Tag Archives: Love

Happy Father’s Day

Happy Father’s Day to my Dad!

I’ve been thinking a lot about my Dad, lately, and parents in general, as I see more and more news stories about immigrant children being taken from their parents while coming into the United States. These stories make me wonder how I was lucky enough to be born into my family.

My father is a retired physician; his specialty was internal medicine. When my father went to medical school, his textbooks cost more than his tuition each semester. His father, I believe, was an engineer, who traveled the world as part of his job, and his mother was a nurse.

When he was in high school, my Dad read the book Arrowhead by Sinclair Lewis. The story is about a man, Martin Arrowhead, who is from the Midwest and who becomes a doctor. This story was one of the motivating reasons my Dad wanted to go to medical school.

For many years, my Dad worked 14+ hours days, multiple days in a row. When he was on call at the hospital, our phone would ring all hours of the night. I’ve overhead phone conversations where he’s had to tell family members that a loved one has died.

Because of my Dad’s hard work, I had the privilege of attending private nursery school, private grade school, and private high school. Reading was the #1 activity of my childhood and almost any book I ever wanted at Waldenbooks was mine to be read. Stacks and stacks of books filled my bedroom and kept me company during childhood.

I spent summers going to horseback riding camp and Disney World. We traveled to Bar Harbor, Maine, and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for vacations.

Every opportunity was afforded me as a child. I wanted for nothing. I’ve never had to know what it’s like to be hungry or wear second-hand clothing or have to worry about how a bill was going to be paid or what would happen if someone in my family became sick.

When I turned 18, I then attended college without having to take on any student debt. My summers were filled with working at a bank in downtown Harrisburg auditing mortgage loans for $6.25 an hour – this was $2.00 above minimum wage at the time.

I also got to experience international travel for the first time, as I spent not just one summer studying abroad at Oxford, but two. The programs lasted three weeks each and part of me didn’t want to come home because there was so much to see and do.

In 1999, I graduated from college with a 3.93 GPA (magna cum laude), named an outstanding senior psychology major, and earned honors in the psychology program. I had already been awarded a small research grant for my psychology honors thesis and this research had been presented at the American Psychological Association’s national conference in Boston that year.

After graduating from college, I landed a full-ride at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill to pursue a doctorate in psychology. Again, I graduated with zero student debt, a university award, and the opportunity to present my research at conferences and through publication.

I immediately landed a tenure-track position as an assistant professor of psychology at a suburban Chicago University.

I continued achieving milestone after milestone in my career – professional development grants, publications in peer-reviewed journals, and presentations at national conferences. These achievements lead to promotions and raises. The university had a 7% matching program for my retirement account. I took full advantage of it. That money got added into my already growing retirement accounts that my father started for me after my first job working at Hersheypark when I was 15.

Let’s not forget my paid sabbatical for the fall 2014-spring 2015 academic year. I know full well how lucky I am to have been given nine months of time to consider my career and the changes I wanted to make. It was during my sabbatical that I realized I wanted more in my life, to pursue the other dreams I’d had, the ones that started in childhood that never got fulfilled.

And that’s exactly what I’m doing now.

Everything about my life has been an absolute privilege because of who my Dad was and how hard he worked.

Because of his hard work and sacrifices, I am now able to lead a life that is centered on creativity, imagination, kindness, compassion, and generosity. I do not have to worry about basic security needs and I never will.

So when I read stories about parents wanting a better life for their child and coming into the United States, I understand. I will not judge them for doing something “illegal” because some laws are arbitrarily created and not rooted in equality and justice but are more based on fear and lack and limitation. If you want an excellent example of this, look no further than Jesus Christ, whose own family had to seek refuge in Egypt when he was born because living in Judea was not safe at the time.

My Dad raised me to believe the messages of Jesus Christ and Jesus was quite clear in what he considered his greatest commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.

Every child deserves the same privileges and gifts I received from my Dad’s love. My Dad gave up years of his life working so I could be taken care of. And I was.

That doesn’t make me special, though, just because of who my Dad is and how hard he worked and how much he loved me. Some Dads work just hard and love their children just as much but will never be able to achieve the same kind of security that I grew up with.

Imagine what kind of world we would have if everyone could share their gifts instead of having to worry about where their next meal is coming from. That’s the life my Dad created for me and it’s one I now want to create for others in the world.

So I’m now doing that the best way I know how, the one that brings me the most joy – taking care of animals, loving my husband, and writing stories. On face value, these choices may not seem like the most proactive in terms of working for peace and social justice. Yet, I think of Gandhi’s words of “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

I’ve written about Gandhi’s words before, but today, on Father’s Day, and on a day when some fathers and mothers are being separated from their children, these words seem much more alive to me than ever before.

Thank you, Dad, so much for everything you’ve done for me. I am trying to make the world a better place because of you and be that change I want to see. I love you!

Happy Mother’s Day!

Happy Mother’s Day!

My Mom doesn’t like having her picture taken, so I didn’t have that many photos from which to choose. I’m also pretty sure she’s only going to be okay with having a picture posted on my blog at all, so I chose one that also features several of my family members so she can blend in better.

The above picture is maybe 18 years old and a lot has changed in that time except for one thing: My Mom continues to be a generous person.

I think my favorite example is that she took in my dogs, Limit and Jack, not once, but twice in their lifetimes.

I adopted Limit and Jack in 2002. Limit came with an age guesstimate of 7-9 years old. From the story I was told, a woman out in the country in North Carolina took in whatever stray dog wandered up to her door. When that dog turned out be Limit, he was dog #8 and so the woman said, “Enough! This dog is the limit.”

But Limit wasn’t the limit because none of the dogs were spayed or neutered. So Limit begat Jack and a sister, who unfortunately got hit by a car at some indeterminate length of time before they came to live with me (allegedly).

The woman ended up being evicted from her rental home and she abandoned her dogs; Limit and Jack had been locked in the house and were found by a kind neighbor. It looked like they had survived by drinking out of the toilets. They were both brought to me because at that time I volunteered as a foster mom for Independent Animal Rescue.

Within a few weeks I fell in love with both Limit and Jack and officially adopted them. But then, in the fall of 2006, Limit began struggling to walk up the stairs to my second-floor apartment. One day he collapsed going up the stairs and fell the whole way down.

I didn’t know what to do, so I called my Mom. She checked with my father to make sure her plan was okay and then she drove from Harrisburg, PA, to Chapel Hill, NC, to pick them up and move them to Harrisburg. Limit could live quite comfortably in their house since they had two floors.

And he did. So did Jack. They stayed with my parents until August, 2007, when I graduated from my doctoral program at UNC. We all moved together to the Chicago suburbs so I could start my tenure-track position as an assistant professor of psychology.

In 2009, we lost Limit to a tumor on his spleen. It ruptured and through the grace of God I was able to lift Limit up and put him in the back seat of my car. I got him to the vet in time so he didn’t have to suffer too much.

Jack and I stayed together until January of 2013.

He had started showing signs of dementia a few months earlier. Because I lived alone and worked long hours, Jack had become a danger to himself with the things he started eating in the house. He also started to confuse night and day and would continually wake me up in the middle of the night for walks.

As someone who has narcolepsy, this was dangerous for me. I once fell asleep walking him and when I woke up I had no idea where we walked to. It was after 3:00am.  I did not have a smart phone and honestly I didn’t know who to call with the regular old cell phone I had. What would I say? “I don’t know where I am. Come find me?”

I eventually found our way home.

Jack’s dementia got worse. Again, not knowing what to do, I called my Mom. The next day, she drove 10 hours from Harrisburg to Naperville, IL. She packed up Jack and his belongings and the next day drove back to Harrisburg. Of course, I missed him terribly; I still do, both of them. But with my Mom now taking care of Jack I knew he would be in good hands.

Jack managed to live another 14 months with my Mom, Dad, and brother in Harrisburg. He remained happy the entire time. In January, 2014, he developed Lymphoma. He lasted until March. On my spring break, I made it home just in time. We’re all pretty sure he waited for me.

Then my Mom gave me one of the greatest gifts of all. She paid to have a vet come to the house so Jack could die in my arms.

I will never be able to say thank you enough to my Mom for all she has done for me. Taking care of Limit and Jack when I couldn’t is just one example. There are hundreds more.

Thank you, Mom, for being so kind, selfless, and generous. I love you.

Dedicated to My Brother-in-law, Erick

In Memoriam

On February 23rd, 2018, my husband’s family lost a beloved son. Erick’s death was not surprising or unexpected; he had been born with a rare combination of two genetic illnesses – Addison’s Disease and Adrenoleukodystrophy. Doctors had been preparing my husband’s family for Erick’s death for the last 20 years. The fact that Erick made it to his 39th is astonishing. The fact that Erick’s suffering is now over is a blessing.

Erick had two memorial services: one on February 28th, in Smyrna, TN, and one on March 1st in Lawrenceburg, TN. I met my husband’s childhood friends and his extended family. I met dozens of friends and colleagues of my in-laws. Laughter was shared, and tears were shed.

I heard many stories about Erick. I didn’t get the chance to know Erick other than through his diseases. I could only imagine what he was like through the memories of his family and friends.

Erik 1

The Erick I met could not communicate in any way – he had no vocal capabilities, nor could he blink once for yes or twice for no. There was debate about what Erick could understand, if he could even understand anything at all, once the disease fully ensnared him. I know his mother and his primary nurse believed he was still in there somewhere.

Erik 2

Last summer, I got to know Erick as well as I could when my husband and I stayed at his parents’ house for a week so they could take a well-deserved vacation.

During that week, I cleaned Erick’s face in the morning and emptied his urine bag. I administered medicines through his feeding tube, which connected directly to his stomach. I put a breathing device on Erick to help him clear his lungs. Every 2.5 hours I turned him, at least until my husband woke up and took over or the nurse arrived and provided far better care than I ever could.

The state of Tennessee provided Erick with 32 hours of nursing care per week. For my husband and I, that meant we could still see each other during the day and go out and about in Nashville while we were taking care of Erick that week.

My in-laws were expected to work full-time jobs and then care for Erick full-time before and after work. As Erick needed 24-hour supervision, this provision made it impossible for my in-laws to have a typical American life. They devoted nearly every hour of their lives for the last 12 years to taking care of their son. For the last 20 years, they watched him suffer and there was nothing they could do medically do about it.

Erik 3

When I consider Annie Dillard’s profound saying, “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives,” I think about the kind of love that my husband’s parents have for Erick to spend every day in service to their dying son.

They refused to put him in a home and they refused to give up on caring for him.  They sacrificed themselves in ways I can’t even imagine. I suppose that is what you do for someone you love because what is the alternative?

Erik 4

I am not a caregiver. Yes, I care for people and animals and the beauty of creation that is God’s gift to all of us. But it is not my vocation.

My vocation is writing and playing with as many animals as I can. I say this because I’ve been thinking of how I can best memorialize Erick, a man I’ll only really know through the love of my husband and his family. I have no stories of my own about Erick while he was alive, yet his story means something to me.

While I was in Nashville with my husband’s family, the time came for my agent to submit one of my picture book manuscripts, Sundays with Pop-Pop, to publishing houses. The timing wasn’t ideal, but she had a fire inside her for getting the manuscript out and I am eager for my first book contract. In retrospect, I do feel regret for closeting myself in their office to perfect the draft while there was so much grieving around me. I will hopefully not make that mistake again.

But I now know how I will honor Erick and the love his family has for him. Sundays with Pop-Pop is a story of love and loss. It celebrates the special relationships we have in our lives, whether they are biological, a beloved family pet, or a concerned member of our community.

Erick is, and always will be loved. When Sundays with Pop-Pop is published – and I truly believe it is when, not if – I will dedicate the story to Erick. He deserves it.

Thank you for reading my blog. And if you are so inclined, please send thoughts and prayers of peace to my husband and his family.

How E.B. White Broke My Heart with a Single Sentence

TItle

True Confession: I have never read Charlotte’s Web before this year.

Yes, I am a children’s book author admitting to never having read one of the greatest pieces of children’s literature of all time. Okay, yes, I’ve only been a children’s book author since June 2015, when I wrote my first picture book manuscript. Yet somehow that doesn’t make me feel less chagrined about the situation.

Since I’m coming clean, the truth is there are many kidlit classic books I have never reads. Some books and authors I have never even heard of when I’m perusing kidlit writing websites.

For example, I did not know who Ursula Le Guin was when she died on January 22, 2018. Her name popped up everywhere on the writing and entertainment websites I read. I ended up checking out this article in particular, Mapping the Pop Culture Influence of Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea Booksand I was shocked to learn that her stories had been a precursor to Harry Potter.

EarthSea

As a huge Harry Potter fan, how is it I had never heard of Le Guin before? Who else haven’t I heard of that I should?

At least I’m quite familiar with EB White and Charlotte’s Web. Growing up as a child in the 80s, I’d watched the cartoon version of the story dozens of times, but somehow I never managed to read the story.

Charlotte's WEbWhen I think about it, I have no good reason why, other than I was reading other books: Sweet Valley Twins, Babysitters Club, Fabulous Five, and the Taffy Sinclair books just to name a few. All of these titles are series, so perhaps because I had multiple new books to read every month, I never needed to venture out to the classics.

That’s not to say I never read any of the classics growing up. The three that I distinctly remember are: Misty of Chincoteague and Sea Star: Orphan of Chincoteague, both by Marguerite Henry, and Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. Yes, like most little girls, I had a thing for horses. I suppose I still do.

Horses

I also racked up quite a few more kidlit classics while in college when I took Intro to Children’s Literature my freshman year. We studied fairy tales (the gruesome original versions), Treasure Island, Peter Pan, Little Women, and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, to name a few.

I can still vividly recall the moment in class when my entire life changed because of a book. Mrs. Spore, my teacher, lead us in a discussion of the allegorical representation of Aslan the Lion in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Being a nearly-straight-A student, I raised my hand and proudly announced Aslan represented the struggle of good versus evil.

Mrs. Spore shook her head. “Too simple,” she said. “Aslan is much more than that.”

The guy next to me raised his hand. “Jesus Christ,” he said.

Lion

BOOM! There goes my head in an explosion of everything I thought I knew about the world. 13 years of Catholic education (K-12), and I had made zero connection to what C.S. Lewis was really telling us in his story.

Although that Intro to Children’s Lit class was my favorite class throughout all of college, anything in children’s literature/publishing did not seem a viable career option at that point. I allowed myself to get sucked down the rabbit hole of job security, earnings potential, and societal expectations, and ended up with a PhD in quantitative psychology instead.

So now, as a psychology professor turned kidlit writer, I find myself immersed in reading as much kidlit as possible. In January, on advice from an editor at Simon & Schuster, I checked out The Incredible Journey from my library. The editor recommended this book because I write about dogs. The writing was beautiful and the pacing a touch slow for modern reading standards (in my opinion). Still, I cried tears of joy during the last few pages.

Incredible Journey

Wanting to continue with reading kidlit classics, I then picked up Charlotte’s Web from the library. This is a book that should be required reading for all children and adults. The story is extraordinary in so many ways.

E.B. White is a master of word choice and description, with sensory details, rich visuals, and emotionally engaging characters that pull you immediately into the story. Just read the first sentence:

“Where’s Papa going with that ax?” asked Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

Tell me you don’t want to read more!

Charlotte’s Web is not just about the writing, either. The illustrations by Garth Williams are adorable. Look at this little pig:

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Or “puppy pig,” as my 21-year-old niece called him when I sent her an illustration as an example of why I was loving this book so much.

If you’ve ever read my blog before, you know how much I LOVE dogs! Give me a puppy pig and write him into a story where he finds out he’s going to die and you have me hooked.

The way E.B. White connected me to Wilbur the pig is genius. Wilbur loves Fern and misses her when she’s at school. He wants a barnyard friend to play with, but the other animals shun him. He finds out he’s going to die and becomes hysterical because he loves sitting in his pile of mud and slopping around his pigpen so much. Then, Wilbur begins to believe he is someone special simply because Charlotte, his spider friend, believes in him.

There’s also this sentence in the last chapter about Fern, the little girl who initially saved Wilbur the pig from Papa’s ax:

She was growing up, and was careful to avoid childish things, like sitting on a milk stool near a pigpen.

These words of E.B. White will stay in my heart forever.

I couldn’t help but cry when I read that sentence. They were tears of both joy and sadness. Joy because the way I live my life now, embracing the things that truly matter to me, such as loving my husband and family, playing with dogs, walking in the forest, reading and writing stories, and sitting on a stool near a pigpen are things I do every single day.

Okay, well maybe not literally every day sitting on a stool near a pigpen, but thinks to one of my wonderful friends in Norfolk, I do occasionally get to sit in a barnyard and play with farm animals.

Hammy Zorro

There was also sadness for the millions of children who grow up and may never again recapture the feelings of wonder they experienced during childhood. Just like I did in college, they go down the rabbit hole of adulthood, and I don’t know if they ever find their way out. I hope they do. I pray they do. And I write stories to show how I made my way out.

Thank you for reading my blog! Your support is always appreciated. If anyone is interested in more Charlotte’s Web writings and illustrations, I’ve been posting selections on Twitter as part of my #365DaysofKidLit Challenge. You can look for me on Twitter with the handle @KellyKandra. I also included selections from The Incredibly Journey and The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog, plus several picture books.

As an end note, I’m looking to read as many of the Hank the Cowdog books as possible without having to buy them (you know, minimalist and all). The inter-library loan only offers a few, so if anyone out there can give me access to more copies, I would be ever grateful.

Hank the cowdog

A Minimalist Approach to Love

Fiancee

Happy Valentines’ Day! And, happy two-year anniversary to me and my husband! That’s two years of being married and two years of being together. No, I didn’t get the timing wrong. We really did get married that quickly.

On Wednesday, January 20, 2016, I sat down next to an incredibly handsome stranger at a restaurant bar.  Being in the Chicago suburbs, the stranger wanted to experience deep dish pizza.  Several of his colleagues highly recommended Lou Malnatti’s.

Lou Malnattis

Meanwhile, I had been invited to Lou Malnatti’s by a writers’ group at a local college I attended for the first time that night. They liked to socialize afterwards, starting at Lou Malnatti’s bar.

The stranger and I struck up a conversation.  Four days later he proposed.  Less than three weeks later, on February 12th, 2016, we eloped in his hometown of Nashville.

Wedding

Wedding 2

So, yes.  Four Days to Fiancée is an accurate title.  But, it’s really not as quick as it seems.  The truth is that I spent several years prior to that night figuring out what I wanted in a partner.  What gave me the insight and courage to take such a bold relationship step is the minimalist mindset I adopted over the years.

Many people will tell you minimalism is not simply removing the material clutter from your life, though that is a key component.  It’s also embracing the values that are most important in your life and then making choices to support those values.

Freedom is at the top of my list of core life values, and ironically enough, it is because I value freedom so much that I was able to agree to marry someone whom I had known less than a week.

When I met my future husband that night, I had already begun taking steps to support my personal ideas of freedom. Thanks to a sabbatical from my position as an associate professor of psychology at a suburban Chicago University, I realized that somehow, I had let my life veer off course. I felt imprisoned by my choices and I wanted out.

The first step to my freedom began with purging. By August 2014, I had given up my apartment and sold, donated, gave away, or trashed 90% of my belongings.  In doing so, I released myself from the debilitating mountain of stuff I had accumulated over the years.  When you move three times in five years and some boxes remain not just unpacked, but unopened, it’s a wake-up call you do not need that stuff anymore.

After I removed the forgotten and unnecessary items from my life, I began looking at everything I owned. Gone were clothes I never wore, but someday hoped to have a reason to wear; shoes I had purchased for special occasions and hurt my feet the one time I wore them, but I thought looked so pretty; books I bought because I wanted to learn about the history of the Olympics, the healing power of food, or the latest pop psychology research, but never seemed to have time to read; and mementos from friends, travels, and experiences that caused me to buy extra shelves and cabinets to hold these memories, and which also took away some of my precious free time because I had to dust and organize them on a regular basis.

I ended up giving away so many of my belongings, one of my colleagues jokingly asked if I had a terminal illness.

Once free from the physical clutter, I wanted even more space.  I returned from my sabbatical on August 24th, 2015 and on September 1st, 2015, I turned in my resignation, effective for the end of the academic year on May 31st, 2016.

With the knowledge of impending professional freedom, I then focused my attention on the kind of life I wanted to live and with whom I wanted to share it.  Without any physical clutter to take up my time and energy, I waded through my murky past with the help of a therapist, a disciplined meditation practice, a church that inspired me to believe there’s something more out there, and several insightful journaling exercises and self-help books.

I asked myself tough questions, such as why had I not had a successful relationship in the past, what role did I play in failed relationships, and did I even want to be in a relationship.

Once I established that, yes, I did want to be in a long-term, loving and committed relationship, and understood how I had contributed problems to my past relationships and how to be a better partner in the future, I thought about the values I desired in my husband. What sort of person would make me the very best possible version of myself? Anyone who lowered my desired caliber of life would simply not be an option.

Nearly every day for a year, I meditated on this question and what I wanted, asking the Holy Spirit for guidance. What rose to the top of my list were curiosity, empathy, honesty, and playfulness. I also wanted someone who made their own physical and mental health a priority in their life since I had taken steps to become healthy again.

I didn’t have a specific “type,” in mind for a partner, but I hoped my husband would be as good-looking on the outside as his heart was on the inside. When I would see someone attractive while out and about, I would say to myself, “Wow! That man looks a lot like my husband.” I also thanked God every day for my husband, as if we were already together. I would write in my gratitude journal statements such as, “Thank you for my incredibly handsome husband, who is kind, compassionate, loves animals, and makes me laugh more than anyone else.”

It was in January, 2016, when a thought occurred to me: What I also wanted was someone who valued the life I was creating for myself and wanted in on the adventure. I wish I knew the exact date I had that thought, but I’m not very good at keeping a daily journal for an extended period. I just remember that the thought felt so real and powerful, I knew it was right for me.

It couldn’t have been more than two weeks later, I sat down at Lou Malnatti’s next to that incredibly handsome stranger. He overhead the discussion I was having with Anne, a woman in her 70s whom I had just met that night at the writers group. She was sitting on his right-hand side. I was sitting on his left.

Behind this handsome stranger’s back, because he was still eating his pizza, I told Anne all about being a professor, my imminent resignation, and writing. I explained my plans to be a professional pet and housesitter and travel all over the country. Then, for some reason we started talking about old movies and I told her I had just been to an Elvis Tribute Spectacular on January 8th with a good friend. It would have been Elvis’ 81st birthday and thanks to my Mom, I am quite a fan of Elvis’ music.

Screenshot

Despite not being a part of our conversation at all, Anne tapped the handsome man on the chest and asked, “Do you like Elvis?”

He sang his response with a southern drawl: I’ll have a blue Christmas without you. Thank you very, much.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” I asked.

“Nashville,” came his response and my immediate thought was, I am not interested in you.

But it turned out I was interested. From the first few hours of our conversation, my future husband spoke about books he was reading and asked me about books I was reading; he told me how he wanted to attend the Olympics before he was 40 and I told him I had attended the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. He spoke about some of the challenges he faced in his life and how grateful he was to his parents for their love and support. He teared up when discussing his chocolate lab, Lana, whom he had lost not that long ago, and I told him about my beloved black and yellow labs, Jack and Limit.

We continued our discussion the next night, when we went on a proper date. My future husband and I drove into Chicago so he could take some photographs. We went to the Harold Washington public library on State Street and acted out silly scenes with puppets in the children’s room, played Mad Libs at Epic Burger, and walked around Millennium Park, all the while discussing our lives, friends, and families.

The next day, Friday, my future husband came to visit me at work before he had to fly back to Nashville. The following day, we spent 14 hours on the phone, and on Sunday we spent another 12 hours. Sunday night is when he proposed.

Marry Me

If I hadn’t known what I really wanted in a partner, I don’t think I would have been able to say yes. But through the stories we told each other, the secrets we shared, and the time we spent together, I felt I had a good enough of measure of him. The values I wanted most – I knew he had them. I didn’t need any more time to tell me what I already knew – this was a man who would build me up and support me and help me become the absolute very best version of myself.

My husband and I were overjoyed to find each other, and we didn’t want to wait. We also had no reason to, other than that “society,” would deem our marriage too quick. Neither of us had debt, we were in our 30s, and neither of us had professional or educational aspirations that would limit our future choices compared to if we stayed single.

I was, however, asking my husband to give up everything he had to come be with me on this adventure. He left behind his family and friends in Tennessee and the only home he had ever known for 33 years.

Need a ride to TN

So, of course, I would give him the highest level of commitment we both wanted. It allowed us to be free of our past lives, only we would be free together as teammates and partners.

Everything else seemed secondary. The very few people that I spoke to about our decision to get married so quickly wondered why the rush? How well could I really know him? they wanted to know.

To which I replied – how well can you really know anyone? I’ve known people who dated their fiancés for several years before getting married, only to be miserable and divorced within two years. Several people I know were married for decades before their spouses divorced them just like that! And one woman, who I admire very much, married her childhood sweetheart who was her best friend, only for him to realize a few years into the marriage that he was gay.

So, I didn’t buy into their concerns, because we can never really be certain about anyone other than ourselves. And because I took the time to really get to know myself and what I wanted, I didn’t have to waste any time figuring out whether we worked together. Our values lined up and that is all that mattered to me.

To my husband: I LOVE YOU! These past two years have been the best of my life. Thank you for asking me to marry you when you did, and thank you for being the best friend and partner I could have imagined.

Heath and Kelly

Thinking About Death During the Holidays

Christmas is coming

With Christmas fast approaching and only nine days left in 2017, it’s time for my yearly reflection entitled, “Even Though It’s Christmas, People Still Die.” And yes, I totally stole this idea from the late 1990’s sitcom Friends.

Because I know many of my friends and family who read my blog sometimes worry about me based on what I write, let me clarify that thinking about death during the holidays does not mean I’m depressed. Quite the opposite.

This has been one of the happiest, most joyful years of my life.  2017 also happened to be the year I read five different books on happiness (two of them I re-read for the second time):

ANtidote

Subtle art

Happiness Project

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joy

I recently told someone about all these books and she joked, “shouldn’t you be happy by now?”  Her point is excellent, except I read these types of books as someone who has a professional interest in psychology, science, and research, more than as an I need these books to improve my life mentality.

Although, I would be lying if I said these books haven’t improved how I live. Each one of them has contributed positively to some aspect of my life, most notably The Sweet Spot because I’m now exercising on a regular basis and it’s become an actual habit.

What I find most interesting about these books is that every single one of them included a chapter on death. They all claimed that to truly experience sustained and long-term joy, you have to keep your own death a central part of your life.

Last Christmas, death ended up being forefront in my mind because one of the dogs we were caring for had been diagnosed with a mass on his spleen. He didn’t have much longer in this world and sure enough, he died within a month.

moon-cropped

I also wrote last Christmas about my 43-year-old cousin Becky, who was diagnosed with cancer in December of 2013, and succumbed to the disease in April, 2014.

Those losses are still heavy in my heart today, just like all the other people and animals I’ve lost throughout my life. But like these books suggest, I don’t allow the losses to weigh me down.

Instead, I use their heaviness as reminders which ground me to my own life; they’ve become a rock on which I can stand and look around at our wonderful and marvelous world. These losses lift me up into the here and now because all of us could be one hour, one minute, or even one second away from death and I know it.

Our time is so precious and because I still have so much of it right now (God and Kelly willing), I don’t want to waste it. This reason is why death meditations can be so useful. If I knew 2018 would be my last year on Earth, what would I do differently?

Based on what I wrote last year – spend more time with family and friends, travel with my husband and/or niece to national parks, pet as many dogs along the way as we could, finish my first novel, publish my picture books, and see a bear in the wild – I’m tearing up with happiness right now because I’ve either done what I set out to do or I took major steps towards making these dreams a reality.

In addition to spending time with my parents in Pennsylvania,

Hawk Mountain

and my husband’s parents in Tennessee,

TN Sunset

we visited with various extended family members in North Carolina,

Kelly with Choco Lab

 

 

 

 

 

 

and my husband got to meet my oldest brother who lives in San Antonio, Texas, when we all met up at my parents’ house in Harrisburg.

Hersheypark

 

 

 

 

 

We brought my niece to visit us in Connecticut for a week in May,

Jori and Smudge

and I spent a few days with her in Washington, DC, this fall. We’ve also had friends come visit us in Connecticut and we’re making plans to see some friends in Illinois again this summer.

This past August, my husband and I visited the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio on one of our house-sitting road trips,

Cuyahoga Valley

and this coming June we’ll be in Glacier National Park as part 2 of our super secret summer plans (SURPRISE! This is how my husband is finding out about our trip to Glacier. He still doesn’t know part 1).

Anyone who reads this blog, knows I’ve wholeheartedly met my goal of petting as many dogs as I could along the way, and I even managed to befriend some cats, llamas, chickens, turkeys, a goat, and a pig.

And, although I have not yet seen a bear in the wild, this past July I applied to be a volunteer at the Churchill Northern Studies Center in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, for bear season (October and November). I had an interview a few months ago for fall 2018 and my prospects look good for being selected as a volunteer.

As for writing, not only did I finish my first novel, but I wrote another book, started two more, and outlined several more. Those don’t count the picture books I finished. I also submitted two stories to Highlights magazine (no word yet on their submission status) and I submitted a blog post to a major minimalism blog that featured the post in their weekly newsletter sent out to over 24,000 readers. Combined with getting an agent to represent my work, this has been a benchmark year for my writing.

So when I think about my life this past year, I can boil it down to one sentiment. I’m about to break a cardinal rule of writing right now (i.e., avoid clichés), but here goes: WOW! My cup runneth over.

I am so grateful to everyone who has supported me along the way, most notably God who gives me the courage to live life this way and my husband who is also my best friend.

The question still remains, though: if 2018 were my last year on Earth, what would I do differently?

My answer? Nothing. It is with delight and joy that I can say this and feel nothing but enthusiasm and hope for the coming year. I’m going to keep on keepin’ on! And maybe, just maybe, I’m finally going to see a bear in the wild.

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Monday, August 21st, 2017

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I recently had the chance to catch up with some of my former colleagues from the University I previously taught at.  The school had a peace vigil this past Friday and since I’m in town house/pet-sitting, I decided to attend.  I’m pretty disgusted with the events as of late in this country of ours, and supporting peace through lovely words and prayers seemed like a wonderful idea.

Peace

While there, several people made the same comment to me: you look so happy.  I consider this compliment to be one of the greatest I can receive, because, truthfully, I do feel happy, and this wasn’t always the case.  This past year of living a writer’s life, spending as much time as I can with my husband, and playing with and caring for dogs in exchange for amazing houses to live in, has been such a blessing.  I am so grateful at the friends I have made this past year and the opportunities that have presented themselves.

These feelings of joy and gratitude were especially salient yesterday as I walked around a forest preserve.  I thought I had been driving to another community gathering of love and peace, but it turned out I had the wrong location.  Although that was bad news, the good news was I ended up at Fullersburg Woods, a forest preserve of DuPage County.

Waterfall

For about an hour, I wandered around enjoying the beauty of Salt Creek, before settling myself on some rocks by the Rainbow Bridge to simply be at one with nature.  Although I missed the community fellowship I had been anticipating, I couldn’t have asked for a more peaceful way to spend my afternoon.  And I wasn’t really alone.  Spirit surrounded me, as did the rocks, trees, birds, leaves, and waves from the river.

Rainbow bridge

Walking along the trail on my way back from the bridge, I began marveling at the world around me.  Then, it hit me! One of the reasons I think I’m so happy is I’m able to find wonder and awe in the little things.  I began thinking of what brings me the most joy in life.  Here’s an incomplete list:

  • Laughing with my husband
  • Playing with dogs
  • Talking about dogs with my Mom
  • Reading a good book
  • Finishing a draft of a story
  • Helping someone edit a draft of their writing
  • Fantasizing about future travels, especially if they can include family and/or friends
  • Watching funny online videos of animals, particularly bears

It’s good to know these things because right now, there’s a lot of unhappiness and turmoil in the world.  Sometimes it can be overwhelming, especially when it’s hard to know what to do in response.  What I liked most about the vigil I attended on Friday is that the event was not against anyone or anything.  I have often heard spiritual teachers caution against what you give your energy to, such as an anti-war protest versus a rally for peace.

With these thoughts in mind, I am recommitting myself to focus on the things in my life that bring me joy.  Selfish and elitist?  Perhaps.  But I’m going to subscribe to the words of Gandhi: Be the change you wish to see in the world.  I wish to see peace and happiness.  So that’s what I’m going to be.  Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me…one youtube bear video at a time.

Memoir Monday, February 13th, 2016

TItle

I’ve shared this picture through social media before, but given how ridiculously cute it is you can expect me to share it every February 14th(ish) until I die.  I also like to believe that little squirrel created his tree art just for me, but it could have been for somebody else.

Regardless, I can still remember the wonder I felt as I turned around a corner on the Naperville River Walk

around the corner

and came across the little fella scampering around.

squirrel

Then I saw the heart and I could have melted on the spot.  Thankfully it was too cold in Naperville for that to happen, but at least my hands weren’t frostbitten enough that I couldn’t take out my phone to snap a few pictures.

Seeing my little squirrely love note came at just the right time, too, because I was feeling pretty lonely at that point in my life.  I had recently given up my dog, Jack, to my parents in Harrisburg, PA.

Jack

His dementia was getting progressively worse and me being at work for 8+ hours a day wasn’t helping.  I feared I would come home one day and find him in agony because he had eaten something he shouldn’t have.

My parents, in one of the greatest acts of kindness I have ever received, offered to take care of Jack.  They no longer work outside the home, and my older brother also lives with them, so there’d be plenty of people to keep Jack company throughout the day.

In addition, one of my best friends at work had moved on to a new job.  Even though I felt thrilled she was finally out of a position in which she was clearly underutilized and, frankly, not fairly compensated or appreciated for her talents and work, I still missed our daily interactions.  I didn’t have many other close friends where my office was located and many days I felt isolated.

So when I came across this message of love in one of my favorite places, by a cute and furry critter no less, I couldn’t help but smile.  I even sent the photo off to Shutterfly to have it made into a notebook with the song lyrics, Put a little love in your heart and the world will be a better place on the front cover (lyrics by Jackie DeShannon, Randy Myers, & Jimmy Holiday).

That song had been in my mind a lot at the time.  A local musician performed it at an interfaith New Year’s Day celebration in downtown Naperville and I became hooked.  I honestly can’t say if I’d never heard it before or

if I just hadn’t heard it with my new evolving life perspective that there was a lot more to the world than the little life I was living. 

I ended up playing it on repeat on my iPad many times that winter and each and every time I felt a renewed sense of love and spirit in the world.

I’m very glad I have these reminders about love because as of late, I haven’t been treating myself with very much love.  I don’t know why my narcolepsy seems so much worse these past few months, but I feel frustrated and demoralized that some days my greatest accomplishment is making it downstairs in the morning to feed the dogs.

I then surf the internet ad nauseam because it feels like I’m doing something, but I know I’m not, and so I beat myself up for it – I should be writing; I should be reading; I should be working on my website; I should be doing anything other than mindlessly thumbing through social media to the point where my eyes glaze over and I doze off.

Is this because of narcolepsy or inertia, I can’t say for certain.  But in addition to feeling tired from a disease, I am tired of “shoulding” on myself (perhaps another disease in and of itself).  My husband has very kindly and lovingly pointed out that it’s okay for me to take breaks and maybe I should cut myself some slack.  Why is it that these “shoulds” I am more inclined to reject than embrace?  These are the same things I would tell (have told) my loved ones when they beat themselves up.  I would never let anyone talk to my family or friends that way, yet somehow, I accept it for myself.

It’s a funny situation because when I realize my hypocrisy, I get further down on myself for not remembering to be more enlightened.  It seems like an endless patter, until I finally reach a point where I remember that violence in any form, which to me includes emotional bullying, sarcasm, and insults, is unacceptable.  And the way I mentally beat myself up is violent.

This recognition is a good thing because above all I want to be a peaceful a person.

And if I can’t be at peace with myself, how can I expect to contribute peacefully to our world? 

I put a little love in my heart and I try to remember how much I have to be grateful for, as well as remembering that you never know when you might turn a corner and find something so wonderful you didn’t even know to hope for it.

Memoir Monday, December 12th, 2016

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Most of my formative adult years took place in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  Thus, it should surprise no one that some of my favorite holiday specials are the Thanksgiving- and Christmas-themed episodes from Friends.  At the top of the list is The One Where Ross Gets High, featuring Rachel’s traditional English trifle and Monica and Ross outing each other to their parents for all their past misdeeds.

A close second would be The One with the Holiday Armadillo, which if you don’t know who the holiday armadillo is, he’s Santa’s part-Jewish holiday friend.  Ross dressed as an armadillo is the focus of the episode, but at the very beginning of it Phoebe brings out her Christmas skull to remind us that, “at Christmas people still die.”

I still laugh a lot when I see this clip from Friends, but now I’m older I can’t help but spend some time reflecting this Christmas on what the Christmas skull means to me.  I don’t mean to be morbid, but Phoebe is right.  At Christmas, people still die.

These thoughts might be forefront in my mind because one of the dogs we’re caring for was recently found to have a mass on his spleen.  He’s ten-years old and aside from a major surgery which may or may not prolong his life at all, there’s nothing else to be done for him.  After agonizing over the decision, his doggy parents decided they would let him spend his days in the comfort of his home, surrounded by the rest of his pack, and meandering around the 20 acres on their property.  It’s a nice way to go if you ask me, much better than being cut open and having an internal organ removed on the small chance of surviving an extra few months.

moon-cropped

Or I could be thinking this way because of my cousin, Becky.  In December, 2013, she was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 43.  She passed away just four short months later.

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Then there’s my friend who confided in me that it may be the last Christmas for one of their friends who has a degenerative illness.  My friend wondered what to possibly get for this person and their spouse, knowing this will likely be some of the last time they have to spend together.

It’s a sobering thought to consider Christmas gifts as last ones ever.  Does it make the iPad or gift card seem less relevant?  Does it invoke a need to simply be with someone and let them know how much they mean to you?  All thoughts to consider as we wait in line at checkout counters hoping to get the best sale of the season.

target

Then there’s the narcissistic, egotistical, and human side of me.  What if it was my last Christmas?  How would I want to spend it?  What would I wish for?  I spent some time reflecting on these last two questions and quite surprisingly I found a lot of comfort in the answers I came up with.

The first thing I would do is have a huge holiday party with all my friends and family.  There would be a lot of dancing, peppermint-flavored sweet treats, and a baby polar bear for people to cuddle with similar to the sloth Dax Shepard got for Kristen Bell for her birthday one year.

More than anything, though, I would want to spend as much time as possible with my husband.  We would hit as many National Parks as we could, preferably bringing along some key family members and petting as many dogs as we could along the way.

I would also finish my first novel, which I’m delighted to report is thisclose to being done.  After that, there would be only two other things on my wish list – for the children’s stories I’ve written to be published and to see a bear in the wild.  The first would be easy enough, with my talented roster of friends, and the possibility of self-publishing.  Plus, my husband is well aware of this wish of mine and I have no doubt he would spend whatever time  necessary to get them published in my absence (just one of the MANY reasons I am so devoted to him).  The second, well, if I got to cuddle with a baby polar bear at my death party, I’d be happy to let go of my desire to see one in the wild.

Here’s the best part about my wishes, though, and the reason I find so much comfort in my answers:  this last year, I’ve spent most of my time working towards them on my own, without the threat of imminent death.  Heath and I were blessed with a wonderful wedding reception from my NC friends.

wedding-reception

We spent time with both my parents in Harrisburg, PA, and his parents in Smyrna, TN, and we have plans to do again soon.

blondie

My niece and I went on a spring-break-roadtrip extravaganza in the American Southwest stopping off at the Petrified Forest and the Grand Canyon

grand-canyon

and my husband and I now travel all around for the sole purpose of petting and loving other people’s dogs (and cats and homes, too).

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frank

I write almost every day and agents are currently reviewing my picture storybooks.  There still hasn’t been a bear sighting, but I am constantly on the lookout.

So, as we countdown to Christmas, I’d encourage you to spend some time quietly reflecting on what you would do differently if you knew this would be your last Christmas.  Then go out and do it!  If not for you, then do it for Moon, my cousin Becky, and my friend’s friend, and everyone else out there who will only get one more Christmas.

Garden Victory – A 6-Part Flash Fiction Series

garden-victory-6-part-series

“Hallelujah.”  Sophia repeated the last word of her father’s favorite song seven times as the music faded.  She closed her eyes on the last few, then allowed the final note to wash over her.  It did not bring her renewal or a sense of hope as it usually did and as Sophia made her way back to her seat she could not bear to look at anyone.

Tears lingered on Sophia’s face so she brushed them away with an errant hand.  She reached out for support, imagining she had someone next to her whose hand she could hold.   It was times like this Sophia second (and third and fourth) guessed her decision to end things with Colin.

Sophia had dialed Colin’s number several times that morning; yet every time she went to press call her father’s words of “never settle” ghosted through her mind.  So now she sat at her father’s funeral alone.

Oh, this is stupid, she thought to herself as she continued wiping away tears.  Sophia was not really alone, as she was surrounded by her mother, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.  Her heart beat full of love.   It just occasionally skipped a beat as there was one small piece of it missing.

Sophia had hoped Colin would fill that hole.  And he did in some ways.  Colin had many of the values important to Sophia, including honesty, determination, and intelligence.  What he did not have was a passion for the arts, particularly music, and that made Sophia feel like there was still room for someone else.  Thus, she ended their relationship.  Sophia did so with kindness and appreciation for what Colin had brought to her life because that was her father’s second life lesson – Never settle, but don’t be a jerk about it. 

Maybe it isn’t settling, Sophia thought as she watched her mother dab away her own tears with a handkerchief.  Maybe that’s just what love is – to find someone who helps fill the void.  It could be my fault.  Maybe I’m the one who made the hole too big to begin with.  Maybe it’s up to me to fill some of it on my own?

Sophia’s mother reached out and grabbed Sophia’s hand, jolting Sophia from her ruminations.  Here she was at her father’s funeral thinking about Colin.  Yes, she would call him tonight.  As she came to this decision, she felt the emptiness in her heart consume her and it felt like the moment she watched her father’s life pass from his body.

Oh, Dad! she cried from her heart and then she heard his words echo again, “Never settle.”  Sophia knew he was right and even though she craved even the smallest amount of intimate comfort, she would not call Colin.  That would do both a disservice, not to mention it would make her a jerk to reach out when she had no true intentions of rekindling their relationship.  She would honor her father that way, too.

For the rest of the day, Sophia stuck with her decision as she watched her father lowered into the ground and then celebrated his life with her loved ones over casseroles, sandwiches, and cakes.  She began to waiver as she gave her mother one more hug goodbye in the parking lot, and so she decided to pick up some work on her way home to hopefully keep her mind occupied.

Sophia’s heels echoed down the silent and dark hallway of her school as she made her way to the music room.  She felt small and lonely.  Dad, I need your help, she thought as she again considered calling Colin.

As Sophia opened the door and flipped on the light, she blinked a few times and then her eyes settled on the four beautiful sunflowers perched in a blue vase on her desk.  A card sat propped up on it and she reached out to open it.

Her eyes shined with unfallen tears as she read the contents:

Dear Miss Maxwell,

I’m so glad we found such a talented music teacher – hallelujah – I didn’t think this position would ever get filled!  Let me know if you have any questions about the school.  I was a newbie last year, so I know what it’s like and I’d be happy to show you around. 

Sincerely,

Peter Cohen (English Department)

Sophia read the card two more times.  She did not know who Peter Cohen was, but she could not help but notice the one word that tied him to her father.  In the quiet of the room, she started singing again.  It soothed that empty place in her heart and Sophia knew whatever happened, she would not settle.  She would find what she was looking for and in the meantime, she would sing.

Garden Victory Part 5

Before Peter knew it, he and Sadie had walked two blocks.  He turned around as she sniffed at a fire hydrant, trying to recount the steps they had taken that got them to their current location.  In the distance, he could hear the bells ringing from St. Michael’s steeple.  Peter sighed as the sound reminded him about the new music teacher at his school.

“Come on, Sadie, let’s keep walking.”  Peter tugged on her leash as they moved down the street, but the distance did not separate him from his thoughts of Miss Maxell.

He didn’t even know her first name.  She had started at the school last week.  Peter overheard her singing in the music room one day on his way to the teacher’s lounge.  He stopped outside the door and listened as she sang a Beatles’ medley to herself.  At first he stopped because the Beatles were his favorite band.  A few moments later he was hooked as her voice seemed to reach the very depth of his core and when she started in with Here Comes the Sun, a desire ignited in him to find a guitar and start playing along.

“But we don’t play the guitar anymore, do we, Sadie?”  Sadie ignored Peter as she was now sniffing a bench.  He let her sniff away to her heart’s content as he remembered the last time he played his guitar.  It was before his divorce three years ago.  Peter had just gotten back from an open mic night at the local pub when he found a note on the table.  Dear Peter, it began and then in a way so generic Peter wondered if she had copied the letter from the Internet, he found out his wife left him.

Since then, Peter turned into a shell of a man.  His day to day motions were simply to get him through to the next day, then week, then month, then year.  As he and Sadie ambled on, he felt a jolt inside him as he realized just how long it had been since he had even talked to another woman in that sort of way.  I don’t even know what I’d say to her, Peter argued with himself as he made the case for doing nothing.  I’d make a fool of myself. 

Or doing nothing would make you the fool came his own retort.  Peter tried to ignore this sentiment, otherwise that would mean putting himself out there and possibly getting hurt again.

“We don’t want that, do we, Sadie?” he asked to reassure himself.  Peter, expecting no response, was unprepared as Sadie pounced on something laying on the sidewalk and he felt himself tumble over.

As Peter straightened himself up, he saw Sadie struggling to get four long-stemmed sunflowers into her mouth.  Their bright yellows and reds burst through the gloom of his heart like a beacon of hope.

Peter gently pried them from Sadie’s mouth.  He dried them off with the side of his shirt and examined them.  They seemed no worse for wear and Peter looked around to see if anyone appeared to be missing them.  He stood up and held the flowers in his hand, staring down at them as an idea formed in his head.

“Good girl,” he told Sadie with a smile as they turned around to make their way home.  Peter knew exactly what he was going to do with these flowers and now he just had to find a card to write on so he could welcome Miss Maxwell to the school.

Garden Victory Part 4

Arthur watched from the back of the church as the congregation processed up the aisle.  Some of the people went back to their pews, where they belong, thought Arthur, and some of them headed for the exit.  As they walked past him, Arthur grunted, disgusted by the lack of respect these individuals had for the Body of Christ.  Damn you, he thought.  You’ll burn in hell for your sins.  Even though a large part of Arthur took comfort in this judgment, a smaller part pitied the fools.  Such a stupid price to pay, eternity in hell, just to avoid traffic.

Arthur checked his watch.  Mass had gone over long.  It was now six o’clock and they still had fifteen minutes to go.  It was the windbag priest. “Anything extra goes back to St. Michael’s,” he repeated a dozen times discussing the bishop’s annual appeal.   Finally, the priest got to “The Mass has ended.  Go in peace,” and Arthur headed for the nearest exit.

On the way out the door, Arthur made sure not to make eye contact with the woman collecting change for the parish’s refugee resettlement program.  Stupid immigrants.  He hated that St. Michael’s contributed so much money to these foreigners.  Why should a complete stranger get his money?

The woman tapped him on the arm.   “We could really use your help,” she said.

He ignored her and started walking faster.  As he headed across the street to his car, Arthur prayed the woman would leave him the hell alone.  He looked up just in time to see the look of horror on the young girl’s face as she slammed on her brakes.

“Watch where you’re going!” Arthur yelled.

“I’m sorry!”  The girl looked shaken. “Are you okay?” she asked, getting out of the car.

“No thanks to you,” he huffed.

“I was just trying to help.” Arthur didn’t say anything and started towards his car again.  The girl seemed to dither on the spot, then reached into her car and pulled out four sunflowers.  They had long stems.  “Here, take these,” she said as she shoved them into Arthur’s hands.  “To make up for almost hitting you.”  The girl seemed to think she was doing Arthur a great favor what with how she smiled getting back into her car.

Arthur threw the flowers on his front seat.  What the hell am I going to do with these, he thought as he drove away.  He hadn’t driven too far, when he noticed a flyer on his windshield.  It was asking for donations for refugees.  At a stop sign, he grabbed one of the flowers and tried to use its stem to remove the flyer.  It didn’t work, so he tossed it out the window.  He chucked the other three out after it.  There, he thought.  Maybe a refugee will find them.  He drove away leaving the flowers behind.  Arthur chuckled to himself.  Now, that’s the kind of charity I can get behind.

Garden Victory Part 3

Kayla sat in the parking lot.  Twice she opened her car door, but each time slammed it shut.  She kept looking through the restaurant window, seeing the girls clustered around a table.  They laughed and smiled, scooping up ketchup with French fries and slurping on sodas.  It was no different than the cafeteria at school.  Not one of them seemed to have a care in the world.

Kayla sighed, looking at her body.  She never knew what to feel about it, what with half the posts on her Facebook feed celebrating a big and curvy female body and the other half telling her she could get rid of her muffin top in as little as 21 days.  But Kayla liked her muffin top.  It gave her something to hold on to when she was feeling shy – she could cross her arms and hold herself tight – and then maybe she could get through whatever it was she needed to.

For right now, though, Kayla felt sure that getting past the girls inside was not something she needed to get through.  So she stayed in her car, turning it back on.  As she headed to the drive through she put down her window.  Just then, two of the girls came out, drink cups held in their hands like trophies.  They snickered as Kayla drove by and stopped a few feet ahead of them, waiting for the cars in front of her.

Kayla pretended not to notice as the girls strode past.  But she couldn’t ignore their calls of greeting.  “Hey Kayla,” one said.  “Watcha gonna get?”

Kayla shrugged, but the girl didn’t give up.  She pulled a dollar out of her pocket.  “Here,” she said, throwing it through the window and laughing.  “Keep it to their dollar menu.  Maybe then you won’t get so fat.”

The girl didn’t wait for Kayla’s response, which was good because Kayla didn’t have one other than to turn bright red.  Once the girls had gotten into their own cars and driven away, Kayla pulled her car out of the line and drove off in the other direction.

After a few miles, Kayla realized that she was lost.  She hit the GPS button on her phone and waited for its instruction.  “Turn left onto Hummingbird Lane,” it commanded, so Kayla did.

A quarter of a mile down the road, Kayla stopped.  There in front of someone’s yard was a beautiful display of cut flowers.  They were all propped up in paint buckets with the words 25 cents each written in black marker.  The buckets spanned the entire length of two picnic benches.  At one end was a metal box with an opening. Honor System it said.

Kayla grabbed the dollar bill on her seat.  She picked four sunflowers in various shades of reds and yellows and gave the dollar in payment.  She smiled as she got into her car, thinking that flowers were better than French fries anyway.

Garden Victory Part 2

Margie dragged the last of the empty paint buckets to her garage.  She would take them out to the curb later.  Back inside, she flopped on her couch and stared up at the ceiling.  She nodded in satisfaction.  Painting all her ceilings had been the right choice.  It took three long weeks, but what else would she have done with that time?

A little voice told Margie exactly what she could have done with that time.  For a second Margie considered knocking on Stella’s door.  They had been neighbors on Hummingbird Lane for over 10 years and best friends ever since.  Well, except for the last month.

Margie still wasn’t sure what happened.  Half-hoping, half -joking she asked if Stella would consider chopping down her weeping willow tree.  Margie’s new pool turned out to be one big hassle, especially the daily cleaning of debris.  Most of it came from Stella’s weeping willow.

“How dare you,” Stella yelled.  “Matthew planted that tree 30 years ago when we moved in!”

“I’m sorry,” Margie told her.  “I didn’t think….”

“That’s right you didn’t.  Just like you didn’t think when you decided to get that piece of shit pool in the first place.”

Their fight escalated after that with a lot of sweeping generalizations, over-exaggerations, and dredging up of the past as is wont to happen when two people who have a long history and love each other get into a fight.  Margie and Stella had not spoken since then, so Margie had plenty of free time on her hands.  Enough, to paint her chipped and cracked ceilings which Stella had pointed out made her house look run down.  As Margie continued to stare at her ceiling, her phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Margie?  It’s Sophia.  Listen, I know you and my mom haven’t talked much lately, but could you check on her?”

“Is Stella okay?

“No.  It’s my dad – he was diagnosed with cancer a month ago.”

“Jesus,” Margie breathed.  “I had no idea.  I’ll call her.”

“Margie, it was fast spreading.  The doctors said there was nothing they could do.  Dad died this morning.”

In a split second it was as if their fight last month had never happened.  “I’m going over there now,” Margie said and she hung up.

Margie found Stella laying in her garden, only it wasn’t a garden anymore.  Every single plant was hacked to shreds with the colorful blooms scattered everywhere.  She saw the weeping willow high above Stella’s house swaying in the breeze.  Margie’s own tears now echoed its sadness.   

“Come on,” Margie said as she picked up Stella from the ground.  “Let’s get you inside.”  As they walked to the house, Margie lamented the flowers they trampled on.  Then she remembered the empty paint buckets in her garage.  They could hold dozens of flowers.  Perhaps their beauty wouldn’t have to be wasted after all.  Margie gave Stella’s shoulder a squeeze.  “And don’t you worry, I’ll take care of this mess.”

Garden Victory Part 1

Stella stood among the sunflowers, daisies, peonies, hydrangeas, and roses.  The tears that rolled down her face hit the ground.  She looked around to see if her sorrow had been absorbed into their roots.  But the flowers didn’t wither and die.  Instead, they stood tall and luscious; the sun showering them with vibrancy and life.

“Traitors,” Stella muttered. “It’s like you don’t even care that he’s gone.”  Stella reached down and pulled her gardening apron to her, wiping the remaining tears from her eyes.  As she did a pair of shears fell out of the pocket.  She knelt down to pick them up, but stayed on the ground paralyzed by the flowers towering over her.  Were they really as callous as they seemed?

Stella turned the shears over and over in her hands.  The ground felt hard underneath her, but somehow that did not encourage Stella to get up.  What would Matthew say about her sitting in the garden, she wondered.  Would he behave in typical Matthew fashion and call her silly, laughing as he pulled her up? Give her a hug and a kiss on her forehead?

Well I’ll never know, Stella thought.  Matthew is dead and I’ll never know what he would think about this.  I’ll never know what he would think about anything again. 

Stella continued turning the gardening shears in her hands.  As she did, the words, Matthew is dead, turned over in her mind.  The words and movement both seemed involuntary and she didn’t know how to stop either.  She started squeezing the shears together, just for something different to do.  Then, as another torrent of tears was unleashed, Stella began hacking the flowers closest to her.  Down came the roses.

“Bravo,” they seemed to shout, taunting her with every snip of her shears.  “Now you’re getting somewhere.”  So, she kept going.  Down came the hydrangeas, then the peonies, and the daisies.  Last, came the sunflowers.  She did not stop until every flower laid on the ground, their remaining foliage and stems at half-mast of where they had once been.

Stella looked at her work.  “There,” she cried, sobbing into her hands.  “Now you’re dead, too.”  Stella wasn’t sure if she meant the garden or herself.  She sank to her knees again, but this time the ground wasn’t so hard.  The flowers cushioned her like a bed, soft and welcoming.  Stella laid down.    Maybe if she lay there long enough, the summer sun would somehow bring her back to life.  So she closed her eyes and waited.