Sunday Brunch: Winter Flames

“The darkness of the whole world cannot swallow the glowing of a candle.”  ~Robert Altinger

Christmas. Hanukkah. Yule. Whether you come from a single faith tradition, or from a family like mine, that blends and merges traditions from several cultures, there is no shortage of winter holidays to choose from.

All are radically different. Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ. Hanukkah remembers the Maccabees and their defeat of the Seleucids as well as the rededication of their temple and the miracle of the oil, which was only enough for one night, but lasted for eight. Yule originated as Nordic and Germanic midwinter celebration that involved feasting and gift-giving (and in the oldest celebrations, sacrifices).

And yet, these winter holidays all have something in common as well – aside from the tendency to celebrate with incredibly delicious, albeit unhealthy foods. They all bring light to the longest nights of the year.

Copyright: arcticphotoworks / 123RF Stock Photo

True, in this age of technological wonders when we can have books in our hands at the touch of a button, and get antsy when we’re away from our smart-phones or tablets for more than a few minutes, and are limited in our ability to work late into the wee hours, not by waning daylight, but only by our stamina and the amount of caffeine we’re willing to ingest, we no longer rely on candles or firelight for physical illumination.

And yet…

And yet we light candles to mark the progress through Advent.

We light them, one at a time, to count the eight days of Hanukkah.

We build fires in our hearths as symbolic representations of the bonfires our ancestors might have danced around, or we build actual bonfires and invite our friends to dance with us.

We fill our homes with candles that represent nothing more than a cozy glow, and we gather ’round our gas logs or Franklin stoves even when our houses are fitted with central heating systems, because there’s something – some magical thing – about fire that seems to drive away the stress and darkness of winter in a way that electric light never can.

I think we forget, sometimes, that the holidays aren’t always merry and bright. They’re not always full of smiling faces and joyous laughter.

These winter holidays come to us at the end of the year, which means they’re both an ending, a sort of finish line we’re all racing toward, and a final hurdle we must overcome before we have the opportunity to start anew. We fill our homes with those colorful candles and crackling fires as much to keep the shadows at bay and drive away the darkness, as we do to celebrate the light.

Our flames aren’t some form of denial, though. Rather, they’re sort of a nightlight for our souls. They keep our hearts warm and our homes welcoming, and remind us that all winters end.

Hanukkah begins on Tuesday evening. Yule comes with the Winter Solstice on December 21st. Christmas follows a few days after that. Whether you’re celebrating one of those old holidays, or you’ve embraced something newer, like Kwanzaa or Chalica – or even Festivus – may the flames you ignite keep you warm in body and soul this winter.

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.

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Eric Bogle by Fran Hutchinson

Eric Bogle

i fell a little bit in love last night
with a small and weary man
who took my hand, and smiled
right then i felt much like a child must feel on that first day
it learns real life’s not as grand as dreams
but better, anyway…

idols only tarnish when they’re shelved, and cased in glass
but handled well, and passed around
and battered for a spell,
they start to gleam, from deep within
until they seem to glow
with a small and weary sort of light

and so,
deprived of grand and glassy dreams,
i fell a little bit in love last night.

About the Author: Fran Hutchinson

Fran HutchinsonCurrently a resident of New Bedford, MA, Fran Hutchinson experienced a “poetic incarnation” while embedded in the 80’s folk scene in Boston.  Occupied variously as live calendar producer for WGBH’s Folk Heritage, contributing editor at the Folk Song Society of Greater Boston’s monthly Folk Letter, artist manager and booking agent, and occasional concert producer, she was surrounded by exceptional music and musicians, including those she had long listened to and admired.  The result was a rich source of inspiration for verse, of which she took full advantage.

No longer writing poetry, Fran has recently been the recipient of a surgically altered back and two new knees, and spends her time reading and listening to music (natch), texting and emailing long-distance friends,  and hanging with her posse at the Community center.

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Rays of Sunshine through a Glass filled with Amber by Clay Robeson

Photo by Clay Robeson

The neighborhood in San Francisco called “The Bayview” is the part of the city where you don’t really believe you’re actually in San Francisco until you catch sight of the skyline between buildings, or see the Bay Bridge peeking over a warehouse.  It’s industrial.  It’s relatively flat. It’s mostly a grid, at least to the east of 3rd Street, where the street names cycle alphabetically from Amador to Yosemite and start again at Armstrong and make their way to Meade. I’m not quite sure why Z gets no love, but much like Z, Bayview gets very little love in the grander scheme of San Francisco.

Home to Candlestick Point (and the formerly Candlestick Park), Bayview was at one time known as South San Francisco, until South San Francisco incorporated and took that name in 1908.  It has seen its share of coal power plants, sprawling meat processing facilities, ship yards, and violent crime throughout it’s history, and is still widely considered the most dangerous neighborhood in San Francisco by some.

Revitalization of Bayview started ten years ago with the opening of the T – Third Street Muni line, connecting Bayview (and beyond) with the rest of San Francisco.  In the intervening years, the “Third Street Corridor” has seen an explosion of restaurants, housing, and general overall awesomeness: warehouses replaced by apartments, shuttered storefronts reopening with new shops and restaurants, and areas rezoned to allow for new industries to get a foothold in an otherwise inaccessible city.

Seven Stills Brewery & Distillery, Bayview, San Francisco, CA

But even with all this revitalization, at dusk Bayview can be a little forbidding.  And that was why, on a cold (for San Francisco) February evening, I felt a little nervous as I was walking from a MUNI stop in Bayview towards a place I had never been before.  A friend had recently written an article around this business’ struggles getting their block rezoned so they could actually sell their wares.  The business themselves had recently taken over the Instagram feed of one of the community newsletters I followed and proved to be quite entertaining. And so, when they announced they were having their first “First Friday” event, I decided I needed to support a community business and show up.

Photo by Clay Robeson Beer making equipment.

I wandered in through the big, roll-up, loading dock door, eschewing the actual front door mostly because I didn’t notice it thanks to the music coming out of the big door.  At the far end of the large warehouse space, I could see the fermentation vats and the mash tun. Closer to me was a bar with several taps and a sign that said “Beer Bar.” Closer still, were several tables with padded barrels for chairs.  And finally, to my right, was what had piqued my curiosity.  The Whiskey Bar.

Photo by Clay Robeson The still where dreams are made.

I had arrived much earlier than my friends, so I decided to start gently.  I ordered a beer, and sat down at one of the long tables.  A younger man with his dog sat at the other end, also enjoying a glass.  He asked me if it was my first time here, and I nodded and started in on my raison d’être for the evening.  You see, in my youth I had been an avid homebrewer.  The art and science of brewing had fascinated me (and still does).  One of the things I had always wanted to try was distilling the beers I made into liquor, but I was never able to thanks to those pesky laws that prevent home distilling.  So, when I read about Seven Stills, and the fact that they made their own beer, and then turned those beers into whiskey, I got really excited, and that spark of wonder from my youth returned.

The young man smiled and introduced himself as Tim, one of the owners of Seven Stills.  It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

Photo by Clay RobesonLiquid Amber

That was February 3, 2017.  Prior to that date, I had very limited experience with Whiskey. Most of it was from my father’s Scotch cabinet, and to be frank, I was particularly nonplussed. So, when my friend James arrived, we sat down at the Whiskey Bar and ordered a flight from Christine.  That was the start of the second and third beautiful friendships of the evening.  The second being with Christine, who was delighted to spend some extra time elaborating on what she was placing before us despite the growing First Friday crowd.

Photo by Clay RobesonA flight.

The third friendship is more of an obsession.  And that one is with the Whiskey that Seven Stills creates.  It’s not your 15 to 20 year barrel aged, peat tinged, smoky, oaky, or any other-y liquor.  Tim and his partner Clint start with a very specific craft beer, and distill that down into a whiskey with a very specific flavor profile.

Now, this is the point in my raving about Seven Stills where my friends usually stop me and say, “Wait, you can make whiskey out of beer?”

Photo by Clay RobesonWhiskey, aging in barrels.

All whiskey is made from beer, actually.  It’s just that most distillers don’t call the first part of the process “making beer.”  But that is what they’re doing.  Extracting the sugars from grains and adding yeast to ferment those sugars into alcohol.  Most distillers have their own “mash” recipe that the rest of the world never sees, nor likely even hears about unless they go on a distillery tour.  They distill the alcohol from the wort that is fermented after the grain is strained off from the mash. It’s the aging process and type of barrel that gives typical whiskey the unique flavors and colors of a specific label.

Photo by Clay Robeson Barrels provide whiskey its color, and some of its sweetness.

What Tim and Clint are doing is starting the whiskey making process with marketable beers first, giving the resulting distillations interesting flavor profiles before they even hit the barrel.  Aging still gives the whiskey it’s color and adds to those flavor profiles, but each Seven Stills release is complex and robust, without the 5+ year aging process.

Photo by Clay Robeson There are moments when the sunlight hits the bottles just right…

The Seven Stills team doesn’t limit themselves to their own beers, either.  Along with their core releases, there have been a few collaborations and several “Experimental Series” releases with other breweries, too. So, as I sat there, making my way through my first Seven Stills flight, I discovered this whole new world of flavor that I didn’t realize was out there. The fact that these two guys had tapped into something I had been fantasizing about for years, and were not only doing it, but doing it well, gave me hope that that maybe some of my OTHER ideas weren’t so bad, either. It was inspiring.

Photo by Clay Robeson “Sea Farmer” – Seven Stills 2017 collaboration using Fieldwork Brewing’s Sea Farmer IPA.

Half way through that first flight, I stopped Christine and demanded that she sign me up for the Seven Stills Founder’s Club, so I had premium access to EVERYTHING they did from that point forward.  And let me tell you, I have not regretted that decision for a moment.

Photo by Clay RobesonEvery flight is different, depending on which of their releases are available.

In the ten months since, I have stepped out of my alcohol comfort zone and tasted the world beyond what I thought I knew.  And I get it now.  And every time I sit at a counter and try a new whiskey, I hold the glass up to the light and laugh a little at January me, who had no idea at the wonder he had been missing for so long. I hope I keep on finding new things to challenge me and open my mind like Seven Stills did.

About the author: Clay Robeson

Clay RobesonClay is an improvisor, photographer, puppeteer and part-time goat herd living in San Francisco. He likes to make things.

To learn more about Clay, or find his social media links, go here: https://about.me/ClayR.

To learn more about Seven Stills visit www.SevenStillsOfSF.com.

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A Palatable Passion Rediscovered by Emma Gazley

As the air turns a little cooler and loved ones gather I’m finding myself returning to a creative task I have long enjoyed; baking.  The joy of mixing together ingredients and seeing them transform into something beautiful, delicious and warm is something I can remember from as far back as seven years of age. My mother had been sharing some of her recipes with me, showing me how our creations developed in the oven, and she told me that just this once I could “make up” my own recipe. I didn’t understand the science behind it at all, but I knew I needed an egg or two and some flour and something sweet and as I told her what I wanted in my recipe my mother mixed and helped me and I made my first very own… cake-bread. It was kind of a cake, round and small, but the consistency was terrible. I think I can still imagine the flavor of it; bad, but intensely satisfying to me.

I offered a slice of my cake-bread to everyone who dropped by our house for the next two days, and they politely accepted while it hardened throughout and became completely inedible.

A few years later I was gifted an Easy-bake oven for Christmas, and this was satisfying in an all new way, as I was old enough to play with it without supervision, and my creations came to life far quicker than conventional baking. My affair with the Easy-bake was short lived, however. Somehow it never felt exactly like the real thing.

I wouldn’t say I baked constantly, or even consistently in high-school. I would get the itch, or a craving, and I’d wake up one day determined to make x—. Pumpkin bread with chocolate chunks. Sugar cookies that didn’t taste like they had come from a box. Fresh bread. There are many, many books written on the topic of bread alone, and for good reason as far as I’m concerned . What could be more satisfying than that tap of your loaf, the crunch of crust and the steam rising from the crumb while you spread a little butter and take a bite?

I was never very good at bread. I made some decent small loaves, and my mother and I would enjoy them with a homemade foamy caramel macchiato in the mornings on foggy days when we could barely see the valley across the hills from the back porch. My mother was always more gifted than I, though she told me repeatedly that I only needed practice.

After I had graduated, when I️ first started encountering health problems that my doctor thought would be helped by changing my nutrition, I stopped eating sugar, gluten and carbohydrates in general. Having no reason to eat what I might bake, and not being disciplined enough to see the value of  the practice of baking for the sake of other’s enjoyment, I quit.

And I’m sad to say, I barely realized that something I had enjoyed so much was gone from my life. Preoccupied with other creative pursuits (painting, music, writing) and focused on healing my body, baking was an absurd luxury that would effectively poison me if it contained the ingredients I had used for years.

Several years have gone by, and just as this season is unfolding, I feel a new season approaching for myself. Though it’s hardly cold in Los Angeles, it has cooled somewhat and the air has a new flavor to it. Outside in the mornings before work, the people taking their dogs for a walk have all got sweaters and hoodies on. I’ve been craving something hot during my commute instead of my normal iced rooibos honey tea. Thanksgiving and Christmas plans are flying back and forth between relatives, and the excitement on friend’s faces as they discuss how they plan to spend the holidays is contagious.

I’ve been finding myself reminiscing lately. Nostalgia will pour over me from the smells of the Korean-Parisian bakery around the corner. I’ve caught myself in a reverie of Christmas and Thanksgiving; pecan pie and yams with crispy brown sugar crumble on top.

 

Meanwhile, for the past few weeks, I have become practically obsessed with watching cake decorating videos. Frosting cupcakes, fondant and decoration on a three-tier cake, special frosting tips, food color without corn syrup- these are all things in my recent search history. I’ve found certain artists (there’s just no other word for these master cake decorators) who I especially love to watch as they explain something extremely complicated and make it look very easy.

Aside from a few mild attempts at recipes that were gluten-free, paleo, sugar-free, etc, I haven’t truly rediscovered this passion for baking until now.

As I write this I have the ingredients for a cheesecake in my kitchen, ready to be mixed for my coworker’s birthday. I made carrot cake cupcakes with a cream cheese coconut sugar frosting last week, as well as white chocolate chip cookies and banana cupcakes with buttercream. Due to my health constraints I am trying to learn or create alternative solutions to some of the trickier ingredients. But I am also quite happy to make these treats for my loved ones and see their faces light up.

I am, by no means, a talented person in the kitchen. My husband has so frequently had to explain to me how not to burn toast that it’s become a household joke. Aside from quiche, chicken soup, french toast, and sweet potato fries, my repertoire is sorrowfully lean. He can throw some shrimp in a pan with some green onions and end up somehow with a delicious curry over brown rice, while I have learned the art of the sausage. In truth, I wouldn’t say I’m anything special in the baking department either.

Yet I have been finding lately that one doesn’t need to be established as good at something before trying to be better at it, and as long as my enjoyment is equal to my effort, I find immense satisfaction in leaning down over a hot oven and feeling the makeup on my face melt as I check if the muffins need any more time.

If you’ve been considering tackling a new recipe, or trying to bake something from scratch for the first time, I encourage you to give it a shot. There have been times in the past week and a half when I can safely say that using a hand mixer has saved my sanity. Coming home exhausted and still getting excited to spend some time in the kitchen is a thrill I thought I’d left behind, but coming up on the cookie season of the year my recipe list is starting to grow long.

It’s transformative to the mood. Maybe it’s the analogy of seeing ourselves churned up inside until something beautiful is created through our chaos. Or maybe it’s just because nothing is as comforting at the end of the day as a cool glass of milk and a cookie stuffed with chocolate chips.

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.

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The Art of Hope and Resilience by Julie Terrill

This summer I finally got to go to Cuba. The island had been high on my bucket list for almost 50 years, before people called them bucket lists. My father and grandfather often referred to Cuba as The Pearl of the Antilles, shook their heads and commented what a shame it was that I would never have the opportunity to see it. That pretty much sealed the deal, sending Cuba straight to the top of the list, demoting my desire to be Evil Kenevil’s protégé to second place. Now I wanted, no, I needed, to see The Pearl for myself.

Fast forward approximately 48 years… My business coach introduced me to Mary Drobney of Cultural Journeys. Mary is a college art history professor who began leading people-to-people art education tours to Cuba 15 years ago. ( http://www.cultural-journeys.com ) Prior to our trip I visited Mary’s home, an amazing eclectic gallery of Cuban art, where she told me of the difficulties that Cuban artists face. Due to embargos art supplies are very limited and are much needed. Many of her tour participants bring supplies as gifts. Some artists obtain materials through the black market. Others creatively use alternative materials such as found objects. When resources are scarce nothing is wasted.

As a whole, Cuba values the arts. I observed a reverence for poetry, dance, music, sculpture and painting. But where, I wondered, does an artist fit into a society where jobs are provided by the government and consumer goods are sanctioned? Most tourist-type shops have the same handful of authorized items. Art is one of the few exceptions if you go to the source.

Mary seemed to know everyone. Over the course of more than 100 art tours she has forged personal relationships with numerous artists across the island. We explored national galleries of work by established artists, but what about other hopeful artists? Their work can be found at artist tables set up in parks, near attractions and UNESCO sites, as well as studios and galleries located in the artists’ homes. The Taller Experimental de Grafica is a large printmaker’s co-op amidst the maze of tangled streets of a Havana neighborhood. The large industrial space was full of great light, working artists, presses, blocks and thousands of prints. I could have happily spent days there watching, listening and learning. Begrudgingly we finally did leave, my arms cradling long cardboard tubes containing original works of the artists I met.

We saw numerous monuments to historic or political figures. But throughout the country beautiful public art is abundant in the forms of colorful murals, sculptures, intricate iron works, fountains and mosaics.

Fusterlandia, a kaleidoscopic neighborhood in the coastal town of Jaimanitas, is the urban beautification project of artist José Antonio Rodríguez Fuster. Fuster is a ceramicist, painter, illustrator, sculptor, print maker and the creator of the ultimate public art installation. Starting with his small home and studio he has transformed over 80 neighboring houses, parks, benches, walls and even swimming pools into a vibrant wonderland, which Fuster initially financed himself.

Sculptures by Martha Jimenez dot the streets near her studio in Camaguey. Jimenez portrays Cuban life in her art. He sculptures depict scenes using real-life models from the community working, gossiping, visiting on benches and a man reading his newspaper. This particular model comes out daily to read the paper next to his likeness while beaming with pride. Jimenez’s studio holds an extensive collection of paintings and prints featuring beautifully curvy women.

Music is constant in Cuba and where there is music there is dancing. Strolling troubadours, musicians sitting on their stoops and organized musical groups on stages, in courtyards or town squares fill the streets with song. Traditional Cuban music, son Cubano, combines the influences of Spanish Guitar with West African rhythm, percussion and call and response style.

And the dancing… oh the dancing… I literally danced my way across the island. I danced with street musicians. I danced with strangers who grabbed my hand to join a Conga line or whirl me into the midst of the action. I danced with children and with silver-haired gentlemen with whom I could not keep up. And on a sweltering evening in Santiago de Cuba I danced alone in an empty pedestrian mall during a brief downpour while locals ducked into doorways to wait.

A month after my trip Hurricane Irma, the second in a string of destructive hurricanes in the Caribbean, devastated the Cuban coast. Thirty-six foot waves crashed down on the island destroying 4,000 homes. Today as the hyperactive 2017 hurricane season is coming to an end, the high season for tourism should be getting underway. But many travelers have cancelled their tour and cruise plans, bringing secondary waves of devastation to already struggling communities.

Mary’s tours have resumed. Communities have come together and restoration has begun. The spirit of hope and resilience still thrives in the Cuban people. They have learned not only to adapt to the circumstances and hardships of the embargoes, but to thrive and create joy. Is Cuba on your bucket list, too? The Pearl is ready to welcome us.

About the Author: Julie Terrill

julieterrill_bio

Julie Terrill is a photographer and writer with a passion for travel. For ten years, she’s told stories of empowerment through the lens of her camera in an array of unique landscapes, environments, and projects – from a shelter for children rescued from trafficking in Thailand to Faces of Courage, complimentary portrait sessions she offers to cancer patients in her community. She is a photographer and assistant facilitator at Beautiful You and Soul Restoration retreats.

Connect with her at: JMTerrillImages.com

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Sunday Sanctuary: The Journey Forward

Many of the regular readers of Modern Creative Life have known me for more than a decade – from when when I first began writing my blog, or since the days when our predecessor, All Things Girl was still new. I’ve always written about my life in transparent ways. They’ve read about my life as a road warrior in the past, and my life of much less travel now. They know that I sometimes engage in retail therapy, and that I believe the first cup of coffee in the morning is more than just a warming brew; it’s a ritual. What they – and you – you might not know, though, is that I’m adopted.

I have written about my mother, and I shared the challenges of grieving the loss of my daddy just this summer. The DNA of neither of these people runs through my veins. Yet, when I think of my parents, I think of Mary Beth and Tom.

Being adopted has always been simply a fact, like my hazel eyes and my love of books.

It was never a secret in our family. Our mother had been unable to carry a child to term and so the path to motherhood – the path to creating a family – was one that went through kind doctors, lawyers, and judges. The opportunity to nurture a child began with another woman, one who was selfless, giving up something precious in the hopes that this being growing inside her would have a life better than she was able to offer at that moment.

My sister and I each knew our “birth story”.

Arranged through the family doctor, my sister’s adoption took place in 1961. The doctor knew a young woman who found herself pregnant and was unable to keep the child. He had performed a hysterectomy on our mother and knew she wanted a child. And within hours of my sister being born, she was in the arms of our mother and father.

I came along seven years later. I was the child of a teenager who turned to a “home for unwed mothers.” My parents made an application and paid a deposit towards a baby the social workers found suitable for the family of three. Their only request was a child that was fair skinned, one that might resemble Daddy as my sister, Carol, had dark hair and an olive complexion like our mother. About a month after the approval of their application, they got a call that a fair-skinned red-headed little girl was available. I went home when I was two weeks old.

Of course, I’ve speculated about the young woman who had me while she was still, basically, a child herself. I was curious about that woman – courageous enough to care for herself and an unborn child, give birth, and then never know what happened after that moment.

I wondered about her, but I her identity wasn’t anything I dwelled upon.

I was never one of those adopted kids that believed finding my “real mom” was going to be the solution to any problem. It wasn’t going to make me “happy.” It wasn’t going to fix any current relationship.  It was not the answer to rescuing me from any challenge.

Besides, I already had a “real mom.” A woman who ensured I got to school each morning and to ballet practice in the afternoons. The woman who slept in a chair in the hospital when I had my tonsils out and ferried me back and forth for every orthodontist appointment.

To be honest, my mother – my real mother, the woman who adopted me as a tiny babe, the one who ensured I had seasonally appropriate clothes, birthday parties, and a full tummy – was not perfect. I always suspected that she suffered from bi-polar disorder, noticeable mostly when she was in a depressive state, as those manic states were ones we could all swing with more easily.

In the South, especially in the days before social media, we called women who struggled with mental illness “delicate,” and just hoped for the best. We’ve come a long way in dealing with mental illness, but in those days, it was a shameful secret that caused family members to walk on eggshells sometimes.

From the outside, it sounds like something challenging and dire. For me, it was simply…life. A challenge, yes, to be raised by a woman who struggled with mental illness and an inability to truly love herself. But let’s get real, every family, no matter how picture perfect it might be, has some dysfunction.

At the core of who I am, I am a realist. I may have a creative spirit, but I am logical to a fault. I had a mother, I had a father. I had no need to seek out anyone who provided the seeds to create me, so to speak, and I continued in that vein for most of my life. When I was pregnant with my oldest child in 1991, my thoughts were about the growing little girl inside me. I don’t recall ever pondering the woman who had been in my same position back in 1967 and 1968.

My second pregnancy in 1995 was different, and for the first time in my twenty-seven years, I got curious enough to ask the state for any information they had on my birth parents. My second pregnancy presented a small number of health challenges – borderline gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, bed rest due to toxemia, a need for an early delivery. Still, I didn’t really want to know who my birth mother was by name, just who she was genetically.  I got a packet of papers from the State of Texas with every identifying nugget literally cut out. It didn’t satisfy all my medical and health curiosities, but it was something. Eventually, it was filed away, and somehow, in the intervening years, lost.

After my mother died in 2010, my curiosity returned. By this point and time, I’d become a life coach, and had worked through a shit-ton of those “childhood issues” with professionals. I wrote to the State of Texas once again, and received a packet of papers. Once again, with all identifying information cut out. It didn’t matter that I was clearly an adult, and had lots of counseling to deal with the variety of issues we all deal with. The State of Texas deemed I had no right to my Original Birth Certificate.

Then on December 30 2014, I was sitting on the lanai of John’s sister’s home in Fort Meyers beach and read an article in the Wall Street Journal about DNA testing helping Adoptees find their birth families.

We’d gathered with the rest of John’s family to celebrate his mother’s 85th birthday. In the weeks leading up to that trip, we’d scanned all the family photos. In each, I saw the traces of all the men and women through the ages in each subsequent generation. All around the dinner table, on the beloved countenances of those ranging from four to eight-five, I saw how the shape of an ear or chin and hands and mannerisms brought these people together. It was a living example of the age-old nurture VS nature debate. DNA doesn’t lie when it comes to innate talents and physical traits.

I ordered the DNA Kits from both Ancestry.Com and 23andMe.Com. I spit in tubes. Weeks later, I received reports telling me that my ancestors were mostly Irish and Welsh with a splash of Scandinavian and Eastern European. It gave me insight into some of those conflicts of my teenage years – the stoic German ancestry of my mother combined with my flair for a story thanks to the Irish in me. But while this ancestor information led occasionally to a 2nd or 3rd cousin, it didn’t yield much more. And in most ways, just the ancestry information explained enough to me.

This past spring, though, my sister decided she wanted to know Where She Came From. She did the DNA and found a genealogist search angel. In less than a week, this search angel identified both of her birth parents and days later, identified my birth mother. I filed the proper paperwork to receive my original birth certificate, still only available if you knew all the answers to each blank (including the exact way a birth parent’s information was spelled on the document).

At the same time I was filling out paperwork, I was also laughing with John: how typical of my lucky sister! I’d been seeking information on and off for more than a decade and in her first foray into research got the answers she sought.

Weeks shy of my forty-ninth birthday, I wrote a letter to a woman in California. I told her about my life, my children, how blessed I was. I included a copy of my “original birth certificate”. I included a self-addressed and stamped post card for her to drop in the mail in case she was not interested in any communication, as well as my email address in case she was.

I knew had zero right to expect anything from her. How unfair or selfish of me would it have been to hold out any expectation or make any demands? I didn’t need or expect anything from this woman who had given me the gift of life and a good family. I had no desire to upset the apple cart of her life. Who knew what secrets she still kept? Who knew if anyone beyond her own mother knew she had a baby in 1968 when she was seventeen?

I wasn’t seeking my mother, I had a mother. I didn’t need to speak with this woman for me to feel whole or solve any problems in my life. I am whole thanks to therapy and life coaches and good books. What I didn’t underestimate, though, was that maybe, just maybe, the knowledge that I was safe and happy, healthy and whole, would be healing for her. Secrets, no matter how ancient, can be destructive.

She sent me an email about a week later. We spoke on the phone and she told me that the dates lined up, but she wanted to be sure. Because on the day that I was born, there were other babies born, too. She ordered her own Ancestry DNA Kit.

She confessed that when she returned home from the hospital, no one ever spoke about her having a baby. Not her, not her mother or step-father. The belief of those managing the adoptions of little babies back in the fifties, sixties, and seventies was that a young woman should walk away from the experience and pretend it never happened. That this was the key to going on with their life, unblemished. That this was the key to the child they gave up having a full and healthy life.

“The best gift I could ever receive,” she told me, “was simply the knowledge that you had a good life. That’s what we were told, that the babies adopted would have a good life.”

And I DID have a good life. I never wondered where my next meal would come from. I never wanted for shelter or clothing or toys. I didn’t go to bed cold or hungry. I was healthy. I got a great education. I had nice clothes, sturdy shoes, and never lacked the care of a doctor or dentist.

I lived in a house with a big yard and experienced what it was to have unlimited access to books and a friend in my cat.

We went on nice vacations. I learned how to be a good member of society with added tutelage on societal norms such as how to behave in nice restaurants, how much to tip service folks, and how to be a good guest. (All activities not a normal in everyone’s life, something I discovered when a high school friend asked me where to put her purse at dinner on a date to Steak & Ale).

I was loved. Maybe not unconditionally by my mother because she couldn’t quite love herself. But I was loved and adored. And I certainly learned about unconditional love from my father. What I had, though, was a solid foundation of security and stability, the elements that Maslow identified as necessary for me to blossom into the curious and creative creature that I am.

The email confirming that this woman was the person who’d given birth to me arrived on the same day we buried my Daddy.

That was in summer. Now it’s December, and in a few short days, I will sit down at a table and see her face to face.

I will have the opportunity to see if I recognize myself in the arch of her eyebrow or the curve of her neck. I’ll be able to tell if she shares the shape of one of my daughters’ eyes, or if she gestures with her hands like any of us. I will no longer wonder whose fingers I have, or where my curvy figure came from.

We’ve been emailing once a week to share the highlights (and lowlights) of our daily lives. Threads of connection to see where our interests might cross or a turn of phrase feels familiar. We have no plans beyond getting together for an early dinner on my first night.  I hope that that dinner leads to other visits while I’m in California, but I know that it might not.

And, of course, a part of me is wary. What if she doesn’t like me? I’ve never been the bubbly popular girl that other women love. My experience with John’s sisters, for example, remind me that sometimes, no matter how friendly and kind you are to others, they might not really like you, let alone seek you out to spend time with.

Deep within lies the hope that there’s a spark, a flash, some sort of intrinsic recognition, that connects us, bonds us, feels familiar. That something sustainable surfaces for the long haul.

I don’t need a mother, I had one. But I’ll never say that I don’t hope that I can create a relationship with this woman who gave birth to me. No, I don’t need her to be a mother. But it would be nice if she could be a friend.

About the Author: Debra Smouse

debra_Smouse_mclDebra Smouse is a self-admitted Tarnished Southern Belle, life coach, and author of Clearing Brain Clutter: Discovering Your Heart’s Desire and Clearing Soul Clutter: Creating Your Vision. When she’s not vacuuming her couch, you’ll find her reading or plotting when she can play her next round of golf. She’s the Editor in Chief here at Modern Creative Life. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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Stems from My Bouquet of Hope by Jeanette McGurk

Halloween night and I am back-tracking with a tutu’d black cat and my super bright flashlight app, of which I believe can be seen from outer space.  According to my husband, this is not true and has told me on several occasions that all phone flashlights are created equal due to the fact that there is a certain level of brightness all LED screens can achieve. It is apparently silly for me to think my app is special or better because it is not, yet I am not convinced.  In this situation, I have faith that a certain phone which has been dropped by my black cat companion will soon reveal itself due to the illumination of the brightest flashlight app on the planet.

“You, know,” says Black kitty, “I am starting to think it was a mistake for Mom to give me her phone.  Or perhaps I should have left it at your house.”  Black kitty is looking very concerned.  We have retraced our steps for more than a block and a half with no luck.

At about this moment, a very friendly and observant witch looks at me, “Hmmm, you wouldn’t be looking for a phone would you?  You have that look.”  I picture myself, the human equivalent of a helicopter scanning the night for an elusive fugitive.  “Why yes,” I say, “I am.”

The lovely witch directs us back to a house with a giant pan, the kind that folks who don’t want to answer the door put on their front porch. It’s filled with candy hoping children will have the good manners to grab  1 or 3 pieces and leave an abundance for the 900 kids who appear like ants from 6-8pm in our neighborhood.  We arrive at the pan, empty.

To add to the disappointment, there is no phone in front of the pan as described by the witch.  Next door a man yells to us.  “Ya looking for something?”  “Yeah,” I say, “a phone.”  “yep, I got it right here,” he says.  “THANK GOD!!” Yells Black Kitty who breaks from character to be an elated 12 year old girl for just a moment.

I walk over to the man, who happens to be the husband of one of the ladies I am out chaperoning children with.  He had given all us Moms tiny little bottles of flavored vodka earlier.  He knows exactly what treats chaperoning parents want.  In fact, after fearing a phone had gone missing under my watch, I could actually use another.  Instead, I leave him at his candy post and hurry back to join our crew a few streets over.

After all, Black kitty has missed valuable time gathering candy.

The other Moms are pleasantly surprised the phone was found.  I mean this is a night for Tom Foolery and no one Tom Fooled with it.  We live in a neighborhood that really gets into Halloween.  There are several houses that decorate at Griswold levels but with creepy graveyards and leaping spiders.

What this means is that kids are dumped off by the car-full into our neighborhood.  Five or six bags of candy – the big ones –  are not going to be enough.  That is why most every one turns off their lights at 8pm.  We aren’t 85 with an early bedtime, we are out of candy!  All of this to say, even with hoards of people grabbing candy like mad, a $600 phone left in plain view, on a well lit sidewalk, in front of someone’s house who obviously was not there, did not get taken.  It was certainly noticed.

This is one of those little moments in life I pick and add to my bouquet of hope.

Seriously, in a time where there is a lot of fear going around, I love tying a lifetime of hope together into one huge bunch and sharing it.  Here are a few stems from my bouquet.

One – In 49 years of interacting with the human race, the majority of people I have interacted with are good.

I figure this is the experience most people have.

You see the bottom dwellers splashed up on front page news but if you really think about it, there are not a whole lot of these characters.  The bottom dwellers only seem more prevalent because we are shocked by their stories and tend to read them.  No one wants their breaking news feed interrupting an episode of Stranger Things to tell them about a phone not being stolen on Halloween or someone changing a tire for an older lady in the Sprouts parking lot.

Most good flies under the radar.

The millions of times a day a child gets lost and someone takes a minute or an hour to make sure they are safely reunited with their family.  There are millions who exercise once a year to support a walk or run they believe in.  There is a reason Walmart asks if you would like to give $1, or $3 or $5 at check out to St. Jude’s hospital.  It is because we want to give.  We want to help.  Even if it is only a $1 at a time.

People are good.  We are not perfect, we make mistakes but by and large we are good.  If this was not the case, why would so many keep trying to make the world a better place?  The fact that collectively our hearts continue to break whenever bad, senseless things happen to complete strangers gives me hope.

Two – Diversity is happening.

When I went to elementary school in central Texas basically every single kid was white.

I remember the first black boy who went to our school.  He was very dark and his skin looked like velvet.  One day I got up the nerve to ask if I could touch his skin in the lunch room. I told him my hypothesis which he thought was funny.  Apparently there were other people who thought his skin would feel different to.  He actually let us form a line, each of us softly running our finger down the side of his cheek.  We weren’t meaning to be rude, we were just curious.

This would never happen today, not because things are too PC but because every since preschool, my kids have had classrooms filled with kids whose families originated from all over the world.  Without traveling the world, the world has come to them.

In our neighborhood friends from different cultures celebrate, Diwali, Ramadan, Chinese New Year and Hanukkah.  They introduce us to delicious foods and spices.  I eat almost as much Indian food now as Mexican.  My children have friends who spend summers in Asia and the school year here.

Today’s kids are savvy knowing that friends can believe in different things, be from different places and still enjoy a hot September afternoon together playing in the sprinklers.  This gives my hope for their future.

Three – Kindness.

The older I have become, the more I view kindness as almost a super power.

I have done soooo many stupid idiotic things in my life.  Things where the last thing I deserved was kindness.  And yet, when I least deserve it, there it is, a reminder of one of the better parts of being human.

Many a time I have been zoning out to talk radio, only to look up and notice the freeway is going down to one lane. I have failed to pay attention and am now in the group of last minute assholes.  The ones I typically try my hardest to not allow in front of me, yet look at this nice man motioning me in….I totally did not deserve that.  I wave like mad.

The policeman just doing his job who pulls me over for speeding.  I am in the wrong, I shoot daggers from my eyes as I pull out my driver’s license.  He gives me a warning and reminds me he is there for my safety.

These are the small things.  The big things have been life changers.

I was assaulted in college and my best friend sent me a card every single day for the rest of the semester.  She was majoring in computer science at Texas A&M, and had a beast of a schedule.  Still, in an age before cell phones and social media, when a long distance call would have been half our semester spending budget, she found a way to reach out to me every single day to let me know I was loved.

Years later, my husband was out of town when I had my first child.  She stayed all night with me in the hospital with this tiny little person. I was frightened to be alone with.

She had her own husband and daughter but met my new Mom panic with kindness.

So while some of the other Moms were surprised on Halloween that Black Kitty’s phone did not slip into the bloody pocket of a zombie, I was not.  Bad, horrible things happen, but good wonderful things happen even more.

Why else would strangers open their doors to strangers one night a year, offering buckets of candy and assorted treats?  It is because we believe in the good in one another, we depend on it, our lives, legends and futures are built on it.

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/.

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What Do You Do with a Baby? by Jeanie Croope

I am an only child. I’ve never had a baby of my own and the ones I am fortunate enough to have shared with Rick were already young boys when I met them. I don’t know what to do with a baby.

But when Kevin and Molly told us they were expecting their first child, I was elated. To be fair, probably not nearly so much as their birth parents who would see another generation of their own come to be, but pretty darned close.

And perplexed. What do you do with a baby?

I know how to play with puppets and even change into all sorts of different voices to make them different. But you can’t do that with a baby. A child needs to be a little older — a toddler, at least.

And I know how to color and help a little one discover the joy of crayons and play dough and markers. Big paper. Cover the table. Not on the walls unless your mom says “OK.” And coloring in the lines is not a requirement. But a baby doesn’t have the hand-eye coordination to do that. So, that’s out.

As we watched Molly come closer to her due date, both my joy and anxiety grew. I was going to be such a flunkie gran. And besides, he would have two other grans and a great grandma, too. Would I be up to snuff? And what could we do together?

I know hide and seek and peek-a-boo. That’s a possibility. And I can show him the wonders of baking — but not till he’s a little taller and a little more stove-and-knife savvy. Stirring is a good start. We can plant things and he can help harvest his grandpa’s garden. But first he has to get a little older. So, what will we do till then?

Our Baby Grand was born on the night of the 2017 Oscars. (I never did to see the Best Picture announcement snafu, and that was just fine by me!) Around 10:30 we got the call; Molly was in labor and I think we were  on the road to the hospital so fast it was a blur. We finally heard the good news about our baby boy’s arrival and soon we got to see him for the first time.

I’ve never seen a baby that small — and all I could think of was the joy and wonder of it all. His hands and feet — they were so tiny. He was all wrapped up in a swaddle like a baby burrito with a little red face and itty-bitty fingers. And he was beautiful.

My dilemma of still not knowing what to do with him continued. I loved him to bits, but all I could really do was hold him, maybe feed him, watch him sleep. I still haven’t done the diaper thing. There seems to be quite a routine to it. I know that if I can make Julia’s Boeuf Bourguigon, I can put a Pamper on a little pooper but somehow, I find this daunting and secretly hope he’s an early toilet trainer and I miss that part of grannying.

But with every visit, as I’ve watched him get bigger, stronger, taller and more awake and alert for longer periods of time, I’m beginning to see a light, a time when I don’t just hold him or smile or talk with him, but actually can play.

One of our most recent visits found him at seven and a half months. He was on the threshold of crawling — right now he looks more like an army guerrilla fighter in the jungle or a Pilates expert doing a plank. He can work the knees and he can work the arm motions but he just doesn’t quite have the left-right/arm-leg thing going yet. He will soon, though, and when he does, watch out!  Perhaps even as I write these words he is scurrying across the floor!

Our Baby Grand is learning how to do things, to process and understand. He has little toys he can open and close and seems to get the if/then concept — if I hit this button, then it opens; if I press it down, it closes. Of course, he doesn’t know open-and-close. But he sees cause and effect. He can throw things and loves to and pet the dogs. And he adores his swing. There’s that great big smile when he’s pushed back as far as you dare and he comes toward you. Oh, this boy is loving life.

He smiles and laughs and talks up a storm — not in any intelligible language, but I’m sure he knows just what he means. He has two tiny teeth and eats baby food and a little bit of real food — and when he doesn’t like it, his eyes get big, his bottom lip juts out just a bit, his pale brows wrinkle into a confused frown and his eyes look betrayed. Oh yes, he has language — it’s written all over his face!

His hands are bigger than in those first  moments, a few hours after his birth. It will take some time before they are as large as Grandpa’s but Grandpa’s strong hands will be there to catch him, hold him and love him, to push him in the swing, to teach him to ride a bicycle like the wind.

Those hands will grow more in good time, to hold cooking spoons and paintbrushes, Scrabble tiles and Candyland cards. Yes, there will be real board games involved.  One day, and perhaps not a day too far away, he will be able to hold a crayon and pull it across a page. It will be a scribble but it will be his scribble. With a little luck, he’ll pick up his Uncle Greg’s artistic talent or mine and those scribbles will turn into something you hang on the fridge because it is good — and not just because someone you love did it!

I realized that I have never seen anything except a kitten grow from infancy to adulthood on a regular basis. The process, I am discovering is one of great wonder with every encounter bringing new thoughts, hopes, dreams, wishes and great gratitude that I am allowed to follow this journey with our Baby Grand and his parents.

I think I’d better start looking for my puppets. Time goes much faster than it seems.

About the Author: Jeanie Croope

Jeanie Croope bioAfter a long career in public broadcasting, Jeanie Croope is now doing all the things she loves — art, photography, writing, cooking, reading wonderful books and discovering a multitude of new creative passions. You can find her blogging about life and all the things she loves at The Marmelade Gypsy.

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Faith + Believe = Hope by Molly Totoro

Twinkling holiday lights reflect in the bay window as I reflect on 2017 in preparation for the New Year.

I spend November focusing on the blessings of life. I try to practice gratitude each day of the year, but the days leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas are a time of intentional focus. I strive to give thanks not only for the blessings but the difficult times as well. I’ve lived long enough to know that our greatest failures – our worst obstacles – can prove most beneficial in the end.

When December arrives I relish the holiday festivities as I anticipate the New Year. I use this time to reflect on the past and ponder aspirations for the future.

First, I think about my 2017 word of the year – Nourish. I review what I wrote on January 1st as an explanation for its selection:

Nourish will help me focus on physical health. I want my retirement years to be filled with quality life, not mere existence – and that requires regular exercise and a nutritional diet.

One look at the Weekly Tracker in my Bullet Journal indicates I show improvement in this area. The range of motion in my previously broken arms is nearly 100%. I exercise about four times a week and walk the dog a mile a day. While I know there is room for growth, I am pleased with the progress made.

But I wrote something else on January 1st:

Nourish will also help me focus on mental health. I need to build myself up with positive affirmations and stop with the negative self-talk.

I didn’t fare so well in this regard. While I spent time nourishing my physical needs I continued to ignore the emotional ones. The negative self-talk was loud and unrelenting. I named the voice Delilah because she feigned friendship while plotting my demise.

In October I decided it was time to silence her constant criticism. I spent the month researching and journaling about what psychologists call “Impostor Syndrome”. I developed a series of quotes and scripture verses to use as weapons against her vehement lies. This was a necessary first step to nourishing and transforming my mind, but I know I have more work to do.

That leads me to my focus for 2018. While I have not yet committed to a single word, I have a few in mind. October’s study of positive affirmations taught me faith is a necessary component to life – not only faith in a religious sense but also faith in self. I must have faith that I was put on earth for a specific purpose, and I must have faith that I already possess the skills and talents to fulfill that purpose. Low self-esteem, it turns out, is not a demonstration of humility but rather a deterrent from living the abundant life.

While Faith is a possibility for the 2018 Word of the Year, Believe is the lead contender. Believe is more powerful. Faith is a noun – it states a condition. We have faith, but believing is putting faith in action. I don’t want a passive lifestyle. I want to step out in faith and actively pursue a creative purpose.

Delilah doesn’t like this kind of talk. Delilah wants to keep me locked away in my comfort zone. She tries to convince me this is a safe place – a desired destination. There is no pain in the comfort zone – no fear of rejection or failure – a space devoid of conflict.

Her lies hide the truth: comfort zones are prisons that keep us from becoming who we were meant to be. Trapped by our fears, we live shallow, discontented lives. We don’t try new hobbies or interests for fear we won’t be good enough. We don’t share our passions with the world for fear we won’t be accepted. We begin to shrivel up from within and die.

Believe is the antidote to these lies. It is the necessary action we must take to reclaim our authentic selves.

I believe I was created for purpose. I believe I possess the skills and talents to bring this purpose to fruition. While I know there will be setbacks and obstacles to overcome, I believe I have the self-confidence and determination to continue the journey. I believe I have something to contribute and share with the world.

As I reflect on this past year and the insights I’ve gleaned, another word comes to mind: Hope. Interestingly, hope is both a noun and a verb. We have hope – a feeling that all will work out for the best. And we also hope – believe or trust that something desired will happen.

Hope is not an expectation, which is tightly connected with a desired result. But rather, hope is the security of knowing all will be okay, regardless of the end result.

Hope is the forerunner for my 2018 Word of the Year. Hope that I will finally silence the harsh criticism of Delilah and replace it with God’s truth: I am loved. Hope that I will find the confidence to step out of that comfort zone, try new things, experience new adventures and live a creative life with unashamed joy.

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

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Instrumental: For the Final Months of the Year by Melissa Cynova

Autumn brings with it shorter days, looming holidays and a constant wonderment about where the days have gone. Is it already November? Where did the year go? We never have time to accomplish all that we wanted, it seems, and we’re so quick to discard or disregard those things we have done (and done well)

With the running down of the year, however, comes the opportunity to pause and truly reflect on who we are, where we’re going, and how we got there. It is easy to follow the path above- the quick dismissal of achievement and holding fast to our failures.

What if, instead, we took a cue from nature and slowed down the clock?

What if we were patient and kind to ourselves, even though we totally dropped the ball that one time (or three times).

In tarot, the Star card follows the Tower. After the Tower falls, the world is spinning and disjointed, and it’s hard to get your bearing. There are clouds of dust and rubble all around, and you’ve lost your main landmark. You might feel a little lost, and a little adrift.

The Star brings with her grace, quiet and comfort. She is the first deep breath after a crying jag. She is the cool hand on your fevered brow. She asks nothing of you, holds nothing against you, and gives you space to heal.

This is the space we should allow ourselves. For every goal that we missed, there were a thousand times we were present for a grieving friend. For every deadline that went by, there were a hundred times we played with our cats or took a well-earned nap. We were giving each other hope, and likely leaving ourselves high and dry.

The Star asks us to breathe. To be present. To be forgiving and to forgive.

Most importantly, she asks us to bless ourselves as well as each other, so that our hope doesn’t diminish while we’re ministering to other people.

Xo Lis

About the Author: Melissa Cynova

Melissa Cynova is owner of Little Fox Tarot, and has been reading tarot cards and teaching classes since 1989. She can be found in the St. Louis area, and is available for personal readings, parties and beginner and advanced tarot classes. Her first book, Kitchen Table Tarot, was recently published by Llewellyn Publishing. Melissa lives in St. Louis with her kiddos, her husband, Joe, two cats, two dogs and her tortoise, Phil.

You can reach Melissa at lis@littlefoxtarot.com. She is on Twitter and Instagram under Little Fox Tarot. Go ahead and schedule a reading – she already knows you want one.

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