Merry Mandala!!!!

May we live the cycle of embracing the darkness and being pulled toward the light.

May we live the cycle of embracing the darkness and being pulled toward the light.

The celebration of Christmas isn’t over for me. There’ve been years I feel a let down on the 26th, but not the past few years. Rather than the end, this feels like a beginning. Every Christmas, every Winter Solstice, every turning of the dark season toward the light, is more an opening to continue expressing the light than an ending of anything. I no longer rush to take down my little tree. It is no longer a chore but an unfolding, a changing of the environment gradually.
It is a relief to let it be beautiful a while longer. To know it will be tucked away when the time is right for me. To know it is all a process of Love.
Whatever, however, you celebrate this season, may you linger in the warmth.
May we carry it forth. May we be changed.

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.

—————————————————————————————————-

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!

Abundancing!

True abundance isn’t a substance that can be banked; there is nothing of “grabbing and snatching and stashing” that relates to Life’s wealth.
Nope, real abundance is experiential; it is fully experiencing one’s own Life; it is active.
Right now I’m inventing the term “abundance” as a verb.
I abundance.
You abundance.
He, she, it abundances.
It is born of allowing ourselves to stay with what is showing up: The expansive moments and the tight emotional spaces that are claustrophobic, the exhilaration and the sorrow, the generous and the miserly gestures, the tension and the release.
Abundancing is waking up with the realization that an intention has become tangible with substance as solid as the mountain that has finally been tunneled through. It’s knowing that a decision has arrived under it’s own steam rather than been determined by analysis, as if Life were a game and decisions toted up in won/loss columns.
Abundancing is hearing the train leaving the station and getting on board with a ticket stamped “Trust the process.”
Let’s ride.
Let the abundancing commence.

Sometimes it feels like a mess. Sometimes it feels glorious.

Sometimes it feels like a mess. Sometimes it feels glorious. Trust the process.

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.

Perspective

 

I am spending Black Friday in my studio, keeping my creative account in the black.

It’s not Black Friday here. It’s Gold Orange Violet Blue Yellow Glittery Shimmery Friday in my space.
A painting is coming together.
It’s gone through the “why did I start this?” stage where I entertain the idea (on which I sometimes act) of painting over the whole thing and setting it aside for weeks or months. Occasionally for years.
It may not be finished. I am learning to stop before a sense of being done arrives.
Now I play with it.
This process of making art is a model for Life. It has the capacity to heal my life, to bring integration and wholeness to my bit of the living experience, when I allow it to do what it does and flow with it.
So here I am at this point with it and I get to play with my view of it. How do I turn the thing? Compositionally it ought to work from any position, being nonrepresentational. Yet, the feel of it shifts as I shift it on the easel. Same elements, but more satisfying to me when viewed from some perspectives than others.
It’s mine. I get to choose my perspective.
The details that are lost on a camera phone from across the room beg to be investigated. They silently say “Come closer. Stay with the tension. Stay with the sharp edges and the shimmer. Get to know me.”
Layer upon layer of color and texture. Time passes. More layers.
So I’ll live with it and I’ll play with it and I’ll tweak it.

We’ll hang out together, this painting and I.
Pretty much the same as my Life.

Jaylene
The Ragged Phoenix

All images and words are the property of Jaylene M. Whitehurst, The Ragged Phoenix.

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

October haiku

In silvery notes
Autumn rains down golden leaves
October morning

~~~jaylene whitehurst

Image: Autumn Wolf Woman,  copyright Jaylene Whitehurst.
wolf woman

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.