The Way Out

Cosmic RoadDear Ones,
Are you paying for someone else’s Life dilemma with your own precious dreams?
It is their bill. You can give up every dream you have and it still will not be enough to bail them out. It is their work to do. You are not loving them by taking their work away from them. You are only giving yourself the illusion of relief, but it’s a relief that won’t last. It’ll dig a deeper debt, generation upon generation.
Get on with your Life. Invest in your deepest passion. Pour your energy into what is meaningful to you.
Do it not to show them how it’s done (though that might happen) but in trust that what you offer to the world matters to others, too. Someone else out there connects with what you bring to a hurting world.
Who knows? As you follow the path of your dreams, you might accidentally show someone else the way out, too.
Walk with Light,
~~~jmw

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.

Family Beyond Family

Bad lighting and all, a text to a friend: family beyond family

Bad lighting and all, a text image to a friend: family beyond family

On my desk, in the “good stuff” stack, is a torn-out magazine page about how having diverse friendships enriches our lives. It’s got quirky illustrations and lays out the author’s ideas about connections that we each need. This article was, appropriately and unsurprisingly, tucked into a stash of items given to me a couple of years ago by my friend Margaret, who is exactly the kind of friend who keeps a “Jaylene” box in her closet. A couple of times a year, usually around my birthday and Christmas, I’m the recipient of a box of goodies that she knows I’ll enjoy.
This past Christmas it contained a charming framed card, jewelry making items, fabric with a fanciful bird print, markers and brushes, plus a separate box holding a story she’d written for my grandchild (a treasure, for sure) along with a throw pillow that looked as if it had been designed especially to illustrate the tale.
Margaret pays attention.
As do others.
Lois, who knows my love of making new baubles from broken odds and ends, thrills me occasionally with a jar of buttons and beads. Possibility in a jar! She’s also the friend who, twenty years ago, compiled poems I’d written into a book she decorated for me in the emerald green that I love. It’s a treasure still.
Glenda and I share a love of all things “housey.” I walk from room to room with the striking ceramic bowl she sent me for Christmas, looking for an ideal spot where I’ll enjoy it and be reminded of my friend. Last summer, when I was particularly pleased with my arrangement of colored glassware in the kitchen cabinets, Glenda was the person to whom I texted a photo. Yes, I did. A picture of nothing but glasses in a cabinet. She’s the one who won’t shake her head and make the cuckoo sign that this image tickles me silly, while I don’t even want to think about whether I might be a little over-the-top about goblets and tumblers.
Donna, the high school friend with whom I reconnected a decade ago, surprised me last fall with a package of iris rhizomes, sent from a plant nursery in Texas, after my comments about the brilliant golden and orangey irises she’d posted on Facebook. We hold between us the lightness of a picture of flowers, but we also hold the other’s story from our teen years in ways that can’t be explained: the holding is a precious and inexplicable fact.
On a shelf in my studio are several hefty candle jars, each one empty of everything except a spent wick in a quarter inch of wax and a lingering aroma, given to me at one time and then another by Brenda, the friend who, more than once, has prayed for me all day long. These candles are what remain of times when we couldn’t manage a visit with each other, but when Brenda would sit beside the light of our friendship, and lift me up in peace. When we were finally face to face, she’d put the used up candle in my hands to remind me that I am loved.
Without the thoughtful conversations about music, art, poetry, and relationships that occur with Jim, Tim, Susan, Derrick, Phillip, Lee Ann, and Charlotte, my life would be less full. The generosity with which they each share their knowledge and interests creates a constantly changing texture that I can’t construct on my own.
Only a couple of my hodgepodge of friends are related to me by blood. Mostly these are the broader family I have, the family I choose and who choose me.
The family beyond family.
These are the people who, in ones or twos or half a dozen, simply show up and prop me up.
That’s the difference an adequate social system makes in our well-being; it is the framework that, in a real way, supports us and shapes who we are. We are healthier emotionally and physically when we have those in our lives who know us and who allow us to know them, who show up in the doldrums of life, as well as in our tragedies and comedies.
We need companions who can meet us where we are, even when we’re not exactly sure ourselves where that is.
At one time or another, we’re each going to need a safe place to bring sorrows and disappointments. When I’m on rock bottom, I don’t need someone who’s going to shame me or give me unsolicited advice about how to get up. No, what I need first is someone who can simply meet me where I am and sit beside me, someone who won’t try to distract me from my reality.
Friends who have the ability to sit beside us when we hurt, friends who don’t try to fix the irreparable, are priceless. Simply by their presence, they keep us from pain-driven isolation, which exacerbates depression, anxiety, addiction, and weakened immune systems, among other conditions. These people are, literally, lifelines.
As much as I need friends who can hang with me during tough times, I also need friends who will rejoice with me. These are kind souls who are neither threatened by what others achieve nor envious of what others have. Friends who are genuinely happy and celebrate with me, who have my best interests at heart and show it, are keepers. Without friends, celebration is like a party with leaky balloons.
I need friends who are similar to me in age and interests and friends who aren’t.
Friends who are older than I am are informal mentors. They may not be doing it with intent, but they are modeling for me how to grow into the next stages of my own life, by their regrets as well as by their successes. Older friends are gifts of experience we offer ourselves without having to live through it firsthand.
Younger friends nudge me along. Being connected to younger people engages me. I learn as much from them as they do from me. But it’s a two way relationship, as all of these are. Having younger friends can keep us on our toes: we are modeling for them and our behavior is a pattern we are likely to see them repeat. Tread gently.
If my friends were clones of me, I’d never grow. I’d never have to be uncomfortable in the face of disagreements or have my ways of viewing the world tested. I’d also be bored to tears. We need friends who are different enough from us to make us question our assumptions: people who come from dissimilar backgrounds, cultures, or belief systems. Their presence is an opportunity to engage our critical thinking skills and expand the ways in which we connect as human beings.
We need friends who have the wisdom to step in and stand between us and the world—and the timing to know when to act.
The messages have been powerful for many of us that we should be able to arise above every circumstance. Well, I’m not always that person. Few of us are. There have been times when I needed friends to circle the wagons around me as a buffer until I could get back up.
And, on rare occasions, we may need the courageous friend who will step in and hope to save us from ourselves.
This just might be the most judicious friend any of us can have; this is the one who will risk losing a friendship rather than do nothing and watch us lose ourselves. Yes, this friend will take me by the shoulders, look me straight in the eye, and shake me to good sense with “What in the world are you thinking, woman?”
Finally, as I’ve been reminded by Barb (one of my farther-along-the-road-friends), we need folks in our lives who are simply fun. I have a disparate crew who protect me, inform me, challenge me, and are happy and sad with me, but that crew wouldn’t be complete without those engaging folks who enliven my world by their very presence. Light-hearted friends balance the intensity of life with humor and good grace. Yes, ma’am, Barb. I was listening.
The gifts that surround me, buttons and beads, books and bowls, are tender reminders of these relationships that prop me up: my stability in a crazy world.
My family beyond family.
Bless ‘em everyone.

Alcorn County resident Jaylene Whitehurst is an artist and 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.

~~~~~~~~
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.

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.

Grace Extended.

We send ripples throughout our community.

May we each notice the nature of our ripples.
Grace extended journeys on.

Image by Jaylene Whitehurst, copyright 2010

Image by Jaylene Whitehurst, copyright 2010

Somebody has to do it: Shift work

It's 10:25 PM and that's a workday for lots of people.

It’s 10:25 PM and that’s a workday for lots of people.

Somebody has to do it.
Somebody has to care for the sick in the middle of the night or answer the call when shots ring out. Somebody has to haul goods over road or rail, day and night, or keep the machines of industry churning 24/7. Somebody has to work the all-night gas station or sort the packages that eventually land on our doorsteps. Somebody has to stock store shelves to get ready for the next morning and somebody has to clean offices after they are closed to the public.
On any given night, while my head is on the pillow, many of my neighbors are at work, providing safety and protection to the public. Others are on the job, serving the incessant demands of a society that no longer sleeps. They work, driven by businesses that never stop.
Approximately one in six U.S. workers is employed doing a version of shift work. Generally speaking, this term refers to work hours that fall outside the 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. time frame, often including weekends. The National Sleep Foundation has a more restrictive definition of shift work, calling it all work that falls outside of a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday, extending shift work to include early morning and late evening hours plus rotating and weekend schedules. According to the NSF, approximately fifteen percent of full-time wage earners work non-traditional hours.
Most of us know someone who is directly affected by long and late work days that run throughout the night. Whether we work shift work ourselves, are related to someone who does, or are the recipients of the shift worker’s labor, the relationships within many families in our community is affected by this schedule.
While I suspect that in our community that there may be more than one in six employees occupied by shift work, one thing I know for sure: maintaining relationships and a good quality of life, while managing non-traditional work hours, doesn’t happen by accident. It takes deliberate planning.
Like many others, my family members are survivors of shift work. For nearly twenty-eight years, my husband worked a rotating shift and, prior to that, his jobs involved either straight nights or staggered shifts and weekends. In forty years of marriage, he has never worked a Monday through Friday, straight day job.
Yes, he was the one actually at work, but our family became a shift-working family. And that included his parents and my parents; all of our close connections were affected. Even when they knew he was off work, friends were cautious about calling for fear of waking him up needlessly. Frankly, while we were in the process of riding the shift working train, it was all I could manage to hang on and try to not wake Gerry up when he was asleep. It’s only now, with a few years’ hindsight, that I can look back and appreciate how challenging it was.
Decades ago, when Gerry first began working nights because that was the available shift, we didn’t have access to support in managing night work and family/social life. We stumbled along the best we could and stumbling it was. While he was never completely rested, I was always completely frustrated with the inconsistency of our lives, which felt to me like a chaotic mix of gratitude for steady work and deep fatigue, both physical and emotional.
Nowadays there are myriad online resources citing research, mostly about the increased risk of shift work on employees’ health (concerns about heightened risks of diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer, digestive problems, depression, and infertility, among others). A quick online search yields page after page of concerns about how the disrupted circadian rhythm of night workers appears to play havoc with physical health.

However, when it comes to the relationship effects of shift work, the information circulating is mostly anecdotal. From person to person, successfully juggling family and friends with shift work remains a process of trial and error, an ongoing balancing act on the parts of everyone involved.
My perspective of shift work is biased because of its impact on my own family, so I checked in with others to get a fuller picture of how they wound up working nights or how their lives have been affected by someone else’s work schedule.
In several professions, coverage twenty-four hours a day is the nature of the job. Health care workers, law enforcement officers, and fire fighters face this as the reality of the work they are drawn to. These men and women knew the deal going in.
Several mentioned that they accomplished more work at night when the administrative staff is largely absent. In fact, they preferred the less intense atmosphere enough to choose nights.
A couple of friends opted for the late shift in order to juggle childcare with the other working parent. One woman looked back, shaking her head in amazement, at her years of working nights as a nurse and then coming directly home in the morning to care for her little one. Fueled by caffeine, she stayed awake, napping only when her child did. Handing her off to the dad when he got home in the afternoon, she got a little shut eye and headed back to the hospital to do it all over again.
The extra income from a shift differential was incentive for some to request nights. And speaking of income, more than one person mentioned that many who work nights have second jobs. Whether they have their own businesses or fit other employment in around their night work, the schedule allows them to bring in more income, be it a financial necessity or a choice.
Night owls opted for the late shift. These are the individuals who will never be perky in the morning no matter how much coffee they gulp down. Even if they weren’t working nights, they’d naturally be cleaning out closets at midnight and going to bed at 3 a.m.
Finally, and most often mentioned, was that employees wound up on nights simply because they needed a job and took what was available.
For some people the adjustment comes easier than to others, but the refrain “It gets harder” was repeated by every single person who’d worked the graveyard shift for years.
No matter the adjustment or the reasons for working nights, there is a thread of isolation that connects all of us affected by shift work. Even the men and women who opted to work nights acknowledged a sense of social disconnection, feeling out of sync with their families and friends.
Those effects ripple throughout the family and social network of the shift worker. Even when children try to understand the absence of a parent and are accustomed to Dad’s or Mom’s schedule, they miss their parent at special events, large and small. And to children, there are no small events. One woman told me about how it was for her as a child, always tiptoeing around the house, trying with all her might not to disturb Daddy because he’d be grumpy if she disturbed his day sleep. She didn’t get to have company because little girls are noisy. The pain lingers to this day because her dad missed so many of her birthdays when she was young and, even when he was off work, missed them because he said he was tired. Her father’s irritability is a touchstone of her childhood memories. The details differ but others shared similar recollections of the isolation of night shift extending through the lives of the children.
Clearly, shift work is here to stay, and it’s acutely affecting individuals, families, and communities for the long term. Either we deal with it deliberately or it deals with us.
From the perspective of my own hindsight and the welcome insight of night working friends and their families, here are some practical thoughts about caring for personal relationships while engaged in shift work:
• Keep a visual calendar so the whole family can see the time structure for everyone in the family. For younger children, one week at a time is plenty to look at. Adults and older children may want to schedule farther ahead, perhaps for the full month. Let children help mark the times when parents are available and also mark their own activities. Aim for time each week with each child, something that the child can look forward to. It may be routine simple tasks done together, but it’s the togetherness that the child will remember decades later. Because committing to every occasion isn’t possible, be realistic about what is workable and plan on that. Children generally handle that better than parents over committing and then cancelling.
• Fatigue breeds irritability. Simply being mindful of this can help the tired parent or spouse get a grip. Three deep breaths help diffuse the automatic reaction to lash out when tired. It takes practice, but the side effect is that it’s also refreshing. If three doesn’t work, take five deep breaths!
• It gets tiring for spouses too, handling children’s problems alone or trying to keep a quiet atmosphere so the day sleeper can rest. Coordinating times when parents can communicate and neither is exhausted is a problem. Except in emergencies that can’t wait, time to catch up on what’s happening is one of the things that must be scheduled.
• Cell phones make it easier than it used to be to keep in touch with family while at work. A quick call during break can mean the world to a child. And a spouse.
• Children need to express their experiences. It may not be possible for a parent to change their times of work; still, it matters that children release, in some way, what it’s like for them. Talking, drawing, making up songs and stories, are all ways to set the tension loose. Although child and parent may both say, “I wish it were different, but it’s not,” the child knows that the parent cares about what it’s like for her.
• Little acts matter. Children look forward to habits, so a note on a pillow or in a lunchbox may be more reassuring than adults imagine. Honor the small rituals. Keep in touch.
• It takes specific planning to maintain family and social life. The spouse who misses events due to work is apt to feel left out and the spouse who goes alone to special occasions is likely to feel lonely. An honest effort on the part of each partner to put themselves in the place of the other can offset resentment and foster connection instead of chagrin.
• Couple time is worth scheduling. The dedicated effort to spend time together, whether it’s a whole day off or sitting quietly over a cup of coffee, speaks more clearly than words about the commitment to the relationship.
If this planning sounds like effort, it is. Taking deliberate responsibility for managing time and honoring relationships creates the structure that allows the shift worker, family, and friends, to function in a mutually supportive framework, rather than in chaos.
Oh, and one more thing. Those of us who get to curl up and sleep the night through would do well to remember not to call the woman who works nights at two o’clock in the afternoon. We might just get a call back from her on her “afternoon” break…at two o’clock in the morning!

The Dance with Color

IMG_1338My front porch in late summer makes me smile. That’s a small thing, but—then again— it’s not. The combination of yellow siding, red front door, and dark green shutters are complemented by greenery tumbling from the window box and clustered pots. As I kick back in an aging wicker chair with the paper and my morning cup of coffee, the scene lifts my spirit.

Yellow, red, and green. The pleasure those colors give me is unfailing.
We are each in a continuous dance with our surroundings, a back and forth process of creating a physical atmosphere and a personal mood. Our emotional states influence our surroundings; our surroundings influence our emotional states. The dance with our environment is a merging of both.
But it’s a dance we may not be leading. We can’t consciously take charge of the spaces in which we spend hours until we wake up to their emotional impact on us. Color, in particular, has significant psychological power to create and enhance mood.
The study of color psychology is an inexact science; our individual responses to color are personal and somewhat cultural, so talking about how color affects us is subjective. No color has been shown to produce the same effect for everybody and it would be boring if it did. Psychologically, we simply aren’t wired for that kind of rigid emotional response.
Still, there are predominant feelings that arise in the presence of specific colors. Being aware of this, plus being tuned in to our own emotions, we can lean toward the colors most likely to help us create an atmosphere we want.
Let’s get acquainted with a few of our partners in the dance with our surroundings:
• It’s no accident that McDonald’s arches and school buses are bright yellow. This is the color to which our eyes are most sensitive. In small amounts, yellow gets our attention, but because it’s highly reflective, it’s also fatiguing to the eye. Yellow is stimulating; a little goes a long way. While it’s a cheerful color, it’s worth noting that, because of its stimulating quality, it can increase sensitivity to frustration, anger, and pain. Simply knowing this, we might consider moderating yellow in classrooms, medical offices, and children’s nurseries. If we love yellow, we might opt for a softer shade or use it as an accent if we’re painting an area where this stimulation could be a problem.
• Red is generally considered the most powerful hue. Intense red is associated with passion, anger, and danger. When I’m mad, I see red. Stop signs and fire engines aren’t red by chance. As the color of blood, red signifies life itself and liveliness, as in “red-blooded.” If we want to send a high energy message, red is the optimum color to rev us up. Think of the Target bull’s eye motif and the red Macy’s star. Red is also an appetite stimulate. Have you noticed how many fast food restaurants use red in their decorating and advertising? Again, no coincidence.
• A blend of the passion of red and the stimulation of yellow is orange. Orange, like red, is often used in the food industry. Akin to yellow, it’s associated with energy and the sun, but its cheerful qualities are intensified by its leaning toward red. Fiery orange can draw out feelings of ambition, endurance, and perseverance.
• Blue has a calming effect and there are suggestions that workers are more productive in blue spaces. Because of its association with the sky, light to middle blues impart a sense of spaciousness and serenity. Deeper blues are associated with stability and dependability. Notice how often financial institutions use blue motifs in advertising and the use of blue in military uniforms. However, blue can also feel chilly and dark shades may suggest sadness. Hence, we get “the blues” when we feel down.
• A mixture of peaceful blue and energetic red gives us purple. This mix of calm and liveliness in one hue creates uneasiness for some of us and evokes strong responses: we either tend to embrace purple or run from it. This is a color associated with royalty, magic, and wisdom. Light purple is romantic, while deepest purple tends toward melancholy and, in some cultures, is symbolic of mourning. Mysterious and intriguing, purple sets the stage for a wide range of moods.
• Of all the colors, green produces the least eyestrain because the brain focuses the color green directly on the retina. The combination of a green background with white lettering is considered easiest for the eye to read; hence we see green highway signs with white reflective text. Think of the blackboards in many of our classrooms that were actually green boards. There was a reason for that. From the spring green of emerging shoots to the deep shimmering cool of a forest, green is universally linked to nature, growth, healing, and rebirth. Paradoxically, this color that is restful and symbolic of growth also encompasses shades that bring to mind illness and a lack of ease. Bilious green? Green with envy? Green takes us for a ride, running the gamut of responses.
• Currently, pink (named for the flower of the same name) is our most gender specific color, linked with femininity and gentleness, but it was not always so. In the early 20th century, pink was actually recommended for baby boys as a lighter version of the commanding and masculine red. Blue was considered dainty and more appropriate for baby girls. This pattern shifted prior to World War II, but, while pink remains related to sweetness and delicacy, it can also be an intense and lively color on its own, no longer a toned down version of red. When I’m feeling lively, I’m “in the pink,” and that’s definitely not a pastel pink!
• One of the neutral colors, brown is warm and comforting, because it’s one of the dominant colors in nature. While it’s conservative, that doesn’t necessarily mean it lacks presence. Think of a rich chocolate brown leather sofa or beautiful woodwork that conveys substance and permanence. Lighter browns balance intense colors and act as a resting place for the eye. Discreet and reserved, brown can be a grounding influence, without dominating the space.
• Gray, another neutral, enhances the power of other colors. Walls of art galleries are often gray because its subtlety intensifies the color in artwork. In the home or office that has significant hanging art, gray is a flattering option. There is a saying that gray is the color in which creative types are most creative. Though it’s understated, gray is distinctive and timeless, like a classic gray flannel suit.
• In our culture, black is traditionally associated with mourning, death, and fear, leading to negative connotations, like “black sheep” and “black mark,” but black has another side to consider. Sophisticated and elegant, it creates an atmosphere of stylish refinement. Think “black-tie affair” or “little black dress.” Black provides sharp contrast, allowing other colors to pop. While it’s unusual to see a room painted black, I have seen a stunning sunroom that had black walls and white trim: crisp, unique, and dramatic. And definitely not depressing.
• White is symbolic of innocence and purity in our part of the world, but it isn’t that way everywhere. In parts of Asia, it’s the color of death and mourning. Their white is our black, another example of how subjective our responses to color can be. White tends to make a space feel open and airy, eliciting feelings of tranquility and freshness, but, used alone, it can be quite sterile. Fortunately, if we like the effects of white, we can use it in combination with other colors or layer it with varying tints of white to create interest. The human mind can perceive at least two hundred shades of white, so the possibilities are endless.
Beyond these general responses to color, we bring our past experiences with us as we decorate our spaces. Our history with a color shapes its psychological power to touch us on an unconscious level; no one dances with the same color in exactly the same way. Yet, we’re stumbling in our relationships with our surroundings when we miss the wonderful opportunity to truly engage with the spaces we create. As we become aware of the power our surroundings have to enhance the quality of our lives, we can experiment with our color choices with our eyes and our memories wide open. Our stories continue to be told and unfold in our physical spaces.
When I was four years old, my mother sewed me a sundress from a couple of flour sacks, donated to the cause by my Mama Ethel. My bare feet drew the heat of our newly poured concrete walk up my legs, like two wicks, as I spun like a top in the June heat, proud of my sunny new dress.
The flour sacks were yellow, with a pattern of soft red roses and green sprigs. Yellow, red, and green. Just like my porch today.
Those colors made me smile then and they still do.

My dance continues. My story unfolds.

Gifts from a House Fallen Silent

Mom mag 1There were no clattering skeletons hanging in the back of my parents’ closet. Nary a rattling bone fell out of the drawers to turn my unsuspecting world upside down.
No, the sounds were softer than that, more of a rustling between my fingers, as I moved through the work that was in front of me. This house was crammed full with sixty-three years of marriage and two years of widowhood. A younger generation had an expiring lease looming and needed to call it home. Time to get busy!
Many of us have been in a similar position. It’s not unusual to the human experience to find ourselves parentless, and, at the same time, facing the adult task of sorting through a house fallen silent, inhabited only by the lingering energy of memories. It’s an age old situation, but it was my new reality.
When my grandparents died, I’d helped my parents clean out their houses in a superficial way. I’d pop in and clean out a drawer or two after I got off work, but the hardest jobs were mostly theirs. When my mother-in-law died, my husband and his brother had their own system for working through the household. Once again, I played a supporting role.
Suddenly, here I was, one of the leads. My brother came from Huntsville to help, leaving with a few Saturdays’ worth of furniture and family items, but hardly a dent was made in the marathon of sorting and evaluating what to keep and what to dispose of. There I sat in the midst of it, grieving, tired, and out of sorts. Grumbling is what I do best when I’m overwhelmed and you had better believe it: I was doing some first class grumbling. I’m great at being peevish when I can’t get my bearings.
Friends, who knew I was under a time crunch and who were probably sick of listening to me moan, practically begged to help me go through the house. Without fully understanding why, I said “No.” It was, surprisingly, in not accepting their generous offers, but in finally accepting that this was a sacred task, and mine to do, that I found my way.
I am intensely grateful that I did.
The house in which I grew up was modest, with no sprawling attic of trunks and armoires. Beyond the trappings of daily living, were simply drawers and drawers and drawers of cards, clippings, receipts, photos, notebooks, church bulletins. The tidiness that we’d managed to keep up throughout Mother’s Alzheimer’s-driven ramblings belied the sheer accumulation of what had been left behind. To a stranger’s eye, a good deal of this documention would have looked ephemeral, papery and fleeting.
For me, it was priceless, an unbound journal of the marriage of two children of the Depression and their relationships with family and community. Every scrap of paper was a fragment of the past, significant to them in ways I can only guess, touching in its simplicity and poignant in its complexity, the threads of their stories weaving through generations before them and after them.
It takes so long to know a parent, to know THE PERSON that existed before we were born and after we left home. Perhaps we can never truly know those closest to us, least of all while they are alive and able to guard their hearts. We accumulate experiences, stored in the closets of memory, and unless it’s jogged loose with a question or reminder, the past lies hidden, a silent mystery.

We hold back parts of ourselves from those closest to us, maybe to protect ourselves from our frailties and disappointments, maybe to protect those we love from family truths that would set them free, if only we could find a way to bring them to light.
Hard edges develop in relationships when we constantly protect ourselves or others from our stories. We call them “rough patches” in my family, and if your family is anything like mine, you know exactly what I mean. The edges may need only a quick sanding or they may be absolutely jagged, but we’ve all had some degree of bumpiness.
In what my parents left behind, I found unexpected tenderness for the rough patches.
Beneath neatly stacked newspaper clippings, in a flat paper bag that I’m sure came from Sterling’s dime store, my mother left four magazines, undoubtedly tucked away for me. The woman with whom I’d had an uneasy relationship, who was intensely private and spoke of her own rough patches with difficulty, had saved for me an issue of Good Housekeeping from May, 1954, the month of my birth, along with copies of Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle, and Reader’s Digest from the month of my marriage.
Those magazines touched me in a way that nothing else did. She’d kept every card I’d ever sent, every report card, even notes of phone calls from me, but those magazines weren’t about keeping anything of mine. They were about leaving a marker of the times for me, for the woman I would become. And they were about leaving a part of herself with me, a mother who could express herself more easily in unspoken actions than in words.
There were receipts that brought tears to my eyes. My heart broke for the bereft couple that my parents had once been, arranging the funeral of their first child at McPeters Funeral Home, his having been born too early to survive; ordering his simple headstone; paying his hospital bill. I don’t remember a time of not knowing about their baby, Stephen Jay, but seeing the steady signature of our grieving father on a receipt from W.E. Boatman Monument Works took my breath away.
There were others, finds that blended the daily activities of house holding with the sad times and the celebrations of life. Photos and receipts, obituaries and awards, birthday cards and letters, all these formed a collage illustrating the intricacy and resilience of their modest lives. But if I’d found only the magazines and the funeral receipts it would have been enough to make real to me that there is only so much we can know about those closest to us.
If we’re fortunate to find clues and if we pay attention, we may someday pencil in the unknown aspects of those who’ve gone before us. When we face our own hidden stories and frailties, we have a chance to touch those parts of previous generations who left legacies in ways they couldn’t foresee.
Whether we leave skeletons in our wake or a string of receipts, our stories keep unfolding for those who care to follow our trails.