Stirring & Settling, by Melissa A. Bartell IV of the Tea series, follows Stewing)

“Where are you taking me?” Sarah asked. She was in the front passenger seat of David’s car, one of his neckties forming a blindfold. She could have peeked around the edges – the knot at the back of her head wasn’t that tight – but her boyfriend had really wanted to surprise her, and she hated to ruin his fun.

“You’ll see,” he said, laughter coloring his tone. “Just be patient a little longer.”

“Just promise wherever we’re going has food,” she responded. “I’m starving.”

David didn’t answer.

The car kept going, with David humming lightly as he drove. Sarah could tell they weren’t in town any more – there hadn’t been any stops for traffic lights in quite a while – but she wasn’t sure which direction they’d been going. She’d have to trust him.

Just as she was taking a breath, preparing to ask how much longer they’d be driving, David stopped humming. The car turned off the pavement and onto a gravelly surface, finally rolling to a stop. “Okay,” he said. “We’re here.”

Sarah removed her blindfold. “The Japanese gardens?” she queried, reading the sign in front of their car. “I thought we were going for a late lunch. As far as I know, they don’t serve lunch here.”

“Trust me,” David suggested his tone warm with affection. He turned off the car, removed the keys and got out, moving around to open her door. “Please, Sar?”

She slid out of the car, glad she’d listened to his wardrobe suggestion. Her nautical-stripe sweater, khaki crop pants and navy espadrilles weren’t the most fashionable of outfits, but they made her feel neat and crisp, and she’d be comfortable even in the cool breeze that always seemed to linger along the river walk.

“I do trust you,” she said.

“Good.” He offered his arm, and she took it. “This way.”

Together, Sarah and David walked down the wide ramp that twisted and turned through the blossoming cherry trees. They paused on the little bridge that crossed the koi pond, laughing at the hopeful fish crowding to the surface. “We should buy some food for them,” Sarah said.

David grinned. “Right, because clearly they’re emaciated.” But he fished a couple of quarters from his pocket – he’d also worn khaki pants, Sarah notice – a change from his more typical weekend choice of jeans – and waited for the cup of fish-food to drop from the vending machine affixed to the far end of the bridge.


He held the cup and she pinched up some of the food, casting it into the water, and the fish waiting in it. “They remind me a little of hungry puppies.”

“All animals are adorable when they’re begging for food,” David joked. “It’s a rule.”

Sarah laughed. “I think it must be.”

When the cup was empty, they continued their walk, down the stairs of the terraced hillside, to the lantern-lined sidewalk along the riverbank.

“You alright?” David asked, when Sarah paused for no apparent reason.

“Fine…” she said. “Except… do you hear music?”

He made a show of listening. “Sounds like pan-flutes,” he said. “I think they’re coming from over that way.” He pointed in the direction of the gazebo that sat on the water-side of the walk, at the top of a curve. “Let’s find out?”

Sarah decided she was never going to get the lunch she’d been promised, and simply agreed with him, “Sure. Why not?”

Hand in hand, they kept walking, following the curving path along the water until they reached the gazebo, where, instead of the empty space Sarah had been expecting, there were paper lanterns and a trio of people playing different wind instruments.

“I don’t remember anyone advertising a musical event here,” Sarah said.

“They didn’t,” David answered. “Come with me.”

Gently, he led her up the steps and into the octagonal building, where a single, set table and two chairs were waiting for them.

Against one wall was a man in a chef’s uniform working on a portable outdoor stove. “Ah, you’ve arrived,” the dapper man said, turning to greet them. “Please sit. Lunch is almost ready.”

Sarah dropped into the chair David had pulled out for her, taking in the bouquet of daisies in a glass vase, and the vaguely tea-pot shaped item sitting on a trivet and covered by a quilted cozy. “You arranged this? For me?”

“No,” David corrected. “I arranged this for us.” He lifted the cozy from the pot and set it aside. “Shall I pour?”

Over hot tea and plates of seared beef, salmon and yellowtail sashimi, steamed rice, and cucumber salad, the couple engaged in their usual banter.

“I’ve always thought these gardens would be the perfect setting for a wedding,” Sarah said as they finished their meal.

“They have an events coordinator for things like that,” David explained. “My friend Ryo and his wife were considering it, but then her parents insisted they do a church ceremony instead, and since they were paying…”

“I guess that makes a difference,” Sarah agreed. “But still…”

The chef interrupted them long enough to clear their dishes and deliver two glasses and an open bottle of champagne.

“Personally,” David said, after they’d been left alone once more, “I’ve always imagined this as the perfect location for a proposal.” He didn’t leave his chair to kneel in front of her, but he did remove a small, black box from his pocket and place it in front of her.

“David?” She could feel her lips curving into a goofy smile, could tell that her cheeks had gone hot and pink.

“Sarah, ever since we ran into each other at the café on that day, I’ve felt like there was something stirring inside me – ”

” – inside me too – ” she interrupted.

” – and ever since you moved in, I’ve been thinking, ‘this is what life is supposed to be. Two people sharing a home and a life… fighting over their favorite sections of the newspaper, taking turns cooking dinner or making tea…” Sarah heard his voice go choky as he trailed off.

“Oh… David…”

He swallowed reflexively, and opened the box. Inside was a tea-bag, but instead of the usual paper tab, the end of the string was affixed to a delicate gold ring with a diamond that was the perfect proportion for Sarah’s slender fingers.

“Will you marry me, Sarah?”

She lifted the ring from the box, and tugged slightly. The string fell away, and she turned the piece of jewelry in her hands, holding it up to the light to catch the reflections. “Put it on for me?” she requested offering it back.

David held the ring, poised over her left ring finger. “Is that a yes?” he asked, his tone equal measures of wry uncertainty and tenderness.

“It’s an ‘absolutely,'” Sarah said. “I love you. I love the live we’ve been building together. This just… this feels like everything’s settling into exactly the places they’re supposed to be.”

Each of them half-rising from their chairs, they leaned over the table to seal their engagement with a kiss that only ended when the chef and the wind players applauded.

Laughing, Sarah and David returned to their chairs, and David poured the champagne into their waiting glasses. “I love you too, Sar,” he said, lifting his glass to salute her. “You’re my best friend, and my muse.”

“And flattery will get you everywhere,” she teased.

They carried their glasses to the part of the gazebo that looked over the water, and as the sun set, and the lanterns began to glow softly in the darkening sky, they held each other, and exchanged whispered dreams for their future.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.




Counting My Losses by Sheryl Cornett

Lately I’ve been losing things: car keys, umbrellas, reading glasses, a cherished leather coin purse bought in London’s Camden Market twenty years ago. I kept only British pounds sterling in that purse, as a reminder that the next trip “home” to the Bloomsbury neighborhoods was just a few months away. I go there regularly to escape the oppressively humid North Carolina summers paying my way by teaching and writing.

Classes finished, deadlines met, I wander daydreaming through Regent’s Park or along the Thames’ South Bank leg of the Jubilee Greenway. I walk miles when in that beloved city, and my fit bit holds me accountable like an exercise partner. We have a daily conversation, in real activity-tracking numbers, about how life-giving and liberating these miles are. I record the miles in a moleskin journal as an affirming reminder-log. We check in with each other often.

So, last month when I climbed out of an airport shuttle at five in the morning, I heard the leather coin pouch tumble out of my bag, spilling change on the asphalt. I searched hurriedly in the dark for the three-inch purse. American Airlines was announcing Now Boarding, creating panic as I scoured under the oafish sixteen passenger van—but the purse apparently fell into a black hole.

Let it go. You can get another one next trip.

Later that same trip, the fit bit disappeared from my bra where it was snuggly clipped in place. Somewhere in Dallas Fort Worth’s ginormous Terminal D it worked loose and went AWOL. I hope someone who really needs one found it.

This loss is a reminder to all that I’ve been counting as well as losing in the past year.

I count steps-into-miles, as I mention. I track dollars, British pounds sterling, and euros while teaching study abroad. I count numbers of students in my classes and the number of semesters taught: autumn, spring, and summer, seventy-five semesters to date! I count calories and carbs; check my weight and blood pressure, mindful of the fluctuation of each.

I count pages and chapters written by me, and those read and re-read by me, written by my favorite authors and sister-writers. I count psalms and poems by friends dead and alive that resonate in my soul like music that lingers and won’t leave the room; poems that bring joy and wisdom and a place to share our humanity. Louis MacNeice’s lines from Autumn Journal surface to remind me that my “vitality leaps” among “[t]rees without leaves and a fire in the fireplace.”

Segue here to the biggest loss of all this year—loss of a spouse through divorce. The fit bit represents this in a quirky way: my former husband used to be (a lifetime ago), my walking partner; in fact, that’s how we courted back when we were both broke and single parenting.

The fit bit that went AWOL at DFW surprised me with its loss, at how unmoored I felt.

I realized it has been—for quite a few years—my most steadfast walking companion. A way to make sure I’m actually getting as much exercise as I tell myself I am, something that a walking or jogging buddy can confirm or challenge. It’s also my creative thinking, and head-clearing, and list-making time. Random thoughts of gratitude often bloom in me while getting in my steps. I also vent, sort out teaching conundrums, and compose emails while taking paths through the urban college campus where I work; while meandering through country parks and river walks.

So, in counting my losses along with these other things, I’m finding that counting them mindfully, being intentional and aware of the letting go, of the moving on is, in fact, cutting my losses in the best way. There are fewer and fewer flash floods of anger mixed with sadness. Let it go. No marinating regrets, no festering bitterness. The absence of a regular walking partner is a small shadow in the big-sky clouds of divorce. The silver linings are the friends, colleagues, and (serendipity!) even my adult children that I now call or who contact me to make a walking date, when schedules allow. What a gift! And how hard to get consistently on the calendar.

But my friend the fit bit is always available.

Earlier today, I laugh in sudden awareness of the beauty of solitary walks as well as the companionable ones.

It’s bright mid-winter, I’m trekking the Thames Path at high noon along Oxford’s banks. I spy a kingfisher swoop into the woods; the river scintillates in wavelets. I breathe in, lift up my face to the pale sun. My heart is firmly fixed in this moment. Then I remember: I’m meeting my daughter (who has flown to England to visit me on this research trip) on the other side of the river for a hike further along this same footpath. We’ll go the full eight miles to a neighboring village and then stop for dinner at a country pub. We’ll sit by the open fire for several hours sometimes talking, sometimes staring at the flames. After writing a few letters and postcards, we’ll catch the last bus back to London.

Cutting losses has evolved into counting blessings: the gifts of faith, family, and vocation.

The riches of friends and fellowship. The treasure of genuine, healthy relationships and the ongoing healing they confer; the gift of life fully lived, apart from another’s emotional and financial behaviors that, for many years, stormed my days like a cycle of North Carolina hurricanes. Luckily, I found a fit bit on e-Bay for the right price.

We’re back in stride, the pair of us. We’ve moved forward through the stained glass autumn leaf color into the sculptural beauty of winter-trees without leaves, into the next season of finding “gains” better than those losses; in counting joys, pleasures, and the blessings that abound if only I have the eyes to see their numbers.

About the Author: Sheryl Cornett

Sheryl Cornett teaches at North Carolina State University, where she is the 2014-2017 University Honors Program Author Scholar-in-Residence. Her recent poems, stories, criticism, and creative non-fiction appear in Art House America, Southern Women’s Review, North Carolina Literary Review, Image, Pembroke Magazine, Mars Hill Review, and The Independent Weekly among other journals and magazines; and in anthologies such as In a Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare, The Global Jane Austen, and Christmas Stories from the South’s Best Writers. Visit her at

Sunday Salon: In Search of a Perfect Morning

Sunday Salon with Becca Rowan

More mornings than I’d like begin long before the crack of dawn, begin with the whimper of a elderly dog  whose bladder won’t wait another moment; begin with the apnea induced snoring of the man I’ve slept beside for over 40 years; begin with my own anxious thoughts rolling ticker-tape fashion through my only half-lucid brain. I’ve heard that disrupted sleep is the curse of middle age, this tendency to waken at ever increasingly early hours, unable to return to sleep. And so I accept and endure, as I do with much of life.

Though not “perfect” by my standards, these early mornings and I have come to an understanding. Usually I ease myself out of bed and creep down the stairs to the kitchen, brew myself a cup of herbal tea, warm my lavender scented heating pad in the microwave, and settle back into bed with a pile of pillows. With the heating pad at my back, a light shawl around my shoulders, and the dog curled up at my side, I take up my book and read. Thus lulled from my anxious thoughts, warmed through and through with hot beverages and comforting heat wraps, many times I will drift off for another hour or two of sleep.

Sometimes I take these early morning wake up calls as a gift. I go full throttle into morning mode and make a short pot of coffee (four cups instead of the usual six), emptying the dishwasher as it brews. Once it’s done, back upstairs I go into my “office” and take up my journal or fire up the computer and write.

When I grouse about having woken early, my friend Christa reminds me that in days of yore it was customary to go to bed at dark  – what else could one do before electric lights, television, or social media? – and then rise during the middle of the night. Creative people especially made remarkable use of those early hours, to write, paint, sculpt, practice the lute (or whatever medieval instrument they favored). Fresh from sleep, undisturbed by the tasks of the day, it was a time when creative energies surged and they made good use of it.

Though there is truth in that, and though I’ve made my peace with these early mornings, they are not my idea of “perfect.” No, the perfect morning is a leisurely wake up at 7 or 8, the stairway to the kitchen illuminated with sunlight. A perfect morning is two cups of coffee and hot buttered toast, carried upstairs on a tray. A perfect morning is me, sitting in the sunny alcove of our upstairs bedroom reading my book, while my husband sits in bed reading the morning news. A perfect morning is 30 minutes of journal writing, a walk around the neighborhood with the dogs, time at my desk with the windows open and birds singing.

Call them rituals or routines, the way we begin each day has a profound impact on the way we carry on with the hours that are left. My persistent early morning wake ups led to the need for new routines, new ways to respond to circumstances that weren’t ideal but were reality. So whether my day begins “perfectly” or not, it begins in a controlled and orderly fashion and in a way that’s meaningful to me.

That’s about as perfect as I can make things in this crazy mixed up world we live in.


About the Author: Becca Rowan

becca_rowan_bio_may2016Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her husband and their two dogs. She is the author of Life in General, a book of personal and inspirational essays about the ways women navigate the passage into midlife. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. If she’s not writing or playing music you’ll likely find her out walking with the dogs or curled up on the couch reading with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) close at hand. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.

The Truth by Æverett

Sea of Fog by Yannick Pulver via Unsplash

Sea of Fog by Yannick Pulver via Unsplash

It dies slowly, panicking, shivering in the threadbare sheet of its own skin.

The light fades and the cold creeps in.

It begs. Begs for air.

There is no air. The others have stolen it all away. So it will suffocate.

Suffocate under the dense weight of fear and hopelessness.

Suffocate with the world in all Her glory.

About the Author: Æverett Æverett

Æverett lives in the northern hemisphere and enjoys Rammstein and Star Trek. He writes both poetry and fiction and dabbles in gardening and soap making. She has two wonderfully old cats, and a dearly beloved dog. He also plays in linguistics, studying German, Norwegian, Russian, Arabic, a bit of Elvish, and developing Cardassian. Language is fascinating, enlightening, and inspirational. She’s happily married to her work with which she shares delusions of demon hunters, detectives, starships, androids, and a home on the outskirts of a small northern town. He’s enjoyed writing since childhood and the process can be downright therapeutic when it’s not making him pull his hair out. It’s really about the work and words and seeing without preconceptions.

How I Start Each Morning by Felicia C. Sullivan

When you live in an era where smartphones have become appendages, conversations are emoji-based and reactive, and we’re suffering from information overload and choice paralysis, it can be challenging to sit down and just think.

Attention, not information, is our greatest commodity and it seems as if everyone’s vying for a piece of our day with news alerts, notifications, emails, texts, status updates, and phone calls. They want us and they want us now, and sometimes it can feel downright exhausting to be a participant in such a frenetic culture, during such a divisive (and frightening) political time. Yet, in following the law of diminishing returns, it is possible to know too much, to be too connected, to hyper-publish and battle in 140 characters or less—all at the expense of our sanity and the art we need to so desperately and fervently create.

Sometimes you might think, why bother? I’m just one more cog in the wheel, another voice amidst the noise, but I think it’s healthy, even necessary, to withdraw from the world, create and share that which is real and honest, and be guardians of our time as much as we can.

Although it seems as if people are up and tweeting 24 hours a day, I have found a pocket of time, in the early morning, where I can create something that has a longer, and more potent, shelf life than a status update. Waking early also helps me set an intention for my day. I normally wake at 5 and I don’t bolt out of bed. Instead, I lie awake for 15-20 minutes, calmly breathing, cozying up to my cat and mapping out the day ahead of me. This slower pace allows me to consider each task deliberately and with intention and on a more practical level I don’t feel like I’m having a panic attack before my morning coffee.

Since I have to balance the demands of an always-on consulting practice with novel writing, I tend to devote 2 hours every morning to anything that will move a personal or creative project forward. I’ve found that setting aside time for creative work, even scheduling it, rarely makes me feel resentful of the work that “pays the bills” because everyone now plays harmoniously in the proverbial sandbox. My morning time isn’t simply about writing, rather, it’s about all the things I need to do to bring a project to life. On good days I write. I never worry about the quality of the work (that’s for later when I’m breaking out my pen and feeling particularly surgical); I only care that I’m working. I close out my WIFI because I’ve found that texts and notifications still find a way to weasel me away from the page.

I know the world is out there, possibly aflame, but I’ll get to it in due time.

On the days when I’m blocked, I focus on research, organization, brainstorming, writing exercises, reading, or editing—all essential tasks that are needed to complete a project. At the end of the two hours, I feel productive regardless if I’ve written a single word. My morning process focuses on creation and organization and the evenings are devoted to review, editing, and refining. And the cycle continues anew on the following day.

The information culture is pervasive, so much so that you can get caught up on clickbait, fake news, hot takes, and opinion pieces that are simply noise. After I’ve spent time creating or working on a project, I make a point to read long-form articles and essays on everything from politics to brain science. I think we’ve shifted to writing that’s sometimes too succinct, and I feel relieved in the moments when I’m able to spend time reading through a comprehensive, thoroughly researched point-of-view. Doing this makes me less reactive and more methodical and thoughtful in all my tasks throughout the day. Even if you have 5-10 minutes, listen to a podcast during your commute, read one long-form article, take the time to allow your attention to linger. I’ve also found that I’ve regained the attention span I previously lost.

Remember a time when you were able to read a book for hours and not have the TV blasting or dealing with the blow-up that is your smart phone?

I often think we make too many goals and to-do lists, which invariably set us up for failure. After I do my ‘thinking’ work and read, I write down one thing (yes, one) that I want to achieve for the day. The task will be specific and realistically achievable. For example, I hate organizing my bills and bank statements, so I’ll devote an hour to the task. Regardless of what happens in the day, I know that it’s probably feasible for me to complete one task.

Creating, reading, and intention-setting –this is how I start each morning. Some days, it works beautifully and I’m productive. Other days, I’m tethered to my email putting out a fire. However, what matters most is that most of my days are comprised of the former instead of the latter. Most days I’m focused on living mindfully and that seems to even out the days that erupt in total chaos.

About the Author: Felicia C. Sullivan

Felicia C. Sullivan is the award-winning author of the critically acclaimed memoir The Sky Isn’t Visible from Here (Algonquin/Harper Perennial) and the founder of the now-defunct but highly regarded literary journal Small Spiral Notebook. She maintains the popular lifestyle blog Born and raised in New York City, she now lives in Los Angeles, CA.

Follow Me Into the Dark is her first novel.