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.
Yesterday I went for a run. It was 60 degrees and sunny, and I decided not to let that beautiful day slip by without me getting out in it. This time of year, when it feels like the sun starts setting at 4:30, I love the fact that being a freelancer allows me to get out in the middle of the day, even if that means I’m proofreading after supper.
While jogging by the neighbor’s yard where their new cow was resting in the sun, I also reflected on how lucky I am to live in North Carolina. Here I was, outside in short sleeves the week of Thanksgiving. Granted, it was winter-like last week with sleet and freezing rain, but as we North Carolinians know, the weather here can change on a dime. There are times when you’re wearing shorts and flip flops in February and then there are times you have a foot of snow on the ground in March.
Don’t be impressed that I went for a run. I’m not an exercise fanatic. I don’t work out every day, I don’t run for miles, and even the couple of miles I do run I’m often seen taking a break to take a picture or change the song on my iPod. I run because it makes me feel better. It helps my attitude to be outside for a while. It refreshes my mind and helps me concentrate on work when I’ve been up and moving a little bit. And it just makes me a happier person overall when I’ve had a chance to work out a couple of times during the week.
That mental well-being that comes from exercise is one of the things Joe Boone emphasizes in his book, Healthy Body, Healthy Mind, Healthy Life. A couple of months ago I had the opportunity to edit this book, which is now available for sale. The book provides a very in-depth, scientific look at what your body does with the foods you eat (all in laymen’s terms). He also talks about different types of exercise and goal setting. But the thing that I appreciated most is throughout the book, the emphasis is not on losing weight or bulking up. Instead, he focuses on giving you the tools to build a healthy lifestyle and maintain a healthy mental attitude. That’s exactly what exercise means to me. It’s not about whether I’m the fastest at the 5K or can lift the most at the gym. It’s about the fact that being outside makes me happy. Doing my Pilates workout helps melt away the stress of the day. Riding my bike by the cow pastures helps me think about the beauty of our creation and focus less on the disheartening news I see every day on TV. And even while running I get a chance to reflect and enjoy being outdoors.
Maybe it was the long walks with my brother Locke through woods, over creeks and along dirt roads when I was a kid, or maybe it was the emphasis Davidson put on making exercise a part of your daily life (and not a course you took for a grade), but whatever it that inspired me to make exercise part of my regular routine has paid off. Like I said, I might not be the most dedicated when it comes to my workouts, but I know it’s important to me, so I make time for it in my schedule. And that is one of many things I’m grateful for this Thanksgiving week. Blue skies, warm sun, and a long country road that invites me out for a run.
When Bill and I were newlyweds living in Greensboro, we were invited to supper at the home of a couple in our church who had been married quite a bit longer than we had been. I’m sure they had us over to help introduce us to people in the church, or to get to know us better since we were newcomers. I know we had a good time, because Mr. Hull was a great storyteller and always a lot of fun. But what I remember most about that evening is their yard had one of the most beautiful forsythia bushes I had ever seen. The forsythia bush at the Hulls’ house was not just one of the biggest I’d seen, it also had a beautiful shape to it. It sprayed out like fireworks, and looked like it grew there effortlessly, although I knew from my work as editor of Carolina Gardener magazine that beauty like that often came from some very skilled pruning.
I’ve always loved forsythia. Some people pooh-pooh the bush, because it only flowers for such a short time and is pretty non-descript when not in flower. But I love the little yellow flowers that to me mean springtime in the South. And I grew to love it even more when my roommate in college, Cynthia, said she always loved it because she used to think people were saying it was her flower — “For-Cynthia.” So of course I was drawn to that bush and it made an imprint on me. But even more than the fact that it was a forsythia, I remember thinking that night, “I hope someday that I live in a house long enough to have bushes that big and beautiful.”
That time has come. And not really because of any specific plan or goal. This is my view out the window of my office:
Every day for the past couple weeks, I’ve looked out at the blooms on this hydrangea, and marveled at the beauty of the lacy white set against the dark green of the woods. I’d love to take credit for the beautiful shape, but really I owe that to the deer. Yes, deer. Those animals that are one of the biggest garden pests have actually been a benefit to me. I’ve seen them, in the early spring when there’s not much green out in our woods, venture up to the edge of our yard and nibble the shoots coming out of my hydrangea. They’ve pruned the hydrangea so that it splays out like fireworks, just like that forsythia at the Hulls’ house.
There’s been a big gap in time from that night at dinner to now. And I have to admit, I didn’t consciously think to myself when we were landscaping this yard that I wanted to plant shrubs at the edge of our yard to grow big like the Hulls’. But for some reason this summer, when I looked out at the hydrangea, it brought back memories of that forsythia. And a satisfaction of sorts bubbled up inside me. I did it. I now have a bush in my yard like that forsythia. One that says to people, this family has invested time and love into their home, into building a life and a place for their family. And it all happened by accident.