors open and close. The sun is rising higher in the sky, burning off the fog as it does. It is time to gather what I need to prepare breakfast. It is time to begin the day.

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Ruffled Feathers

My great aunt had lived on the family farm her entire life, and each day she followed a regular routine for doing her daily chores. One morning, when I was about six, I followed her to one of the small buildings behind our house to see if I could help. As I watched, she unlatched the door, swung it open, and stepped inside. I paused at the threshold, allowing my eyes to adjust to the darker interior, then followed her in. Turning right, she walked to the wall, put her hand in one of the openings, and quickly withdrew it, holding what she had been after. It seemed easy enough and I wanted to try. Imitating her motions, I tentatively reached out my hand, put it into the next opening, and began feeling for one of my own to grab. But I was slower than my great aunt. Too slow. Ouch! The hen sitting in her nesting box did not want me to reach under her and remove the warm, smooth, freshly-laid egg. Disappointed in myself, I wondered if I would ever attempt gathering eggs again. Why did something that seemed easy have to be hard and painful?

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Thanksgiving Memories

How I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving has changed through the years. Some years I’ve been with family, some years alone; some years I’ve been filled with gratitude, while other years I’ve had to work hard to truly give thanks. Sometimes I’ve thanked what has come into my life, sometimes what has left my life, and sometimes I realize how thankful I am for what did not happen. I guess that’s life.

Here are some of my memories of celebrating Thanksgiving:

I was 2 months old my first Thanksgiving. My parents took me to northwest Arkansas to show me off to my grandmothers, great aunts, and numerous family friends. I have no memory of this, but there is a photo of me sitting with my grandmothers (whom I was named after).

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When I was two or 3, the table was set with the china, silver, and crystal. The relish tray, with pickles and pimento-stuffed green olives, was also on the table. The story goes that my mom walked into the dining room and saw me sitting at the table. On my plate were four or 5 olives. When asked why I had them there, my reply was I wanted to be sure I got some. It has become a family joke about putting the relish tray next to be so I can get my olives.

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Growing up, Thanksgiving dinner was pretty much the same every year: roasted turkey, cornbread dressing, green beans (later, green bean casserole), mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallows, relish tray with pimento-stuffed green olives and sweet gherkins, mashed potatoes, gravy, rolls, and cranberry sauce from the can. Dessert was pie – usually pumpkin and pecan.

I don’t remember traveling for Thanksgiving. When I was 5, my maternal grandmother moved to my hometown, so we celebrated holidays with her. I remember Thanksgiving being a fairly quiet day. The kitchen was where the hustle and bustle was, the heat from the oven warming the dining room and den, where the TV was on Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and then football games. The formal china, silver, and crystal came off the china cabinet shelves to grace our table.

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Thanksgiving my freshman year at college was my first trip back home, and after three months of dorm food, I was looking forward to our usual Thanksgiving dinner. I was not happy to get home and learn that instead of a full turkey, she was cooking some sort of turkey roll formed from turkey meat, and I let my unhappiness be known. It actually tasted fine, and the rest of the meal was what we usually had, but I had made my point. In the years to follow, my mom always let me know if she wanted to do something different (such as cook only a turkey breast, or order an already-cooked turkey from the grocery store deli) and asked if I was OK with that.

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I was a newlywed and we were going to my parents for Thanksgiving. Wanting to show that I was, indeed, grown up, I said I’d bring a pumpkin pie. Using the Betty Crocker cookbook I had “borrowed” from my mom, I bought canned pumpkin, pumpkin pie spices, evaporated milk, and a pre-made pie crust. (I still haven’t mastered making a pie crust). My first effort came out rather well, with my dad taking a bite, smiling, and saying with some surprise, “Gladys, this is good pumpkin pie.” Made my day.

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While in grad school, my (now ex) husband and I were invited to spend Thanksgiving with a friend and his family. Everyone was very kind and gracious, and the food was delicious, but we were outsiders. I felt awkward the entire time and realized that I would rather stay home alone than be with people I don’t know just for the sake of not being alone.

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A couple of years later, we did stay home alone and I cooked my first turkey and all the fixings. I don’t remember why we didn’t visit family that year, but part of the reason probably was I wanted to do it myself to see if I could. I agonized over being sure the turkey was done and neither of us got sick. It all came out fine, except for the rolls. I tried a recipe I saw in the paper; while they tasted great, they didn’t rise, so were very thick and dense.

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Celebrating Thanksgiving while living in England was a different experience. A group of us Yanks who were there for a year got together to mark the occasion. It was strange watching the news that morning and realize that for almost everyone else in the country, it was just another Thursday. There was also the challenge of finding ingredients for traditional dishes: cornmeal to make cornbread for the southern dressing, sweet potatoes (there were yams, but they are not the same), canned cranberry sauce and canned pumpkin. We were able to pull it all together and had a wonderful day.

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After I got divorced, my ex and I alternated Thanksgiving with our child. And I found that the years I was alone, I just wanted to be by myself. I looked forward to eating what, and when, I wanted, watch what I wanted on TV, or read, take a nap, or whatever. Co-workers and friends always felt sorry for me and invited me over, and I always declined. I didn’t feel sorry for myself; I enjoyed the time and space alone.

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One year we were all there – me and my kid, my sister, brother-in-law, and nephews. My mom had premade the dressing and frozen it. In removing it from the freezer to thaw overnight, still in the glass baking dish, it slipped from her hands and crashed to the floor. Glass and cornbread stuffing went everywhere. She was distraught. My sister and I quickly cleaned up the mess, made a quick trip to the grocery store and baked a fresh batch, which we devoured with our turkey.

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My last Thanksgiving with my mom came as she was cleaning out in preparation for a move into assisted living near my sister. My dad had passed away the previous February, so it was very different than previous years. She did bake a pan of dressing but ordered the turkey from the grocery deli. What I most remember about it are watching her try to sort through years of paperwork trying to decide what to keep, what to shred, and what to give away, and of taking her to the ER on Saturday.

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My first Thanksgiving in Florida was 2 months after I moved. Alone again, I had no real plans for the day. After a cold start, the sun came out so about noon I got in my car and drove south through New Smyrna Beach and Titusville. The clouds rolled back in, and then, being late November, the sun was going down, so I headed back home to a dinner of turkey slices from the deli, stuffing made in the pan, and cranberry sauce with the berries. I ate dinner while watching DVDs on my computer and realized it had been a good day I was thankful for. The only thing missing was someone special to share it with.

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That had changed by the next Thanksgiving. I met my boyfriend in early September, and we celebrated our first Thanksgiving together by cooking. We prepared a whole turkey, stuffing ( I had always made dressing before), green bean casserole, dinner rolls, mashed potatoes and gravy… lots of gravy. A couple of friends joined us and we stuffed ourselves.

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This year we are walking down the street to have Thanksgiving with his sister and her boyfriend who moved here earlier this year. Our only responsibility is making mashed potatoes, and to show up with a big appetite. I am looking forward to not having to do much, yet it is different not spending the day cooking with my boyfriend.

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What will Thanksgiving next year be like?

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Candy Corn

Candy Corn

Candy Corn

The lidded candy dish sat on the piano in my grandmother’s living room. It’s dark blue glass took on an iridescent glow when the light hit it. As pretty as it was, it was the treasure inside that I anticipated.

Grandmunie lived 300 miles away. After the long trip in the car, we’d pull into her driveway and tumble out to receive her hugs and kisses. As soon as she finished, I would pull away and run inside to see if she remembered. Climbing up the piano bench, I’d carefully raise the lid of the candy dish, look inside and smile. It was there, candy corn. I’d put a piece or two in my mouth, savoring the sweetness of the candy and the satisfaction that she had remembered.

I don’t know how the tradition began. Did she put it there because I loved it, or did I stumble across her stash and discover a new candy? I don’t even remember if my younger sister liked it or not. What I do remember is how special I felt because she always had candy corn in the candy dish when I arrived.

Even today, the sight of the orange, yellow and white triangles takes me back to my childhood, and the special connection I had with my grandmother Gladys*.

*I was named after both my grandmothers: my first name Gladys from my paternal grandmother, and my middle name Lou from my maternal grandmother (Myrtle Lou).

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The Night After – Reflections on Hurricane Irma

I lay in bed and relax. The window air conditioner hums away its white noise while a movie plays on the TV. These are the usual before bed sounds, but tonight, they seem very quiet.

The night before, the worst of Hurricane Irma was arriving. I went to bed to try and get some sleep, exhausted after days of preparing and worrying and watching the projected path and waiting. Lying in bed I could hear the howl of the wind above the drone of the air conditioner. The branches of the potted palm secured just outside our east bedroom window scraped and scratched against the air conditioner.

I took a few deep breaths, slowly inhaling and exhaling, to occupy my mind and relax my body. Just as I’d get comfortable, the wind would gust louder than before, and I’m reminded of what is going on outside.

I did sleep, but lightly, waking often. Sometime during the night I noticed a change. The avocado tree outside our south bedroom window was brushing across the bars and boards that protected the old, not hurricane-proof, glass. This meant the wind was shifting from the east to the south-east and the south. Irma was passing, but there were still hours of wind to go. I got up, knowing that I could sleep later.

And now it is the night after. The air conditioner and TV are on, as usual, but tonight the bedroom is calm and quiet. I lay in bed and smile. I am happy. Not the jump-for-joy kind of happy, but the quiet, relieved happy of having come through the storm relatively unscathed. Eveything is good in my world. Tonight I sleep a deep sleep of rest and comfort.

Fun and Random Facts About Me

I am always looking at a personal website for information about the person: who they are and how they got to that point. So here’s some random facts from my life that help tell my story.

– I was born and raised in a small town in south Arkansas.

– I am shy, introverted, and a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). That means I am often quiet, and need more time alone that others. I am not, nor ever will be, the life of the party, but I am the one who will listen to you when you need to talk.

– Until I left home to go to college, I had never moved other than into my own bedroom at age 8. As an adult, I’ve moved 16 times. Sometimes it was to a different place in the same town; other times to a new town/state. I also spent a year abroad. (see further down)

– I have a Bachelor’s degree in History from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (1985) and a Master’s Degree in Art History from Southern Methodist University (1995).

– In my mid-20s, I lived in England for a year, which allowed me to research my MA Thesis, and to know what it feels like to be a foreigner.

– I have one child, who is transgendered.

– I re-designed clothes and jewelry and sold them on Etsy. Very much a part-time hobby, and I didn’t sell enough to take it further.

– I helped with costuming for a local theater in Memphis and on an independent film.

– I started my own business in 2009 providing virtual assistance to small business owners. I still have a couple of clients I work with.

– I dug myself out of $13,000 of credit card debt. It took just over 5 years. Some days I thought it would never end, but it did.

– I am a PADI Open Water certified SCUBA diver.

– For my 50th birthday, I moved to Florida in my Honda Accord. That was possible because I gave away anything that I didn’t think I would need and that didn’t fit in my car.

– A few months later, I bought a sailboat and lived aboard for 6 months. Then I met my boyfriend (he was a boat detailer in my marina) and soon after, became a dirt dweller again.

– I have developed a love of gardening, both flowers and things I can eat. Both of my grandmother’s loved growing things, and I seem to have finally found this out about myself later in life. Weeding and puttering around in the garden and yard are a great way for me to stop thinking so much and just let ideas flow.

– After being nearsighted my entire life, I had cataract surgery in 2016. For my replacement lenses, I chose to correct for distance, so now I am farsighted. Still trying to get used to it!