Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Feast For Oscar

Today's post is a Thanksgiving story published in a children's magazine a few years ago. It is one that all might enjoy as we celebrate this American holiday with gratitude and sharing. Enjoy your holiday break.  Look for a new post next Monday.

A Feast For Oscar
By Nancy Julien Kopp

“Turkey!” shouted three boys in the back row of Miss Edwards’ fourth grade class.

“What else?” our teacher asked.

Melissa Martin waved her hand. “How about sweet potatoes and cranberries?”

We were listing foods people usually eat for Thanksgiving. Thinking of all those good things made my mouth water and my stomach growl like a hungry lion. I raised my hand and waved it back and forth so Miss Edwards would call on me.

“Yes Tim,” she said.

I added my Thanksgiving favorite. “How about stuffing for the turkey?”

Nearly everyone in our class named something—everyone except for Oscar Livingood.

Miss Edwards strolled between the rows of desks. “Oscar, what will you have for this special dinner?” she asked.
Oscar ducked his head and mumbled words that sounded like, Cereal, I guess.”
The class roared with laughter. I laughed long and hard at what Oscar had said. Oscar was a real comic.
Miss Edwards held up her hand for quiet, then asked Oscar, “Are you sure?”
Oscar kept his eyes on the desktop. “Pretty sure. That’s what we have most nights.”
Miss Edwards patted Oscar on the head and returned to the front of the room.
We waited. What would she say now?
“Take out your English books and turn to page 67.”
That was it. She never mentioned Oscar’s strange remark. Instead, she erased the long list of foods on the chalkboard and the subject of Thanksgiving dinner was dropped.
I walked home from school alone that day. I couldn’t stop thinking about Oscar. The guy had a funny name and it sounded life he ate funny, too. Maybe he wasn’t trying to amuse us, maybe he was serious.
I ran into the house letting the screen door slam behind me. I cringed and waited for Mom to yell “Don’t slam that door!” but she didn’t say a word. She was at the kitchen table writing.
I grabbed an apple from the bowl on the counter and peered over her shoulder. “Hey Mom, what are you doing?”
She smiled but kept on writing. “I’m making a grocery list for Thanksgiving. There are so many extra things to buy when you create a super-duper, fantastic feast like w’ll have next week. Your Gran is coming and so is Uncle Pete.”
I said, “Get lots of good stuff. I’m saving up to eat enough for two people.” Mom’s list included all my favorites—turkey, cranberries, pumpkin, potatoes and sweet potatoes. On and on it went. “Yum, I can’t wait for Thanksgiving.”
“We have a lot to be thankful for.” Mom said. “Not everyone can afford to buy all these extra things for a holiday dinner.”
Her comment made me think of Oscar, and I didn’t like the picture forming in my mind. Would Oscar and his mom sit at their table with nothing but two bowls of cereal? I
shook my head a little to clear the picture away and went upstairs to start on my homework.
The next day I watched Oscar Livingood. He needed a haircut and his clothes looked pretty worn and raggedy. Most days, Oscar faded into the background because he didn’t have much to say. .Maybe that’s why I never paid much attention to him before. Now, all I could think of was the bowl of cereal he’d eat for Thanksgiving dinner.
On Monday morning, Miss Edwards announced that the class would make up a basket of food for a needy family for a class project. By the day before Thanksgiving, cans and boxes rested in the basket our teacher had provided. Even Oscar slipped a can of soup in with the rest. Miss Edwards would add a turkey at the last minute.
We held a drawing to determine who would go with the teacher to deliver the basket. I drew one of the lucky tickets, and so did Oscar. After school, we climbed into Miss Edwards’ van.  She stopped at the market to pick up the turkey and we were off to visit the family whose name had been given to us. They knew we were coming, but even so, their faces lit up with happiness when they opened the door. The mother and father thanked us over and over, and three little kids fingered the big basket.
On the way home, I said to Oscar, “It’s good to help people who really need help, isn’t it?
Oscar grinned and pushed his long hair off his forehead. “They’ll remember this Thanksgiving for a long time. They’ll know somebody cared.”

Suddenly, the bowl of cereal popped into my head again. “Oscar, who are you going to be with tomorrow?”

“Just my mom.”
That night I tossed and turned in my bed while I dreamed about giant boxes of cereal marching in a parade. When I woke up, I knew what my plan for the day would be. First, I’d talk to Mom and Dad and tell them about Oscar and his mother. Next, I would walk down to Oscar’s house and invite them to join us at our dinner table. I wanted him to know somebody cared about him, too. Oscar was not going to eat cereal on Thanksgiving Day.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Thanksgiving Is Perfect For Writing Family Stories

Through the years this blog has been in existence, I have urged readers to write their family stories. We tell them around the table when families gather as many will do in only a couple of days as we celebrate Thanksgiving. That's wonderful but as time goes on and the elders in the family are no longer present at the table, the stories will get lost. 

Someone needs to write them so that future generations will have some family history. Write one story at a time and keep it in  notebook, perhaps a loose leaf binder so that you can continue to add to it easily. Many people begin the project and feel it is too overwhelming to write ALL those stories so they write a few and quit. The key to overcoming that is to write only one story and wait awhile before starting on another. If writing that first story motivates you to keep going, all the better, but the stories do not have to be written all at once. 

When you're reminded of something that happened in the family, jot down some notes. Keep a small notebook handy for these little reminders. 

Don't back out of the project with the excuse that I'm not a writer. I can't do this. Yes, you can. To make a Family Stories Book, you do not have to be a professional writer. Your family is not going to judge the writing; they will appreciate that you made the effort to preserve these tales. 

A few things to keep in mind when you write:
  • write one story at a time
  • include first and last names
  • use dates, exact or approximate, if you know them
  • include sensory details (taste, sight, sound, touch and smell) to make your story come alive
  • include why the story is memorable for you--good or bad
  • write the sad or difficult stories as well as the happy or funny ones--they are a part of the family history, too
  • get in the habit of using action verbs instead of lots of is, are, were verbs--your stories will sing
  • length is not an issue, no story too short or too long if it is your story
  • include the place where the story happened
With this being Thanksgiving week, why not start with a Thanksgiving memory? Here are a few triggers to inspire you and perhaps jog your memory. Too busy to do it today or tomorrow? Next week is fine. 
  • What was the weather like at Thanksgiving?
  • Where did you live? Urban or rural? House or apartment?
  • Who did your family celebrate with?
  • What special dishes did your family have?
  • Who did the cooking?
  • What things did the family do before and after dinner?
  • What funny things happened?
  • What unhappy things occurred?
  • All about cousins
  • All about aunts and uncles
  • All about grandparents
  • Were there any cooking disasters on Thanksgiving? 
  • What did you do in school the days prior to the holiday?
I cannot stress enough the importance of keeping your family history alive. Some of those family happenings can also be made into publishable stories. Chicken Soup for the Soul books and other anthologies are filled with them. Whether you want to publish them or only keep them for your family, start writing! 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Remembering A Special Friend


Today, I'd like to commemorate a very dear friend who passed away very unexpectedly last Friday. We lived on different continents, me in the USA and Mavis in South Africa, but the distance between hearts is nothing but a hop, skip and a jump. We were in close touch made possible by the technology we have today. A few years ago, I wrote a story about our friendship that was published in a Chicken Soup book. I'd like to post it today with both sadness and joy--sad because I have lost a very special friend and joy that I'd had the privilege of knowing her for 29 years.

During this Thanksgiving season, be grateful for your friends for they are a true blessing.

New Friends, Faraway Friends, Forever Friends
By Nancy Julien Kopp

The tour guide stood at the front of our bus, mic in hand. “You can visit the fantastic aquarium,” she said, “or you can shop along Baltimore’s harbor.”

My choice was lunch and shopping, but I wasn’t quite sure what my new friend would choose.  Mavis looked at me and announced in her musical voice, “A fish is just a fish, but shopping….!” I nodded my head in agreement, and we both laughed. Dozens of women on this convention spouse tour left the bus and headed in various directions.

My new friend lived thousands of miles away in South Africa.  Her British family had emigrated there long before she was born.

We had a wonderful afternoon eating Crab Bisque on a restaurant’s outdoor deck, the special scent of the sea and boats bobbing in the harbor making it a memorable meal. We had a perfect view of one the tall ships, sails furled. Both of us ate with relish and talked about our children who were close in age, then browsed the quaint little shops. Mavis bought a small teddy bear for a grandchild soon to be born but was at a loss when it came time to pay. She held out a handful of American coins. “Nancy, find the ones I need to pay.”  We middle-aged women giggled like schoolgirls as I picked out the correct amount.

As the tour bus sped back to our nation’s capital, I reflected on the past days. My husband, Ken, and I had gone to the huge cocktail party on the opening night of this week-long bank convention. There had to be 300 or more people in the large ballroom. We didn’t know a soul, so walked slowly across the room holding our drinks. Another couple was doing the same from the opposite side. He was tall and slim, and she was short, blonde and a bit on the round side. We met in the center, smiled at one another and introduced ourselves.

We could not have been more opposite. My husband headed a small Trust Department in a bank in a mid-sized college community in Kansas. Mike headed the Trust Department of a very large British bank in Johannesburg, South Africa. Despite the thousands of miles between our homes and different cultures, we hit it off immediately. Ken and I had been invited to a party later that evening given by an investment company. Ken asked our new acquaintances to accompany us. “Is it alright to crash a party in America? Mike asked. Ken assured him it was OK if they were with us. I rolled my eyes at my husband but seconded the invitation.

The pattern was set for the remainder of the week. Mike and Ken attended meetings all day while Mavis and I headed for the spouse tours. The four of us had dinner together each evening at various restaurants near our hotel. We traded information about our towns, our families, and our backgrounds. We ate and laughed and soaked in the atmosphere of Washington, DC. The bond between us became stronger with each day. It pleased me that the men got along as well as Mavis and I did. Not always the case with two couples.

Finally, the last day arrived. As we’d done each morning, Mavis and I met in the hotel coffee shop for breakfast. Ken and Mike had eaten earlier before their final meeting. For the first time, I was not enjoying myself with my new friend. Only because I knew I would never see this witty, warm woman again.

I felt as if I’d known her for twenty years, not a mere week. I pushed my scrambled eggs round and round on my plate, my appetite suddenly gone.

“We must write one another, Nancy,” Mavis said as she poured each of us a second cup of coffee. We exchanged addresses and lingered as long as  possible.  When we could delay no longer, the two of us walked to the elevator and I pushed the button a bit harder than necessary.

I told Mavis how very much I’d enjoyed the week, but my voice quavered as I did so.

She put her arms around me and we gave one another the warmest of hugs. Sometimes, a hug can convey so much more than words. This dear woman stepped back and in her British accent said, “I know we will see each other again.”

As I looked into her blue eyes, part of me believed her while another piece of me thought “Fat chance of that!”  Emotion welled and the lump in my throat was so big that all I could do was nod, give her another quick hug and flee inside the elevator. The tears flowed as I walked down the hall to our room. How awful, I thought, to have such a wonderful new friend only to lose her at the end of a week.

It turned out that Mavis was right and I was wrong. Letters flew across the ocean, then later we faxed messages, and finally both of us had e-mail and we could chat as often as we liked. Now, we even skype one another.

In the twenty-four years since we met, Mike and Mavis have visited our home three times. On each of those visits, we have taken them to parts of the USA they’d not seen before. We have gone to South Africa to visit them twice, where they squired us from one end of their beautiful country to the other.  We have met in England, Ireland and Germany to travel together, spending three weeks each time in one another’s company. Never a cross word, never did I feel like I couldn’t wait til the time was over.  

We have been warmly welcomed by Mike and Mavis’ children whenever we have visited their homes in South Africa and England. Our children have graciously hosted our dear friends when they have visited here in our country. Over the years, the circle of friendship grew to include our extended families.

We clicked that first night in Washington, DC and our friendship strengthened more and more through the years. We have shared our hopes and concerns for our children. We have heralded the arrival of each other’s grandchildren, one by one. We have laughed together, we have held deep discussions about our individual countries. We’ve chuckled over the senior moments we all seem to have now, and we have savored this unusual friendship. Two couples from different parts of the world who found they had a great deal in common. Once new friends, then faraway friends and finally, forever friends.

Friday, November 17, 2017

A Great Quote For Writers

Nice words by Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt in today's poster. Roosevelt must have truly believed his own words as he accomplished a great deal in his political career and as head of a large family. Read this one-page bio to learn more about our 26th president. Candice Millard's excellent book, The River of Doubt, gives readers a look at another side of Teddy as he and a party of men explore the Amazon River. Read about it here. Once again, you'll see the man who spoke the words above and why he believed in himself.

What if every writer who started a new project wrote while muttering words like This is never gonna fly! Who in the world would read this? I'm not a good writer. and more. But, if the writer continues to tap our words on his/her keyboard, he/she must have some faith or they wouldn't continue to write. So, then we have a writer who believes a little bit but not all the way. Doubt becomes a daily companion. Quit beating yourself up day after day. Resolve to think nothing negative about your writing for one full week. Then a month and keep going.

Even if you don't believe in yourself wholeheartedly, you'll give it a try if you have the passion to write. There has to be something to drive you on even when you don't fully believe that you can be a success, that your story will be published someday. With each bit of success, your belief in yourself will increase. It might not soar to the top of the flagpole but will climb inch by inch. 

Like all things in our writing journey, we move a step at a time, never flying from bottom step to the top in the blink of an eye. Ponder on where you were as a writer five, ten or twenty years ago compared to your position in writing today. Hopefully, you are looking at growth. You did something, didn't you? You are a better writer today than way back in the early days. That  should help you believe in yourself.

How many times have we all seen self-confidence articles that use The Little Engine That Could as an example? So often that there has to be some merit to the comparison. If you're not going to give up, then you must believe in yourself. And, if you do believe in yourself, you will be halfway to your goal just like Teddy Roosevelt said. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Good Advice For Writers

The poster for today can be applied to writers who tend to dwell on the rejections they've received or poor reviews on a book. It's aimed at the ones who have been chastised by an editor or ridiculed by non-writer friends who have little understanding of what the writing life is like. It's for the writers who beat themselves up over past writing, wishing it could have been done over.

Perhaps it is also good advice for all writers. What happened yesterday or last week or last year or ten years ago is beyond our reach as far as changing what occurred. How many times have we all thought If only I hadn't said (done)(written) that! 

Whatever happened cannot be forgotten either. We all have little compartments in our memory bank that hold the things we wish we hadn't said or done. Our minds will not allow us to forget what happened. What if you wrote something without checking your facts and you were called on it by a reader? You are never going to forget it. Nor should you. I look at those occurrences as a learning situation. Not an easy lesson, but a lesson, nevertheless.

We also cannot edit what happened anytime before today. Oh, if only there was a delete button in our past writing journey. There are bumps in the road that we'd be happy to edit or erase completely. We can tell ourself that it was never there but that's only fooling the one who knows best--us.

So, what is left? Acceptance. It's the right thing to do but it is definitely not the easiest path to take. I have learned that accepting whatever negative came into my writing life is a way for me to continue on the learning curve and for me to move on to something new without agonizing over the past. You can worry yourself to a frazzle. Accept and take the next step in your writing journey. 

Perhaps we should not only accept but be thankful that the past is over and we move into the future once we embrace acceptance. Not always easy but something to work on, little by little. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

I Love To Write Day

How could I possibly pass up I Love To Write Day? John Riddle, a writer, is the man credited for creating this national day to recognize the art of writing. You can read the history here.

This day is not restricted to professional writers. Far from it. Today is meant to encourage all people to write something. Anything! It is hoped that teachers will recognize the day with a writing project in the classroom. Hopefully, it will be something fun that will encourage children to continue to write and enjoy the process. 

Are you thinking What shall I write?

How about writing that personal letter to a family member or friend today? We all have good intentions of writing to someone and then life barges in and interrupts us so we put it off. No more putting it off. Today is the day! It doesn't have to be several pages, although it could. Even a short personal note to someone you care about will suffice.

Write in your personal journal. Don't have one? Today would be a great day to begin one. What do you write in a daily journal? Anything you want to, no matter how trivial or how filled with anger or how passionate. It's all for you, no one else, so pour out your heart.

Today would be a good day to write a family story. If you have a Family Stories Book started, add this new one to it. If you don't have a book of your family stories, today is the day to begin. Write one story, then add another some other time. Keep writing about the happenings in your family as far back as you can remember. Keep the stories in a 3 ring binder. You'll be surprised how fast it fills up if you write those stories on a regular basis. What a treasure it will be for your children and grandchildren. Don't wait. Begin today!

If nothing else, write a grocery list. It's not terribly creative but it IS writing. 

Ponder on the art of writing. Consider what life would be like if we did not have authors and newspaper journalists, poets and publishers, libraries and book shops. We cannot read if someone does not write.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A First Draft Is Only The Beginning

Yesterday, I told you that I'd subbed a first draft to be critiqued by a few members of my online writing group because I was having so much trouble with it. The idea in my mind was not what appeared in print. So far, two people have looked at my rough piece and, as hoped, they could see what I could not. They both gave me some good advice and something to work toward.

I found three posters with quotes about writing the first draft. The one above gives us a quote from author, Terry Prachett. It is so simple but worthy. Isn't that what we do with that first draft--tell ourselves the story giving it the bones with hopes of fleshing the story in later drafts? It's important to get those thoughts in our head into actual words so that we have a base on which to build the story.

The second poster is also simple but worth our attention. This earliest writing of a story or essay or poem or article is not expected to be perfect. How nice if that would happen but it's not the way this game works. They are meant to transfer the idea from within us to something concrete that we can continue to work on. Don't beat yourself over the head if you read that first effort and think it's a piece of garbage. It very well could be at that point but you have plenty of opportunity to mold it into a finished product you can be proud of.

This last poster gives us a great mental image while letting us know that the first draft is not a finished product. The road to the end result may be short and sweet or long and agonizing. When we wrote on typewriters, it made a writer feel good to grab that piece of paper filled with drivel and rip it out of the machine, then tear it into bits. Now, we either hit the delete button (I hope you don't do that!) or put in a file to be looked at later. Please don't delete what you've written. While it isn't perfect, there may be golden nuggets tucked in here and there. You'll find them when you read the work after it's been in your files for a few days or weeks. 

A first draft is only the beginning and that is of prime importance. Remind yourself of that each time you set out to write something new. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

When A Draft Doesn't Work

I've been working on a personal essay off and on for weeks. First drafts are never terrific but this one I don't like one bit. It's a topic that came to me one day that I wanted to pursue. It felt worthwhile and I was inspired to give it a go.

I opened a new page in Word and started typing what came to mind. My fingers flew over the keys and I was encouraged. When I finished, I read it over. Disappointment surrounded me, disgust popped up, as well. The piece just didn't gel. It didn't convey what had been in my mind. It gave no reason for being. Who would want to read this? That was my thought. So, I put it in a file to mellow for a few days. I actually let it sit for a couple of weeks as I wasn't eager to get back to it.

I reworked parts of the essay, tried to bring out a lesson learned, read it over and felt the same emotions as I did with the original writing. What is wrong with this? A question with no answer. So, I turned to my online writing group for help. I subbed it with a note saying that I was not happy with the piece, knew something was amiss and needed some honest opinions and suggestions. That's where the story sits right now as I wait for the sage advice of experienced writers. 

All writers run into a situation like this now and then. What do you do when it happens? You could delete the whole thing and regard it as a stupid idea in the first place. I wouldn't advise that solution. Sure, it would be gone and something you didn't have to worry about. but think about this. If the idea appealed to you before you started the writing for the first draft, there must have been a reason. You were inspired in some way and you wanted to write about the subject that had come to you. It's worth saving.

You can do what I have done. Let another writer, or several, look at your draft. Others see your writing from a different perspective. One of them might pinpoint the problem in a split second. When we write, we're very subjective. We also know in our head what we want to convey but the words that pop onto the screen don't jive with our thoughts. Or they don't make our thoughts clear to a reader. Maybe the words in our heart are filled with emotion but the emotion doesn't come through in the writing. Another writer will see that and let you know what changes might help. Heed the advice. 

When you submit it to a group as I did, you should get feedback from more than one person. Note carefully what things are pointed out multiple times. If several see the same trouble spot, you'll know that's a place that needs work. Some writers pay big bucks for a professional critique. Join a group and help one another for free. Or ask a personal writer friend or two to look at your draft.

Another way to make your draft better is to let it sit for a week or two after you write the first draft. When you go back and read it again, you'll see problems you hadn't noticed earlier. You'll also note the parts that are good and know that you want to keep them in the next draft. Occasionally, you'll run into a brick wall even after letting the draft age a bit, just as I did. That's when you want to seek outside help. 

Every piece of writing is not going to being a gold star edition when you first start working on it. Once in awhile, it happens but more often, that first draft ends up being one of many before you're ready to submit for publication. 

When you read the first draft, try to step back and read objectively. It's not an easy thing to do because we are immersed in our own ideas, our own way of conveying a message to our readers. 

Know this, too--when you write something that doesn't seem to work out the way you'd hoped, you are not alone. Many, many writers experience the same thing. Even our friend, Snoopy, feels just like you and I when he writes a poor first draft. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

A Common Bond For Veterans

This is a different version of an older story about a WWII cemetery in France that we had the privilege of visiting. A simple question from me and a heartfelt answer from a veteran proved another memorable moment in my life.  Note the link to a YouTube video at the end. 

A Common Bond

Leaves rustled softly as a light breeze drifted through the cemetery chapel, open to the air on two sides. This was the final stop on our tour of a WWII American Cemetery in southern France. The Rhone American Cemetery draws many tourists.

Our guide asked if there were any veterans of wars the USA had fought. “We would like you to participate in a wreath laying ceremony,” she said.

Three men stepped forward while the rest of our group of forty-two senior citizens gathered closer to the altar. Balwinder, our guide, offered the large bouquet of fresh flowers adorned with red, white and blue ribbons to one of the men. The trio walked slowly to the altar. Their shoulders were rounded, their hair thin and gray, their faces creased with the lines of time gone by.
The earlier breeze suddenly became a wind that brought fallen leaves to swirl around our feet and intensified the sound of ones moving on the trees that rimmed the chapel. Clouds blocked the sun as the three men stood shoulder to shoulder. One stepped forward and laid the flowers at either end of the altar between a Christian cross and a tablet depicting a Star of David.
After the flower bearer stepped back in line with his fellow vets, all three snapped to attention and saluted the dead American soldier depicted in the large mosaic mural behind the altar. For one magical moment, they were three young military men, the years dropping away. Each had given part of himself to his country decades earlier.
Now, they were touring France and making a visit to the Rhone American Military Cemetery where nearly 900 American soldiers were buried after the invasion of southern France in 1944. The boats landed in Normandy in the north and, weeks later, in the Mediterranean Sea in the south. The cemetery, in Draguignan, near the Rhone River, is close to where these soldiers fought and fell. For various reasons, their families in America chose to have them buried in France instead of requesting that they be shipped home for burial.
Balwinder, a native of India and citizen of France, asked if we would sing our national anthem. Silence. Then a few people began slowly, others joined in. As our voices blended and grew stronger with the familiar words, the wind died and the clouds parted allowing the sun to warm us once again.
My heart swelled and a lump rose to my throat. I had to wipe a stray tear from my cheek, and in the silence that followed our singing, I studied the towering blue mosaic mural. The central figure was an angel, robed in blue, seated on a chair. In her arms, she cradles the body of a dead American soldier with a tenderness that is easily felt. There were other, smaller figures on either side, but my gaze riveted on the angel and the soldier—he who represented so many who had given their lives. Young men who had everything to live for died fighting to free the people of France, then occupied by Nazi Germany.
As we ate dinner that evening, I spoke with one of the men who had participated in the wreath laying ceremony. “What went through your mind today as you laid the flowers on the altar at the cemetery?”
He replied with no hesitation, no time to ponder and search for an answer. “Veterans have a bond that is never broken, no matter how many years have passed. There’s nothing else like it.”  He smiled and added one more comment. “Only another vet fully understands.”

I know that Jesus understands, too. It is He who made that special bond for our military men and women and He who keeps it strong.
The veteran sat across the table from me, a retired railroad man who laughed a lot and still enjoyed life but when he spoke about the common bond of vets, his face turned serious, and only he knew the rest of the wartime memories that lay quietly within.

A video portraying the cemetery and the lovely mosaic tile mural in the chapel can be viewed here.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

An Essay For Veterans Day

Today and tomorrow, I will post essays I have written to honor the men and women who served in the military or do so now as we celebrate Veterans Day on Saturday, November 11th. Perhaps reading the two will trigger some thoughts of your own and prompt you to write about it. 

My thanks to all veterans, including my husband who served in the Army many years ago.

An experience several years ago on an airplane sitting next to a soldier prompted this personal essay. 

Sitting By A Soldier 

On an April day in 2006, my mood matched the gray skies as I boarded the plane, located Row 25, and settled into my seat. I pulled a paperback from my bag and buckled the seat belt. Sighing, I stared out the window, still feeling sorry for myself after a cancelled connecting flight had interrupted a long-awaited trip two days earlier. My online writers critique group spent the better part of a year planning for a four day retreat. Eighteen of us would travel from around the world to complete the bond started online. My disappointment over missing the meeting and being stuck in Chicago for two days felt almost overwhelming. Now finally heading home, I served as hostess at a Pity Party with a guest list of one.

A deep voice interrupted my thoughts. “Morning, Ma’am.”

I looked up at a young man in civilian clothes but with that military air about him, buzz hair cut, clean shaven and polite. He stowed his gear and slid into the aisle seat next to mine. He leaned back and closed his eyes as the plane taxied faster and faster, then left the ground behind as it climbed above the clouds.

It wasn’t long before my seatmate asked me if I lived in Chicago, the city we were leaving.

“I grew up there,” I told him, “but now I live in Manhattan, Kansas.”

”I was stationed at Ft. Riley once, so I know about Manhattan and Junction City, too.”

We continued to chat about simple things and then moved on to the Iraq war. “This is a different kind of war,” he said.

I told him that I remembered how different things had been in WWII. I was a little girl then, but I’d been aware of shortages during those years. No tires for cars, no silk stockings for women. My mother always made sure she had our ration books along when we shopped for food.

“That’s what I mean about it being different,” he said. “This war isn’t affecting the people here in the US. They haven’t made any sacrifices.”

He talked about his tour in Iraq back in 2003-04 and his feelings about being career military. “When it’s time to re-up,” he said, “I’m never sure what I should do. Stay and get my full time in for the benefits, or get out and make my wife happy.” His hand tightened around the soda can the flight attendant had brought him earlier.

“It must be very hard on families right now,” I remarked. I wanted to offer more, but I felt at a loss as to what else I might say.

“People have no idea.  It’s hard on wives, on kids, and the guys over in the war zones, too. Only reason I re-upped last time is because my dad told me something just before he died. Said to stay in the Army, and every time I think of getting out, I remember that.” He was quiet for a few seconds, and then said, “I’ll be going back to Iraq again, but I don’t want to.”

I wasn’t quite sure what to respond to his admission, or even if I should make a comment to what seemed a very private thought.

He continued to talk about Iraq, described his idea of what should be done by the military. “We need to pull back and put our troops on the edges of the country, close down those borders, keep the foreign insurgents out.”  He told me how disheartening it was to hear about Americans who didn’t support the troops, who bashed the president all the time.

He appeared truly hurt by the naysayers, and I responded by telling him something I really believed. “Remember one thing each time you see a protester. For every one of them, there are two who care about you and support what you’re doing.” Did I have a scientific study or statistics to back up what I’d said? No, but the words came from my heart, and they came because I wanted to ease this troubled man’s mind in some way.

He looked at me quietly a moment before saying, “Thank you, I’ll remember that.”

My book lay unopened as we moved on to several other topics, some war-related and others not. Before I knew it, the pilot announced our approach to Kansas City. The young man reached over and offered me his hand. I slipped mine into his, warm and strong, and accepted a firm handshake. Still holding my hand, he said, “I’m not much of a talker, and I don’t know why I told you all those things, but thanks for listening. And I’ll remember what you told me.”

I swallowed hard and had to blink a few times so no tears would spill over. “I enjoyed our visit, too, and I wish you the best of everything.”

The wheels touched the runway and we taxied to the gate. Travelers gathered their belongings and filed off the plane. My husband welcomed me with his familiar smile and a hug, and we went to the baggage area to claim my rerouted luggage. As I handed the clerk the paperwork, I heard a familiar deep voice say, “So this is the lucky man.” I turned to see my soldier shaking my husband’s hand. I winked at him and waved as we left. My pity party of one had disbanded, leaving in its place a memorable flight for two.

As my husband and I drove home that day, I couldn’t help but wonder if the soldier and I were meant to cross paths, that our meeting was no coincidence. Did I need to hear all he’d had to say to realize my disappointment over my cancelled trip proved very minor compared to what he faced? Did he need to spill out his thoughts and feelings to me and receive a word of encouragement? Perhaps yes on both counts. I’ve kept him in my prayers, and I’ll remember this moment in time when two people of different generations touched each other’s lives.    

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Write About Toys and Games Of Your Childhood

Remember these?

Last night, my husband and I started talking about the things we did for fun when we were kids growing up in the 1930's and '40's. Our conversation stemmed from a piece of writing a woman in my Memories Writing Group had done. She listed so many forgotten toys and games and I know it triggered memories for many others in the group of seniors. She ended by saying that though she grew up in the depression years and times of great drought here in Kansas, she and her friends were oblivious to all of that. They grew up having fun with what little they had. She learned much later how difficult it had been for her parents and other adults in those years.

For those who write memoir or family stories, here's the list Ken and I put together last night. Hopefully, some of what is there will trigger memories and inspire you to write. For the younger readers, it may be of interest to you to see how we entertained ourselves with the simplest things. 

For all my readers--your family would appreciate your memories of what you did for fun, the games you played, the toys you had as a child. They're sure to be different from what the kids of today have, whether you grew up 7 or 2 decades ago. 

The List
  • roller skates that clamped onto shoes, skate key to tighten, then wear around your neck on a shoelace
  • jacks
  • marbles
  • jumping rope
  • simple homemade kites, a tail made from Mom's rags
  • spinning tops
  • sledding
  • ice skating (if you were lucky enough to have skates)
  • dodge ball
  • baseball on a school playground or in a park--no special field provided
  • football in the park or someone's back yard
  • outdoor games like Red Rover, Hide and Seek, Tag and Statue
  • croquet
  • ping pong
  • badminton
  • paper dolls
  • coloring books
  • indoor games like Monopoly and Checkers
  • cap guns
  • dress-ups (using Mom's old clothes, hats and shoes)
Let us know if you have any others to add. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Inspiration To Write About Thanksgiving

NATURAL THANKSGIVING TABLESCAPE . An easy to set nature inspired Thanksgiving tablescape.
Thanksgiving Table

Holidays are natural topics for writers and those who write only to add to their Family Stories Book. Thanksgiving provides myriad paths to follow as we write about the foods, the decorations, the giving of thanks, the family gatherings and more. 

Here are a few paths to follow when writing about this treasured American holiday:

FoodWe probably place food at, or near, the top of the list. Our gathering together for this American holiday takes place around a table. Whether your table setting is elegant like the one above or uses paper plates, it's the food itself that takes the spotlight. One thing I love about this holiday is that the menu is pretty well set by every family, repeated year after year. One year, I didn't make the famous Green Bean Casserole, and I thought my adult son was going to cry. "But Mom," he said, "we have to have Green Bean Casserole on Thanksgiving." You can write about your traditional foods, the years that things went wrong with one or more of the dishes you make, and more. Don't forget about what it takes to shop for and prepare all that food.

Decorations:  This topic is wide open. Some families have a simple table while others go all out to make the table worthy of a magazine photo shoot. Kids often like to make place cards--fun for them and gets them out of the busy kitchen for awhile. Some families decorate the entire house and outside, as well. Others concentrate solely on the table. Write about it from any angle you like.

Gratitude:  This is such a wide topic that you could write a dozen essays or memoir pieces using this one word as your guide. It's a time of year that many people pause a bit to consider the blessings in their lives. Some are everyday things we normally take for granted. Others are big ones such as the healing of someone who had been very ill or the safe return of a military family member. Does your family take time at the table to express your thanks aloud, or does no one say it but perhaps think about it? Does your family include a church service on Thanksgiving morning? 

Where You Celebrate:  This is not a big thing but it could be of importance if you always have Thanksgiving at one place. How about when you worked up your courage and suggested a change? How did it go? Does your family take turns hosting the meal? Again, there are lots of angles to write about. You might start with a paragraph or two about the family tradition at Aunt Polly's and then veer off to an entire essay as to why that's important to you. 

Childhood Memories:  Thanksgiving memories from childhood are going to be different than the ones where you were the cook with children and other relatives all over the house. What did you do as a child on this holiday? Played outside in the piles of leaves or had football games in the yard? Were you sent out so you'd be out of the way? What did you like or not like about this holiday when you were a youngster?

Thanksgiving Disasters:  By this, I mean disasters in the kitchen or at the dining room table. We all have those Remember the year that....? stories. My own was when I had a houseful of people, all the side dishes finished only to learn that the turkey was nowhere near ready because I miscalculated the time. So we....well, I may share the story with you later this month. 

People:  Think about the people you have been with many Thanksgivings. What is unique about some of them? Why does Uncle Oscar always grumble? Why is Cousin Angie always picking at the food in the kitchen before it's put on the table? Why does Aunt Gert criticize every dish but the one she brought? It can go on and on--both positives and negatives.

Once you begin writing about any one of the above, or incorporating all of them in one piece, your mind will fill with memories and thoughts that will make you keep writing. You might even find inspiration for other personal essays to write. 

Monday, November 6, 2017

Two Choices In Your Writing Life--Which One For You?

Image may contain: flower, plant, text and nature

Writers deal with both faith and fear as they travel through the long journey of the writing world.
Let's look at both today. Use the following as a checklist. Which ones do you think apply to you? 

  •  I am afraid I'll never be good enough to compete with professional writers. (Guess what? They have fears, too.) 
  • I worry that I'll never be published or won't be published in the top notch magazines or publishing houses. 
  • I fear submitting my writing
  • I worry that I'll run out of topics to write about
  • I am terrified of Writer's Block
  • I am scared to read reviews in case they are bad
  • I am afraid of being rejected
  • I worry that my writing mechanics are not good enough
  • I'm afraid to go to writing conferences 
  • I believe in myself
  • I know I have given my very best
  • Someday, I'll be published
  • I'll be published in a top rated magazine or publishing house
  • I keep learning about my craft
  • I have plenty to write about; all I need to do is look at the world with a writer's eye
  • I will submit my work on a regular basis
  • I will join writing groups to learn and to offer what I know to others
  • I will accept speaking engagements connected to my writing
You have two choices. Are you going to allow the Fear section to take over your writing life? Or will you work on the ones in the Faith section? Every one of us can probably relate to several things in each category. Which list is the one for you? 

Friday, November 3, 2017

Call Out For Stories and Poems

Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

Chicken Soup for the Soul has a call for stories for a new book. Looks like the title alone will draw the interest of female readers. Maybe some men, as well. Note the words above the title of the book--101 Stories about Being Confident, Courageous and Your True Self.

What kind of stories are they looking for? The list of suggested topics is lengthy. Go to the Possible Books page, scroll down to The Empowered Woman and study the list. Perhaps inspiration will hit as you read. Submissions are due January 10, 2018. That's just over two months away, but with the holidays looming, it's not really a great deal of time, so get started on your story, or poem, to submit for this one. 

Did you note that I said ...story, or poem,...? Poetry is accepted as well as stories. The poem would most likely be considered a narrative one--telling a story. I see very few poems in the Chicken Soup books which leads me to think that they don't receive very many poetry submissions. That should be an 'Aha!' moment for you who write poetry. Fewer submissions means less competition. Give it a try. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. 

There is a call out for stories for four more Chicken Soup books.  They are:
  1. Christmas and Holiday Collection--deadline is January 10, 2018
  2. Love Stories--deadline November 30, 2017
  3. Stories About My Mom--deadline July 31, 2018
  4. The Best Advice I Ever Heard--February 28, 2018
Again, consider poems as well as your true stories for any, or all, of these titles. The competition is fierce as there are often 6,000 or more submissions for each book with only 101 being selected. There is no entry or reading fee so your cost is nothing but your time and supreme effort. If your submission doesn't make it, you still have a finished story (or poem) to submit somewhere else. It's a win-win situation. Start planning, start writing, then submit before the deadline. The sooner, the better.

The opportunity is there. It's up to you to take advantage of it or pass it by. 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Capitalize On The Moments When Writing Memoir

My state authors organization sponsors an annual writing contest that encompasses several categories. Year after year, Memoir is the category that receives the largest number of entries. People write about those magical moments of the past that wrap around our memory bank like a shawl that warms us on a chilly day. 

When we spiral back to our childhood days or our teen times, we don't remember the days. Even as adults, certain moments are treasured or disliked. As the poster says, it's the moments that stay with us. It is those moments that can serve as the basis for a memoir piece of writing. A moment is here and gone in a flash but if something happened that left an impression on you, it remains in your memory forever. 

I mentioned magical moments in my opening today but some of them are not so positive. The bits and pieces that we don't forget are often traumatic or sad or humiliating. We've all had them just like we've had those moments that are thrilling, filled with joy, or exciting. 

How can you write a piece of creative nonfiction of perhaps 1000 words from something that happened in a flash? Consider the following:
  • what happened in that 'monment'
  • what led up to it
  • who was part of it
  • your reaction
  • your emotions
  • your satisfaction or regret
  • what came later as a result
  • the place where it occurred
  • the lesson learned
Consider all of the above, and perhaps other things, and you can easily write 1000 words about that 'moment' you have remembered all these years. These occurrences that impressed us might well appeal to readers. If we remember what happened years later there is most likely a good reason. It's up to you to write about it to share with families in your Family Memories book or for readers who are not your relatives but can relate to whatever you wrote about.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

New Month, New Projects

Month number 11 of the year 2017 is now upon us. There are several dates we recognize in November. Any one of them could be a topic for a new writing project. 

Here are a few of the better known significant dates in November

All Saints Day--today, the 1st
Veterans Day--the 11th
Thanksgiving--the 23rrd
Black Friday--the 24th

There are a number of other, rather bizarre days recognized by someone, somewhere this month. If you would like to see the list, take a look here

You're probably thinking What could I write about these days that hasn't already been done? Especially the common ones in the list above. Granted--Thanksgiving has been written about thousands of times but maybe not the story YOU will write. Black Friday stories might be a lot of fun to create. Veterans Day has also been observed through writings over and over again, but maybe YOU can being a new angle, show your own patriotism and thoughts. Today is All Saints Day when we remember those whom we know that are no longer alive. There are many approaches to this topic, too. YOU can write a story about people that no one else can. 

At the beginning of each new month, check out the holidays or days of observance to find inspiration for a new writing topic. Take whatever angle you like. Make it funny, sad, moving or scary. YOU are in charge. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween Humiliation--A True Story

Longtime readers of this blog will know that Halloween is one holiday I have never liked--even as a kid with costumes, parades, Trick or Treat and the sweets it brought. No, I disliked it all. Didn't like having to get my own children ready for the much-loved-by-others holiday. Kind of enjoyed the little kids who came to our door for treats. That was the best part of the ghosts and goblins holiday. 

We all remember the times in our lives when we felt humiliated. No one likes to be laughed at. When I was in fifth grade, I finally had a costume to wear to our school party that was not something created out of a closet at home. We used what we had to come up with a costume. Year after year, I fashioned some kind of outfit that labeled me as a Gypsy while the brother next in line to me turned himself into a hobo. 

But that year, I had a costume my aunt had made for my cousin to wear the previous year. I got lots of Carole's clothes so why not a hand-me-down Halloween costume, too? I would spend the whole day in my class and Trick or Treat time that evening as Martha Washington. How I loved the colonial dress with the long skirt. To make the costume even more real, a wig made out of white cotton batting went with the dress. I dressed with excitement that morning. Finally, I would have a real costume.

Joy turned to anguish when I entered the classroom to hoots of laughter. It wasn't the dress. The wig had set them off. No one said, "Hey, that's really neat." Or "You really look like Martha Washington." They laughed and jeered and pulled at the wig until I had tears in my eyes that I refused to allow to spill over and a heart that felt filled with the darts of humiliation tossed by my classmates. 

Our wonderful teacher, Mr. Biddinger, soon settled the raucous group and the work of the day began with everyone counting the minutes and hours until our school parade and class party began later in the afternoon. The teacher had stopped the loud hoots and hollers about my wig but there were plenty of snickers and faces made, enough to make me wish the day was over. 

Somehow, I survived the day despite hating to be in the all-school parade and playing the silly games at the party. How in the world are you suppose to bob for apples with a cotton batting wig on your head? I opted out. I had a hard time swallowing the Halloween sugar cookies over the lump in my throat. 

Finally, the last bell rang and I could go home. I told my mother that I wasn't wearing the 'stupid costume' for Trick or Treat that night. She made it quite clear that it was wear it or don't go. I pushed down my humiliation and went out that evening with my brothers. No one laughed at me at the apartments and houses where we sought the treats everyone had waiting for us. It was only at school with my classmates that the teasing and jeering had reigned. 

The next day at school proved to be quite normal. No one mentioned Martha Washington's wig. Not that day or ever again. The next year, I was back to being a Gypsy again with a full skirt, lots of necklaces and bracelets from my mother's trove of costume jewelry and a scarf tied over my hair. Nobody laughed and I had a great time at the party. 

I got over that humiliating experience but, as you can see, I never forgot it. Writing about it today made me squirm a bit. Looking back, however, I think it was a pretty clever costume and I must have looked kinda cute in it. Sadly, my peers of the time didn't think so. Or maybe they were a wee bit jealous. Nah! Just being kids.

Monday, October 30, 2017

A Grouchy Reader!

Being the avid reader I am, I am a firm believer in the Snoopy poster above. I need books to read every bit as much as actual food. One nourishes my mnd and heart while the other feeds my body. I am rarely without a book nearby. I snatch moments out of my day to read and sometimes hours in the evenings. I consider reading to be one of my greatest pleasures. 

As a writer, I read with two mindsets. One as merely a person who wants to enjoy a good story. The second one is reading with the eyes of a writer which sometimes causes me to be too critical. On the other hand, it also allows me to fully appreciate beautiful prose. 

Last week, I started to read a book that I had brought home from the library. The opening chapter left me wondering about the rest of the book. "This is a dumb book!" I said to my husband who was watching tv. One more chapter and I slammed the book shut and left it on the coffee table to be returned to the library. What drivel it was. It made mo sense, brought no questions to the reader's mind, was just plain boring. 

This week, I brought more books home from the library, all of which sounded like something that would appeal to me. I read 30 pages of one and ended up with the same scenario as the other one that I didn't like. Mumbled to my husband and slammed the book shut and tossed it on the coffee table. 

It is rare that I don't finish a book. Granted, I like some better than others, but I do read from beginning to end. Both books had authors who are far, far younger than I am, but they were historical fiction which is my favorite genre. It's why I brought them home, even the frontispiece summarizing the story had appealed to me. 

So, what was wrong with them? It may be that authors who are very young look at the world in a different perspective than I do. Remember the phrase generation gap that we heard over and over a few years ago? Maybe that was one problem. The other was that the writing itself was boring. Oh yes, I do mean that. Paragraphs to say what could have been said in one sentence. Describing the scene until the reader wants to scream "Get on with it!" 

What amazes me is that books like this get published. I am fully aware that not all books are for all people but I would be surprised if either of these two particular books found happy readers on a large scale. I know that there are many good writers hoping to get published but run into a brick wall with every attempt. I know that because I've read some of them in my writing groups through the years. Good stories, well written but no contract. Yet, some poor writers get published.

I am going to start reading a new book this evening. I have high hopes that it will be one I like. I hope I'm not disappointed once again. I need the nourishment books provide.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Is Grammar Important Or Not?

Today's poster tells us we are judged by our grammar, then gives a list of common errors people make when writing. What is your thought on that statement? Are we judged by the grammar we use? Does it matter if we are careless to the point of making many grammatical errors when we write? Is it alright to make one or two now and then? 

I readily admit that I am one of those people who catch grammatical errors when I read and cringe just a bit. Sometimes more than 'a bit.' I was the fortunate student in grade school and high school who found grammar easy to learn. English, both grammar and literature, was the subject in which I excelled. Straight A's. That's not bragging; it's a fact. 

However, I struggled mightily in every math class I took in high school and college. And I do mean 'struggled.' So, I understand that some people had a hard time learning all the grammatical rules and that some just plain didn't care. 

If you're going to be a part of the writing world, the grammar part is pretty important. Even if you were one of the strugglers in every English class you took, it would be to your benefit to review the rules of grammar on a regular basis. Buy a basic grammar book and keep it close to the place where you write. 

There are also websites that will check your text for grammar and spelling errors. I googled to find a couple. One is here and called Grammar Check. The other one, Instant Grammar Check is here. There are many others that you can try until you find one you like best.

Editors and publishers do find grammar important and so should we, as writers. Some readers will gloss over grammar mistakes while others will find them immediately and utter a tsk, tsk! (That would be me.)

I'm not saying that I have never made a grammatical error. I know I have but not a great many. We should all aim for error free grammar if we want to be published and build a bevy of readers. 

What do you think about the importance of grammar in our writing? Are we judged by our grammar as the poster says? Do you agree or disagree with me? I'd love to hear from anyone who has an opinion on this topic. 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Writers Never Stop Learning

All of the situations in the poster above offer a time to learn. In my writing world I've learned more things than you can put in a vast abyss. Well, perhaps that is a bit of exaggeration but please remember that writers are know to be creative. Still, I have acquired a whole lot of knowledge about this writing business.

If you have learned nothing along your writing journey, you either are not looking as you traverse the writing path or you were a phenomenal writer at the very beginning. There are, however, very few of us who have no reason to learn anything more about our craft. 

Develop the habit of asking yourself what you can learn each time you receive a rejection. The lesson is there but it's up to us to decipher it. 

What else can writers do to learn more about the writing craft and their own writing? Here's my list: 
  • Read about the craft of writing on a regular basis
  • Read other peoples' writing frequently
  • Go to conferences
  • Study the pieces that have been rejected for the 'why'
  • Continue writing regularly--the more you write, the more you learn
  • Analyze writing of others that you don't like as to the 'why'
  • Join a writing group and actively participate
  • Listen carefully to what others in a writing group say
  • Study guidelines of places where you want to submit
  • Do one on one critiques with another writer
  • Join a local or state writers' association
  • Learn from your mistakes
The last in this list is probably the most important. I can honestly say that the more I write, the more I've learned. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

One More Struggle For Writers

Ever been somewhere when inspiration for a new story hits you. You can view the entire story in your head. You see the plot, the setting, the characters, even sensory details. You can hardly wait to get home and start tapping away at your keyboard. You even jot down some notes that will help you remember your vision. 

Hours, or even days, pass before you have an opportunity to write the first draft of this fab new story. You write and write and write until the this first effort is finished. Not a finished product. You accept that but, still, it should be a great story after all that came to your mind earlier.

You know you should put it aside for days or a couple of weeks but you just have to read it. You sit back in your chair and read the story from beginning to ending. You deflate like slow-leaking balloon--a little at a time. The story on the screen, or in your notebook, is not the same as the one you envisioned during that moment of inspiration. What happened?

The what happened? part is not easy to figure out. I think that one problem is that we see so clearly in our mind but when writing the draft, we aren't putting in all those little details that we saw so well mentally. We know what the characters should look like, how they hold their knife and fork, how they dress, how they laugh or cry. We've seen it in our mental images. But molding those characters with all those little bits and pieces in our writing is hard. We're often working with minimum word counts so how much detail about each character can we put in the story? 

Consider this--maybe the story that seemed so great when it came to you isn't as good as you thought it was. Once down in print, it somehow isn't quite the same story. Or perhaps reading the words rather than creating the mental images weakens the whole thing. 

If you have a problem like this, ask yourself what is lacking in the print version compared to the one you created in your mind. Then answer yourself honestly. If you can pinpoint the problem, you can fix it. But mending the cracked version will take time and patience and a lot of probing of your own mind. 

Ask a writer friend to read your first draft. Tell them you need an honest answer as to what is lacking in the story. Or, if there really is something lacking. It could be your own assessment is different from that of another person. One of the reasons I love being in a writing group is to have objective eyes on my work. They see so much that I, the writer, do not. 

As the poster tells us, it IS a struggle to get what's in our head to the pad of paper or on the screen. But sometimes, it flows incredibly well from brain to print and that's when we color ourself happy.