Take in the Lilacs While You Can

The lilacs are in bloom. After a winter that felt like it would never end, in the past few weeks, it is as if we have been living in a time-lapse photostream.  A month ago, it was snowing. Then it stopped and there were tiny buds on the trees. Then daffodils, tulips, green grass, magnolia blossoms, and finally lilacs.


I have been writing about lilacs for more than a decade. I first had an essay published about how the smell of lilacs changed after my dad’s stay in a nursing home. The wipes used to clean up after him in the bathroom were made to smell like lilacs. After he passed away, when I tried to smell the lovely lilacs of spring, their scent had changed. Instead of a natural odor that had once reminded me of a younger version of my dad working in my grandma’s yard, they reminded me of the chemical sickness of the nursing home and a man who had changed after a stroke left his brain garbled.alt=

In time, the true scent of these delicate little buds returned to me, as did the memories of who my dad had been before his brain was injured.  The story was the seed that eventually grew into the memoir I am now working to have published. It tells not only of my dad’s stroke but what that taught me about my own brain tumor a few years before.

The story of the lilacs has stayed with me. I was thinking about my dad again yesterday when I visited our local arboretum. They have dozens of lilac trees and when we opened the car door, the sweet and welcoming fragrance enveloped us. I try to visit every spring since I don’t have lilacs of my own. With these short-lived blooms, I know I must take them in while I can. alt=

Most of the year, lilacs appear no more special than any other bush. In fact, I once heard someone say they didn’t like lilacs because they only flowered for a short time.

It is true, but that doesn’t mean they don’t live in my memory when they are not showing their flowers. I think that’s what amplifies their importance. If I were able to smell lilacs every day, they may not smell so sweet.




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Finding New Meaning in a Misattributed Quote

I was in church once, more than 10 years ago and the priest said this during his homily. “There are two important days in a person’s life: the day you were born and the day you realize why.”

I know it was that long ago because I came home and wrote what he said down with the date. At the time I thought that was a pretty wise saying. It really cut through the clutter. He was a likable enough guy as far as priests go, so I believed that he had come up with the sentiment on his own.

It was one of those sayings that seemed to bring order to the chaos of the world. As if no matter how tough things got, there would be clarity in my life. Though it didn’t make sense at the time, I could look forward to a moment when everything made sense.

It wasn’t until years later, when I heard the saying again, that I went to the Internet to discover just where the quote came from. At the time, according to Google, it was attributed to Mark Twain, and if I wanted, I could copy an image of a blue sky with the words typed over it.

Suddenly it put everything the priest said in a different light.


Did he know he was plagiarizing one of America’s greatest writers and humorists?*  Was anything real? But when I checked on Quote Investigator, I found a bigger issue. Versions of the saying have been used in homilies and speeches for more than 100 years and have been attributed to a number of people in that time, most famously Twain, though there is no evidence to support that he said it.

So now the saying that once brought me comfort was a lie. If it hadn’t been said by a trusted man (whether that was the priest or Twain) did it still count?

Since the time I heard it a lot had changed in my life. I no longer thought about the big moment when everything would make sense. Slowly over time, things had begun to. It seemed to me now that there were a lot of moments in a person’s life. I wasn’t sure there could only be two.

Having one big moment where you know what everything is about is a pretty tall order. If that works for you, that’s great. But for me, focusing on the little things that matter is more important than wcropped-door-county-2010-052-2.jpgaiting for the big moment when I finally see what it’s all about. You know? Those moments when you really see something or someone? Or when someone really sees you? The things you remember when you really slow down to notice. Even the ones you write down and look back on more than a decade later. Even the ones that help you see how much you’ve changed.

What do you think? Is there a moment in life when we know our purpose? Have you ever re-evaluated something you’ve heard?


* according to Wikipedia













Can We Just Get Honest About Rejection?

I walked out on the porch and they all stopped talking. Three sets of eyes looked up at me from the sidewalk. I heard them talking about going out for lunch a few minutes before inside the house and had come out on the porch to ask if I could join them. We had been meeting every Saturday morning to talk about our writing for months now and I assumed they liked me enough to invite me along.

In an instant, I knew I wasn’t included. Fearing rejection before I even made the effort, I said goodbye and walked to my car. no-thanks

Years later. An email. Hello Catherine. Thank you for sending us … We won’t be able … We wish you the best …

An email. Dear Catherine. We appreciate the chance to … but … With all thanks and best wishes.

An email. Dear Catherine, Thank you so much for submitting … Unfortunately, we are going to pass this time … All the best.

Denied. Turned down. Rebuffed. Whatever you call rejection, I’m used to it. So used to it, that I don’t avoid it like I used to. Not having my writing accepted is part of trying to put it out there. But each email a little sting in the heart. It feels the same in my body as it felt that first warm day of spring on the sidewalk. In the same way, what didn’t get said that day was what hurt the most.

Then one day, an email. “Thanks so much for letting us see your ‘weather’ submission. Unfortunately, it has not been selected for publication on this occasion. ….” Okay, there are nine more paragraphs! Where’s the kiss off?

Rejection is usually short. It saves the rejector and the one being rejected pain and embarrassment. But this  Dear John letter continues. The email is describing the judge, her judging process, and it’s even telling me about the type of pieces the publication received. Suddenly I don’t feel so bad anymore.

I submitted to Mslexia back in March for one of their themes based on weather. I love this magazine and even though it’s based in the UK, I wanted to give it a shot. As I read the rejection email I learn that most of the submissions were about rain and were set in a rural setting. Some focused on cityscapes, as mine did. The email said those provided some memorable images, which I like to imagine mine did.

The email said that the biggest problem they saw in rejected poems and stories was that they fell a little flat.  Stories needed more story arc, instead of being anecdotal, and poems needed an extra layer of meaning or reflection. A number of submissions also lacked clarity.

The email also talked about avoiding weather clichés. It ended by letting me know that they can’t discuss individual details of my submission, but that the judge will have a full essay in the next issue discussing the judge’s process. They also discuss the editorial need to use contrasting pieces and that they can only place 10 pieces in each issue.

Without telling me exactly what I always thought I wanted to hear, the email told me everything I need to in the most helpful way possible. Unlike the girls on the sidewalk and all the other rejections by every other name, I don’t have to guess why I wasn’t invited to sit at the table.

I know some of what the letter told me — that being rejected is not always about me — sometimes it’s about the things I cannot know or predict. Logically, I know not to take it personally, but I usually do regress to that girl on the sidewalk wondering why no one wants to be friends with me. But somehow this letter does help me get past the feeling that being rejected is always about me.

The email ends with a plea to not give up.  It reminds me that rejection is an integral part of each writer’s life and that those that succeed are those that keep going. I have heard this advice before, but I print the email out and save it. It is one of the most positive and helpful emails I have ever received.

The letter encourages me along as I reread and rework my draft. I  make sure I don’t use clichés, and that my story is more than an anecdote. And I can’t wait to read the writers that did get placed to see what I can learn from them. I will send my piece out again. If it gets rejected again, I can only hope for such a beautiful rejection. If not, I will try again.

Image of grocery carts.




Focus on One-Fifth of What You Think Matters

I read a post yesterday on Medium about Warren Buffett’s 5/25 rule. The idea is that you write down the 25 things you want to accomplish in the future. After you do that, you rank them in order of importance and then circle the top five.

When you are done with that list, you are supposed to knoimage of hand and keyboard with notebook and words "dream"ck off numbers six through 25 and focus on the first five. The idea is that you can only accomplish the most important things by focusing on them. When we split our attention and start focusing on the lower 25, we lose sight and divert attention from achieving the top five.

It sounds like a great idea and I planned to make my list today, but when I starting thinking about coming up with 25 items, I wasn’t sure I could come up with that many things I wanted to accomplish.

Maybe it was because I knew the outcome of the exercise, but I couldn’t even think of five items. Here are the only three I came up with:

  1. Keep writing and publishing and learning more about the process
  2. Spend quality time with my family and friends
  3. Focus on health, mind and body

I admit these are more like categories than specific steps. Each one could be expanded and could have 25 additional steps beneath it. They almost seem to be mission statements about how I want to live my life.

I had one more, but it seemed too specific: Get hired full-time, by my current job. When I thought more about it, it seemed to fit with the three other priorities. This job allows me to work at home, and gives me the flexibility to pursue the other items on my list, and is a good fit for my health as well.

So, while the exercise may not have turned out exactly as I expected, it did reveal the most important things to me. They may not be revolutionary, but I never really thougimage of dart board with arrow in bullseyeht about them in list form before. As I consider opportunities and the things that fill my time, I plan to keep these three priorities in mind. If something doesn’t meet these higher goals I might have to give it the ax.



Looking at Life Through Near-Death Experiences

I just finished I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell and although the subtitle says it’s about the author’s Seventeen Brushes with Death, I think it’s really about the things that could have happened.

In addition to her illnesses, accidents, and injuries, that did not kill O’ Farrell, we read about many other things that did not happen. It is a memoir of life through these incidents, and so we see past boyfriends, jobs, and places she lived, but that now are gone. We see what she might have been, compared to the person she is now.

I have always been fascinated by the thought of the things that don’t happen. When I see a car speed through a red light and I have not yet turned out into it, I can almost see an alternate reality and it doesn’t turn out good. I also am fascinated with how things turned out for me compared to how I imagined they would.

O’ Farrell’s brushes with death are large and small. Some left me gasping for air such as accidents or injuries that if they had turned out differently, would, and in some cases, have left O’ Farrell with a different sense of herself. In a number of places she even describes the feeling of having death right next to her.

But others are small. They are more like the type of moments we all have when we could have ended up dead, but most likely everything was going to turn out okay in the end. It made me wonder if I could catalog my own near-death experiences. When I spread the net as wide as O’ Farrell did I couldn’t come up with as many, even though I’ve always been a pretty sickly, accident-prone person:

  • A time on the highway when I had looked up just in time to see the brake lights of the car close in front of me and the many others in front of that one. I slammed on the brakes and swerved into the gravel on the right side of the road but hadn’t made contact. As we all moved slowly forward after our abrupt stop, I put my hand on my chest and drove with it there for almost a mile, comforted by the adrenaline pumping there.
  • Turning left to get gas and I pulled out into the intersection where I waited for the traffic to subside. My light turned red, but the traffic kept coming. I saw a truck approaching the intersection and assumed they would stop at the light. Wanting to get out of the middle of traffic, I turned, feeling the impact of the truck on my back-rear passenger door immediately. My car spun around before stopping on the side of the road.
  • Swimming in the Bay of Banderas on the beaches of Puerto Vallarta. I had not been swimming in the ocean since I was a child and forgot how strong the waves are. I was jumping in them with a friend and one flipped me under, dragging me along the bottom, pulling me up, my face scraping along the rocks until I was thrown up on the beach coughing. I have been wary of the ocean since.
  • Traveling on my honeymoon in Morocco My husband and I held on for dear life as our local driver sped through mountain passes, answering phone calls, and playing chicken with oncoming cars. I feel there were many close calls, but one particularly stands out on a switchback as our driver passed a row of drivers going full speed just as a bus rounded the corner. He dodged in between two cars just in the nick of time.
  • My benign brain tumor which was diagnosed when I was 22, but that caused petit mal seizures that I hid for eight years. I have said I had the easiest brain tumor surgery in history but know how lucky I was to have no recurrence and to have no injury and minor effects from what could have been a life-altering or ending diagnosis.

If I had to write a book about it, I’m sure I add others. There would be others I’m sure I wouldn’t even know about. It is an interesting way to examine a life by looking at the places where we were most at risk. If I looked at all the places I’ve been and people that are no longer a part of my life, I might find more.

The experiences you live through while gravely ill take on a near-mystical quality. Fever, pain, medicine, immobility: all these things give you both clarity and also distance, depending on which is riding in the ascendant.

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When it Snows in April It’s Time for Virtual Spring Cleaning

It’s another snowy spring day here in the Midwest. The howling winds and icy snow pelting the windows last night kept me up, so I’m a little tired too. Not wanting to be completely lazy, I decided I might as well get a little spring cleaning done while I sit on the couch.
Cleaning off my computer desktop is about all I can manage, but it turns out it needs it. I have a little bit of everything. Like most purging sessions designed to free up space, I only got rid of about half. Here’s some of what stayed and what hit the recycle bin:

A draft of a PowerPoint with a giant arrow pointing to the right with nothing else on it. Why is this on my desktop? I wonder why I thought this was so genius and why I thought I wouldn’t be able to recreate it. I deleted it because I wanted to prove to myself that I am competent enough to redraw this giant black arrow pointing to the future, should I ever need it again. (Small steps).

Templates.  According to my desktop, I love templates. My favorite are personal growth (dream-book planner, goals workbook), productivity (to-do lists), and writing (every imaginable type of outline for manuscripts, planning your book, finding an agent, and getting your memoir published).  Keep. I don’t always remember they’re here, but they sure look like fun.

Resources and e-books related to writing. Next to templates, lists of contests, literary magazines, and other places to publish my writing were the second largest group on my desktop. Keep. Same reason as above.

Receipts and other “important” papers. Lest you think I didn’t throw anything away, there were also quite a few scans and screen prints of receipts for things like hotels, seminars, and reservations. There was also proof that I paid the Illinois Department of Transportation for a toll we couldn’t pay when we left the airport without any change. Despite my feeling that I will need these virtual scraps of paper the minute I delete them, I threw caution to the wind and tossed them away.

Recipes I have copied from the Internet. I was surprised there were only two in this category and that I had actually made one:

  • Quinoa banana skillet bake I have never made this recipe, but just this morning my husband made quinoa banana pancakes. This skillet bake looks good and different. Keep.
  • A recipe without a title that I believe is slow-cooker cashew chicken. Delete. I think it was okay, but I probably won’t make again, since we don’t eat cashews anymore since my husband had heart surgery last fall.

Images I edited to send somewhere else. There are a few copies of my favorite images on my desktop that I edited and sent somewhere else, such as a close up of my husband’s wedding ring, which we sent to the hotel in San Juan after we left, hoping they would find it (they never did). I knew I had most of these images other places on my computer, so I deleted them after making sure.

I found an image of the text, “Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.” doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will I took the picture a couple years ago outside a martial arts studio. I had forgotten about it. I think it’s a good reminder for when the going gets tough. I’m not sure what it has to do with spring cleaning, but it gave me a little hope on an icy day in April so I considered the cleaning a success.


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Are You Like Most Readers?

I love the Pew Research Center. I love the idea of a “fact tank”. Just the sound of it makes me want to go swimming.

They recently released their latest data on reading in the U.S.A. with previous years, nearly three-quarters of Americans read a book in the last year, with an average of 12 books read (mean). The typical American reads 4 books a year (median). I had to remind myself again what the difference was between the mean (average) and the median (middle number).

They found that print book reading is still outnumbering digital formats:

  • 39% of Americans only read print books
  • 29% read both digital and print books
  • 7% only read digital formats

When it comes to audiobooks:

  • 23% of 18 – 29-year-olds have listened in the past 12 months, up from  16% in 2016
  • 16 % of high school graduates have listened to an audiobook in the past 12 months, up from 9% in 2016
  • 17% of adults in rural communities have listened to audiobooks in the past 12 months, up from 10% in 2016

Demographic patterns for reading remain consistent as in past years. College graduates are likely to read more than those who have not attended college, while young adults read more books than those 65 and older.

Tell me below. What kind of books do you read? How many?

My Historical Lamb Cake

I took the lamb mold home in a bushel basket of other items I didn’t think we’re junk. My dad’s old glasses. A commemorative beer can from when the canning factory closed. A mural made of fish lures. A rusty metal tray.

My sister asked me if I remembered our mom making cakes in the mold. I didn’t, but took it anyway. It seemed too precious to throw away with everything else that was piled up on the driveway eight years after our dad had passed away. It was the first time our mom had the heart to clean out his workshop.

My eight brothers and sisters and I started there removing every jar filled with nails and every odd board left from projects left undone but soon spanned on to other areas of the house where they had lived for 50 years. By the time we were done the heap on driveway made neighbors ask if everything was all right.

And like my dad, I kept that mold, assuming the right time would come to use it. I knew it was typical to make the lamb cake at Easter, so every year I thought about it but it seemed like too much work. This year I told my mom that I would bring dessert to Easter dinner. She told me I didn’t have to because she had a cheesecake from Aldi’s. I told her I wanted to make the lamb cake.

“I used to have one of those molds,” she said.

“I have it, ” I said.

“Okay, well, we can have two desserts.”

There were only a few of us coming for Easter dinner, but my mom is still used to cooking for a crowd. When I got home my mom had actually made one more dessert so we had three for 10 people.

The cake turned out good even though I had read many horror stories about making the lamb cake.  Some people said it got stuck in the mold, but mine came out without a hitch because I melted butter to grease the mold. The lamb was 3D for the most part except a dent in on side of the body where the cake caved a bit.

After all, it was fun and tasted good too. I’m glad I finally got to try a little piece of family history.

Lamb cake

What Do Your Quiz Results Say About You?

I love a good quiz. From fun ones like What Peanuts Character are You? (Charlie Brown) to more detailed ones like What’s Your Myers Briggs Type? (INTJ) I’ve taken them all. It’s part of my “classic-over-analyzer” Charlie Brown personality. I “have to consider everything from every angle.”

Which is why I’m never really surprised by the results. I have a pretty good sense of myself after taking all these quizzes. When I took the Center for Healthy Minds Emotional Style quiz recently I wasn’t at all shocked to learn that I was high on self-awareness.

The quiz ranks you on self-awareness in addition to the five other emotional styles described by Richard Davidson in his book The Emotional Life of Your BrainThey are:

  • Resilience – how slowly or quickly you recover from adversity
  • Outlook – how long you sustain positive emotion
  • Social intuition – how good you are at picking up social clues from those around you
  • Sensitivity to context – how good you are at regulating your emotCharlie_Brownional responses to take in your current context
  • Attention – how sharp or clear your focus is
  • Self-awareness – how well you perceive bodily feelings that reflect emotions

The styles mix and match to form a type of personality. The Center for Healthy Minds stresses that none of the styles are bad or good, but like the brain they study, they are malleable. My results came with a well-being toolkit on the Center’s website with resources on mindfulness, journaling and other cool info on their projects. I have to say it was a step up from the Charlie Brown quiz and just as fun.

Book Review: Logical Family

Logical Family by Armistead Maupin is about finding your logical family, the place where you belong, which is not necessarily with who or where you were born. As Maupin puts it in the book:

“Sooner or later … we must join the diaspora, venturing beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense to us.”

Growing up in North Carolina as a boy who thinks he might be gay to a father who longs for the days of the Confederacy, Maupin has a long journey to find his logical family. We see him struggling with his identity, serving in Vietnam, even working for Jessie Helms in his first job, until he takes a job in San Francisco and finds the place and people that feel like home. The book also offers a very personal inside look to the gay rights movement at the time.

We also see Maupin struggling to become a writer. Of his “big break” which eventually led to publishing what would be the beginning of his best known work, his “Tales of the City” first as a newspaper serial he writes:

“Most of us don’t know when our Moment comes. We don’t feel it at all. It’s just a passing whim, … that leads to one thing and another and you end up with a life you would never have had at all if it had not been for that first thing.”

I am always amazed to learn that famous writers once struggled. Maupin struggled both personally and professionally and the memoir provides a touching portrait of a very human man.