Family, Gratitude, Intentionality, Motherhood, Personal Reflection

Head Colds and Happiness

This girl teaches me daily how to handle life. Sure, at times it’s more like she sets the example of how not to handle it (with whining and exaggerated tears). The rest of the time though, she handles it like I wish I could: with vigor, confidence, earnestness, and an eye for adventure in all things.

She’s been sick all week. Unlike her brother’s cold that is running a predictable course toward being well soon, hers took a different path of new and worsening symptoms that landed us in the doctor’s office today. The doctor looked at her face – pale, dark circles under her reddened, watery eyes, nose pouring incessantly – and asked, “How are you feeling today?” Annie grinned and said, “Good! I just have a bad cough. Want to pet my kitty? She’s really soft.”

I wanted to hug her so hard in that moment. Her genuine desire to share her happiness with others is a beautiful sight to behold. Maybe even more beautiful than usual when it’s expressed in a hoarse voice through a stream of snot.

A Stranger's Hands, Fiction, Love, Short Story

A Stranger’s Hands – Part Four

Read Parts 1, 2, & 3 here.

A Stranger’s Hands – The Beginning in the Ending

people-2557423_1280

Gil handed Cora one of the beverages he held. Her fingers curled around the cardboard cup, absorbing the warmth of the coffee inside.

“Thank you,” Cora’s voice came out in an unnatural pitch and she felt a blush creep over her cheeks. “I walked,” she added quite unnecessarily.

“I see that. Hope it’s okay if we keep walking.”

She nodded and willed her pulse to quiet. Taking a sip of coffee followed by a deep, slow breath, she stole a long glance at Gil.

His chocolate-hued hair looked freshly combed and his face freshly shaved. He wore a thin, black fleece jacket over a red and gray flannel shirt, which was untucked over his dark jeans. How comfortable he looked. How at ease with her. It softened her own anxiousness a little more with each passing second.

Gil led them further into the modest downtown stretch of shops, cafes, and bars side by side along Second Street. Cora took in the details of the picture windows of the various boutiques. It’d been too long since she’d strolled this way.

“Nervous?” Gil asked.

They were waiting at a crosswalk. Cora met his eyes.

“No,” she said, “not anymore.”

In between a hair salon and a music shop that sold used vinyl records and various instruments, Gil turned down a narrow alley Cora hadn’t noticed before. She followed with full curiosity. They arrived in a courtyard of sorts behind the shops. It was all grass, no sidewalks or paths, and bordered by a solid wall of waist-high shrubs. Gil and Cora entered through the single opening in the shrubs. A crowd of about twenty men and women, with a few kids in the mix, were already assembled there on folding chairs that filled the lawn. At the front of the gathering was a large area rug on which stood a six-piece band: five men, one woman, two guitars, one banjo, a fiddle, an upright bass, and a bongo drum. The band members all looked to be in their 50s and 60s. A single microphone stood front and center, connected to an amplifier, which in turn was connected to an extension cord running through the back door of the music shop.

When Cora’s jaw dropped, Gil laughed aloud.

“I take it you didn’t know about this?”

“What is it?” she asked.

“They call themselves The Alley Cats. They play back here once or twice a month, as well as in the neighboring towns. Mostly old bluegrass and folk tunes. I have a gut feeling you’re going to love it.”

“I think you have a smart gut.”

Gil led them to two empty chairs in the middle of the crowd. Nearly everyone they passed greeted Gil.

“You’re a regular here then?”

He nodded. “Yeah, and a lot of them are customers at the coffeeshop too.”

Cora’s mind tiptoed through the notion of sitting beside Gil every time The Alley Cats were playing here. The man seated next to her reached around her back to slap Gil on the shoulder.

“Gil! You gonna sit in on a song or two tonight?”

“No, no,” Gil shook his head, glancing at Cora. “I’m here to listen tonight, that’s all.”

Cora turned in her seat. “Sit in?”

He ran a hand over his face, a smile playing on his lips. “I’ve been known to, um, bang on a bongo drum now and then.”

“Oh, do tell me more.”

“Shhh,” Gil held a finger to lips. “I think they’re starting.”

Cora giggled, a sound unfamiliar to her own ears. She pointed her knees forward again and watched the band pick up their instruments. They kicked things off with a boisterous bluegrass tune. Throughout the hour-long set, Cora caught Gil watching her. Eventually, she leaned over, her shoulder against his.

“This is perfect, Gil. Thank you.”

On their return walk, they chatted about music and concerts and memories.

“You really enjoyed it, Cora?”

“So much. It was great.”

Gil slid his hands in his pockets, a satisfied expression on his face.

“Of course, there is one thing that could have made it better,” she said.

He frowned. “What’s that?”

“Next time I want to see you play the bongo drums.”

She watched him toss his head back and laugh. It warmed her even as the chill of the evening made her shiver.

“Next time. I promise,” Gil said as he removed his fleece jacket and handed it to her.

 

Gil unlocked the front door of Second Street Coffee.

“Are you hungry?”

“Very,” Cora admitted.

She stepped into the café, absorbing its stillness. Without the lights on or the sound of staff and customers surrounding them, it almost felt like a place she’d never been – someplace intimate and unexplored. She squashed the resurgence of her former nervousness.

“Should we find somewhere to eat dinner?”

Gil didn’t answer but moved toward the kitchen, gesturing for her to follow.

A motion sensor turned on the lights as they entered. Two high-top chairs from the dining room were pulled up to a countertop. Two sets of plates, utensils, and glasses were already laid out. On the stove was an empty wok pan and in a matter of minutes, Gil had chicken cooking in an aromatic peanut sauce. Bowls of vegetables he’d chopped in the afternoon waited beside the stovetop to be added at the right time, and rice steamed in a rice cooker. Gil kept watch beside the stove, occasionally stirring the chicken and sauce. Cora perched on one of the tall chairs, her legs crossed at the knees and her hands toying with her glass of lime seltzer water.

“Is Gil short for Gilbert?”

“You’d think so wouldn’t you?”

Gil gave no further answer but instead held her gaze in a coy stare. Cora crossed her arms over her chest. She matched his smirk and stare until he broke into a laugh.

“Fine.” He raised his hands in surrender. “My parents loved jazz and blues. My dad was an especially big fan of Dizzy Gillespie.”

“Dizzy Gillespie?”

“Mmmhmm.”

“Your name is Gillespie?”

“Time to add the vegetables!” Gil tended to the food with exaggerated urgency.

“Gillespie,” she repeated.

“It’s not like I hate it,” he said with his back to her. “I used to as a kid, of course, but now it’s… special, I guess. Bit of my dad to always be a part of me.”

He turned to face her again, leaning against the countertop.

“Still, most people don’t know it.”

“I won’t tell.”

“How about you tell me something most people don’t know about you? Even things out.”

He said it casually enough, but Cora saw the way he shifted his weight and looked down at the floor as he made the request.

Let him in.

The voice in her head was so clearly Theo’s that it shook her from the inside out. Her mouth went dry as sandpaper and her hands trembled. She had to set down her glass.

“I’m sorry. Forget I said that.” Gil waved a hand in dismissal.

He finished the food and prepared their plates in silence.

Cora savored her first bites of the meal, then set her fork down.

“I tried to be a magician for kids’ parties as a side job for a year in college. I failed miserably.”

Gil’s fork full of chicken and peppers hung in midair.

“Miserably,” she said, drawing out each syllable.

She watched his smile widen and his brown eyes alight with humor.

“Every time I think about it, I thank God that kids didn’t have smartphones and viral videos weren’t a thing back then.”

He didn’t say a word. His smile every time he looked her way said enough and Cora didn’t think she could ever tire of seeing it. Her heart clutched with hope and worry together, but hope held a slight edge.

 

“Can I walk you home?”

They’d finished their dinner and shared a generous portion of the coffeehouse’s decadent caramel cheesecake. They stood now, facing each other in the doorway between the bright kitchen and the shadowy dining area. All their contented conversation ebbed into hesitant words.

“I think I’d like to go alone, if that’s alright.”

“I hope you had a good evening, Cora. That’s all I hoped for tonight.”

Ten steps from the front door, Cora brushed the edge of her hand against his and their fingers slipped together. Gil lifted her hand and kissed the back of it. Warmth radiated from the spot like the concentric circles around a stone tossed in a body of water.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Gil, I haven’t enjoyed myself this much in….”

“I know how long.”

She ran her other hand over their intertwined fingers.

“This day started with a stranger’s hands and all I could see was something ending. Tonight, with you, allowed me to see the beginning in that ending.”

Gil’s expression was a testament of confusion.

“I’ll explain some other time.”

“I’ll hold you to that.”

“An excuse to do this again soon.”

She spoke jokingly but Gil responded in earnest.

“You are the only excuse I need.”

A Stranger's Hands, Fiction, Short Story

A Stranger’s Hands – Part Three

Read Parts One & Two here.

Part Three – On Her Way

At 6 o’clock, Cora stepped out her front door in an emerald green, scoop neck sweater, people-2557423_1280with gray, skinny-fit pants and black ankle boots. She’d pinned back the front sections of her dark blonde hair and let the rest cover her shoulders. The evening was comfortable, no need for a coat yet despite October being days away.

Cora typically worked until three or four p.m. at Second Street Coffee, but today she’d wrapped up her most pressing tasks by one o’clock. Gil left at noon, to her relief. She’d felt indecisive over how to act or what to say whenever he passed her booth or she noticed him looking in her direction from the front counter. Cora had to shoo away the apprehension that their rapport (one of the only truly comfortable pieces of her daily life) might be altered by this evening. Now she pointed her feet back in the direction of Second Street Coffee, still telling herself not to worry.

She glanced at the time on her phone. She would be at least fifteen minutes early if she walked straight there. That was too many minutes to spend quieting her nerves while she waited to discover Gil’s plans for the evening. Keen for a delay, her eyes landed on a white chapel halfway between her house and the coffeeshop. It had a painted sign beside the sidewalk.

Prayer Chapel – Open to the Public Daily

No denomination or association was listed. The sign, as well as a new door and the bright white paint on the chapel’s exterior, had appeared several months ago. Cora stood outside the quaint structure now, contemplating how long it’d been since she and God had a frank conversation. Two years and nineteen days, she calculated quickly. The day after Theo’s funeral.

Oh, there were prayers since then. Many of them, in fact. She’d found herself unearthing the memorized traditional prayers of childhood catechism class. Most days those rote prayers were the only things preventing radio silence between her and God. Cora poured her soul into the ancient words and offered them to God as all she had to offer.

Maybe that could change today. Maybe she could find her own words again, the way she used to do at any given moment of the day, when her heart had anything to discuss with God.

With quivering fingers, Cora gripped the bronze door handle. The weighty door creaked as it opened upon a small, softly lit vestibule. Next, she pushed open an interior door and stepped into the chapel itself. It was modestly pretty and intensely peaceful. A main aisle divided the two sets of six rows of high-back, wooden pews. Each pew had space for only two people. Cora was a little surprised to find anyone else inside the chapel. An elderly woman with a crown of white curls sat in the last row, an open Bible resting on her knees.

Cora walked with gentle steps to the front row, trying not to disturb the perfect quiet of the intimate space. She sat down on the hard seat and absorbed the details of the sanctuary in front of her.

A cross made of thick beams hung on the front wall. Under it stood an altar of white marble. A white runner cloth covered the top of the altar and hung over each end. On the front face of the stone table was carved a verse from Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God.”

Cora read the verse in a whisper, closed her eyes and waited for words to come, for thoughts to form. It took most of a minute before her mind was anything but blank.

“I’m not angry with you.” Cora whispered. “I don’t blame you and I don’t think I ever did. So, I don’t know why it’s been so difficult to speak with you. I miss speaking with you.”

Squeezing her already closed eyes tighter against the threat of tears, she added, “I miss speaking to him, too.”

Theo’s face flashed through Cora’s mind, with the small smile he had for her each time he came upon her mid-conversation with God.

“I think it’s time to get back to talking with you. I’m going to need to talk things through if…”

If what? She didn’t know how to name what had changed today so she settled back into silence, opening her eyes to stare at the marble inscription. Be still. Be still and know. An easy peace filled her chest and spread like a warm blush on her skin. Cora savored it, thanked God for it, and took it with her when she rose from the pew.

And then her phone rang. Its jaunty tune bounced off every surface, shattering the silence and causing the lady in the back row to jump in her seat.

“Oh my goodness, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” Cora continued to apologize even as she reached the vestibule. She already knew from her phone’s display that it was her sister Tessa but she waited to answer until she was outside.

“Hello.”

“Hey, Cora. Thought I’d check in. Are you all settled on the couch with your dinner and a movie?”

Her sister knew Cora’s routines better than anyone. Cora was tempted to lie and answer in the affirmative. She could wait to tell Tessa about this evening until she knew what this evening turned out to be.

“Are you there?”

“Yes, I’m here. Sorry, Tessa. How are you?”

“Oh, I’m well enough. About to meet a few friends at the movie theater.”

“I’m not on my couch.”

“What?”

“I’m not at home.” Cora waited for a response. When none came, she took a breath and pushed the words out. “I think I’m going on a date.”

Silence.

“Tessa?”

“Cora.”

“Tessa.”

“I might be crying a little.”

Cora laughed. “I don’t know if it’s a date. It might not be, and I’m not sure if I want it to be.”

“I don’t care if it is, or it isn’t,” her sister responded. “You’re choosing to let yourself enjoy time with someone. That’s all I ever wanted, Cora, all the times I forced you to spend the evening out with me. I wanted you to permit yourself to enjoy things again. Enjoy people again.”

“Now I’m crying a little,” Cora said.

“Well, don’t,” Tessa ordered. “Smile. Go have a wonderful evening doing whatever you will be doing with whomever is waiting for you, and then call me because I will want to know every detail.”

“I love you, Tessa.”

“Love you, too. Now, go, and call me later.”

They said goodbye and Cora hastened on her way, smiling. She was still smiling when she stopped on the sidewalk across the street from Second Street Coffee. Gil waited outside, two coffees in his hands and a smile on his face.

Dignity, Faith, Family, Friendship, Intentionality, Jesus, Marriage, Motherhood, Personal Reflection, Worthy

Enough

Several days ago, I shared a photo on Facebook. Not a personal photo. Just a photo of some words that, on that morning especially, were relatable for me. It crossed my mind that it was likely relatable for others too, so I shared the photo and moved on.

Reactions and comments are still trickling in on that post, and it hasn’t yet left my mind. The text in the photo said this: “We expect women to work like they don’t have children and raise children as if they don’t work.”

I was already feeling this before my workday started on Monday. Although my son loves school and both of he and my daughter enjoy their babysitter, there is inevitably at least one day each week when one of them clings to me a little extra in the morning and expresses their wish that I could stay home from work with them that day. Also inevitably, that is among the hardest moments of my week. Monday morning happened to include that moment with my daughter.

I’m blessed with a good job. It is enjoyable, interesting work in a healthy environment with a solid team of people. I’m grateful for it and challenged by it daily. No matter what though, I am a mother. I am always first responsible to my family and then to everything else. So I work extremely hard to balance it all (again, a statement that so many of you can relate to, undoubtedly). Workdays, meetings, projects, schooldays, doctor appointments, drop-offs and pick-ups, mealtime and playtime and bedtime and everything in between. Balance is a constant goal.

On Monday afternoon, I had a brief meeting with my supervisor. A generous, flexible woman who knows the life of a working mother, I’ve been thankful for her understanding in this balancing act. Among other topics covered in this meeting though, she shared that someone in our office had voiced complaints about my comings and goings. This anonymous individual was bothered by what they felt were too many times I had to adapt my schedule to those school and sitter drop-offs and doctor appointments and sick kids and so on. While I was in no way reprimanded or told to stop adapting my schedule to those needs, I still can’t dismiss the disappointment that this is what someone thinks of the work I put in at my job. Whomever it is doesn’t necessarily know about the number of days in which I work through lunch, or the nine, ten, or eleven hours I put in when I’m working from home while simultaneously caring for my children. They don’t necessarily know why I arrived at 8:10 instead of 8:00, or why I had to work remotely from my home unexpectedly. They see what they see and form their opinion.

I’m going to be fully honest here. I want to look that person straight in the eye, possibly grabbing them by the collar, and say this: “I am doing the best I can do.” I want to inform them that I already know it will never be enough. Their input is not needed for me to know this.

enough-logo-1428923325

The current trend in women’s self-help/self-esteem culture is summed up in one phrase:

I am enough.

It crops up in articles, books, and social media posts with head-spinning frequency. I’d even wager that the image I used above was designed to serve that message. Those words are the mantra of many tired, over-extended, trying-to-meet-all-expectations women, and they are a lie.

I am not enough. You are not enough.

If we ever want to stop striving until we break, we must admit this. If we want to quit the worldwide, olympic-level competition for Instagram-worthy perfection on the surface while we are unraveling when no one is looking, we must admit this.

I am not enough.

If I were enough for my children, they would not need their beloved father or their dear grandparents and extended family. If I were enough, I would not need my husband’s partnership and love. If I were enough, I would not need my teammates and managers at the office. If I were enough, I would not need my church community, my writing community, my health and fitness community, my neighbors, or even those most precious friends who know the real me. Above all, if I were enough, I would not need my Lord.

I am not enough.

Certainly, I can understand the intentions behind the popular message of being enough. It is answering the emptiness countless men and women carry inside of them. It is speaking to the ways we punish ourselves for not living up to our or others’ expectations. It is reminding us that our worth has been forgotten. I do understand. But believing you are enough doesn’t admit your inherent need for others. Believing you are enough doesn’t admit your need for the Divine.

I am not enough.

I cannot do it all. I literally cannot. I only have one body, one mind. I only have 24 hours in my day. I am only capable of being in one place at a time. Unlike God, I cannot be all things to all people. Admitting this is not a detriment to my self-esteem. It is an enlightened self-awareness. It fosters a great amount of freedom, clipping the binding ties of strife and disappointment.

I am not enough. I am a member of a marriage, of a family, of a friendship, a community, a church, a team for that very reason. While I will always work to be my best, I will not misguidedly carry the weight of striving to be enough. I am not enough and I am happier for knowing it.

A to Z, Fiction, Flash Fiction, Writing Prompt

A to Z Flash Fiction: Emote

E: Emote

I was in people-watching mode tonight but with little reward. Let others stare at their televisions and phones. There was nothing more fascinating than real life.

The restaurant was more than half-empty. Being a Tuesday evening, this was no surprise. The place was known for its steaks, lobsters, and oysters. Few folks knew the chef also made the finest potato and ham chowder in the city. It was an overlooked selection on the flashy menu.

At a table for two but with one place setting, under the west-facing bay window, I sat sipping the hot chowder and watching the sunset between the downtown brick city-691957_640.jpgbuildings. Day departed on the rosy orange coattails of the sun. I turned my head when the front door opened, allowing in two seconds of street noise. A couple stepped inside, all nervous glances and tight smiles. Uncertainty hovered over them like a hummingbird over a flower.

“Oh, do sit where I can see you,” I whispered over the spoon at my lips.

It was a first date, without a doubt. First dates made for wonderful people-watching. I always rooted for the evening to be a success. To witness that moment when the sparks ignite, when the nerves loosen and the smiles become real – it is a special privilege to see. But they can’t all be successes. The reward in watching then is the curiosity of how each party will handle the disappointment. I have witnessed grace and gentleness, cool indifference, outright rudeness, and desperate attempts to turn it around.

My eyes followed the couple to their table for two, against a wall beneath softly glowing sconces. They were young. Most people seemed young at this point in my life, but this couple had surely seen fewer than twenty-five years.

The girl wore a black wrap-dress and ballet flats. Her brown hair, a shade or two darker than mine was before it turned white, was flawlessly straightened and reached her shoulder blades. She’d accessorized with a simple silver necklace and matching bracelet. Her companion was clean cut, all-American good looks in a blue oxford and gray slacks. He pulled the chair out for his date before seating himself. I smiled my approval.

Their position gave me a clear view of the girl’s face. The boy’s back was to me but I knew there was value in the body language I’d discern nonetheless.

Except it was over before it’d begun. I saw it on the girl’s face.

The young man’s movements, leanings, and gestures grew more relaxed by the second. His forearms were on the table, his back and head tilted toward her whenever she spoke. He answered with lifts of his hands and plentiful words.

But I saw no change in her. No ushering out of the initial nervousness. No softening of the stiff shoulders. Her back leaned away from him, as if fastened to the back of her chair. Her slender hands remained clutched together in her lap, never lifting and never opening. I willed her to emote and engage, to allow her guarded expression to crack.

“You have already made up your mind, haven’t you, dear?” I shook my head and looked away.

Normally, I would continue my observations, curious to know how the tragedy would unfold. Instead, sadness washed over me and I had no wish to see more. I pitied the boy and, perhaps more so, the girl too. My waiter visited my table and I requested the check.

“Dessert?” he asked. “Or a cocktail to finish?”

“Next time, maybe,” I said. My gaze fell on the couple once more. “I’ve had quite enough for tonight, but next time may be better.”

“Certainly, ma’am.”

As I paid my bill, I handed the water an extra twenty.

“Put it toward their meal,” I instructed, indicating the couple across the room. “And tell that young man those words. Tell him that next time may be better.”

*****
Let’s get back to basics, my friends. Specifically, the alphabet. I’ll be writing a series of flash fiction pieces off of one word prompts, from A to Z. Enjoy! And if a word comes to mind for any upcoming letter, please make your suggestion and I’ll consider it for a prompt.

Family, Personal Reflection, The Hidden Legacy

Biscuits and Kitchen Visits

In Chapter 28 of The Hidden Legacy, Laurel sits at the table in her great-grandmother Annie’s kitchen with a pile of recipe cards in front of her. She searches for one particular, beloved recipe, her great-grandmother’s chicken and biscuits. There are only a few tidbits of my life that found their way into my novel, and this is one of them.

The collection of index cards filled with handwritten ingredients, measurements, and instructions. The flowing, elegant cursive of older generations. Edges bent and stained by splattered sauces and chocolate-stained fingertips. Husbands, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandchildren all fed. A treasure of memories resides in my recipe box.

I’ve been missing my grandmothers. Something about autumn and the approach of the holiday season turns my heart to them each year. Tonight, I cooked for my family those chicken and biscuits, and had my grandmothers there in the kitchen with me for a lovely visit. All that was missing were the cups of tea.

20181102_192825.jpg

Uncategorized

New Angles and Hairdos

This morning I didn’t feel like spending any time on my hair. There were other things needing my attention. Plus, each time I brushed it, I noticed more gray strands and I really didn’t want to think about that. So, I put my hair up and moved on. Then my daughter came downstairs. She spotted me and immediately declared that she wanted her hair to look like mine.

IMG_20180919_090525_720.jpgIt was a simple enough request, but the contrast between what she saw and what I saw was striking. What I held in low esteem was the same thing she aspired to gain.

Yes, it was merely a hairstyle in this case, but the same reality crops up in all sorts of scenarios, between all sorts of people. That part of ourselves we would give anything to change, how often is that precisely what others wish they could possess? I think it happens more often than we could possibly realize.

Maybe instead of trying to eliminate or replace what is naturally a part of you, you could choose to enhance that part. Polish it up. Use it to serve others, as well as yourself. Ponder why it was part of God’s design of you in the first place. And if someone expresses a wish that they could be like you in this regard, don’t dismiss their aspiration. Dismiss your gut instinct to talk them out of it. Then, consider how that part of you might be a blessing and a strength if you could just find a new angle from which to view it.

Like the angle of a sleepy-eyed daughter looking up at her mother, with love and nothing else shaping her view.

20180919_090724.jpg