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For love of my grandmother and snow

It’s snowing, Mema. Really coming down. We’ve shoveled four times this morning, but it doesn’t look like we did much.

It’s an Emily Dickinson type of snow day, you know, the one that begins:
It sifts from leaden sieves…It sprinkles all the wood…ruffling all the fence posts as ankles of a queen…then vanishes…denying it has been…

I never can remember the whole thing, but it’s my favorite, just like this kind of snow – soft, steady, powdered-sugar snow. It blankets the earth with a thick woolly layer of purity and silence.
2012-12-29 14.32.20
Whenever it snows, I think of you. Even though you aren’t here, and I’m too old to be out playing in the snow (well, mostly), I know you’re watching me out there while I’m shoveling and enjoying every minute. Up until my back starts aching and my nose drips so much I can’t stand it.

I’d fall back into the snow in our yard and make a snow angel for you, but I would be covered up before I could finish. I would vanish, like the dead grass and leaves, with only a faint mounded outline of something under the snow. Brr. We won’t go there. Keep happy thoughts of snow.

I wouldn’t mind being snowbound for a few days, just long enough to work on my writing or quilts, to make a big batch of hearty vegetable soup with chunks of venison. You never had the opportunity to try my soup with venison. You’d like it. I know Granddad would, too.

My other half, on the other hand, would not handle being snowbound for a few days well. He can’t bear to be shut in that long. He’d rather shovel his way to the end of the street in order to break free and travel, even if it wasn’t for anything critical. He doesn’t know how to occupy himself in the house or the garage with creative projects to keep his mind and hands busy. He has plenty of them waiting on him, even ones of his own choosing, but they intimidate him. I think they make him feel trapped. Ironic, isn’t it? What makes him feel confined makes me feel liberated. Go figure.

Well, guess I’d better go bundle back up. The guys will return in about an hour, and I need to shovel the latest inch of fluffy white off the drive so they don’t mash it into ice pulling in. But I’ll be thinking of you the whole time, with lots of love between the huffing and sniffing. It’s snowing.


Paying Honor to Sacrificial Lions

Veterans Day, 2014
The world seems to be aflame. Violence, death and destruction run helter-skelter across our little blue planet. People are stressed to the breaking point everywhere. We don’t want the bad people to run our lives. We don’t want our children exposed to violence and anything associated with it, yet we demand that others stand unequivocally in harm’s way to protect us.

Who are these people willing to face being maimed or killed at any given moment? And for the love of God, why do they do it?

They are the warriors of our species, and they weren’t always that way. They all began life as sweetly and innocently as any child. But something inside drives them to protect and defend, and is willing to go ballistic in the service of that goal if need be. The reasons are as varied as the warriors themselves. The ability – physical as well as mental – that sets them apart from the rest of us also gathers them together. They are the men and women who make up our military.

Not all who serve survive the service. Some do not survive the training. Some do not survive combat. Some do not survive living with the aftermath. The high rate of suicide in the military is a heart-rending fact. If the rest of us had much exposure at all to what our warriors go through for us, we would understand all this in a heartbeat. But we don’t have that frame of reference. No movie or book will truly ever be able to convey those experiences. You have to be there.

I have not been there. Most people I know have not, nor will they ever be there. And from some warriors’ points of view, that is precisely why they are in the military – so the rest of us will never have to be there. They take on all the worst the world has to offer so the rest of us can have our idyllic homes and holidays, giggling children and backyard barbecues. So we never have to see or hear or smell or taste the atrocity that is war. So we are never touched by unconscionable horror. That is sacrifice of astronomical proportions.

To paraphrase the remarks of Abraham Lincoln from so many lifetimes ago, we the living cannot hallow or consecrate any of that sacrifice because those who died protecting us already did it through their actions. I would only add that the walking wounded have also done so – and the internal burdens they bear will follow them to their final resting places, so that we don’t have to bear them either.

Lest we forget.

Thank you, Veterans everywhere. Thank you for your service and thank you for the many sacrifices you have endured on behalf of the rest of us.

Nanowrimo Gal Won’t You Come Out Tonight?

Nanowrimo Gal Won’t You Come Out Tonight?

It’s the official start of National Novel Writing Month – that time of year when I normally heave a big sigh of longing and regret that I cannot participate – but not THIS year. Oh no, I am taking action this year. And it’s about time, says my writing muse.

Beware the Jabberwock, my friend…

…and the Should, the Need and all those other nasty guilt-tripping things that lurk in every corner of a writer’s conscience.  My head was full of random thoughts all week, up until this morning – all the self-inflicted garbage I tend to pile on myself. It is procrastination, pure and simple, or maybe a little fear that I might actually produce something worthwhile and have to deal with that. Yes, fear of success can be as debilitating as fear of failure. No wonder my neck muscles are all tight and I want to curl up and hibernate it all away.  But not now! Nanowrimo ahoy!

I got the music in me…

Listening to the radio on my way to and from the gym, I was reminded of how much music inspired me on the first book I wrote. It suggested, enhanced, or even inspired specific situations or attitudes for the characters.  Visceral pangs (aka gut-wrenching) of longing or loss, of all-encompassing desire/need; exhilaration that made my chest feel about to burst; affection that permeated every cell of my body – all those things and more were a gift from the songs or instrumentals I’ve heard at serendipitous moments.  Thank you, all ye bards and minstrels, for each of those moments.

Crank it up…

I also realized I had not listened to that part of my muse nearly as much with the last two books and that the emotional quality of the writing suffered for it.

Still working on Book Three, after having to take a prolonged hiatus, I have time to correct that shocking oversight. There is time to flesh out those intimate conversations and interludes, to paint a scene of inner turmoil with greater intensity and insight, to highlight the love and cast shadows on the anxieties. But I will need music’s help for this.

The stories in song are universal, like all emotion, and timeless. I will listen – really listen, to lyrics and mood from a diverse sampling of eras. I will find the common thread woven into each piece and follow it into my own heart.  Then will I be able to write what is needed most.

With a Little Help from My Friends… biker rose detail

The 1960’s and 70’s are my formative era, so I will be listening to a lot of ballads from them.  Right now I’m digging the Moody Blues.  Their songs are especially pertinent to my protagonists, for various reasons. It’s almost as if they are in these characters’ souls. Step into a time warp…that’s where I’ll be all Nanowrimo!

Behind the Bang, Boom, Pop and Sizzle

It’s Independence Day in the U.S.A. For 238 years we have struggled, staggered, stumbled and striven to be the epitome of what it means to be free and self-determining. People of every nationality come to our shores chasing those same dreams. They know what it means to not have those things. But do we really understand what it means to possess them?

Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers, was also one of the greatest thinkers of all time. His foresight was astounding. He warned us that “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” He also admonished us not to let government become our primary caretaker: “I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.” Whoa. Wait a minute. Sorry, Tom. We’ve already arrived at that point and gone way past it. You must be rotating in your grave.

Maybe not. He also said this, and it sounds like something ripped from today’s news:
“A little patience, and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolve, and the people, recovering their true spirit, restore their government to its true principles. It is true that in the meantime we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war and long oppressions of enormous public debt…” Déjà vu! Bet he never figured on Uncle Sam being trillions in the hole. “Trillion” probably never even entered his vocabulary.

And yet more wisdom: “…a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.” Indeed. So what happened here?

How is it that we have strayed so far from the path? It was set down in very clear terms. The Founders went to great lengths to write out extensive explanations for every item in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. Why have we forgotten those explanations even exist?

As you wolf down your BBQ, watermelon and sweet tea, or whatever food your “4th of July” picnic consists of, chew on Jefferson’s words of warning and wisdom. When you gape and gasp at the fireworks display this evening, imagine the battles waged and won with bloody hands so that you can do precisely all those things with little thought for your personal safety and freedom.

Above all, have respect for those who died fighting to give birth to this country, its ideals, and to provide for its continuance as a beacon of hope and dignity for all people. And please do not forget to bestow honor upon those who still defend America with their lives.

Renewal and Reflection

Container gardening - my veggies.

Modest beginnings: green beans (foreground) and zucchini (background).

It’s the first day, officially, of summer – and boy has it made its presence known. Near-blistering heat tempered with a lot of breezes. I melt above 78 degrees F, but I need some sun on my skin. Mind you, I’m not a beach bunny, nor am I attempting to work up to a world-class tan. I want the healthy part of that equation: the Vitamin D stuff for my bones, the gentle transition of my skin tone from pale to faintly golden that comes from being outdoors doing something, and the enormous stress relief that comes from focusing on doing something essential and truly meaningful. The bad stuff that is part and parcel of contrived social existence takes a back seat when you concentrate on the heart of Life itself.

A lifetime ago, my parents used to put in a small backyard garden for us kids to raise veggies in. I never thought of it as work. All the hours spent weeding and nurturing the plot reinforced my inherent relationship with the physical world. The earth crumbled between my pudgy toes and fingers. I marveled as green life sprouted from hard featureless seeds buried a week or more before in the barren soil. Pulling carrots and radishes free of the earth, picking green beans and ears of corn – everything I had grown and harvested gave me a sense of accomplishment quite unlike any other chore I did inside.

By the time I was in junior high and high school, I no longer had space in my schedule for gardening. Then I was off to college, which experience was shortly followed by marriage. I had one small garden for one season, a few years into my marriage. The missing of working outside in the soil caught up with me, and I was determined to grow food of some kind. I planted broccoli, tomatoes and green beans. It was not as much fun as when I was a child. I was more aware of the time involvement, the relentless battle with the elements, insects and other small critters. It would be a long time before I went to that much trouble again.

Twenty years later, I put in flower beds around the home we eventually built. They were a joy to design and fill with various annuals and perennials, but they soon became “work.” As I aged, my body was less willing to bend over for hours, weeding, so I turned to spraying chemical poisons. This ate at my soul, so I gradually did away with those things and returned to old-fashioned physical removal. It was a good plan until my sciatic nerve developed some issues, cutting my gardening time down to almost nil. The weeds and insects seamlessly filled in the vacant moments, overpowering and conquering everything I had labored to create.

This year I’m much stronger, but still have little spare time. Despite that, I’m attacking the flower beds, reclaiming my turf bit by bit. I’m also trying out some container gardening with a few veggies: one pot each of zucchini, green beans, and carrots (the little kind). Although I planted late, the seeds have sprouted and are growing larger and stronger every day. I can move the pots around with the sun, shield them from too much wind and rain, and defend more readily against pests. It’s a good feeling. Like the seeds in the pots, part of me has been regenerated. There is a subtle feeling of completeness to life again. I have returned to my own roots, drawing life-energy at the touch of soil, sun, water, and growth.

Today, after limbering up with a number of standard-end-of-week inside chores to ease my conscience, I eased out the patio door into the backyard. It wasn’t the blast furnace we’d been experiencing over the past week, thank God. With the intermittent breeze, it was more a natural warmth settling around me. I surveyed my little outdoor kingdom and saw there was much to be done. After an hour or so, I pulled enough weeds to make my fingers ache, revealing the red river stones lining each flower bed. I freed the Black-Eyed Susans and Hostas from the smothering encroach of clover and assorted grassy weeds, making room to finally put out the little metal airplane garden stakes I bought last fall.

Metal airplane garden stakes.

Flight of Three whimsical garden stakes where weeds once reigned.

I do have one flower bed that remains untouched, however. It is the one right below the nest of baby robins that rests in the crook of the downspout from the rain gutter. Major reconstruction on that bed can wait until the babies have left the nest. I’m too busy watching them grow, and sharing in their wonder at the world into which they have been born.

Precious Memories are Treasures in My Head

Memorial Day 2014

I wanted to post today because Memorial Day (or Decoration Day if you’re from several generations previous) is a significant day of pause in the calendar year. It has nothing to do with company picnics, or sales at the mall, or parades, or obligatory speeches/appearances by our public officials.

Memorial Day is for remembering. I remember family and friends who are no longer with us. I remember the times in my life, young or otherwise, that were spent with these people. They are part of the treasure hoarded in my brain. It saddens me that they are no longer a part of my physical world, that I cannot touch them or speak with them. I certainly do not wish that they had hung on through debilitating pain or disease just to have them near. Their personal rest was a necessary thing that I respect and have come to accept.

Acceptance of loss is rarely easy. It requires time and thought – lots of thought. As long as I have my memories, these people are with me and always in a positive vein. That is how love never dies. The memories of direct experience are precious indeed.

Valley Brown's family portrait (date unknown).

Valley Brown’s family portrait (date unknown).

Other memories are acquired secondhand. My mother passed along a parcel of old photos recently. Like many elders, she is organizing and tidying as she knowingly approaches the end of her time on this planet. Inside the packet were two unexpected prizes: photos of my pseudonymous namesake: Valley Temperance Baker Brown. She died when I was but an infant, so I have no memories of her, unfortunately, but I have always been smitten with her name. In the family portrait photo, she is the woman on the left. The resemblance between us, at the same ages, is nothing short of uncanny. That is a two-sided issue. The other photo is of her and my Great-Aunt Irene, in 1948, when Valley was growing quite old. I teased my spouse that I have now seen what I will look like as an old lady, but that is not carved in stone. I am doing my best to be a much healthier person than most of my forebears, so I am hopeful that I will be in better shape when I reach that age.

Irene and Valley, Memorial Day, 1948.

Irene and Valley, Memorial Day, 1948.

I miss those who are no longer with me. My eyes automatically tear up when I start pulling those remembrances to the front of my consciousness. These are special people. Some served in times of war or conflict. Some raised families and worked ordinary jobs their entire lives.

Each of them touched my life in some way. I am grateful for them and I will remember them, always.

When Stress Has You Shutting Out and Shutting Down

Courtesy of Morguefile, pippalou

Courtesy of Morguefile, pippalou

Shutting Out and Shutting Down

How many times have you been down in the dumps and told those closest to you that you wanted to be alone? Are you protecting those around you from your pain? Are you afraid they won’t understand and choose to write you off? Sure, everyone needs a little time and space to grieve over a loss of whatever sort, but probably not as much as what you think you need.

Why do we push people away when we need them most? This is another symptom of stress. Those with PTSD or related disorders seem to feel a need to hold loved ones at arm’s length when they actually need a bit of judicious interaction.

Distressing memories or thoughts can be triggered by the smallest of things, especially scents. What is remembered can overwhelm a person and sharing that remembrance is perceived as a great deal of emotional risk to themselves and others. Anger, fear, frustration – all those strong emotions come into play. A distressed person may appear unduly or uncharacteristically angry over “nothing.” They may lash out verbally and radiate negativity, all of which is directed at protecting themselves and those they care about from their distress.

This distress is quite tangible to the person experiencing it. The source of the distress becomes resurrected, fresh, powerful, and painful. Handling its resurgence can be a chore of monumental proportions. Dealing with someone else in the throes of it can be every bit as daunting.

There may be times when the stressed-out person needs to be physically close to a loved one and craves the comfort that proximity allows. At other times, the same person may throw up angry barricades, trying to deliberately force that loved one to retreat. Realizing that this behavior is temporary and misdirecting can be perplexing to the extreme, especially if the behavior happens often.

So, what is right way to approach this scenario? The answer depends on a lot of situational variables and on the people involved. One thing remains constant, however, and that is love. Love enables people to hang onto their hope and faith in each other, gives that crucial little boost to their waning courage. Love won’t give up. It may take a beating now and again – perhaps even to the point of instinctive self-preservation, but it won’t give up.

In my first book, “Speeding Tickets,” Doug (the hero) doesn’t give up on Christine (the heroine) when she’s drawing away from him, sinking inside herself with apprehension. He makes her promise not to shut him out of her life when she’s filled with uncertainty: As long as they can talk to each other and turn to each other, they can figure out how to make it through anything life throws at them. Doug knows this because he’s been through hell and back. He’s aware that Christine, too, has suffered greatly along life’s path. They are both among the walking wounded, and while Doug sees that Chris is not handling life much better than he is, if they don’t give up on each other, if they work together, maybe they’ll both do more than merely survive — and they’ll keep each other from shutting down.

Kristen Lamb

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