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Sunday Sanctuary: Nature VS Nurture

When our father passed away, my sister discovered three little dresses in our mother’s cedar chest. Fashion wise, she determined they had been mine, worn sometime between 1968 and 1970. I happily brought them home, and when I took them to the dry cleaners to prepare them for storage, I noticed the one that was my first little Easter Dress came from Neiman Marcus.

A couple of notes here: no, we didn’t buy all of our clothes at Neiman Marcus, however, it was a place my mother loved shopping for special occasions. My first memory of a dress from Neiman’s was a pink and white gingham dress to wear for my cousin Judy’s wedding when I was four.

Also, can you imagine how labor intensive bringing in new merchandise was for Neiman Marcus back then? To sew tiny Neiman Marcus labels in every item of clothing it sold?

But I digress. Sort of.

See, my mother’s love language was gifts. She love getting gifts, but moreover she loved to buy gifts. Though I never recall her loving grocery shopping the way I do, one of her favorite excursions was to go to go shopping for clothes. It didn’t matter if the clothes were for her, my sister, my father, or I. And some of my fondest memories are of going to one of the big malls in Dallas and making a day of it. Not just shopping but having lunch out at a fancy tea room or creperie.

To this day, I cannot eat a popover with Strawberry butter, sip a cup of chicken broth, or dine on chicken salad served atop a salad without thinking of good times with my mother.

Though these forays to Dallas didn’t happen more than once a year or so….and though my play clothes came from Sears or JC Penny’s…my mother ensured that I was always well clothed. We shopped for clothes three or four times a year: for back to school, for Christmas, for Easter, and for Summer.

We also ate well. Though I never really liked some of the basics when money was tight like red beans or wieners and sauerkraut, I don’t recall ever going to bed hungry or worrying where my next meal came from. When times were good, we ate out at least once a week. I vaguely  recall a year when we ate out almost every meal, my mother having tired of cooking.

I owe my love of shopping, love of food, and love of reading to my mother. All things that carry me through this life with a sense of joy and love. All areas that fuel my creative life. These are imprinted on me, a part of the very make up of who I am.

On the question of Nature VS Nurture, I can tell you that Nurture matters.

A popover with Strawberry Butter at Neiman Marcus

Back in December, I shared with you the story of finding my birth mother. I wrote that piece mere days before I got on a plane and spent four days in Southern California. After several months of regular emails, I knew it was time for us to sit down across the table from each other.

To look into each other’s eyes and be willing to bear witness to the lives that began together with flesh and bone and traveled different paths for the last forty-nine plus years.

We had agreed to meet in the lobby of my hotel. I had risen that morning at 3 AM Eastern and it was 5 PM pacific when I walked downstairs. I was tired and wired.

And I knew her immediately.

It was like looking into a mirror in the future in so many ways.

We had a glass of wine thanks to my hotel’s Wine Hour and chatted as we people watched. She wanted to know all about the girls, the extension of this connection of blood and bone.

Though we had emailed for months and shared DNA, we were still strangers. Well, familiar acquaintances. The way in which you may feel about me: someone familiar, someone whose story you know a piece of, someone who feels like a friend. Yet, if we were to sit down over a glass of wine or cup of coffee, we would discover that neither of us had tapped the surface into each other’s real stories.

She’d told me in a phone conversation that when she came home from the maternity home, no one talked about her experience. The theory those days was that a young woman that “made a mistake” should simply go back home, get on with their life, and pretend that nothing had happened.

Yes. Pretend as if the previous nine months of your life hadn’t existed. That you hadn’t given birth to a baby.

After sitting out a year of high school, most folks, including her mother and father, were surprised that she wanted to go back and get her diploma. She did. She graduated high school and went to work. When she learned to read in elementary school, she realized her mother didn’t k now how to read well. Of course she couldn’t understand her desire to learn.

When she moved out to California, she wanted more for her life, so she began going to college in her thirties, getting a degree in accounting.

Life had never been one of ease or privilege for her, so she learned to figure things out. Once she faced any kind of crisis, she figured out how to not repeat the same mistake.

My love of learning, my need to research until I find answers, my understanding of how scientific research can be translated into actions I could take in my every day life.

On the question of Nature VS Nurture, I can tell you that Nature matters, too.

As humans, I believe one of the most important responsibilities we have is to bear witness to the lives of others. Unfortunately, there are so many people out there who have not had anyone, or at least many folks, willing to witness her life.

Not speaking about me for almost fifty years meant that the stories of her life came tumbling forward. My responsibility: to be the witness to these untold stories.

My life was never perfect, and often challenging. However, it retained an essence of sweetness and naivete.

It was nothing like hers. At least for her first forty years.

It’s something most of the people I know share, threads of connection with the lives of their parents that repeat generation after generation. A love of cooking or reading or a flair for design. Yet, despite the connection of nature, our lives had been vastly different.

My love of food was due to pleasurable memories of Christmas dinners and the results of good old southern cooking. Her first memory of food is meeting her stepfather when she and her brother were dumpster diving behind his bakery because they were hungry. He fed the kids and gave their mother a job.

She moved ten times before she was ten. She thought that throwing whatever you could in a trash bag and gong to a new place was how everyone did it. Too many homes she can remember had wheels. She didn’t live in a house with a real foundation until her late thirties or early forties. She’s lived in more than five states.

I have lived at only five addresses my entire life. I never left Texas for the first forty-two years. Hell, I never left Tarrant County Texas those first forty-two years. Every home I’ve known has had a solid foundation, sturdy walls, reliable heating and cooling, and more of what that stood for: stability.

Home, oh my love of creating a sanctuary within my home, is something deeper within me. A love for making home, something I think all humans crave, is more easily translated when you’ve experienced stability.

She got new clothes when school started, but the idea of updating her wardrobe to account for changing weather or various seasons was foreign. When she went to court on the day her stepfather adopted her and became her father, she wore a dress that was so short it showed her underwear. No one had noticed she’d had a growth spurt.

Not only were their no special occasion dresses bought at Neiman Marcus, the idea of shopping as a delightful day out was never a part of her fond childhood memories. Childhood memories of clothes are more akin to reminders of shame, neglect, and poverty.

Nature VS Nurture? Nurture wins hands down when it comes to the experiences.

Over my four days in California, we shared a meal to accompany her stories. I visited her home twice. An opportunity to witness how far her life is now compared to the life of her childhood. She has a sturdy home now. She also has reliable transportation, a bike she enjoys riding, and cats. Her husband is loving and not abusive, though he does have some Vietnam War related illnesses that are challenging.

Her life is solid. Not without challenge, but everyone has challenges.

We are back in our rhythm of regular emails and the occasional card via snail mail. I know that the decision she made fifty years ago to allow me to share her body and then release me into a different life was one of the best decisions a young woman of seventeen could have made. Most of us women are wired, by nature, to want our children to have a better existence than we’ve known. Her life was hard, and would have been harder trying to care for a child.

My life was far different from the kind of life I could have known. My life was rich with beautiful things, books, and love. I carry with me the privilege of being tended, nurtured in the ways in which all children should be, with all of my needs met.

Going to California was one of the most important things I’ve done the last few years. I left awash in both gratitude and guilt. For nature and nurture.

“Perhaps we are born knowing the tales of our grandmothers and all their ancestral kin continually run in our blood repeating them endlessly, and the shock they give us when we first bear them is not of surprise but of recognition.”
― P.L. Travers

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.

Sunday Sanctuary: Connection, Nourishment, and Intuition

I am passionate about food. It isn’t that I just love to eat. I derive immense pleasure from all the stages of bringing a meal to the table: shopping for the ingredients, chopping and preparing fruits and vegetables, and transforming raw ingredients into something that will nourish our bodies. I find a seductive beauty in many of the ingredients I choose – from the rich orange yolk of pastured eggs, to deep red strawberries grown by a farmer I know, to the way simmering chicken bones (and feet) with onions, carrots, and herbs creates a deeply layered stock.

Approaching food through the lens of passion has catapulted that passion in other areas of my world: my work, my writing, my home. It allows me to see how important the exquisite details of life are to me, no matter what their form.

I am giddy when a new idea for a meal results in something delightful. I doubly appreciate it when scientific research on nutrients or how our bodies process foods allow me to create something that takes nourishment to a whole new level. Food is comforting and sensual and life-affirming. Food is one of the ways I lavish affection on those I care about and show folks I honor and appreciate their presence.

In my “day job” as a life coach, I write a bi-weekly (used to be weekly) newsletter. To date, I’ve written 300 newsletters, a level of consistency I wondered if I had within me. In addition to sharing a recent blog post and a personal note about what’s happening in my world, early on I began ending each newsletter with a recipe. Then, I went to a retreat designed to help me take my business to the next level.

Out of more than three hundred participants, I was chosen to get up on stage and be advised on some ways to level up. When the Biz Guru reviewed my newsletter with me, she told me to ditch the recipes (as well as any book recommendations) because it didn’t promote my coaching practice or any of the programs I was selling.

I’d paid a lot of money to travel to this conference and, after all, she was the expert. So, without tuning into my own intuition, I blindly listened and stopped sharing the recipes.

After a few weeks, I realized that I was diluting the connection and love I wanted to convey to people who gifted me with their time and attention was missing something – like the way spices and herbs turn a blah ingredient into something special.

So, I added the recipes back in and ignored any other guru who told me to ditch ‘em.

How can I say I am devoted to curating a life that’s loving and nourishing – the theme of my coaching practice – if I don’t listen to my gut? I know that usually our intuition is wiser than any expert. A reminder for my business life. Yet more important when it comes to our creative life and the ways in which we make things. Because being a maker is a path to curating a life that is fulfilling.

Yet, because we are human, we often dismiss what our gut is telling us. We listen to the experts, following a paint by number for success instead of coloring outside the lines.

To get clear, I had to dig into what my true purpose of writing and then sending a newsletter to subscribers. Of course I want folks to buy a book or course from me sometimes; it is a business. At heart, though, I am a maker who hopes that the work I create matters to anyone that experiences what I write.

My goal for every single newsletter I create is that I nourish the subscriber in some way.

Maybe my words make someone feel less alone. Maybe a paragraph serves as a wake-up call. Maybe a single sentence I write is just what that person needs to read so that she make that decision she’s been putting off. Maybe a photo I share makes him smile. If I’m lucky, maybe my words allow you to connect more deeply with your own soul or someone you love.

And if nothing I write nourishes the mind or spirit, then at least that recipe at the end is a way of sharing a way you can nourish your body.

“Food… is something holy. It’s not about nutrients and calories. It’s about sharing. It’s about honesty.It’s about identity.”
–Louise Fresco

The ways in which we create things matter not to just us as makers, but in the ways in which we can connect and nourish others. The stories of others save us, a lesson many of you have learned. Creating something – a knitted blanket, a photograph, a poem, a painting – saves the maker, too, doesn’t it?

When the words refuse to flow to the page or every note I sing comes out as flat, I can soothe myself by heading to the kitchen. Whether I chop some vegetables, try a new recipe, or bake a cake, the act of making something from just a bunch of raw ingredients nourishes a part of my soul, and then it nourishes my body – and the bodies of anyone else I share the meal with.

I am also reminded that I am connected to a long lineage of beloved mothers and grandmothers and great-uncles,  creating with flour, eggs, and bounty from the earth. Food is a necessity to live, yet it’s also a factor in the creation of who we become. Our mother’s spaghetti, something we’ve never been able to duplicate. The way in which our grandmother deviled eggs were presented on the good china at Easter bonds us to ourselves and others. The stories and laughter shared over cakes and pies and coffee.

I am by no means an expert or a guru, yet I can tell you these two truths about living a creative life.

When you find yourself in doubt, it’s okay to listen to advice of the experts, but let your intuition overrule that expert at every turn if it doesn’t feel right. And when all else around you seems to be floundering, heading to the kitchen to create may be just what you need to pull you out of the deepest creative – and life ruts.

Or at least nourish your tummy with a delicious treat. Bon Appétit!

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.

Sunday Sanctuary: Scent-Sational Journey

I popped into Walgreen’s the other day to pick up a prescription and stopped dead center in the beauty department due to a perfume display that took me straight back to 1977, bell bottoms, and my burgeoning ideas of what being a glamorous and independent woman might be.

Forty years after the enticing commercials captivated me, there was Charlie. “The gorgeous sexy-young fragrance for women.”

I was nine in 1977, but my sister was sixteen. She was grown up to me, and oh so charismatic. Of course, I wanted to be like her, yet more sophisticated. That Charlie commercial invited me into that possibility. I wasn’t allowed to actually wear perfume quite yet, but it wasn’t long before Mother let me wear a little eye shadow, and after that,  I couldn’t wait to choose a signature scent. Would it be Charlie? Or Windsong, which stayed on his mind? Would I bring home the bacon and never let him forget he’s a man with Enjoli?

Try as I could, I just didn’t love the tarragon and musky scent of Charlie. I expected something sophisticated and alluring, but it just smelled of alcohol.

Two years later, while staying with my grandmother for a few weeks in the summer, we went shopping at Marchman’s, a local department store. She bought me something I hadn’t considered: White Shoulders. It smelled of roses and jasmine and sandalwood.

I wore it religiously until I was fourteen. And thought of her every time I put it on.

*  *  *

My first date was with a boy who smelled of Polo. Or should I say, he drenched himself in Polo like most of the cool boys did in 1981. We only dated for a couple of months, but I loved borrowing his jacket at school and getting that whiff pine, patchouli, and musk.

The White Shoulders I had once loved felt so old and artless now that I was in high school and dating an older man (he was a senior)! I begged my mother to take me to Sanger Harris to buy something a little more mature, and since everything Polo and Ralph Lauren was so chic, I assumed one of the Lauren perfumes for women would make me, well, cooler. I fell madly in love with Tuxedo, it’s square black bottle with a thin red highlight. It smelled of bergamot, rose, gardenia and vetiver.

It was also a bit androgynous with those hints of clove and musk. An invitation for years to come, to tinker with the occasional sample of a men’s cologne when I make an order at Sephora and choose my free samples.

*  *  *

It was the winter of 1996 and I bundled the girls into the car and we head to the mall. It was a routine designed around the entertainment of window shopping combined with an attempt to get back into my pre-pregnancy jeans with all the walking. Mall walking was becoming popular in the late 90’s.

With my infant in a stroller and my impatient toddler, anxious to get to The Disney Store, I paused at the perfume counter in Dillard’s.

I felt frumpy and unattractive, and wondered if I’d ever feel pretty again. You know, like a woman, not just ‘pretty for a mom.’ Oh, how I longed to feel a little sexy. I had been coaxing a few drops out of my last bottle of Tuxedo and was devastated to discover it had been discontinued the previous year.

How could I ever feel sexy again without my favorite perfume? Destiny was with me that day, thanks to the kind sales lady and a patient little girl.

I left with a bottle of Romance by Ralph Lauren, a perfume I still consider my signature scent. A hint of patchouli, violet, and an element that tied my favorites together over the years: rose. My oldest was rewarded with a Pocahontas Barbie.

*  *  *

It was 2006 before I would understand that saving my perfume was as silly as waiting for a perfect day. I began to understand the real truth of life: that each and every day deserved to be embraced with your whole being. Scent included.

It was late 2010, and I discovered that the sexy and comforting scent I associated with my growing love for John didn’t come in any kind of glass bottle. He doesn’t wear cologne, but he does use distinctively scented toiletries: Coast soap and Old Spice Deodorant. Classic, not the froufrou scents for the new millennium with the “your man could smell like me” commercials starring Isaiah Mustafa.

To this day, I give him a lingering hug most mornings as he leaves for work, just so I can get that comforting scent of him to start my day.  The mix of his soap, deodorant, and a freshly starched shirt? All kinds of captivating.

And I have to confess, I like the after-work scent of John, too. That enticing scent of citrus and clove mixed with living life.

*  *  *

My mother’s signature scent was Youth Dew. I remember making special trips to Neiman Marcus to buy it. (Back in the 70s, the only places in Dallas that sold Estée Lauder were Neiman Marcus and Lord and Taylor.) I can still see that hourglass-shaped bottle on her bathroom counter alongside the occasional blue box of matching scented powder and the powder puff.  I can also see the dust gathered on both from not being touched often.

I stopped by the Estée Lauder counter last October. Attracted by some sale for a youth serum, I lingered over the perfumes and had to get a whiff of Youth Dew. I sprayed it on one of those white cards and struck up a conversation with the man behind the counter. I had assumed only women over eighty were still buying Youth Dew, but was told that it’s still a top seller. Did you know they now make Youth Dew deodorant?

The scent was nostalgic, yet its spicy scent brought with it a feeling of melancholy.  I had to wonder: if my mother had followed Mrs. Lauder’s advice to use your favorite scent daily, not just for special occasions, would the olfactory spark of joy could have pulled her from her bouts of depression?

I wear perfume every day now. A spritz or two when I get dressed. Sometimes, a spritz before bed. I’ve learned, over the years, that saving anything for a special occasion is a waste of a good day.

I have a confession, though: as much as I love Romance, I’ve been itching for a new fragrance. I’m not looking for a replacement,  I simply want to give myself some variety.  I want the scent I choose on a given day to support the way I desire to feel and be.

In my search, I’ve spritzed the white cards at every department store. I ‘ve added every available sample to my Sephora orders. I’ve even purchased a few small bottles here and there, but nothing stuck.

Until…

On a recent visit to the Jo Malone counter at Nordstrom, a patient saleswoman helped me explore some options. Citrus. Florals. Fruity. Spicy. She tells me that new scents can be made by layering.

I left with Peony and Blush Suede, elegantly adorned with a black grosgrain ribbon. The peony with hints of jasmine, musk, rose, and red apple. A fascinating combination as I edge towards fifty. I wonder if it will help me become who I desire to be? Who? I am destined to be

“What we talk about less often, because it is harder to explain, is the way a perfume can give breath and body to the phantom selves that waft about us as we go through our days — not just the showgirl, the femme fatale, and the ingenue, but all the memories and dreams of the taller, meaner, sharper, sweeter, softer people we have been or long to be.”
— Alyssa Harad

When we talk about being a maker of things – a creator and curator – of art, we often dismiss how our life, our ordinary daily life, is a part of that creation. That throughout our days, the tiniest of details we’ve chosen will guide us from one phase of life to the next. That each project we set out to create – a meal, a home, a book, a painting – will be forged from the core of who we are, our experiences, and what we wore. Our olfactory memories will forever tie us to the scents around us as a part of the experience of any creation.

What about you? What perfumes have accompanied you through the journey? What specific auras remind you of people, creations, and your experiences in this glorious life? Do you have a signature scent?

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.

Sunday Sanctuary: Magic, Hope, and Wonder

As I write you this note, we have just returned home from 2900 miles of travel. We stayed in six hotels over the course of eighteen days. I should be wrung out, exhausted, and devoid of any creative juice. Yes, I am tired after being in the car for more than ten hours just today. But the synapses in my brain are firing away with ideas, and  I’m filled with a sense of creative hopefulness I didn’t posses a month ago.

I won’t bore you with every detail of our time away, but I will tell you that I owe this feeling of renewal to a mouse. The Mouse.

Sandwiched between eight days with John’s family and John teaching a course in Orlando, we spent four magical days at Walt Disney World. Considering I booked us a room at Disney World with less than 45 days notice, I felt pretty darned lucky to walk into my room and realize that from my bed, I could see Cinderella’s Castle in all its glory.

And that also meant we could see the Happily Ever After Fireworks from the comfort of our balcony.

In a moment, I was seven years old again and sitting in my room playing an LP on my record player, listening to songs from Cinderella, Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, and Winnie the Pooh. Long before the days of Cable TV, VHS, and The Internet, I watched black and white re-runs of Annette Funicello and the rest of the Mouseketeers. I danced around my room and sung along with every song, wishing for the moment I could be a Mouseketeer, too.

Color me envious:  when the new Mickey Mouse Club arrived with Julie and Lisa and all their friends, I wanted to join in their fun!

I would love to tell you that John and I did EVERYTHING at Disney World. To be honest, we took a laid-back approach, a vacation from the tightly-planned trips I orchestrated when I was primarily a mother, and my number-one goal was to ensure that each of my girls saw the characters they most loved. Instead, we lingered over meals and ambled from one attraction to the next.

Rather than being the one confirming that every box was checked, I got to step back and be what fuels my creative spirit: a curious observer. For a Type-A Planner, this was also a little terrifying. To wander into the vast world of Disney with only a couple of dinner reservations and a few Fast Passes was akin to organizing a major project without a day-planner and cell phone.

On our first night, we slept with the blinds open so that anytime I awoke, I could see the turrets and spires.

To be honest, giving my inner people-pleaser and planner time off is damned difficult. No matter where we went, I worried that John was having a good time.  I wanted to ensure he was fed, watered, and getting to ride what he wanted. No concerns about Character autographs, but still, the incessant worry was there.

In our explorations, I was reminded about an article I read many years before. It revealed Walt Disney’s biggest regret about Disneyland: folks could see the city. He wanted it to be a place where anyone visiting could escape the real world and enter a world of dreams and imagination. So, when they began building Disney World in Florida, Walt was determined that anyone arriving in the Magic Kingdom, would have journeyed into a space and time where the outside world was completely unseen.

He accomplished this dream  by creating a large parking lot with access to the entrance to The Magic Kingdom possible only via ferry or monorail.  How magical is that?

We are, in some ways, trained to allow folks into our sacred space of creating. To show them how we make our magic happen. People want a blueprint. They constantly seek a Magic Formula. Are we allowing too much of a peek inside the curtain? A question I will be asking myself in the coming weeks.

 After visiting The Studios, Magic Kingdom, and Epcot… and after three nights, we had a final breakfast at the crown of the Disney Resorts: The Grand Floridian. Best. Pancakes. Ever. Then we trundled off to the other side of Orlando so John could teach his class.  (This is us in the UK at Epcot)

But the thing was, I still had 2 days left on my fancy MagicBand. Waking up early one morning, without the magical castle view, I decide to take up John’s suggestion: drive back to the parks and spend the day.

I arrived around 7:30 in the morning. I parked, boarded the monorail, and entered The Magic Kingdom almost an hour before official opening time. I strolled down Main Street, still humming a song from a video my oldest  daughter used to watch on a loop:

I’m walking right down the middle of Main Street U.S.A……..

I strolled. I lingered. I popped into the Main Street Bakery (a Starbucks) for coffee. I wound my way around families and skirted the Castle that was a constant reminder that while my chronological age is nearly fifty, inside me, my seven-year-old self still exists.

I chose to see this solo day in The Magic Kingdom as an Artist Date. I enjoyed the rides, I wandered in and out of shops, and I ate a good  meal at an extravagant price. An elderly worker at the Peter Pan Ride whispered to me as she ensured I was safely seated “I prefer to fly solo” as I soar off to Neverland. At my own pace, I experienced the world Walt imagined in a different dimension.

More than a visit to a theme park, this day was an exploration into my own curiosity, and rather than worry about the experiences of others, I filled my thirsty well for the year to come.

And now, back home, I am that seven-year-old once again. Seeing things in a new light. Allowing my creative spirit to be fed by magic. Embracing the world around me as a place of hope and a space of open, delicious wonder.

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.

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.

Sunday Sanctuary: on Finishing and Not

If my creative life had gone as planned, dear one, I would be sharing with you the pinnacle point of my year: the publication of my new book. I’ve been working on this book since the spring of 2016, leaning into a new way of writing for me waxing upon the ways to tend the soul and nourish a creative spirit.

I began working on the book through an Instagram project, sharing 100 days of creative living. The challenge to see – and marvel – over the details in my life that added to the richness. Remembering to be grateful for those seemingly ordinary seconds that on a whole bring me to my knees of how grace is always within my reach. Honoring the holy in the simple moments.

Forcing myself to be a seeker – an explorer – an experimenter – rather than always being The Person with The Answers.

Most of my professional and creative life hinges on that, by the way: knowing the answers. As a life coach, I share what I’ve learned once I’m on the other side of it. As the Editor in Chief here, I am the guide and mentor. Stepping into the role of being the student, the novice, the one taking a risk instead of bearing witness to those taking risks is an uncomfortable position for me.

Yet, it’s also the position I must be brave enough to explore. If I’m going to be true to my creative self, I have to stand here before you and confess: despite all my experience, I don’t have it all figured out.

I believe that finishing things, completing tasks, and reaching goals are all part of our spiritual journey.

I’m all about exploring the depths of our creativity in ways that feel fun and nourishing. I know that we should play with our craft in different ways, because without play and experimentation our creative life becomes stale or feels rote. To the depths of my soul, though, I also know that we must make part of that journey into creation with the intent to reach a finish line. Yes, the journey informs us, but we each need to regularly complete a project and share it with the world in some way.

And my dear friend, I have failed in this quest.

Sometimes, the mantra we must take up in order to allow ourselves to complete a project is “finished is better than perfect.” The coach and editor in me knows that there is no such thing as perfection and that need to make things perfect before putting them out in the world is a way in which our inner critic keeps us small and fearful. Perfection and the pursuit of it is how we self-sabotage.

There must also be discernment, though – the ability to set aside our ego and evaluate our own work from a place of love, yes, but one of truth as well.

The book I should be telling you about was a week away from departing my hands to arriving in the hands of my editor. I dutifully exported my file from Scrivener into Word so that I could give one more pass at the work before sending it along. I had it printed (Fed Ex Office is worth the wear and tear on my little ink jet printer).

94,560 words. 414 pages. Almost twice the length of a NaNoWriMo novel.

But before I completed hand-editing the first 100 pages, I began to get a sinking, sick feeling. What I held in my hand was crap.

Now, I am not the kind of person that whines about how ugly/fat/horrible I am so that others will soothe me by slathering compliments upon me. Sure, I need my ego stroked a little now and then, but I don’t belittle myself or my work to get compliments.

While I understand that there are times we writers and artists say our work is crap because we don’t feel confidence in what we’ve produced, there are other times when that description is more than apt.

My friend, I know myself and my capabilities well enough to discern when what I have written just isn’t my best. This? This book I had been working on for almost two years?

It was not my best. It was not my best at all.

And so, I wavered.

To say that this has been a challenging year for me is an understatement. I have done this grief dance before, and thought I was just wired to manage grief differently. But the loss of my daddy? It sent me to the valley of grief in ways I hadn’t imagined, finding myself unable regularly feed myself, let alone write anything of substance.

I needed the ego stroke of publishing a book this year.

It seems that everywhere I looked around me, my friends were finishing books, getting the interest of agents and publishers, and putting their work into the hands of others. I needed – am in need of – a big win. A reminder that loss doesn’t define who I am. That I still have it within me to create and nourish myself and others with words.

I want the check in the box. To finish another book. To open up my creative life for a new project that isn’t tainted with fresh loss.

I left a very rambling ten-minute message to Melissa on Voxer. Telling her that this book was crap. While Melissa wasn’t going to be editing this book (like she does the majority of my blog posts), she’s been reading my work for more than a decade.

She reminded me what I knew at heart: I am a good judge of when something of mine just isn’t great.

I spoke with John at length. We were heading to DC for the week and I decided to sleep on my final decision a couple of days. I had a week before the manuscript was due to Andi for her expertise of editing.

After settling into our hotel, we headed into the city to my beloved Penn Quarter, the neighborhood that has served me and held me for many years. Over tacos, guacamole, and margaritas consumed at a sidewalk table at my favorite restaurant in DC, I told John I’d made my decision, a hard pill to swallow: I wasn’t going to be publishing a new book this year.

I felt both relief and a deep ache in my soul about this. To be this deep into something and still not see it to the end was a failure, wasn’t it?

So, I did what we all need to do when we make a hard decision: I said it out loud. I told John and Melissa. I wrote a letter to Becca. I asked for thoughts from my friend Jenn McRobbie over lunch. She’s an author and had worked for a coach-focused publishing house and told me “this is why I love you.” I told my friend Jen Lee over Voxer. I had a conversation with Andi.

At every turn, I discovered that while finishing is a spiritual act, choosing to walk away from a project is also an act of nourishing ourselves. Sometimes, done is better than perfect. And sometimes, my dear, choosing to halt – or at least put a project in cold storage – is the best way of finishing something for a while.

It is possible that will pull this book out of cold storage after the year turns in a few weeks. It is equally possible that I will not, but either way, the words I wrote will not be wasted. Just as fallen autumn leaves eventually become nourishment for the earth, the work I did on the book I’m not publishing this year will feed a new project, a better finished product, and help me clear a different finish line.

As well, the experience has reminded me that perfection isn’t real, and that sometimes we gain as much from our successes as we do from our failures.

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.

Sunday Sanctuary: Seeking the Light

When we laid out the themes for Modern Creative Life last fall, never did I imagine that “Light & Shadow” would arrive at a time when there was so much darkness in my own life, not to mention the lives of other members of the MCL family, or the world in general.

How could I pretend to know that come fall, not only would the trees be shedding their leaves, but pieces of my heart would be feeling battered? How could I predict the time spent pondering whether those broken pieces would be like the leaves: drifting away now only to be renewed when spring arrives? How could any of the editorial staff begin to imagine a world in which this issue would coincide with so much loss and destruction in the world due to multiple hurricanes and a gunman?

I could never have foreseen any of this. Yet, deep down I still know that light and shadow will forever be bed-mates. There’s no way to witness glorious sunrises without the reminder that moments earlier, the earth was cloaked in full darkness.

There is no joy or happiness or light in the world without understanding that the yang to that yin is sadness and anger. Similarly, there is an unspoken demand of we artists and writers, that we remember that the other side of this shadow-thing, this darkness, is always light?

I look at the breadth of this issue of Modern Creative Life,  and I see some of the best work from writers we’ve come to know and love. I see the brilliance of new voices, playing on the edges of what it means to be a maker and embrace what’s lurking in the shadows so that we can shed light upon it and us and our work in the world.

When I first began writing my column for this month, I had planned to write about what my grandmother called “breaking up housekeeping”.

I was going to talk about the purging of my childhood home, laying every household good out on tables for strangers to seek their own kind of treasures within the stuff that made up a life of another. But in truth, I can’t bear to dwell upon that any longer. I can’t think of how much my mother yearned for the chubby-cheeked children and messages of God’s love in little statues, and how we sold those figurines for $5 a piece. I can’t allow myself to dwell on the pans that made umpteen dinners or the big Tupperware container that always housed fruit salad at every holiday gathering.

One of the responsibilities we have as makers is to take our experiences of loss and change, and bleed them onto paper (and film) so that others have someone to sit beside them when they are grieving and processing tragedy and loss. Our mission is to ferry the sad and grieving to the other side, and remind them that they are not lost and will once again find light in their own souls.

So, instead, I mention it in passing to you and instead of picking at the edges of my own grief as a child would a scab on her knee, I want to share what I am doing –  in the face of all this darkness – to bring the edges of light to shine upon my own heart in the midst of grief and tragic news stories.

To share what is helping me look to the light instead of dwelling in the shadows. To share what is saving me from being forever lost in the dark and reminding me of how much joy there is to be had.

I am losing myself in the words and worlds of others. Poets and screenwriters. Novelists and photographers. Interior designers and food makers. Stories heal us.

I am seeking beauty. Flowers on the kitchen counter alongside bowls of fresh fruit. The way the light plays against the trees as it shifts through the days. And the trees, my God, how beautiful are the trees with their soft yellows and brilliant oranges? The rust colored grasses, the brilliant mums, the cheery pumpkins placed on porches. I am buying additional beautiful purses –  just because. If I open my eyes and look around me, I always find beauty.

I am moving my body. My heart wants to sag and my thoughts want to pull at the edges of sadness, but if I just get my body moving into some sort of activity, it helps heal my soul a little and allows my thoughts and feelings to move through me instead of lingering.

I am marveling at the work of others. I edit and reread the stories and essays here in this magazine. I gaze for long moments at the stylish outfits an Instagram Fashion Gal wears and reach out to that photographer with the stunning photographs.

I am seeking tenderness. I am laying naked against John in those early moments of the morning as dawn approaches, just feeling his warmth and caring. I am squatting to eye level and looking into the eyes of children I speak to. I lay a reassuring hand on the arm of an acquaintance as she shares a moment of her life.

I am nourishing my mind and soul. I am reading lots of cozy mysteries. I am taking extra time choosing vegetables when I grocery shop. I am unfollowing politically-focused friends and doom-spreaders.  I am spending more time just be-ing instead of do-ing. I am protecting what I consume when it comes to books, internet, and television. Discernment is my friend.

I am opening myself up to grace. I chose the words Unbound Grace as my guide-words for this year and I find that when I open myself up to every permeation of that meaning, I cannot but help feel a sense of lightness in my soul.

I am seeking humor. I am asking Alexa to tell me a joke and watching the ending of the last Big Bang Theory for maybe the fifth time this week. I am laughing at the brilliant excuses John can make between 5:30 and 6 AM as to why we should stay in bed all day instead of heading to work. I am laughing with friends over the silly little things that pepper each life if we just open our eyes to it.

I am purging things. I am tossing worn out sweaters and chipped plates. I am turning off the news when it feels overwhelming. I am tightening the circle of folks I allow into my inner circle, choosing to diminish my time and attention to those who bring me down or judge me.

I am witnessing other makers. I am consuming as much content by friends as I can – their Instagram, their blogs, their letters, their films in progress. I am catching stories and allowing mine to be caught as well.

I am praying. I am lighting candles of devotion and having conversations with God as I sip my first cup of coffee. I am returning to a written prayer journal, inscribing the names of loved ones and strangers onto paper with broad strokes of green tinged ink as I hope for blessings and love and comfort for them. I am cleaning my home, strewing blessings around me as I give thanks for this space that shelters me.

I am forcing myself to continue making. To write an entry for the new book. To photograph a holy moment and share it on Instagram. To make a meal that nourishes our bodies while tending my own soul.

It’s easy as human beings to feel as if we are lost in the deep, dark woods without any hope of being found again. And it’s as simple as looking to the sky, the filtering of light through the branches, shining pinpoints of light on the dappled forest ground, to find the start of our own paths out of the dark.

Because part of the commitment to living a creative life, the commitment I’ve made to curate a life that feels nourished and full and holy, depends upon me accepting the darkness in everything, but remembering that somewhere within it all are the edges of light and hope.

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.

Sunday Sanctuary: Blessings in Leather

I’ve never been a purse person. Well, I’ve carried a purse since I was in junior high, but choosing a purse had always been about practicality: is there room for my wallet, some lipstick, and a couple of books? Oh, and a pen and a journal (or two).

What I never understood, though, was so many lady’s love of the designer bag. Dooney and Bourke was a big deal in the 80’s and I remember shaking my head when my friend DaLana splurged on one our Junior Year of High School and I wondered: why? Why pay all that money for a purse that gets stuffed in a locker or dropped on the floor in the movie theatre?

I’m all about functionality. I usually buy black purses and black wallets.

Up until last year, the most I’d ever spent on a purse was $50 back in 2006. And that was because the strap on my purse broke while I was in DC for work and the most practical purse – a Fossil messenger bag – was on sale at Macy’s. And I had a coupon. It was black. It was serviceable. I carried it for at least three years until I just wore it out.

Then, last Christmas, I bought myself a cherry red Michael Kors Wallet at Macy’s.

My previous wallet was small: just the width of a credit card. It was usable, but not stylish, and I’m sure I got it at Kohls or Target for $10 or less. Yet, it was falling apart. In addition to falling apart, I had just read an article from Briana Saussy and buying a New Wallet for the New Year as a way to put Mojo into your Money Mindset and invite prosperity into your life. After reading Bri’s piece, I decided I needed a green, royal blue, or red wallet.

And yes, I looked at Target and Kohls for a “cheapie” wallet. Then it hit me: if I wanted to not only replace something that needed replacing, but also put the psychology behind it of choosing to invest in myself and the way I manage money, settling for a crappy clearance wallet wasn’t the way to go.

Yet, it’s in conflict with one of my core beliefs: use your good stuff every day. Wear your best perfume, use that china, and eat the best foods you can afford. And my experiment with higher quality make-up had shown to prove the adage “you get what you pay for”.

And hadn’t choosing to seduce my writing life by using beautiful journals shifted something within my soul?

And then there was the vow I made to myself shortly after the elections: I can’t expect to change the world if I’m not even taking care of myself. So, I committed to performing at least one extreme act of self-care each month. I’d already survived a several thousand-dollar dental visit. And going for what’s cheap doesn’t sound like extreme self-care.

So, why not do it in leather? If this were to be an extreme act of self-care, then I needed to invest in something that was both beautiful and of high quality.

For months, I carried that beautiful cherry red leather wallet in a $10 Target fake-leather purse. Which in some ways makes me think about the Hannibal Lector said of Clarice Starling: good bag and cheap shoes.

That $10 Target Purse, barely a year old, was falling apart and needed replacing. I may lust after the iconic Quilted Chanel bag in Vogue or obsess over an Ox-Blood Coach thanks to regular emails from Dillard’s, But the thought of spending triple figures on a purse just made that Inner Critic of mine begin to chastise me:

Who do you think you are?
What do you need with a designer bag?
Choose something practical.
And cheap.

Though I was looking for something more fun than hours at the dentist, this seemingly frivolous and surface level purchase wasn’t just about replacing a wallet. It was about the psychology of self-care and my money mindset. Since that purchase, I have been treating money – and the ideas behind personal wealth – differently.

I also treat myself differently every time I pull out that cherry red wallet: more thoughtful treats, more investing in nice things, less buying the least expensive item on the rack, and less random indulgences on stuff I don’t really need. What if a nicer purse could extend those feelings?

Then, a blessing arrived by email; a gift certificate to The Coach Store.

I’d coached a client through a challenging break-up. Yes, I’d gone above and beyond the norm, with daily calls and multiple emails and texts. But, I would do the same for any of my friends in the midst of a crisis. Providing kind words and thought-provoking questions in tandem, just as I would for anyone I cared for. He saw beyond me doing “my job” and wanted to give me a gift to show his appreciation.

We had talked about the need for him to treat himself: quality shoes, a beautiful briefcase, stylish clothes. So, he turned the tables on me, forcing me to walk my own talk. If I were to commit to extreme acts of self-care and if I were to encourage clients and readers to invest in themselves, and use their best stuff: shouldn’t I invest in something for myself?

And let’s face it, a purse is like a traveling sanctuary.

Your home for all things important, especially when you aren’t at home. There, I have not just my wallet, but my library and Starbucks cards, which gives me easy access to the life bloods of life: books and coffee. My purse holds lipstick, hand lotion, and pens. Gum. Pens and journals. And, of course, a book and my phone.

I walked into the Coach store and welcomed like an old friend. Katie seemed more excited about my gift certificate than me and couldn’t wait to help me find just the right bag. Not a purse, an investment in walking my talk. And I purposely didn’t look at practical black bags. No, I looked at their bags in Prairie Print, OxBlood, Olive, and Saddle.

A new sanctuary for that wallet. And the four pens and my journals. And my Kindle and a paperback book. And two shades of lipstick. I wanted a bag that would hold not just one journal, but two. I wanted to be able to have at my fingertips everything possible to manage bad breath, a desire for a snack, the need to check in on the world, and escape in a good story.

I had expected a snooty sales lady and feeling out of place. Yet, Katie felt like an old friend and confessed that the leather lined bags meant you could spill an entire smoothie in there and not ruin the bag. “Don’t ask me how I know!” she says as she sheepishly grins.

I left the Coach Store with a big bag, which inside contained a big black box wrapped with a copper colored ribbon. Inside was an Olive Leather Brooklyn Carryall, designed to hold it all (including a 13-inch laptop or tablet).

After unboxing it in my office – and storing the nifty storage bag – I discovered it would hold my wallet, a small make-up bag, two pairs of glasses, gum, my Kindle, two journals, four pens, two sets of earbuds, my phone, my iPod, and a book.

Then, an hour later, I got the call from my sister that my dad would be moving from the rehab hospital to hospice care in her house. Just two days earlier, I’d talked to my father and he sounded good. Stronger. Suddenly, the need for having a sanctuary in a bag became more real. This wasn’t just about running to the grocery store and stopping for a coffee, this was now a space that would hold everything I needed to hop a plane and head to Dallas.

As I sat in the Dayton Airport waiting for my flight to board, I sent (another) thank you text to my client: blessings in leather, I told him.

That bag had everything I could need for both practical reasons and comfort. At the airport, I added a banana and a granola bar. It held handkerchiefs and lipstick. A bottle of water and credit cards. My much-needed journal and pens.

When I returned home from Daddy’s funeral, I discovered that Coach had not forgotten me. In the mail was a handwritten thank you note from Katie informing me that I could bring my bag in for cleaning every three months at no charge for as long as I owned the bag.

After a week filled with grief and some drama, it was like a tiny love letter offering a port in the storm.

For me, it’s not about being able to say I own a designer bag, the reason many women tell me they indulge in Louis Vuitton or Kate Spade because of the way buying one makes them feel about themselves. I’ve learned that investing in a quality handbag provides me with comfort away from home. To have at the end of my hand a handkerchief, a piece of gum, or a pen.

And I have to confess: carrying it makes me feel different about myself. All the way down to my soul.

And I also was reminded that though I am simply a gal in Ohio with a single Coach purse, Coach wants me to feel valued as a customer. Investing in our relationship with taking care of me in a time when what I most need is a gentle gesture and kind word.

Blessings in leather, indeed.

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.

Sunday Sanctuary: The Only Certainties in Life

As the saying goes, nothing in life is certain except for death and taxes. We hope to lessen the affects of both of those certainties: tax breaks, eating healthy, tax deductions, exercise, and praying for no one falling and breaking a hip. But the older we get, the more likely we are to come face to face with the inevitable: the loss of one – or both – of our parents.

At not-quite-fifty, I’m a little old to take on the orphan moniker, yet with the loss of my father last month, there is no one around who sat with me when I had the chicken pox at six months, slept in my hospital room when I was five and had my tonsils removed, or went to the ER with me when I fell off a chair and broke my arm when I was in the second grade.

When my mother was dying in 2010, I managed her impending loss with lots of butter, cooking all her favorite dishes to coax her into just one bite. When she died, I dealt with the loss by traveling to numb the pain and then decluttering my life down to what would fit in my car by moving to Ohio to start fresh with John.

Perhaps all that butter greased my heart and made it a little more pliable and flexible so that I could take that big ole leap of faith. Deep down I know that I could have never have made that move while she was still living. My mother was tiny in size but her big personality demanded geographical closeness to tie us to her apron strings.

While my mother hoped to tie me down to hold me close, my father was always the one giving me the wind to soar on my wings.

Go work. Travel. Explore the world. Search for what will make you happy.

Five months after my mother died, I sat down with my father and we reviewed a list of what big tasks I’d have to undertake to fix up my house to sell it. Then, we looked at the seemingly low offer the We Buy Ugly Houses Guy had given me earlier that day.

After some quick calculations, he looked me in the eye and said: “Debra, take the money and run.”

And I did.

Daddy’s impending death was nothing like my momma’s. She lingered for twelve weeks after her lung cancer diagnosis. Daddy slowly shrunk thanks to advancing emphysema.

On July 7th, Daddy was sent to the hospital. After five days there, the doctors suggested a transfer to an acute rehab hospital with the goal of rebuilding his strength. Giving him an opportunity at some quality days ahead. We’d had a good conversation on Tuesday afternoon, he sounded strong and praised the surprisingly tasty hospital food and bemoaned his inability to watch the Western Channel in the hospital.

He was dead the following Tuesday. He passed away at 12:18 AM as I sat by his beside, sitting vigil as he’d done for me during numerous childhood illnesses.

After settling in at the rehab hospital, he had a panic attack and a heart incident. The doctor sent him home to my sister’s late on Friday night with hospice care. When my daughter visited him on Saturday, she told me I needed to get back to Texas. Now.

It’s hard to be the one that moves away. To not know when to hop a plane and when to wait.

I arrived while he was still coherent: he shook his finger at me and told me I should be working, not visiting him in Texas. Thirty-six hours later, he was gone. And barely a week after arriving in Texas, he’d died, we’d had a wake, buried him, and I was back home in Ohio.

In some ways, being the one that moved away meant that I’d already in some ways mimicked the traveling part after Mother’s death as a way to manage grief. You prepare to have already said goodbye when you last visited, even though you hope for one more hello. But there had been no last favorites to cook to entice a few bites out of him. No banana pudding, no blondies, no brisket.

Back in Ohio, though, there was no where to run. There were no closets to clean out, except my own. There was no need to bake or deal with casserole dishes left by those tending the grieving.

I lost my appetite and struggled with sleeping that first week, waking around three each morning…

It was a relief when John was finally awake, too. Him heading to the shower signaled a normal day, a new normal for me. I felt the first spark of moving forward when I began slicing a cumber for a salad and that crisp, clean scent hit my olfactory glands.

As my friend Becca is fond of reminding me, life goes on. And, the truth is, the man who encouraged me to take every business opportunity that came my way – be it in Mansfield, Tulsa, Washington DC, Chicago, or Dayton – would have been shaking his finger at me if I were to linger too much in the sadness and not tend to the important things. Work. Writing. Taking care of my home. Caring for myself and for John.

So, when grief overtook me, I turned to tasks that embodied caring and tending.

I cleaned the Tupperware cabinet. Though nothing in there is officially Tupperware, I still call that collection of storage containers the Tupperware cabinet.

I emptied a drawer in my dresser, ridding the space of sweaters I’d never wear and workout clothes that were worn out. Then, I took two bags of clothes to Goodwill.

I diced onions and sliced more cucumbers. I made large batches of boiled eggs and chopped fresh tomatoes. I bought the first of the local corn and remembered enjoying corn on the cob in the summers with my father, corn being one of the few vegetables my father would eat besides potatoes.

I cleaned my office and found a spot on my bookshelves for the small cedar chest my father kept on his dresser.

I went to the dry cleaners to pick up clothes. Then, I matched John’s suits with shirts and matching ties, a very zen exercise for my overly exhausted mind.

It must have been a man who said that death and taxes are the only certainties in life. Because I know for sure that dust on furniture and dirty dishes and hungry humans are other real certainties. I may not be able to avoid the taxes and it’s been made very clear that I can’t skip death’s visits to my world. But I can channel my grief through dealing with the dust and the dishes and feeding hungry bodies.

For without my sanctuary of this space and my ability to find nourishment for my soul in household tasks, I don’t know how well I’d manage the rest.

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.

Sunday Sanctuary: Time in My First Sanctuary

It’s been a heavy travel year with suitcases packed more than 40% of the year and I’ve been longing to just be home so that we can return to our normal routines. Yet, when John was assigned a last-minute trip to Washington DC, I couldn’t help but tag along.

Long before I learned to create a sanctuary within my own home, the city of Washington DC was my sanctuary. My house was in Texas, but between 2005 and 2010, my heart found a home and my soul found sustenance for one week a month when I traveled to DC for work.

I cherished those weeks and sometimes, during the time between trips, I felt as if I were hanging onto my sense of self by only a tiny thread.

As my plane flew over the Potomac River and I saw my first glimpse of the Washington Monument, all the tightness in my body dissipated and I could finally take those deep, cleansing breaths that are the breath of life. My anxieties would begin to melt away.

What I didn’t quite get at the time, though, was that it wasn’t just that my anxieties that were melting away, but that the walls I had built around my tender soul were dissolving. For the first time in my life, I was traveling alone, and though I spent time with folks at work, I wasn’t living the way others believed I should be. More than one person – from my mother to my gynecologist – expressed the belief that my vagabond lifestyle was insane.

Yet, the vibrant, creative person I was deep inside, but had encased, was reemerging.

Like a butterfly out of a cocoon.

When I signed a long-term contract requiring me to spend Monday through Friday in the city managing a big document, I felt like it was a gift from God. Being in the city I loved combined with working with words every day felt like a match made in heaven. It was challenging work, and hard to be away from Texas for such long spells, but it was transformational to me as a person and as a creative.

I explored every museum, discovered favorite places to dine, and stumbled upon a half-dozen tiny spots within the city that held me.

The President’s Gallery in the National Portrait Gallery. The Rotunda and the founding documents at the Archives. King Street in Alexandria. The Lone Soldier at the Navy Memorial. Sipping a glass of iced tea and eating a chocolate salted oat cookie at Teaism nourished my body, while a walk into the tea shop just to smell the Earl Grey nourished my mind. Mount Vernon. The Hotel Monaco. Margaritas at Oyamel. Section 35 of Arlington National Cemetery.

Those years and the time learning to thrive in DC were a critical part of my journey in becoming me. As I explored beautiful and historical places, I slowly began restoring my soul back to myself.

It was a short trip, three days total. When we go into DC these days, I usually fill my schedule with lunch and coffee dates. But this time, I was in need of the deeper soul nourishment you can only get through solitude. So, when John went to work on our second day, I headed out to explore.

The Metro to Arlington National Cemetery. I waited for the gates to open and was one of the first visitors inside. I walked to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and skirted around the amphitheater to Section 35. There, I visited a friend’s grave for a bit and found then found the nearby grave of Astronaut John Glenn, where I left a coin to add to his many tokens. The day was warming, so it was time to head out. As I made my way to the exit, I stopped to leave another coin on the grave of Maureen Blair, known to most of the world as Maureen O’Hara; she’s there with her husband, Brigadier General Charles F. Blair.

Back to the Metro, grateful for the time to sit and think without needing to navigate myself. An exit at Federal Triangle and a short walk down Constitution Avenue led me to the National Archives. I queued through security, took the stairs to the rotunda, and waited my turn to view The Declaration, The Bill of Rights, The Constitution, and more. It seems darker each time I visit, the archivists attempt at protecting the fragile documents.

I lingered in the gift shop before I left.

I skirted my way across Pennsylvania Avenue, meandered through the Navy Memorial, and made a pit stop in Teaism. I have always loved their bathroom, almost as much as I love their cookies. I had a glass of iced tea and a cookie, and then took myself to the National Portrait Gallery, a beautiful granite building shared with the American Art Gallery.

The Presidential Gallery at the National Portrait Gallery is under renovation, but some of the portraits have been relocated. I found them, pausing to spend time with Lincoln. I strolled through an exhibit on Marlena Dietrich and then lingered in the courtyard before walking past the Hotel Monaco, The True Crime Museum, and the new Clara Barton Museum.

I had a reservation for lunch. It was just for me; you never can tell in DC how busy the restaurants are going to be.Though I hadn’t been in for three months, the very stylish head host (so much more chic than most!) stepped from behind the podium, hugged me and called me sweetheart, and told me he was happy to see me. He seated me at a table on the sidewalk, and under the shade of a big orange umbrella, I ate chips and tacos, and sipped a margarita as I watched the lunchtime crowds.

 

I indulged in two completely girly and totally me things: I visited a salon I’ve frequented often and got a blowout, and I went to Macy’s. Yes, I was in need of the sacred, but someone washing and drying your hair is a purely luxurious experience. And how could I resist a visit to the big, downtown Macy’s, which carries a plethora of things I can’t find in the smaller store I frequent in the Dayton mall? I bought a blouse and headed back to the hotel.

We had a date-night planned, dinner at The Palm, and I wanted time to refresh. I showered, re-applied my make-up, and after we shared a pre-meal cocktail at the hotel, we went dinner.

DC will always be a part of my soul, but it’s no longer the place I desperately need to get to so that I can be “home” and become myself. The city was a critical part of my journey in becoming. Now, it’s simply a reminder of where I’ve been and how important it is for us to have symbols of hope and places where we can reconnect to the sacred. Now, no matter where I roam, I am me, and home is the sacred space in which I can continue to remove layers of hiding from my own brilliant self. Because growth and becoming never halt.

I am grateful that our pre-July 4th trip, likely the last of the summer, took me to a place where I could refresh the essence of my creative being.

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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