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WHEN LITTLE IS BIG

We could have been, no, we would have been friends, I thought this morning grinding the Columbian coffee beans I’d bought at the grocery store on Wednesday. Her casual comment while grabbing the coffee bean pack as she bleeped it across the monitor told me so. Her “Wow! Doesn’t that coffee smell good?” opened up such friendliness at my Waitrose shop. Granted, I am always a ready recipient for conversation. Much, to my kids’ embarrassment, I can’t help myself and will talk to most anyone who show any interest in talking to me. I answer questions freely “Where’s your accent from?” or “Is that your natural hair colour?” or “Do you know how to get to/find/work(feel free to fill in the blank?” In my defence, please may it be noted that for some reason there is something about my face that makes me look, not necessarily knowledgeable, but at least approachable to answering questions when people are lost or needing help…thus the regular questioning by strangers!

At any rate, I’m not just generous with my, some times, best-guess answers, I’m good at brandishing compliments, too. To taxi drivers, waiters, bartenders, nurses, receptionists, tradesmen, secretaries, operators, dry cleaners, butchers, drive-through servers, cleaners, delivery people, checkout clerks and, of course, baristas—all the incidental people I meet in my daily life. If we’ve had a positive experience, I’m always at the ready to thank them–and not in generalities. It is important to me to be specific as to how their particular brand of thoughtfulness, attentiveness or warmth of nature has been shared so generously with me and mine and is truly appreciated. 

In England, no doubt, my behaviour can be written off as “profusely-over-the-top-American” activity when in reality, no matter where, I always conduct myself so. It’s less a cultural attribute and more a personal mantra kinda thing. In fact, whenever we travel internationally, I always make it a point to find out at least how to say “Thank you” in the local language. Again my kids snigger when I joyfully throw around my “Grazie-s, Gracias-s, and Eυχαριστώ (efharisto)-s” in Italy, Spain and Greece…laughing mostly, because they know, with the exception of Italian thanks to Duolingo, that the “thanks” is the limit of my local language skills. But I don’t care. In truth, I feel unnerved if I don’t have the simple words to express how much I appreciate someone; I see someone. My ex-husband used to jokingly call me, “Courteous Kelly” when I’d return a kid’s ball at the beach and make sure to thank them for building such a cool sandcastle along the way. Flip flops nearly being washed out by an incoming tide or towels at risk of getting dampened by the sea as their owner wanders somewhere along a beach, keep me busy on holiday. It’s not that I’m trying to be a people pleaser—far from it—it’s that I really hold it in the highest importance to truly, genuinely acknowledge other people which often comes with thanking them. Mostly, I like to make them know they count, at the very least, to me. 

Don’t get me wrong. I am no Pollyanna. Rub me the wrong way, offend (in my eyes) my family, my friends or my pets, fail miserably at a job you’ve been hired to do, and my tongue turns acerbic. I am even known to forget your name if I feel you’ve fallen short on a personal front. This has been a long term issue for me. One job review from thirty years ago, still makes my cheeks redden at the thought it was expressed with such accuracy as constructive criticism by my boss. “Kelly,” he said, “You don’t suffer fools gladly” and then he rightfully advised, “You need to get better at that.” I had to agree. 

To my credit, however, I must confess it takes a long time to make me mad BUT cross the line, and I am quick to set any bridges between us alight with my temper and indignation. Not one of my best traits, I admit. In fact, I always admire those who can be diplomatic and patient so as to find a way forward when mistakes have been made or attitudes offended. I so appreciate how people can be quietly strong in their convictions yet willing to be the butt of my angry joke; forgive the striking out of my stress on them. Somehow, they remain unwavering in their tolerance of me. They often hear me out even when what I’m saying is far from fair and instead take the time to guide me to more measured ground. 

Over the years, since that job review, I like to think I’ve tempered my approach but, in truth, I’m still working at it. I try and note now when I’m starting to lose my balance. I try to slow down my sometimes judgemental reaction by reminding myself this: everyone has a story. Their behaviour in performing poorly, rudely, or apparently thoughtlessly, could all be attributed to where they’ve come from and what they carry. Something not always known to me.

I guess that’s why I return to Wednesday’s checkout lady and my utter appreciation for her warmth towards me. Her seeming interest in my story that day. Behind our masks, at a safe distance on either side of the perspex-glass-ed, pandemic-safe counter, in the banality of checking out my grocery order, she managed to make a human connection with me. A much-missed, in-person interaction that spoke to me as an individual. Our conversation ran the gamut. We chatted about the goodness of the coffee aroma, my buying four steaks instead of three because Skyler now needs two for his seventeen-year-old appetite as we both laughed about our teenaged sons eating us out of house and home. She admired the set of tapas plates I’d put on the conveyor belt and I told her about Megan’s longing for Madrid and my hope the plates would, until she could get there herself, bring her some Spain in her flat in Fulham. She told me about how her daughter, who was in her first year at university, and who had only been able to go to one term at Cambridge this academic year to study Architecture. We agreed how much we felt for every generation over the course of this pandemic, but as mothers, how it was particularly hard on our hearts watching how our children had been impacted. The older ones feeling anxious and exhausted by being stuck in ‘pause’ while they desperately waited to press the ‘play’, if not the ‘fast forward, button, so they could get to a good part of life again. The younger ones (we found we both had two older children with a bigger break than “normal” for our third) amazingly mastering their zoom education while they pined for their friends during the full lockdown. We both acknowledged as well the knock on effect of the harsh realities of returning to school accompanied by the anxiety of getting back to “normal’. We exchanged all of this as we efficiently worked our way through £300 worth of groceries being blipped, bagged and bought.

I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to realise such a conversation, an engagement with one of my favourite kind of people was still possible. Strangers really, but when they cross my path, they can feel more like acquaintances, friends even, for a moment. When I was ready, it took a good ole shove to get my trolly manoeuvred around and pointing towards the car park entrance. Even though I was laden with my bags of food and tapas plates, before the next customer shimmed up to their turn at the checkout, I tried to look this woman in the face and smile so she knew underneath my mask, my mouth mirrored my eyes. “Thank you so much,” I said simply. “Thank for the conversation,” as I shoved a little harder to shift my carts wheels into motion. She seemed to pause a moment, to truly hear me, and returned my comment without any sense of insincerity in her use of the hackneyed phrase, “Have a nice day!” Instead, her final wish reached out to me, beyond the mask, and nudged me forward out into the world inspired by her sharing a bit of her story matched with a generous serving of kindness as contagious as COVID.

DAFFY: A SIGN OF COVID CABIN FEVER?

Has a season ever been more heralded? More sought for sign of its appearance?

Usually, I’m an Autumn girl. I’m a sucker for deciduous trees aflame with colours. Crunchy leaves to stomp on along the sidewalk. I was spoiled at my alma mater, JMU, nestled in the Shenandoah Valley between the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains full of the most glorious display of autumn foliage. Blue skies, crisp but warm sunshine-y days. The distant drum of the marching band prepping for a big game floating over a Saturday morning. I love Autumn for revelling in the memories of warm summertime pursuits while feeling ready for that shift to cooler weather— blowing in to clear out the cobwebs before settling in for winter. I love how you even get an extra hour of the season thanks to day lights savings and “falling” back an hour. I love the sense of a new year beginning. My internal calendar is always calibrated to September as the start of a new year linked to all my years of school, and now, my children’s. The prospect of having a whole new year to learn and grow and make new friends and reconnect with old ones—to share new experiences makes me tremble with excitement. I even like the autumns in England with Guy Fawkes nights of bonfires and fireworks that you don’t have to wait for as the evenings close in much quicker in November than on a Fourth of July. Mulled wine and sausages on a roll seal the deal. And cooking the first turkey of the year (yes, my family keeps up our American traditions even in jolly ‘ole England from whence the Pilgrims came).  Autumn time is family time and there is the excitement of watching Skyler play rugby on the pitch. Even in the thrashing rains, we are lucky to have a warm, dry home to return to, shower up in, after cheering him on the pitch. A place to partake in autumn harvest feasts wrapped up with apple and blackberry crumbles and pumpkin pies. I feel like after the structureless summer, it is nice to incorporate some schedule into our lives. A return to the familiar. A touchstone for the rest of the year.

That said, there’s no denying the joys of summer…and if we are lucky the basking in the sunshine and warmth. Swimming in the sea. Stargazing at night. My family, Jennifer and her boys can attest to my absolute obsession with laying on my back to look up into infinity and beyond looking for shooting stars to pass. I love being able to shout, “Did you see that one?”.  Summer has wishes made and fulfilled. An annual trip for an escape, perhaps from real life, to journey to a new land.  Without the confines of the school schedule, summer has the holiday time for sharing adventures and grabbing the moments to travel, see the world and the people you miss during the rest of the year. You can fit it all in in the lazy, hazy days of summer. Barefoot walking in warm dawns out to pick up the paper from the drive or have a cup of coffee on the porch listening to the cicadas on a hot day start their chchchchcht symphony. Bold geraniums in terracotta pots thriving in the heat. Seafood at the Jersey shore dunked in Old Bay seasoning and clear-out-your-sinuses-horseradished cocktail sauce, shrimp and crabs from Dad’s Beaufort dock or pulled pork from Hog Heaven in Debordieu. Barbecues on the Isles of Scilly, Camber Sands, and our backyard. Gin and Tonics galore. Summer hums with bike rides, sparklers and freedom. Fresh garden vegetables. The longest day of the year.

Winter for me is saved by Christmas and all the other wonderful festivals of light that brighten the dark short days that draw in. I’ve never been a big skier (Nick’s arthritic knees have never allowed for it), but I am as enamoured with the white stuff as Gilmore Girls’ Lorelei celebrating the big feather flakes when they arrive every once in a blue moon in Kent. Growing up for part of my childhood in the suburbs of Chicago, when it snowed in October and we didn’t see the grass until April, I reckon I’ve had my fair share of the stuff. Still, I love the days off of school that a snow storm grants. They always feel like a little gift shared by the world pausing, dare I say frozen, under the blanket of snow. Marshmallows and hot chocolate snuggle in nicely with the duvet and a movie by the fire. Hearty slow cooked stews and annual Christmas tastes we only eat at the holiday time of year…Judy’s Sausage Balls and Jerry’s Good Stuff Cocktails at our Christmas Party hit the spot. Along with sugar and snowflake cookies, gingerbread men, and coconut ice with candy canes to clear the palette.  

But now, it seems like no matter where I go, what I do or listen to I am hearing the collective yearning for Spring. The flush of birdsong, shared sightings of particularly audacious displays of daffodils, primroses, and snowdrops. Buds and blossoms abounding on trees and shrubs. On Facebook or Instagram, the evening news or BBC radio updates, the podcasts, adverts in my emails for new clothing promotions, suggested playlists on Spotify, conversations on WhatsApp, Houseparty, Zoom, or at the one place I can go out into the world, the grocery store…Spring. Spring. Spring. 

Only two more days and it will officially be here!  Hooray! 

Snoopy dance with the heart of a Welsh Rugby player and you may go some way to physically express the sense of enthusiasm in the air! This Spring is singing and glowing and rejoicing and reminding us there is much to celebrate in this refreshing time of the year. There’s a new palette of colours in town and we are ready for something to change. It is tangible this feeling this feeling that we all want to see a seasonal shift. Not surprising this year how keen we are for spring.

Oh, and the way I see it, we are the bulbs in all of this. Yup, you heard that right. We are those brown onion paper-y nuggets of life waiting to becoming something beautiful. Full of scent or vibrant colour, we are promise and potential in a package. And boy, are we strong. We bear the dark of being buried and alone in the cold, months left in our own company and still we have the audacity to shoot bright, straight blades of green out of deadened ground of winter to emerge and blossom. Against all sense— with pending late snows, ice storms or even devious squirrels trying to forge for food — we come out in purples, pure white, yellows and every shade of the rainbow tulips.  Popcorn displays of forsythia, pussywillows, and hyacinth…a bundle of the season that can be gathered and held in your hand. Sunshine and hope embodied and arranged in a vase to grace a home and a heart.

We are bulbs and we are blossoms.

We can spread and propagate and beautify our bleak surrounding.

Don’t doubt us. Even in this season of seemingly endless hibernation of lockdowns and quarantines, of waiting for the world to be vaccinated.

Never fear. It’s in the air. Come what may. We are bulbs and we are blossoms, as sure as the Earth is spinning on it’s axis making it’s journey around the sun. The spring warmth is coming and with it birdsong. The longer days of light. This last stretch, this push through the upper crust of hard soil. The time to gather and breathe in the open air, sway in the sunshine without restraint…is coming.

The leaden earth of this long winter will not hold us down.

Now keep the faith, be your best flower, and unfurl.

YOU’RE THE CAT’S MEOW

Coco wearing her birthday hat

Call me old fashioned, sentimental even. Go on, feel free to throw in corny if you like, but I can’t resist an old time Valentine card pun complimented with a little taste of chocolate and a “sweetheart” candy message.

In the olden days…circa 1973…I can remember such absolute happiness in receiving from my mom, my annual cardboard “book” of cards to be punched out, addressed and delivered to my elementary school classmates. Mom must’ve bought them from what she called the ‘five and dime’…Woolworth’s or Stollers near where we lived. They were paperback bound books, kinda like colouring books, but with the interior pages made of thinner cardboard than the outside covers and cut with pre-perforated edges around the Valentines which were laid out on a page like Christmas cookies being cut on rolled out dough —fit upside down and sideways to get as many ‘cards’ on a page as possible. The Valentines were of anthropomorphized animals or household objects as cute (in my seven year old mind) as the cast of Disney’s Bambi film posed hugging hearts and making declarations of love like a skunk saying “Please con-scent to be my Valentine!” or a dog with a shoe saying “I chews you”, a rabbit smelling a flower saying “Some bunny loves you” or a lollypop saying “I’m a sucker for you”. Not to mention the slew of kitten ones with “You’re the cat’s meow” or “My purr-fect Valentine!”.

I loved that I got the joke and knew the words were playing with me as I carefully punched out my cards, stacked them up and selected just the right one for each of my friends in Mrs Medvecky’s class. It was so satisfying to work my way through my classlist (furnished as well by Mom) to select just the right card for each friend. Conveniently, no deep message was required on the back of the Valentine, even that part was pre-printed with a” To” and a “From”. I just had to fill in the right name for the addressee and sign my own name by the “From:”. Laura Maloney got the best one (probably the bunny one because it looked like Thumper) as she was my best friend that year, then David Lang or Forester Fuller got hooked up with the dog or the lollypop because I harboured deep, (I imagined) secret crushes on them. The biggest Valentine in the book always went to my teacher because, like many other first graders I loved her almost as much as my mom.

Once I’d finished my stack of Valentine’s, sealing them into their matching envelopes, I put them  in a brown paper lunch bag ready for the class party. At the designated time, our teacher would announce we could put our lace doily decorated shoe boxes on our desks and then we were allowed to ‘post’ our cards into to each kid’s box to be whisked home at the end of the day. There, at the privacy of our own kitchen table, we could take our time opening each Valentine. As I recall, all the moms must have shopped at the same place, because within the envelopes addressed to me where the very same dogs, bunnies, cats and lollypops I given my classmates wishing me a happy, pun-filled day. 

To make sure there were no Charlie Brown moments and that we always felt special no matter who we got cards from or which design had been chosen for us, my mom always made sure to give each of us a heart shaped box of chocolates from Russell Stover. We didn’t have to share one box between the five of us. Nope. We got our very own box which felt like such a luxurious treat. To be honest, I never managed to make it through all the candy, I think I liked the heart shaped boxes in all their red and gold foil glamour better than the actual chocolates inside. It was decadent but, I hated to get caught out by the fruit flavoured or fake Peppermint Patty ones. 

Either way, those hokey cards and fancy treats spoke to me along with the ‘conversation love hearts’ that came from Mom, too. In the flavours of chalky Necco wafers, the hearts dispensed from little cardboard  boxes from which you could tip out one or the whole lot at a go. They were pastel coloured and stamped with messages like BE TRUE, ALL MINE, LOVE YOU, HUG ME and the risqué, LETS KISS. I loved pouring them into the palm of my hand, reading them and then popping them into my mouth.  The warm heartedness they filled me with seemed disproportionately big for the size of the candy I was chewing on. 

So, you can imagine my delight this week when I watched the news story sharing First Lady Jill Biden’s surprise display of giant love hearts on the lawn of the White House. 

Big one word messages fit on the cut out shape of red, white and pink hearts. Words like LOVE, COMPASSION, STRENGTH and UNITY. To the bank of reporters covering the President and her stroll with their dogs past the hearts, Mrs Biden explained “ I just wanted some joy. With the pandemic—everybody’s feeling a little down, so it’s just a little joy, a little hope, that’s all.” 

It was such a small gesture, but even if it was as corny as my old punny Valentine’s, it made me feel good to see those words being framed and presented in a heart. It made me feel like someone cares.

It reminded me of the power of words even ones printed on a heart poster or candy. Even ones seemingly miraculously conjured and perfectly presented in truth as Amanda Gorman’s Inauguration Day poem. Even ones shared by crowds of radicalised QAnon and Trump followers shouting hate, lies and violence with “Stop the Steal” and “Hang Mike Pence”.

Our words count, have meaning and power to lead, inspire and impact our memories, emotions and actions. They are our bond. We hold people to them. Spoken or written, they can be mightier than the sword. They can become Flesh and set an example of how we can behave, treat one another, live. 

Words brazenly screamed to stoke up a frenzied crowd or quietly whispered in prayer at a bedside by a ventilator, our words are something we need to appreciate in their strength to impact our world—across lockdowns, across oceans, and across countries. The messages we send to eachother with our words, whether diatribes of fanatics or one word messages of hope—our words—they count, they move, they invoke, and they encourage.

Make no mistake, even in these dark times, they can even hearten us when shared with responsibility and compassion. One word or two, even in the form of a name, can console, warm and make us laugh more sweetly than chocolate packed in a heart shaped box.

To that end, I submit the names of the trucks spreading salt to keep snowed-in Scotland roads up and running this February 2021. I hope they make you smile if nothing else and let you snow you are loved.

Thank you, Danielle McWilliams for sharing this on Facebook!

A WALL

I hit a wall this week. Yup. Full on Wile E. Coyote riled up by the Road Runner full on face plant. Snout concertina-ed, stars encircling the head, and entire body schlumped down into a heap on the floor. I’m sure for Megan, Skyler and Nick, who are stuck in lockdown with me, it hasn’t been a pretty sight to behold. I felt like physically striking out and verbally doing so. At the same time, I felt vented up with frustration at being unable to find the right words to express myself. I fantasised about going into a deep, dark wood and screaming my lungs out or head off—whichever would put me out of my misery first. Lucky those idiots who stormed the Capitol didn’t cross my path. I came up with a place or two, in my minds eye, where I would have liked to lodge the horns of the QAnon groupie. And all I’m saying is it would not have been a far cry from what Piggy and the boys on the Lord of the Flies island were witness to. 

I can’t put my finger on it. The specific incident or moment that set me on the downward spiral. It could’ve been the pining for an actual in-person visit with my Dad or my brother and sisters or my friends on my birthday. Maybe it was the feeling of uselessness at having to hunker down in my Volvo while the vet took my kitten from our car for her appointment. Humans aren’t allowed to accompany their pets into the surgery and I already felt bad enough about shoving Coco in the cat carrier, driving her in the unfamiliar car and worrying she’d have to have an abscess lanced on her little sweet face. Then again the trip to Sainsbury’s and listening to them repeat on a loop over the tannoy a cheery thank you for wearing my mask and maintaining a two metre distance from others shoppers started to grate (and, indeed, feel very 1984ish to boot). The tapping on Skyler’s bedroom door to make sure he could log on to school also bugged me. Especially when he responded that it was “all good” because he could register without a video connection and stay in bed a little longer because he had two frees that morning. Even more so, it was that our conversation seemed actually normal. Gone, for the moment, was the nudging him into the shower to be up for breakfast, on to the bus and into school with his friends and teachers. No wearing of his suit and tie, not that they probably should be worn at this point as they haven’t, nor have we, been to the dry cleaners in months. Nor to the hair dressers or any shops besides the grocery store. 

Or maybe it was my inability to thank my lucky stars that we also haven’t been to A&E (knock on my thick wooden head) with any life-threatening illness. I haven’t had to endure twelve hour shifts with PPE strapped on my body to hopefully protect me as it chafes my skin into sores. I haven’t had to deliver package after package of internet shopping to keep the world holed up in their homes safe from the virus while I risk exposure with each padded envelope and cardboard box. I haven’t even had to stack and stock shelves to keep the nations’ larders and fridges full. 

I’ve had it incredibly easy. 

I’ve got great WIFI and have even squeezed in COVID-silver-lining-participation in classes with my favourite writing mentor in North Carolina and book club discussions with my friends in Kent and Surrey. I’ve been warm and dry in the cold of winter. I have never experienced hunger. I’ve got clothes on my back. A generous hardworking husband in a steady job. Children whose company I adore. I get to read and write and do crosswords and jigsaws to my hearts delight. I have a beautiful garden to walk out in and a National Trust property, just a mile up from my house, where I can stroll with my dog off the leash to reunite with my beloved woods. 

Who am I to cop an attitude? Who am I to be the Eeyore? Who am I to be deflated and stuck in the unfairness and stress of the pandemic running rampant around the world? Of Brexit? Of political uncertainty? Even with the likes of the delectable guilty pleasure that is Netflix’s Bridgerton to indulge in -who am I to be so hard done by? And yet, it finally caught up with me this week, and I’m ashamed of myself for struggling to shake my bad mood. 

As I said, I was speechless and wordless. All I could think about was how lonesome—not lonely—I am for the world as we knew it. Lonesome for my far away family and social distanced friends. Lonesome for lighter worries to bear. Feeling hiraeth* – a homesickness for a home you can’t return to, or that never was. 

So yesterday, I got up grumpy again. Ill rested and ill tempered. Trying to carve out a space in my head to find my positive nature again. Praying for guidance as I flicked on the kitchen radio and started preparing pets’ food while the kettle boiled. Utterly begrudging the rain. When Radio Four’s Thought for the Day came on and, I kid you not, the speaker, Martin Rowe, began his piece by launching into commentary about a therapist he heard of who was encouraging tree hugging for the alleviation of “lockdown loneliness”. How could I not stop and listen? Start at 46.58 to listen for yourself.

He noted “while nothing can compensate for the absence of human contact” tree hugging seemed to be helping the therapist’s clients. He even described giving it a whirl himself in which although it felt “surreal to hold one of the great silent living beings, and yet, in these days when nothing seems strange anymore, also surprisingly reassuring”.

I laughed listening to Martin Rowe. It was like listening to myself wax on about trees and their merits. It could have been my own words coming back to me via the BBC commentator. It felt like the universe had to decided it’d send me a little reminder through the radio programme, to remember I’m not alone, to reset and to keep my faith a little longer. I can honestly say I breathed a bit deeper hearing that show. Less muddled in mind and spirit.

I even felt energised to iron nine shirts (Kelly’s laundry at your service), pulled out my birthday jigsaw puzzle and started laying out edge pieces, tried on a new jumper I’d bought online in a January sale, chatted with my big sister, luxuriated through two episodes of Gilmore Girls with Megan, and, finally, felt like myself again. 

I felt grateful that when I needed that extra hand to help me stand back up, shrug off the cruelty of the world and return whole heartedly to embrace my incredibly, good life, the words came. When I took the time to listen, the words came and I was able to once again remember this isn’t forever and there is much to be amazed by. 

This morning I woke up under a blue sky – what a bonus—as I came down to begin the daily routines.  I let Winston out for a stretch, filled the cats’ bowls, loaded the dishwasher from last night’s dinner and decided to write it all down. Particularly when even the Pringles can from last night’s snacking “spoke” to me when I nestled it back into the pantry. It nudged me in the right direction and furnished me with just the word I needed to bring back to the forefront of my vocabulary. Around the belt of the illustrated Santa holiday packaging, in all caps I saw spelled out the word I needed to be reminded of most : HOPE. 

Now that’s my kinda word, I thought. 

Especially with the American inauguration to look forward to on Wednesday and vaccinations being administered worldwide. Especially with the daffodils emerging at the base of my favourite tree growing tall outside my kitchen window. In these days when “nothing seems strange anymore,” I’ll even gladly take some advice from my potato chip packaging and rise like the best of the Looney Tune cartoon characters. HOPE this post helps you to do so as well. 

Ttttthaaattt’s All Folks! 

*Thank you, Christy, for teaching me this word.