вторник, 25 июня 2013 г.

Tea for Two

By Terri Elders

Every problem has a gift for you in its hands.
~Richard Bach
My sequined purple princess costume remained in its tissue paper wrappings on the top shelf of my bedroom closet, as I perched in my pink flannel pajamas on the window seat, peering out the bay window at the neighborhood witches, ghosts, and cowboys scurrying by.
On October 31, 1944, we didn't expect any knocks at our front door, festooned not with the jack-o'-lantern cutout I had made in my first-grade classroom the week before, but with a stark black-and-white quarantine sign that shouted, "Contagious Disease, Chicken Pox!"
Daddy had taken my unaffected older sister and little brother to Grandma's house for a party earlier that evening, leaving Mama and me home alone. I had finished reading all the stories in the newest edition of Children's Activities, tired of cutting out paper dolls from the old Sears catalog, and longed to be outside. Mama had promised me a special treat, but I couldn't imagine what could replace the thrill of joining the troops of children wandering door-to-door in the autumn twilight with their rapidly filling pillowcases. No Hershey bars, candied apples, or popcorn balls for me this year. I don't care, I told myself, because though the itching had ceased, I had yet to regain my appetite anyway.
I heard Mama turn on the radio in the kitchen, and then heard her call to me, "Time to get dressed!"
Glancing down at my pajamas, I wondered what she could mean, but scooted off my seat and trudged to the kitchen. On the back of one of the chrome dinette chairs hung Mama's fur chubby, a kind of short jacket that represented the essence of elegance to me those days. I used to love to watch Mama get dressed for special evenings, in her chiffon dresses always topped by the chubby.
"Put it on," she said, pointing to the jacket. "We are going to play tea party, and I am going to be the hostess, while you will be my guest." She draped a string of pearls around my neck, as I shrugged into the jacket. I noticed that the table had been set with her best Blue Willow cups and saucers, and that an empty platter had been placed next to the toaster.
Though I could not venture all the way out, Mama opened the door a crack so I could at least knock on the outside, right below the Quarantine sign. "Oh, Miss Terri, it's so good of you to call this evening. It's tea time," she announced. "And even though you are my guest, I'm going to ask you to make the meal, since you have such a special touch with cinnamon toast."
I'd seen the bakery truck make its delivery earlier, and had wondered what had been left on our doorstep. Now Mama opened the breadbox and pulled out a loaf of sliced raisin bread. She placed the sugar bowl, the butter dish, and the red tin of cinnamon on the counter, and lifted the chubby from my shoulders. Then she opened her Searchlight Recipe Book to page forty-four, handed me the yellow plastic measuring spoon set, and said, "Let's see how you do reading that recipe."
Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reader's Choice 20th Anniversary Edition
I was the best reader in my class, so I stumbled only on "substitute" and "proportion" as I read aloud the instructions.
"Cinnamon Toast: Spread freshly toasted bread with butter or butter substitute. Spread generously with sugar and cinnamon which have been blended in the proportion of one teaspoon cinnamon to a half of cup sugar."
While I watched the raisin bread brown in our two-sided toaster, Mama put her tea kettle on to boil, and told me a story about the birds on the Blue Willow china. She said that an angry Chinese father had been trying to catch his daughter who was running away with a boyfriend. Before he could catch them, they had been transformed into birds and flew away together. I rubbed my finger across the birds on the saucer. "When you grow up, your father won't chase away your boyfriends," she said with a little laugh. "And now that you're learning to cook, it won't be too much longer before you are grown up for every day, not just for Halloween." I smiled. It was true. I was learning to cook.
Though I hadn't been hungry all day long, the smell of the cinnamon sugar seemed to reawaken my appetite, and I ate my entire slice and half of Mama's, and even managed a swallow or two of my milk tea. When my sister returned later that evening with the candied apples that Grandma had sent, I accepted one, but insisted I wasn't really hungry, since I had cooked and eaten a meal earlier.
Mama's prediction came true, too, as I became engaged just a dozen years later. And at my wedding shower in 1955, she presented me with a black leatherette bound Searchlight Recipe Book. I turn the yellowed pages today to page forty-four, and again recall the delicious aroma of cinnamon toast as I remember the year that trick or treat became tea for two.

Cottage Life

By Gail MacMillan

Then followed that beautiful season... Summer...
Filled was the air with a dreamy and magical light; and the landscape
Lay as if new created in all the freshness of childhood.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Each year opening up the cottage is an adventure. As we drive onto our property, we're alert for any changes that have occurred during our six months' absence. A new cedar has popped up in the hedge. And just look at the holes a Pileated Woodpecker has made in the dead tree by the gate. There appears to be a fresh crop of squirrels and chipmunks, too. The roof looks good, husband Ron acknowledges pragmatically, while I'm more concerned with seeing if the tulips I planted last October have poked through the earth by the front step.
Then, with the turn of a key, we open a place that has lain fallow all winter. It's as if time has been on pause since we left last fall. Nothing has changed except the atmosphere. Dark and silent and chilly inside, the cottage needs to be awakened from the months of winter dormancy. I hurry to pull up blinds and open windows.
Renewed life and spring flood in as Ron turns on the electricity and the refrigerator begins to purr. Dust and cobwebs stir in the breeze as I peer about for evidence of a mouse or squirrel invasion. It wouldn't be the first time the cottage hosted a rodent family.
Thirty years ago we'd desperately wanted a place in the country (Tabusintac in northeastern New Brunswick, to be exact). But we had three children under the age of five, financially crippling student loans, and little more than the clothes on our backs and a secondhand Volkswagen Beetle as assets. We had exactly one hundred dollars with which to purchase land and building, so our dream of owning a rustic retreat seemed destined to remain in the realm of wishful thinking.
Then Ron discovered a small, abandoned cabin in the woods. Even though its windows had long ago been broken, its door sagged inward on a single hinge, and numerous squirrels, birds, and a raccoon couple were in residence, it appeared structurally sound. It definitely had potential. Ron quickly offered the owner half of our vacation home money for it. Totally amazed that anyone would want it, she readily accepted.
Next Ron convinced a kindly neighbour to pull the little shack out of its isolation and down to the corner of a hayfield we'd managed to purchase with the remainder of our cottage fund. (Later we'd expand to include shorefront in our domain but this was a beginning.) I can't say I was overjoyed when I saw it, but it was the best we could afford and, as Ron had said, it had potential. Or at least four walls and a roof.
While Ron fixed the windows and door, I tried to sweep and scrub away the evidence of its former tenants. Then we moved in, with no electricity and definitely no indoor plumbing. An outhouse we'd salvaged from the local garbage dump became our toilet. All five of us participated in carrying water from a spring one quarter of a mile away.
Keeping up with our demand for water required constant and unflagging teamwork. Three or more times a day we took buckets and pots and headed off in a group. Steve, the smallest, carried a teakettle.
Our neighbours were astonished that we could live under such conditions. The hippie era was drawing to a close and they must have regarded us as its last remnants.
The kids didn't care what anyone thought or how minimally we lived. They loved being able to run free in the hayfields and trees that surrounded our summer home. Each spring, as the school year drew to a close, their anticipation mounted. They got busy planning new activities and adventures and reminiscing about the previous summers' fun. They couldn't wait to get back to the cottage. For them, the joys of country living far outweighed the lack of amenities.
Ron and I were also eager to head back to the country. We loved the freedom from all but family responsibilities that life at the cottage offered. We regarded the lack of a telephone as an asset.
Then "C" day would arrive. We'd pile a summer's supply of clothing, blankets, and books into the Volkswagen and squeeze the kids and our two dogs (a Beagle named Brandy and an eighty-pound Labrador Retriever named Jet) into the back seat. Finally, with a smile in our hearts and a song on our lips, we were off.
The first meal at the cottage traditionally had to be wieners and marshmallows roasted over the old charcoal burning hibachi we'd pull out from under the front steps. And no matter how blackened the food became in the cooking process, it always tasted like haute cuisine.
As darkness fell, we'd slather ourselves with insect repellent and huddle around the hibachi that we turned into a smudge pot by adding handfuls of green grass. Then we'd listen to the frogs' medley in the magic country quiet and watch the stars appear in the soft black velvet that was the night sky.
"Look! There's the Big Dipper!"
"I see the North Star!"
In the warm, gentle darkness, we'd gaze upward and find (or at least believe we'd found) the various constellations.
Days at the cottage were never dull, either. Without television and toys, Joan, Carol, and Steve had to use their imaginations and what they could find outdoors to amuse themselves. They made swings in the trees using discarded tires and rope, rafts for the river from driftwood they found along the shore. These skills would prove valuable in adult life when their jobs required them to come up with fresh ideas.
They were enthralled with the birds and animals that lived in the forest and fields and on the riverbanks, and they developed a deep and lasting respect for all wildlife and its habitat. This fascination inspired Ron and I to teach them to appreciate the environment that supported these creatures and ultimately, ourselves. We explained the evils of littering, the necessity of obeying the golden rule of camping — "Pack out what you pack in and leave only footprints behind" — and how wild flowers and creatures should be enjoyed and left in peace in their natural setting. They listened attentively, then applied our advice in their daily rambles.
They discovered the succulence of blueberries, raspberries, and the tiny wild strawberries that grew in profusion behind the cottage. After we'd assured them that it was okay to pick and eat these tasty treats, they quickly developed their own harvesting philosophies. Joan picked and ate. Carol, destined to become a chartered accountant, picked and saved. Steve watched his sisters for a while, then did what he considered the best of both methods. He ate some and saved others.
Their quest for berries took them farther and farther afield. One day in their wanderings they discovered the ruins of an old hunting lodge. It quickly became the centre of many of their games. Like three small musketeers, with two dogs trailing at their heels, they made and shared summer adventures and projects. Isolated from other children, they formed deep and enduring bonds. They even devised coded nicknames for each other that still fondly surface whenever they're together.
Last year, when someone commented to Carol that the movie The Blair Witch Project was frightening because of its forest setting, she was amazed.
"When we were kids at the cottage, the woods were a wonderful, happy place," she said. "We'd take a pillow, a blanket, a Nancy Drew book and go there to read. We always felt perfectly safe and content there. I can't imagine anyone thinking it's a scary place."
Evenings were definitely family times. We'd often explore trails in the nearby woods, hoping to see bird and animal life, then return home pleasantly tired and ready for bed. We also invented a unique after-supper game of hide-and-seek. Ron and I would hold the dogs while the kids darted across the field and into the woods to hide in the trees beyond it. Then we'd release Brandy and Jet to seek them out.
Chicken Soup for the Soul: O Canada
It was never much of a chore for the Beagle, given his innate scenting abilities. Jet usually just lumbered good-naturedly along behind him, confident in his canine buddy's skill. The bottom line was all seven participants enjoyed the game immensely.
One summer Ron purchased a second-hand sixteen-foot outboard motor boat. At first we were ecstatic at the possibilities this new mode of transportation offered. Soon, however, our enthusiasm was tempered as we discovered the old boat had a propensity for breaking down.
Undeterred, we christened the cantankerous vessel the good ship Undependable and adapted to her idiosyncrasies. We learned not to venture too far or too deep and accepted the frequent necessity of towing her home as we waded through the shallows. Once again, it was a family effort with only the dogs remaining aboard to act as Master and First Mate.
These occasions, although at times mildly aggravating, quickly fell into the realm of just another adventure of the Canadian Family MacMillan. They became the stuff familial legends are based upon and taught the kids the importance of maintaining one's sense of humour and sticking together in adversity.
As the years passed, the cottage expanded and got electricity and indoor plumbing.
We celebrated when the first light bulb clicked on, shouted as if we'd hit oil when the first water spouted from the hole in the yard, and happily slept on a plank floor on the first night after two new bedrooms had been added. The cottage was maturing.
But so, of course, were the children. During their teen and college years, the cottage fell largely fallow. With friends and part-time jobs monopolizing their waking hours, they lost interest in country life. Ron and I, not willing to leave them at home unsupervised, didn't get many opportunities to enjoy its rural charms, either.
Sometimes during the brief visits Ron and I would make to check on the old place, I sensed a certain sadness within its walls. Looking out a rear window I saw, in memory, three small, sturdy, sun-browned figures in shorts and T-shirts running barefoot across the field, laughing in pure delight, a Beagle and a Labrador Retriever galloping after them.
The vision brought the sting of tears to my eyes, a lump to my throat. The days were long gone when the old cottage's board walls had echoed with the whoops of children's exuberance and its screen door had slammed multiple times a day on their comings and goings. Now it sat quiet and subdued in the shade of the trees we'd planted with the youngsters so many years ago.
Then, suddenly it seemed, all three offspring were on their own, working, getting married, having kids of their own. Ron and I returned to the cottage, alone except for a new pair of dogs. Forced to accept the emptiness of our nest, we'd decided to turn the cottage into our retirement retreat and began to renovate.
We put in a basement, new plumbing and electrical wiring, added a large deck and a gazebo. Phones, televisions, and even a computer took up residence. The cottage was adapting to the twenty-first century.
Then the kids started returning, fond memories of a happy childhood drawing them back. They brought friends and partners. Our backyard sprouted tents and other camping paraphernalia.
They visited their old haunts and were amazed at how high up in the branches their old tire swings dangled. Trees, like children, grow a lot in fifteen years.
And if I'd once feared the cottage would miss the patter of small feet up its steps and across its old board floors, that problem, too, has been remedied. Last summer Daniel Wilson MacMillan, our first grandchild, arrived at the cottage. His daddy Steve pushed him proudly about in his stroller, showing him where he'd played as a little boy and although Daniel is still too young to grasp the significance of what his father is telling him, I know that someday he will understand.
Later when he splashed about happily as his mom Michele gave him a bath in the kitchen sink, his giggles told me the cottage had come full circle. A new generation of MacMillans has been woven into the fabric that is our family and the little shack from the backwoods will continue to be a basic thread.

All I Remember

By Bobbie Probstein

There is a comfort in the strength of love;
'Twill make a thing endurable, which else
Would overset the brain, or break the heart.
~William Wordsworth
When my father spoke to me, he always began the conversation with "Have I told you yet today how much I adore you?" The expression of love was reciprocated and, in his later years, as his life began to visibly ebb, we grew even closer... if that were possible.
At 82 he was ready to die, and I was ready to let him go so that his suffering would end. We laughed and cried and held hands and told each other of our love and agreed that it was time. I said, "Dad, after you've gone I want a sign from you that you're fine." He laughed at the absurdity of that; Dad didn't believe in reincarnation. I wasn't positive I did either, but I had had many experiences that convinced me I could get some signal "from the other side."
My father and I were so deeply connected I felt his heart attack in my chest at the moment he died. Later I mourned that the hospital staff, in their sterile wisdom, had not let me hold his hand as he had slipped away.
Day after day I prayed to hear from him, but nothing happened. Night after night I asked for a dream before I fell asleep. And yet four long months passed and I heard and felt nothing but grief at his loss. Mother had died five years before of Alzheimer's, and, though I had grown daughters of my own, I felt like a lost child.
One day, while I was lying on a massage table in a dark quiet room waiting for my appointment, a wave of longing for my father swept over me. I began to wonder if I had been too demanding in asking for a sign from him. I noticed that my mind was in a hyper acute state. I experienced an unfamiliar clarity in which I could have added long columns of figures in my head. I checked to make sure I was awake and not dreaming, and I saw that I was as far removed from a dreamy state as one could possibly be. Each thought I had was like a drop of water disturbing a still pond, and I marveled at the peacefulness of each passing moment. Then I thought, "I've been trying to control the messages from the other side; I will stop that now."
Suddenly my mother's face appeared — my mother, as she had been before Alzheimer's disease had stripped her of her mind, her humanity and 50 pounds. Her magnificent silver hair crowned her sweet face. She was so real and so close I felt I could reach out and touch her. She looked as she had a dozen years ago, before the wasting away had begun. I even smelled the fragrance of Joy, her favorite perfume. She seemed to be waiting and did not speak. I wondered how it could happen that I was thinking of my father and my mother appeared, and I felt a little guilty that I had not asked for her as well.
Chicken Soup for the Soul 20th Anniversary Edition
I said, "Oh, Mother, I'm so sorry that you had to suffer with that horrible disease."
She tipped her head slightly to one side, as though to acknowledge what I had said about her suffering. Then she smiled — a beautiful smile — and said very distinctly, "But all I remember is love." And she disappeared.
I began to shiver in a room suddenly gone cold, and I knew in my bones that the love we give and receive is all that matters and all that is remembered. Suffering disappears; love remains.
Her words are the most important I have ever heard, and that moment is forever engraved on my heart.
I have not yet seen or heard from my father, but I have no doubt that someday, when I least expect it, he will appear and say, "Have I told you yet today that I love you?"

воскресенье, 23 июня 2013 г.

A Match Made in Heaven

By Annmarie B. Tait

No friendship is an accident.
~O. Henry
When my copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul: A Tribute to Moms arrived in the mail I tore open the wrapper and hugged it tight as if it were my mother in the flesh. I knew it was as close as I was going to get. Mom was gone four years by 2008 when this particular Chicken Soup for the Soul book was published. Having one of my favorite stories about her, "The Autumn Leaves of Summer," nestled between the front and back covers rated pretty high on my threshold for thrills.
That afternoon I settled down in a comfy chair with a pot of tea and a few ginger snaps at my side. Then I set about the delicious task of devouring every story. I'd hardly gotten started when I came across a tale entitled "Tea for Two," by Terri Elders. At age six, a case of chicken pox prevented Terri from cavorting about the neighborhood with her siblings and other assorted ghosts and goblins on Halloween. The prospect of Terri having any Halloween fun at all seemed grim indeed. Terri's lovely and kindhearted mother, who understood all too well the disappointment of a sick little girl on the second most popular kid holiday of the year, came to the rescue. With a few props and a little imagination, Terri's mother turned a spoiled Halloween into an enchanting tea party for two, creating a treasured memory for Terri.
I related to Terri's story in a big way. For me the culprit was a case of measles that left me banished to bed on my seventh birthday, and far away from my first grade classroom where cupcakes and schoolyard games had been planned to celebrate my big day. I passed the hours alternating between naps and intense bouts of disappointment. All the while my resourceful and sympathetic mother, using a few props and a little imagination, created the most astonishing hobbyhorse carousel birthday cake you could ever imagine. It was quite a delightful surprise for a feverish forlorn kid and to this day remains a cherished memory.
By the time I'd finished Terri's story I felt compelled to contact her. The portrait of her mother that Terri had painted with words was exquisite and so vividly reminded me of my own sweet mother that I wanted to meet Terri, even if only via e-mail. So I flipped to the back of the book and found Terri's biography notes, which included her e-mail address. And so it began.
I sent my first e-mail to Terri Elders in January 2008 explaining who I was and how much I appreciated her story. Terri responded the same day. We chatted about the similarities our mothers shared and how much we revered and missed them. I told Terri that even though her mother and mine had never met I suspected that somewhere in heaven they'd become good friends.
That was five years ago. We've been corresponding almost daily since. Though our shared passion for writing is a big part of our relationship, and brought us together from the start, it is not the core of our friendship. Somewhere along the way we found other common ground — the love of a tasty yet undeniably simple recipe, a properly made dry martini, a well written novel, a common dislike for household chores, all things penned by Lennon and McCartney, chocolate-covered... anything, and any project whatsoever that Johnny Depp has seen fit to make his own. The ties that bind Terri and I stretch across three thousand miles and almost twenty years difference between her age and mine.
Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reader's Choice 20th Anniversary Edition
It's not all fun and games though. When Terri's late husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that progressed quickly, we communicated several times a day. I shared her anguish and sorrow at seeing Ken suffer and rapidly slip away. And likewise when my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, Terri was there every day to listen to my fears, support me and share our joy when my sister emerged victorious over cancer.
Still we are not without our differences. Terri is outgoing and always on the move. I am a self-proclaimed recluse. Sometimes just reading her schedule exhausts me. Terri is a world traveler. I am always happiest in my own back yard. I am into crafts in a big way. Terri — well I've explained a hot glue gun to her three times now and she still doesn't get it. Terri will be taking classes until she draws her last breath. I can't even think of the word "school" without breaking out in a sweat. Yes, we differ to a great degree but that is part of what keeps things interesting between us.
Terri, a lifelong fan of Charles Dickens came east last year to Philadelphia where she celebrated the 200th anniversary of his birth with the Philadelphia chapter of the Charles Dickens Fellowship. After all the e-mails, greeting cards, and Christmas surprises that have crossed between us, Terri and I finally met in February of 2012. It was a grand event celebrated with good food, good wine and plenty of laughter.
The story "Tea for Two" has made a remarkable impact on my life because it led to a wonderful and lasting friendship. I'd like to think Terri's mother and mine had a hand in drawing us together and who's to say they didn't? However it came about, I'm awfully glad I opened the book and found "Tea for Two," the story that brought me my dear friend and writing companion Terri Elders. It is truly a match made in heaven.

Nothing Ventured; Nothing Gained

By Gayle Allen Cox

If you never take risks in life, you'll never see anything new.
~Blake Lewis
In 1990, I sent a letter to the editor at The Dallas Morning News. I was a young mother with strong opinions, and I thought my local newspaper would be the perfect outlet for whatever was bugging me or blessing me at the time. Never mind that hundreds of other readers had the same idea. I figured: Nothing ventured; nothing gained.
When my letter was selected for print, I was beyond thrilled. Although it was only three paragraphs long, seeing my words in a major newspaper was a huge reward, and I determined it wouldn't be my last.
One letter led to another, and after almost a decade, I had a bushel of printed letters about a myriad of things. Around 1997, the Letters to the Editor section launched The Dallas Morning News' Golden Pen Award. Here's how it worked:
At the end of each month, a printed letter was selected for clarity and writing style. It was then reprinted in the Sunday paper, along with a short blurb about the writer's accomplishment. I really wanted to win the award. Not only would it solidify my abilities as a writer, it would give me the confidence I needed to pursue bigger things.
However, I didn't want to "write to win" — that's never a good idea. So I resolved to keep expressing myself about topics that affected me and let the words fall where they may.
Imagine my shock a few months later when I opened Sunday's paper and saw that my latest letter had, indeed, won the Golden Pen Award. Within a day or so, a delightful Dallas Morning News coffee cup arrived in the mail. It was love at first sight, and you'd have thought I won the lottery. Fifteen years later, the cup still brings me cheer.
While that's all well and good, I'm really writing to share what happened next.
Winning the Golden Pen Award was a defining moment in my writing journey. Not only did it give me that boost of confidence I needed, it propelled me to do something I had always dreamed of doing: write an op-ed piece.
Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Writers
For those of you unfamiliar with the term "op-ed," it is abbreviated from "opposite the editorial page" (though often mistaken for opinion-editorial), and it is a newspaper article that expresses the opinions of a named writer who is usually unaffiliated with the newspaper's editorial board.
I was an avid reader of op-eds and had my favorite writers. Not only did I follow them faithfully, but I dreamed of being one of them — of seeing my words next to theirs, of sharing my thoughts and having people "listen." For the first time in my life, I felt my dream was within reach.
Of course, writing a full-fledged column would require lots of research, editing and time — much more than a letter did. And the competition would be fierce. But no matter the odds, I had to pursue my passion. Nothing ventured; nothing gained.
I remember exactly where I was the day the Viewpoints Editor called to say that my article would be running in the Sunday paper. I had seen this man's name in print for years, and here I was speaking with him on the phone, listening to him say gratifying things about my writing, and giving me goose bumps, head-to-toe.
Needless to say, I didn't sleep a wink Saturday night. As soon as the paperboy threw the paper in the front yard, I was out the door and all over it.
That was the first of many published op-eds, I'm happy to report — years of op-eds, in fact. And it began a writer/editor relationship that I draw strength from even now — all because I wrote a letter to the editor, once upon a time, and had the chutzpah to mail it in.
I can't guarantee where your writing journey will take you, of course, but you'll never know if you don't start driving. Nothing ventured; nothing gained.

пятница, 21 июня 2013 г.

From Illness Comes Strength

By Tracey Miller Offutt

We acquire the strength we have overcome.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
It seemed unbelievable that anyone could have been both a nursing student and a patient at the same time. That is the truth I struggled with every day as I attended my B.S. in Nursing program at Georgetown University from 1999-2002, while also suffering through my second major relapse with Crohn's disease. Living with a chronic illness, while also attempting to make my dreams come true, was a frustrating experience. I was able to comfort my patients, yet I could not comfort myself. I could relieve the pain of others, yet I could not find pain relief myself. Still, I know I was a better nursing student for having been a patient. I often knew what my patients were going through, because I had lived through it, too.
As a student nurse, I reassured my patients that they would be okay, but I knew all too well about unpredictable tomorrows. In my blue and white nursing student uniform, I stood at the bedside of a fellow student with Crohn's disease who had taken the semester off to care for his health. Three hours later, I lay in a blue and white hospital gown on an exam table in my doctor's office, trying to ignore the searing pain that was shooting through me as my abdomen was palpated by my gastroenterologist.
I was diagnosed with Crohn's at the age of eleven, and the carefree laugh I had as a little girl got lost somewhere between my prednisone chipmunk cheeks, my IV feeding line, and the scars marking my abdominal surgeries. When I started working with pediatric patients in nursing school, I would hear them laugh, and the lost little girl inside me prayed they would never have to endure what I did as a child, that they would never lose their innocent giggles to their illnesses, as I had.
I spent my teenage years pretending the Crohn's did not exist, a façade I was able to maintain long enough to move to Boston and attend journalism school. But when the tests confirmed the Crohn's was back and my first remission had ended, I had to leave that life. It was then that I finally allowed myself to think about what having Crohn's really meant.
There are defining moments in life that some of us are lucky enough to realize early on. My moment arrived unexpectedly, in 1998, after a particularly invasive exam from a new doctor in Massachusetts who acted as if we were old friends, although we were strangers. I walked out of the exam room feeling as if my body had once again turned on me in some cruel, ironic joke. I wanted to cry, but there was no one to lean on. My family and friends were hours away. I tried to be brave, but a nurse I had never met before took one look at me and saw right through me. She invited me to sit down with her, and wrapped her arms around me. She gave me the only hug I would have that day and whispered to me, "It's okay to cry here," and so I did.
That was my defining moment, when I found not only solace and comfort in that nurse's embrace, but a purpose in the embrace of nursing. Suddenly I knew, without a doubt, my life's purpose was to become a nurse and help other sick children the way so many nurses and doctors had helped me. Less than a year later, by the end of 1999, I was well into my first clinical rotation as a student nurse at Georgetown University, working towards a BSN and focusing my clinical studies on pediatric gastroenterology. I also worked part-time at two different children's hospitals. Oh, and in 2000, I had two abdominal surgeries without having to take a semester off from school.
Every day, I showed the world that it was possible to be both a nursing student and a patient. My days began much like everyone else's, but somewhere between brushing my teeth and going to class, my life changed. I swallowed a handful of pills and skipped breakfast out of fear that I'd need to go to the bathroom while stuck in rush hour traffic. And yes, my days continued to be unique, more like those of my patients than those of my fellow nursing students, as I made trips to numerous doctors, picked up more pills at the pharmacy, planned my meals around my meds, and tried to make time to rest between classes.
Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Happiness
By juggling those two identities every day, I learned something about being a patient that I never knew before: from illness comes strength. And I learned something about being a nurse, too, in nursing school — that there is nothing more important than real nursing care. Still, there were days during my nursing school clinicals, and at my jobs, that I wondered if perhaps I cared too much for my sick little patients, days when I had to take a deep breath to compose myself before entering their rooms. Despite my concern that I would respond too emotionally to every sick child I worked with, I returned to my pediatric clinicals and my jobs week after week, certain that my presence in these children's lives would make it all worthwhile, no matter how emotionally painful it was for me to work with them at the time. A five-year-old boy newly diagnosed with Crohn's disease proved me right. His mother feared they would always be in and out of the hospital, but I shared with her the fact that I also had inflammatory bowel disease and that this had not stopped me from realizing my dreams. The greatest gift I was able to give this family was proof that life after such a diagnosis does go on.
In 2001, I underwent more tests, which unfortunately showed that the remission I had been in since my second bowel resection in 2000 was now over. In spite of my active Crohn's disease (or maybe because of it), and my determination to succeed, I finished my junior year of nursing school with honors. But I do not simply mean good grades. I mean that I finished the year having touched the lives of dozens of patients and their families in ways I would not have had I not been ill, as well.
Due to my Crohn's flare-up in 2001, I had to take a semester off from nursing school. But I knew that I would never let Crohn's beat me... it might knock me out once in a while, but I would always be the ultimate winner in this battle. And, although I did not "officially graduate" with my class in May of 2002, the nursing school faculty urged me to come to graduation anyway, in cap and gown, to wear my Sigma Theta Tau nursing honor society rope proudly. At first I did not want to go, and I could not understand why they would want me to. It turned out they needed me there because I was being presented with three awards! I won an award for The Most Publishable Scholarly Paper, I won a Dean's Recognition award for superior service to the school, and I was given an honorable mention in a speech; they spoke of my journalism background, my writing and editing, how I'd been published, and how I made their school a better and more respected and famous place. I was stunned! And, in the end, despite the surgeries, hospitalizations and Crohn's flare-ups I had experienced while in nursing school, I graduated from Georgetown University magna cum laude in December of 2002, and my first nursing job was at the #1 hospital in the country, Johns Hopkins. So, you see, no matter what obstacles life throws at you, the key is to take them in stride, to never give up. But really, in my experience, the most important thing is to have faith in yourself.
To this day I lead a double life, just as I did in nursing school ten years ago, and because there is no cure for Crohn's disease, I always will live the life of both a patient and a nurse, but I am living it for myself and for my patients... and in honor of the nurse who cried with me that day when I otherwise would have cried alone.

My Secret Love Affair

By Shannon Kaiser

You've got a lot of choices. If getting out of bed in the morning is a chore and you're not smiling on a regular basis, try another choice.
~Steven D. Woodhull
The co-worker who sat behind me was getting married. He proudly tacked the corners of his engagement photo onto his cubicle wall. He looked over at me and observed, "Did you ever notice that what people put up in their office space is a reflection of what they care most about?" I realized that my cubicle was the only one in the office that wasn't covered with photos of chubby babies or other loved ones. In fact I didn't have any family photos on display. My show and tell was a collage of postcards from cities I longed to go to and places I had already been. Puzzled by the difference, I asked him what my area said about me. He matter-of-factly responded, "You want to escape."
How was it that a work acquaintance knew me better then I knew myself? It should have made me question myself, at least a bit. I'm not sure why I ignored the red flag, but at the time I was in the business of missing the obvious. After all, I had carefully crafted every aspect of my life, from the city I lived in to the company that I worked for. I'd actively pursued a career in advertising. I put myself in a graphic design master's program and graduated at the top of my class, all in an effort to live the dream of working for a big advertising agency and living in a fast-paced city. For all of that, I wasn't happy.
I didn't know that the majority of people in the world didn't cry themselves to sleep at night, the way I was. In fact, my tears even crept into my workplace. I thought it was normal to cry in the bathroom. The fact that I had lived in five different cities in a span of three years didn't seem odd to me. Or the reality that everyone I knew was collecting wedding registry lists and picking out house paint colors, while I was far more interested in collecting new passport stamps. It never dawned on me that my real happiness was waiting for me elsewhere.
After my co-worker opened my eyes, I decided to figure out why I wanted to escape, and why I was alone and loveless while everyone else was planning weddings and having babies. I figured there might be something to this love thing; I should give it a try. I finally got up enough nerve to ask myself out on a date.
The first encounter was simple; I took myself to coffee along with my laptop. Within seconds of typing my first sentence, I knew. Like any transformational love affair I wanted to spend every waking moment with the object of my affection. I hadn't taken any sick days or vacation in over four years, but all of a sudden I was calling in sick so I could spend the entire day with my new love — my writing self.
Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Happiness
I had found my passion. It was time to declare my love to the world, so I took my writing on a honeymoon. We arrived in the most romantic city in the world, Paris. I spent two glorious weeks on this honeymoon, filling it with exploration, amazement and awe. I wrote every day.
On a whim I sent some of my travel blogs to editors and book publishers. A few months later I received a letter from an editor that read, "Congratulations, your story has been selected to run in our upcoming book." Before I could finish the letter, my knees collapsed and I fell to the floor! For the first time in my entire life, tears of extraordinary happiness poured through me. There was a light at the end of my dark tunnel. I was going to be a published author. I hadn't known that this was a dream of mine until my heart sang out.
I knew what I had to do — it was time for me to break up with advertising. Like leaving any involved relationship, I got scared. I worried about finding money to pay my bills, and where I would live as a travel writer. So I stayed where I was, miserable and depressed. Finally I got lucky and I was laid off from my job and I received a healthy severance that gave me the confidence to launch my new career and to travel the world.

A Friendly Reminder

By Tina Dula

In life you have a choice: Bitter or Better? Choose better, forget bitter.
~Nick Vujicic
I've become accustomed to stares. Strange looks because of the strange sounds my son makes. Jerky movements and high-pitched squeals draw looks of curiosity, sometimes censure, and worst of all, pity. Yes, autism tutored me well in the ways of self-consciousness, and then taught me to ignore it all.
Public places have been difficult minefields for my family to negotiate ever since Myles was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. He had quickly deteriorated from a bright, vibrant, ever-learning toddler, to a vacant-stared, silent child who seemed frozen in some alternative universe completely inaccessible to us. The strange behaviors were challenging but created some situations that make me laugh... in hindsight. Way hind.
Like the time at the park fountains when Myles ran naked through the water. Kids do the darndest things, right? Did I mention he was nine years old at the time?
Or the time he came downstairs to greet the friends we'd invited over for dinner... without any clothes on. Did I mention he was ten years old? Ah, the naked years.
Some incidents, though, even in the rearview mirror, will never make me laugh. One time, I had gotten up the courage to take Myles out to Golden Corral without my husband. Restaurants mean a lot of people and a lot of noise — two things that often spell sensory overload for my son. First came the screeching. Then the banging on his chest, which devolved into banging on the table. With my nerves stretched paper thin, I noticed a sweet old lady ambling my way. I prepared my "thanks, but no thanks" to the offer of assistance I was sure she was about to make.
"Can you keep him quiet?" she snapped. "I'm trying to eat! Is he on medication or anything? He should be!"
I held my tongue out of respect for my elders. I apologized if Myles had disturbed her meal, and with as much dignity as I could, hightailed it out of there. I didn't bother to look around for compassion or concern or more of what the old lady had given me. I had to escape the weight of the eyes around us. It was humiliating and disheartening.
After that incident, and others like it, I built a wall around my heart, a shell to protect my most vulnerable, tender parts from other people's opinions about my family. About my son. It hurt too much when they didn't understand, so I told myself it didn't matter. And really, in the larger scheme of things, it didn't. I still had the great privilege of raising this very special child. I still saw things in him only a mother would discern. I still felt compelled every morning to create a better reality for him, to imagine the best future I possibly could for him.
It didn't matter what anyone thought, but I had lost something. I no longer gave people the benefit of the doubt. I stopped giving them the chance to be compassionate, stopped looking for the opportunity to help them understand. I assumed the worst about them, and in many ways that was as bad as what that old lady had done to me that day.
So when I found myself back at Golden Corral with my son, who started screeching and banging the table again, I looked up with wary eyes at the middle-aged woman approaching. Her face was perfectly serene as she assessed the situation at the table with my son, my husband, and me. I readied my comeback. This was no little old lady, and if she had a complaint about my son's behavior, I was prepared to pull the trigger and give her the piece of my mind I had held onto before.
"Hi, how are you doing?" she asked, her tone kind, her eyes steady.
"I'm fine," I said curtly, furrowing my brow as a clear warning to her that she did not want to mess with me.
"I hope you don't mind me asking," she continued. "But does your son have autism?"
If I had a dollar for every time some perfect stranger had used that as their opening line to advise me on how to raise my kid, I'd be a rich woman and probably wouldn't be eating at Golden Corral.
I flicked a glance at my husband as he soothed my son, who was now less agitated, but still humming and rocking a little. I raised my brow at him, using my highly-developed nonverbals to say, "Here goes another one."
"Yeah, he has autism," I replied to the lady, who was waiting patiently.
"Well, I raised a child with autism," she began.
Great. Now she really felt like she could tell me how to raise my kid. The only thing worse than a clueless person telling you how to raise your special needs child, is someone who does know the deal telling you you're doing it all wrong.
"I know you don't know me, but my name is Pam," she said, reaching to touch Myles' shoulder. "Like I said, I raised a child with autism, my stepson, and if you ever need any help, please call me."
I looked at the hand she extended, holding a slip of paper with her name and number scribbled on it.
Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum
"I can offer references," she said into the silence. "My pastor. I also drive a bus for the public school system. There are several people who could vouch for me, if you ever want me to watch him for you. Give you guys a break."
My husband offered her a friendly, grateful smile. I couldn't speak for the lump clogging my throat. The smile she directed at me barreled through the walls I had erected. The pure compassion of her offer bulldozed my defenses. I blinked stubbornly at the tears threatening to spill over.
"I-I-don't-" I stammered, swiping at the renegade tear that had escaped and streaked its way down my cheek.
"It's hard," she cut in, saving me from blubbering. "I know how hard it is sometimes, and if you ever need help, please call me."
"Thank you," I managed to whisper.
"Call me," she reiterated, smiling at my husband and me, and saving a special, knowing grin for Myles before walking away.
I did call her, and she became as close as family. She often babysits for free. She had a lot to teach not only Myles, but to teach me. Lessons I couldn't have unearthed in any book, or at any seminar or conference. My experience with her became a master class on the depth and breadth of kindness. Humanity at its best, unfettered by selfish motives, unhampered by agenda. Kindness of the simplest and purest variety.
Somewhere along the way, under the weight of curious stares in restaurants, impatient looks in grocery stores, and horrified silences in too many places to name, I had forgotten what kindness looked like. How it felt brushing up against my cynicism. How it softened my world-weary edges. Pam helped me remember that it was worth taking the time to teach people about autism, because people enlightened about the challenges and rewards of autism are kinder. They are part of a better future for my son. These are the people who will have the chance to accept, to understand and appreciate a generation of kids like Myles.
I can huddle behind my old hurts, burrow into my self-pity, or I can engage. I can teach. I can learn. She reminded me that day, and a dozen times in a dozen ways thereafter. And for that, I am forever grateful.

Metamorphosis by Mud

By Erin Mantz

A boy is Truth with dirt on its face, Beauty with a cut on its finger, Wisdom with bubble gum in its hair, and the Hope of the future with a frog in its pocket.
~Author Unknown
By dinnertime on warm summer days, I am covered in dirt, water, melted Popsicles, sidewalk chalk or goo. My hair is decorated with leaves and crumbs from Goldfish crackers. My clothes are often drenched from water balloon fights or attempts to wash my car. I look a mess, even on days I'd showered and fixed my hair. I am the mother of boys.
The funny thing is, at thirty-seven, the mud has created a kind of madness that has made me, well, calmer. I am chilling out and letting myself and my life get a little messy for the first time — and it's okay. My two- and five-year-old sons have turned my visions of perfect breezy afternoons upside down, like our old striped hammock that lies sideways and dusty in our back yard.
In the woods behind our house, I follow my boys through knee-deep leaf piles and across the muddy creek. Without hesitation, they peer inside fallen tree trunks for proof of life, a squirrel's home, or big bugs. Some moments, I hang back, fearful of what they may find or what might jump out. But their excitement and bravado makes me laugh and then I'm right there with them.
They follow baby frogs from the neighbor's smelly pond and want to touch them, germs and all. Growing up, I was a girly girl who didn't walk in woods or get my hands dirty, and Kermit was the only frog I saw. Now I contemplate getting a little green guy as a pet.
Nothing makes my sons happier than water and me — combined. Their favorite outdoor activity is spraying me with a hose or washing me while they wash my car. I've stopped wearing mascara during the day.
Chicken Soup for the Soul: Parenthood

My friends who have older kids often tell me to cherish these moments when the kids are still young enough to want me there to play. Last year, I shook my head and looked forward to when they'd be old enough to stop making me a mess. This year, I try to memorize those moments. Maybe it's because I'm a year older now, or I am noticing my boys growing up so fast. Maybe it's because these two little nature lovers have changed me.
When we moved here when my older son was two, I looked at the woods behind our house and appreciated the beauty. But, now I'm living it. I think my first son made me appreciate life, and my second son made me change the way I live my life. Some early evenings, the last thing I want to do is have to change into fresh jeans or a dry shirt, but in the end, it's more a mission accomplished than a chore.
As a girl, I'd imagined having a daughter or two someday. I pictured a house full of dolls and purple dresses, pink rooms and places for hair bows and ballet slippers. Instead, I am surrounded by bug vacuums, mud puddles and football cleats, and I couldn't be happier. My life is much messier than I ever thought it would be. And better.

The Sweetest Sight

By Rachel Allord

While we try to teach our children all about life,
Our children teach us what life is all about.
~Angela Schwindt
I was in the most beautiful city in the world yet I only wanted to go home.
It had been an amazing week of travel for my husband and me — London and Paris — the trip of a lifetime. Months previously, when my husband Doug told me that he was hoping to attend a ministry conference in London, I told him there was no way he was going to Europe without me. We cashed in our frequent flyer miles, secured my in-laws to watch our two children, booked the most inexpensive hostel we could find and were off.
After navigating the subway system, we soaked up as much of London as we could, taking in sights that we had only ever seen courtesy of the Travel Channel; the Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, even original manuscripts by Jane Austen and sketches by da Vinci. We boarded the Eurostar and zoomed to Paris to cap off our adventure. As we exited a corner bakery, croissant in hand, the Eiffel Tower peeked out at us and we pinched ourselves. We toured the gothic Notre Dame and marveled at the brilliant stained glass of the round "Rose" windows. Unable to afford a fancy dinner, we bought fresh bread, cheese and fruit and nibbled away as we sat in the courtyard of the Louvre. We stood beneath the colossal Arc de Triomphe, the sculptured marbled angels towering above us. It was truly amazing.
On our last night in Paris, after witnessing the Eiffel Tower twinkle with hundreds of white lights while Parisians picnicked on the lawn, Doug found a payphone in a small pavilion and called home. It was midnight. We were sleepy but giddy.
"Bonjour," he chirped as his mother answered the phone back in Illinois. In mere seconds, my husband's face fell, his blithe expression suddenly somber. My heart immediately went into overdrive.
"What?" I said. "What's wrong?"
He shooed my question away with his hand and continued to listen. I began to silently pray. Oh God, Oh God, My kids my kids. A prayer of desperation. A prayer I hoped God could decipher. I had no idea what was going on, had no idea what to pray.
Finally, Doug covered the mouthpiece and whispered to me that Elijah, our seven-year-old, had fallen off his bike and broken his leg. I began to cry. Was it a bad break? Yes. Was he in pain? Yes. But he was okay. He had broken his leg. Just his leg. He was okay but we needed to get him to an orthopedic surgeon in our hometown as soon as possible.
As we walked back to our hotel, Paris suddenly lost its charm. I don't want to be here, I thought. I shouldn't be here, I should be home with my kids, with my son, and our flight didn't leave until the following afternoon. It wasn't soon enough.
The next day we made it as far as Cleveland only to discover that our flight to Chicago was delayed due to storms. I sat in the terminal with other disgruntled travelers, most of whom had not just endured a transatlantic flight, and couldn't help but overhear their conversations:
Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings
"I was supposed to be at a meeting tonight."
"We'll have to cancel our dinner plans."
"Better find a hotel and come back in the morning."
I sat and seethed, wanting to scream that none of their petty plans mattered — I needed to get home to my son. Had I been in my right mind I would have realized that everyone around me had a life too; they had their own problems and dilemmas, some probably more dire than mine. But in that moment I was completely myopic. I was an irrational, frightened mother who didn't understand why the plane couldn't just fly through the lightning bolts to get her home.
We finally got into Chicago at around three in the morning and I snuck a peek at both of my sleeping children, wanting and not wanting to wake them. There is nothing, nothing, nothing like the sight of your children after you've been separated. No cathedral, no great painting or famous landmark compares to the sight of their sweet faces.
For the rest of the summer and into the fall, Elijah was in a hip-to-toe cast. We took up jigsaw puzzles, read James and the Giant Peach, drew all over his plastered leg with markers and even hobbled to the beach and dug out a water hole for his good leg to soak in.
We told our kids all about the great cities of London and Paris, showed them our photographs and gave them the souvenirs we had bought for them. Yet the truth was, out of all the amazing sights we took in that summer, our favorites were the two little faces that greeted us at home.

Lessons Learned in Writing My First Novel

By Sebastian Cole

Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.
~Maria Robinson
I'm the type of guy who believes you can achieve anything you set your mind to, as long as you give it your all and don't give up. So when I decided to write a novel, it didn't matter to me that I had never done anything like that before. What did matter to me was that I had a great story in my head, a story that needed to be born. With no experience, training, or education in creative writing, I figured I'd pick up the skills along the way, which is exactly what happened. Besides, I thought, how hard could it be to write a book? Well, I'd soon find out.
What I thought would take a couple of months, took a couple of years. After five months of writing everyplace and everywhere, I finally reached the "finish line" — that magical day when you type "THE END." Okay, so I wrote a manuscript; now what? The first thing I did was to copyright it, followed by sending it out to all of my friends who read a lot, to get constructive criticism. This worked out great. Then it was back to rewriting the story, and when I was done, I rewrote some more. Next, I hired a professional to critique the story, who gave me great advice, which of course meant more rewriting. I soon learned Lesson One in writing: writing is rewriting. There'd always be room for improvement.
By this point in time during this process, I felt that the story had risen to a level of brilliance. But what about my writing style and voice? It needed to be just as good as the bestselling authors' because they don't put an asterisk next to your name along with an explanation about your education. So I spent months combing through the manuscript, trying to bring the level of writing up to the level of the story.
When I felt the time was right, I tried soliciting literary agents with a one-page query letter, synopsis, and whatever their submission guidelines called for. Oh, did I mention the Catch 22 in traditional publishing? Apparently, you need a literary agent to get traditionally published. However, in order to get a literary agent, you need to have already been published. So it's nearly impossible to get an agent unless you're a famous celebrity, politician, sports figure, etc. Certainly, they'd give me more credence if I had a BFA or MFA in creative writing, which I had not. Like all roads to success, this one's paved with rejection. So after tons of rejection letters from literary agents, I had a choice to make: give it up or step it up. Since giving up is not really in my vocabulary, I stepped it up.
I hired an editor, and the first thing she did was cross off 5,000 unnecessary words. For instance, you shouldn't write "run fast." You should simply write "run," because obviously if you're running, it's fast. Who knew? Besides copy-editing, my editor did developmental editing, too, telling me where the story needed to be improved. It was kind of like digging for treasure — she'd tell me where to dig, and I'd come up with something invaluable, as if she knew I had it in me before I ever did. I learned a lot simply by reading her edits and comments, and I became a better writer for it.
I had rewritten the manuscript time and time again for a period of two years, and in the process, I learned how to write. Looking back, I had no idea how long it was going to take or how hard it was going to be. Writing the manuscript, however, was the easy part. Navigating the way to a successful book, now that's the hard part.
Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Writers
After getting the go-ahead from my editor, I decided to self-publish my first novel, Sand Dollar: A Story of Undying Love. Now it was time to find out how good it really was. So I set up a website, SebastianColeAuthor.com, entered contests, gave away free books to reviewers, and waited for the reviews to start coming in.
And the results? Well, the reviews have been mostly outstanding, with an average rating of 4.6 stars (out of 5 stars) on Amazon with over sixty reviews. People who have reviewed Sand Dollar have even called it the best love story they've ever read, with many of them comparing me to Nicholas Sparks. I was also a finalist in ForeWord Firsts debut literary competition for first-time authors. Who knew?
But my greatest reward lies not in any number or rating. My greatest reward lies in the effect I've had on the lives of others through my writing. People who've read Sand Dollar, especially those who have lost a loved one, feel that the book was written just for them, as if the author expressed in words what they have always felt. One person wrote that the story "touched the very depths of her soul," and that she'll "cherish the book forever." She loved the book so much that she even had it made into earrings! Another person wrote that Sand Dollar was her "lighthouse in the storm" — this coming from a woman who had just survived Hurricane Sandy. Another woman was moved to tears as she finished the book on Veterans Day, missing her father, a veteran. And the list goes on.
But having great reviews hasn't translated into sales. What I need is exposure. But how do I do that? It would be great if I had a YouTube video with millions of hits, or if Oprah were to mention my book, but neither is likely to happen at this point. So I sent out press releases and got a couple of articles written about me in local newspapers. I've done several book signings and talked at different venues about my experiences. Despite all of my success, my book is currently only available online, not in bookstores, and very few people have ever heard of me.
So it's back to the literary agents I go. I've somehow made it full circle. But will I have a different result now that Sand Dollar has gained traction? Stay tuned to find out. Regardless of whether or not Sand Dollar ever makes it big, touching the lives of others through my writing has been the single most gratifying thing I have ever done in my life. And pursuing my dreams has made all the difference. Life's a journey. I can't see what lies ahead, but I know one thing for sure: when I look behind, I see the things that I've accomplished... and I smile with pride.

Accountability Partner

By Samantha Ducloux Waltz

Authors like cats because they are such quiet, lovable, wise creatures, and cats like authors for the same reasons.
~Robertson Davies
Nothing motivates a writer like an accountability partner. Right now, mine sits on my desk two feet from my elbow. From her spot, she has a lovely view out my office window to woods across the street. The sun gleams on her black fur, and I pause in my writing to admire her.
"Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?" I ask Naomi.
She blinks her round yellow eyes. "Meow," she says, which might mean "certainly," but more likely, "Get back to your writing." Or maybe, "Finish that story so you can read it to me."
Naomi, as foreman of our morning routine, is a harsh taskmaster. When the first summer light slips through the vertical blinds of the bedroom, she pads up my chest and presses her nose to mine. Never mind what time I got to bed the night before. "Mrrow."
I open one eye. I've been known, after a particularly late night, to tell her, "Not now, Naomi."
She answers by leaping off the bed and playing with her toys in a shoebox nearby for two or three minutes, jangling bells and scratching cardboard boxes. Then she springs back up. "Rrrrrrrow," she insists in her raspy voice.
I snake one hand out from under the covers, and stroke her cheeks and the length of her back. This is my miracle kitty, seventeen years old and an eighteen-month cancer survivor. I can't possibly be cross with her. "Okay," I murmur, slip out of bed and tie on my robe.
"Meow, meow, meow." Naomi runs down the hall to stand outside my office door.
"Can I brush my teeth first?"
"Rrrrrow." Evidently not. Naomi stalks through the door and over to my desk. She's a drill sergeant disguised as a seven-pound feline. She's also right. The house will be quiet for another hour or two before my retired husband gets up. It's a perfect time to work on the story circling in my head.
I sit at my computer, and she leaps up to the water and food bowls I've put to my right. With a different accountability partner, one might offer coffee and donuts. My gift to her is an unlimited supply of kibbles and fresh water.
I'm tempted to start with e-mails. You know, warm up the brain. She glances at my computer. Can she actually see my inbox? She paces the length of my desk. "Meow, meow," she scolds in her imitation Siamese cat voice.
"You're a slave driver, you know." I stroke her silky cheeks. She's such a smart cat. I can do e-mails along with laundry when my husband is up. He'll be offering to make oatmeal, wanting to review plans for the day, suggesting a walk or a hike. Now is my opportunity for uninterrupted writing time.
When I am steadily working, Naomi jumps from the desk and takes up residence on the heater grate. Understandable. It's one of those damp, gray mornings in Portland. I've worked fifteen minutes when she gets up, arches her back in a cat pose perfect for a yoga calendar, and settles into the empty file-folder box near my chair. A few weeks earlier, I'd used the last of the folders and set aside the box for recycling. Naomi stepped delicately into it and snuggled down. The box is hers now. She especially favors it for morning naps.
She turns her head lazily toward me. "Meow," she says. I think she means, "Isn't this nice? You working away, me keeping you on track?"
It is nice. The ideas come easily, and my fingers dance on the keyboard for an hour. Then a story that started out charming turns into drivel. I'm not sure what to do next. Rethink the plot? Add a bit of spicy dialogue? "This is so not working," I tell Naomi, stretching my arms in front of me, fingers curled together.
She lifts her head to look at me. I see no sympathy in her eyes.
"I need a break," I tell her and head into the kitchen. Maybe if I spend a few minutes with the newspaper and a cup of tea, ideas will come to me.
As quickly as I'm out of my chair, Naomi is out of her box. She scolds me with a haughty flick of her tail and walks from the room. The word "quitter" reverberates in the air.
Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Writers
"I'm only going to take five minutes," I call over my shoulder as I retrieve the newspaper. I plug in the electric teakettle, spread the newspaper on the dining-room table, and open it to the crossword puzzle. Naomi sits alert on a chair beside me. "Every writer should do crossword puzzles," I explain to her. "Keeps the mind sharp."
"Rrrrrrr." She flattens her ears.
"What a commando." I fill in a couple of words that quickly come to mind, then abruptly hit a snag. I look at Naomi. "8 across, 'carries things too far.' What do you think? 'Provokes'? That isn't quite right. 'Exaggerates'? Too many letters. 'Overdo'?"
"Mrrrow." She isn't helpful.
"I'm going with 'overdo.'" As I'm penciling in the word, Naomi leaps on the table and walks onto the paper, crinkling it with every step. She sits squarely on the crossword puzzle and lifts one hind leg to begin her morning ablutions.
"I had three more minutes to relax." There's a slight whine in my voice.
She lifts her other hind leg and continues to clean herself.
I think of the advice a writing teacher gave me in a workshop recently. "When you hit an obstacle, stay with it. The bigger the obstacle, the greater the triumph. Stay with it, and you'll get a major breakthrough."
He didn't mean a blank in a crossword puzzle. He meant that issue I'm having with my story. "Okay, sweetie. You win." I sigh and chuck Naomi under her chin, take my cup of tea, and return to my office and my story. If Naomi can fight cancer, I can fight writer's block.
She follows me in and jumps on my desk with a throaty whir. "This is where we belong, isn't it?" she seems to say.
"Here's to a major breakthrough. And to the world's best accountability partner." I lift my teacup to her and catch her eye.
She stretches out a paw, softly touches my forearm, and purrs her agreement.