Archive | Stories – Nonfiction

All That is to Come by Christine Mason Miller

In three weeks time, I’ll be on the other side of the planet—traveling through India with three companions, my second visit to that part of the world. Just like the first time I went there, I don’t know what to expect and I’m excited for a new adventure. Even though we’re headed to many of the same places I visited before, four years have passed since that trip. During that time, I’ve written a book, moved across country and turned fifty. The world has changed and so have I, so I’m not heading to Delhi assuming I’ll love India the same way I did last time.

Who’s to say how well I’ll be able to handle the colorful chaos that is India this time around? Who’s to say I won’t love it more?

I traveled with my friend Barb on 2014 visit, and we went to Ranthambore National Park, a wildlife preserve in Rajasthan best known for its tiger population. As we both got situated with the guided jeep tour our first morning there, we were told not to get our hopes up with regard to seeing a tiger. None had been spotted for days, so expectations were tempered right away.

Over the next few hours, we were driven all over the park, observing sambar deer, monkeys and all kinds of birds. While we weren’t finding any tigers, it was fascinating to watch our guides try to track them. After pulling up near the edge of a dramatic vista and turning the engine off, they listened for the telltale signs of smaller animals’ sounds and movements that might signal the presence of a predator. Sure enough, there seemed to be a bit of commotion, and the guides immediately headed in a new direction. After checking in with another guide down the road, following tracks and taking a few more detours, it eventually came time to wrap up our tour with nary a tiger in sight.

On the route back to the entrance of the park, ours was the only jeep in sight that morning, and it was a small one compared to the twenty-person caravans we saw on our way in. All the other vehicles that had entered the park the same time we did at the beginning of the day were in search of tigers in other areas, so our small band of less than a dozen tourists had the road in front of us all to ourselves.

We’d passed a small body of water on our way into the park, and stopped on our return to see if we might spot a crocodile. While scanning the shoreline, something unexpected came into view, and once my brain caught up with my eyes, I realized what I was looking at: a full grown tiger, walking straight toward us, eyes locked, it seemed, on mine. My eyes went wide, my jaw dropped, and I immediately started crying. Even the guides were freaking out, exclaiming, “THIS is magic moment!” with a hand raised in the air as if in an exalted prayer. Looking at him with tearful eyes, I knew, body and soul, he was right. This was a magic moment.

I know people see wild animals all the time, all over the world. Whether on a jeep tour similar to ours, a safari in Africa or a fishing trip in Alaska, I’ve heard countless stories of encounters with creatures big and small in their native habitat. Seeing an animal in the wild isn’t terribly unique or even difficult. But for whatever reason, on that particular day, the rush of excitement upon seeing the tiger poured through me like a meteor shower—all stars and light and, yes, magic.

As the tiger walked toward us, our driver backed up and pulled up to a small hill just off the road. For a blissful ten minutes or so, we had front row seats to the tiger’s quiet meanderings. We watched him walk toward the water and sprawl out on the ground before offering us a big, gaping yawn, perhaps to let us know our presence in his home couldn’t possibly bore him more. We were guests in his domain, so we all sat quietly and watched him, the most audible sounds being the click-click-click of all the cameras. After taking a few photos myself, I set mine down, wanting to watch him with my own eyes for as long as possible rather than through a viewfinder. When I turned around to look at Barb, sitting behind me, I saw she had been crying too.

We cried quite a few times on that trip—at the sight of other animals, at the kindness of strangers, out of exhaustion and overwhelm. We laughed and sobbed and whooped and prayed, letting all the emotions flow through us day by day, moment by moment. In order to fully experience all the beauty and wonder India had to offer, we had to be open to all of its challenges too—the poverty, the crowds, the constant noise and movement. We came home filled in ways we hadn’t expected, having been pushed far out of our comfort zones and given gifts we didn’t see coming, like the tiger that emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, right in front of our jeep on that cold, misty morning in Ranthambore.

I am returning to India in a few weeks with Barb again, along with two other first-time visitors. While we aren’t visiting Ranthambore this time, there are, no doubt, many magic moments ahead of us. I don’t know what they will look or feel like and am not going to try to predict where they’ll happen, but I know they’re there—waiting for us all like unopened, beautifully wrapped presents. As I prepare for the journey ahead, I’m already saying thank you for everything that is to come.

About the Author: Christine Mason Miller

Christine Mason Miller is an author and artist who has been inspiring others to create a meaningful life since 1995.

Follow her adventures at www.christinemasonmiller.com.

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A Cinderella Story by Ruth Coe Chambers

I’ve always felt my childhood was marred because we didn’t have a library in our town. We had beaches with sand as white as sugar, water from the Gulf of Mexico that touched places we might never see. But no books. I longed for a well-stocked library, but all I had was hope that a family would move to our small town and bring books with them. My family didn’t seem to find a lack of books something to worry about. Mama had her crocheting and soap operas on the radio, Daddy had hunting and fishing when he wasn’t busy protecting us as he sported his deputy sheriff badge, and my dentist uncle brought home pulp fiction detective magazines that Mama had forbidden me to touch.

Me? Nothing filled that void for me but hope. Still, I started school without books and discovered something more wonderful than the colored chalk our teacher used to draw a calendar of September. She had a book! I would eventually learn that all the teachers had books, but just starting school, I believed pretty Mrs. Howell was the only one who owned one and not just any book, but one called Cinderella. I’d never heard a name so beautiful. On the cover was a young woman as beautiful as her name, dressed in a long, yellow bouffant dress cascading with ruffles and bows and all things wonderful.

Each day Mrs. Howell read a  little of Cinderella to us, and I suppose she knew we were hungry for books because every Friday one person from a list she kept in her desk would be allowed to take Cinderella home for the weekend. I thought my Friday would never arrive. How the time dragged until the day I ran to her desk after school and told her it was my turn to take Cinderella home. She looked at me and said quite simply, “Oh, Ruth, it’s lost. I don’t have it any more.” Her eyes weren’t red from weeping, she didn’t pound the floor with her fists. An important part of her world had obviously been stolen, and she appeared unconcerned about it. I hoped I never took anything of beauty for granted. I realized in that moment, even though I was only six years old, that I still had hope, and no one could ever steal it or the wonder it brought me.

I continued going to people who moved into town to see if they brought any books with them. That was how I came to read my first novel, A Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton-Porter. I identified with the girl though I didn’t possess the courage she did in collecting specimens from a swamp. I could, however, feel her shame in having to carry her lunch to school in a syrup bucket.

I was growing older, and when my parents realized I could read, they knew they would have to be more careful and keep their secrets hidden. One they kept hidden in plain sight. I had found a need for hope beyond books. I prayed that God would not let Mama turn out to be my stepmother.

It was my reading that had uncovered their secret. When I was very young, they let me see snapshots with writing on the backs. The woman had my name, and she stood with Daddy. I knew then why a room grew quiet when I entered it. Things fell into place and I knew who she was, even her name. Hope dimmed and my fate was sealed when a girl at school said one day, “She isn’t your real mother, is she?” I didn’t want a stepmother and ran, ran until my side hurt, but I couldn’t escape my stepmother.

I realized my parents didn’t want me to know who Mama really was so I began the long years of protecting them from my awakening. It was a heavy burden for a child to carry. Hope had been stolen after all, and I was left with guilt. Should I love the woman with my name, the woman who carried me under her heart, or the woman who cared for me through the measles and chicken pox and all the childhood illnesses? It was a heavy burden, even for a teenager, and the whispers of stepmother never left me.

I was an adult when I came to realize that I still had hope after all. Where would I have been without my escape through writing, my hope for making a contribution? I had to make my time on earth count. I had to repay a debt to a woman with my name. I was a Cinderella child. I had a stepmother who was sometimes wicked, but I saw that both Cinderella and I not only had stepmothers, but also hope in a glass slipper or a published book. Thinking of all I had written, of the stories, essays, plays and novels, I wondered if they would have been written had I not used them as a way of running until my side didn’t ache any more. Oh, the wonder of it all. Both my mothers, they were the wonder all along, never once calling me a stepchild.

About the Author: Ruth Coe Chambers

Ruth Coe Chambers takes pride in her Florida panhandle roots and her hometown of Port St. Joe has inspired much of her writing.

She is indebted to the creative writing classes at the University of South Florida where she found her “voice” and began writing literary fiction. Listed in the Who’s Who of American Women. She has recently republished one novel, and published it’s sequel, and has written two award-winning plays. She is currently working on the third novel in her Bay Harbor Trilogy. She has two daughters and lives with her husband and one very spoiled Cairn terrier in Neptune Beach, Florida.

Her two earlier novels include The Chinaberry Album and Heat Lightening.

 

A Quiet Thrill by Michelle GD

I am like a child again when the meteorologists call for snow.   Looking out the window frequently, watching the sky, holding my breath just the tiniest bit.  Did it start yet?  Is it coming?  I remember being thrilled by snow as a child.  I am still thrilled (perhaps more?) as an adult.

With snow come challenges of slippery roads and cancellations.  As I child, I cared only of the latter; as an adult, I must consider both.  Still, I eagerly await the first flakes.  Sometimes the birches blow in the wind; sometimes they stand like statues.  Sometimes the sky seems an even wash of grey; sometimes, if I look closely enough, I see darker greys and lighter greys and greys in between.  Always, I feel like the world at my feet is in the midst of some pause.  Or maybe it’s just me.

As I wait for the snow, I am surely in the pause.  I am present and attentive.  I feel alive.  I watch excitedly for changes in the sky and on the ground.  I am in awe once those changes arrive.  The blanket of white laid upon the ground, the hush accompanying the laying of that blanket.

I remember that hush as a child.  For a few years, we lived in upstate New York, just south of the Canadian border.  We got a lot of snow there; I had many opportunities to step into that hush.  Now, my family of four lives in Virginia, and we don’t experience the frequency or amount of snow I enjoyed in those childhood years.  But we do get snow; I do step into the hush.  And every time I step into the hush, my shoulders drop a little lower, and my eyes widen in wonder.

The beauty is not a surprise to me.  And yet, every time it snows…it surprises me.  It delights me, softens me.  Every time it snows, I step into the pause.  I am present and attentive and alive.  And isn’t this what I continually practice, no matter the season?  The presence, the attention, the alive-ness?

This time of year is busy for many of us.  We are celebrating and decorating and making merry.  Likely, we are also reflecting on a calendar year about to close, and preparing to open another.  It’s a time of year full with work outside ourselves (all that merry-making); it’s also full with work inside ourselves (all that reflecting).  It’s a time of year filled with so much.

Just the other day, it snowed.  I was grateful for Nature’s invitation; she called me in, and I responded.  I stepped into her pause, I felt her hush.  She beautified my world that was already beautiful, and I like that she didn’t out-do herself…she was humble and just-right.  I left the busyness and merry-making of the house, and walked through the falling snow with my kids.  We laughed, and we were silent.  I felt snowflakes on my eyelashes, and watched flakes rest but a moment on the lashes of my kids…each snowflake a gift.  Each one an invitation to pause, to notice, to be a little bit amazed.

There’s something in that pause, that being a little bit amazed.  There is a certain release I feel, as if I lie back and the world catches me and holds me.  Though I must do my part:  I must, on occasion, allow my shoulders to drop; I must allow my eyes to widen in wonder. I must anticipate, and I must receive.  I must allow myself to lie back and be held by the beauty of this world.

Now do you understand why a forecast of snow thrills me to my core?

About the Author: Michelle GD

Michelle GD is an artist living in Virginia.  Using writing and photography as forms of meditation, she explores the connections between the beautiful and messy bits of life.  You can find her at MichelleGD.com.

Snow Day by Molly Totoro

Let me set the scene.

It is a dark, cold Wednesday morning. The alarm rings for the second time. I dare not press the snooze option again for fear I will oversleep. I brace myself before turning back the warm flannel sheets – allowing the cold air to hit my legs as I swing them over the side of the bed. I’m partially awake now.

I grope for my glasses resting on the nightstand. I put them on and check my phone: 5:30am. Time to start the day.

I shuffle my way through the hall and down the steps. The pot of coffee I set to a timer the night before is ready. I pour myself a cup and head to my special seat in the family room. The Basset barely moves to make room, but I’m appreciative of his efforts to warm my spot. I find the remote and turn on the morning news.

… you will find a listing of school closings scrolling at the bottom of the screen.

I’m now fully awake. I watch the names of schools make their way across the television. Blue Valley… Bonner Springs… It will be a while before they reach the Os.

I try to keep my excitement under control. After all, these are the last weeks before the end of the semester. There is so much more work to do before finals. But…

Edgerton… Excelsior Springs…

I am prepared for class. All grading is complete. Lesson plans are in order. Photocopies made. The students are working on long-term writing projects. If we don’t have school, they will know what to do at home.

Kearny … Lee’s Summit…

 So many school districts are closed. There’s about three inches of snow on the ground now, making rush hour traffic slow and treacherous. News anchors are advising all to stay inside if possible. The forecast is for another six inches before nightfall.

Peculiar… Olathe…

 I let out an audible squeal. The basset gives me a look of disdain and returns to his slumber. A snow day!!

I’m not sure why I’m so fond of these special occasions. I am usually mature and reserved, but snow days bring out my inner child.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Texas. I never experienced snow until we moved to Connecticut when I was twelve. And that first snow was magical. Rather than hard, pelting raindrops, soft silent flakes floated around me. The drab gray ground transformed into an unblemished swirl of white. Rain told me to stay safe indoors while the snow beckoned me to come outside and experience winter joy.

Of course, I understand the scientific cause: cold temperatures and moisture in the clouds create ice crystals that stick together and form snow before falling to the ground. The valid explanation, however, does not diminish the magic.

While I no longer choose to spend my snow days outside building snowmen or engaging in friendly snowball fights, I do relish the joy of an unexpected day off.

I light a fire in the fireplace and enjoy sipping an extra cup of hot coffee. Because my school work is complete, the day belongs to me – to do as I see fit. I refuse to sully the hours with mundane chores like laundry or housekeeping. This day is reserved for spontaneous creativity.

A portion of the morning hours will be spent reading that novel I bought months ago but never found the time to open. Today is the day to escape to that literary world.

Around noon I will inspect the refrigerator to see what I can make for dinner. I find enough leftovers and vegetables for a nice pot of soup and some melted cheese biscuits.

The afternoon hours may be spent on a craft project, like catching up on family scrapbooks or creating greeting cards for the upcoming year. If I’m in a particular culinary mood, I may scour the cookbooks for a new dessert recipe to try.

The leisurely day is bound to pass quickly. Before I know it, the dinner dishes will be washed and put away, and I will begin thinking about school tomorrow.

The magic of a snow day, however, is not limited to one 24-hour time period. The spontaneous day off is simply the catalyst to re-awakening our creativity. Once we open that novel, take out those craft supplies, or delve deeper into a personal project, we look for ways to continue.

We discover a ten-minute pocket of time between cleaning the kitchen and starting the nighttime routine. We set the alarm thirty minutes earlier to give us some quiet uninterrupted space. We turn off the comedy re-runs in favor of me-time.

I’m not sure who enjoys a snow day more: students, teachers, or the basset.

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

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.

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

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/.

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.

The Great Leap by Christine Mason Miller

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” – Joseph Campbell

In just a few days, I’m crossing over. Good-bye forties, farewell first half of life. The big one is here—I’m about to turn fifty.

I’ve never felt daunted by any previous birthdays, but my fiftieth has had me, at times, in a mild state of panic. What does it mean to turn fifty? What lies ahead? How will this change the way the rest of the world sees me? How can I make the most of the time I have left? Because there is now no denying that what remains is limited—time to not only to be alive, but also to be healthy, energetic, and able to do all the things I want to do. I have lately been feeling a unique kind of pressure to make the right choices; my fear of reaching old age with a suitcase full of regrets about what I did or didn’t do when I had the opportunity has been a lingering presence all year long.

In a nutshell, I don’t want to blow it.

I’ve also never been one to create a master plan for my life. I’ve made big plans for business, creative projects, and even dinner parties, but not for the totality of my life. I’ve never had an age-related goal (married by 25, homeowner by 30, etc.) and have rarely tried to predict exactly where I might be or what I might be doing beyond a few months. This has been especially true since my divorce, when I was inspired to take an entirely different approach to my future.

Since then, I’ve steered my life in a way that is less about focusing my sights on specific hopes or dreams and more about setting my compass according to my values—the kind of person I want to be and what I want my life to look like. But even then, I try to hold onto any plans as loosely as possible. Experience has shown me that there are other more mysterious forces at play, and, if I’m willing to let go of the desire for control, there’s a very good chance things will unfold in ways more magically, abundantly, and beautifully than I could have ever orchestrated.

As my husband and I get settled in our new home and community here in Milwaukee, I’ve been watching him connect with an assortment of friends, colleagues, and classmates from years past. He is catching up with people he hasn’t seen in thirty, forty and fifty years, hearing about the highlights of their lives as well as those of other mutual friends. I’ve been involved in many of these conversations, and they have inspired a pulling upward of perspective. I’ve been imagining myself on a cloud above the earth, only it isn’t just the physical entity of our planet but all of time. It is a dynamic universe filled with moments and memories and experiences – mine included, many of which haven’t even happened yet, of course—and I’m up above, watching all of them collide and twinkle and carry each of us along different paths and trajectories. This decision went this way, that one turned things completely around. Those are the points of no return. These are the things we’ll never get back. And over there—that’s what is still entirely possible.

After hearing a few too many stories of lives being consumed by things like lawsuits, family estrangements, and addiction, I keep thinking about the finiteness of our existence.

This week I’m turning fifty, but the day might come when I turn seventy, and what will I be looking at then when I let myself float up above the atmosphere and take stock of the time I’ve had? What do I see now? Has my general approach—values first, pursuit of dreams second—served me or hindered me? Which regrets and heartbreaks from my past are still in need of redemption or transformation for my future?

The funny things is, my birthday will arrive and then it will be over. After all the build up, the angst, and hearing David Byrne’s “How did I get here?” in my head over and over again, it will happen. I’ll be fifty. And that will be that. But what is true about turning fifty has, in fact, been true all along – I don’t know how much time I have left. I don’t know what’s coming around the corner. Each day my work is the same—to make sure my compass is in alignment with what I love and value most, open the sail, and let the flow of life carry me toward my future, whatever the future may bring.

About the Author: Christine Mason Miller

Christine Mason Miller is an author and artist who has been inspiring others to create a meaningful life since 1995. Follow her adventures at www.christinemasonmiller.com.

When Reality & Fiction Collide (as told to Krista Davis)

by Little Miss Sunshine (aka Twinkletoes)

My mom, Krista Davis, thinks she created me. Can you imagine anything more preposterous than imagining that she put the idea of me out into the universe and then I showed up?

I was born in a house where animals were hoarded. Our people left and when the contractors arrived to fix up the house, they were shocked to find us. Being really terrific people, they divided us up, and each one took three of us to find us homes. In my case, a super guy dropped me (and two little brown Chihuahuas) off at his favorite animal hospital. I was there when he said, “Clean ‘em up and find them homes. I’ll pick up the bill.”  Is that a great guy or what?

I was just a baby and covered in fleas. Yuck! It was on the day of my second bath that Mom came along. I was in a cage, sopping wet, and trying desperately to dry my fur. She had a huge dog with her. For the most part I ignored her. I was wet! That was my priority. But I heard the vet say, “It’s a long weekend. Why don’t you take her home for a test drive?”

There was a lot of giggling after that. They knew they’d found a sucker! And just like that, she took me home.

The first night I was there, Mom went outside on an upstairs balcony. She thought she had shut the door behind her, but I snuck through when she wasn’t looking. When she went inside, I jumped and jumped, and went higher and higher until I had the most fabulous view of a world I had never seen before.

An hour later, I heard her calling me. I thought she’d never find my clever spot! But when she went outside in the dark and called me, I mewed to her. The truth was that I wanted to go back inside where it was warm, and I was getting hungry, too.

Have you figured out where I was? On the roof! On top of the world.

She fetched a ladder and climbed up (in the dark!). She reached up to me, and I very slowly and carefully walked down the steep pitch of the roof until she could scoop me up. And then I purred. I figured she’d be a pretty good mom, so I never did that again.

So why does she think she created me? Well, look carefully at the cover of THE DIVA DIGS UP THE DIRT. There I am. It looks just like me! The thing is that she wrote that book before I was born. And then I showed up at her vet’s office. Spooky, huh?

It was meant to be.

Now I have my own series under the pseudonym, Twinkletoes.

My latest escapade is in NOT A CREATURE WAS PURRING. That’s me on the cover with Trixie, the Jack Russell Terrier, who likes to think she’s the star of the series.

But I know the truth. Cats never make a fuss about things like that. We know we’re in charge.

Now Mom has written about a dog named Duchess. We expect to see her come trotting down the road any day.

About the Author: Krista Davis

New York Times Bestselling author Krista Davis writes the Paws and Claws Mysteries set on fictional Wagtail Mountain, a resort where people vacation with their pets. Her 5th Paws and Claws Mystery is NOT A CREATURE WAS PURRING, which releases on February 7th. Krista also writes the Domestic Diva Mysteries. Her newest series debuts in February with COLOR ME MURDER. Like her characters, Krista has a soft spot for cats, dogs, and sweets. She lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with two dogs and two cats.

Connect with her on Goodreads  |  Twitter  | Facebook

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