The Book People

 
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Who would we be without the Book People in our lives? The ones who introduced us, prodded us, encouraged us to make all the many gains in life that could be ours—through reading.

My first Book Person was my father. After selling encyclopedias door to door as a young man, he made sure there were plenty of them in our home. The book case in the living room held full sets of Encyclopedia BritannicaThe World Book Encyclopedia and The Book of Knowledge. When we had a question, my dad’s reply was often ‘Go look it up’. Which we did. My big brother, Bill, took one book to bed with him each night, reading them one by one, all the way through – 3 sets with about 10 books in each. No wonder he’s so smart. 

Next was the librarian at the elementary school. She had a way of watching the students as they roamed among the stacks and seemed to be able to read our interest and guide us to the right place. She sent me to a collection of blue book biographies of American Women. I’ve wandered all over the internet trying to locate this set, but so far it is filed only in the Dewey Decimal System of my memory. Following her instructions, I turned into my brother, checking the books out one by one, reading all of them. That librarian wanted me to know that even women could achieve great things. I wish I could thank her.

In high school I discovered both reading and writing were my passions, and so majored in English in college, reading up to 5 assigned books in a week for my classes. I took semester long seminars on single authors, reading everything written by Mark Twain and John Steinbeck—Steinbeck is the better writer. The Book People professors overseeing all of these classes and projects were right there, helping with interpretation, offering supporting historical documents and pieces of art to flesh out the authors’ perspectives. As a thesis, I wrote an annotated bibliography of William Faulkner, reading everything he ever wrote, and the literary criticism on each book, which I then compiled into a summary. I thought if I could understand what the heck Faulker was writing about, I could understand anything. 

Maybe, with the ongoing help of the Book People, I can.

Lessons from Bambi

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Like many older adults, the story of Bambi followed me through my childhood, beginning with the original book, Bambi, A Life in the Woods, first published in English in 1928, long before I was born. This was an adult novel, and the grim aspects of the story were at the forefront. While the animals were imbued with our most generous and endearing human qualities, the humans were portrayed as greedy, destructive hunters and disrespectful of the animals’ forest home. In 1942, Walt Disney produced the animated film as a story for children, softening the hard lessons of the novel, but not eliminating them. Since then, over 200 editions of the novel have been published, and it has been translated into over 30 languages. As a child, I had the two vinyl recordings of the movie score, along with a companion picture book. I sat on the floor beside my little record player listening to them over and over while reading along.

When my father took me out into the woods to learn to shoot a gun, not unusual for Texans, he pointed to a rabbit as my target. After I pulled that trigger, I went to kneel beside the panting creature I had shot and saw Thumper. I knew I would never shoot a gun again, certainly not at anything alive. I don’t think I am alone in learning from Bambi that animals share our human feelings, at least our better ones, and that we humans could learn a lot from them if we just paid attention. Here are some of my favorite quotes from Bambi’s friends in the forest:

“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”  –Thumper

“It can happen to anybody. So, you’d better be careful, it can happen to you.” –Friend Owl

“If you’re scared, just be scarier than whatever is scaring you.”  --Thumper

“I’m always with you, even when you can’t see me, I am here.”  --Bambi’s mother

And to close, a contemporary message for our times, “Nearly everybody gets twitterpated in the springtime … And then you know what, you’re knocked for a loop and then you completely lose your head.”  –Friend Owl 

Is it Good to Know the Future?

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When my young grandson was asked if he wanted to read CeeGee’s Gift, he replied, “I don’t want to know the future. I don’t want to know people are going to die.” Fair enough, he just turned ten and is a sweet, sensitive boy. But a few days later, as I finished a presentation at a senior living facility and asked for comments, a man in the group challenged me. “What good is it to know the future?” I stumbled with my reply, saying that when Mr. Tindale learned his time was short, he had an opportunity to make decisions that would transform his small town. Had he passed unexpectedly this might not have occurred. But the question hung in the air. Is it good to know the future, assuming we could? And why did I choose this particular theme to write about anyway, what drew me to the subject?

When I was in my early 40’s I became ill. I had symptoms of pain, fatigue and sleeplessness. I found it hard to think clearly. I went to doctor after doctor, each taking a stab at what might be wrong, none conclusive. I remember thinking, “What if I die before I find out what is killing me?” I very much wanted to know the future during those years. Once I knew what was going on, I could plan, I could manage it, I could make peace with my reality. And I did, ultimately regaining my health. I think this experience may be what prompted me to write about this theme, those seven long years of not knowing what the future would hold and how my life changed when I had a clearer idea of what to expect. 

During this time, my mother also got sick, and was eventually diagnosed with leukemia. I looked up information on the disease, and saw that at her age of seventy-five, life expectancy was about a year. I stayed with her a lot in the months to come, knowing we were in our last days together. I’m glad I knew, and grateful I got to be there. Conversely my dad, also 75, went out to play golf on a sunny day and dropped dead of a heart attack on the 18th green. I was glad he did not suffer but also grieved that I did not get to say goodbye, that he left us so suddenly.

So, the gift to me is not so much knowing the future but knowing the direction things are headed and having a chance to work with that. I’d like to have that option every time I can. And, very soon, I’ll get back to my dear grandson with these thoughts, coupled with the understanding that he doesn’t have to read the book unless he truly wants to. It’s his future.

Dog Days

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I am the official morning dog walker in our household and have been for many years. Every day our twelve-year-old Wheaten Terrier, Dooley, will allow me to drink a cup of coffee and briefly read the paper and then, with a penetrating stare, politely insist it is time for our morning walk. Dooley is well behaved and trained to be off lead, so we look for places that allow him this freedom. We used to live on a golf course and our walks were on the cart paths before the golfers showed up. Now we live in an apartment and have about six different parks and trails that we drive to, alternating between them each day.

I’ve learned to recognize the conversation of the birds around us. The questions, answers and declarations that they send to each other have their own construction, their own bird grammar. And I get to see the plant life change as it moves through the seasons, through rain, storm and sunshine days, how the high grasses that narrow the trail go wide as they yield to the summer heat. The bluebonnets last much longer on these trails, and at the end of the season they sprout little shells with peas that taste just like they should. Many of our trails have creeks running through them. They run wild with waterfalls in the spring and then the water often disappears when the weather heats and dries. There are squirrels and lizards, dragonflies and some bat shelters, although I’ve never seen a bat flying about on these mornings. Those beauties have already gone to bed for the day

Over the years I’ve adapted to weather changes and have suitable dog walking clothes laid out each night. I’ve got the proper walking shoes as well, whether tennis shoes or sandals. We usually walk about a mile, so every day I know I will have a mile’s worth of exercise before I sit down at my computer to work and to write. Or prepare for a busy day of meetings and appointments (that can only be scheduled for after the walk).

There was a time when this dog walking was a burden for me. I had things to do, places to be, why did I have to walk the dog? But those times have passed. Now it is a cherished ritual. Dooley and I are partners, staying close together, talking a bit. I patiently wait for him to complete his mandatory sniffing and other business. I don’t know when things changed—when obligatory dog walking became a serene start to each day, but it has. I know Dooley won’t live forever, nor will I, but I am grateful that what was once a chore has become a blessing. For both of us. It makes me think that getting older can be quite wonderful.

The Other End of the Spectrum

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Have you ever noticed that a quality you really enjoy about someone, at the other end of the spectrum, is the same quality that drives you crazy? My first husband was playful and a superb athlete. I loved to be with him on the water to go skiing, in the woods to go camping and at a party where he was a wonderful host, and everyone had a good time. After a decade, as the marriage began to fail, I was angry that he moved from job to job, didn’t manage money well and was not preparing for the future as I thought he should. I began to see these qualities as the whole of him. But as I faced the whole of our relationship and what had brought us to this painful time, I had to admit that I had intentionally chosen him and a big reason I did so was his playful, free spirit. The quality that angered me a decade later was just at the other end of that same spectrum. He had not changed; my priorities had changed.

I had two friends, sisters, who were very close. I didn’t have a sister and loved to be around them. There was nothing off the table, they shared every ounce of their lives and when I was with them, I got to be a part and share as well. When they moved out of state, I would go to visit and it was the same, three or four long days of honest, total togetherness. Then one sister became ill and, as she was dying, the family circled the wagons. They were all there for her, but no one else was included. It was heartbreaking for me not to be able to say goodbye, but the family closeness and loyalty that made me feel so welcome in the good times, also meant the family faced inward in times of hardship and grief.

I’ve found it useful to look for this counterbalance when I am in times of turmoil or confusion about a relationship or friendship. For example, perhaps you enjoy someone because they are completely in the moment and, when you are with them, they are totally present. Then don’t be surprised if they are not great at answering emails or returning phone calls. It is likely that you reached out when they were totally present in another moment, not yours. Or perhaps your friend is intensely loyal, you know they will never betray you and always be faithful to you. This may also mean they are intensely stubborn and cannot be convinced to do what you want, if they don’t want to. Period.

This is not to say that people can’t grow and develop, build on their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses, but our strongest qualities will endure, as will the spectrum. I am very well organized and disciplined. You can count on me. I also alphabetize the spices and become irritated if the toilet paper does not come off the top of the roll. I ask your tolerance and offer you mine.

Corporate Giving is Trending Up

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I have three values I try to put front and center in my life. I call them the Three C’s – Creativity, Communication and Compassion. Fortunately, in addition to my writing, I am honored serve as a philanthropic advisor with Rodman & Associates, a professional advisory firm, where these values come into play with each of my clients as they strategize how they can make their generosity more effective or better communicate the mission that they serve. I get to work every day with people who have a service heart, who are called to make their community, or world, better for others. 

This week, I have the opportunity to share the efforts of my colleague, Lisa Rodman, the founder and principal of Rodman & Associates. For the past five years Lisa has conducted a survey of corporate giving in Central Texas. The results inform how businesses are supporting community needs, how trends in giving are moving, the measurement strategies that are being used and the many ways that employers and employees are engaging with area nonprofits. Central Texas businesses can use this report to see how well they fit in with the corporate philanthropic climate, and businesses moving to the area can use this report to see where they might join a generous community and continue to make our region better for all. This year more than 150 companies participated, and several new questions were added to the survey. Here are a few of the findings:

  • Corporate giving budgets continue to trend upward, with 43% increasing and 36.5% stable.

  • 60% of companies encourage and/or organize volunteer programs for their employees.

  • The key drivers for corporate giving are community altruism, goodwill and reinforcing workplace culture.

  • 45% of companies employed specific efforts to support to Central Texas flood victims last year.

  • When asked about possible negative impacts to their corporate giving, more than three fourths of respondents surveyed said there are no downsides to corporate philanthropy.

Corporate giving can take many forms, from cash gifts, to volunteering, to in kind donations and any combination of these. Understanding how these decisions are being made and executed can help all of us to do a better job of supporting community needs. I am proud to be a Rodman Associate and part of the effort to help Central Texas expand and improve its generosity.

Please join in the effort, we’re trending upward! 

Ever Met a Hero on a Cane?

 
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Are heroes ever old? Not that I recall. I know lots of old guys that were heroes, in a war for example, but not so many that are heroes. Mr. Tindale in CeeGee’s Gift is definitely a hero, and I did some searching for a few more. Please feel free to add your own names to this spare list.

Steven Hawking began an historic career early in life and, in spite of living with progressive ALS, remained a hero and an intellectual star in physics and cosmology until the end of his life at 76. And there was Oskar Schindler, who employed enslaved Jews during the Nazi reign, then years later fought to free them, pay them fairly and find them safe passage. And from my childhood reading, there was the solitary Santiago in Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, who spends days on his boat fighting to bring a marlin safely to shore, while bravely warding off attacks from sharks on his passage. 

But Mr. Tindale in CeeGee’s Gift is a special hero. I know this because of reader comments. When I wrote the book, I saw Celia Gene Williamson, with her magical gift of foretelling the future, as the primary character with Mr. Tindale cast in the secondary role as her friend and mentor. Readers seem to think differently.

 “I think your audience is grandparents.” –Mike

“Come speak at the senior living facilities. They never get to read a book where the hero is their age.” –Amy

“I weally, weally wuff Mr. Tindale.” –Emma, six-years-old

Mr. Tindale can be called a hero for providing wise counsel to a troubled young girl as she finds her way, but that is not all he does. Knowing his time is short, the old man takes charge of his affairs, makes each day meaningful, pays attention to the needs he sees around him and leaves a legacy that transforms his small town of Southport. 

He ends his life so revered by his community that they run out of space at his funeral. I’d call that a hero.

Milk Shake Memories

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I have a friend who immigrated to the US from Central America. She lives with her big, multigenerational family, and like many who came to the US from foreign countries, they speak dual languages in their home. She has a son and a daughter, and the daughter was born with a developmental disability. My friend has invested much time and care in helping her daughter grow and thrive and be her best. Still, I was surprised when she told me she was reading CeeGee’s Gift with her, and I was so pleased when she added that her daughter just loved it. 

I thought to myself, ‘I bet she loves the marsh, or maybe biking around the island.’

But then my friend said, with a big grin on her face, “She just loves the milk shakes. Every time we get to a part with a milk shake, she gets all excited.”

I did not see that coming. 

When I was growing up in San Antonio, our next door neighbors owned the local drug store and soda fountain. It was at the corner of a shopping center and close enough to home that I could bike there, roam all the shops and then cool off with a milk shake. It sure hit the spot on a hot Texas day.

Later, when I had small children of my own, we lived in a neighborhood near downtown Phoenix. About once a week, I would load them up in the stroller, one in the seat, one standing on the back. We would walk 6 blocks to the swimming pool and spend a few hours there. Then, on the walk home, we would stop at the drugstore with a soda fountain in the back. There weren’t many left, and I loved sitting at the counter with my kids sharing a milk shake.

Even now, in Austin, there is at least one drug store that still has a soda fountain, Nau’s Enfield Drugs in the Clarksville neighborhood. In the classic style, the drugstore is in front, with the Formica counter of the soda fountain, and raised swivel chairs at the back, and a few booths and tables. They serve, among other things, old fashioned icy, creamy milk shakes.

But to this young child, who lives in a world of her own imagining, she must have created her own image of a milk shake, and it seems it brought her just as much joy as it did for me, my kids, Austin old timers, and the characters in CeeGee’s Gift. Isn’t that just wonderful? 

Change Your Direction - Change Your Future

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My recent novel, CeeGee’s Gift, has a lot to say about the future, starting with CeeGee’s Gift itself, a mysterious ability to receive Knowings about the future of others. She works with her friend and mentor, Mr. Tindale, to try and decide how she can best give her gift to help others, even if their future doesn’t look positive. Mr. Tindale tells her an important value of her gift. ‘If people could see where they were headed, maybe they would decide to change direction and change their entire future.’ What a concept. 

CeeGee is not the first to land on this idea. Lao Tzu, credited as a founder of Taoism in the 6th Century wrote, “If you do not change your direction you may end up where you are heading.” And Alcoholics Anonymous offers this Serenity Prayer, ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’

But how do we know if we are heading in our own best direction? Good and bad events can occur by accident, plans fall apart, serendipity can bring unearned blessings. How do we help our children acquire the discernment to know when it is time to change direction? Or when they need to stay the course.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but my own life experiences and writing has helped provide some. I look for what I call the calm center, a sense of inner peace. If I am heading in the wrong direction, this feeling is very hard to achieve. CeeGee seeks it in the marsh, others in prayer, still others through meditation. Ask yourself some questions and allow the answers to inform your direction. Are you harming anyone in your path? Are you living with humility, a willingness to learn and to admit you don’t know everything? In hard times, are there any Silver Linings on the horizon, a special lesson, a change of perspective, an unexpected benefit? If so, the path may be rocky but worth it. And finally, are you open to change? Are you driven by a tendency to impulsiveness or stubbornness, or will you open your heart and mind to the need to either go or stay, regardless of your fear or ego? Is there a lesson you need to learn in this time, or is the path you are taking one that prevents you from learning that lesson? 

Please join the conversation and add your own wisdom. 

What is an Intergenerational Novel?

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I was a guest at the Chez Zee Author Series here in Austin recently and the host, Cari Clark, asked me probing and insightful questions, then invited questions from the audience. A woman stood up and said, “Your main character is a pre-teen, but the old man who befriends her is also very important. Who do you see as the audience for this book?”

It was a good question, and one I have thought about a lot. Because both CeeGee and Mr. Tindale are central characters in the book, and their friendships is at its core, I have always envisioned the book attracting an audience that reflects this, with both youth and adults reading the story and talking together about the meaning of the story. As I was growing up, once I was past the age where my parents read to me at bedtime, I read on my own. Writing CeeGee’s Gift made me wonder what my relationships and my conversations with my parents, grandparents and other elders would have been like if we had read books together, books that neither talked down to them or were out of reach for me. 

I answered the woman in the audience by saying that, in my opinion, ‘CeeGee’s Gift is a book to be read and shared by young an old’ and noted this statement is printed on the back cover of the book. I would call it an ‘intergenerational’ novel, a book that raises topics that youth and their elders could benefit from talking about. It shows by example that an older person can be a great help to a gifted child in facing her challenges, while neither minimizing her gift or pampering the child. CeeGee’s Gift does not trivialize what goes on in Southport, and with Mr. Tindale’s help, experiencing the events in her community become an avenue for CeeGee to learn and grow and understand the purpose of her gift. 

After the interview, many people from the audience suggested that ‘intergenerational’ should be a book category. Readers should have the opportunity to seek out books we can read with the youth in our lives as they grow and face important issues. I can attest to the value of this. I was the guest author at a mother-daughter book club in a public library several years ago to discuss the unpublished manuscript of CeeGee’s Gift and all members, mothers and their daughters, had read a copy of the manuscript. We had a powerful discussion, with the adults and the youth having equal voices. We talked about death, disability, brother-sister relationships, consequences of poor decisions, how a non-family member can be a valuable mentor, and more. So yes, perhaps it is time to start a new category for readers and claim this label – intergenerational. Books that are meant to be read and shared by young and old. 

The Kindness of Strangers - A True Story

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Ben, an experienced marine mechanic, left the lakes of Montana in search of a new job in a year-round market. He loaded his dog, Max, and all his tools in his VW Beetle and headed south. Before long, perhaps because of the weight of those tools, his engine blew up. He got towed back to the small town of Dillon, Montana. His car was totaled. What now? 

Then the couple who owned the tow truck, and the junk yard, said, “We know a guy who buys and sells cheap cars. We’ll reach out to him, maybe he can find you something.” 

The car guy said, “Well, I got an old van. It’s not pretty, but its reliable. I can sell it to you for $850.” Ben bought the homely van, big enough to sleep in, and he and Max hit the road again. 

Ben travelled all the way to Key Largo, where there were plenty of jobs, but nowhere to live as hurricane Irma had devastated the community. He moved on to Key West, sleeping in his van, protected by his dog, hoping he could find work before he ran out of money. To make matters worse, while driving around trying to find a place to park for the night, Ben took a wrong turn and ended up at a dead end. He had little energy, or optimism, left. A red-headed man walked over to him and asked, “What’s up man? What are you looking for?” 

“A place to park my van for the night – and a job,” Ben answered. “I’m a boat mechanic.”

“I can help with both of those. You can park over there next to that trailer,” the man said, “and I’ll have you a job by tomorrow morning.” 

True to his promise, the next day Ben had a job repairing his favorite engines, older boats and jet skis. The new boss invited him to live aboard a sailboat in the harbor, and Max was welcome, too. This journey, filled with unexpected troubles, was also filled with the kindness of strangers. Especially the kindness of that red-headed homeless man.

One Approving Adult

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I had an appointment with a therapist one day, which was not surprising since my husband and I were raising 6 teenagers at the time. I asked him, “Why is it that some kids go through hard times and seem to use their experiences as building blocks to become stronger, while others are drowned by their experiences and never recover.”

He first answered, “Well, we know it’s not therapy that causes that outcome. We’ve done the research on that.” He chuckled and went on, “What we think makes the difference is one approving adult. It could be a teacher, neighbor, camp counselor, coach, parent or grandparent. It doesn’t matter. The child who has a constant caring adult to trust and confide in has a much better chance of a positive recovery, regardless of hard times.”

Wow. That is the secret? It made me think how lucky I had been, with so many approving adults in my life—both parents, devoted teachers, a youth minister, not to mention this therapist. I vowed I would be this person for all our kids, and I knew my husband would too.

In my first book, You Don’t LOOK Sick, Dr. Overman gave me time to tell him not just about the physical pain my illness was causing, but the emotional pain as well. He listened carefully, he let me know he believed me. He even wrote a book with me. In CeeGee’s Gift, Mr. Tindale not only spends a day listening to the struggles and guilt CeeGee is facing because of her gift, but he invites her back the next day to learn more. He makes a commitment to stay with her as she learns to give her gift generously.

So, I ask, have you had in your life, or are you, that one approving adult? I’d like to know.

Sadako and the Origami Cranes

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On August 6, 1945 the United States dropped the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. There are differing opinions about our country’s culpability in exerting such destruction on so many people. As a child I told my father I thought what we did was wrong. He said, “This was the only way to end the war. Otherwise the Japanese would never give up.” 

The site of the bombing of Hiroshima is now Peace Memorial Park, located near the ruins of the one building left standing. There is a museum in that old building now, filled with artifacts from the time. Whenever any country or leader threatens to bomb again, the mayor of Hiroshima sends a hand-written note imploring the leaders to honor the decades of restraint. These notes are cast into metal tiles and each one becomes part of a model of that old, domed building.

Children from around the world still send bundles of origami cranes in honor of Sadoko, a young girl who was injured in the bombing and believed that if she could fold 1000 origami cranes, she would be granted her wish to live. A tall, elegant monument in the park has a figure of Sadoko standing atop it, arms outreached. Underneath is a stone chest holding the names of over 220,000 people who, in addition to Sadako, died during or after the blast. The thousands who visit the park every year are met by young Japanese students who, like the mayor, hand out hand written cards pleading for world peace.

There has never been another A Bomb, so in a way my father was right, the Japanese don’t give up. In this sacred place these good people will not give up their quest for peace.

I Remember the Penguins

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For those who read my first book, You Don’t LOOK Sick! Living Well with Invisible Chronic Illness, you know that I lived for many years with illness, fueled primarily by chronic pain and debilitating fatigue. It was a sad and lonely time, and I experienced deep grief at my isolation and inability to work as a financial advisor.

My husband Dan was a stalwart supporter during this time, but our life was uncertain. We never knew from day to day whether it would be a good one or a bad one for me as my symptoms waxed and waned. I knew he was as sad as I was at the loss of our vibrant lives.

Then Dan met a woman who had travelled to the Antarctic and inspired him with fabulous stories of what she had seen and experienced. He thought about this kind of expedition travel, on a ship, with no need to cart bags from place to place, no need to pack and unpack, a bedroom at the ready, as needed, 24/7. He realized this was a way for me to reengage with the world. He informed me we were going to the Antarctic.

Now, when I look back on those years, what I most remember is this trip, and others, to locales that ignited my senses in the most stimulating way imaginable. I remember the icebergs and sea lions, I remember the skua birds and the nesting albatross. I remember the scientists and their fascinating lectures on history, geology, the environment and climate change. I don’t remember the pain, or the constant exhaustion. I remember my husband’s love and kindness. 

I remember the penguins.

Living in Lefty Land

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Right handers cannot imagine the degree of discrimination we lefties face in the world. I think we might be the most discriminated against minority group in all of society. Accommodations are not made. Think of scissors, rulers, tape measures, cameras, measuring cups, vegetable peelers, spiral notebooks, belt buckles, can openers, corkscrews, sewing machines—shall I go on? All are made to be used most easily by right-handed people. The fact that we have a shorter life span could be related to being subjected to this exhausting daily adaptation.

But then, I found hope. I learned in graduate school that left-handed people are more creative than right-handers, apparently the need to constantly adapt opens new channels of thinking. Also, I learned my brain was balanced, rather than left or right dominant, so I am both analytical and holistic, also more common among left-handed people. And then there is tennis. One cannot imagine the advantages of being a left-handed tennis player. That drive down the left alley. That spin serve, skipping off to the right corner. The backhanded cross court. All these plays come naturally to the lefty and disorient the righty. I love tennis.

Then, one day walking down the street in London I came across a – Left-Handed Store! Products specifically designed for left-handed use. I bought all I could and ordered more online. Now I love to trick all my right-handed friends into adapting to me. ‘Here darling, would you mind serving the punch with this ladle? Oh, and here’s a corkscrew, can you open the wine, please…’

Ann With One N

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When my mother was about 70, she announced she had too much baggage in her life and would lighten the load by removing one of the N’s from her name. She would now be An, rather than Ann. She made this change legally and her new phone message announced brightly, “Hi, this is An—with one n! Leave me a message and I’ll call you back!” She definitely felt lighter.

On the other hand, I was her financial advisor and had to re-register every security that she owned. My assistant and I would prepare the name changes, send them off and invariably get a note from the other end saying, “Just wanted to let you know we caught your typo. You spelled Ann with only one N. We corrected it for you.” It often took several rounds to convince them, alas, there was no typo, but rather a one-of-a-kind-client with an imaginative flair.

This story symbolizes life with my mother for me. She sparkled, craved change and was a fearless seeker for alternative ways to view life, faith, the world and, not the least, outer space. I tagged along, often shaking my head, but always enjoying the journey.

Near the end of her life, she was convinced there was a spaceship following the Hale—Bopp comet, a community of aliens living under Mt. Shasta and her own personal spiritual guide out in space looking out for her. 

Maybe that same guide chose me to tag alongside her, a loyal sidekick, sharing in her adventures as she made life, the heavens and her ever-evolving beliefs a chorus of mixed melodies that somehow found harmony. I never thought the baggage was too heavy.

The Aha Moment

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In the Author’s Notes of my novel, CeeGee’s Gift, I share the experience I had when I sat down to write the first telling of the story, as a one act play. It came to me as a flash, even the names of the characters, and I wrote the play quickly and with few changes. It was an Aha Moment.

Research on creativity is beginning to suggest a different pattern. What seems to be a sudden understanding is not a moment, but the end of a journey. It is like a host of unrelated dots are swirling around in the mind until, one day, they connect. The Aha Moment is the punctuation mark at the end of the story those dots tell. Looking back to find the dots that led to your own Aha Moment can be illuminating, like Hansel and Gretel following the trail of bread crumbs that led to the beautiful cottage in the woods.

In my case the journey began with contracting long-term illness, leaving my career, and feeling useless. I was dejected that I could no longer contribute, or give my gifts, by helping my clients manage their finances. The Aha Moment came into view when I considered I might have other gifts to give. There might be a meaningful purpose in this life I now lived. Then it struck me that finding and giving my gifts was my job to do. Being sick did not exempt me from that purpose. The reason we are here on earth is to discover and give our gifts. Everyone has gifts to share. Wham!

As I recovered from that time of illness, the power of this statement has continued to reverberate. What if everyone, collectively, focused not on their own special gifts, or their own needs, but on those gifts they have to share with others and how they can best give them. What kind of a world would we live in? My, my, that would be an Aha Planet!

Voice Lessons

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When I was 18 and just finishing high school, my father took a new job and we moved to California. We didn’t have much money, so I found work at the shopping mall and started community college. Less than a year later, he took another job and we moved to Phoenix, Arizona. I couldn’t attend Arizona State University until I was eligible for in-state tuition, so I went back to work again. I had no friends, no history in this desert town, and wanted desperately to be in school. My father saw my deepening sadness and said, “Well, I guess we better get you voice lessons.” 

I came from a singing family, especially on my father’s side, so he naturally saw this as a way to help me heal from all the tumultuous change, a way for me to find my heart again and open it. He signed me up with a professional voice trainer and his instincts were exactly right. When I opened myself to song, I felt alive again, connected and whole. Julie Andrews was my idol and I learned all her songs from ‘The Sound of Music’—with an accent. I learned how to warm my voice, fill my diaphragm, hit the highest notes and sing arias from famous Italian operas. 

Later, living on San Juan Island in the Pacific Northwest, I found another outstanding teacher and continued my training. Supported by her instruction, I auditioned for roles in our Community Theatre. I had a lead in a Welsh musical, A Time for Singing, and performed many selections from musical theatre, including Porgy and Bess and the aria from Madame Butterfly

The most special night of all was a solo performance. I walked onto an empty stage to stand next a makeshift grave. I had a bouquet of flowers in my hands. I took a deep breath, opened my mouth and began to sing ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again’ from Phantom of the Opera. My dear father had just passed away, but he left for me the great gift of being able to sing my goodbye to him. 

It's All About the Story

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I used to be a Development Director for a small arts education nonprofit. It was my job to raise funding for the organization, either from individual donors, or grants. If you’ve never seen a grant application, they are knotty, difficult documents. Many have word limits and even character limits for each section. The applicant has to answer the funder’s questions, in the order the funder imposes, according to the funder’s space limits. This can really get in the way of effective storytelling – the reason people give. A few, a very few, were set up to encourage a powerful, compelling story about the need and the cause being served. Most were not.

I recently read an article about the science of what makes people care. There are 5 principles for more effective communication about your cause. I am paraphrasing here, but in short, have a human story to tell, use visuals, make sure there is an emotional pull, let people know how they can help and Tell Better Stories. Numbers 1-4 all lead to #5. Tell Better Stories.

We engage and give because we are moved by a compelling story. A story has a beginning, middle and end. It has characters and context that touches our heart, even better head and heart. It makes us enter it, feel it, be part of it and maybe even want to change because of it.

Getting a Masters’ Degree in British and American Literature taught me one of the most powerful lessons I learned from story. Over several years I read the best writing, the most enduring stories, of the 19th and 20th Centuries. When I finished my coursework, I realized that I now knew what true love was – and was not. This understanding of how love behaves, and how to know when behavior is not loving, has shaped my life ever since. And all because of stories.  

When Time Stands Still

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I had many readers for early manuscripts of CeeGee’s Gift, from elementary, middle grade and high school students to adults and older adults. After they finish the story we talk, and I like to ask them—What do you think is the time period of the book’s setting?

For the young readers, it is just an earlier time, but for most of the adult readers, it is when they were a child. They seem to see the time of their own youth through the lens of CeeGee’s eyes. I’ve had adult readers tell me the book is set in any decade from the 40’s to the 70’s. 

This is a bit of a trick question because I tried hard to leave the time up to the reader. Unlike most contemporary novels, where the time is constructed in detail, whether past, present or some dystopian future, CeeGee’s Gift is set in a timeless town where everything seems to stay the same as it has always been. In addition, I was careful not to add clues that might suggest a particular era. For example, while there are cars, no make or model is identified. While there are a few phone calls, the phone is by the bed or on the kitchen counter, there is no description of dialing, push buttons or wireless. There are schools and playing fields, but no description of the lessons, games or rules that might signal then, or now.

It was fun as an author to try to obscure time. I was always asking myself, do drugstores still have soda fountains? Do people still sit and chat on front porches? How long have kids been riding skim boards on the edge of the tide? Thank goodness libraries still have actual books.

What do you think is the time period of CeeGee’s Gift? And how do you characterize the time of your own youth? Were there timeless elements? A curious author would love to know.