Conversations Over Coffee: Mary-Elizabeth Briscoe

Everyone has a story an that’s one of the reasons I love reading memoirs: to get to know the events that lead to creating a life. Especially when recovering from difficult life experiences: coming out as gay, the death of a first love, the loss of a beloved family member. After reading her memoir First Signs of April, I couldn’t wait to know more about the author who shared such challenging experiences with a sense of love, grace, and hope.

Here’s a “sit down” with Editor in Chief Debra Smouse and author Mary-Elilzabeth Briscoe

We call this series Conversations Over Coffee because it’s the things I’d ask you if we were sitting across the table from each other over a casual cup of coffee….. so, let’s set the stage: where would you suggest we meet near your current home….and what is your go-to beverage and/or snack were we to meet?

At the moment I am in Vermont, so we would meet at Café Gatto Nero and I would enjoy a Mocha, perhaps iced.

When did you first know you were a writer?

I first realized I loved writing stories when I was around twelve years old. I also began journaling at that time and have never stopped.

For those not familiar with your work, tell us about your memoir First Signs of April.

The First Signs of April is my story of healing. The narrative weaves back and forth in time telling the story of my own coming out, losing my girlfriend to suicide at eighteen and then caring for a dying aunt as an adult while preparing for my career as a psychotherapist.

Its about healing, and finding your voice and living an authentic life without shame.

When you wrote First Signs of April, you “ran away from home” and spent a year in Ireland. What led to that decision?

I wouldn’t say I “ran away from” home, rather I ran toward home. I have visited the Dingle peninsula for twenty years and have always felt like I was home while there. My spirit aches for the place and its people when I am gone for long and on a recent holiday with my sister we decided that we’d like to try and live there for a year, and then see what happens. So, we did. Why wait and think about doing it in retirement or some other time? It was the best decision I’ve ever made.

The First Signs of April was nearing completion when I left and I spent my first few months finishing, editing, and querying.

What did you learn about yourself during your time in Ireland? As a human and as a writer.

I rediscovered my authentic self. I learned that being an empathic, sensitive, medium was a gift not a curse nor something to be ashamed of.  I learned that I am a writer and am willing to honor that by actually writing.  I learned that I am blessed with an amazing sister and friend.

The rest of what I learned and how is actually my next book so I’ll let you wait for that one for more.

How do you manage the balance of real life and creative work?

That’s something I’m working on. One way is that I try to honor my writing as sacred time. I am no longer working as a psychotherapist, rather I offer intuitive healing to include Reiki, guidance or medium readings, which allows for writing to be my primary focus.

I am not willing to do anything that doesn’t feed my soul and I think when you make decisions like this the universe opens doors that allow you to continue on your path.

First Signs of April dealt with some heavy topics: coming out, death, grief…how do you keep yourself centered when diving into darker days of your life?

Good question. You do relive all the moments you are writing about and it can be very painful-and its cathartic, healing in itself. Writing is very therapeutic after all. It also helped to have good self -care treats if you will following a day of writing for example. Anything from dinner out-or more likely take out, a silly movie perhaps a long walk with the dog or a motorcycle ride to clear all the days work from my thoughts and feelings.

This is our Light & Shadow issue of Modern Creative Life. How do you find ways to seek to and look to the light and joy?

First I have to always find the light in myself, which I do through meditation, Reiki, writing. I’m not always the best at that and at fall into the darkness a bit. I seek time in nature to remind me of the joy and light in the world and I spend time with people who feed me rather than starve me. I look for their light and joy.

What’s typical day like in your household?

The typical day in my house changes daily-depending on whether I’m at home in Vermont, Cape Cod or Dingle. One consistent is coffee-that’s first no matter where I am.

Then it’s a walk with my dog, feeding him, and then it could be any number of things that follow. I might write for a few hours, meet with the post graduate students that I provide clinical supervision to, have an intuitive healing session, go grocery shopping for my elderly parents, walk on the beach or sit at the lighthouse. It really does depend on where I am.

I am not someone who can tolerate traditional brick and mortar types of jobs, or anything so structured. I have to have space and time and freedom to breathe and create and be my best self so my days aren’t all that structured.

What do you wish you knew at 25 that you know now?

I wish I knew that I didn’t have to feel shame around being my authentic self.

What’s your advice to other writers and creative souls?

This is the then you are waiting for. Don’t wait for someday when everything lines up perfectly to follow your path. Make the path and everything will unfold as it should. Have faith and take the leap and never lose sight of your own light and all that you have to offer the world.

About the Author: Mary-Elizabeth Briscoe

MaryElizabeth Briscoe is a licensed mental health counselor currently on sabbatical from her private psychotherapy practice in northeastern Vermont. She currently spends her time between Cape Cod, Vermont, and Ireland. She has a masters degree in clinical mental health counseling from Lesley University and is a licensed clinical mental health counselor and a Certified Trauma Professional. She has been a lecturer for Springfield College School of Professional and Continuing Studies St. Johnsbury, Vermont campus. She has contributed to Cape Woman Online and Sweatpants and Coffee magazine. This is her first book.  Visit her website, her Facebook, and on Twitter.

Her memoir – First Signs of April –  is now available.

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Sunday Brunch: The Coming of the Cardinals

Like the swallows that return to Capistrano every year, the heart of fall brings the cardinals back to my yard, and I return to my morning routine of coffee and writing at the kitchen table so I can watch as they flit from tree to tree, sometimes visiting the bird feeder outside my window, and sometimes avoiding it (likely because the smell of squirrel is too strong).

I’ve always loved watching birds. I don’t mean that I sling a pair of binoculars around my neck and go tromping through fields and forests on a avian hunt, though I understand the appeal of capturing a rare moment on film.

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_steve_byland'>steve_byland / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Rather, I’m a backyard bird-watcher. I enjoy following the antics of the bully Blue Jay who drives the starlings and finches out of the trees, only for them to settle right back in. Winter comes with doves, one of whom insists that the birdfeeder is really her nest. She never stays in it for long, though. In spring and summer, we have robins and hummingbirds who buzz our windows and skim low over the puppy pool, stealing sips of water, or using it as a bath. (We don’t chlorinate the puppy pool.)

But November, always a dark for me because it’s the anniversary month of so many family deaths, is brightened by the arrival of the cardinals.

We have a whole family of those bright red birds, and they return every year. The females are feathered grey and rust and red, and arrive with the first signs of being egg-heavy. The males are brilliant crimson and scarlet, and when they cock their heads and stare at me from their bright eyes, I’m convinced they’re appraising me in the same way I’m assessing them.

At the beginning of the season, I watch them building nests, but as the fall deepens into what passes for winter in this part of Texas, they aren’t quite so visible. Instead of witnessing constant activity, a morning visit feels like a kind of gift from Mother Nature herself.

It’s not only live cardinals that come into my life each year, however. As I slowly turn the decorations in my house from fall and harvest, Halloween and Thanksgiving, to winter, Christmas, and even Valentine’s Day, these ruby-plumed birds have a presence inside my house.

First, there is the candle wreath. It’s not an Advent wreath, since it only has holders for four candles (though I sometimes place a pillar candle in the center and use it as such) but its theme is very much winter and not a specific holiday, with tiny pine trees and even tinier cardinals tucked in a wreath of greens. Since it isn’t specifically Christmas, it comes out in late November and stays until mid-February.

Then the napkin rings and guest towels come out. My grandmother taught her daughters and granddaughters to decorate all through the house for holidays, so I have cardinal-themed towels in the guest bath, and I try to find cardinal-themed paper napkins for parties and casual use, as well as a couple of candles – the kind that you never actually burn – to add punches of color to the guest room, the dining room, and even my office.

The last cardinals come at Christmas, in the form of stuffed birds that have wire clips so they can perch on the branches of our (plastic, pre-lit) tree. A couple of them are recent additions, but two of them are quite old, and much bedraggled. One of them bears tooth-marks – the scars from a barely-won battle against the curiosity of a puppy. Even though they’re faded and worn, however, I keep putting them on my tree, half-convinced that, in the words of the skin horse, they will Become Real.

My grandmother, I am told, loved cardinals. I never knew this until I found the napkin rings I mentioned earlier. It was on a trip to Tuesday Morning with my mother, and something about them spoke to me. We don’t actually use napkin rings (or cloth napkins, though we should) with any real frequency, but I had to buy them, even if it was just to have them.

More recently, I learned that my mother-in-law also loved the bright red birds. I imagine her looking out of the farmhouse window as a young bride, and seeing a streak of scarlet adding colorful cheer to a snow-blanketed prairie, and this image, whether it’s erroneous or not, makes me smile to myself.

They say that when you’re visited by cardinals you’re really being touched by the spirit of a loved one who has died. My grandmother died over a decade ago, but since there are times I swear I can smell her bath powder, or feel her cool hand soothing my brow in the middle of the night, I wouldn’t be surprised if she sent a bird or two to check up on me. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, died on the last day of August, just a couple of months ago, so maybe she’s the reason the avian family in my yard seems to have more members this year.

Of course, I’m a bit premature with some of this. Thanksgiving is weeks away, and Christmas doesn’t come until fall is truly over and winter has arrived. My wreath will remain in storage for a while longer, wrapped in a festive tablecloth, nestled in a box with dessert plates shaped like leaves and a ceramic turkey gravy boat.

In the meantime, I’m pouring another cup of coffee and returning to the library desk that serves as our kitchen table to write stories and watch the birds.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

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A Hush of Blackberries by Richard King Perkins II

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_fabiopagani'>fabiopagani / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

For the first time in years
I respond to you—

the rain,
with silence

even as you play little sticks
across my rooftop.

If you were to diminish
your flurry of stems

all that you want me to say
would yet remain unspoken.

The glaze of incoherence
you’ve left

still stirring above me
contains more meaning

than you ever intended—
kisses of togetherness

descending to a level
of unwanted compromise.

A hush of blackberries
rises to a place once loved.

About the Author: Richard King Perkins II

Richard King Perkins II is a state-sponsored advocate for residents in long-term care facilities. He lives in Crystal Lake, IL, USA with his wife, Vickie and daughter, Sage. He is a three-time Pushcart, Best of the Net and Best of the Web nominee whose work has appeared in more than a thousand publications.

Changing It Up to Keep It Fresh by Daryl Wood Gerber

Some days I like to write mystery; other days I like to write suspense. Aren’t they the same, you ask? No. Not at all. My cozy mysteries are much different than my stand-alone suspense novels in tone and theme as well as tempo.

For me, changing it up keeps my writing fresh. However, if I find I’m uninspired by what I’m writing, I move on to another project. On certain days, I’ll write the first page of something brand new to see if I can find the voice.  On other days, I might write a two-page short story or a blog or an article. Or I’ll do a live chat on Facebook looking for inspiration from my fans.

Writing is like exercise. If you do the same exercise every day, your body gets used to the movements and it doesn’t tone. Walk, walk, walk. Boring. Walk, ride, swim, golf, yoga, pilates, run on the beach. Now that sounds like more “fun.”

Oh, sure, when I’m near a deadline, I can press myself to stick with only one project. I will read it and tweak. Read it again and tweak some more. Check for all the words that I’ve repeated—I have a list of over 100 words to search for. Tweak some more. Read it again—aloud. If it’s ready, turn it in.

But when I’m in the muddy middle—the part of a book where I hope the reader will turn the pages fast—I find I can get bogged down. So I pace. I exercise. I bake. I sing. If those activities don’t energize me, I write something else. As a last resort, I slam doors (not too loudly; don’t want to scare my dog Sparky).

When I come back to my material with fresh eyes and enthusiasm for the project, I feel invigorated and ready to rock and roll…or write.

Do you ever feel you need a jumpstart or a change of pace?

About the Author: Daryl Wood Gerber

Agatha Award-winning Daryl Wood Gerber writes the brand new French Bistro Mysteries as well as the nationally bestselling Cookbook Nook Mysteries.  As Avery Aames, she pens the popular Cheese Shop Mysteries.

A Deadly Êclair, the first French Bistro Mystery, comes out November 2017.

Daryl also writes stand-alone suspense: Day of Secrets and Girl on the Run. Fun tidbit: as an actress, Daryl appeared in “Murder, She Wrote.” She loves to cook, and she has a frisky Goldendoodle named Sparky who keeps her in line!

Connect with Daryl (and her alter ego Avery):  FacebookInstagram | Pinterest  Daryl on TwitterAvery on Twitter

The Making of Ourselves by Emma Gazley

On the way to work this morning I drove by a hundred advertisements and flashing lights, dozens of billboards covered with intriguing colors and bare figures. I passed men and women walking, driving, on their phones, listening to music. I usually enjoy music or a podcast during my commute, but some mornings lately I’ve been leaving in silence and trying to soak it all in, to remind myself in the midst of those lights and colors that that message of “You should have this or do this or be this” isn’t going to bring the happiness it guarantees.

I arrived earlier than I expected and decided to practice a meditation in the car. I know in my head that intention breeds contentment; but there are times, especially recently, when I’ve been at such a loss for energy that I’ve gone through the motions and lacked intention in the day.

For several years I’ve struggled with various health issues, beginning with a hormonal problem that’s affected my organs, muscles, skeleton. When I first felt something going wrong in my body, I ignored the symptoms. I can’t pinpoint the original moment, but I remember fragments tied together that make a messy mosaic of pain and discomfort. Losing sleep at night, losing the ability to carry anything remotely heavy, losing mobility. I remember trying to shift a backpack onto my shoulders and my arm going out of alignment. I remember the misery of going to work, being in the car, doing dishes. I lost the ability to drive, to pour water, to hold a dinner plate.

My mom had driven me to a healthcare professional for a regular treatment and the next day I could tell I needed another treatment. After scrambling to make another appointment, then rushing to the next city, we sat in the car together. I was reclining in the passenger seat, wearing a pink shirt-dress my cousin had given me looking at the cloudy sky; my mother hadn’t turned the key in the ignition yet, her eyes filling with tears.

She turned to me and said, “It’s worse than we thought, isn’t it?”

In my mind I could see myself smiling and riding horseback, standing in line for a roller-coaster on a hot sunny day, running on a treadmill with energy and confidence. Those images were wiped clean and replaced with a picture of myself laying in bed, crouched over on a couch, limping to and from the car.

I know my imagination can be a drama factory, which is part of why I had spent years ignoring myself, denying the reality of the pain I was in.

Something about those pictures in my mind rang true to me in a way that my imagination’s reel rarely does. I felt it- I felt the loss of the person I had been and I felt a pricking in my fingers that told me that there was a new person I was becoming, and I couldn’t control the body that person lived in. It was a bizarre and palpable feeling. I could feel myself changing, as not even adolescence had changed me.

My illness reached the point where I had to call all my clients and tell them I was unable to continue my work. I changed doctors, as mine wasn’t providing the care I needed. And I started to make a plan for my new life.

I’ve had to rework my plan several times, as my health has improved and weakened over the years. Coming up on the anniversary of when I was first diagnosed, I am trying to regain intention.

Everywhere throughout our winding life-paths we encounter those blinding lights, flashing signs telling us which way to go, what we should desire. Who we should be. I am trying to ignore the distractions, the alluring siren cries of what society and my own brokenness tell me I should be.

There’s a new image I’ve had in my mind this week. I’ve seen a version of myself who is strong, and gentle.

Someone who takes sadness and turns it into pure gold, who can work harder every day and burn through the bar that I had set so low for my body. I’m trying to reshape my expectations to fuel the goal of who I want to be, instead of allowing pessimism to predict a mundane version of myself.

This is a whole area of creativity that those of us who are “makers” can sometimes neglect; the making of ourselves.

In a podcast I listened to recently the speaker talked about people who have suffered from chronic pain, how they begin to own their pain and make it a part of their identity. With the history of mankind and the way current events are trending, we can absolutely guarantee that all of us will at some time feel pain and suffer. The heroes we admire in folklore, on the silver screen and in real life are people who overcome their disadvantages, their pain, and make something of their situations, in spite of fear or obstacles.

As I listened to this podcast I realized that I didn’t want the pain I have experienced for so many years, the weakness, or the fear of it to be “my pain”. I don’t want to be victimized by any of the health issues I’ve experienced. I don’t want my identity to be what’s wrong with me.

Last night I turned on the ceiling fan, shifted some new furniture out of my way, and fell onto the couch, brushing my bangs aside. I felt strong in a way that I never thought I would again. I’ve been managing stress better, exercising more, eating nutritiously; when I eat junk food my body’s been keeping pace better.

Then I stood up to open the window and pulled a muscle in my neck.

All that confidence was shattered as I sat stiff and crying on the couch, waiting for the waves of fear and disappointment to roll over me. They came; but the waters stilled sooner than before. I kept picturing in my mind the person that I want to be, but I didn’t let myself grieve over that image this time. I chose to believe she was in my reach.

Someone with strength, with endurance and stability, who might one day ride a horse or even a roller coaster.

I see those billboards every day, I hear in our music that alluring idea of hypersexuality, affluent lifestyle standards, drinking till you drop, and I see how all of these ideas call us to indulgence. Online I read articles that tout self-care while encouraging lavish living. Treating yourself is, in my opinion, a necessity in life and taking care of yourself of utmost importance.

Yet in my short life, I’ve experienced far more satisfaction from discipline and self control than from indulgence.

Indulgence led me down a path that said I was as strong as I pretended to be, that my behavior wouldn’t have any affect on my well-being. It was through the constant practice of disciplines, emotional and physical, that I was able to get to where I am now, and I don’t want to jeopardize that by falling for the lies that leave their seeds everywhere waiting to take root in our minds.

I don’t want an ideal body, I want a strong one.

I don’t want to be able to drink as much coffee or alcohol as I used to. I want to be able to eat food that gives me life and energy and confidence. And I don’t want to be surrounded by excess, or fueled by a desire for material gain. I want contentment, joy, and acceptance that strives for excellence.

In the lifelong ambition of creating myself, I want to be able to remember, when I fail, how to go back to intention, to that strength that I know I could have; that perhaps I have had all along.

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.

A Letter from my Former Psyche by Joules Watts

Photo by Joules Watts

Dear Joules,

You have to end your quest.  Seriously!  You’ve been looking for so long to find the holy grail that will restore me and bring me back.  It’s a futile quest.  Copper toxicity and the damage that came with it turned me into the psychological equivalent of swiss cheese.  Even if you got everything back to normal, I wouldn’t be able to come back.  Too much of me is gone.  And unfortunately you, not me, have to deal with the aftermath.  I’m so sorry.

Art by Obsidian AbnormalYou remember me like I was some shining paragon of amazing and brilliance.  I really wasn’t.  Yes, I had a phenomenal memory and mental clarity.  I could learn things with ease.  I was a musician but remember I couldn’t compose or improvise worth a damn.  That was frustrating!  I was kind and empathetic, but naive as all get out.  I denied myself any negative emotion because it simply just wasn’t done.  It lead to a lot of pain.  Not just for me but for those I loved.  I wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, that’s for damn sure.

I was so very flawed, Joules.  Medicated with ritalin from 2nd grade.  I didn’t have the tools to function without meds.  If I forgot to take meds, I was close to worthless.  I couldn’t function at all.  Remember that I never learned how to recover from failure?  Yeah, when I inevitably crashed and burned, I didn’t know how to get up.  How much was lost due to my ignorance, my singular reliance on my memory and intuition?  So static, so many opportunities wasted because I didn’t have the tools to grow.

So it’s no surprise, given my fragility, that I wouldn’t be able to withstand the upcoming biomedical onslaught.  Like thin strands of sugar crystals, I shattered when I encountered resistance and nearly disintegrated.

Photo by Joules WattsBut you, Joules.  You didn’t shatter.  You didn’t scatter.  You re-forged yourself after I was gone.  And you gained so much that I don’t think you see.  You were able to learn how to get up after failure.  There is a tenacity in you that I never had.  You were able to gain skills, to adapt, to grow.  You became something I never could be.  Anxious.  Angry.  Frustrated.  Scared.  Determined.  It became a fuel source for you.  Simply brilliant.

You took your inner demons and made them your advisors.  You had the strength to not only face them but to accept them.  To integrate them.  To master them.  I ran from them and denied them.

I have seen you stare into the abyss.  The void where depression and illness and everything uncertain hides, waiting to strike.  And when it stared back at you, you sneered and winked.  Honestly it was the coolest “come at me bro” event I’ve ever witnessed.  I Photo by Joules Wattson the other hand closed my eyes and hid.  Denying that the abyss even existed.

So in the face of that, what do I have to offer?  Why are you so determined to bring me back?

I understand the near obsession of getting back what you’ve lost, more specifically what was stolen.  Your memories, your talents, your former glory.  But, dearest Joules, you can’t have mine.  Not anymore.  All that I had is nearly gone now.  You’ll have to go out and find them on your own.  Start from the beginning once again.  But this time, you have an advantage.  You know you can do it because it already happened.

Art by Obsidian AbnormalI don’t know how much of me will remain as time goes on.  As old things get fixed and as new things failed.  So I ask you this, Joules.  Remember me, as best you can.  Think of me fondly.  But accept that for all intents and purposes, that I am gone and can’t be brought back.  Stop longing for what once was and start planning on what you will now be.

So before I go, allow me a little paraphrase from the 9th Doctor.  (I know he was your fave before Peter Capaldi came in as the 12th…)

Joules, before I go, I just want to tell you you were fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. And do you know what? So was I!

-The Former Psyche of Joules Watts

About the author: Joules Watts

Joules Watts describes herself as a self driven bumbler and science afficionado.  Her husband describes her as irreverent half ifrit, which probably explains her incredible heat resistance and fiery personality.  The truth is probably a unique amalgamation of the two.

Aside from her day job, Joules is a geek (leans sci-fi), musician, writer, podcaster, gamer (both video and tabletop), and unfortunately a mildly brain damaged, semi-professional medical patient.  In her considerable free time (trademark sarcasm) she enjoys reading, top rope wall climbing, and chasing the ever elusive full night’s sleep.

Joules currently co-hosts Seize the GM, a podcast that focuses on how to be a Game Master.  (Episodes drop every Thursday, barring horrible technical issues).  She’s also a player on the podcast Hidden Grid (A Shadowrun AP podcast that’s currently on hiatus) and Legends of Earthdawn (An Earthdawn AP podcast).  Additionally she has her own podcast, Five Degrees Off Normal, which is a chronicle of her experiences being a geek with brain damage.

Not Exactly Persephone by Melissa A. Bartell

Forest Hat via Flash PromptIn the end, it was his hat that clinched it.

She’d taken the short-cut through the forest for as long as she could remember, maybe even longer. As a child, she’d skipped down the path, heedless of what the brambles might be doing to the hem of her blue dress, or the ruffles on her white pinafore.

Who sent a child out to play dressed in such frippery anyway? Mary-Janes were great if you wanted to tap-dance down the circular stairway in the entrance hall, but they were next to useless on a dirt path, and even worse if it had rained the day before.

Black patent-leather and squelching mud puddles did not mix well.

As she grew older, and could dictate her own wardrobe, she chose more appropriate attire – hiking boots and jeans with duster-length cardigans were her unofficial uniform.

She still cut through the forest, though, breathing in the scents of earth and leaves and growing things on her way to work every morning. She carried her laptop in a messenger bag slung across her body, and tucked her hair up into one of her many berets, a different color almost every day.

It was her trademark, she said. A beret with a butterfly pin was how the world would know she was herself.

The first time she saw him, it was when she rounded the bend just this side of the creek. He was preternaturally still, focused on the winged creature perched on his fingertips (he had long, graceful fingers, she noticed) and she froze mid-step, afraid to disturb him, or spook the colorful insect he was studying.

But even one small-ish woman’s breathing is enough to change the melody of the forest, and when he glanced up, their eyes met.

It wasn’t a cosmic thing, not really. Just two people acknowledging each other’s presence, and moving along on separate paths.

The met in the forest several times after that, never speaking.

Sometimes, he would beckon her closer, and point to a small bird sipping from a puddle, and they would watch together in communal rapture.

Sometimes, she would offer him a piece of fruit leftover from her day – an apple, maybe, or a banana – once it was half a pomegranate and a plastic spork – and he’d grinned at her, and called her Persephone.

His voice was like the ripples of water flowing over stone.

That one word, the name that wasn’t hers, but should have been, opened the floodgates of conversation. He was an art teacher at the local magnet school, he said. He came to the woods for inspiration.

When he learned that she owned the local café and was also trying to write a novel, he asked to read her pages.

She finally relented when he came into her workplace with a sketch of her on a purple beret day, sitting on a rock, surrounded by dragonflies. (In reality there had only been one or two, but she liked his enhancement.) Looking at the sketch, she realized she’d never thought of herself as being pretty, but that she looked so, at least when depicted in pencil-strokes.

Let me take you to dinner, he asked.

She demurred. She didn’t have time to date, she said.

In truth, she knew that it wouldn’t be just a date, or even just dinner. There was something about this man whom butterflies trusted that made her heart flutter like papery wings.

When you’re ready, he told her, I’ll be here.

She avoided the forest for days, after. Embarrassed. Attracted. Confused. She took the longer route to work. She even drove there, on the day it rained.

She missed him, she realized.

She returned to her usual path the next morning, and when she stepped into a puddle, she laughed at the squelching sound her boot made.

He appeared, as if from nowhere, with a green top-hat covering his dark, curly hair. You’re back, he didn’t say. I’ve missed you, his lips did not utter. But his eyes were shining, and his smile was like a ray of sun cutting through fog.

His hat looked as though the forest had gifted it to him, as if it were made from leaves and branches. It wasn’t, of course. It was only felted wool. But the effect caught her attention.

Nice hat, she said.

A student’s project, he explained. They were supposed to capture nature in an ordinary object.

I hope they got an ‘A,’ she replied.

He assured her that they had.

When he appeared in her café the next day, she accepted his invitation to dinner.

She had to, you see.

She’d always been a sucker for men in hats.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Almost Last Words by Patricia Wellingham-Jones

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_micheleranchetti'>micheleranchetti / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

On her deathbed,
oxygen 24/7,
sliding in and out of awareness,
Mother blinked her green eyes
up to mine.

Daughter, she whispered
in a scratchy, unused voice,
I love you so much –
and you drive me crazy.

I blinked my matching green eyes
full of wet shimmers and said,
I know, Mom.
I feel exactly the same.

We both sniffled, then laughed,
she held up her wasted arms.
I fell into them, carefully.
We blended our tears
on our smiling faces.

About the Author: Patricia Wellingham-Jones

PatriciaWellingham-JonesPatricia Wellingham-Jones is a widely published former psychology researcher and writer/editor. She has a special interest in healing writing, with poems recently in The Widow’s Handbook (Kent State University Press). Chapbooks include Don’t Turn Away: poems about breast cancer, End-Cycle: poems about caregiving, Apple Blossoms at Eye Level, Voices on the Land and Hormone Stew.

Shades of Gray by Molly Totoro

All or Nothing: the erroneous idea that something is either good or bad, light or dark, right or wrong.

Also known as black-or-white thinking, this dichotomy separates opposite ends of a spectrum into two mutually exclusive groups. Rather than acknowledge a continuum of degrees, it fosters a disunity of superlatives. Common ground does not exist and battles ensue.

Until recently I held this legalistic view as absolute truth. I refused to accept any middle ground. But often I would rephrase these opposites in the negative. I am either right or not – intelligent or not – accomplished or not. The voices within hammered the message “You’re not good enough.”

About a year ago we decided to redecorate our living room. Our thirty-year-old house needed an update. I went to the home goods store to select a new shade of paint. I wanted something neutral and bright to bring life back into our home.

I scanned the wall of paint chips. So many neutral colors with such enticing names: snowflake – linen – eggshell. Not a single shade of “white” existed. In fact, I counted more than two-dozen different hues.

These light neutrals transitioned to grays: stratus – cashmere – cinderblock. Again, I saw at least two-dozen different shades, although not a one was actually called “gray”. It didn’t take long for me to realize this was true for every color scheme.

I learned a valuable lesson that day standing in the middle of Home Depot. Life situations are not often black or white. This mindset fosters exclusivity and the idea that one is better than the other. Rather, life is a mix of black and white. Both colors co-existing side by side. Dichotomy fosters an exclusive mindset. To be inclusive, I need to replace “either/or” thinking with an “and” mentality.

I easily adopted this paradigm shift to visual colors. However, it is proving a bit more difficult to apply this to other areas of life. In fact, dichotomy thinking is so ingrained, that I often don’t realize I’m doing it.

For example, I love to scrapbook. It combines three areas of creativity that feeds my soul: writing, photography, and paper crafts. I rarely view a photo without thinking of the story associated with it. And I love to enhance the words and pictures with colorful mats and borders. In addition, scrapbooks preserve our family legacy for generations to come. It is a worthy pastime.

However, I rarely scrapbook more than once a year. Why? I reason I must have at least a weekend to devote to the project or it isn’t worth the hassle. The supplies take over the dining room table. It is time-consuming to match the photos with cardstock. Once I start, I don’t want to stop. So if I don’t have a chunk of time available, why begin?

I’m not much of an athlete, but I do enjoy walking, especially in the fall. I admire the colorful leaves. I appreciate the cool breeze. I clear my head of mental clutter and get a bit of exercise at the same time. Win-win situation, right?

But most days I talk myself out of going to the park. Why? Because I crave routine. I need to know what to expect so I can plan accordingly. But the weather is unpredictable. Temperatures may be nice today, but next week it may rain. Fall weather is more conducive to outdoor exercise than the freezing months. I don’t walk today because I may not adhere to the schedule next week. And everyone knows, consistent exercise maximizes health benefits. So, I reason, I either must walk every day or not at all.

This condition might be genetic. Mom once told me the story of her aunt. This woman wanted nothing more than a fastidious home. She wanted the kitchen sparkling clean, living areas dust-free, and beds made with fresh clean sheets. If these conditions could not be met on a daily basis, however, she refused to do any housework at all.

At the time, I thought this ridiculous. After all, who changes the sheets every day?! But more importantly, those lofty ideals prevented her from having the neat, clean house she desired.

Dichotomous thinking and perfectionism are closely related. Both set up unrealistic expectations. Both demand devotion to the best. Either I clean every cranny of the house or I don’t clean at all. Both foster a feeling of unworthiness. If I can’t do this perfectly, then I am a failure.

What does life look like if I incorporate “and” into my vocabulary?

I could choose to walk today because I have the time and the weather is nice. I will clear my head, my marvel at nature, and I get a bit of exercise. After all, one day of walking is better than nothing. Rather than thinking myself a failure because I don’t walk 10,000 steps every day, why don’t I celebrate those days I do exercise?

In this retirement stage of life, I don’t entertain as often. The dining room table goes unused for months. What if I leave out my scrapbook supplies? When I have a few free minutes, I could create a page layout. I don’t need forty-eight hours to indulge in my favorite pastime. Thirty minutes here and there will complete an album.

I also sabotage my writing efforts with this faulty logic. I rarely start an article unless I know exactly what I want to say and how to say it. I mentally labor for days over the content and structure, but don’t write a single word. The deadline looms and I grow more anxious. When I finally force myself to open the file, I stare at the blank page, completely paralyzed.

Rather than agonizing over every detail before I begin, I could open the document in advance of the deadline. As thoughts come to mind, I could jot them down. This is not the time to worry about structure or angle. Complete sentences are optional. The point is to capture ideas on paper. And when the time is right, I can trust the process of crafting the raw materials into art.

Life is lived in the small spaces. If we wait for perfect conditions – lots of free time, ideal weather, peak physical health – we will never progress or accomplish our goals. Let us be mindful to “start where we are; use what we have; and do what we can.” (Arthur Ashe).

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

Being Light by Anna Oginsky

Near the end of last summer something completely unexpected happened.

It went something like this (bear with me): My husband, Dan, and our oldest son, James, went hiking with James’s Boy Scout troop on North Manitou Island, which is in Lake Michigan. It’s an incredibly beautiful area with magnificent views at every turn. The fresh lake air is cleansing and any amount of time spent in that area of Michigan is a treat for the soul. At the end of the trip, our friend Dave, who was also hiking his son, told Dan he’d like to own a lighthouse someday. Dan agreed.

Within a few days, Dan received a text message from our friend Jake sharing a link to a story about a government auction for an offshore lighthouse – southeast of North Manitou Island.

Within 24 hours, Dan received another text message from another friend, Todd, sharing the same article.

It was funny. Four men, suspiciously close to the time when one might experience a “mid-life crisis”, sending text messages about a lighthouse up for auction and alluding to the possibility that they might place a collective bid on the lighthouse with hopes of winning it. I didn’t think they were serious.

To be eligible to bid, the group needed to form a non-profit organization and on August 16, 2016 the North Manitou Light Keepers was born. A bidding war ensued. After every bid the auction allowed for 24 hours to pass before a winner was determined. I watched in dismay, wondering how on earth my already overextended husband could possibly have space in his life for a lighthouse. At my lowest moment, I was sure my marriage was over.

The price grew higher than anyone imagined and text messages were flying. It was intense. Before long, I reluctantly joined the four as member of the Board. What started as a fun, light-hearted adventure began to feel heavy and honestly, it was just too much. We decided to stop bidding.

For the first time in weeks, I received no text messages about this lighthouse. I began to wonder if the auction had closed and whether our competitor had won. I decided to try to find the auction website, just to make sure. And there it was. I found the site and laid eyes on The North Manitou Shoal Light for the first time and as crazy as it sounds I heard a voice say, “Don’t give up.”

I texted Dan. We placed one last bid. 24 hours later, we won the auction.

Since the auction, North Manitou Light Keepers and the lighthouse we are on a mission to restore has received a lot of our attention. Attention I didn’t think we had. It’s been fun and also stressful to launch this project. The lighthouse was in bad shape and it will require a huge amount of money and time and resources to restore it. But, it is a LIGHTHOUSE.

In a time where the shadow parts seem to be running the show around town, this beacon of light provides a ray of hope.

I’ve been paying closer attention to lighthouses in general. They are usually quite striking structures. And whether they are quaint or stately, what strikes me most is their mission: to be light. Specifically, they exist to light rough passages. I’ve thought about the light keepers who steward these structures through big waves, tremendous winds, and harrowing storms. And the Coast Guard.

The North Manitou Shoal Light was manned by the Coast Guard until the station was automated in 1980 (the actual equipment will continue to be used for navigation and will be maintained by the Coast Guard). I am in awe of the men and women who serve on the Coast Guard working to save lives in terrifying conditions.

While I’ve learned a lot about the structure of the lighthouse and have devoted much time to the organization supporting this endeavor, it is the light that has my attention.

There are undoubtedly too many lighthouse metaphors to count and with good reason. These structures symbolize something we all need and in our own ways hope to embody: a light in the darkness. I wonder what that means for me now–in these times of massive heartache, violence, and strife for so many? When earthquakes, hurricanes, and wildfires are causing unprecedented damage to the land and the people we love.

When my own children seem so vulnerable amid the chaos that surrounds us. When so many I love are hurting. I keep asking myself: how will I be light? How can I sustain light? Because I really want not to dwell in the shadows. By nature, I seek light and I aspire to be light.

Some days I simply cannot muster an answer to this question. It takes all my energy just to keep moving and to keep showing up. I love that Anne Lamott said, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” Could it really be that simple for us too?

Rather than wracking my brain trying to figure out what to do next, would I make a difference by simply be-ing? Can I just stand here shining? I’m sure the answer lies somewhere between being and doing. Both are necessary and even vital on a daily basis. There certainly doesn’t seem to be a right way to be light.

Of all the lighthouses I’ve seen in the past year, I can’t think of any two that are exactly alike. The one thing they have in common is that they shine light in dark places. There are no easy answers, but I am sure about one thing. No matter what kinds of storms you or I face, we can’t give up. We must trust in the light.

About the Author: Anna Oginsky

annbioAnna Oginsky is the founder of Heart Connected, LLC, a small Michigan-based workshop and retreat business that creates opportunities for guests to tune in to their hearts and connect with the truth, wisdom, and power held there. Her work is inspired by connections made between spirituality, creativity, and community. Anna’s first book, My New Friend, Grief, came as a result of years of learning to tune in to her own heart after the sudden loss of her father. In addition to writing, Anna uses healing tools like yoga, meditation, and making art in her offerings and in her own personal practice. She lives in Brighton, Michigan with her husband, their three children, and Johnny, the big yellow dog. Connect with her on her website; Twitter; Facebook; or Instagram.

To learn more about the North Manitou Light Keepers and the restoration of the North Manitou Shoal Light, visit www.northmanitoulightkeepers.org

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