No, I don’t want a seat at the counter.

The slog through struggles to solve relationship issues, tease out how I really feel, or plan my future often unfolds and resolves in restaurants. It’s true. Along a spectrum from fast food to fine dining establishments, I find the change of venue helps me think best. In work and personal matters, getting out of my seat and into a new environment jump starts my brain.

You may recall from an earlier blog post my realization that everybody and his brother has published a book…except me. So when I began to find it hard to break from work long enough to find an optimal flow for writing, I revived my go-to: Dining Out.

It’s a two-fer remedy because it offers the stimulation of a divergence, and also demands I carve out a block of time for the experience. Now at least once a week, you can find me in a restaurant with my iPad, ordering breakfast, and writing. I go at times that aren’t busy, don’t overstay my welcome, and place a substantial order and tip so it’s fair for the restaurant, the server, and me.

I’m comfortable dining alone, since starting during my college days abroad. Some of my best journaling, life planning, and tough decisions have taken place at tabletops with emptied plates and coffee refills. Recently, though, an innocent question caused mental blips. The past two times I went to the diner closest to home, hosts greeted my approach with, “One?,” and followed my affirmative with, “Would you like to sit at the counter?”

It’s not the first time I’ve been asked, but I felt an unexpected interruption of emotion, neither welcome nor warranted. I declined and took a table, but felt irritation veering toward offense at what I believed to be a suggestion that I didn’t rate a table like those who dine with companions. After all, at a relatively empty restaurant, parties of three rarely get offers for counter seating. Still, my response seemed irrational, and led me to wonder what lay beneath.

I have very fond memories of sitting at the counter of this diner with my boys in their younger days. I often sat in the middle, one sweet child on each side of me, ordering chocolate chip pancakes for dinner. My earliest counter memory is sitting with my dad at a stop on the way home from Pittsburgh. It was just the two of us that night nearly fifty years ago, but I can close my eyes and be there today.

We were losing my favorite grandmother in a year filled with the loss of family members on both sides. My mother had flown back to Jersey, and my dad and I pulled up the rear, driving home. He needed a coffee and bathroom break on the long night drive. Sitting at the counter, I ordered an English muffin, and he asked if he could help me butter it. I was old enough not to need the help, but I remember feeling very small and very young. It was a simple offer filled with love and strength. I took the help.

He did such a great job. No one in the world butters bread like my dad. He butters generously, patiently waits for the butter to soften on the warm bread, then spreads it. He did it that way for me that night, and then topped it with grape jelly. To this day, English muffins with well-melted butter and grape jelly remind me of my dad taking care of me when we all needed it.

My favorite counter memories aren’t times when I’m alone. They’re times when I’m seated close to people I love, closer than I would be at a table, and enjoying their company in a different way.

My host’s counter offer reminded me that I’m flying solo. Though loneliness wasn’t along for the ride at my arrival, it glommed onto me at the host stand after our exchange. Couldn’t the host see the laptop in my hand and realize that although I need only one seat, I am accompanied by my work? And must I now, having been unwittingly and silently labeled “alone”, put my solitude on display at the counter for all to see, the single diner who can’t possibly need a table? I suppose there is sediment stirring in my otherwise clear waters.

This morning, though, was different. Rather than subject myself to another sparring of innocent inquiry and simmering sentiment, I set off to a diner a bit farther away. It’s larger, with an expansive counter in comparison, so I could have been setting myself up for more of the same.

I was greeted by a host who asked, “One or two?,” despite the fact that there was no one standing near me. “One,” I replied. He looked at me with my iPad case in hand. “I have a nice booth for you over here, and it even has an outlet so you can plug in.” Now that’s the kind of host we all need.

NOTE: My very accommodating host and serving staff were at Amphora Diner in Herndon, Virginia. Thanks, Amphora!

Who would you be without that thought?

Someone recently asked me if I get anxious about anything given that many of my posts are upbeat. You betcha! There were many unspoken questions in that musing. And I could say, “Yes” to all of them in varying degrees. I have become vigilant about helping fears dissolve, but sometimes they do catch me by surprise. Flying under my radar, they overstay their welcome.

It happened just last week. I held a several-week streak of improved exercise and healthy eating. I hoped to see some demonstration of success each morning as I stepped on the scale, but nada. No change. I wasn’t upset, but I couldn’t figure it out. It’s simple math. Increased caloric expenditure plus reduced caloric intake should equal weight loss. Then on this particular morning, I stepped on the scale and saw one less pound register.

Did you just imagine me “whooping”, throwing jazz hands, or air punching out a growly and glorious, “YES!”? None of that happened. I looked at the number and stepped off the scale in silence. I had the sense that I should be happy to have finally gotten what I’d hoped for, but felt not even a blip of satisfaction. I wasn’t sure why.

A couple of hours later, I caught a dark thought crossing my mind. Had I worked hard enough to lose that pound…or could I be sick? In other words, had I lost a pound because I had cancer again? It was a ridiculous thought. I had worked at this, and I hadn’t even experienced weight loss as a symptom when I did have cancer.

Morning turned into afternoon. As I stood at the refrigerator filling a water bottle, I realized my brain was telling me it had found the words. “Unexplained weight loss,” I found myself thinking. “That’s what the term is, the doctors ask if you have ‘unexplained weight loss’.” My mind was still working on “the problem”. It wasn’t really a problem, but it had crept into a recess of my mind that was prepared to tackle it. And tackle it, it would, whether helpful or not.

My weight loss was neither dramatic nor unexplained. It was a perfect case study in slow and explainable weight loss. And friends, don’t you worry about it, because that pound is already back! Still, there I had been. Around dinner time, admitting that the thought hadn’t really left me, I focused on talking myself off the ledge. Unfortunately, I’d lost most of what should have been an uplifting day to that waste of time and energy.

Do I worry about big things like dying? Sure, sometimes. Do I have rational but pointless concerns, like whether the grocery delivery is going to really include what I ordered? Will I still have to drive to the store to pick up another head of broccoli because the one they included isn’t big enough to serve all of us? Yes. Yes, I do. How do I get out of it, you ask?

When I find myself ruminating, I ask myself one of the questions Byron Katie poses in her methodology “The Work”. “Who would you be without that thought?” Who would I be without the thought that I may have fewer years left than I would like? How different would today feel if I enjoyed sitting and reading a book instead of worrying about whether I would have to squeeze in the grocery run when I least want to? When I imagine the person I would be without the disturbing thought – whether big or small – it’s like a weight lifts from my shoulders. I experience what it would be like without worrying about that, and I smile and move on to the beautiful day in front of me.

I can usually tell legitimate concerns from a “glitch” in my thinking, one that draws attention away from enchanting things, and keeps me focused on scary what-if’s. Anxious glitches are rabbit holes leading to an unending stream of worries. Go into one side, and come out the other with an opposite, equally troubling worry. What if cancer recurs? Alternatively, what if it doesn’t recur, and a perfectly good future was wasted by making decisions for a truncated stay on planet earth? The scenarios agitate, but what if none of them are true? How open would the road before us be if we didn’t live these thoughts in our minds, going through the emotions and disruptions, as if they were real?

The only way to win the anxious glitch game is not to play. We can decide in these moments to be the person we would be and will be without those thoughts. We have this day. Let’s not give it away without enjoying it!

Is there anyone who hasn’t written a book (besides me)?

I feel like I can’t shake a stick and not hit someone who has just published a book. It begs the question, “Is there anyone out there – besides me – who hasn’t published a book?” And the obvious followup question arises: “Was it worth it?” And then the next: “Should I do it?”

When I began writing my blog, I wasn’t sure anyone would want to read it. As I continued to write post after post, I found some posts focused on the audience, and others were more about personal expression. Balancing the content so that there is enough of both allows me to continue to connect with an audience and express myself.

That’s not the case with a book. A book is all about the people who will read it. They will spend a healthy amount of time with it, so it shouldn’t disappoint. Orbit Media’s Annual Blogging Survey, now in its 8th year, shows average blog post length to be rising year over year. Still, the per post length for 2021 is estimated to be just over 1,400 words. Blog readers may give five minutes to a post. Masterclass estimates an average book is around 90,000 words depending on genre, or six hours if you did nothing but read cover to cover without a break.

Books also present the need to engage readers’ interests through or between disruptions, to inspire them to return often enough to read through to the end. While a blog post is short enough that it may not fight for attention once a reader begins, reader distraction for longer pieces is real. It’s been attributed to an increasing loss of “reading habit” prevalent in those raised in the digital age, the prevalence of multitasking, and even a fear of missing out. Universities and their faculty are exploring ways to support “engaged and active reading” and to promote a “reading culture” to offset the trend, which has a significant impact on learning.

One thing that many people who feel they have lost the ability to concentrate mention is that reading a book for pleasure no longer works for them. We have got so used to skim reading for fast access to information that the demand of a more sophisticated vocabulary, a complex plot structure or a novel’s length can be difficult to engage with.

“The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world”, Harriet Griffey, The Guardian, October 14, 2018.

With all of the challenges presented by longer pieces, it’s ironic that more new authors than ever appear to be emerging. It’s very difficult to get any reliable statistics on newly published first time authors, but the growth of indie publishing platforms in recent years seems to indicate a growth in authorship. Statista research into 12 independent publishers indicates a median growth rate of about 77% for indie publishers from 2018 to 2020, with some doubling and tripling their sales growth during that period. The pandemic and access to self-publishing platforms is thought to have increased indie-publishing in 2021, as well.

The answer to the question “Should I do it?” is simple for me: If I have something of value to share, then I should. But whether the road to writing and publishing the average book is worth it or not is something into which I have no personal insight. Written Word Media’s 2021 survey of indie published authors found that the median number of books per author was 10. At some point you would think that if it wasn’t worth it, authors would simply lose interest or momentum before reaching those numbers.

In terms of worth or return, it doesn’t appear to be about the money. Most authors don’t make a living on book publishing alone. And the road can be extremely long. Take Nancy McCabe, whose 2020 book Can This Marriage Be Saved: A Memoir was 30 years in the making. So what is it that sustains authors on the long journey from blank page to publication? Was it worth it, and why or why not?

If you’ve written a book, I’d love it if you’d share in the comments below whether you feel it was worth it, and why. It’s the story that statistics alone can’t tell.

The first day of the rest of my life

The morning after my last chemotherapy infusion, I woke feeling exhilarated, as if it was the first day of something big. And it was. It was the first day of the rest of my life, a life made more meaningful by the difficult terrain. I finished shy of the 190 days, coming in at around 177 days instead. But what a life-affirming journey it has been!

I have emerged with a different lens through which to judge how I spend my time. I now ask, “If I only had 5 years left, would I want to spend any of it on this? And what about 10 years? Or 15 years? What about 20 or 30?” It’s a healthy line of inquiry I wish I had begun years ago.

Some things I know will bring me joy or satisfaction, and regardless of duration, I would consider it time well spent. Those are my new “Yes” decisions. Other things would be a long slog for what might be lucrative or bring status, but I weigh more carefully what I would have to give up to get there. I’m shuttering a second business that had a great business plan and minimally saturated niche market. While I’m passionate about the issue it solved, and it’s a great opportunity, I’m not interested in spending my years building it.

I’ve learned the value of being kinder to myself. For most of my life to date, I ignored how tired, hungry, or thirsty I was, how difficult or heart-wrenching the effort before me, or anything else that might have gotten in the way of getting through tasks at hand. I’m now more attuned to how I’m feeling, and what fuel and care my body and mind needs to run effectively and produce better results. Craving chips gave way to craving fruit. I’m realistic about what time I turn in at night, and prefer to be fully present for important conversations instead of multi-tasking my way through them.

Perhaps the most important lesson learned is how freeing it is to live a life less guarded. Having built perimeters around my privacy for decades, now sharing expositive aspects of my life, my thoughts, and my history seemed like an exercise in vulnerability. And it has been, but in a good way – in the way Brené Brown describes as the birthplace of love and belonging. My experience blogging and interacting with others who play in this space showed me that sharing ourselves isn’t a zero-sum game. The more we share, the more we have to give, and the richer our lives become. My efforts at hardening the target only kept me from living a more whole-hearted life with boundaries instead of walls.

This journey reminds me a bit of hiking the Samaria gorge in Crete many years ago. Our group began at the top where it was cold enough to warrant a jacket, the path surrounded by alpine flora, lush and green with a steep descent. As the hike continued, the land became flatter but drier and rockier, our bodies more tired, the late summer sun and heat exhausting. In the later kilometers, my ankles buckled a couple of times as my body began to exercise veto power over my will, something I’d never experienced.

Samaria gorge,Greece

By the end of the 18 kilometers, bone dry, hard terrain eventually led to the Libyan sea. A lump in my throat, I walked into the water and stood there for what seemed a long time. I looked out at the sea and felt grateful that my preparations had helped me get through, and that my body had held up without injury for the full hike. I felt relief, joy, and accomplishment. I felt blessed. And most of all, despite the physical toll, I felt stronger for having made the journey.

After my last chemo follow-up oncology appointment.

To forget is to live without lesson.

A priest once told me that God forgives and forgets, but the human condition and its challenge is that we have to try to forgive while we may be unable to forget. I think that’s true. It is human to remember, whether it is our own transgression or that of another. And it is both our burden and our opportunity to try to construct a better future even though these memories remain. Our universe only cares about what we do in the present. It doesn’t care whether we did a good job yesterday.

The more I experience, the more I understand others, and my role in their world. A few weeks ago, I walked slowly across the grocery store parking lot. A car approached my general direction. To the driver, it must have looked like I was taking my sweet ol’ time. In fact, I was going pretty fast considering how I felt. On that day, the grocery visit was all I would have energy to do, and I was at the tail end of the trip. I thought of all the people I’d watched slowly cross the street in front of me over the years. My impatience muttered things like, “Anytime now”, “Yeah, no rush, we’ve got all the time in the world. It’s not like I have to be somewhere.” In the not-too-distant past, I always had to be somewhere, like 5 minutes ago.

I had another such awakening years ago, driving our dog to vet visits during her cancer treatments. In my 6-speed roadster with a loud, vibrating engine, I’d try to go a little slower and shift gracefully so our beautiful girl would have less discomfort during the ride. Those trips changed me forever. I realized that we have no idea what’s going on in the car next to us, what kind of day the driver is having, or what they’re dealing with. I stopped wishing the “idiot next to me would learn to drive”. I figured out that maybe I should be a little more kind and generous with the road.

I’m grateful for these lessons, because they’ve added a little more compassion to the world. Don’t misunderstand – I still have my days. But I’m better than I was for these miles walked and driven. That only happened because I’m willing to acknowledge these lessons, despite the fact that the “knowing” makes me cringe a little more when I do have a moment of impatience, or sigh deeply when I remember acting less than my best. If we truly grow, yesterday’s actions and choices won’t always align with the people we are tomorrow. We’ll need to accept that, and sometimes to forgive ourselves. I suspect given the stresses of the past couple of years, this universal need will be more keenly felt.

“We are going to make mistakes – own them, make amends, and move on.”

Matthew McConaughey, Greenlights, 2020

So what can we do with this painful misalignment? When it happens – and it’s going to happen – say, “Thank you”. Remember that forgiveness is good. Be kind to yourself and let it wash through you. Make amends if you can, but don’t ruminate about it if you can’t. Stop trying to forget. Forgetting, while we’d all love to, would mean abandoning the lessons that help us grow. Coming face to face with the reality we lived before we knew better can be tough, but it just means we’re more aware. It doesn’t mean we are bad or unworthy. It’s a necessary part of the journey towards greater humility.

Closing our eyes hoping the past goes away robs us of our chance to learn from our mistakes. Be brave. It’s through these lessons that the gravity of our prior actions can drive us to be our better selves tomorrow.

**Photo by Penny Shellhorn-Schutt. Thanks to Maria Ulbricht at The Holistic Woman for permission to use her photo of a modified Exalted Warrior. The Warrior poses in yoga chronicle a warrior’s journey that ends in compassionately accepting regretted past actions, which results in renewed life and wholeness.**

Memories behind the lenses and brush strokes.

I love taking pictures…of people taking pictures. Not just anyone. People I know. It’s exciting to capture the moment of experience, the moment when someone finds something so interesting they’d like to keep it. I remember being there with them, and sneaking the pic. My family is used to it by now, so they usually wave me off when they catch me. I remain undeterred. There’s no winning without trying.

This picture taken at Big Fork in Montana is only precious to me now because I remember the people in it, and being part of that group and experiencing it together. The view attracted us to the spot, but the memories aren’t about the water, the trees, the sun, or the rocks. They’re about the people.

Big Fork, Montana.

I also don’t need entire bodies in my pictures, as you can see from the Hollywood Star in this post. Seeing our sneakers instantly reminds me of huddling together to get our feet in the pic, the giggles, jostling, and c’mon’s that accompanied our “star” photos that day. Remembering where we were, how we felt, and what we were doing, is the best part of photos.

It’s rare, but every so often, even if we’re not in the picture I remember and appreciate it. Like when we’d spent a few days trying – and failing – to see the Hollywood sign through the fog and smog from every go-to lookout point known to man. Then my husband had the now-legendary idea of just getting in a cab and asking the driver to take us to a spot to see it, and did that ever work! We were ecstatic when it came into view. It was the hard-won victory, as much as the breathtaking scene.

One great idea and $22 or $32 later…We saw Hollywood despite the fog!

I’ve had the reverse emotional experience with artwork, where I’ve arrived at a place I’d seen only in pictures. It seems surreal to be there, in it, to smell and hear and feel the wind, and know the place better. The Square of Saint Mark’s, Venice, by Canaletto was a popular work in the 1970’s. I grew up seeing reproductions of it. Standing in St. Mark’s Square on our honeymoon years later, I welled with tears, realizing that I now knew what was on the other side of that pink building if you walked to the water, knew what was on the other sides of the square, and knew how it felt to walk on the stones and dance there with a man I loved.

Canaletto’s The Square of St. Mark’s

The pandemic offered opportunities for many amazing photographers to take pictures of what the New York Times called “The Great Empty”, allowing us to see normally crowded but now empty spaces. The pictures are at once beautiful and heartbreaking, as we see a new view of the bones of the places, but we also know the fear, grief, and anguish that forced people to stay away long enough for photographers to capture these photos.

Monastiraki Square, Athens, Greece (photo by Savvas Karmaniolas)

I wonder what people will think of these empty scenes when they look back years from now. Though we are all changed forever as a result of what’s behind the photos, I hope that many will recall finding the strength they didn’t know they had, finding community in unexpected places, and helping each other through to better times. And eventually, I hope they make and remember new memories of dancing in the many squares of our world.

Paris, France, May 2021. Dancing Argentine couples tango at Tracadero square (photo by Krzysztof Pazdalski)

Wading into writing contest waters.

Although I love a good challenge, writing contests hadn’t interested me until recently. A friend shared her experience with NYCMidnight, a contest that launches at midnight on a specific date, and allows you only 24 hours to write and submit a newly written piece. It sounded like a fun effort, and I loved the idea of so many people taking the same prompts at the same time and turning them into unique works.

I decided to give it a go, and signed up for an October 15 contest of micro-fiction (250 words or less). As midnight approached, I couldn’t wait to find out what my prompts and genre would be. The anticipation was so exciting! It felt like Christmas! The launch message came, and I navigated to my name for my group assignment. My face fell. I’d be writing something in the Romance genre, including an activity of swimming in a pond, and using the word “dawn”. A few important points here:

  • I have never written micro-fiction in any genre.
  • I have never written or desired to write romance.
  • Swimming in a pond is my personal nightmare given my aversion to dark water and what lies beneath.

The thought of ditching it crossed my mind, and not just once. But I pulled my big-girl socks up and gave it a shot. Given the challenges with the assignment, I am pleased to say that I did manage to write something and submit it. I’m also pleased that, despite falling into the romance genre, it’s not too blush-worthy for prime time. I won’t know how I fared in the contest until December, but I have to admit that I enjoyed rising to the challenge of stretching into a new genre and format. I’m sharing the micro-fiction here, as likely the only piece in the romance genre I’ll ever write…unless another contest comes along.

Sunday Ritual

Written October 15, 2021

She caught her breath as the chilled night air greeted her. Walking toward the pond he’d built, her lips spread into a smile as she thought of how his vision, though not his hands, had made it reality. A pond for their children to swim in, but no ordinary pond. She walked past steps flanked by urns with cascading bright flowers. Her toes broke the dark water, irises and rocks surrounding it on all sides, backlit as the sun peaked up in front of her.

Waist deep now, she spread her arms wide, and watched the water swirl around her fingers as she moved through. In an hour it would be dawn, and she would lie next to him in the silence of the smooth teak deck, slightly warmer than the night, but not as warm as his chest and thighs. They would watch the sun rise, and speak quietly words for just the two of them. When another hour had passed, the patter of tiny feet would run toward them, starting their day, wondering about breakfast.

Having crossed the length of the pond, she turned back toward the house just in time to see him slip out of the bedroom doors, a towel slung around his waist. He was more than she had imagined when they married. He became even more each day. She waited for this man who had made her the woman she was at that moment. Waited for their Sunday ritual.

Some lessons never leave you.

Creative Writing is not usually a high point in one’s high school experience, and unsurprisingly it was not in mine. In fact, I believed I barely had a memory of it until I decided to wind up 2020 with a reading of my past journals…about 40 years worth. Though the teacher – Mrs. Campbell – was not mentioned by name in any journal, her creative writing assignments are likely the reason I had the journals in the first place. I was not a willing vessel, but Mrs. Campbell’s class provided me with two worthwhile lessons: The importance of proofreading, and the benefits of journaling.

I learned Lesson #1 when my first writing assignment came back with a C+ in red ink at the top. The grading policy included a zero-tolerance policy on misspellings. Even one resulted in a starting grade of C+, and the grade would decline from there based on the work’s merits. I paid little attention until the rubber met the road (or the red hit the paper). Ouch! I can practically still see the grade circled on the paper, and feel my self-righteous indignation welling up. Complaints to my parents that evening about the injustice of it all were met with no sympathy. I’d known the rules, and I should have proofread.

I thought it was stupid at the time. In truth, though, typos and misspellings are a distraction. However good a piece is, your message suffers when the reader is distracted. And on the rougher end of the spectrum, especially in business, those who would like to see your points dismissed can point to those errors as defects illustrative of the quality of your work, thoughts, or care. It may not be fair, but that’s how it goes down in the real world. So well done, Mrs. Campbell!

Lesson #2 came from an assignment to start and maintain a journal each day. The subject was undefined, but we were required to write for a minimum period of time to develop the habit. I was generally unstructured and impatient, and hated the assignment. Still, I found that when prompted by silence and the ticking of a clock, new thoughts would form, and words flowed. I’d tried to diary and journal at earlier times in my life but without “success”, or so I thought given my sporadic activity. The journaling assignment taught me that there could be value in the effort even if it wasn’t a daily event.

I took up journaling after the class continued, and kept journals through most of my years. Over the years, I’ve had mixed feelings about the journals. Near the 2020 holiday season, months after completing some estate planning, I began to wonder what would happen to the journals when my time expired. Would others read them? What would they find, how would they feel? If that wasn’t okay with me, should I just destroy them? If I did, would I live to regret it when I was old and wanting to remember the good…enough to read the bad?

Those questions became a challenge as I wondered whether I myself would ever be brave enough to read the journals. Serendipitously, a quote I’d cut out and placed on a memento board many years ago helped me out. It is the only quote on the sparsely populated board, and as it caught my eye it begged the question of whether there were small boldnesses hiding in those books, should I have the courage to look.

“In the cellars of the night, when the mind starts moving around old trunks of bad times, the pain of this and the shame of that, the memory of a small boldness is a hand to hold.”

John Leonard, Private Lives (1977) https://www.nytimes.com/1977/02/02/archives/private-lives.html

So I breathed deep, called up my strength, and spent the last months of 2020 reading those journals and their witness to 40 years worth of experiences. I approached with trepidation, opening each to the first and last passages to put them in chronological order. Even peeking that much caught my breath. As I touched the covers and bindings, felt the textures of paper and saw the colors of pages and scripts written, memories flooded in. I remembered squirreling them away at a friend’s house during a divorce when I worried their sanctity could be violated. It was good to have a friend I trusted enough to take the heavy box and store it knowing curiosity would not get the upper hand.

As I found gaps in dates, I remembered I’d stopped writing at some periods. In some cases I was having too much fun to stop and write, and at others the weight was too heavy to shift onto the page. Sadly, I’d failed to capture the development of the greatest romance of my life, for the former reason. I resumed writing at some point, but wished I’d done so sooner. I broke with it again as my children grew. I didn’t feel free to express myself knowing that at some point my boys might read Mom’s journals and see me in a different way. And if I’m honest with myself, I think maybe it was hard for me to bridge the person I was becoming with the person I had been.

Despite the strength it took to even begin reading, once I did, it was a true page-turner. Seeing yourself in your younger years, knowing how the story being told at any time actually turns out, knowing how you grew as time passed – it was all such a gift.

I could literally see the quality of my writing and the depth of thoughts change during the months I spent in Paris during a college semester abroad. Almost instantly the experience of being in another country, of being a fish in new water, an outsider instantly recognized as such by the locals, transformed me by years. Even the parts of the story I hadn’t written about flooded back to me as I relived that time through written words. I remembered how much I hoped to look like I belonged. My hair was styled in the latest French fashion at a high-end Paris salon; I dressed in clothing bought locally from head to toe – even down to the shoes and winter coat; I smoked French cigarettes and wore French perfume and used French toiletries. Even without opening my mouth, locals would walk up to me and begin speaking English. They could spot me as an American a mile away.

And I remembered that it was a round trip problem. When I came back to the states and rejoined my college, I no longer felt like I quite fit in there, either. Still, I was glad to be home. And my journal bore witness to my delayed flight home and my literal kissing-of-the-ground in the good ol’ USA upon deplaning.

Those journals brought back beautiful memories of everyday blessings that I’d failed to remember on my own. At parts I steeled myself, bracing for times and events I knew had been so hard. But I found that, though I wanted to hug the girl in those stories, I read them as a different woman seasoned by time and experience, stronger for the paths trod and choices made between then and now. It was comforting and healing seeing them from the other side, knowing I had made it through mostly better for the wear and that these events shaped the person I am today.

One of my journals began with entries that were simply excerpts of songs, poems, and other published works, as if my own words were insufficient to convey my thoughts and feelings. It included a quote I’ve considered many times over the years. It seemed oddly appropriate both to life and to this reading adventure.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot Little Gidding http://www.columbia.edu/itc/history/winter/w3206/edit/tseliotlittlegidding.html

When I’d finished reading all of the journals, I had gained a new inner peace believing that my life was surely at least half over, but that it had been a life well spent. I mused about what the next half would bring, as if having reached the top of a mountain, I surveyed the descent before me understanding it better than I had on the way up. Indeed I knew the place for the first time.

I was reminded of Mrs. Campbell today. I told my now high-school-age son that something was serendipitous. He said I use that word a lot. I remembered the first time I’d heard it was in connection with a compendium of pieces from various students that Mrs. Campbell called “Serendipity”. She seemed delighted by the word. I do not recall what my contribution may have been. I do remember thinking in my then salty-as-a-sailor voice, “What the F—— is Serendipity”? Maybe serendipity is best seen from the perspective of an age and experience I didn’t have when I’d heard the word the first time. Certainly from where I am now, I can see that Mrs. Campbell’s assignments turned out to be serendipitous for me.

A blooming pink rose on piano keys

You never know where you’ll find some heart and soul.

When I was five, my family walked across the street to our neighbor’s house for a party. The homeowners were a young couple. The man’s name was Neil. I only vaguely remember what he looked like, and less about his wife on that day. I don’t recall going back afterwards, although we may have, children’s memories being what they are.

What I do remember is that Neil had a piano, and he let me sit down and play it. In a matter of minutes, Neil taught me to play one part of “Heart and Soul”, and he played the other. Then we switched parts. Those minutes must have appeared completely inconsequential to observers. They were not. The making of music with black and white keys reached right into my heart.

Before I go on, please know that I did not become a professional musician. Don’t wait for me to tell you when I hit the big time or about all the lives I’ve touched. It didn’t happen that way for me. This is just a story of a girl and a piano, and how an encounter with Neil and his piano cleared an enchanted, winding path that I still revisit from time to time.

After the Heart and Soul experience, my parents made a stretch investment. They sank $400 into a gently used Winter piano and signed me up for group lessons at our community college. But I hated practicing things like, “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. What was a bonnie anyway? In class, the short electric keyboard heard through headphones didn’t sound anything like the piano at my house or at Neil’s house. I wanted to play songs that sounded big and had lots of notes. I wanted to make real music.

My teacher, an accomplished Romanian concert-pianist, tried to keep me on one-handed scale exercises and one-clef songs. Finally, though, she broke the news to my parents: I had too good an ear for my own good, and not enough discipline to follow her lessons. They were wasting their money. And so, for the next six years, we dusted, polished, and walked past a silent piano in our living room.

Then in seventh grade I met new friends at a new school. They played piano…really well. Watching them play, I longed to make music again, and declared myself ready for lessons. My parents’ response can be summed up as, “Been there, done that, done pouring money into this.” They reminded me that I should feel free to break out any of the several books they’d bought last go-round, and start practicing. It was a reasonable and understandable response. And I took the advice.

After seeing the musical “Annie” and loving all the music, I got the score, and set about teaching myself to play. I broke out the old books. I learned the notes, scales, and how to read the symbols. I had a good memory, so I wrote notes to guide me, learned a few measures, memorized them, and moved on to the next measures. I spent hours each night at the piano. Eventually, I had taught myself to play most of the songs comfortably. So I asked again: Could I have lessons?

My parents agreed to give it another go with private lessons from a friend’s teacher. Each week he would put new progressively difficult sheet music on the stand, and tell me that frankly…trulyhonestly…he thought this piece was beyond my skills…but maybe I could give it a go. The psychology worked. By the following week, I had learned and memorized the piece, and we’d start the same dance over again.

This continued for several years, during which I learned my favorite pop songs, show tunes, and all manner of classical including Chopin waltzes. I still didn’t have the patience for music theory, sight-read poorly, and didn’t get a thrill from public performance, so I was never going to make any money at this thing. Still, I experienced incalculable hours of enjoyment, escape, and accomplishment during that time. It was something of an addiction. When eventually my teacher shared that he had taken me as far as he could, we tried to find an advanced teacher, but could not.

Without new weekly challenges, my mind became occupied with other high school concerns. The passion remained, despite playing only occasionally. I nixed the opportunity to go to a college where the admissions officer sneered when asked of the possibility of taking music electives. I chose a college that had a recognized music and drama school. I’d agreed not to major in music as a condition of my parents footing my very expensive college tuition, but there was no way I was spending four years at a school that didn’t see its value. And while I didn’t take lessons, I did visit practice rooms from time to time.

In my senior year, that Winter piano moved to my college apartment. It has followed me to four other homes since and is still one of my favorite possessions. I’ve played other pianos in many places over the years, including a digital Yamaha in our home that can make anyone sound like a one-man-band. The most amazing experience was playing a Bösendorfer grand piano left unlocked for a concert by some happy accident. It was big. Its sound was bigger. I had a lump in my throat from the beauty of it.

Still, the sound and feel of my Winter is warmest. The sound of my Winter is the sound of my life. It has spent so many hours with me for pleasure and for comfort. I played Christmas carols by twinkling tree lights, and welled tears of joy hearing my children practice on the same keys I loved so well. I played to heal when I was devastated, tears streaming down my face onto keys. I played when I was frustrated, and life was complicated, and nothing made much sense. Many times after playing, my head rested gently on the music stand, one hand on a key block, the other tracing the grain in the polished golden wood or fiddling across keys without any pattern or point. Those were moments well-spent, and gratitude for distractions or memories remembered.

A few years ago, after decades of my own version of carpool karaoke to anything that came on the radio, I decided to take voice lessons. I was not a natural. Still, by some good fortune and destiny, my teacher introduced some theory as part of our lessons. After decades of not caring, I was finally interested in how musical phrases came together to convey different emotions, and how the patterns and structure of a piece could feel predictable or unpredictable to a listener. It was fascinating. Although I wasn’t able to continue the lessons and focus on theory, I may resume some day. I have a feeling that when my nest is empty, I’ll again look for comfort in the keys. This time, I’ll be interested enough in theory to experience playing in a new way.

Would I ever have stumbled into this had we not gone to our neighbor’s house that day? What if we’d gone, but Neil hadn’t stepped over to help me play? Every day we meet people and have seemingly innocuous interactions. Sometimes we don’t know whether or how they touch our lives. I’m sure no one at that party understood that they’d witnessed the exchange of a gift that would keep giving throughout my life.

And what if my parents had simply gone home from that party and thought of it as an entertaining evening? Instead they discussed how they could nurture me, looked through classifieds to get an instrument, found teachers, and drove me to and from lessons for years. What if they’d sold the piano when I was seven, impatient to use the space for other things and recoup at least some of their losses given my allergic reaction to structured teaching? Surely I wouldn’t have taught myself those songs from Annie, or went on to learn so many others.

We can never know how our everyday actions may shape the future for one or for many. But if we lead with our heart, lean in with our soul, we do make beautiful music together.



A beautiful mess.

Some days when I’m leveling off flour in a measuring cup or pouring sugar crystals, I’m visited by memories of bakings past. For a while in my youth I spent Saturday mornings at a 4-H program where Miss May taught us how to bake all sorts of yummies.

I’d never met anyone like Miss May in my town. I grew up in an area largely populated by people who’d moved south from New York and North Jersey. Their families had spent summer weekends on the Jersey shore. Scrappy and confident, from those who had made their way through Ellis Island for better opportunities, they now made the move toward bigger homes in a place that held happy memories. We were loud, quick, and bold. Everyone talked over each other, especially over spaghetti on Sundays.

Miss May’s ancestors also hailed from another continent, possibly against their will. They had moved north from the south, where I heard they knew everything there was to know about baking. Miss May moved and spoke calmly, and gave direction with infinite patience, as if time were no matter. She had a joyful spirit, a quiet tenderness in her soft drawl, and she was inspirational. I wanted to use the butter wrapper to grease the corners of the loaf pan as well as Miss May could. I had to pass the knife over the flour cup three times – forward, back, and forward again – to make sure it was as level as Miss May’s demonstration. I still do it today.

Each week she’d hand out a new paper with a recipe. We’d put them in our 3-ring binders to make our own recipe books. My pages still bear fingerprinted crusts of floury pastes and butter splotches, attesting to the name of the group – Messy Makers. I understand the program still exists, but know nothing of when Miss May stepped away. Thanks to her and the 4-H program, in the short time we spent together I learned to enjoy baking breads, muffins, rolls, and more.

I loved the feel of the dough on my fingers, the warmth when it had risen, the way the air felt when it escaped as I kneaded. I loved the way an egg rested in a mound of flour, and how it all came together when mixed. I loved when the ball of dough pulled away from the sides of the bowl, when it was changing from plain ingredients into something that would be beautiful. I loved the special set of mixing bowls and measuring cups and spoons my mom had bought so I could have what I needed to bake. I even loved the waiting periods when I needed to let something rise, and could go off and do something else while it did its thing. And I loved the smell as it cooked, and the goodness that emerged when it was out of the oven.

At some point I started entering the county fair, and winning ribbons for the goods my little fingers created. I won ribbons in the adult categories, even though I was a child. My favorite blue-ribbon winner was blueberry muffins, made with blueberries we’d picked at a farm. But there were other ribbons. So many, in fact, that one day I was trying to figure out what to do with them, moving them from one place to another. I poo-poo’d the reds and yellows – second and third place winners – as meaningless. I told my mom I could probably toss them. Oh, that did not go over well…at all. My mom was having none of that.

I got a stern but appropriate talking-to about how grateful I should be to have gotten those red and yellow ribbons; how many others would have loved to get any ribbon at all; how the fact that I had gotten them meant that someone else – someone who wanted them – did not get them that day; and generally, how I’d better become a better sportsman, or kiss my competition days goodbye. And rightly so.

Eventually I stopped entering the fair. I don’t recall why or when. But the lesson about good sportsmanship stuck with me. I still have a competitive streak. In time, though, I learned the value of effort, and that most often the effort is worth much more than the recognition or the results.

I value how the “game” – any game – is played, and what goes into it, and the personal stories that bring us to those moments. I’m willing to fail and try new things, and that helps me take chances that pay off. It’s helped me professionally to innovate, and it’s helped me personally in ways too private to share. I enjoy competing with myself, with my own best. I ask myself, “Is this my best?”, not, “Is this the best?” And I enjoy and appreciate the work of others freely, without feeling their success minimizes my own.

Although I’ve won a few awards as an adult, those I prize most are the team awards. I love people coming together and doing great work, creating something better than any of us could have done alone. I’ve learned that sharing success makes it that much sweeter. I’ve lost to competitors on some awards, and I’m just as proud of the attempts and the growth that came of them. My breads are no longer worthy of ribbons, but I love them just the same. It’s a long way from where I started, and a much better place to be.