In preschool, we learn about seasons by assigning some simple characteristics:
Winter: Snow and snowmen
Spring: Flowers and green grass
Summer: Hot sun, thunderstorms and swimming pools
Fall: Colorful leaves and pumpkins
It all seems so clear cut, with nice lines dividing up each season into clear periods of time.
In reality seasons aren’t that clear cut. Time is a continuum — a continuum that stands out to me especially in my garden, where the bright pinks and purples of my summer cosmos seem glaringly out of place among the yellows and reds of fall.
Or are they out of place?
Maybe it’s just another type of beauty, a season within a season.
We’re living in the “season within a season” right now, where summer is still hanging on even while fall makes a magnificent entrance. And it’s fitting to have those juxtapositions around me in nature, because I see them all around.
Sometimes the first spring blossoms of crocuses get caught in a late-winter snow. Those thunderstorms that we associate with summer once in a while show up in the dead of winter. The pink zinnias and purple salvia of salvia don’t have a calendar telling them it’s October, and time to stop blooming in order to let pansies take their place in the flowerbeds.
Lately, I’ve seen the season within a season not just in nature. It happens in people as well. Sometimes a person who agrees with political policies such as Medicare expansion and free community college for all might also be pro-life. Sometimes people who vote for Trump for president also vote for Cooper for governor. Maybe they felt like Trump would be good at improving the economy of the United States while Cooper would focus on improving the educational system in our state. Who knows?
I’ve always been proud to live in North Carolina, which political pundits call a purple state. I like the fact that sometimes the electoral votes go to a democratic candidate and sometimes to a republican. Hopefully it means that our state is full of critical thinkers who vote on the issue. Purple also means that sometimes our state might vote for a republican president and a democratic governor all on the same ticket. Take that, pundits!
Just like the seasons, people aren’t straightforward black and white, all or none. There’s a lot of gray. Or in election year terms, people aren’t all red and blue. There’s more purple in us than many are willing to admit. We are definitely living in a polarized time right now, where the red and blue seem to get a lot of attention. But on November 4, no matter what happens in the White House, I hope that the purple in all of us rises above the red and the blue.
Have you ever experienced one of those times when something that’s really small, not a big deal at all in the overall scheme of life, just sets you off?
That happened to me, around the middle of July, when I faced the realization head-on that I wasn’t going to get any tomatoes from my garden.
We’d marched through one disappointment after the other like troopers: school closures, canceled vacation, a soccer season cut short (and by short I mean 1 game instead of 21), no time hanging out with friends. “Chin up,” Grandma would have said. “It could be worse.” I tried to focus on the positives: more family time, getting important things done around the house, taking more time to enjoy where we live by spending more time at the creek and riding bikes down the road populated with black cows and an occasional donkey.
Aother thing I appreciated was more time in the garden. I had enlisted the help of the kids in planning and planting this year (thinking it was a good educational activity for them when they were remote learning in the spring). I went out diligently to hoe weeds once a week, keeping the weeds away better than I ever have in all my years of gardening. And I was rewarded for my efforts by productive bush-bean plants and cucumbers as long as my forearm. When I started seeing the multitude of yellow blossoms on my cherry tomatoes turn into little green fruits I bought bleu cheese dressing and extra bacon and started looking forward to salads and BLTs.
The days went by, turning into weeks, and there were never any red tomatoes on my plants. Lots and lots of green ones, but no red ones.
Then one morning I went to the garden to pick beans, the day after a hard rain, and the cloven hoof prints were undeniable. All through my garden, but mostly around my beautiful, green, bushy tomato plants. I could have let out a stream of cusswords that would look like this in a comic strip: *&%@!# *!?#$ &#@*@!$ %^&# *%@!$.
Fighting back tears of anger, I told myself it didn’t matter. After all, I could buy tomatoes at Hawk’s Market, and I tried to look on the bright side. We still had beans, I thank the Lord the deer didn’t eat Carter’s corn (he definitely would have been mad enough for a stream of curse words).
But you know what? It did matter. Every summer I carefully plan out my produce growing/cooking adventures to have a BLT and a slice of blueberry pie. That wasn’t going to happen. There wouldn’t be any tomato soup made with love by me and Caroline, this year with the immersion blender I’d gotten for Christmas. And not only that, I felt like all the time spent hoeing and babying the tomato plants had been a total waste. I was mad. Was I really just mad about the tomatoes? Definitely not. Months of staying home, forced out of our regular routine, worried about so many things beyond my control, had built up to a boil. And that morning, the deer took the brunt of my angry outburst.
I’ve learned three things from this summer’s tomato experience.
1. Build a deer fence. I guess it was just pure luck I hadn’t needed one before. I thought all the measures I was doing were enough to keep the deer out of my garden (placing human and dog hair in the garden and religiously spraying Liquid Fence deer and rabbit repellant. I also learned this summer that motion lights could help, so we turned on the ones on the garage right by the garden. Didn’t help.)
2. There will be good days and bad days in life, and that’s okay. It’s a lesson that I’ve tried to communicate to my kids, even before COVID, but it’s one I still need to hear myself every now and then. Sure, it’s great to try to see the silver linings in the clouds and make lemonade out of lemons. But no human being is capable of being happy all the time. Sometimes when life gives you lemons it’s okay to be mad about it. And that’s what makes you a healthy human being.
3. I can still enjoy a great BLT made from homegrown tomatoes. Thanks to the generosity of others who didn’t have deer feasting in their garden every night (Jennifer Adams), my windowsill did end up populated by beautiful red tomatoes.
We dressed up in red, white and blue clothes. We ate all-American hamburgers. We played cornhole in the backyard. Then we drove to town to watch Elkin’s fireworks from our usual spot. Sitting on a blanket on the lawn of our church, which just happens to be right across the street from the park where the fireworks are shot off, it seemed just like the Fourth of July.
But it wasn’t.
First of all, it was June 27. For the past few years Elkin has chosen to do fireworks on the Saturday before the Fourth, to avoid conflicts with other municipalities that have their fireworks displays on the Fourth. “This means you can go to more than one event,” people will say. Although we only choose to go to one.
Second of all, it’s life during the pandemic. Living life in the time of COVID-19 means it’s a very calculated decision every time we leave our driveway. Especially as cases continue to rise in the state of North Carolina, there’s a lot to consider. Should we expose the kids to the public? Will we be able to social distance?
Bill wasn’t sure about going. He sees the very real side of COVID-19, working at a hospital. A 9-year old kid hospitalized. People in the ICU. Nurses worried about even coming in to work for fear they might be exposed and put their families at risk.
I insisted we go. At this point, the repetitive, mundane, isolated aspect of the pandemic is starting to wear on the kids. And me. Day after day spent at home. No summer camps. No sleepovers with friends. I know the days are passing, I’ve seen the seasons change from spring to summer with my own eyes. But there was no Easter egg hunt with the little ones at church. No end of school party. No Vacation Bible School to kick off summer in June. I never realized just how these social markers and traditions provide a sense of time passing, until we lived life without them.
So we went to the fireworks on Saturday. It felt great to be out, but definitely different. There was no big gathering at the park with food trucks and bounce houses before the fireworks. Rather than sitting with a group of friends, we waved to a few people we knew from a distance. Normal things, not in the normal way.
On Monday I took the kids to the pool. Another one of those things we do every summer, and something we hadn’t done yet. It felt good to go swimming, to feel like we were doing something “normal.” But at the same time it wasn’t normal.
We had to make reservations, because capacity is limited to 40. Reservations are for 2-hour blocks, so we planned our whole day around swimming from 12-2. (Not 3-5, because I was afraid that time of day was more prone to afternoon thundershowers). It wasn’t our usual swim day of going whenever we happen to finish lunch, with my insistence that we’re only staying two hours, and then end up staying three because friends come and we make a day of it.
This time we didn’t know any of the other 25 or so people who had reserved that time. There were no toys allowed in the pool. No tables set up. And without the day campers there it felt more like swimming at a private pool than the city one.
Going to the pool was fun. Yet surreal. Much like the fireworks.
It’s summer. Summer during a pandemic.
Life’s moving forward. It might be a little off kilter, but it’s going.
What better way to celebrate than with 27th of June fireworks?
During the school year, I try to fit a couple of workouts into my weekly schedule. Now, I’m not an exercise fanatic, by any means. I’m not hitting the gym pumping iron. It’s more like running a couple of miles with the geriatric dog, or doing a workout video (at my own pace) in the living room. My favorite is Jillian Michael’s yoga, a weird sort of cardio/yoga workout routine. A couple of years ago I expanded on that, adding Tony Horton’s P90X3 Pilates into the mix. I had seen an interview with Gwyneth Paltrow who said all she did was Pilates every day, and I was sold.
“What about summer?” you might be asking. Workout time disappears in the summer, and is replaced instead with things I do with the kids, like afternoons at the pool, hikes through the woods, bike rides, etc.
When schools closed in March due to the pandemic, you might have thought that meant my summer routine started early. But instead, being a person resistant to change, I decided to incorporate the kids into my twice-weekly workouts. At first it was pretty seamless. Caroline was smack dab in the middle of soccer season, and with the idea that the closure was just for two weeks, the coach was encouraging kids to work out at home to be ready to get back into games when they got the green light. So a couple of times that first week we ran together, and drug Carter along with us.
Then the weather turned cold and rainy. Work out day came and running was out of the question. I told the kids we were going to do Pilates instead. Carter said anything that sounded like a pirate must be good. We spread out our yoga mats in the basement, got our water ready, and booted up the video.
Almost immediately I regretted my decision. I had forgotten how hard it was to do those that workout the first time. Exercises I had under my belt from multiple repetitions were all completely new to the kids, and unlike anything they’d ever done before. Add to that, to really get the core work of Pilates in, you have to concentrate on breathing. That was nearly impossible to do when the kids were constantly laughing at each other as they mimicked the people on TV.
Halfway through the workout I found myself flat on my back, staring up at the ceiling and holding my breath to try not to yell at the kids to be quiet and take things seriously for the tenth time in probably five minutes. My frustration level was high. I had a busy day of work ahead of me, and I was seriously trying to fit in a good workout in an otherwise sedentary day of sitting at my computer.
But then I turned around and saw Carter trying his hardest to write out the alphabet with his feet in the air. Caroline was laughing her head off at him while trying to fight the puppy off her mat.
At that moment, I had an epiphany. Laying on the basement floor, surrounded by my kids and the two dogs, my emotions changed in an instant. I started laughing too. I let go of the frustration of not getting in a good Pilates workout, and more than that, I let go of the tensions of the previous days — the worries of the virus, the questions of whether we’d go back to school ever this spring, the anxiety of whether to cancel our summer vacation, all of that melted away. I realized that this was what mattered right now — laughing and spending time with each other.
I can still remember clearly the first time I encountered the word epiphany. Sitting in a literature class at Davidson, with James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man open on my desk, the professor asked us to share an epiphany we’d had in our own lives. I felt like all the other students already knew what this word meant, but I was struggling to figure it out how it applied to Dedalus, let alone me. Now I have the perfect example.
After that day, I changed my tactic when it comes to workouts. I’m keeping with my original plan of at least two workouts a week, to help keep some semblance of structure in our lives and get my exercise in. (I’m not so worried about the kids’ physical activity, they’re jumping on the trampoline, riding bikes or doing something outside almost every day.) The difference is now, the kids are in charge. Caroline has already led us in a workout routine she found on TikTok. Carter got us all out on bikes. And one day we went to the church across the street to run laps around the cemetery with the dog. She loved it!
In a few short years Caroline and Carter will be off on their own, starting their careers and families, and I’ll have all the time in the world to do a quiet yoga meditation or concentrate on a Pilates workout. For now, I’m going to enjoy the fact that I get to spend some time together with these kids, no matter what shape that takes.
East Wilkes Girls Soccer season — cancelled
Spring Cal Ripkin baseball season — cancelled
Scout meetings — cancelled
Envirothon — cancelled
Youth Group — cancelled
June vacation —
cancelled — postponed to June 2021
What’s not cancelled?
I don’t think of my family as one that’s “over scheduled.” But our March/April/May calendar was definitely a busy one. It was full of things we were looking forward to — Caroline’s first year playing high school soccer, Carter being one of the “big kids” in rec-league baseball, Easter activities at church.
I know we’re not the only ones missing things. Everyone is missing things, some more than others. As cliché as it might sound, we’re all in this together, and I find comfort in that. There’s no “fear of missing out” when we’re all missing out.
I look forward to our seasons of busy-ness in our little family, and at the same time I look forward to our less busy seasons. I relish the week between Christmas and New Year’s, where there are no places to go, no parties to attend, no long to-do lists to weed through. It’s just me and the kids at home, enjoying the quiet days of winter, catching up on movies, doing projects around the house.
Same for summer, when those weekly activities like children’s choir and music lessons take a break, when we’re not rushing through dinner to get to the next activity, and instead have plenty of time to eat together as a family and play Frisbee in the back yard or check out a new show on Netflix. (Season 2 of Lost in Space was going to be our required viewing for summer, we might get to that earlier now.)
A lot has been written about what will come of us as a society after this pandemic, what we will learn, how things will change. I don’t have much to add, but will put in my two cents.
I hope that we learn, as parents, as families, that scheduling ourselves to death is totally unnecessary. Leave time to be together as a family. Relish the quiet, slow times with nothing to do but play board games and walk the dog.
More than likely, everyone will be in such a mad rush to “catch up” that the scheduling will commence with a vengeance as soon as we’re able to return to our “normal” lives. In that case, I hope that you come away from this time with some memories made, bonds renewed, and relationships strengthened.
In the meantime, take a minute to enjoy the beauty of the world around you.
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? … Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.”
Matthew 6: 28-30, 34, RSV.
There are times when winter can really be depressing. Days on end of cloudy, gray skies. Darkness when you wake up in the morning and when you eat supper at night. Gardens empty of blooms, littered with dried up leaves blown about in wind storms.
And then you have a day like this:
It’s one of the things I love about living in the South. Sunshine and blue skies. While they don’t come every single day, at least we get them year round.
I love how the winter months give us the opportunity to see the stark beauty of the trees and shrubs without the fluff of their summer foliage. Out in plain view is the majestic structure that provides life-giving nutrients to the leaves each spring.
When I was the editor of Carolina Gardener magazine, we ran a story about winter beauty in the garden every year. Sometimes it focused on shrubs that have berries in the winter, sometimes it was about those beautiful camellia bushes that bloom from November through February, depending on the type, and sometimes it was about yard art and sculptures that add interest in a garden where perennials have been cut back and annuals dug up.
One story that really struck a chord with me focused on the trees and shrubs that have interesting bark in the winter. Up until then I had never thought to choose a plant for my garden based on its stems or trunk. I’d always looked at the blooms and the foliage. I credit that article for changing the way I look at plants in the winter. I have a new appreciation for the different colored bark of crape myrtles and the bright red stems of red twig dogwood.
Just think about how great our appreciation for other things might be if we could see the beauty hiding underneath, making everything work.
— The circuit board of a computer, where shiny wires transmit amazing amounts of information.
— The felt-covered hammers hitting wires within a grand piano that produce beautiful music.
— Our own body’s amazing skeletal system that keeps us upright and moves our muscles every waking moment of the day.
It makes me think of how my grandmother used to say, “It’s not what’s on the outside that counts, it’s what’s on the inside.” Words we should all live by, in every season.
I realized as I was washing up the dishes after dinner on New Year’s Eve that the night felt very much like a Friday. Pizza after work and game night with the kids. But it was a Tuesday, which means in just a couple of days we’ll do it all again, on Friday (just maybe not pizza again). We get two Fridays this week! Two nights where we’re not in “school night” mode. Two nights of relaxing family time.
The only thing that was different last night than most Friday nights was that we stayed up to ring in the new year. As has become tradition, we toasted with the kids with sparkling grape juice. Caroline was at a friend’s, but Carter had a friend here, so it was still two kids to welcome the new year with me.
At midnight I had a second realization. It’s time for me to publicly admit that I like staying up until midnight and watching the ball drop in Times Square.
Bill would probably say that’s not news to him. After being married almost 19 years, he’s spent plenty of New Year’s Eve evenings watching Ryan Seacrest or Carson Daly do their DJ thing, and artists we don’t know sing songs we barely recognize (until the past couple of years when I recognize them as “Caroline’s music”).
I know that going from 11:59 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. is just another minute in another day. But I like being awake to experience moving from one year to the next.
Here’s why. For me, there’s something sort of comforting about seeing all those people in Times Square (or London or Sydney) celebrating a new year arriving, and me being a part of it with them. So many people with so much excitement and joy — and hope.
I’m not really one for making New Year’s resolutions, but there’s something refreshing or maybe even inspiring about thinking of things as a new start. A new chance to make the world a better place. A new year to make memories with the family. Another year of birthdays, hikes to the creek, fireworks at the Fourth of July, and Christmas fun.
I had all those thoughts swimming around in my head, in my flannel PJs, toasting to 2020 with Carter with our glasses full of sparkling grape juice.
And then this morning I got up and saw this poem on Facebook, written by my friend Abby Catoe. It’s like she channeled my thoughts last night, and put them into words so much more succinctly than I. That’s what I love about poetry. Thank you Abby, for your gift of poetry, and for letting me share it here today.
It’s just another rotation
in the Milky Way
but our human construct of time
tells us it is a special day
to see ourselves as new
to leave behind the old
to do better and be better
than last year’s you.
The turn of the clock
and we turn the page,
a new story is written
as we enter the new age,
twenty twenty is the year
and we have another
three hundred sixty six
before the next is here.
Use each day to spread
love, joy, kindness and peace
to everyone you meet.
Care for the earth and all
her creatures great and small
For it is in these deeds that
true happiness will increase!
Last week I cleaned up my office. The uninitiated might walk into that room today and still say it looks like a mess. But if you had seen it two days ago, you’d know I made a dent in the piles of work/books/papers that stack up and accumulate over time.
One of the biggest jobs in cleaning my office is working on my bookshelf. When I got married, I had one bookshelf. It got full, and Bill bought two more. Now those are full, and over time, books start piling up sideways on the ledges of the shelves. When that gets full, the piles just start stacking up on the floor. Who needs to move the chair back from the desk, right?
Today, the piles are gone and you can see the floor! Luckily, I didn’t have to get rid of too many books, and the best part of cleaning up was I was re-introduced to quite a few books that I have waiting for me to read. Gifts from friends, books passed on from my mom and her many book club reads, and books I bought at the library’s Used Book Sale are now in a prominent place just waiting to be read. Now that I have some space on my book shelf, you know what that means — time for more books!
Books are a great Christmas tradition in my family. My mother is a genius at picking out books for me (even better than I am myself), which means I look forward every year to the stack of books I get when we have Christmas with the extended family. My aunt used to give me books for Christmas too, ones that had been her favorite that she wanted to with me.
Today, I’m carrying on that tradition. I always make time during the busy months of December to visit a bookstore and look for the perfect book for Caroline, Carter and my nieces and nephews. I’ve gotten classics, bestsellers, and graphic novels. My Christmas gift books are the time to give something that is meaningful in some way, and that I hope each child will treasure as they read it or we read it together. It’s a time to splurge and buy the hardcover editions of books like Little Women (Caroline), Shel Silverstein’s Falling Up (Craig), and pictures books that were read over and over like Jan Brett’s The Mitten (Carter).
With the holiday shopping season full-on upon us, I hope that all of you reading this blog will consider gifting books for Christmas this year. If you need any help picking out the perfect gift, here are a few good resources:
NPR’s Book Concierge. This is a pretty cool search tool, with filters you can use to see great picks.
Newberry books. Whether it’s the award winner or the honor books, these are great gems for the kids in your life.
Caldecott books. Same as above, winners and honor books are great ideas for the picture book crowd.
Of course, you can also wander into your local bookstore and check out their staff picks, or just ask the helpful people who work there. Tell them about the person you’re shopping for, and they’ll lead you to the perfect book.
My grandmother was known to have a saying for about any situation. One of the many I heard as a child was “The cobbler’s kids never have shoes.” Once I figured out what a cobbler was, that saying started to make sense to me. Maybe it was a painter working on Grandma’s dining room and talking about how his wife had wanted her own kitchen painted, or the carpenter fixing her steps and talking about the bookshelf he hoped to build for his kids.
When it comes to writing, I have turned into the cobbler. I love my work, and I love the fact that I get to spend my days learning so many new and different things. In this week alone I got to interview the owner of Atlanta Discount Music, write about an ice machine that wouldn’t make ice and research information about arthritis and Arthritis Awareness Month. But I’d also like to be working on writing personal essays, making an outline for the romance novel I’ve told myself I’d write, or researching for the novel idea I had years ago.
I’ve done all of the things we (as editors) tell writers to do. The way to get better at your writing is to practice your writing. I’ve set New Year’s resolutions, I’ve bought pretty journals to try to inspire me to practice free-writing, I’ve set goals for myself, and I’ve even tried setting aside time for my writing. The New Year’s resolutions get forgotten by February, the journals sit on my nightstand mostly empty, and the time I set aside to write gets swallowed up with projects from paying clients that have hard deadlines. Sure, I could probably make time to write somewhere in the day, but like that cobbler who comes home from work so tired of making shoes that he can’t find it in him to make shoes for his kids, I never seem to have any creative juices flowing after a long day at the laptop.
So this year I tried a new tactic. Realizing that having deadlines was what helped me get the paying jobs done, I made a deadline for my “creative” writing ventures. I entered the NYC Midnight short story contest. The allure to me was the deadline, once I paid I felt like I had to stick to it. But the other great part of this contest is every entrant is promised feedback. That’s even more impressive considering the number of entries this contest gets.
I was given three things to shape my short story:
Subject: Witnessing a Crime
Not only did it help to have a deadline, it helped to have a starting point. Then I got a little creative about finding time to write, taking my laptop with me and hiding out in the backseat pounding on the keyboard while Carter had scouts. I didn’t get selected to move on to the next round, which means this story won’t be published by NYC Midnight. But at the NCWN’s recent Spring Writer’s Conference, I overheard someone saying that publishing these days is as easy as posting something on the internet. So I decided to gather up my courage and publish this short story (linked below, Symptoms). I feel it’s a good example to other writers reading this blog that sharing your work is as important as writing it. Hopefully there will be more stories to keep this one company!
Symptoms, by Karen Alley, January 2019
Most of the time when I drive through the downtown business district of Elkin, I’m passing through on my way to somewhere else. I drive past the small businesses, the offices and the restaurants on my way to a meeting at the library, or to drop off a kid at guitar lessons, or just to get from my house to the movie theaters in the neighboring town of Jonesville.
Yesterday was different. Rather than hurrying to a specific location for a meeting or zooming through Main Street on my way somewhere else, I decided to go for a walk. Carter had guitar on one end of Main Street, and I had a package to mail at the post office which sits on the complete other end of Main Street. I figured walking to the post office was a good way to pass the time while Carter was at guitar. Besides, it was a beautiful March day, with bright blue skies and lots of sunshine that helped counteract the brisk temperatures.
Moving through town at that slower pace gave me a chance to really look at the buildings I passed. I saw boutiques with beautiful dresses in the window, an antique shop, a building that houses both yoga and cross-fit businesses, a barber shop that also provides a place for after-school programs for kids, an independent book store, a pharmacy, sewing and quilt stores, a newly renovated theater, and of course, restaurants. I knew all of that was down there, but there was something about walking by it all that made me realize just how vibrant our downtown is.
It’s great to see new business ventures making their home in these beautiful buildings. The architecture on the outside is as interesting as the products and services you find on the inside.
A lot has changed in our town since my family moved here 15 years ago. Downtown businesses have come and gone. Some buildings are vacant that once housed thriving stores. The bridge that used to connect the towns of Jonesville and Elkin is gone. I remember when that bridge was taken down, business owners in downtown Elkin felt despair that their traffic would plummet. And maybe it did, for a while. But people got used to new traffic patterns, new stores moved in to help attract even more business, and places along the way received a facelift.
Elkin isn’t much different than other small towns throughout the South. (Maybe even throughout the United States.) Supercenters and Interstates have changed the fabric of our towns. But it’s nice to see that all is not lost in the historic sections. With a little passion and care from the community, these small towns can help their historic downtowns remain a vibrant part of the economy.
I’m glad I took a walk yesterday. It’s a good reminder to slow down once in a while and take time to appreciate our surroundings. Maybe some might say I got a little too sentimental or reflective, but in the end, I became a little more proud of what our town has done and where it’s going, and had a little fun along the way.