A Hush of Blackberries by Richard King Perkins II

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_fabiopagani'>fabiopagani / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

For the first time in years
I respond to you—

the rain,
with silence

even as you play little sticks
across my rooftop.

If you were to diminish
your flurry of stems

all that you want me to say
would yet remain unspoken.

The glaze of incoherence
you’ve left

still stirring above me
contains more meaning

than you ever intended—
kisses of togetherness

descending to a level
of unwanted compromise.

A hush of blackberries
rises to a place once loved.

About the Author: Richard King Perkins II

Richard King Perkins II is a state-sponsored advocate for residents in long-term care facilities. He lives in Crystal Lake, IL, USA with his wife, Vickie and daughter, Sage. He is a three-time Pushcart, Best of the Net and Best of the Web nominee whose work has appeared in more than a thousand publications.

The Making of Ourselves by Emma Gazley

On the way to work this morning I drove by a hundred advertisements and flashing lights, dozens of billboards covered with intriguing colors and bare figures. I passed men and women walking, driving, on their phones, listening to music. I usually enjoy music or a podcast during my commute, but some mornings lately I’ve been leaving in silence and trying to soak it all in, to remind myself in the midst of those lights and colors that that message of “You should have this or do this or be this” isn’t going to bring the happiness it guarantees.

I arrived earlier than I expected and decided to practice a meditation in the car. I know in my head that intention breeds contentment; but there are times, especially recently, when I’ve been at such a loss for energy that I’ve gone through the motions and lacked intention in the day.

For several years I’ve struggled with various health issues, beginning with a hormonal problem that’s affected my organs, muscles, skeleton. When I first felt something going wrong in my body, I ignored the symptoms. I can’t pinpoint the original moment, but I remember fragments tied together that make a messy mosaic of pain and discomfort. Losing sleep at night, losing the ability to carry anything remotely heavy, losing mobility. I remember trying to shift a backpack onto my shoulders and my arm going out of alignment. I remember the misery of going to work, being in the car, doing dishes. I lost the ability to drive, to pour water, to hold a dinner plate.

My mom had driven me to a healthcare professional for a regular treatment and the next day I could tell I needed another treatment. After scrambling to make another appointment, then rushing to the next city, we sat in the car together. I was reclining in the passenger seat, wearing a pink shirt-dress my cousin had given me looking at the cloudy sky; my mother hadn’t turned the key in the ignition yet, her eyes filling with tears.

She turned to me and said, “It’s worse than we thought, isn’t it?”

In my mind I could see myself smiling and riding horseback, standing in line for a roller-coaster on a hot sunny day, running on a treadmill with energy and confidence. Those images were wiped clean and replaced with a picture of myself laying in bed, crouched over on a couch, limping to and from the car.

I know my imagination can be a drama factory, which is part of why I had spent years ignoring myself, denying the reality of the pain I was in.

Something about those pictures in my mind rang true to me in a way that my imagination’s reel rarely does. I felt it- I felt the loss of the person I had been and I felt a pricking in my fingers that told me that there was a new person I was becoming, and I couldn’t control the body that person lived in. It was a bizarre and palpable feeling. I could feel myself changing, as not even adolescence had changed me.

My illness reached the point where I had to call all my clients and tell them I was unable to continue my work. I changed doctors, as mine wasn’t providing the care I needed. And I started to make a plan for my new life.

I’ve had to rework my plan several times, as my health has improved and weakened over the years. Coming up on the anniversary of when I was first diagnosed, I am trying to regain intention.

Everywhere throughout our winding life-paths we encounter those blinding lights, flashing signs telling us which way to go, what we should desire. Who we should be. I am trying to ignore the distractions, the alluring siren cries of what society and my own brokenness tell me I should be.

There’s a new image I’ve had in my mind this week. I’ve seen a version of myself who is strong, and gentle.

Someone who takes sadness and turns it into pure gold, who can work harder every day and burn through the bar that I had set so low for my body. I’m trying to reshape my expectations to fuel the goal of who I want to be, instead of allowing pessimism to predict a mundane version of myself.

This is a whole area of creativity that those of us who are “makers” can sometimes neglect; the making of ourselves.

In a podcast I listened to recently the speaker talked about people who have suffered from chronic pain, how they begin to own their pain and make it a part of their identity. With the history of mankind and the way current events are trending, we can absolutely guarantee that all of us will at some time feel pain and suffer. The heroes we admire in folklore, on the silver screen and in real life are people who overcome their disadvantages, their pain, and make something of their situations, in spite of fear or obstacles.

As I listened to this podcast I realized that I didn’t want the pain I have experienced for so many years, the weakness, or the fear of it to be “my pain”. I don’t want to be victimized by any of the health issues I’ve experienced. I don’t want my identity to be what’s wrong with me.

Last night I turned on the ceiling fan, shifted some new furniture out of my way, and fell onto the couch, brushing my bangs aside. I felt strong in a way that I never thought I would again. I’ve been managing stress better, exercising more, eating nutritiously; when I eat junk food my body’s been keeping pace better.

Then I stood up to open the window and pulled a muscle in my neck.

All that confidence was shattered as I sat stiff and crying on the couch, waiting for the waves of fear and disappointment to roll over me. They came; but the waters stilled sooner than before. I kept picturing in my mind the person that I want to be, but I didn’t let myself grieve over that image this time. I chose to believe she was in my reach.

Someone with strength, with endurance and stability, who might one day ride a horse or even a roller coaster.

I see those billboards every day, I hear in our music that alluring idea of hypersexuality, affluent lifestyle standards, drinking till you drop, and I see how all of these ideas call us to indulgence. Online I read articles that tout self-care while encouraging lavish living. Treating yourself is, in my opinion, a necessity in life and taking care of yourself of utmost importance.

Yet in my short life, I’ve experienced far more satisfaction from discipline and self control than from indulgence.

Indulgence led me down a path that said I was as strong as I pretended to be, that my behavior wouldn’t have any affect on my well-being. It was through the constant practice of disciplines, emotional and physical, that I was able to get to where I am now, and I don’t want to jeopardize that by falling for the lies that leave their seeds everywhere waiting to take root in our minds.

I don’t want an ideal body, I want a strong one.

I don’t want to be able to drink as much coffee or alcohol as I used to. I want to be able to eat food that gives me life and energy and confidence. And I don’t want to be surrounded by excess, or fueled by a desire for material gain. I want contentment, joy, and acceptance that strives for excellence.

In the lifelong ambition of creating myself, I want to be able to remember, when I fail, how to go back to intention, to that strength that I know I could have; that perhaps I have had all along.

About the Author: Emma Gazley

Emma Gazley is an artist, musician, writer, adventurer and teacher. Born to two adventurous parents, Emma was destined to be an explorer of the world, and from her earliest moments displayed signs of creativity and curiosity. She has spent time in Europe, Asia, Canada, and currently resides in the U.S. She began her journey of discovering her identity as an artist in 2012, after encountering critical health problems that caused her to lose her job and the ability to do most everyday activities. Many of her projects have, as a result of this event and others, a twinge of the painful and tragic aspects of life.

Emma is interested in learning about grief and how to cope with it, as well as passionate about finding joy in the day to day.

A Letter from my Former Psyche by Joules Watts

Photo by Joules Watts

Dear Joules,

You have to end your quest.  Seriously!  You’ve been looking for so long to find the holy grail that will restore me and bring me back.  It’s a futile quest.  Copper toxicity and the damage that came with it turned me into the psychological equivalent of swiss cheese.  Even if you got everything back to normal, I wouldn’t be able to come back.  Too much of me is gone.  And unfortunately you, not me, have to deal with the aftermath.  I’m so sorry.

Art by Obsidian AbnormalYou remember me like I was some shining paragon of amazing and brilliance.  I really wasn’t.  Yes, I had a phenomenal memory and mental clarity.  I could learn things with ease.  I was a musician but remember I couldn’t compose or improvise worth a damn.  That was frustrating!  I was kind and empathetic, but naive as all get out.  I denied myself any negative emotion because it simply just wasn’t done.  It lead to a lot of pain.  Not just for me but for those I loved.  I wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, that’s for damn sure.

I was so very flawed, Joules.  Medicated with ritalin from 2nd grade.  I didn’t have the tools to function without meds.  If I forgot to take meds, I was close to worthless.  I couldn’t function at all.  Remember that I never learned how to recover from failure?  Yeah, when I inevitably crashed and burned, I didn’t know how to get up.  How much was lost due to my ignorance, my singular reliance on my memory and intuition?  So static, so many opportunities wasted because I didn’t have the tools to grow.

So it’s no surprise, given my fragility, that I wouldn’t be able to withstand the upcoming biomedical onslaught.  Like thin strands of sugar crystals, I shattered when I encountered resistance and nearly disintegrated.

Photo by Joules WattsBut you, Joules.  You didn’t shatter.  You didn’t scatter.  You re-forged yourself after I was gone.  And you gained so much that I don’t think you see.  You were able to learn how to get up after failure.  There is a tenacity in you that I never had.  You were able to gain skills, to adapt, to grow.  You became something I never could be.  Anxious.  Angry.  Frustrated.  Scared.  Determined.  It became a fuel source for you.  Simply brilliant.

You took your inner demons and made them your advisors.  You had the strength to not only face them but to accept them.  To integrate them.  To master them.  I ran from them and denied them.

I have seen you stare into the abyss.  The void where depression and illness and everything uncertain hides, waiting to strike.  And when it stared back at you, you sneered and winked.  Honestly it was the coolest “come at me bro” event I’ve ever witnessed.  I Photo by Joules Wattson the other hand closed my eyes and hid.  Denying that the abyss even existed.

So in the face of that, what do I have to offer?  Why are you so determined to bring me back?

I understand the near obsession of getting back what you’ve lost, more specifically what was stolen.  Your memories, your talents, your former glory.  But, dearest Joules, you can’t have mine.  Not anymore.  All that I had is nearly gone now.  You’ll have to go out and find them on your own.  Start from the beginning once again.  But this time, you have an advantage.  You know you can do it because it already happened.

Art by Obsidian AbnormalI don’t know how much of me will remain as time goes on.  As old things get fixed and as new things failed.  So I ask you this, Joules.  Remember me, as best you can.  Think of me fondly.  But accept that for all intents and purposes, that I am gone and can’t be brought back.  Stop longing for what once was and start planning on what you will now be.

So before I go, allow me a little paraphrase from the 9th Doctor.  (I know he was your fave before Peter Capaldi came in as the 12th…)

Joules, before I go, I just want to tell you you were fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. And do you know what? So was I!

-The Former Psyche of Joules Watts

About the author: Joules Watts

Joules Watts describes herself as a self driven bumbler and science afficionado.  Her husband describes her as irreverent half ifrit, which probably explains her incredible heat resistance and fiery personality.  The truth is probably a unique amalgamation of the two.

Aside from her day job, Joules is a geek (leans sci-fi), musician, writer, podcaster, gamer (both video and tabletop), and unfortunately a mildly brain damaged, semi-professional medical patient.  In her considerable free time (trademark sarcasm) she enjoys reading, top rope wall climbing, and chasing the ever elusive full night’s sleep.

Joules currently co-hosts Seize the GM, a podcast that focuses on how to be a Game Master.  (Episodes drop every Thursday, barring horrible technical issues).  She’s also a player on the podcast Hidden Grid (A Shadowrun AP podcast that’s currently on hiatus) and Legends of Earthdawn (An Earthdawn AP podcast).  Additionally she has her own podcast, Five Degrees Off Normal, which is a chronicle of her experiences being a geek with brain damage.

Not Exactly Persephone by Melissa A. Bartell

Forest Hat via Flash PromptIn the end, it was his hat that clinched it.

She’d taken the short-cut through the forest for as long as she could remember, maybe even longer. As a child, she’d skipped down the path, heedless of what the brambles might be doing to the hem of her blue dress, or the ruffles on her white pinafore.

Who sent a child out to play dressed in such frippery anyway? Mary-Janes were great if you wanted to tap-dance down the circular stairway in the entrance hall, but they were next to useless on a dirt path, and even worse if it had rained the day before.

Black patent-leather and squelching mud puddles did not mix well.

As she grew older, and could dictate her own wardrobe, she chose more appropriate attire – hiking boots and jeans with duster-length cardigans were her unofficial uniform.

She still cut through the forest, though, breathing in the scents of earth and leaves and growing things on her way to work every morning. She carried her laptop in a messenger bag slung across her body, and tucked her hair up into one of her many berets, a different color almost every day.

It was her trademark, she said. A beret with a butterfly pin was how the world would know she was herself.

The first time she saw him, it was when she rounded the bend just this side of the creek. He was preternaturally still, focused on the winged creature perched on his fingertips (he had long, graceful fingers, she noticed) and she froze mid-step, afraid to disturb him, or spook the colorful insect he was studying.

But even one small-ish woman’s breathing is enough to change the melody of the forest, and when he glanced up, their eyes met.

It wasn’t a cosmic thing, not really. Just two people acknowledging each other’s presence, and moving along on separate paths.

The met in the forest several times after that, never speaking.

Sometimes, he would beckon her closer, and point to a small bird sipping from a puddle, and they would watch together in communal rapture.

Sometimes, she would offer him a piece of fruit leftover from her day – an apple, maybe, or a banana – once it was half a pomegranate and a plastic spork – and he’d grinned at her, and called her Persephone.

His voice was like the ripples of water flowing over stone.

That one word, the name that wasn’t hers, but should have been, opened the floodgates of conversation. He was an art teacher at the local magnet school, he said. He came to the woods for inspiration.

When he learned that she owned the local café and was also trying to write a novel, he asked to read her pages.

She finally relented when he came into her workplace with a sketch of her on a purple beret day, sitting on a rock, surrounded by dragonflies. (In reality there had only been one or two, but she liked his enhancement.) Looking at the sketch, she realized she’d never thought of herself as being pretty, but that she looked so, at least when depicted in pencil-strokes.

Let me take you to dinner, he asked.

She demurred. She didn’t have time to date, she said.

In truth, she knew that it wouldn’t be just a date, or even just dinner. There was something about this man whom butterflies trusted that made her heart flutter like papery wings.

When you’re ready, he told her, I’ll be here.

She avoided the forest for days, after. Embarrassed. Attracted. Confused. She took the longer route to work. She even drove there, on the day it rained.

She missed him, she realized.

She returned to her usual path the next morning, and when she stepped into a puddle, she laughed at the squelching sound her boot made.

He appeared, as if from nowhere, with a green top-hat covering his dark, curly hair. You’re back, he didn’t say. I’ve missed you, his lips did not utter. But his eyes were shining, and his smile was like a ray of sun cutting through fog.

His hat looked as though the forest had gifted it to him, as if it were made from leaves and branches. It wasn’t, of course. It was only felted wool. But the effect caught her attention.

Nice hat, she said.

A student’s project, he explained. They were supposed to capture nature in an ordinary object.

I hope they got an ‘A,’ she replied.

He assured her that they had.

When he appeared in her café the next day, she accepted his invitation to dinner.

She had to, you see.

She’d always been a sucker for men in hats.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa 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, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Almost Last Words by Patricia Wellingham-Jones

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_micheleranchetti'>micheleranchetti / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

On her deathbed,
oxygen 24/7,
sliding in and out of awareness,
Mother blinked her green eyes
up to mine.

Daughter, she whispered
in a scratchy, unused voice,
I love you so much –
and you drive me crazy.

I blinked my matching green eyes
full of wet shimmers and said,
I know, Mom.
I feel exactly the same.

We both sniffled, then laughed,
she held up her wasted arms.
I fell into them, carefully.
We blended our tears
on our smiling faces.

About the Author: Patricia Wellingham-Jones

PatriciaWellingham-JonesPatricia Wellingham-Jones is a widely published former psychology researcher and writer/editor. She has a special interest in healing writing, with poems recently in The Widow’s Handbook (Kent State University Press). Chapbooks include Don’t Turn Away: poems about breast cancer, End-Cycle: poems about caregiving, Apple Blossoms at Eye Level, Voices on the Land and Hormone Stew.

Shades of Gray by Molly Totoro

All or Nothing: the erroneous idea that something is either good or bad, light or dark, right or wrong.

Also known as black-or-white thinking, this dichotomy separates opposite ends of a spectrum into two mutually exclusive groups. Rather than acknowledge a continuum of degrees, it fosters a disunity of superlatives. Common ground does not exist and battles ensue.

Until recently I held this legalistic view as absolute truth. I refused to accept any middle ground. But often I would rephrase these opposites in the negative. I am either right or not – intelligent or not – accomplished or not. The voices within hammered the message “You’re not good enough.”

About a year ago we decided to redecorate our living room. Our thirty-year-old house needed an update. I went to the home goods store to select a new shade of paint. I wanted something neutral and bright to bring life back into our home.

I scanned the wall of paint chips. So many neutral colors with such enticing names: snowflake – linen – eggshell. Not a single shade of “white” existed. In fact, I counted more than two-dozen different hues.

These light neutrals transitioned to grays: stratus – cashmere – cinderblock. Again, I saw at least two-dozen different shades, although not a one was actually called “gray”. It didn’t take long for me to realize this was true for every color scheme.

I learned a valuable lesson that day standing in the middle of Home Depot. Life situations are not often black or white. This mindset fosters exclusivity and the idea that one is better than the other. Rather, life is a mix of black and white. Both colors co-existing side by side. Dichotomy fosters an exclusive mindset. To be inclusive, I need to replace “either/or” thinking with an “and” mentality.

I easily adopted this paradigm shift to visual colors. However, it is proving a bit more difficult to apply this to other areas of life. In fact, dichotomy thinking is so ingrained, that I often don’t realize I’m doing it.

For example, I love to scrapbook. It combines three areas of creativity that feeds my soul: writing, photography, and paper crafts. I rarely view a photo without thinking of the story associated with it. And I love to enhance the words and pictures with colorful mats and borders. In addition, scrapbooks preserve our family legacy for generations to come. It is a worthy pastime.

However, I rarely scrapbook more than once a year. Why? I reason I must have at least a weekend to devote to the project or it isn’t worth the hassle. The supplies take over the dining room table. It is time-consuming to match the photos with cardstock. Once I start, I don’t want to stop. So if I don’t have a chunk of time available, why begin?

I’m not much of an athlete, but I do enjoy walking, especially in the fall. I admire the colorful leaves. I appreciate the cool breeze. I clear my head of mental clutter and get a bit of exercise at the same time. Win-win situation, right?

But most days I talk myself out of going to the park. Why? Because I crave routine. I need to know what to expect so I can plan accordingly. But the weather is unpredictable. Temperatures may be nice today, but next week it may rain. Fall weather is more conducive to outdoor exercise than the freezing months. I don’t walk today because I may not adhere to the schedule next week. And everyone knows, consistent exercise maximizes health benefits. So, I reason, I either must walk every day or not at all.

This condition might be genetic. Mom once told me the story of her aunt. This woman wanted nothing more than a fastidious home. She wanted the kitchen sparkling clean, living areas dust-free, and beds made with fresh clean sheets. If these conditions could not be met on a daily basis, however, she refused to do any housework at all.

At the time, I thought this ridiculous. After all, who changes the sheets every day?! But more importantly, those lofty ideals prevented her from having the neat, clean house she desired.

Dichotomous thinking and perfectionism are closely related. Both set up unrealistic expectations. Both demand devotion to the best. Either I clean every cranny of the house or I don’t clean at all. Both foster a feeling of unworthiness. If I can’t do this perfectly, then I am a failure.

What does life look like if I incorporate “and” into my vocabulary?

I could choose to walk today because I have the time and the weather is nice. I will clear my head, my marvel at nature, and I get a bit of exercise. After all, one day of walking is better than nothing. Rather than thinking myself a failure because I don’t walk 10,000 steps every day, why don’t I celebrate those days I do exercise?

In this retirement stage of life, I don’t entertain as often. The dining room table goes unused for months. What if I leave out my scrapbook supplies? When I have a few free minutes, I could create a page layout. I don’t need forty-eight hours to indulge in my favorite pastime. Thirty minutes here and there will complete an album.

I also sabotage my writing efforts with this faulty logic. I rarely start an article unless I know exactly what I want to say and how to say it. I mentally labor for days over the content and structure, but don’t write a single word. The deadline looms and I grow more anxious. When I finally force myself to open the file, I stare at the blank page, completely paralyzed.

Rather than agonizing over every detail before I begin, I could open the document in advance of the deadline. As thoughts come to mind, I could jot them down. This is not the time to worry about structure or angle. Complete sentences are optional. The point is to capture ideas on paper. And when the time is right, I can trust the process of crafting the raw materials into art.

Life is lived in the small spaces. If we wait for perfect conditions – lots of free time, ideal weather, peak physical health – we will never progress or accomplish our goals. Let us be mindful to “start where we are; use what we have; and do what we can.” (Arthur Ashe).

About the Author: Molly Totoro

Molly Totoro is a Connecticut Yankee currently residing in the Midwest with her husband and trusty basset. While Molly retired from full-time teaching in 2014 to pursue her writing dreams, she continues to work with students to achieve their writing potential. Molly recently published her first book, Journaling Toward Wholeness: A 28-Day Plan to Develop a Journaling Practice with the hope of inspiring others to experience the health benefits of writing their inner thoughts.

Connect with Molly at her blog, My Cozy Book Nook and on social media: FaceBookTwitterInstagramPinterest

Being Light by Anna Oginsky

Near the end of last summer something completely unexpected happened.

It went something like this (bear with me): My husband, Dan, and our oldest son, James, went hiking with James’s Boy Scout troop on North Manitou Island, which is in Lake Michigan. It’s an incredibly beautiful area with magnificent views at every turn. The fresh lake air is cleansing and any amount of time spent in that area of Michigan is a treat for the soul. At the end of the trip, our friend Dave, who was also hiking his son, told Dan he’d like to own a lighthouse someday. Dan agreed.

Within a few days, Dan received a text message from our friend Jake sharing a link to a story about a government auction for an offshore lighthouse – southeast of North Manitou Island.

Within 24 hours, Dan received another text message from another friend, Todd, sharing the same article.

It was funny. Four men, suspiciously close to the time when one might experience a “mid-life crisis”, sending text messages about a lighthouse up for auction and alluding to the possibility that they might place a collective bid on the lighthouse with hopes of winning it. I didn’t think they were serious.

To be eligible to bid, the group needed to form a non-profit organization and on August 16, 2016 the North Manitou Light Keepers was born. A bidding war ensued. After every bid the auction allowed for 24 hours to pass before a winner was determined. I watched in dismay, wondering how on earth my already overextended husband could possibly have space in his life for a lighthouse. At my lowest moment, I was sure my marriage was over.

The price grew higher than anyone imagined and text messages were flying. It was intense. Before long, I reluctantly joined the four as member of the Board. What started as a fun, light-hearted adventure began to feel heavy and honestly, it was just too much. We decided to stop bidding.

For the first time in weeks, I received no text messages about this lighthouse. I began to wonder if the auction had closed and whether our competitor had won. I decided to try to find the auction website, just to make sure. And there it was. I found the site and laid eyes on The North Manitou Shoal Light for the first time and as crazy as it sounds I heard a voice say, “Don’t give up.”

I texted Dan. We placed one last bid. 24 hours later, we won the auction.

Since the auction, North Manitou Light Keepers and the lighthouse we are on a mission to restore has received a lot of our attention. Attention I didn’t think we had. It’s been fun and also stressful to launch this project. The lighthouse was in bad shape and it will require a huge amount of money and time and resources to restore it. But, it is a LIGHTHOUSE.

In a time where the shadow parts seem to be running the show around town, this beacon of light provides a ray of hope.

I’ve been paying closer attention to lighthouses in general. They are usually quite striking structures. And whether they are quaint or stately, what strikes me most is their mission: to be light. Specifically, they exist to light rough passages. I’ve thought about the light keepers who steward these structures through big waves, tremendous winds, and harrowing storms. And the Coast Guard.

The North Manitou Shoal Light was manned by the Coast Guard until the station was automated in 1980 (the actual equipment will continue to be used for navigation and will be maintained by the Coast Guard). I am in awe of the men and women who serve on the Coast Guard working to save lives in terrifying conditions.

While I’ve learned a lot about the structure of the lighthouse and have devoted much time to the organization supporting this endeavor, it is the light that has my attention.

There are undoubtedly too many lighthouse metaphors to count and with good reason. These structures symbolize something we all need and in our own ways hope to embody: a light in the darkness. I wonder what that means for me now–in these times of massive heartache, violence, and strife for so many? When earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires are causing unprecedented damage to the land and the people we love.

When my own children seem so vulnerable amid the chaos that surrounds us. When so many I love are hurting. I keep asking myself: how will I be light? How can I sustain light? Because I really want not to dwell in the shadows. By nature, I seek light and I aspire to be light.

Some days I simply cannot muster an answer to this question. It takes all my energy just to keep moving and to keep showing up. I love that Anne Lamott said, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” Could it really be that simple for us too?

Rather than wracking my brain trying to figure out what to do next, would I make a difference by simply be-ing? Can I just stand here shining? I’m sure the answer lies somewhere between being and doing. Both are necessary and even vital on a daily basis. There certainly doesn’t seem to be a right way to be light.

Of all the lighthouses I’ve seen in the past year, I can’t think of any two that are exactly alike. The one thing they have in common is that they shine light in dark places. There are no easy answers, but I am sure about one thing. No matter what kinds of storms you or I face, we can’t give up. We must trust in the light.

About the Author: Anna Oginsky

annbioAnna Oginsky is the founder of Heart Connected, LLC, a small Michigan-based workshop and retreat business that creates opportunities for guests to tune in to their hearts and connect with the truth, wisdom, and power held there. Her work is inspired by connections made between spirituality, creativity, and community. Anna’s first book, My New Friend, Grief, came as a result of years of learning to tune in to her own heart after the sudden loss of her father. In addition to writing, Anna uses healing tools like yoga, meditation, and making art in her offerings and in her own personal practice. She lives in Brighton, Michigan with her husband, their three children, and Johnny, the big yellow dog. Connect with her on her website; Twitter; Facebook; or Instagram.

To learn more about the North Manitou Light Keepers and the restoration of the North Manitou Shoal Light, visit www.northmanitoulightkeepers.org

Sunday Salon: Passion Project


“Let the young soul look back upon its life and ask itself what until now have you truly loved, what has raised up your soul, what ruled it and at the same time made it happy? Line up these objects of reverence before you, and perhaps by what they are and their sequence, they will yield you a law, the fundamental law of your true self.” ~Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosopher

My five year old grandson is passionate about playing the piano. When he was three, I bought him a tiny toy piano for his birthday and it was in his playroom when he walked in that morning. He set eyes on it, said matter-of-factly, “Oh, the piano is here,” as if he had been waiting his entire life for it to arrive. He walked directly and purposefully to it, never taking his eyes off it, sat firmly on the bench, and began to play.

The next year I bought him a full size keyboard. He started taking group lessons and quickly graduated to private lessons. His mother reports that he plays the piano before going to school, and goes back to it as soon as he comes home. He has perfect pitch and is “composing” prolifically, excited about learning chord structure and theory.

He has identified a passion. In Nietzsche’s words, he has found a thing that raises his young soul, that rules him but also makes him happy. What a lucky boy.

Passion projects are immensely important in living a fulfilling life. As artists and creative people, most of us have identified at least one such project in our own lives, at least one “object of reverence” that adds meaning and purpose to our days. To find these passions at a young age is truly a gift because they provide a safe haven from a world that is often noisy and less than gentle. It’s a world that doesn’t always encourage passion pursuits in its youth, but instead goads them toward things that are most lucrative and prestigious.

I recently read a novel called The Admissions, by Meg Mitchell Moore. One of the characters is a high school senior whose entire purpose in life is to be admitted to Harvard. When her application is rejected, she tracks down the admissions officer and asks him why. She has not only completed but excelled at every class, every activity, every sport required – she had worked extraordinarily hard her entire young life, why was it not enough?

“Unfortunately, the extraordinary has become commonplace,” the admissions officer tells her. “We get many applications from students who are broadly accomplished, but who are not deep. We are looking for the extraordinary and the deep. Students who have found their one single, driving passion.”

Finding your passion is one of life’s most important tasks, and the earlier you acknowledge it the better. But just identifying it is not enough. You must dedicate yourself to it in a meaningful way, give it time and attention, allow it to “rule you” so you can fully explore it and reap its benefits. You must go “deep” into it at every level. And sometimes that means you must make hard choices about where you place your attention.

Author Madeleine L’Engle writes of her belief that a “gift is bestowed on every infant…a gift to which that child will be responsible: a gift of healing; a gift for growing green things; a gift for painting, for cooking, for cleaning; a gift for loving. One has to listen to a talent, and whether the talent is great or small makes no difference.”

Although I can’t say for sure, I predict my grandson will continue to dedicate himself to his passion for music. But even if his passion project changes over time, he has already become acquainted with the way it feels to care deeply about something, to dedicate time and effort to it, and to reap the pleasure and benefits it brings. That knowledge alone is worth celebrating.

How about you? How did you discover your passion project? How do you “listen” to it?

About the Author: Becca Rowan

becca_rowan_bio_may2016Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her husband and their dog, Molly. Her new book, Life Goes On, a collection of personal and inspirational essays about women’s experiences with family life, aging, and loss, is available at Amazon in print and on Kindle, as well as on her website. 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 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 Little Black Cloud by Jeanette McGurk

There has been a little black cloud hanging over my week.

Nothing terrible, I am not on life support, I didn’t get the unbearable news that I am highly allergic to chocolate, coffee or Moscow Mules. It was the impending doom of my youngest daughter’s ARD meeting.

If you are not acquainted with this term, it stands for Admittance, Review, and Dismissal. At the start of each year, we have an ARD meeting to discuss what services will be offered through the elementary school to my Learning Disabled daughter. It’s been three years since she was tested and the requirement is that she’ll need to be rested to see if she’s achieved her goals and can be dismissed or is she stays in the services.

There is absolutely no chance of dismissal. At 10 years years of age she barely reads on a 1st grade level.

When she was little, everyone had a helpful suggestion. “Have you tried flash cards? Sesame Street? Do you read to her? Do you have the magnetic letters? Have you tried Leap Frog?” “

“No!” I wanted to scream. “I take her outside and put tin foil on her head and hope that will get her little grey cells working.”

Of course I have done all of that, and more. My husband and I have spent thousands of dollars on every sure to get your kid reading strategy we could get our hands on. Alas, 5 years later, here we sit, $600 a month in tutoring, special programs at school, ADHD medication and still, we are only inching along.

It was easier when she was younger. The gap in her skill set wasn’t so blaring. The L’s she pronounced as w’s were cute, as was calling her back pack a pack pack. Now, I worry about her being bullied, not fitting in, and being made fun of.

We flitted through a wonderful summer of traveling and play-dates. Oblivious to all the nasty reminders of how off path we are academically. Until of course, the diagnosticians and resource room teachers start contacting me with forms I need to fill out for the ARD meeting. Drafts of 504 goals and accommodations she will be given to help her “succeed”.

I am a bit cynical when it comes to the meeting because I am CEO of my kid’s plan only on paper. The few times I have gone in asking for anything, the room has gone dark and cold. The principal and diagnostician sprout fangs from their plastic smiles. When their heads eventually stop spinning they announce with ferocity,

“She is getting all the speech allowed per student. 30 minutes twice a week.
She has been dismissed from OT, the teacher may want her to have access to the room, we say NOOOOOOooooo!
How dare you think we would test her for dyslexia, she is too low on intelligence to even test to see if she might be  dyslexic or to see if that program would work.”

That last one is really what is up my craw.

I have been fighting for 3 years to get the school to test her for Dyslexia. I would be happy to test her outside the school, but my husband has been stubborn. We pay a hefty amount in property taxes for schools each year.

So limbo. Limbo because the school thinks my daughter does not have the brain power necessary to go through the dyslexia program and my husband doesn’t want to fork out $1000 for a test the school may not accept from an outside source.

And truth be told, I was willing to accept that she was better off being taught to read by the resource teacher.

However, practically every adult who interacts with my child, including the pediatric neurologist, tutor, and teachers believe she is not low on intelligence. These folks feel her problem is a processing challenge combined with a severe case of dyslexia. Apparently, if it is really a bad case, a child can text poorly across the board.

Which is exactly what my child has done in everything except problem solving and non-calculation math. On those two things, she does rather well.

So Thursday, my dark cloud and I headed into the ARD meeting. I am expected to play nice so as not to draw out the dark forces, and by Christmas be forced to move my child into a private school.

My daughter’s pediatric neurologist told me it was my number one job as her parent, to keep her self esteem up. What I had not realized, was how gloomy, cynical, and devoid of hope I had become about the whole situation.

For a week before the meeting, my attitude was just bad. I didn’t want to do anything. I was pitifully preparing to go in and be pummeled by people who without really knowing her had already giving up on my daughter. Believing she didn’t have enough brain power to get through 1st grade reading.

People who would not fight for her the way I was supposed to. People who were not there to be her hero, the way I am supposed to.

The problem was, by Thursday, kryptonite had robbed me of any superhero powers. I went in, defeated before I had even begun.

So, it was a great surprise for me to sit down at a table where the roles had reversed.

I was the dark shadow.

From every other person, I heard stories of what a joy my daughter is. How delightful she is to teach.

Her science teacher told me she looks out for her on the playground and sees her playing with one other little girl almost every day. A few days when my little peanut was alone, she asked, “are you okay?” And peanut said, “Yes, today I am in the mood to play by myself.” The next few days she was with a big group of kids.  This wonderful teacher took it upon herself to make sure out of the eighty 4th graders running around like a kicked ant pile, that one little slip of a girl would not be alone in the mix.

The speech teacher commented how they had bonded over kid’s bop. The goals they are now working on go beyond the basic from year’s past to verb tenses and synonyms. Progress.

The new resource teacher said just that day they had leveled up. Progress.

This year she finally gets writing as well and this woman, this sweet woman, looked at me and said, “Don’t worry, we will get there. I have complete faith in your daughter.”

Now I am starting to blink back happy grateful tears. Darn brutal school florescent lighting.

Most shocking of all, the Principal had pulled in the dyslexia specialist without me asking, so they can start testing her next week. The diagnostician still thinks she is too low for it to do any good, but after basking in the glow of my daughter’s own private Justice League, I am not so sure.

They are there all day fighting for her. Lifting her up, getting her to that next step, and the next.

No one in that room had given up hope except for me. It won’t be easy, it will never be easy. But it isn’t hopeless either. In fact, much to my surprise, I left the meeting without the company of my little black cloud.

A loving breeze had blown it clear away.

About the Author: Jeanette McGurk

jeanette_mcgurkJeanette McGurk is a Graphic Designer who entered the world of writing through advertising. She discovered writing a lot of truth with a little fluff is a lot more fun than the other way round. Now that she is no longer spending time making air conditioners, tile floors, IT and Botox sound sexy, she writes about the unglamorous yet wonderful moments of life for people like herself; in other words, anyone looking for interesting ways to put off cleaning and doing laundry.

She is a curmudgeon and doesn’t Twit or Instagram. She has heard the blog is dead but since she has finally figured out how to do it, that is the museum where you can locate her writings. http://jmcpb.blogspot.com/.

Conversations Over Coffee: Sue Hallgarth

I have to confess: there’s nothing I love more than a great mystery wrapped up in the world of a favorite author. So, when I read Sue Hallogarth’s mix of Historical Fiction with Mystery in her book Death Comes, I was hooked. Once I saw it in black and white, who couldn’t imagine Pulitzer Prize Winning Author Willa Cather being a great amateur detective?

I wanted to know more about bringing a real person to life in fiction…and the woman behind it. Here’s a “sit down” with Editor in Chief Debra Smouse and author Sue Hallgarth.

We call this series Conversations Over Coffee because it’s the things I’d ask you if we were sitting across the table from each other over a casual cup of coffee….. so, let’s set the stage: where would you suggest we meet near your current home….and what is your go-to beverage and/or snack were we to meet?

Where and what would I order?

My favorite coffee shop is Satellite Coffee on Alameda Boulevard, part of a local chain near our home in Corrales, NM. My drink of choice: white chocolate mocha latte.

For those not familiar with my work, information about my Willa Cather and Edith Lewis series.

My Willa Cather and Edith Lewis series consists of entertaining mysteries that give readers a glimpse into the life and work of Willa Cather, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, and Edith Lewis, her talented life partner.

In the first one, On the Rocks, set in 1926, Willa and Edith are staying in the cottage they built as part of a women’s summer colony on Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick, Canada, where Willa is writing Shadows on the Rock. In the second, Death Comes, set in 1929, Willa and Edith are in Taos, New Mexico staying with Mabel Dodge Luhan while Willa works on Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Both mysteries are located in places where Willa and Edith actually stayed and feature people they really knew. And in both, Willa and Edith help to solve fictional murders. Since Willa and Edith did a great deal of traveling, the possibilities for additional mysteries in the series are many.

Where did the plot ideas come from for Death Comes?

Willa and Edith return for a visit to Mabel Dodge Luhan’s pink adobe in Taos, New Mexico. Luhan is well known for surrounding herself with writers and artists, and several are there at the time. Willa is working on Death Comes for the Archbishop, Edith is sketching Taos Pueblo and hoping for a visit to the nearby D.H. Lawrence ranch, which Luhan originally traded for the manuscript of Sons and Lovers.

The previous summer Edith and Willa had stumbled onto a women’s body. Now the headless bodies of two more Mexican women add to the mystery. The authorities seem only mildly interested, so Willa and Edith take it upon themselves to encourage action, which takes place in Taos and at the D.H. Lawrence ranch, twenty miles away.

When I started Death Comes, I was certain of the locations and characters based on actual people, but I had no idea of the plot or what was behind the crimes. The characters took care of that. Each day I sat down to write I would think through them—what would they say, do, see, think; who needs to be where doing what; who do I need to invent?

I just followed through and enjoyed the writing.

What piqued my interest in Willa Cather and stoked my passion about her as a human being and a writer?

I first got interested in Willa Cather in 1983 when I attended a week-long Willa Cather International Seminar in Hastings and Red Cloud, Nebraska.

That particular seminar happened when I had a small research grant to examine primary materials at archives and pioneer sites in the Plains states for a project on pioneer women in fact and fiction. It was a difficult project. No one had yet thought to catalog archival papers under the names of females, only under their husbands’ or family names.

I also read a lot of fiction about women on the frontier (very few women’s diaries had then been published), I did a lot of driving to locate archives, and I spent a great deal of time searching through archival papers to find diaries and records by women. The Cather seminar seemed like a godsend: here my research would have already been done by others and several hundred people would have collected to talk about it.

The seminar was great fun, and like a good academic, I prepared by reading all of Cather’s novels and the suggested criticism. By the time it started, I knew Cather and loved her. Seminar leaders took us to see Cather’s childhood home and showed us all the relevant sites around Red Cloud where Cather grew up and held fascinating discussions about the assigned critical and biographical material. But something was missing: the Willa Cather I “knew.”

These were the days of pre-feminism and homophobia among Cather scholars and biographers.

Cather herself had forbidden publication of her letters so those that were available could only be read (and not quoted) in research archives. Several letters were actually housed on microfilm in Red Cloud, but when I read them, I found only one letter from Cather to her partner of forty years, Edith Lewis. And that letter had lines oddly distorted and rendered undecipherable. Edith Lewis was also omitted from discussions about Cather or represented dismissively as her secretary or “companion,” never as the editor and advertising professional she actually was. The only evidence of their relationship available then was Edith Lewis’ memoir, Willa Cather Living, and that was dismissed as much less reliable than another memoir by Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, a journalist and former friend Cather had not seen in years.

So here was a mystery: who was the real Willa Cather? What was her relationship with others, especially with Edith Lewis? And how should we understand her fiction? I began to find the answers by doing research and crafting papers on Cather’s novels to present at professional meetings.

But once I was convinced of her actual relationship with Lewis, I realized I needed to do a biography of Cather before I wrote another word. That started a ten-year project, reading everything Cather wrote, including her letters located in archives across the United States. I found she was exactly the person I “knew” back in 1983.

By 1987 Sharon O’Brien had officially “revealed” that Cather was a lesbian, but for O’Brien and other biographers, Lewis was still Cather’s secretary or “companion.”  Cather, one biographer claimed, was “too dedicated to her art” to have time for any of “that.”

There was more work to do. I continued to do research and in the 1990s discovered that for twenty years Cather and Lewis had been part of a women’s summer colony on Grand Manan in New Brunswick, Canada.  But academic journals and even feminist scholars shunned my articles because I questioned (indeed challenged) O’Brien’s analysis that Cather herself was homophobic and as a result became reclusive and depressed. Their rejections led me to write my first piece of fiction, a mystery about Cather and Lewis on Grand Manan titled On the Rocks.

Then I left academia, started another line of work, moved to New Mexico, and put On the Rocks on the shelf. It stayed on the shelf for twenty years until I joined a writers’ group and found that I had an interesting manuscript in a changed world, so changed that even The New Yorker now has acknowledged Cather’s greatness as a writer and celebrated her partnership with Lewis (see most recently the wonderful article “A Walk in Willa Cather’s Prairie” by Alex Ross, October 2, 2017).

How did I decide to use Willa Cather as a character in not just historical fiction, but a mystery series?

For me the question was how to interest readers, not just academic scholars, in what I had to say about Willa Cather. I could have tried historical fiction, but I wanted a “hook.”

It so happened that I was standing front of the real Cather/Lewis Cottage at Whale Cove Cottages on the island of Grand Manan, New Brunswick, Canada, when it occurred to me that someone might easily fall off a nearby two-hundred foot cliff into the Bay of Fundy. In my mind’s eye, I saw a body plunge over the edge and plummet into the rocks below. That image determined Cather and Lewis would become my fictional sleuths.

How do I blend my fictional world with characters based on real people, and how do l stick to facts and blend my own creation in with it?

I start with facts and real people, then ask “What if?” I already know a great deal about the facts, the people, and the places, so my answers to “What if ” take care of my own creation.

There continues to be speculation and denial about Cather’s personal life and sexual orientation. What is my take on her life and why folks are still so curious about what goes on behind closed doors?

Cather was a professional writer. She and Edith Lewis were career women at a time when concepts about the “New Woman” made it possible for them to have careers but not for them to be unmarried women sharing a household if that also meant sharing a bed. They did what they could to earn their living and to be respectable, successful, and respected.

These things—earning a living and being respectable—did not always go together. But for them, they did. It was not easy, but they “closed their doors,” and while their closed doors may have invited curiosity, they revealed nothing.

Closed doors always invite curiosity.

When did I first know I was a writer?

I’ve always written off and on—poetry, academic papers, a few stabs at short stories—but I began to think I might be a writer of fiction when I wrote On the Rocks.

How do I manage the balance of real life and creative work?

Not well or I’d have written more and sooner. I have a full life and a good one. I’ve had several “careers,” which means I’m right in step with my time. These days everyone should expect to have at least three “careers,” not just jobs but actual careers. I live in Corrales, a beautiful New Mexico village near Albuquerque, where I participate as much as I can in community affairs, and I am happily married (my wife and I have been together thirty years now) and take care of our five dogs, two horses, miniature donkey, and ten chickens. When I can, I slip away into my other world and write.

A typical day in our household?

I get up and feed the dogs and barnyard animals, then I sit in my lounge chair, read the news, snooze, and sometimes think about what I will write. Then I do more chores and sometimes write. By six p.m. I’m interested in dinner and a little television—Rachel Maddow and something after that that I don’t have to think about—then bed. Not very interesting, perhaps, but then I’m retired. Sort of. The only important variation these days happens when we take off in our Roadtrek camper van. Even then I find I can write when the story is ready. Otherwise the scenery is always lovely.

What do I wish I knew at 30 that I know now?

To relax. At fifty, I realized I didn’t have to live my life by other people’s expectations. Since then I have confirmed the truth in that. Freedom is wonderful. You can do all kinds of things you didn’t know you could do, even write a novel.

What advice have I for other writers and creative souls?

For writers, always be curious and read. Read everything. Learn all you can. And write. Write as much as you can and don’t be afraid to show other writers your work. Then pay attention to what they say. Pick your readers well. Don’t do everything they tell you to do, but pay close attention. The same goes for all creative souls. Learn all you can from those doing what you want to do, then do it, do it as well as you can, and keep doing it.

About the Interviewee

Sue Hallgarth is former English professor. She has written scholarly articles on Willa Cather and Edith Lewis, and this is her second book of fiction featuring the two of them. Her first book in the series On The Rocks, set in 1929 on the island of Grand Manan in New Brunswick, Canada. She lives in Corrales, New Mexico.