Ms. Kangaroo Pouch

“Are you going to wear that?” Bailey’s eyes skim over me once, and then pass over me a second time. Her eyes are focussed on my stomach as she waits for me to answer.

“Errr,” I eloquently answer. Bailey’s one of my closest friends. I’ve known her since kindergarten when we would tell each other secrets and then, pinky swear we’d never tell anyone else.

Bailey appeared to be in a particularly foul mood today when she arrived at my house. She threw her purse on the couch and flopped down beside it. I know it doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal, but if you knew Bailey, you’d know she’s never like that. She’s poised and gentle and always in control of every situation. It’s one of the reasons I admire her so much.

I don’t really understand the reason why she’s so upset. After all, it’s a let’s-have-lunch-and-then-shop-day versus a 9-to-5-why-is-the-copier-jamming-AGAIN?-day.

“Yes,” I finally say after locating my verbal skills. “Why?”

Bailey peers at me with an “inspector’s look” as if I were a cow that was about to be sold at market. She says, “I wouldn’t if I were you. You’ve got a kangaroo’s momma’s pouch going on there!” she points at my belly and tosses her head back in laughter.

I place a protective hand over my swollen tummy. Okay, maybe granola for breakfast was a bad idea. Or, maybe I just eat too much. I shift uncomfortably and keep my hand on my stomach, trying to block her view of it.

Bailey gives me a half smile. Silence hangs heavily in the air between us. A few seconds later she says, “We have time. You could change.”

“Okay,” I answer as I blink back tears that sting my eyes.  I take the stairs two at a time while taking a deep breath in.

Bailey’s never like that. I must look really terrible if she felt like she needed to say something. When I arrive in my bedroom I stare at myself. In horror, I realize she’s right: Oh god! I look like I’m pregnant – with twins!

I’ve been upstairs for nearly ten minutes. Pulling on a pink dress, control top pantyhose, and matching Gucci shoes, I take a peek at myself in the mirror. I don’t want Bailey to see me if I don’t look perfect. Turning sideways, it’s still there.

Why don’t I own any loose fitting dresses?

I yank the shoes off, slide out of the pantyhose, and wiggle the dress off over my head.  There’s a mountain of clothes that I’ve thrown across my bed. I stare at the heap and pull one of my bulky grey winter sweaters out of the pile with a baggy pair of jeans. It’s a little warm for it, but not by much. The forecast is ten degrees, not twenty-five degrees. I won’t look like I’m hiding something. It’s springtime, I argue with myself. You can still wear sweaters in the spring.

“Hey, Mackenzie, are you almost ready?” Bailey bellows from downstairs. We need to leave now, if we’re going to make our reservation!” her voice booms from the family room.

I emerge from my bedroom still pulling the sweater over my head. But it’s just me and Bailey here, so there’s no chance someone else will see my pink flabby skin. Charging down the stairs, I race down the steps with too much speed. I misjudge with the last two stairs where one step starts, and the other ends, and my heel slips and I skid to the bottom of the foyer.  The only thing that saved me was that for the first time in my life, I had my hand on the railing.

Bailey’s seated on the couch and is flipping through my National Geographic Traveller magazines.

I mumble, “Sorry,” as I enter the room. She tosses the magazine aside when she sees me, stands up and says, “That’s better,” as she nods her head with approval.

Then she raises a finger to my eye and brushes it while saying, “You just have a smudge of eyeliner there. It kind of makes you look like a racoon,” she says with a snort.

I scrunch my face at her as heat rises in me.  “Maybe we should go to the farm,” I retort with bitterness that seeps through me.

“Sorry,” Bailey says while taking her hands off my face and backing up.

“Maybe, we should go to the farm. After all, you’ve already called me a kangaroo and a racoon.”

“Listen,” she says. “I’m just trying to help you. Would you really want to go out looking like you did?”

I shrug my shoulders at her. No. But I don’t say that. As a matter of fact, I got nothing. So I stand there stupidly. And everyone knows the problem with silence, is that if you can’t come up with a snappy come-back, it automatically implies the other person’s right, and you’re wrong.

“And seriously, your eyeliner was all smudged. You could make more of an effort!”

I rub my eye. “It probably smudged when I was trying on clothes,” I say grabbing my purse. “Are you ready to go?” I ask turning around to face her.

“Yeah,” Bailey huffs as her heels hit the floor and she clip-clops towards the front entrance.

As I stick my key in the door and begin to pull it closed, Mrs. Chrystenson walks up the front path.

“Dearie,” she says carrying a plant up my walkway.  “Here’s one of the ferns from my garden. I just pulled it out right away after we talked this morning. So, I wouldn’t forget. Oh…” her voice trails off, “what happened to the lovely blue dress you were wearing this morning?”

“Oh,” I glance at Bailey and answer, “it was a little tight.”

“Where?” Mrs. Chrystenson asks. Her face is the lovely smoothness of calm that woman of a certain age get when they’ve seen it all. She genuinely looks like she has no idea. It’s not that “look” people give you when they know, and they’re just being nice; or they’re secretly trying to get you to say how terrible you looked, so that way they can quietly snicker at you.

Bailey hangs onto her purse and leans against the stone wall of my house. Breathing out, she announces, “in the tummy.”

Embarrassed, my cheeks turn pink, and I drop my head. I wish I were somewhere else.

“Oh,” Mrs. Chrystenson says. I raise my eyes and notice my neighbour’s lips purse together at Bailey. “Did you tell her that?” she asks Bailey.

Bailey stands up straight as her shoulders square off towards Mrs. Chrystenson. “Yes,” Bailey answers, “I’m trying to live more honestly. So, I’m going to say what I think from now on.”

“Huh, well… I’ve always found that there are versions of honesty. Depending on who’s giving the version of the truth, it’s peppered by things that have happened in their own lives.”

I blink at Bailey and watch her jaw tighten and tears fill her eyes. She’s a good friend. I need to defend her. “No, she was right. The dress made me look like I was at the end of my first trimester with twins. I didn’t notice it at first, until she pointed it out.”

“Oh yes, well…” she says as she continues walking up the path and places the fern down on my front porch.

She glances over at Bailey and me, and nods.

“Well, you have a very astute friend. Good of her to look out for you. Have a nice day,” she says as she walks down the pathway.

“You too,” I say. I glance down at the fern and add, “And, thank you for the plant.”

“Quite welcome, my dear,” she says turning to me as she pulls her flowered gardening gloves off. “You know, it’s interesting what people see.  My son had a motorcycle accident years ago.  Terrible things. They should ban them!” she says shaking her head. “Anyways, he broke his helmet and he had a three inch scar down the side of his face. He was lucky to be alive. After the accident, he didn’t want to date. Thought that he looked too hideous. But I would make him go to the grocery store and get my groceries after my husband died. He met a beautiful young woman there who happened to be the whole package as well.” She turns and begins to walk down the pathway.

I hate it when old people do that. Don’t finish a story. Just leaving you hanging… It’s like they feel like you should know. But we want to know, for certain, how the darn thing ends.

I’ve been baited, and I know it. Reluctantly, I sigh and say, “And?”

Laughing she says, “She never saw the scar until he pointed it out. It had faded with time. But for him, it was as big as the day it was when the Doctor stitched it up. They’re happily married now. Baby number two is on the way. It will be my fourth grandchild.”

“Congratulations,” I beam at Mrs. Chrystenson.

“Thank you,” she says. For a second she pauses, and then says, “in the name of honesty, I didn’t notice. I thought the dress looked lovely on you.” With a shrug of her shoulders, a gentle smile, she then turns, and walks away.

The Thief

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I’m standing in the middle of a winter storm with northerly winds that kick icy flakes into my face scratching my cheeks and stinging my eyes.  Twirling snow dances across the pavement. In the air, the snowflakes link hands together creating white-out conditions. It’s terrifying – because when I’m brave enough to raise my eyes and face the assault of icy air again, I can’t see a thing in front of me. The road has disappeared. There’s nothing in front of me, or behind me. The world has vanished.

I’m waiting for it to stop: that moment when the sun will slide through a cloud and like a flashlight illuminate the faint outlines of buildings and reveal snow covered draped trees to me again. Even for the briefest of moments, would make all the difference in the world: it would be a reassurance that this storm will end.

I’ve been asked what I would do when this happened to me: the moment when writer’s block sets in, and like a thief that’s tip-toed through my home when I wasn’t there stole my dictionary, thesaurus, and in a final assault on my creativity – walked off with my computer in the middle of the night. The bandit has stolen everything I could use to put words together, whether it is on paper, or in a blog post.

In all honesty, I can’t remember the answer I gave to this problem. But I suspect knowing me, I would have used my running experience and said something such as, “I would write over it. Keep writing, no matter what! And then hope, that someday the words would come easier again.”

The experience of running has taught me that sometimes, I need to push on and over, the most difficult days. Not every training day will offer sunny skies, seventy degree Celsius temperatures, and tank top and short-wearing weather.  Some days will be minus thirty-five degree Celsius temperatures, layered clothing, steamed glasses, and ice buildup on my eyebrows, hair and lashes. But those are the days I know I need to get out the door and do the best I can, with the conditions I’m given.

But I don’t always keep running in a race. Sometimes I’ll slow down, walk it out, and wait for the pain in my calf to subside (ditto for nausea). I know this to be true: sometimes I need a little break so that I can return to my 10 KM run, half-marathon, or marathon race stronger than I was a few moments ago. Ultimately, for me at least, what matters most is crossing the finish line.

Writer’s block haunts me. It slithers in the shadows and reappears in the most terrifying and most unexpected times.  It waits for me. Sometimes when I’m at my strongest mentally; and sometimes when I’m at my weakest. It’s stalked me so many times: inching it’s way closer when I wasn’t watching, forcing me to keep my eyes open longer resulting in too many late nights and scrambled thoughts. Then before I even knew what was happening, my ideas and ability to weave stories together had vanished.

In this community I won’t lie to you, there are times I’m scared I may never be able to write another story again. (To those on the outside, I’ll say something different.) Those are the moments I reach for the switch in a room and attempt to illuminate the darkness. When my fingertips hit the light switch and I hear the “click” I’m slightly relieved – relieved, until nothing happens. Because now I know, I’m in the middle of a power outage.

After scrambling around trying to find the one lighter I own in my house, I light a candle and watch the glow because nothing else works. I can’t make toast or coffee, there’s no TV or radio, and if the power outage lasts long enough, I’ll run out of hot water.   Now I know there are some things I should do during a power outage: buy bottled water, batteries, and flashlights; and keep the fridge door closed to prevent food from spoiling. Other than that, I need to wait.

I’ve faced writer’s block before: sleep-deprivation, viruses, injuries, and personal life upheaval have been some of my enemies. With all these factors, when my mind struggles to take care of day-to-day tasks it saps my creativity. My brain busy building to-do lists, for to-do lists, has no room to build heroes and plotlines.

But I continue to move forward as much as I can through it. In those moments when I find I can’t create something new, I’ll work on something old, revise my manuscript, or work on marketing material. Above all else, I keep working, no matter what. My fear is this: If I stop working too long, the ever-present negative naysayer in me will grow louder and my writing adventure might be over.

Eventually, I know the winter storm will stop and I’ll hear the hum of the fridge starting again. With this sign, I’ll flick the switch and the darkness will end with light. Normally when the power returns, the thief shows up on my front step with my dictionary and thesaurus, and good guy that he is, he’ll even help me set my computer up again.  With my coffee pot percolating, and my toaster toasting, I watch as new and old characters walk through my door and my world-building begins once more.

In The River

Water criss-crosses stones and pebbles and creates images in the water. Reflections of gold-orange leaves that cling to trees behind Karen are clearly a mirror of what’s behind her.  Along the river shore it’s peaceful: with the sound of lapping waves and the dots of white, blue, yellow, orange flowers – there are so many wonderful colours!

Karen stares into the bubbles that twist and turn over the rocks. As she gazes into the water, her face instantly contorts and her expression changes from a relaxed-I’m-on-holiday-manner, to one of fearful concern. She braces her hands against the railing of the wood bridge and stretches forward as she struggles to see what looks like a white cloth in the water.

The material bubbles to the surface and rests on a rock. Karen stares at it for a few seconds. Then waves wash over the ivory fabric, and it disappears below the surface once more. With nothing more to be concerned about, she turns and walks away.

Beneath the water, two eyes stare blankly at the people who cross over the bridge, waiting for someone to notice them.

Rich Man

Gouda cheese, fresh baked bread, and home-made jam are the necessities of life. If you don’t have these things, well-; what’s the point of it all?

At the front of a six-bedroom grey brick stone house is a $100,000 black BMW that sits on the interlocking stone driveway. A corner lot property, the house is nestled on five acres of woods: This all belongs to Mark and Barbara Raystone.

The exterior of the house dates back to the late 1800’s when Mr. Elijah Nettie, who was a Superior Court Judge in Ontario, lived in the home. Mr. Nettie wore his black robe to court while he applied his white law to every man and woman. He was good at it some said: well, good at applying the law with a particular rigidness that was commonplace back then. No exceptions to the rules. After all, rules were meant to be followed.

When Mark and Barbara purchased it in the spring of 2009 at the end of the stock market crash for a deal, they gutted the place and rebuilt the house. But the face of the house, the shell of it, remains the same.

“I forgot to pick up your dry cleaning,” Barbara says as she scrapes the yolk from the breakfast plate that belonged to Mark.

“What do you mean, you forgot?” he asks without even glimpsing up from his laptop.

Shoving the green Denby plate into the dishwasher, her eyes won’t look at his. He would have found out as soon as he went upstairs to put his blue button-up shirt on and noticed it wasn’t there.

“I forgot,” she says turning and facing him for the first time all morning.  The right side of her face stings a bit from what happened last night. Hopefully, it won’t bruise. Barb’s tired of answering questions.

“What were you doing yesterday?”

Meeting my lover.  “Baking cookies for Joshua’s Christmas lunch and making Hannah’s costume for the school play.

“What kind of cookies?” Mark asks.

Weird. He never asks any specifics about their children’s lives.  “Chocolate chip cookies.”

“Chocolate chip cookies aren’t a particularly festive cookie. You should have made sugar cookies.” His eyes are locked on her as he leans back in his chair.

“They are if you add food colouring.”

“Think of that yourself?” he asks in his normal argumentative tone.

“No, I found a recipe.”

“What costume did you make for Hannah?”

His interrogation of her annoys her.  Breathing out, while sighing heavily, wearily she answers, “Why? Did you plan to help me?”

“I’m curious,” he says weaving his fingers together as he now leans forward on his elbows that rest on the kitchen table. “They’re my kids. I’m entitled to know what they’re up to.”

Her husband’s a hypocrite: he’s always yelling at the kids to get their elbows off the table. “She’s one of the three wise men.”

“She’s a girl.”

“Well, there could only be only one Mary.”

“Who did they give the part to?”

She places her hands on the kitchen counter and leans heavily into it. “I don’t know,” she answers hanging her head.

“What’s wrong with you?” he questions.

“Tired, I guess.”

“Anything I can do to help?” he asks in a voice that oozes with sympathy

When she looks up again, she watches his eyes. There’s a light to them she hasn’t seen in a long time.    “No. It’s fine. I just need to get through the Christmas holidays.”

“Okay,” Mark says closing his laptop gently.  Then he rises from his chair, crosses the kitchen, and stands in front of her. He gently kisses her on the forehead while saying, “Don’t worry about the shirt. I have another one I can wear.”

In his embrace, she’s not certain how to feel. His breath is warm against her cheek and she wants to relax in his presence. Scanning his eyes, she gives in to this need. Answering with a smile, she says, “Good, good. I felt bad about forgetting.”

He cups one hand around her face, pushes down on the skin, and squeezes it hard. The pressure hurts her jaw bone. Barbara’s eyebrows furrow together as she blinks back tears from the pain. She raises her hands to push his hand away to stop the crushing sensation, but he thrusts her back against the counter. Mark’s eyes narrow at her as he  growls in a whisper, “Don’t forget again. And, don’t you ever backtalk to me again!”

With the words said, he releases her face, turns, and marches away.

Communication Matters

November 2, 2018

Dear Michael,

Michael, I fear I’m a relic with my insistence on sending greeting cards to loved ones; clicking buttons on my telephone to speak to those I care about; and scheduling face-to-face contact with friends to chat about our lives and problems. Although, now that I have written that statement it causes me to pause, and I wonder: is it true?

In all honesty, I find myself spending a great deal of time in isolation with my fingers tightly clinging to my mobile while sending text messages to friends. The message is a two second commitment from me when pressed for time and when I’m thinking of a friend, that shows a certain level of concern. The upside of this? Minimal effort on my part.

I know this to be true, but it doesn’t stop me. I wonder now what else I have missed, or who have I missed, when my head was bowed clicking at that miniscule keyboard sending a message to a friend or family member. Did I pass a homeless person and not see him? Or failed to help a person who dropped their groceries?  Did I make a cashier feel unimportant when I didn’t say, “Hello”, “Please”, or “Thank You” when I ordered my coffee?  Nothing speaks volumes about how much you care about one another, when you don’t even see the person standing in front of you.

With Facebook and text messages it’s easy not to see things. After all, words are a wonderful means of communication, but I would argue, images are more powerful.  You tell me. If I use this symbol 😦 does it mean the same as witnessing a person who is crying on the streets? Or worse yet, someone who isn’t crying, but you know there’s something wrong because their face has been washed clean of all emotions? The face of someone who wants to give up.

Technology today was meant to bind us tighter together.  Relationships were tested when prairies, mountains, rivers, and oceans separated people and required months of travel to visit one another. Now, we can send an email in North America and within a few seconds (as long your server isn’t down) it will be received in Europe. Face-to-face contact is also possible through computers thanks to Skype, where family memories can speak and see one another on the opposite side of the world.

No more reason to send a card. No more reason to travel to visit family and friends. No more reason to face one another. 

It’s different though to receive a text message from someone versus seeing them in person. I can tell you this: if I send a message to a friend and ask, how are you? it’s easy for them to click a couple of buttons and type, GREAT!  I would believe them. But if we meet for coffee and I ask the same question, and they say the same thing with water-filled eyes, or wear a face that’s void of any sign of life; their body language indicates to me something is wrong. From there, I’m more likely to enquire about family, friends, or work in order to flush out what is happening in their lives. It also forces me to be more committed and pay closer attention to my friend to ensure he or she is really doing alright.

I love the poem by John Donne, ‘No man is an island: a poem about interconnection and dependency on one another. We should be connected and care about family, friends, colleagues and strangers. Technology helps us to communicate with one another more easily whether we are only a few miles apart or thousands of miles. But this should not be a substitution for oral conversations and face-to-face interactions that require a larger time commitment because by doing so, it strips us of our humanity towards each other.

Perhaps it’s time for me to drop the phone more frequently and face the person in front of me. It’s time to be a part of all the life that surrounds me.

“;any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”

~’No man is an island’

John Donne

Fondly,

Catherine

Embrace Differences

I love to travel. Why you ask? Is it the cramped airplane seats where if the person in front of me drops their seat too far back, their head is almost resting on my lap? Is it because of the free pretzels the flight attendant whips at me as a snack during the flight? Or perhaps, it’s the dry air that saps all the moisture from my hair and face no matter how little time I’m stuck in the winged aluminum can?

It’s none of those things.

It’s the food, the landscape, learning about the history, and the people who live there. For me it’s seeing how other people live: that small window that is raised where I get a momentary glimpse as a visitor of how other people’s lives in countries differ from my own.

I’ve had watermelon juice in India for breakfast (yummy!), boiled potatoes in Portugal, pastries in France for breakfast (dessert for breakfast would never be a problem for me!), dried cod in Iceland (not for me), and cheese pie in the AM before I boarded a returning flight home after visiting relatives in Greece.  Breathtaking landscapes can be found everywhere whether that’s Vic in Iceland (bring your Parka!), The Adirondacks in New York State, or the pristine and protected beaches in Ocracoke, North Carolina.

The food and landscapes make things interesting for me. But the history of a country provides the framework for understanding the people who reside there. Before I visited Portugal, I had no idea they had an earthquake that destroyed most of Lisbon in the mid 1700’s.  When we were there, you could clearly see the division between the old part and the new part of the city that was rebuilt.

It was also in Iceland on a bus tour that I learned there were 70 active volcanoes on the island. Sure, I knew about the geysers and that much of the island is fueled by thermal energy. But I had no idea how extensive the volcano system was in Iceland. Suddenly it was clear as to why before we travelled there, a volcano had erupted (Bardarbunga) that resulted in part of the island being closed to visitors.  A few years earlier, a volcano had gone off in Iceland creating chaos at European airports that resulted in delayed and cancelled flights throughout the continent. We mistakenly believed an eruption was not likely while we planned our trip because one had recently occurred. We were wrong and found out only after we purchased our tickets. We still went – but some sites were closed to visitors.

I was surprised the first time I visited London, England as I had been told that the “Brits” tended to be unfriendly and cold. I was perplexed when, for my husband and I, this was not our experience. We found Britons were right from the start, willing to talk to us. We had a lengthy conversation with a cab driver on the way in to the city from the airport who told us many details about the city. Years later when we travelled there again and made a failed attempt with our Oyster Cards to get through the gates to the tube, several people stopped to help us figure out whether we needed to tap or swipe the cards even though they themselves were attempting to make trains to their destinations.

I travelled to India for work more than a decade ago, and I had never felt so protected and well taken care of by people I had never met before. The company I worked with provided a car to pick me up at the airport and my co-workers called me the first day I arrived to ensure I had everything I needed at the hotel. (I had travelled for more than 24 hours, so what they got was probably a disjointed, garbled conversation because I was napping.) Their phone call alone, probably doesn’t seem exceptional.

But it was a Saturday when I arrived in India. The other purpose for that first call was to make a plan as to what I wanted to do the next day. Yes, you read that right: A SUNDAY.  Two women from the Finance section of the company willingly gave up their Sunday. And their commitment to me wasn’t simply a little breakfast and a toss back to my room; no, they spent the full day with me showing me their city, taking me to the market, helping me negotiate prices to purchase some souvenirs, and then took me to lunch. At one point as we passed a river, one of my colleagues turned and pointed in the direction of what looked like a canyon and said, “That was a river.” I was surprised by this as I had never noticed so clearly the impact of global warming.

When my husband and I travelled to Philadelphia, we saw the Liberty Bell. But what I remember most of that trip was a re-enacted lecture we saw at one of the sites. I don’t remember where it was, or the name of it as it was several years ago. But it was a showcase of American History and touched on the American Revolution, the War of 1812 between Canada and the United States, and the American Civil War. The lecture was not one of the grandness of America but it was about the hard fought rights of liberty and democracy – and the ongoing fight for liberty for all that continued hundreds of years later for Native Americans, to abolish slavery, and with the Civil Rights Movement. Their was honesty within the history lesson that’s stayed with me years later.

I’m not an American. I’m a Canadian. But as I left the auditorium the building blocks of America swept through my mind and I felt misty eyed and tired on behalf of my neighbours.  Because they have a long and complicated history, with many hard won battles, and their people continue to fight for the ideals of freedom.

With each country I travel to, I find many people are typically keen to stop and help a visiting stranger in providing directions, offering advice, or starting a conversation with a stranger who is travelling alone so they’re not so lonely. We are different. But in many ways we are also the same. The differences shouldn’t separate us. It offers us the opportunity to share and to learn from one another.  That’s what makes this, “A Wonderful World.”

Keep Writing.

I have a confession: I sometimes get discouraged with this writing quest.  The epic battle for me commenced some seven years ago when I finally sat down with my weapons: computer, paper, pens; and a notebook to scribble writing-related-to-do lists, ideas for stories, and sometimes a part of my in-progress manuscript. (Oh, how I love thee Staples, supplier of writing essentials!) I had decided that was it: I was going to commit to writing.

In my early twenties and early thirties, I picked up writing a few times and then quickly threw it aside at various points in my life foregoing the writing adventure because it seemed impossibly difficult with a zero chance of success. I did not have a Journalism Degree. Neither had I majored in English Literature. Those were the people who wrote books: Not Administrative Assistants.  So I focused my aspirations on my full time job and with making time for family and friends.

By my late thirties multiple personal struggles had battered me but did not break me: changing jobs multiple times, my father’s death from lung cancer, and my brother’s accident that left him paralyzed transformed my outlook on life and made me realize whatever you want to do – do it now. Tomorrow is always the unknown.

After that, I diligently plopped my butt in my chair in front of my computer and within a year I produced a manuscript. I sent the manuscript to Literary Agents and some Publishers. They all rejected it. Then I thought perhaps I needed some help and recruited an Editor.

I thought I was on to something. I thought my stuff was funny and brilliant. My husband never finished reading the draft copy of the manuscript I gave him.  That should have been a clue. And what did the Editor say about my version of the next Time Travelling Best Seller? Well, it was far from being a Best Seller with more comments and red through the Word Document than I care to mention in this blog post.

What little ego I had, was bruised. (I swing wildly between 5% of the time thinking I’m the next J.K. Rowling, to the other 95% of the time wondering: What the heck am I doing?) Discouraged, I stepped back again. I spent some time licking my wounds and feeling sorry for myself. But oddly enough, I never stopped writing.

Then, I began writing short stories, accumulating a few, and then thought about creating a manuscript based on the stories that I’d created. I put a collection of short stories together and once it was complete, I went through the time-consuming process of researching Publishers that might consider it. I tailored each package based on the submission guidelines, shipped off the packages, chewed my fingernails, and waited. My second attempt to be published with a Publisher and I was rejected. Repeatedly.

BUT. There’s always a BUT. One Publisher sent me a hand-written rejection and the part that I (perhaps naively) focused on in the letter was this:

“But I would encourage you to keep working on this, and to keep showing it to other publishers.”

I received his letter around Christmas in 2014. When I read that part of the rejection, I danced around the dining room table. I’ve never been sure if my writing is good or not. And even today, doubts still linger. However, from the Editor’s hand-written few words on that note, I decided I would pick the strongest story in 1500 Words or Less: A Collection of Short Stories and send it off to a neutral third party (the Editor I had used to review my first manuscript was a friend) to get an honest opinion of my work. I paid for the review, critique, and revisions that came with it.

When I received the detailed write-up from this neutral third party I noticed she pointed out flaws in the story: incorrectly chosen words, punctuation errors, and she provided recommendations on how to improve the story. Overall though, she loved it, and thought I was a good writer.

The validation from the Editor provided some confirmation that I should continue with my writing. I would love to say that 1500 Words or Less was published by a big name Publisher. But that would be a lie. And above all else, I pride myself on telling the truth.

After more than a year of submissions, I decided to self-publish 1500 Words or Less. I would like to say my self-publishing endeavour became an overnight success and I became a New York Times Best Selling Author. But that would be the Fiction Writer in me that wrote that line in this blog post.

What have I accomplished in my quest to write? I’ve written MANY short stories, some better than others, and some of those tales even found homes in Literary Journals. I’ve created two different blogs with one that ran from 2016 to 2017 titled, Pushing Boundaries; the second is this one, Tortuous Tales. Then there is the research I’ve had to do on each Publisher, How to Draft Cover Letters, Synopsis and Query Letters. Finally, while my knowledge in this area is very limited: I’ve learned a little on how to market my stories. I’ve self-published three short stories on my own, and the collection of stories titled, 1500 Words or Less.  I’ve learned a lot.

A couple of months ago burnt out and high-strung after facing an onslaught of personal upheaval that lasted for nearly six months (because that’s the way it goes), I placed twenty pieces of paper in a hat. There were ten pieces of paper that said, “QUIT” and another ten that said, “KEEP WRITING”.  I know this next part sounds ridiculous. But I took the hat and shook the pieces of paper around. While I was doing this, I was emotionally distraught with anger and sadness at finally slamming the door on my impossible dream.  With twitching fingers, I grabbed the piece of paper and opened it to crinkled words expecting to see the word: QUIT.

But that’s not what it said. I breathed a sigh of relief when the Universe said, “KEEP WRITING”.

I know the Universe hasn’t decided that I’m a super-talented writer weaving magical words together that will reshape borders and save lives.  But maybe the Universe knows what I might have already known before I reached in and grabbed that piece of paper: that for me quitting is no longer an option. My life has already been rewritten, and I must KEEP WRITING.

I kept that rejection letter from the Publisher from 2014. Occasionally I’ll pull it out and read the words again. I also kept all the other template rejections as well as the ones that said, we enjoyed/were impressed by your writing. The template rejections remind me of how hard I’ve already worked, and how much time I’ve already committed to this endeavour. On other days when I doubt myself, I’ll find and read again the personally written rejections where the Editor ultimately rejected the story, but thought my writing was still good.

I also kept that piece of paper that said, “Keep Writing.” It’s taped on a wall next to my computer. It serves as a reminder that I had one day where I thought of giving it up and how unhappy that thought made me feel.

It also encourages me to always: keep writing.

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Common Sense Factor

“It is a matter of common sense. Surely, you know that.” His eyebrows are arched and his nose is elevated as he says the words that are drizzled with disdain towards her. The sound of his voice vibrates in the air as if the echo is meant to offer more credence to his know-it-all statement.

“Common sense is subjective, Nathaniel. It’s open to interpretation. It’s based on one person’s perspective and is the accumulation of one’s experiences. But everyone is shaped by different life events.  A rich man or woman can tell someone who’s poor, they shouldn’t steal food because they’ll break the law, and if they get caught, they’ll go to jail. But for someone who’s starving, common sense says that if they don’t eat, they’ll die.”

“You are talking about a specific case. But we are not talking about individuals; we are talking about the general population. It should be the common man’s experience that allows a person to make a decision. That is common sense.”

“You mean – the common sense of an affluent, white man’s experience?”

“I did not say that.”

“Funny – you talk like a pompous white man from the early 1900’s.”

“Why do you believe that?”

“Well, why did you say, I did not say that? You could have said, I didn’t say that.”

“Contractions are a lazy person’s way.”

“They’re more efficient, effective, and relatable. Contractions get the job done without taking up more space than needed. Also, they make words more relatable to the general population.”

His arms are clasped behind his back and he stiffens at the general population comment. “Never begin a sentence with, also,” his voice crackles sharply at her.

It’s exhausting this conversation; watching every word spoken to a man who believes himself the expert on all matters. “Why?” she asks tilting her head.

“It is not proper English. When speaking with others they make assumptions based on your language skills? They will believe you are daft.”

“Daft!” she shrieks with final exasperation.  “Where am I? What time period are you from? So, what you’re actually saying is: I’m dumb?”

“Dumb is a word said by those with little vocabulary skills.  If you are seeking another word – perhaps – dim-witted, would be a better choice?”

A shrill laugh escapes from her. She rubs her right hand over her eyebrow to smooth out the twitching in her eye that commenced with this conversation with Nathaniel. This exchange has already lasted longer than she wanted it to and there appears no hope of a quick resolution on the horizon. “So far you’ve said….”

“Never, begin a sentence with so,” Nathaniel’s cheekbones twitch. She’s sure the twitching in his face is because he’s trying to suppress a smile.

“So,” she starts again emphasizing the word more than ever this time around. It’s as if she’s picking a scab on his leg, and yes, she’s doing it deliberately trying to make it bleed by picking it. “You believe that common sense is derived from a common man’s experience, that contractions are a lazy person’s way, and that I’m dim-witted because I begin sentences with also, and so?”

“The point of my observations about your use of language was simply to instruct you. You must be aware of how others would perceive you in conversation.”

“Others? You mean, you?”

“Well, I don’t mean to sound arrogant…”

“Oh no, why stop now?”

“I do have an Intelligence Quotient (it is better known as the IQ test) that ranks in the same levels as Einstein.”

“Oh, do you? Well, I have a common woman’s brain. And I like it that way. I think it keeps me more likely to assume my position isn’t always correct, and open to other people’s perspectives. You know,” she smiles at him for beginning the sentence with you know because she’s certain he won’t like it, “it makes me more common, and hopefully, a little more connected to others.”

Ellis Island, 1938: He’s A Seventeen-Year-Old Man

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When my husband and I visited Ellis Island last November, I found something I wasn’t looking for there.

What I was looking for, was the first time my great-grandparents arrived and settled in the United States from Greece. My grandfather I knew was born in 1921 in the United States Midwest, and I knew he had several siblings who were most likely older than he was, and I made a feeble attempt to go back twenty years. I figured it wouldn’t be that hard – I would simply go back and search the early 1900’s and late 1800’s for their surname. My rational was this: the last name is fairly unique so it couldn’t be that hard to figure out the first names of my great-grandparents.

But there were MANY people listed with the same surname. And as I had no idea what my great-grandparent’s first names were, it made the task even more difficult. Frustrated, I decided simply to search the passenger lists for my grandfather’s name. My thinking was this: If they travelled back and forth and crossed at Ellis Island as a family and my grandfather was listed as a child with them, perhaps I would know my great-grandmother and great-grandfather’s given names based on association.  (From what I recall, my grandfather’s parents were well off.)

I never found this information. But what appeared before me was incredible. At least, it was to me. His name appeared on a list of passengers in June 1938 with his date of birth and the State he was born in. (It’s frustrating that I know so little of my grandfather’s life, in particular, because he lived next door to us for the first ten years of my life.) But I remember clearly his date of birth and that he was born in the Midwest.

My grandfather was a seventeen-year-old boy. As I sat at the computer and blinked at the screen, I mumbled to my husband, “That’s weird, because I know he fought for Greece in WWII.” It hadn’t occurred to me that even though my grandfather was born in the United States, he might have visited Greece now and again.

As I sat there, I had a vision of my grandfather in 1938: He was a young man with hair slicked back, holding a cigarette between his fingers, (my grandfather was a chain smoker) and he might have made some jokes with his brother that was travelling with him as they waited with thousands of other passengers at Ellis Island.

My grandpa’s whole life was before him. What did he think about back then? Did he meet my grandmother yet? Did he know the long shadow of war was descending across Europe?  Hitler had already risen to power in Germany in 1933. Did they already hear the deadly knock of machine guns and cannons going off again in countries that had barely recovered from the First Wold War?

Or was it simply a trip to visit his parents and other siblings that were located in the United States? Had he decided to relocate to Greece again? So, this might be a final hurrah, a last trip to drink with friends and family, go to dances, and meet young ladies and see where things might go from there?

I don’t know anything about this time frame in his life and little to nothing in terms of what he lived through in the war. And now, grandpa’s been gone for almost twenty years, and my father’s been dead for nearly ten. One night in my late twenties, when my father was alive, he tried to describe the details of what my grandfather had told him he’d lived through in the camps when he was captured by the Germans. I shut it down hastily.  I didn’t want to hear it. It was too dark, too sad, to be discussed. (No excuse, I know now, but it was the night before my marriage.)

My brother did a speech once when we were in primary school about my grandfather’s experience in WWII.  I know that my grandfather told me he was captured a few times by the Germans and managed to escape each time. What I didn’t know – that my brother told me a few years ago when he was still alive – was that one of the German soldiers released him.

The only other story that lives in my mind is this one: My grandfather said that when he was a prisoner in one of the camps the German soldiers took them out for exercise and would march them around in a circle. There was a woman in the group and she fell down once, and two soldiers helped her up. Then the same woman got to her feet and started walking again, only to collapse a second time. The soldiers once again, helped her to her feet. Walking again in a circle with the other prisoners, she collapsed a third time. This time the soldiers did not help her up. They shot her.

I wish I would have listened better. I wish I would have asked more questions. What I didn’t realize as a child was the finality of life – that when a person leaves, they take those stories with them. And just like dust, the life, the stories, the experience of that person dies with them, and is scattered in the wind as if it never happened.

Speed of the Perfect Man

“Whooo!!!” Every rose has a thorn bounces off the interior of the red 1967 Mustang.  Vibrations from the stereo make the words crackle. “She’ll be sorry,” he says to the darkness, stars, and the passing street lights as if these inanimate objects were his friends and would agree with his statement.

Greg Smith. Smith. What a boring name. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with his fourteen babies; Mr. and Mrs. Smith work in retail for the rest of their lives and they’ll both die penniless and alone.  All the time they spent raising those kids will leave them with just each other because their kids will realize what he already knows: Mom and Dad are dull. Every now and then when his ex-girlfriend, Kim, sees him on the street she’ll stare at him because of his toned arms, legs, and chest and she will realize she should never have left him, David Gatrick, for Greg Smith. Yeah, she’ll regret her mistake.

After all, he’s the fun guy, the guy who gets things done, and who lives his life in the fast lane driving at 90 KM/hour, 100, 120 ….

David’s foot pushes on the pedal harder.

She’ll be sorry.

130, 140 ….

David’s life will be so much better than Kim’s.

Proudly, he smiles down at his bulging bicep.  He’s the tougher guy, the smarter guy, the more adventurous guy with his rock climbing, skydiving, and driving fast.  Dave’s a man on the move who’s always going places.

Dave places his hand on the seat next to him and begins to pat the passenger front seat in search of his cigarettes. Eyes glance over to the empty seat next to him for a second too long and his mustang pulls to the left. Fingers placed casually along the steering wheel he jolts the wheel and the whole car shifts back to the right.   But he’s back in his lane. Dave chortles with laughter.

Indestructible.

Hands grapple the pack of smokes and he knocks one out of the package and places it between his teeth.  Foot to the floor, he speeds down the highway at 190 KM while patting his front right blue jean pocket in search of his fire starter. Leaning to the left side, he presses the gas down and the speedometer reads 192 as he reaches into his pocket to pull the lighter out.

Deer.