Busy Brain


Random thoughts swirl around in my brain. The writer in me intends to organize these thoughts into meaningful pieces about life, relationships and the world we live in. But, while meditating this morning it came to me that maybe I just have a busy brain.

Meditating is new to me. I’ve attempted meditation a few times in the past, and participated in some guided meditations lead by a facilitator. My own efforts at self-guided meditation usually become a random thought circus. One thought sneaks in, flickers, and sparks more thoughts.

A few years ago I decided to try yoga. I love it! Yoga helps me stay strong, flexible, and focused. Through yoga I’ve learned to calm down my brain and put disruptive thoughts on hold. I’m more aware of my breathing, and how to use it to benefit the movements of my body. I’ve learned to slow my brain down enough so that my yoga practice has an aspect of meditation, too.

I’m easily bored and am compulsively busy. I can suddenly attack a closet or stack of papers or my basement and get lost in it. This is usually at the expense of what I set out to do, which is to write. Many drafts of poems, essays and songs need attention. While I’m busy doing these physical tasks my brain is spinning, formulating thoughts and sentences for later when (if) I sit down to write…and then it’s too late. Can’t remember any of it.

I’m reading a book, “Meditation For Fidgety Skeptics,” by Dan Harris. Harris details his own efforts to calm his busy brain and body by meditating. He advises to start with one minute of sitting still with a clear mind. He acknowledges that some people use a mantra to meditate, but thinks even that can be distracting. Find a comfortable place to sit still, slow your breathing, clear your brain. If your mind wanders, simply start over. Harris says that meditation makes anyone who does it regularly at least “10% Happier,” and he created an app to promote this idea. Establishing a meditation practice, even for just a few minutes a day, can set a tone of intention for the day and help focus the mind.

This appeals to me. For a few weeks now, after breakfast, I sit in the solarium of my house, cross-legged on a wicker love seat, a pillow behind my back. I rest my wrists on my knees, usually with hands facing up, close my eyes and start with a simple mantra like “Clear mind, open heart” that eventually drops off to nothing. My mind wanders but I let myself start over again until I notice that my breathing is rhythmic and slow. When ready, I open my eyes and welcome my day.

These days, I’ve found another way to calm myself through flower gardening. Now that it’s Spring in the Midwest, the weather encourages perennials to follow their instinctive course. I love to fill pots with brightly colored annuals. My garden is anchored by an Eastern Redbud tree surrounded by hostas, Solomon Seal, Impatiens and Lily of the Valley.  As I weed and nurture the plants, my brain cranks away but my heart feels zen.

I’m getting better at calming the rapid barrage of thoughts that burdens me except today, when this strain of busy thinking sneaked into my consciousness. Stream of consciousness writing, maybe that’s my angle…where am I going with this? What? Hey, is that a dust bunny in the corner?


Watching for Signs

Digging for keys, I felt around in my purse for the fob and yanked it out, with a frustrated force that usually accompanies this search. As the keys popped out, a loose penny escaped as well, hurling itself toward freedom. The penny remained airborne for at least a foot before landing on the concrete parking lot and rolling toward the curb. I stooped to pick it up but decided, instead, to leave it for someone to find, a little surprise luck for the day.

The newly sprung penny landed with its tail on top. Some folks only pick up a found penny if it lands heads up. I pick up every penny, heads or tails, believing it’s lucky just because I found it. If I find a dime or a quarter, even better; ten or twenty-five days of good luck! I love finding money lying in wait for me on the ground. Once I found a fifty dollar bill. That’s a lot of lucky days!

Some people believe finding a penny is a sign from a lost loved one in another dimension. In my song, “Shadow,” I wrote this lyric: “When I’m alone are you with me, dropping a penny for thought?” We miss our loved ones and want to feel a connection, even a symbol as small as a penny.

After my adult son died from a brain tumor, I felt lost in grief. Walking became a survival tactic, forcing me to get up, go outside, and keep moving. I would spend that time thinking, or not thinking at all, or crying. I randomly walked my neighborhood, turning a corner on a whim or because I saw another human I hoped to avoid. One time, very soon after my loss, I set out for a walk and within a few blocks of my house, a little boy ran up to me out of nowhere. He proudly handed me a slightly wilted flower picked from the yard. Whether it was a sign from my beloved son, or just an innocent little boy waiting for someone to happen by, who knows. But, the gesture touched me and meant so much in the context of my recent loss.

When my dad died at age 66 from heart failure, I felt relief. His alcoholism strained our relationship for over 30 years. I worried constantly that he would hurt someone, or himself. In the final years of his life, my dad’s favorite hobby became feeding birds in his backyard. After he died, I realized I thought of him every time I saw a bright red cardinal. Now when I see one, I say, “Hi, Dad!” Sometimes a cardinal sits in a bush outside my living room window, and I like to think my dad is checking in on me. This pretty bird has become a healing connection between us.

According to some spiritualists, if we pay attention and watch for them, signs are everywhere to help us navigate through life. Did you hit every red light on the way to wherever you’re going? Take a breath and slow down. Flat tire on the way to a date or job interview? Maybe it’s not the one for you.

A few years ago a new friend – and potential suitor – invited me over for dinner. That evening, as I drove to his house, a big truck sideswiped my car, ripping the driver’s side mirror clean off. Upon arrival I was a bit shaken, to which my spiritually minded dinner date said, “Do you think this is some kind of sign”? During dinner I learned that this man had the same birthday as my recent ex-husband. Later, he told me, “I think I should tell you that I like to date a lot of women.” Good to know. Three warning signs = no thanks.

As you travel on your daily journey, whatever the token or thing might be that prompts a memory, provides joy or comfort, or opens your eyes, I hope you see it. If you’re anywhere near the parking lot just east of the Fine Arts building at The University of Missouri-Kansas City, there’s a shiny penny waiting to be found!


P.S. You can read about animal symbolism and seeing things a different way in my recent essay, “Changing My Attitude.”


An Old/New Writer

I can’t seem to stop writing. As I navigate the “Third Act” of life, as Jane Fonda calls it for people age 60+, I find myself wanting to write all of the time. Not because I think I have anything important to say, but because it’s a way to make a deeper connection with people than by the flash of a social media post. I want to connect with others who also read, think and write. The journey is ongoing and learning never ends.

Today is my poetry-reading eve. Tomorrow night will be the first time I’ll present my poetry in a public setting. Although I wrote poetry in college, and graduated with a degree in Creative Writing, I directed most of my creative energy into music and songwriting. I didn’t read a book for a long time – reading and writing under the pressure of assignments took the joy out it of for me.

I went back to school in my mid-30s, and my music career didn’t take off until I was almost 40. For the next 25 years, I had a lot of fun playing live music and being part of the local scene. During this time I also became a grandparent. By the time I was almost 60, the unpleasant part of playing music – booking gigs, late nights, dirty bathrooms, drunks – overtook the pleasure I had previously enjoyed. It felt time to turn this over to the next generation.

That’s when I started writing again. I sought out workshops and retreats. I wrote poems and essays. I joined a writing group. I started my blog, Along the Way. I read books and blogs and poetry. I entered the literary world and began connecting with other writers. The more serious and intent I became about writing, the more I learned. I hired a writing coach to read my work and give me professional feedback and guidance. That investment continues to be invaluable.

I’m a seasoned musical performer, but standing up at a podium to read my poetry to serious writers and listeners is new, and a bit daunting. Today I’ll practice some opening banter and a couple of anecdotes to round out my allotted time. I’ll read each piece out loud with confidence and hope something resonates with the listeners. I’ve got an essay on standby in case I’m left with minutes to fill.

Hi! I’m Elaine McMilian. I’m a writer. Thank you for being here!


Changing My Attitude


On Christmas Eve, Gaylon and I invited our friend, Joe, and his son, Ben,  who was visiting from California, over for dinner. They brought huge crab legs flown in from Alaska and cheesecake from André’s; we prepared a green salad, creamy scalloped potatoes, and warmed Italian bread to round out the meal. Later we relaxed by the fireplace with dessert, after dinner drinks and conversation.

One of our discussions came around to the new supermarket under construction just a few blocks away. As always, when the topic of grocery shopping comes up, I blurted out, “I hate going to the grocery store! It’s my most despised chore. I’d rather clean toilets.”

Ben laughed and replied, “Oh, really? I love going to the store. I make it a whole experience!” He went on to explain that he doesn’t cook much because of his work schedule and instead visits the local market almost daily. Upon arrival he buys a cup of coffee. Then he circles the aisles a few times while he sips, casually enjoying the atmosphere and looking at displays. He says hello to the butcher, who is a good conversationalist and usually offers up a sample of salami or something fresh. Finally he picks up a few items to eat that day and goes on his way.

Ben added, “I will say that the grocery stores in California are remarkably different than the ones here, full of colorful fresh produce and wide open aisles.” The two grocery stores I most often frequent are located within a mile of our house. I almost always go to the older, more accessible store with a diverse clientele. The other store has more exotic fare, like red lentils for a Moroccan soup, or the dark chocolate cocoa mix my husband prefers, but it’s always a quick run in and out. We live in the Midwest, and this time of year the produce is mostly imported and not always pretty. Both of these grocery stores are crowded with narrow aisles.

Later, I was still thinking about this. I live in a metropolitan area with a plethora of markets and stores from which to choose. What stops me, other than the convenient location, from trying out other grocery stores or supermarkets where I can enjoy a nice shopping experience? Or simply changing my attitude about the grocery store where I regularly shop? It doesn’t offer coffee, but there are two coffee shops nearby where I could easily grab a to-go cup for my shopping trip. Instead of hurrying to get in and out, I could thoughtfully consider my grocery needs and casually walk around, looking at what’s on sale and getting ideas for meals. Why the rush?

The next day, on Christmas morning, something happened that triggered a memory of another story about seeing things in a new way. Gaylon went outside to fill the bird feeder and scatter bird seed on a couple of benches near the back fence. After he came back inside, I gazed out the window into our backyard, covered in fresh, new snow and now filling with an array of colorful cardinals, mourning doves, wrens and sparrows. And a rat. I watched a few minutes to be sure it wasn’t my imagination. Maybe it was a squirrel with a wimpy tail. But when it jumped up on one of the benches to get more food, it was clearly a brown field rat. “Gaylon!” I yelled, “there’s a rat eating the bird seed!” As he quickly opened the back door the rat scurried behind our neighbor’s garage. A few minutes later, the allure of such an easy food source brought it back out again. This time Gaylon grabbed the Super Soaker squirt gun he usually reserves for squirrels and ran outside, spraying water as he headed toward the bench. He squirted water heavily behind the neighbor’s garage and soaked the area next to the birdfeeder. That seemed to scare the critter from coming back, at least while we were watching.

I hate rats! I love snakes, and I have a deep respect for spiders, but rats are my nightmare. In our neighborhood, called Brookside, people openly talk about the “Brookside rats.” Most of the houses and sewers are old, and we’re not far from a park with a large pond. The area is highly populated, and there are restaurants nearby. The neighborhood to the south of ours, Waldo, is now talking about its own “Waldo rats,” thanks to new restaurants and ongoing road construction. I understand that living in cities means we live among all kinds of vermin, but I don’t want to see them!

However – and I concede this is a big stretch – there is another way to look at rats. First of all, Gaylon likes to remind me that rats eat garbage. He sees them as an animal with a job to do. But I also remember another story about rats. A few years ago, I drove with my friend, Emily, to eat dinner at her favorite Mexican restaurant in a strip mall. We pulled into the shopping center parking lot and Emily suddenly exclaims, “Oh! There’s a rat!” It was running on the sidewalk next to the building.  I freaked out! This is not what I wanted to see, especially right before eating dinner.  But then Emily added, “Seeing a rat is good luck! It’s a sign of prosperity!” Later, I researched this idea and sure enough, in China, a rat is a symbol of industry and prosperity. As an animal totem, it means survivor. In Greek symbolism, a rat means wealth and abundance. To see a white rat is even more fortuitous.

I’ll always be horrified to see a rat. But if I do, I’ll also think of Emily’s positive way of looking at life and remind myself of my good fortune. I’m lucky and blessed despite times of loss and heartache. When we watch the evening news, Gaylon and I often remark that we have absolutely nothing to complain about. We have food, shelter and warmth; loving family, friends, and good health. Going to the grocery store is a small chore that I can make more appealing with a change in my own mind and a cup of coffee. Hey, I saw a Christmas rat! Best wishes to all for a prosperous and happy new year!


Matchmaking and Poker: A Love Story

Gaylon's Vows 6-1

The two long-time poker buddies like to argue about who gets credit for putting Gaylon and me together. Howard, who inherited his match-making skills from his mother, says it was his idea to have us meet. Elliott claims since he’s the one who originally invited Gaylon to join the poker game, he’s the one to thank for our meeting.

I first learned about the poker game from Howard, whom I knew well from the local music scene. I went to see his band play several times back in the early 1990s, then we met again in 2007 at a singer/songwriter show and became friends. We sometimes met for lunch, gossiping about our musician friends and the joy of playing gigs for very little money. If our lunch happened to fall on a Thursday, he ate lightly so he could save room for a ham sandwich at poker that night. If a musical gig was offered for a Thursday, he had to play early or turn it down. Howard is religious about poker night.

In 2007, Gaylon was grocery shopping at his regular store and heard someone call out, “Hey, Gaylon!” It was Elliott, an old friend of Gaylon’s deceased wife. The first thing Elliott asked was, “How’s Lynn?” to which he had to respond, “Well, she died.” During the conversation, Elliott asked if Gaylon still played poker and mentioned that someone in his long-time poker group had also died, so there was an opening if he was interested. The weekly poker game took place at Elliott’s house, and he invited Gaylon to the next game. He thoroughly enjoyed himself and has been a member ever since.

Around this same time, Gaylon decided he wanted to make a fresh start in life. He called in an architect and a contractor to do major renovations on his house, where he had lived for over 40 years. Gaylon trusted the contractor, Gerry, because, “I play poker with him, so I know him to be scrupulously honest.” Also during this time, his poker buddy Elliot moved, which required finding another venue for the game. Gaylon’s newly finished dining room was just the right size. He purchased a beautiful oak table to accommodate nine players, a small television to mount on the wall to watch sports during the game, and from then on, the weekly poker game has been at his house.

Fast forward to the fall of 2013 when I was tutoring at a clinic for dyslexic kids and we were looking to add a male tutor. I remembered that Howard had, at one time, volunteered as a tutor in an adult literacy program, so I asked him if he might be interested or knew of someone else. He said, “Well, I’m not, but you should talk to my friend, Gaylon. He worked in adult literacy for many years.” Then he said, with a sly grin, “In fact, you should probably meet Gaylon, who is also a musician…I think you might become friends!”

I emailed Gaylon right before Thanksgiving, introduced myself as Howard’s friend, explained a little about the tutoring clinic, and suggested we meet for lunch. I added the bit at the end about “Howard thinks we might become friends.” I swear I wasn’t trying to be forward, just friendly! I didn’t hear anything for several days, until finally I got an apologetic reply explaining that he’d gone out of town for Thanksgiving and was sorry to have kept me waiting. We planned to meet for lunch a few days later.

Gaylon jokes that at our lunch, where we discussed both the schwa (a literary convention in which an unaccented vowel changes to the “uh” sound, like in “about”) and Bartok (a 20th century Hungarian composer), he knew we had a lot in common. He also mentioned that he really liked my email. And he liked that when we met, I hugged him. I felt like I knew him already through Howard. I admit that I looked him up on the Internet and found recent photos of his retirement party from the literacy work. In the photos, he was smiling, and although he looked a bit embarrassed by the attention, he was clearly surrounded by people who liked and respected him.

For our second date, Gaylon invited me over to his house for pizza. I walked up to the front door and through the window could see him coming toward me, with a look on his face that clearly said, “She’s here.” At that same moment, I remember thinking, “I’m home.” I stepped into the house, and Gaylon started giving me a tour, first pointing left toward the Poker Room, or what regular folks might refer to as the dining room. I was stunned! I didn’t know the infamous poker game was played here. I said something clever, like, “Whaaaat? The poker game is played in this room? I’ve been hearing about it for years!”  That night we ate pizza at the poker table, although it felt to me like we were doing something sneaky. Even now, after almost four years together, we only eat in the Poker Room when we have guests.

Gaylon and I spent the next several months getting to know each other and schlepping back and forth to each other’s houses with our little overnight bags, which is not that glamorous or fun at a mature age. We fell in love and decided to go for it. Life is short – choose happiness!

I put my adorable, but much-smaller, house on the market, and to our surprise it sold within just a few days, leaving only one month for me to pack up and move in with Gaylon. It just so happened that he was on a canoe trip when I needed to start moving, and it was also poker night at his house. The next week the poker group enjoyed telling him, “Hey, Gaylon, while you were out of town, Elaine moved in!”

A few months later my family came from Colorado to visit, so Gaylon asked the group if someone else could host the game at their house that week. Gerry, the contractor, sent a message that said, “When we all voted that Elaine could move in, it was with the understanding that she wouldn’t interfere with poker night!” I knew he was kidding and felt honored to be the butt of such a joke. If I come downstairs during the game, someone always peeks into the kitchen to say hi and ask how I’m doing. They bring food to share and make sure I know it’s for me, too.

Both Gaylon and I have had several serious relationships in our past, and we talked a lot about whether to get married or not. During one such conversation, I asked Gaylon, “What would be your reason for wanting to get married?” to which he thoughtfully responded, “Because I want to marry you.” We exchanged vows in a small ceremony in Florida with Gaylon’s brother, Stuart, and sister-in-law, Mimi, as our witnesses. Gaylon dressed up in khaki pants and a white button-down shirt, while I wore a flowy white top I bought at the Miami airport, with black leggings and my favorite red cowboy boots.

Recently Freddy, another member of the poker game, leaned in close to Gaylon to say, “You know what? Everyone should have the opportunity to fall in love again when they are older.” Gaylon and I feel so lucky to have found each other at this stage in our lives. We’re both thankful for Howard, Elliott, karma, kismet, and maybe even our loved ones who have transitioned to the great beyond for orchestrating our meeting and our happy life together.

Recently, Elliott arrived late to poker, feeling emotional after having just attended a memorial service. “You know what the best thing about this poker game is?” he said to anyone who was listening. “That it brought together Gaylon and Elaine.”

We agree.


Deathday: The Anniversary of the Day A Loved One Died

calendarFive years ago today the man I was in love with died. It was sudden and instant. His life ended at that moment and whatever your beliefs about an afterlife might be, that’s where he resides now, no longer in this physical world. For those of us who deeply loved him, he lives on in our hearts and minds, invoking a variety of feelings. Sadness and joy. Anger and love. Memories and reminders.

Do you remember specific days of loss? When I woke up this morning, my first thought was to check the time. I remembered the note he left about going for a walk on that day, August 27, 2012, at 8:35 a.m. It said he would pick up coffee for me on the way home. He was gone too long so I began searching for him, and because he went out with no ID, eventually found him – at least his body – in a local hospital. I went into shock and still have painful flashbacks about that experience.

I have suffered many days of loss: two younger brothers, both of my parents, and my adult son within ten years. Some deathdays (yes, this is a real word) I remember, and others slip on by. Maybe it’s denial or a subconscious protecting of myself. I remember specific details of each deathday but not always the exact date.

One date I never forget is July 25, 2004, when my son Ben died from a glioblastoma brain tumor. I often experience a bout of melancholy in the summer, then look at a calendar and realize my saddest day is approaching. A few thoughtful friends still send messages on that day, letting me know they are thinking of him and me. Some do this about my lost love, too. I appreciate that they remember my loved ones, and that they also miss them. I’m touched that they think of me and send loving thoughts for my comfort.

In these days of highly public social media, I’m torn about whether to post something on a deathday or stay private. Then someone else will post about it, and I feel like I need to be present, so I join in. The many loving thoughts and gestures help soothe my aching heart. Sometimes I feel vulnerable and exposed. Privacy offers protection and allows one to find solace while working through personal grief.

Throughout my life I’ve found how people view death, experience it, and then deal with grief to be highly varied. I remember years ago carpooling with a coworker, and talking about my elderly grandmother who was near death. The coworker became quiet and even seemed hostile toward me. I asked what was wrong, and she said, “I’m offended at your coldness when talking about your grandmother.” What? She didn’t know the history of my family or what my personal feelings might be regarding my grandmother. Maybe I was talking in a matter-of-fact way to hide my emotions. Maybe there were unpleasant events connected to my grandmother, like that my mother was adopted and had an unhappy childhood. I found out that my coworker’s father was a funeral director in the small town where she grew up, and that he was also the person who cleaned up death scenes. She had a much different outlook and experience with death than I did.

In her bold, revelatory book, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes & Other Lessons From the Crematory, Caitlyn Doughty delves deep into the world of those who process dead bodies, and how people and cultures view death. Did you know that some people want to be present during the cremation of their loved one? Or that some crematory technicians learn about and pay homage to the life of the deceased person before pushing the button? Did you know that embalming didn’t become prevalent until the Civil War? Families wanted the bodies preserved long enough to bring them home. Doughty examines the varied the views about death and burial in many cultures, and helps demystify the process in terms we can understand, allowing us to reconsider where our own beliefs came from and to rethink how we want to deal with this in our own lives.

I am not a student of religion, so I admit that I needed to do some research about how different religions view death. Religious upbringing often dictates how a loved one’s body is handled. Judaism and Islam believe the body should be returned to the earth intact. Hinduism mandates cremation to allow the spirit to detach from the body. The Catholic church has in recent years relaxed its views on cremation, and Christians and Protestants may choose how their loved ones are processed, buried or interred. As in the case of the soldiers who died in The Civil War, social mores changed because of unusual circumstances.

Recently, I toured the Bates County Museum in Butler, Missouri, a surprisingly large historical building filled with artifacts. Along with a display about Butler’s most famous citizen, author Robert Heinlein (“Sci-Fi Master”), the museum contained exhibits about the Osage Indians, the First White Settlement of Harmony Mission, coal mining and railroads, The Civil War and the first Kansas Colored Infantry, plus glassware, pottery, and numerous historical rooms depicting life in the late 1800s and on into the present day. Butler also lays claim to several inactive missile sites where missiles laid in wait to react to The Cold War.

I was at the museum with longtime friends from elementary school, one of whom lives in Butler. The thing that most surprised us happened as we stood in front of an old photo of a family of five: a father, mother, and three children under the age of six. The tour guide said, “Can you tell that the mother is dead?” Whoa!?! We leaned in for a closer look and realized that indeed, the mother was dressed in her best clothes and propped up in a chair for one last family photograph. The guide explained that in those days, as photography was becoming more popular and available, families used it as an important final remembrance of a loved one. As we walked up and down the aisles, she pointed out photographs of dead children, too.

At the Pioneers Museum in downtown Colorado Springs, Colorado, the actual house and original furnishings of famous author Helen Hunt Jackson, writer of Ramona and who was an outspoken activist for Native American rights, is on display. She kept the white plaster of Paris death mask of her young son displayed prominently on the wall in a main room. Death masks became popular in the 1800s, first in Europe and then in the United States; there are even two known death masks of Abraham Lincoln.  Not only did the death masks help to remember the shape of a loved ones’ dear face, but they were used by scientists to study facial features of criminals and to research disease. While making death masks is no longer in practice, I’ve been to many funerals in my adult life where people blatantly took photographs of their loved one on view in an open coffin.

Some well-meaning people have shared photographs of my deceased beloveds with me. It’s shocking to go through stacks of old photos, and come upon a dead loved one in a coffin, yet I haven’t thrown those away. The photographs mark the very last time that beloved was visible to be photographed. It’s a reminder that someone who was once important to us is now gone, a reminder of a very sad day, and a firm reminder of the reality of life and death.

Today is Sunday. My husband, Gaylon, and I made our usual Sunday breakfast of blueberry pancakes and bacon. I watered the plants and we settled into our favorite chairs to read the newspaper. Gaylon knew the significance of the day and was tender towards me. Later, I went to the gym to do my workout; it’s quiet there on Sunday afternoons. This evening I called my son, Zac, to catch up from the week and made plans for my granddaughters, Josie and Hazel, to spend the night soon. Then I sat down and started writing.

My lost love was a writer and would be thrilled that I’m writing again, too. I miss the man who died suddenly five years ago today. Knowing him changed my life for the better. In just a few days, we’ll remember him again on his birthday, and I’ll think happier thoughts. We are born and then we die; birthdays and deathdays. The circle of life goes on.


Writing for Words


He loved writing, especially by hand. Eventually the pieces were refined on his laptop computer, but only after filling pages of a standard yellow legal pad or a Moleskin notebook. Random thoughts covered the outside of an envelope,  or curved around the corners of a postcard, both sides. He wrote by hand every day, wherever he found a comfortable spot to sit, reflect, muse. He favored writing with a classic fountain pen dipped into an inkwell, or the “world’s best” cedar pencils and rubber erasers purchased from an art supply store. In his hand, these tools produced beautifully written letters, a cross between printing and cursive, deliberately neat with just enough curl to be fancy.

Tom Ryan, a retired lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, held master’s degrees in both strategic planning and English literature. A seasoned soldier with a lifelong love of the arts, he was often called “the smartest person in the room,” and “the kindest man I have ever known.” Now that he could finally devote all of his time to writing, he was prolific, always journaling, taking notes, writing poetry, plays, articles and essays. Tom’s business cards – written by hand, of course – said simply, “Writing for Words,” expressing his passion for both the physical process of handwriting and creating art out of words.

When we met I had recently quit my day job to work full-time as a musician. Kansas City’s artistic community was thriving and Tom and I loved it all. We could be found at my gigs or other music events, or at the theater or art exhibits or the ballet. We knew artists in all genres and attending shows was a social event. Our personal artistic ventures kept us busy as well. On top of performing as a singer/songwriter or with bands, I taught preschool music, coached voice students, and sang to memory care patients. Tom wrote poems and essays for his website, “Avalon Deployed,” blogged for the Kansas City Star newspaper, volunteered at the public library, and began to workshop a play he was writing about the Catholic monk, Thomas Merton.

After two years we decided to live together, and found the perfect place: an urban, fifth floor, downtown loft, with brick walls and high ceilings supported by rough-hewn wooden beams. Out our window to the west we could see, hear and smell the Folger’s Coffee factory. The loft was located right in the midst of our beloved artistic community. For me, this was the fulfillment of a long-time dream, having seen the 1980s film, “It’s My Turn,” in which Jill Clayburgh took a freight elevator to reach her rooftop loft, a big, open, bohemian-styled living space. After weathering many losses and heartaches in my life, I could hardly believe my good fortune of falling in love with this wonderful man, being a full time musician, and living in the loft of my dreams.

Five months later everything came to a sudden, unexpected end. Tom didn’t let on that he was experiencing heart palpitations and shortness of breath, until one day he went out for a walk and never came back. He had a heart attack and died instantly, falling hard to the sidewalk half a block from our building. The last words he ever wrote were on a small, yellow sticky note left on my bedside table that said, “Left at 8:30 for coffee,” signed with a hand-drawn heart.

I was asleep when he left, and when I woke up and read the note, I knew he should have already returned. In desperation I opened Tom’s journal, searching for clues about where he might have gone or an appointment I didn’t know about. I had never before looked in his journal, even when he left it open on his desk by the window or on the arm of our sofa. Now it was critical to see what was on his mind and in his heart, written by his own hand. That’s when I read about the chest pains and difficulty breathing that he felt that morning, and that he planned to “walk it off.” Frantically, I called the coffee shop on the first floor to see if he’d been there, and the library just a few blocks away, one of his favorite places to stop, but no one had seen him. With the help of his daughter and son-in-law, we finally found him in the nearest hospital, an unidentified man who died around 9:30 a.m. that morning from a heart attack. We only needed to mention the Saint Christopher’s medal he wore on a long chain around his neck, a gift from his two children, to know it was Tom.

The funeral was surreal. Hundreds of people came to show their love for Tom and me. Many people told me then, and still tell me now, that Tom made them feel as if they could accomplish anything they set out to do in life. Unfortunately Tom’s life ended far too soon for him to realize the success of his lifelong dream of writing and publishing.

I moved out of the loft, and as I slowly began to navigate a new life alone, I read more of his journal entries and the bits of paper and notebooks he left behind. Beautiful, streaming thoughts about the night we met, our first date, and falling in love. Difficult things, too, like times he spiraled into debilitating depression; struggled with PTSD from several near-death experiences and violence from 20 years as a soldier; and grieving, heart-broken words about the loss of his adult son, a few years earlier, in a fatal car accident. Deep, revealing, heartfelt thoughts and feelings all recorded in his unique script. I’m thankful to have these writings as a comfort and reminder of this special man.

Handwriting is the physical transfer of thoughts that flow from the brain out through the arm, hand, and fingers. A uniquely personal forming of lines and curls morph into letters, then words, and beyond. Artistic shapes take on meaning as sentences, paragraphs, and pages relay information, express feelings and ideas, tell stories, and document history. As Tom Ryan would say, “Writing for Words.”



It’s Only Money – Except When You Don’t Have It

17She saw me through the big picture window, where I was dusting in preparation for dinner guests. “Oh shit,” was my honest reaction as I waved back, knowing now she would come up the front walk to my door and that now it was impossible to pretend I wasn’t home.

I recognized her immediately from sometime past, a heavyset African-American woman with graying hair slicked back, gold on her teeth and unusual light green eyes. Struggling for breath as she climbed the stairs, she claimed to remember me, too, saying she’d talked to me not last year, but the year before, selling magazines. She remembered my pretty short gray hair and slim figure. And probably that I was nice to her and an easy target. I’m sure I gave her money that time, too, just like I knew I was destined to do again. In my mind, thoughts raced in a loop: “It’s a scam! Everyone knows it’s a scam! How do I get out of this? Why can’t I just say ‘No thanks’ and shut the door? How am I going to tell (my husband) Gaylon I gave money to a door-to-door scammer?”

Instead, I focused my full attention on her and stared straight into those green eyes. Very light green, the whites bloodshot from her ability to turn on tears at any given moment. It’s impressive, and amidst my racing thoughts I marveled at this talent, wondering if she does it on cue at every stop. She softened her voice and launched into the first story, that she is an abused mother of three children who does this job to save money so her kids can have a better life. “She’s so good at this,” I thought, knowing just what story to tell to pull at the heartstrings of her current victim. She introduced herself, “I’m Angela. May I ask your name?” I said, “Elaine.” Then she went on, saying “I know I’m selling something you don’t want – magazines.” I chuckled, because she was right on with that one. “But let me tell you how you can help me,” she continued. “And when you’re done, if you can write your comments down here in pencil, so if it’s bad I can erase it.” Ha ha ha! She’s a comedian, too. Knows just when to lighten the mood to keep the victim off balance.

Just as quickly, here came the tears and the breathy voice again. “I just lost my grandmother, who raised me and my brother. My mother didn’t want us and gave us up when we were just kids. I ask you, why didn’t she want us? I just wish I knew.” I told her I was sorry to hear about the passing of her grandmother, and added her mother leaving wasn’t her fault, that her mother’s issues had nothing to do with her or her brother and that she must have been dealing with her own troubles.”

She seemed surprised by my interjection, becoming a little unbalanced. She thought for just a second, then replied, “Well, thank you for that, Miss Elaine.” Another ploy by people asking for money – putting me in a position of authority. She was back on track. “Miss Elaine, my grandmother did the best she could for me and my brother, and that’s why I’m here now, because I’m trying to do good for my kids. This job has taught me so much about how to stand up for myself and gave me confidence. But you won’t see me again next year, because my kids don’t like it when I leave them to do this. No, you won’t see me next year.” She then told me the names and ages of her three kids, all teenagers. Wanting to make it seem like we’re familiar with one another. In turn, I don’t volunteer anything about myself or my family.

I really want to get this over with and back to my cleaning, so I ask, “How much are the magazines?” She tells me that it depends on what package I get, and hands me a stack of plastic-covered pages stapled together. I begin flipping through the magazine titles, looking for anything that looks even mildly appealing. I see a Yoga magazine listed, but no prices. So again I inquire, “How much is it?” After some hem hawing she finally says that it’s $75 for a year subscription. That’s way more than I’m prepared to give, so I ask if there are other options. After going back and forth on this, she finally says, “You could buy the Animal Stories magazine and donate it to a children’s hospital. It’s only $40. And I can’t accept a handout from you, but if you pay cash, I get 70 percent, and if you write a check, I get 60 percent of the money.”

I knew I had two twenty dollar bills in my purse. It was still $20 more than I wanted to give her, but she had honed in on exactly what I had available. She repeated again that cash was the best deal for her. Then she repeats, “You won’t see me next year,” but this time adds, “because I’m going to nursing school! That’s right, Miss Elaine, I want to be a nurse so I can help other people!”

Wait, what? Had I not reacted emotionally enough to her previous stories? This is harder for me to believe than the abused mother and the grieving granddaughter, but I championed this idea right away. “That’s so great! Such a good example for your kids, too.” She says, “Well I know I’m getting old, 43 years old and here I want to go to school. But that’s what I’m going to do.” I know that at this point, she could tell me anything, and since I have no idea whether or not any of it is true, it no longer matters. I’m always going to applaud anyone who challenges themselves with learning, so she can reel me on in. I tell her to wait on the porch while I go find my purse.

I come back with my $40 cash and she says, “Tell me, why are you willing to help me today, Miss Elaine?” At first I said, “Oh, for many reasons.” I didn’t want to engage in more conversation than necessary. But then I added, “Because I can see that you’re a hard worker,” and I meant it. Begging for money under the ruse of selling magazines is a really crappy job. I put the money in her hand and she gave me the clipboard holding a form where I filled in my information: name, address, and reason why I bought a magazine subscription. I wrote, “Angela is hard working and good at her job.”

She tried to shake my hand but instead I went in for a hug, maybe because the week before I’d been at a creative writing camp and experienced the love of many good people who were supportive, inspiring and generous with big, solid bear hugs. Or maybe because I have a nice house where I can dust furniture in a big picture window and have friends over for a lovely dinner. Or maybe because I looked deep into those weary green eyes and doubted that the other strangers she talks to in her bizarre job of wandering through nice neighborhoods all over the United States to ask for money give her a heartfelt hug. So whether or not any of the stories she told were true, I was going to be that person. Whether it made her feel good or guilty was something she had to sort out for herself. It definitely made me feel better about allowing myself to be scammed – I mean, about donating a magazine subscription to a children’s hospital – because I could justify it as helping out another human who’s just trying to live.

Before she walked away, Angela, softened her voice once more, to add a note of sincerity or maybe to get back on script, and said, “Yes, I’m an abused mother and recently my kids and I went back to my abuser. I know it’s scary but I felt it was the right thing to do, and we’re doing good.”

I just looked at her as she turned around and walked down the stairs with my $40. “Take care of yourself,” I said.