Monday, November 21, 2016

Why I Write

I was at a meeting a few weeks ago and a man approached me. Last spring he had purchased a copy of my Lessons Learned book.

He wanted to share a story with me. Although he was originally from the community where the book (nonfiction, by the way) takes place, his family had moved away before he was old enough to attend the school. But his sister was, and there-in lies the story.

This sister is now living in a constant care home, suffering from Alzheimer's. She barely recognizes her family, isn't aware of the world, and rarely reacts.

He brought the book to her room on a visit one day. He had read it, finished it within days of first purchasing it, and he found his sister in it in a group photograph. He wanted to show her, hoping for at least one more connection, anything. He would take anything.

He read the pages around the picture to her. Then he showed her that picture. She found herself. She pointed to others in the pictures and spoke their names, every one, even the teacher.

With tears brimming his eyes, this man said to me, "I want to thank you. For five minutes, your book gave me my sister back."

This is why I write.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Monday, November 14, 2016

Election Reflection

It's been almost a week, and what a week it's almost been.

I was there. On the front lines. All day Election Day, from before six in the morning to well past eight in the evening by the time all the legal paperwork was signed and submitted. As a precinct judge, my job was to remain impartial and ensure our system of choosing people to represent us continued. At least in our case, Gamewell Precinct Two, the system worked. I witnessed it in action.

As an observer looking for potential characters in my writings, I was not disappointed. I saw an elderly lady dressed to the nines, no doubt specifically for this day. Not appearing was not an option for her. I saw young mothers, babies in their arms, shifting them to their hips to free their hands to ink in their choices. I saw parents steering their children to the table so they could watch them make choices that will affect the world they will grow up in.

We made judgments on voting in several cases, namely voting out of precinct in a provisional ballot. One case in point, a married couple had moved this summer from one end of the county to another. The man took the time to go to the election board and change his residence. His wife assumed it would be done automatically for her. It wasn't. She would have had to drive to the other side of the county, before work even. Wouldn't happen. So together we judges allowed her to fill in a ballot and the chief judge placed it in a provisional envelope. After the election, when the final canvas happens, her ballot will count if her other precinct did not list her as voting there. The system worked.

It worked also for those people too feeble to walk inside. The chief judge went to their cars and with one more layer of paperwork to complete, allowed them to exercise their privilege as Americans and vote. We had reading glasses for those who could not see the ballot clearly. We had a machine specifically for those who were blind.

I handed the ballot (being careful that my fingers didn't point to a specific candidate, per my pre-election training, and yes, we still use paper ballots, but electronic counters) to numerous people who had no idea what to do next. Young and old alike, these people were voting for the first time ever. I could offer no suggestions other than to fill in the dot next to the person you want to vote for. How they voted, I could not hazard a guess. I could also not touch the ballot again. The voter had to insert it in the machine him/herself. That's how the system works.

The only time I was aware of individual's voting preferences was when I heard the machine kick the ballot to a separate direction if that person filled in any write-in candidate selections. Of course, I had no idea who, nor did I care. It was part of the open process. Vote for the candidate you think is the best. At the end of the day, we hand tallied the write-ins. No machine could read their handwriting, believe me. Jesus Christ got three votes. Mickey Mouse didn't get a single vote, contrary to what I would have suspected. For the most part, the write-ins were serious decisions people didn't take lightly, no doubt even those who voted for Jesus.

You know the rest of the story. Some people are pleased, others not. There have been protests. There have been individuals who interpreted the results as a mandate to hate.

I am humbled to have taken a small part in the process. Our democracy depends on its citizens to show up at the local precincts, including those in our small town in the foothills of the Appalachians. That's the way the system works.

Catch of the week,

Gretchen

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Magnolia Seeds

In an earlier post, I wrote about my Magnolia Inspirations with the bloom that has a certain southern air to it that can't be imitated, only appreciated.



I'm more inspired now since the magnolia tree in my front yard began producing seeds. Either I didn't notice in years past, or my tree has finally matured enough to sire offspring.
Perhaps in other years the squirrels found the seeds before I did. Or perhaps I just didn't look to appreciate what my yard had to offer.

First comes the white blossom, next a drab, nondescript pod, and finally the fire engine red seeds, bright with a beauty all their own. Soak them in water overnight, suggests the directions on the home and garden site. Following that, plant them in damp sandy soil, place them in the back of the refrigerator, and wait three months or longer.

My daughter who lives in New Mexico took several seeds home with her after this last visit, which just happened to coincide with the first ever, maybe, bursting forth of the magnolia seeds on my tree. Her plan is to follow the instructions and attempt to colonize magnolias at her home in Taos, New Mexico, probably an impossible dream due to different climates, but worth a try as far as she is concerned. No matter how much she nurtures this seed, waters it, and protects it from the elements, the plant might not survive in unfriendly conditions. Yet she forges on. I like her spirit.

This particular "mother tree" from which she is taking seeds was a volunteer. It sprang up next to our basement door where we watched it grow from a weed looking oddity to a three foot "we've got to do something with this" beginnings of a tree. The nearest magnolia to it was behind the house across the street, but who knows? We have no idea how it ended up there, if the wind brought it to that spot or if a squirrel dug a hole to hide its seed for future reference and then forgot all about it. We just know it wasn't planned. We transplanted it and left it to its own devices. Flourish, it did.

Sometimes life gives us tall, beautiful trees just because it can!

Catch of the day,

Gretchen


Saturday, October 22, 2016

Last Okra Bloom of Summer

I don't have to read the weather forecast or check online. The wind outside announces fall has finally caught up to western North Carolina. Sad day, my husband said this morning as he looked longingly at the stack of shorts he was stowing in the back of the closet.

The leaves are still green on the trees in my yard. Green, I repeat, and the calendar says today is well past the Ides of October. Those few leaves that obeyed nature and started to change are being stripped from their branches today, going directly from green to brown - and then to the ground.

In all this I did find one plant hanging in there, daring winter to come, defying the looming frost. In our garden I found one last okra bloom.

There it is. The last okra bloom of summer. Okay, so it's not as well know or poetically appealing as the last rose of summer, but I go with what I see.

That okra plant is still alive and kicking it! Nearby the bloom, there are tiny okra pods developing just in time for me to add to my vegetable soup or to my western North Carolina version of gumbo.


Although this close-up shot makes them look like gourds, they are only two inches tall at best. Best means almost ready to harvest, before the green outside hardens so much it can't be sliced for cooking, and while the slimy juice from the inside still oozes to thicken the soup.

Fortitude is the word I'm thinking of right now as I see these tall plants swaying in the fall winds. Never give up. Hang in there until your purpose is fulfilled.

I've taken a little liberty here and substituted the okra concept for rose in the poem that I studied all those years ago, with apologies to poet Thomas Moore and my English Lit teacher, and thanks to Bartleby.com  here's the first stanza reinvented:

The Last Okra Bloom of Summer

’TIS the last okra bloom of summer
  Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
  Are cooked and gone;
No bloom of her kindred,       
  Nor okra pod is nigh,
To reflect back her blushes,
  To give sigh for sigh.
 

Its theme is a little on the depressing side, but then again, so is the fall of the year when brilliant colors mask the impending winter darkness ahead. Since my teachers "encouraged" us to see ourselves or the world around us in everything we read, today I'm viewing this poem anew from a different perspective, from rose to okra, from teenage, to senior. When I was sixteen I did not understand it as I do now in the autumn (not even close to the winter, I want to insert) of my life. Like the okra bloom, I had to mature a bit to turn into the fruit that my life was meant to be. Like the okra bloom, I will fade away, but I choose to be like this one, blooming til the last possible second.

But wait!

Unlike the okra bloom, I will come back next spring, rested from the winter and ready to bloom again. Take that Thomas Moore!

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Memorizing Scripture

When I was in eighth grade, my teacher, Mr. Hampton (loved him) assigned a Psalm a week for us to memorize. This was on the cusp of the change in public school education, back before we realized the world was diverse, before prayer was removed, and before being politically correct outranked learning fine literature from the Bible.

Oh, we grumbled. Mainly because this was in addition to the verses we were required to memorize for our weekly Sunday School Classes and the once in a life time confirmation classes.

When would we ever use this?

I hear that cry now from Algebra I students (and parents) who don't realize the lessons learned in basic Algebra are so embedded in daily life that no one realizes they are there. Same as in learning phonics. All those basic ABC's and vowel rules and syllabication make reading new words possible, just ask those friends of mine who attended schools those years when phonics was tossed aside. To be without a skill makes life a degree more difficult.

I now have an answer to the "When would we ever use this?" complaint about memorizing scripture.

Daily.

Just like Algebra. Just like phonics.

The soul also needs basics to call upon. In times of stress, life becomes bearable when a bit of scripture floats up from the depths of the brain to bring comfort and reassurance. Like in these coaster tiles a friend gifted me this week.



My favorite, Joshua 1:9 The Lord Your God is with you.

I'm about through with my cancer radiation treatments, two more to go (Yipppeeee!) and I can see the light at the end of the cancer free tunnel. It's not been an easy or smooth journey, let me assure you. But it has been made more bearable by support from my friends, and a few strangers too. Many of the cards they sent had scriptures on them and after a while I noticed the wide variety of verses that spoke to me. So I copied them and held to them and remembered some of them from my eighth grade teacher. Wow, just wow. I wish he were still alive for me to share my enlightenment.

Here, from the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament, a list of scriptures I found on the cards sent to me this summer:
  • Psalm 5:3 In the morning O Lord, you hear my voice. In the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.
  • Psalm 62:1 My soul finds rest in God alone. My salvation comes from him.
  • Psalm 91: 1,2 He who dwells in the shelter of the most high will abide in the shadow of the almighty. I will say to the Lord, "my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust."
  • Psalm 37:7 Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.
  • Psalm 50:15 Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you and you will honor me.
  • Psalm 145:18-19 The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them.

There were more scriptures from places throughout the Bible, many that I had also memorized as a child. When I read them in the cards, they rose from the recesses of my brain. Perhaps they had been engraved on my heart by those dear Sunday School teachers who put up with my shenanigans and wondered after an hour with me in a closed room, if I even learned anything. I did.

One thing about the battle between life and cancer, the warrior needs support. That, I found, in my husband, my family, my friends, and my scriptures. Whew.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life



I didn't plan to write this particular post. In fact, I was only planning to let a few close friends know my innermost difficulties. Thank goodness, things didn't turn out that way.

The Sunday before surgery to remove a malignant tumor, aka breast cancer, I requested prayer at church. Maybe a few people knowing wouldn't hurt, I reasoned. Then came facebook and my husband. First he posted for everyone to pray for successful surgery and once that was accomplished, he posted a "My wife is cancer free" praise. It's hard for me to "Praise God!" on the one hand and fuss at the husband on the other. So instead, I embraced it. I began posting updates on my own facebook page.

At the time I didn't realize my faith in a higher power's ability to heal had long ago prepared me for this journey. All I had to do was turn to that and let God take over. That happened, for sure. I guess God really took over by sending me all kinds of love from all different directions. I began receiving phone calls from concerned friends, cards from people reassuring me that they were with me in thoughts and prayers, emails, and private online messages, visits from neighbors, flowers, food so I wouldn't have to expend energy cooking, more cards, and numerous get well likes on my facebook postings.

I developed an extensive kit of tools to help me fight this battle, all from the kindness of others.

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Look closely and you'll get an idea of the embodiment of kindness. It's a "Smile, Happy is Beautiful" box stuffed with get well cards from friends and strangers. It's a pink journal with colorful gel pens where I take notes on my daily radiation treatments. It's a "Purpose of Pink" drawstring bag from the Cancer Support Center. It's an armpit sized teddy bear that gives my lymph node stitches relief at night. It's a tie-around-the-neck, heart-shaped armpit pillow that helps me get through the day. 

And behind everything is a prayer quilt made by the Hartland Quilters from my church and community. If you look carefully in the lower center of the photograph, you'll see yellow threads sewn into the fabric. That's the prayer part of the quilt. The Sunday morning that the quilters presented it to me during worship service, they invited others to come forward and tie a knot with the threads to represent a prayer said for me. I was humbled watching the pews empty and people coming forward to pray for me. On the flip side of the quilt they attached a cloth note, dated August 7, 2016, with the inscription, "This quilt was made with love ~ Each knot represents a prayer that was said for you." I felt the love.

My immediate thought was to put this treasure up where nothing would mar its beauty, especially the cat with the fur flying, and the dribbles of food and drink I might drop. Instead I wrap myself in the comfort of a comforter (quilts are called that for some reason, right?) that reminds me of the power of prayer. The cat sits on my lap, snuggling its body into the prayers, adding yet another layer of comfort for me.

So these are the tools I'm using now to get through the days. I'm over half way finished with radiation treatments and will not, make that a capital NOT, have to undergo chemotherapy. I've been cancer free since July's operation, so every procedure I'm enduring now is for prevention of recurrence. The doctors have been beyond miraculous. The nurses outstanding. I can handle this. My daughter is home for a month. My son's family sends good vibes. My patient husband has held me up through all this. 

Scriptures come to me often. Thank goodness I'm from the generation that was required to memorize passages of scripture, because now they dredge up from the far recesses of my mind when I most need them. For these gifts I've received from people in my life, I can affirm from the twenty-third psalm, "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life."

Catch of the day,

Gretchen






Saturday, September 3, 2016

Fiddlers Convention

I'm heading to a convention this weekend, a fiddlers convention. What a concept!

Fiddlers haven't exactly received the best press throughout history. Hillbilly and fiddle seem to go together, while mountain man and violin conjure up an entirely different vision. And how about Nero, the one who fiddled while Rome burned? Or Ole King Cole, that merry old soul, called for his fiddlers three - as he lived the life of luxury?

My mother often wondered what happened to her father's fiddle. He was a coal miner in western Pennsylvania who picked up his fiddle whenever he had a chance, rarely, according to her descriptions of their rough life.

Fiddles have always been mainstream here in the Appalachians. In fact I read in a book (as I was researching a completely different topic) that fiddles were essential to pioneer living and campfires and settling down with horses roped for the night. Not for the joy of music to sleep in a comfy lullaby sense, no, fiddles were needed for defense from things that go bump in the night, or woof, or grrr.

A screeching draw of the bow across the fiddle strings was enough to send the predators running for the hills. Maybe they used sticks instead of the bow, or anything else handy to screech a high note on the strings and frighten the coyotes or wolves or bears or ... you name it. Well, fiddlesticks! I can only imagine.

This picture I took last night is a little blurry,
but clear enough to see what goes on at the fiddlers convention
Now the descendants of those early fiddle guards are convening in a modern day Eden named Happy Valley here in Caldwell County, North Carolina. They'll compete against each other and yes there are plenty entered every year in the youth classification. Thankfully, the tradition continues. All these fiddlers, youngest to most ancient, will compare notes about instruments and songs and techniques. They'll tell tall tales about their experiences and laugh when their names come up in other fiddler's stories. If they screech, no one in the audience will run for the hills. It's all a part of the show.

The only predators threatening them are fans seeking autographs.

A must at a fiddlers convention -
Wooden board for clogging
Sounds like a wonderful way to spend Labor Day weekend! Check it out, the Happy Valley Fiddlers Convention. I hope to see you there.

Catch of the day,

Gretchen