Life is hard.

As the 2015 fall semester was kicking off for area schools, I made a quick stop at Walmart, not thinking of how many shoppers would be there stocking up on school items. The parking lot was busy but since I was already parked, I stayed. Maybe the store wasn’t as hectic as the parking lot.
Who was I kidding?
If the lot was hectic, the interior was chaos. School supply lists fluttered in the air, whirled by the spinning wheels of shopping carts driven by harried parents, as the doors closed and opened and closed again behind me. I was followed through the doors on the right side of the storefront by moms and dads on a mission and children on a wild tear.
There was a gap in the frenzied aisle across the front of the store and I turned toward the left, on a mission of my own. I hadn’t found any other local store that had my preferred coffee flavoring and I was on empty. It was only desperation that had me in the middle of this commotion.
Coming toward me, as the gap closed back in, was a young dad, rail thin in the clothes of a manual laborer, his uniform no longer clean and crisp by day’s end. Trailing behind him were three clones of him, except for their size. Stair step brothers, each obviously elementary aged, falling all over themselves, pushed a cart behind him, the middle one wrestling the others for control. The youngest wore a hand-me-down shirt, two sizes too big, that rippled around him, full of his energy. The tallest of the boys called out, “Daddy! Hey! Wait up!”
In that instant, as they clattered past me, I could feel the weight on the shoulders of that young father. I wondered how many things his children needed that would have to wait for next payday, or the next, and if there was a mom, maybe at work or maybe at home with a baby sister.
Life is hard and it is harder on some of God’s children than others.
The reasons are many, but that’s not what this column is about.
This column is a simple reminder that the family scene that passed me in Walmart that night first broke my heart, and then filled it overflowing, in no more than thirty seconds. We are participants together in this same Big Life, and if we can’t help others—for whatever reasons—let’s not add to the hurt.
Let’s not look down on or shame the strugglers. It only adds to their burden. And it’s not the whole story.
No, it is far from the whole story.
Let me tell you something else. Those three stair step youngsters were laughing and the tender affection in the eyes of that weary father, as he looked over his shoulder at his progeny, was transparent. In spite of his fatigue and drooped shoulders, his eyes sparkled.
That, my friends, is more than I can say for some of the more prosperous families I met, pushing full shopping carts that they would pay for with fuller bank accounts than the young dad, while they were distractedly checking their phones and reining in their own rambunctious children. From their dazed expressions, I imagined that they, too, had their own burdens.
Life is hard but, when the children are laughing, the burdens are lighter.
We are easing up to the end of this school year now, but I often think of that that August experience. Most every time I enter Walmart, I remember that energetic gaggle of stair step boys and their father.
And I still smile.
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Alcorn County resident Jaylene Whitehurst is an artist and Licensed Professional Counselor. She may be reached at 662-286-5433 or jaylene@heartworkccl.com. She contributes to Crossroads Magazine and the Daily Corinthian.

It began with a Buster Brown Sock Box

Friends 2015There was a box that reappeared under the Christmas tree every year at the house where I grew up, and it happened for as long as I lived there. It took two or three years when I was a tot to notice the annual reappearance of The Buster Brown Sock Box, but eventually it became obvious that Santa Claus was decades ahead of the recycling movement.
It was a yearly curiosity, the question of who’d have a gift in that long-lived box. Because of its size and its original use, it usually held practical items, like the predictable socks for my brother or me, or new gloves to wear to church. The worn ones that were getting a bit snug in the fingers could now be relegated to school wear. New hunting socks for my dad fit the box perfectly, the gray woolen kind with red toes and a wide band of red around the top of the cuff. A book, stuffed in tight with tissue paper, was my preferred present, if the gift tag had my name on it.
Whatever was in the box brought a smile to someone in the family. As long as it wasn’t the dreaded underwear!
Santa shopped locally, like my mother, because I often recognized familiar labels on our gifts. That was one little detail I tried not to think about; it didn’t quite fit the North Pole scenario, but Christmas didn’t seem like a good time for me to get caught up in pesky details.
Santa reused more than The Buster Brown Sock Box; he recycled bows and wrapping paper and he’d probably have reused tape if he’d been able to make it stick. It wouldn’t be unusual for him to deliver gifts wrapped in paper creased with memories from years past and bedecked with ribbons that looked vaguely familiar, as if I’d met them—oh, say—about a year before.
Yes, indeed, feel free to insert a winking emoticon here.
The annual appearance of The Buster Brown Sock Box became an element of my story, a single memory that brushes aside the cobwebs of the past and teases vague recollections into the light. Dusting off my memories of Christmas in Corinth in the late ‘50s through the ‘60s and early ‘70s, I find that my musings are as sturdy as that sock box. Simple and tenacious.
Our annual visit to Toyland, upstairs over the old Mitchell’s department store at the corner of Fillmore and Wick, was the official beginning of the Santa season for me. It always began on a crisp Saturday morning, soon after Thanksgiving, when Daddy would nonchalantly saunter through the house, accompanied by the slight sizzle of the gas heaters. Almost to himself, he’d say, “I was thinking I might go to Toyland. Anybody want to go with me?”
Want to go? Out of my way. I was already pulling on my coat. Younger brother was on his own.
Around the perimeter of the second story wonderland were magical painted images of fairy tale characters. Ole King Cole was of particular fascination to me because I’d seen Nat “King” Cole singing on TV and this robe-and-crown-wearing cartoon character bore no resemblance to the crooner. Still, the similarity of names baffled me and I concluded that they must be relatives.
And there was Humpty Dumpty, in all his ovate glory, depicted teetering on a brick wall. He remained teetering, year after year, observed by walls full of his fairy tale friends. Below the painted characters, cellophane-wrapped dolls lined up on shelves, in bridal dresses and fancy outfits, while beneath them were displays of Tonka trucks, games, baby doll buggies, toy dishes, pedal cars, doll houses, and more— enough delight to leave me speechless at the abundance.
When I peer into that memory, it sparkles with such intensity that the details blur like the reflection of big colored Christmas bulbs dancing on silvery tinsel.
If I’m not mistaken, it was also in the vicinity of the old Mitchell’s store that my dad and I went to the Christmas parade, just the two of us. I can be forgiven if I mistake the exact location, because I was little, really little. Probably three years old, bundled up in my red wool coat, I clearly remember Daddy hoisting me onto his shoulders so I could see the splendor of the majorettes, tassels swinging on their white boots. The band stopped in front of us, as if on request, and I could feel the music vibrate inside my ribcage, the brass instruments gleaming below the street lights and the bass drum throbbing. The breath of the majorettes was suspended in the night air, like the memory now suspended in my mind, and I worried that their legs were cold under their short skirts.
Fast forward to school impressions. A couple of weeks ago, as I drove west on Linden Street, I turned onto Wenasoga Road and stopped to pay my respects to what remains of the auditorium of West Corinth Elementary School, the façade now crumbling as deconstruction continues on what is, to me, hallowed ground. As I write this, enough of the auditorium still stands for me to see the stage where yearly Christmas programs played out. Today the roof sags open. Overcast shadows spill across the space but it isn’t today that I see. I see the space circa 1960-66.
The stage once jutted out to either side, creating a narrow ledge in front of the flanking brick walls, where I stood and recited my memorized paragraph about Christmas in England in the sixth grade program. I wore a long dress my mother made, red with a lacy stand-up Elizabethan collar that she based on illustrations in our treasured World Book Encyclopedia. From a neighbor, she borrowed a couple of skirt hoops and situated one high and one low in a petticoat, so the silhouette of my costume was true to the era. That skirt took up the entire depth of the ledge. Yikes! I clearly recall holding my breath as I navigated my way back onto more spacious footing.
Through the gaping front wall, the crumbling hallway gives way to a tangible picture in my mind. One more time, I feel the excitement of party day and early dismissal, a child finally set free for Christmas vacation. My first grade classroom is now rubble, but I still have the dainty china boot that Mrs. Jewel Goforth, principal and teacher, gave each of her girl students for Christmas. For six years, Christmas parties played out for me down that hallway, with the anxiety about whether my teacher would like her gift, or— in the case of sixth grade— whether Mr. Victor Miller would like his handkerchiefs, because I noticed that, like my daddy, he always had one in his back pocket.
My mother was a full-time homemaker so she was usually one of the moms who brought treats for the parties and stayed to tidy up stray wrapping paper and crumbs, while the teacher helped students clear out for the holidays. I liked how it felt to help with the tasks and the slightly surreal experience of being in a school building as it emptied itself of the bustle of children and settled into the quiet of its own Christmas vacation.
The thing about growing up and growing older in the same town is that the past and present overlap at every street corner and along every sidewalk. At the corner of Wick and Fillmore, at Linden Street and Wenasoga Road. Along Waldron, Cruise, Taylor, Foote.
The store fronts in this familiar downtown, changed from my youth and continuing to change, have the stories of my distant and recent memories etched into them. The streets that I’ve driven for decades take me past images that I still see clearly, though many are only in my mind’s eye now.
Consistently, the traditions of stepping into the magical lure of Toyland, of childhood Christmas programs and parties and parades, of The Buster Brown Sock Box, anchored my Christmas experience. And, of course, there are more stories for another day, recollections that resurfaced simply because I unwrapped these few.
We all have them. Personal, potent, poignant.
One reminiscence leads to another. We can’t help it; that’s how we are wired. Stories long to be given voice and they long to be given ear. They make us human.
Somewhere a little girl would like to ask about what it was like back “in the olden days” and she very much wants us to stop what we’re doing and listen to her telling her story, too. A little boy wants the company of an adult who will slow down and hear him share his Christmas wishes, an adult who will admit that he, too, still has dreams.
Whether we are four years old or ninety-four, our narratives are the most substantial gifts we give each other. Once given, they can’t be lost, stolen, or misplaced.
They become not “my” story but “our” stories.
May we value our collective stories as the precious gifts they are, sharing thoughtfully and receiving gracefully.

Jaylene Whitehurst is an artist and Licensed Professional Counselor in Alcorn County. She contributes to the Daily Corinthian and Crossroads Magazine. She may be reached at jaylene@heartworkccl.com or (662)286-5433.

This post appeared as a column in the Daily Corinthian newspaper, December 15, 2015.

Consider yourselves hugged.

hugbirdsA hug.
We usually combine those two words with the concept of giving. “Give me a hug.” “Let me give you a hug.” “Need a hug?” Hugs are valued as a way in which we connect with other creatures to such a degree that we’ve had to invent the emoticon version of hugging: ((( ))). We do it in cyberspace and we do it face to face. Even over the phone, we try to hug. As a friend of mine says as we sign off from a phone call, “Consider yourself hugged.”
Traditions about hugging vary from person to person, family to family, culture to culture, but (in my life, anyway) hugging as greeting or farewell, or when deeply touched by the lives of others, is the usual. Hugs happen when we feel connected emotionally to another being and we are moved to act out the connection physically. Side by side hugs, full frontal hugs, neck hugs—we have a style for any occasion.
There are times when a hug is a perfect fit for me. The arms of another person, another shoulder to lean into, is like a womb where I can drop my shoulders, set my deep sigh free, and emerge refreshed. It may be a smidgen of me, but there is an ineffable energy within me that is reborn when I am given a hug.
But, there is a reluctant truth I grew into about this hugging business.
There are times when hugs aren’t given to us, but taken from us.
Nope, I’m not talking about an unwelcome grope, though that’s inappropriate, for sure. Ick. It’s clear with that slimy hug that a boundary has been crossed. The reluctant truth of the taken hugs to which I’m referring is more subtle. It’s emotionally slimy, though the person who’s purportedly giving the hug is probably unaware of it.
When hugs are taken, the action is more about the needs of the hugger than the huggee.
To know the difference, we have to tune in to our own emotional states and operate from a place of curiosity and openness. Otherwise, we’re liable to keep operating on automatic, doing what good little girls and boys do, too often at our own expense. Because we don’t want to hurt the feelings of the other person, out of habit, we let others into our close space and possibly tap into our energy. Our emotional boundaries, as well as our physical ones, are crossed before we realize what is happening.
I know, I know, this is indefinable stuff I’m talking about. We learn the difference only by experience.
My personal bullet points about boundaries and hugging:
• If the idea of wanting a hug from the other person hasn’t even crossed my mind, and I feel that person warming up to hug me, I can be pretty sure the need for touch isn’t mine.
• Hugs that feel nurturing and energizing are hugs of the giving sort; hugs that leave me feeling like I lost energy are about the other person. Without my permission, energy was leeched out of me.
• Others may want to hug me when they want tacit reassurance that things are okay between us, instead of bringing concerns into the open and talking about them. I am not The Queen of Tacit Reassurance.
• Some try to relieve their own anxiety by “giving” a hug. They need to do something, anything, to alleviate intense feelings that have come up inside them, so they reach for another human being, in the unconscious guise of giving a hug. When this happens to me, I feel as if the hugger tried to give me her feelings, instead of dealing with them herself. I cannot do her job for her.
• I don’t have to hug anybody or everybody. Neither do you. It is not an obligation. Only I know how much emotional energy I have and where I want to use it. I don’t have to allow myself to be touched so that another person can temporarily feel better.
• Physical and emotional boundaries are fluid and overlap. A hug that was welcome last week might feel invasive this week.
• I work to read the other person’s body language when I consider hugging another. Usually I go ahead and ask, even if I know the person extremely well. “Would a hug help?”
• I do not know the other person’s experience with touch, so I don’t touch from behind or unexpectedly. Has she been abused? Does he have PTSD? Is touch threatening, for any reason?
• There is nothing inappropriate about not accepting a hug from another person. It may feel awkward to sidestep a hug, but it may feel even yuckier to step into a hug that I don’t want. My body, my energy, my responsibility to manage it.
• BIG BULLET POINT: I ask a child before I hug him/her and I accept their yes or no, without question or judgment. I may be the only one in my grandchild’s life who asks, but I want her and every child to have the opportunity to safely say NO to an adult when it comes to boundaries about the body. Children cannot develop the role of saying NO to possible abusers if we’ve shamed them when they didn’t want to hug (and even kiss) others. They cannot grow into human beings who can say NO if we’ve pushed them into saying YES.
During this season of rebirth and nurturing, I’m especially thankful for those who can truly GIVE hugs, who provide nurture and emotional safe havens during times of transition. They are the Lights in dark times that bring me home.
Consider yourselves hugged. Every single one of you.
~~~Jaylene Whitehurst, the Ragged Phoenix

It might as well have been fairy dust…

I can feel the breeze lifting the leaves and feel the sun as I hop out of the car and head for the front door.

I can feel the breeze lifting the leaves and feel the sun as I hop out of the car and head for the front door.

I rarely pass the corner of Fillmore and Cruise Streets in my hometown of Corinth, Mississippi, that I don’t picture my mother looking out the front passenger window of our ’57 Chevy, shaking her head at the site of where Rubel’s Department Store once stood. From my backseat spot, I heard her sigh, time after time, “Tore down Rubel’s for a Kent’s Dollar Store. A KENT’S Dollar Store!”
My memories of Rubel’s have decades less duration than hers. If I was ever inside the store, I don’t clearly remember. The vague imagery I have of its interior is more likely cobbled together from what I heard over the years than from what I actually saw. My clearest memory is of the exterior: a massive red brick structure that rose skyward and loomed right outside my car window, as we passed on the way to church three times a week. Its presence pressed hard toward Fillmore Street, but my relationship with it was mainly born of the connection my parents had to it.
They grieved when it was gone. A part of their identity and a way of framing their community left when a pale brick building, hunkering close to the ground, claimed the same spot.
Before I had the words to express what I was aware of, I knew on a level below the surface that my family’s connection to the architecture of this town was about more than buildings. Their stories were built within edifices that might be left standing only in their memories, but those structures remained as significant as when they were mortar and brick, board and nail.
This brings me, by a circuitous path through time and town, to the Corinth Library. Pulling into the familiar parking lot, I remind myself, more than I want to admit, of my mother and Rubel’s.
The current Corinth Library was built in 1969. Here’s the spot where I feel a kinship with my parents, aware that I too have experienced changes in this town, for in spite of its construction year, my mind persists in calling a forty-six year old structure The New Library, and I allow my mind to have its way.
Before there was The New Library, with its expansive clerestory windows and its sturdy tables and chairs with the pale wooden legs and laminate surfaces that have served users dependably and with its balcony that has intrigued decades of children as only a balcony can, there was another library with single windows and oak furnishings and a stairway leading to another mysterious upper floor, off-limits to the likes of elementary-aged me.
Before there was The New Library, where I spent hours as a high school junior contracting for an “A” in Mrs. Mildred Myers’s American History class, where I did all research that couldn’t be accomplished at home with the treasured beige and green set of World Book Encyclopedias, there was another library with shelves upon shelves of knowledge and adventure, riches to be explored upon presentation of nothing but a magical card and a signature.
Before there was The New Library, where I, as a young woman, browsed glossy periodicals I couldn’t afford to buy and checked out art books before the Internet made every facet of art accessible with a couple of clicks and where I first saw the work of local painters hanging in the auditorium, there was another library with a sunny room to the right of the entrance, its white shelves full of children’s books illustrated with bright colors and extraordinary characters that leapt from over-sized pages like paintings in motion.
Before there was The New Library, where brick and soaring glass create an airy space that shifts with the seasons drifting across the sky, where boots and sandals sound the same — muffled by industrial carpeting — there was another library where wooden floors welcomed me into a cool hush smelling of leather and paper and ink, the dusty scent of accumulation a comforting relief from the heat of summer.
Before there was The New Library there was what will always be, to me, The Real Library.
When summers stretched beyond imagination and school holidays loitered instead of speeding past, my mother could comfortably drop me off at Sterling’s or Kuhn’s to wander the aisles, with my pocketed allowance money, while she made her Thursday round of errands in town.
Or I could ask to go to the library.
A crisp white building, with starched angles and two stories, it sported dark shutters aside the simple double hung windows and a welcoming portico that had once been part of a wraparound porch, long gone. When it wasn’t making rounds, the Bookmobile would be parked alongside the building. During the school year, it occasionally came to West Corinth School, leaving me mesmerized by the idea of a library on wheels. I was pretty sure that to drive the bookmobile would be the best job in the world.
The sparkle of sunlight danced through the leaves of trees that lined the gravel drive and parking lot on the south side of the building, especially in summer when, when the most pressing hurry was to look through as many books as I could before Mother’s errands brought her back around to pick me up. I don’t believe there was ever a time I approached the front door that I didn’t feel a nervous stir of anticipation: I was about to step into a hallowed space that opened onto the world of imagination.
I trust my impressions of that space more than I do precise memories; it was the sensations that arose in my pliable younger self that remain firm, to this day.
The entrance, with its checkout desk presided over by Augusta Richardson, received ambient light from The Children’s Room, jutting streetward on the right of the entry. Henrietta Byrd was on duty too, but Mrs. Augusta, as if she knew the random times I’d be dropped off, was as ever present as a sentinel (and with a similar bearing), guarding that sunlit room to the right.
Oh, The Children’s Room! I can still see the glitter of dust motes on the slanted rays of early afternoon light. It might as well have been fairy dust.
If only Mrs. Augusta would cease with her suggestions and let me browse in peace, the magical spell wouldn’t be broken. Shhhhhh… I so wanted to do the unthinkable and shush the librarian! But I tried to be a good girl and, frankly, I was rather terrified of displeasing the woman so, more than once, I left with books of her choosing instead of mine. Second graders in 1962 didn’t easily disagree with grownups who were tall and authoritative.
Stepping up to the checkout desk to present my selections to Mrs. Augusta, I imagined what it would be like to approach the throne of God and be found wanting. Did God have a cocked eyebrow like Mrs. Augusta? Hmmm… I felt slight courage and great trepidation every time I pressed on with Tales of King Arthur and the like, instead of the stories about rosy-cheeked children she kept steering me toward.
But finally there was that time when I was older, probably in fifth grade —and I still have no clue how this happened — that I checked out a John Steinbeck book and read strange grown-up words that I didn’t understand about life far outside The Children’s Room. Far outside The Young Adult literature I frequented now. The look on Mrs. Augusta’s face when I returned the adult narrative left her mouth agape. Speechless.
I had finally silenced the librarian.
Played out in The Real Library by an unsuspecting but well-meaning antagonist and the child that I was, I still look back on that as one of the most satisfying episodes of my life.
The New Library has gone through its own changes over time. I miss the wooden card catalog, its former space now filled with shelving for new arrivals, and its purpose fulfilled by keyboards and screens on a kiosk where I never have to stoop down to tug out a bottom drawer. There’s more shelving than there used to be, more books. Computers take up spaces where books once lined walls and tables stood. The expanse of clerestory windows has blinds now, relief against the intensity of sunlight that has, more than once, stabbed me in the eye.
Mrs. Augusta, who quieted patrons early on in the The New Library as well as in The Real Library, has been followed by a succession of keepers of the books, who oversee technology, periodicals, and DVDs, as well as a selection of books in audio.
My mother’s grief about Rubel’s Department Store certainly didn’t hold her back from frequenting Kent’s Dollar Store. I clearly remember shopping there with her, listening to the conversations of adults interacting with each other, shaping my own memories of childhood. The woman did love a good buy, wherever it came from.
I miss The Real Library that lives in my memory, yet I strongly value The New Library, a significant community resource that keeps changing with the times. With its meeting spaces, public computers, and ongoing exhibits in the auditorium, it has offered services to the Corinth area for forty-six years that the tall white structure couldn’t.
Like my mother, I feel the past and the present colliding within me as I go about my errands in this town. The people and the places that defined and shaped who I was as a child — gone now for years— still cast a long shadow across my life.

Alcorn County resident Jaylene Whitehurst is an artist and Licensed Professional Counselor. She may be reached at 662-286-5433 or jaylene@heartworkccl.com. She contributes to Crossroads Magazine and the Daily Corinthian.

When Life Throws Curveballs…

I looked up in the Campbell’s Clinic waiting room to see a boy, ten years old or so, with his gaze on me. He looked over his left shoulder from a row of chairs that faced the same direction as mine. His was a soft gaze, as if I were a older woman he was glad to see, a grandmother or a beloved great-aunt.
When I caught his eyes fixed on me, I expected him to avert his look, embarrassed at being caught, but he was too innocent for that.
Instead he smiled, as much with his crinkly eyes as with his mouth. Shy, yet direct.
And then the boy I imagined was his brother, sitting barely an inch shorter, was smiling at me too. The same blue-green eyes, the same wave to his sandy hair, the same sprinkling of freckles, marked them as more than friends. I returned their warmth with a nod and a smile, glad to be the recipient of their charm.
The older boy hopped up when the name Ethan was called, the lime green cast on his right arm now visible, embellished with an exuberance of neon permanent markers. Ah, he’s the patient.
A woman with the same eyes and loose tendrils herded Ethan, his brother, and a sleepy-headed toddler girl aroused from her mother’s lap, toward the waiting nurse.
Ethan glanced back at me, with the slightest deliberate nod, before his smiling eyes disappeared from the waiting room into the depths of the clinic.

As our wait stretched toward an hour, we moved to more comfortable seats with a different view, my husband with his new knee, and me. The rambunctious liveliness of Ethan and his family was replaced by the slender dignity of a matron in a beige Chanel suit, ever so slightly frayed at the cuffs. Her long thin fingers were manicured with classic red polish that matched her almost smudged lipstick. Her hands were unsteady, wearing the thin skin and blue veins of age. A single diamond ring was on her right hand, tasteful but not tiny. In her younger years, the hair she wore in a classic bob might have been true auburn, but on this day white roots marked the crooked part, an awkward track across her crown.

She wore hose. Subdued nude stockings. Beige pumps. I scanned my inner timeline and I couldn’t recall how long it’d been since I’d seen a woman wearing hosiery and closed toe heels. In the summer. To the doctor’s office.

Sitting across from her erect posture, I sat up straighter, suddenly self-conscious. Her legs were crossed at the ankles, the way I was taught by Mrs. Underwood in Home Ec., circa 1969, and her barely trembling hands rested in her lap. No magazine to thumb through, no phone to fiddle with. I had no idea how long she’d been sitting there, but I was sure that her composure was long practiced and unconscious. I’d given up practicing at about sixteen years old. This woman clearly had not.
Beside her sat a tidy woman wearing comfortable pants and a cotton blouse, maybe ten years younger, maybe twenty. There was no chair left open between them, though there were more vacant chairs than occupied, so I supposed that they were together. The companion read a magazine with one eye and dozed with the other.
The matron tilted her head toward us in acknowledgement, a graceful movement with a wordless smile. She made eye contact and I saw that her glasses (on a pearly eyeglass chain, of course) needed a quick cleaning.
It was only a few minutes later that she arose, her companion reaching out to steady her, when the name Miz Marjorie was called. The way we Southerners drag out the titles of address for our matrons made it impossible to tell if she was Miss or Mrs. Marjorie.
She drew herself up to her full height, her bearing telling her attendant to allow her the privacy of her doctor’s visit.
Hers was a story I’d never know, yet her composure touched me.
Intrigued, I wondered what changes Miz Marjorie has experienced in her lifetime and what changes lie ahead for young Ethan, so bright and perky. All I know for sure is that yet more changes lie ahead for both of them and for each of us. It’s the inevitable reality.
What would Miz Marjorie share with Ethan if she could leave him a set of informal instructions to refer to when life is throwing him curveballs?
If she could leave him gentle guidelines from her lifetime of experience, she might pen something like this:

My Dear Ethan,
Perhaps you can use a bit of what I want to share with you now but I suspect that, in a future day, it will be of greater help to you.
As you grow, there’ll be more changes come at you than you can imagine, some expected ones and others that will leave you feeling as if your life is out of control. And indeed, it may be.
You don’t have to like it. In fact, I have found that there’s an odd strength to admitting that I don’t like certain things. I’m not thrilled with all the changes I’m dealing with right now, but honesty is always preferable to denial. So be honest about what you’re feeling.
Maybe you didn’t ask “Why?” when you broke your arm because the reason was clear: your arm came in contact with a surface that didn’t give way and something had to give. Result: a broken arm.
In your future, however, there’ll be things happen that don’t have clear causes. You may find yourself asking “Why? Why? Why?” when the unforeseen comes. It’s that way for most of us.
I’ve learned from experience to ask “what?” and “how?” and “who?” more often than “why?” I ask myself questions about what I can do, how I can help myself, and who is a good resource, and I begin to make a plan. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but even an imperfect plan gets me closer to what might work.
You’re an active boy. Good for you! Keep that up. I totter around but I still make myself move. Get outdoors as much as you can when you’re under stress. Feel the sun and the rain and fully occupy your space on this Earth. Take care of pets, tend a garden, hike, walk barefoot. Nature is a natural therapist and she’s free.
Spend some time each day being still, too. Take quiet time to simply breathe in the experience you’re living in. Pray, meditate, breathe, read. I like to start my day with quiet time and end it the same way, but, I imagine, you’ll find what works for you.
I used to be hard on myself when I couldn’t get used to changes as fast as I thought I should or as fast as others thought I ought to. Eventually, I got it that change is a process. It takes time and many steps to change.
Some changes will take longer than others to get absorbed into your life story and that’s okay. Be gentle with your spirit when others push you to be where you can’t be yet. Ease up.
Even when change is painful, maintain a gratitude practice. Note one thing each day, no matter how large or tiny, that you are glad to have in your life. When I’ve gone through the hardest changes of my life, this one thing has consistently reminded me that life holds more than the yucky place I’m in at the moment.
And speaking of the moment, Ethan, stay with your feelings as they arise. They are temporary. Whether happy or sad, confused or serene, they will change. Acknowledge all of your feelings. They are valuable messengers from deep inside you. You’ll be glad to know that acknowledging them doesn’t make them the “boss of you.” They’re only part of your experience, not the core of who you are.
Question whether your decisions are for your wellbeing or whether you somehow hope to change others. The sooner you learn that you can make effective choices only for yourself, not for others—no matter how much you love them—the clearer your choices will be.
When life comes at you hard, surround yourself with people who sustain you. This is not a time to force yourself to be with draining sorts.
Be cautious when making decisions, because the stress of change may cloud your reasoning. Seek wise counsel. Even then, go to more than one source. I’ve found that advice isn’t always good advice.
Finally, as you grow up, you’ll learn what is deeply satisfying to you. When you feel the stress of change, look toward the activities that have comforted you in the past. Do more of those things. If you neglect those activities, you neglect yourself, so remember that your life is precious. Take responsibility for it. Care for it.
Tuck this letter away, Ethan, and use it when you need it. It is offered with love.
Miz Marjorie

 

Though I’m decades past ten years old, I’m reading over Ethan’s shoulder. When change comes at me fast and I’m not sure I’m thinking clearly, I still want the wise counsel and living example of a Miz Marjorie to show me how to live above my present circumstances.

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Alcorn County resident Jaylene Whitehurst is an artist and Licensed Professional Counselor. She may be reached at 662-286-5433 or jaylene@heartworkccl.com. She contributes to Crossroads Magazine and the Daily Corinthian.

I know Santa Claus. Personally.

Dear Reader, you might not realize this, but I know Santa Claus. Personally.

Over the years, I’ve had countless opportunities to get acquainted with the legendary bringer of gifts.

I submit for your consideration three of these events.

The first account is second hand, but I’m positive that my source is reliable. It was the Christmas Eve when my husband, Gerry, was about seven years old and his entire family celebrated at his Uncle Richard’s house with a long night of festive eating, Rook and dominoes, and noisy visiting. Everyone was there: his mom and dad, his brother, grandparents, great aunts and uncles, and cousins once-twice- three times removed, seeing as his dad had no siblings to provide first cousins.

The adults were still lingering at eleven p.m. when Gerry’s family headed to their house, knowing it was straight to bed for two little boys to wait for The Main Event: the Santa Claus visit.

Sitting in the back seat of the ’56 teal and white Chevy, they bounced along, nervous about forcing sleep to come and antsy with anticipation of the morning’s booty.

But something was amiss when Martin Whitehurst wheeled into the driveway. Through the living room window, the family saw their tinsel-wrapped cedar tree, radiant in the darkened house. The strings of bulbs, turned off upon leaving, were inexplicably glowing like a…like a…well, like a Christmas tree!

Gerry and his brother charged the front door as soon as his mom turned the key and there it was: beneath those electrically lit boughs, was evidence that the Whitehurst house had been one of Santa’s first stops in Alcorn County.

He had come! He had come! He had come! Wrapping paper and bows flew through the air and the boys stayed up the rest of the night, playing with gifts that are long forgotten.

What Gerry does remember to this day is his wonder at the unexpected lights of that tree and the thrill of Santa’s surprise visit.

Next there was the Christmas of 1963 when I was nine years old. In school, I’d been hearing chatter for a couple of years about the source of those presents under the tree. Doubt had set in strongly about reindeer and flying sleighs and jolly old elves and I was trying desperately to hold onto what seemed to be an impossible story.

And, then, miracle of miracles, it snowed for Christmas! A sparkling layer spread across the front yard, masking the dull grass, as I took a final look out the window before pulling a couple of quilts up over my shoulders and settling in for childhood’s age old Christmas Eve dilemma: try to sleep or try to stay awake?

Sleep won out.

All through the silent night, the inky sky shed its downy flakes across the yard, now looking like nothing so much as a frosty feather bed. Deep. Comforting. Quiet.

It was a silent night, that is, until I was awakened at three a.m. by the sound of sleigh bells coming from a source I couldn’t see. Oh, but I could hear them. Surely they must be outside. I peeped out the window and the snow was undisturbed, but the nearby sound of bells kept up. On the roof maybe? It was deeper than a jingle, a soft clatter, and I was certain that it was borne by eight reindeer shaking their heads, which meant…uh, oh, Santa Claus must be in the midst of delivering our gifts. Right that minute.

Back into bed, back under the quilts I dived, determined to stay put until daylight. My doubt might have been real but so was my practicality: I was taking no chances on disturbing Santa Claus before his job was finished.

The last sound I heard as sleep took me away was the brassy clanging of bells as the wind picked up and I could feel the shudder of the roof as the sleigh lifted off.

Finally, consider the evidence that continued into the next generation. When our son was young we had a parakeet named Pete. He was a messy but social creature, perking up especially when we walked in the door from wherever we’d been. It was the season of our lives when we were each absent from our house more hours than we were present, and we concluded that Pete was lonely. How we decided that we could assess avian moods, I have no clue, but we got concerned that Pete’s disposition was becoming as blue as his feathers.

On Christmas Eve we were at Gerry’s parents’ house for the traditional feast. If you knew Gerry’s mother, Mildred, you know that to call it a feast was an understatement. Seth opened gifts with his cousins and, while they played, we grown-ups opened ours and visited, going back for one more bite and one more bite. There was coffee and lingering over pecan pie and coconut cake.

It grew late. We had a boy to tuck into bed, so the gifts were loaded and home we went.

Home we went to a tree that was mysteriously aglow in the front window, when we were absolutely positive that we’d turned off its lights. Home we went to evidence under the tree that Santa Claus had once again made an early Christmas Eve visit to a Whitehurst home.

As the wrapping paper flew, ripped to shreds by a delighted little boy, Pete’s happy chirp played in the background. And then…a different chirp…two chirps at once? How could that be?
In the dash to the stash beneath the tree, Seth had hardly given Pete a glance. Now there was more than a passing look.

Alongside Pete, in a birdcage decked out with Christmas bows, sat a sunny yellow parakeet twittering contentedly. It seemed that Seth wasn’t the only recipient of gifts from Santa Claus.

Suddenly it was all perfectly clear: Santa had had to come early because transporting a tiny bird throughout the cold night, in a sleigh, wouldn’t be easy on the bird or old St. Nick, either. Of course, it made total sense.

Are these tales simply accounts of Santa Claus going about his annual business or are they the ramblings of wishful thinking? Maybe a hyperactive imagination? I’ll leave that to you to decide, Dear Reader, because, frankly, I’m still pondering it myself.

I only know that, over and over, in times of doubt and confusion, I have experienced an astonishment that touches my heart: a tender compassion that beckons as gently as the jingle of a sleigh bell, that cares if a little blue parakeet is lonely and that rejoices in the wonder of the unexpected.

And I have met the spirit of love that can wrap a scraggly cedar tree in electric lights and dare to call it beautiful, reminding me that the Light of Love, unforeseen and inexplicable, shines brightest in the darkest night.

If Old Saint Nick has come to be tied up in all of that, then — Ho! Ho! Ho! — I do indeed know him very well.

Maybe you do, too.

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Jaylene Whitehurst is an artist and counselor located in Alcorn County, Mississippi. She contributes columns to the Daily Corinthian and Crossroads Magazine. She may be reached at 662-286-5433 or jaylene@heartworkccl.com.

This column was printed in a slightly edited version in the Daily Corinthian newspaper, December 16,2014, because—no matter how many times she proofs it— when Jaylene sees a column in print, she sees what needs tweaking. Enjoy!

The Gift of Right NOW

She has no idea that her legs are too long. She's having fun :-)

She has no idea that her legs are too long. She’s having fun 🙂

Here is my column that appeared in the Crossroads Magazine today. I’m happy to share it here.

It’s a Saturday morning in October as I sit down to the key board with a vague optimism that inspiration for this column will mysteriously appear. Editor Mark Boehler has requested uplifting thoughts about the coming holiday season, so I wait for a flash of inspiration about what to lift up. And I wait a while longer— for a lightning bolt that doesn’t strike.
Now, please, don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I feel at all down. I don’t. In fact, I feel pretty dandy. It’s just that, as I sit here to write, Halloween is still more than a week away and I don’t want to think about the coming crunch packed into the thirty-six days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
Sheesh, that’s hardly more than a month for all the doings of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day to speed by in a blur. Makes me dizzy to contemplate it.
The fact is that I want nothing— absolutely nothing— but to fully live this one splendid, ordinary moment. Right now.
The granddaughter is in the adjoining room, the sitting room of my office. Her usual chatter is replaced by a singsong, contented hum…hum…hum. From the corner of my eye I see the reason for her satisfaction. This child is never as happy as when she is arranging and rearranging “stuff” and her MiMi has stuff galore. She’s in heaven.
She’s not thinking about school or what she’s going to wear for Halloween or what her dogs are doing; she is simply the mistress of a universe housed in one room and her mind is nowhere else.
Throw pillows are systematically displayed according to criteria that only she knows. Candles are aligned. Books are stacked on tables just so, and then restacked. She steps back with her head tilted to one side, and, assessing her design, she adds a glass bird before she nods approvingly and moves on to deal with a quartet of ceramic rabbits. Her hands are firmly planted on her hips: Bunnies, beware!
I am touched by how thoroughly present she is in this moment. Right now.
I sink as deeply into the reality of this clear October morning as an old cat with aching bones sinks into a basket of towels, hot from the dryer. This is a moment worth holding but it can’t be held; it can only be experienced and the experience folded into these words. I breathe it in and am grateful for the quiet gift that it is.
Rewind with me to a scene earlier the same week when I am having lunch with my friend Rita at Borroum’s Drug Store. We stroll in early to claim a booth so the lunch crowd doesn’t force us into the tiny table in the front window. The taco salad is satisfying and the companionship is even more so. It’s an easy friendship that goes back to before I was a mother and when her children were small, that has endured stretches when work schedules and family demands made meeting for lunch harder than it is today. I know when we sit down that I’m going to be leaving a generous tip because we’ll be there awhile, and we are.
We mull over our recent visit to a friend from decades ago who is now under hospice care, and tears smudge my mascara; the paper napkins substitute for tissues. Our stories overlap and we talk about the young women that we three were then, puzzling over the different paths our lives have taken, paths that none of us foresaw. Knowing our stories have found a safe landing spot, we voice thoughts we wouldn’t share with just anybody.
And then we laugh! Hysterical, table-slapping laughter bubbles up and trickles out of my eyes. Rita’s ability to get lost under any circumstance is legendary and she has more than one tale to tell about finding herself in places that she didn’t know existed. More napkins please, but, this time, for tears of laughter.
As we make our way to the counter to pay, we pass a table of four women, each fully absorbed in her cell phone, either talking, texting, or holding her phone in rapt anticipation. Rita and I look each other in the eye and realize we’ve spent two hours absent from our phones and totally present with each other.
This has been true communion, the kind that only happens in undistracted moments. Right Now.
A flicker comes: I see that this holiday column is going to be more about what we can drop during the coming weeks than about what we might lift up.
Beginning with our phones, let’s put them down for a while. Let’s look each other in the eye instead of looking at a screen. Let’s listen to a child’s tone and a friend’s story, instead of listening for a ringtone. They are wonderful devices and they certainly have their place, but that place isn’t to contribute to digital dementia. They are in our hands. It’s up to us to drop them into our purses.
Let’s set aside our fretting over getting things perfect. There will be years the dressing is just right; the sage is spot on, and it’s moist to perfection and then (if your cooking is like mine) there’ll be those other years. The tree might be a dazzling vision and others times, well…we barely replace one string of lights before another burns out. To a child, though, every Christmas tree is magical. The coconut cake may be a tad tilted, but this is the South, where there is no such thing as a bad coconut cake.
Maybe the cards are unsent and the gift wrapping wrinkled. So be it. Perfectionism sucks the joy out of life and we have only this moment, right now, so let’s live it.
And then there’s Facebook. If we don’t drop it entirely, could we at least work on letting go of any illusions that what people post on there is the whole story? Because it’s not.
If we get caught up in what other people share, it may look like everybody’s family except ours is sitting down to a Norman Rockwell spread, has a new car topped with a huge Christmas red bow sitting in the driveway, and is heading off for a beach vacation as soon as the table’s cleared. The rest of the story may well be that they can’t afford the car, the credit cards are maxed out, there was a huge fight on the way to the beach, and the kids threw up in the backseat. So how about it? Could we drop the illusions that anybody actually has it all together? Could we let our families and our plans that go awry simply be crooked and human and funny?
Finally, how about we drop our attempts to please everybody? We probably can’t please them, but even if we can, the price of over-commitment is an exhausted kind of major crankiness. There’s no crankiness like the crankiness of having said “yes” to everyone except oneself.
Prioritizing and being realistic about we want to do during the holidays doesn’t come easily to some of us, but in order to slow down and enjoy the celebrations that we personally find most meaningful, we may need to smile and firmly say, “No, thank you, my plate is full.” With some folks, pesky persistent types, we may have to say “no” more than once.

Start practicing now!
The hum of a child puttering about, the tears of tenderness and amusement shared with a friend, these are the pure and humble gifts of ordinary days, gifts that aren’t tied up with bows but with cords of connection.
The gifts of sharing stories, listening from the heart, keeping old traditions and creating new ones are timeless. They were never meant to be contained in a treasure box and, yet, at this time of year, as we gather with friends and family, we’re reminded of how precious they are.
As we pull out the roasting pan and wrap gifts and hang ornaments, let’s listen closely to each other. Let’s look each other in the eye, enjoying the blessings of the simplest gifts.
The only time we have to unwrap them is now.

Right now.

Jaylene Whitehurst is an artist and Licensed Professional Counselor located in Corinth, Mississippi. She may be contacted at 662-286-5433 or at jaylene@heartworkccl.com.