American Thanksgiving Day – Meaning and Purpose

Today is the American National Day of Thanksgiving, a.k.a. Thanksgiving, a.k.a. Turkey Day. It is interesting to note that this is not a religious holiday, as one recognized in Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion.

It took Sara Hale several U.S. presidents before she at last found one (Lincoln) willing to set aside a day in the fall as a day of thanks to God for the harvest (food). Later another president (Roosevelt) moved the day for economic reasons – to extend the days of buying before Christmas, for Christmas is the season supporting many American capitalistic merchants throughout the rest of the year.

For nearly four hundred years, Americans considered the First Thanksgiving, the three-day harvest feast the survivors of the Mayflower held when they invited the people whose land they now lived on, held in November of 1621. There were fifty-three people from the ship who attended, and ninety dark-skinned men, who probably wore more clothing in cold November than the paintings give them credit. Only the four women who survived from the Mayflower ordeal did the cooking, along with a few small female daughters and some male servants. Naturally, the host men had shot several turkeys for the feast, but they hadn’t expected so many guests. So, naturally again, the Indians went out and hunted five deer to supplement the feast. Which makes me wonder why we don’t have venison on our Thanksgiving Day plates next to the turkey.

Days of thanksgivings were common in the summer and in the fall, not just in the New World, but through the centuries among any people who believed in a deity in whom to give thanks. Some Indians gave thanks to the animals they killed for giving their lives for their survival. But whether in the summer harvest or fall, the people always gave thanks to God.

I find it interesting how we Americans have changed the meaning of words in the past couple of years, or even past few decades. For example, bald used to mean white headed (e.g., the American bald eagle); gay used to mean happy; marriage used to be the relationship between a male and female to procreate; Thanksgiving used to be a time set aside to thank God. I realize I’m sounding all politically incorrect here, but I’m actually aiming towards historic word accuracy. Words we use today have changed in meaning. That’s a fact.

So my question is: what do you think of when you think Thanksgiving? Chance for a four-day weekend? A day off of work? (At least for schools and federal agencies, for it is a national holiday, after all.) Is Thanksgiving a time to put up with relatives? A time society makes you feel lonely because you have no family to be with, or no money to spend on a forced feast? A time to feel guilty that you don’t eat meat or fowl? A time to read your Bible and reflect on who God is and how he has helped you?

Again: Thanksgiving. What do you think of when you hear that national holiday word?

Character Motivation — Analyzing your Characters

I popped into the grocery store for a few items. I almost didn’t need a cart. As I started to unload at the checkout, a large woman in a baggy coat charged at me and practically yelled, “Can I go in front of you!” It wasn’t a question.

Usually when I’m in line at a store and someone behind me has only a few items, I always ask if they want to go ahead of me. So why did this woman irritate me so? It wasn’t like I was in a rush for an appointment, or that I may have left starving, wailing children and husband at home. As she counted out her pennies from her coin purse to give the exact change (when my swipe of a credit card is so much faster), I had to stop to breathe deeply and analyze why I was so upset.

Could it be because I didn’t have the opportunity to be gracious and kind and offer the woman the spot in front of me like I normally do? (i.e., my gift-giving was snatched away)

Could it be that I had six items in a cart and she carried her two items by hand? (i.e., not much of a difference in ringing up the items, so why did she need to be ahead?)

Could it be that I felt forced to say, “Why, yes, of course” instead of being given a choice? (i.e., I’m all about options)

Could it be that this woman didn’t even take the time to say thank you? (i.e., how uncouth)

Could it be that I knew she could beat me up with or without her cookies? (i.e., terror motivates many an action)

The reason I got upset may have been some of all those. I’d hoped to get out into the parking lot and pull out before she did just to let her see how fast I was. But once outside I didn’t see her. I recalled a quote: “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.” Was the baggy lady with her two bags of cookies really an angel in disguise? If so, I certainly failed any spiritual or good character test. Even though I had done the polite action. My attitude did not parallel my action.

This bitty incident in the grocery store made me think of my book characters. How well do I really know them? How well do I really express in my language their true motivations?

So, here’s your writing challenge: Take this situation, but put your own characters in it. How would X respond-reply-act to this woman? How would Y respond-reply-act to this woman? And continue plugging in your various characters into the same situation.

Happy writing. (And now back to NaNoWriMo.)

British Signs and Street Crossings

Before we headed to England for our first time this summer, Friend Mary who frequently travels there, told us when crossing the street in the UK, do the opposite. American rule: Look left, then right, then left again. British rule, she said: look right, then left, then right again. As we would depend on foot or public transportation for the entire stay, I felt it an experienced and helpful suggestion. Or so I thought. It only took me that first day walking in crowded-busy London to realise her rule needed some modification. Sandy’s 4-part rule for crossing London streets: Always use the crosswalk; look all four ways before stepping out onto the roadway; keep on looking as you cross; and watch out for that occasional driver in his mega-expensive car to run the red light or spin around the corner. And for a self-reminder, every time I crossed a road, I actually pointed my arm out at a 45 degree angle to the right. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy. Using my method, we only nearly got run over about forty-five times — not bad for a 10-day stay. There were also the safety islands in the middle of busy streets, and the squiggly lines painted on the roads. Look 4 ways and point to right (except when you’re on one of those safety isles, when you’d point left).

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Signs in Britain are different from in America, too. When we arrived at Gatwick Airport, “Toilets” was a welcomed if somewhat blushing sign to spot, but then there was this running man on a green background with an arrow to a white rectangle.

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My mind ran some possibilities: fire escape route (with up-pointed arrow), hallway to bomb shelter (with down-pointed arrow), or maybe “Run for your life! There’s a tiger loose in the terminal!”

I’ve always felt the best thing to do when you can’t conveniently look things up is to ask questions of a living person.

“Way out,” came the answer. I must have blinked as I went through my mental files, because he quickly added, “What you would call the exit.”

I hadn’t even said I was an American!

A sign of a white man going down steps on a blue background and the word “Subway” did not mean to public transportation, but a way to cross the street underneath the street: stairs down, cross beneath, stairs up.

There was one sign near St. James’s Park in London which took me a day later to figure out. Of course, when you’re in a hurry to get across the street, looking all ways, and pointing, and then look up and notice this sign — the only one I’d seen like it in our then-8-day stay —  you don’t really have time to think what it means.

I wonder, if you hadn’t had this set up in the blog post, given just one second of time, can you figure it out?

 

 

 

 

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Fashion in London

It was our first time to England, staying for ten days. What was the main thing I was concerned about? Fashion. Blame it on my Shaker upbringing when there were different clothing rules for every occasion. Oh, what to wear! I knew my American accent would make me stick out, and that I could control the volume of my voice, but would my clothes fit in? Would carrying a backpack make me look like I was a college student or a tourist?  People traveling to England recently told me that no one wears sneakers. Would my shoes be walkable and yet fashionable? People here in the States seem to make a big deal about shoes.

As it turned out, my worry was for naught.  Riding the Tube gave me plenty of time for fashion observation.

Many people wore backpacks — men, women, young and old, both in London and in Oxford. If women carried purses, the strap generally went over one shoulder and across the chest to the opposite hip. Men also carried “man bags” very similar to women’s purses and in the same across-the-chest way.

Women’s shoes? 80% were black flats with sometimes a bow or buckle on them; 15% were sneakers, leaving the other 5% in heels. Although once I saw a young woman in a short black skirt walking near Trafalgar Square wearing black net stockings and no shoes on her feet at all.

Shorts? About 1% of women (teens, mostly) wore short-shorts. And about 1% of men wore shorts — can you say tourist?

There were also Indians and muslims in long dresses.

We met a man from Canada who had lived in England for four weeks. Even though it was in the 70’s most of the time we were there, he complained about how he had to wear jeans and long-sleeved shirts every day in the summer there because it was so cold. Um…wait a minute. I’ve been to Canada many a time, mostly camping out. 70’s is not cold. I suppose it’s all a matter of perspective.

So, when going to London, no need to worry about fashion. Simply wear comfortable clothes (and don’t speak loudly).

Birthdays and Heroes — the Real Stuff (my own DH)

Today’s my dear husband’s birthday. It is the first time in thirty-three years that I have not baked him a pumpkin pie for his birthday. I went out this morning and purchased a — o-yuck-o — factory-made-store-bought one. Sure. It’s a name brand, but it still means it’s totally put together by other people (or machines, or both). O-yuck-o! I thought about going to an official bakery, but my pies taste better than even those. I’d probably be feeling really bad about all this if I weren’t on this I-don’t-care medicine for my thyroid. Thing is, I don’t even care that I don’t care. (How did this get back to me? It’s Jeff’s birthday, after all! Blame the meds.)

So the pie may not be “real” but my husband — he’s sure the real stuff.  My hero. I’ve never met a person who is so kind and so wise. And after being with him for more than three decades, I believe I have experience to discern the truth. Jeff is also super-knowledgeable about lots of stuff. I mean, now and then I think that I’m kinda intelligent, but then Jeff will make an off the cuff comment about what’s going on in the world, or after digging into 2,000 to 4,000 year old manuscripts, and my jaw drops to my chest in awe. It’s not at all that he puts me down, but I just feel honored to be in on his rantings and ramblings. But then,because he’s an introvert, most of the extrovert world stomps right over him. But if you’d stop and listen, perhaps you, too, can hear the real stuff.

Can I build a fictional character based on him? I haven’t yet, although I’ve picked some of his character traits to go into my heroes. Is he perfect? Ha. But his compassion and discernment is stuff real life heroes are made of.

So, do you have a real life hero you admire and from which you pick traits for your main character?

(Happy birthday, Sweetie.)

The Difficulty About Lima Beans… and Story Detail

When I was a kid, I remember having lima beans once in a great while. When my own children were little, I’d buy the package of frozen mixed veggies with lima beans in them. The boys always pulled the lima beans to the sides of their plates, “saving” them for Mommy who loved them. Finding lima beans was like a treasure hunt just for me. With no one else eating them, I’ve never bought an entire bag of the beans.

So this week, I went out to harvest my first-ever full crop of lima beans. The deer ate down the first crop. I know I replanted a bunch, but only four plants continued on. From those four plants, I reaped a whopping twelve pods. Trying to remove the seeds within reminded me once more of a lima bean hunt. Those pods are hard to split! I don’t know if there’s a trick. I first used a serrated knife and cut the pods width-wise, hoping I would miss the precious seeds. I later squeezed the two edges together, making the pod split up the middle. That second method worked much, much better, by the way. Within each pod, I found only two to three seeds, but it’s enough for a home-grown lima serving. Yum. Can’t wait.

Recently, my husband and I watched a BBC mystery. From the very beginning, there was a concern about flies and sanitation. Throughout the plot, the flies and sanitation kept coming up. I knew there was some significance, and I was right. The flies actually tied everything together. Now I’m wondering about doing the same with lima beans. I’m not quite sure how the beans can become a major plot point, but the thought intrigues me.

So my writing challenge to you this week is this: Think of an inanimate object (not an ancient weapon or key; they’ve been claimed too often before) and weave your object throughout your tale.

Details. A good story is all about the details. (Well… a lot about them, anyway.) Happy writing.

When There Were Woods — Writing Exercise

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When we lived in the woodlands, there was a patch of 3′ by 5′ bit of sunshine which made its way throughout the summer day from the west side of our backyard to the east. We had birds then, lots of birds, and great variety of birds. There were cardinals … Occasionally, a flock of 15 morning doves would roost on the nearby redbud tree, nearly camouflaged in the same color as the branches, except there were “lumps” on the branches. Sometimes the finches would take over the feeders and simply roost on the feeder pegs. Today, around the same feeders, we have the occasional cardinal or morning dove. I saw a finch once this season, too. Instead of the variety, we have a flock of 20 sparrows at a time who can eat up half the seed in 20 minutes. We also have bluejays and grackles and red-winged blackbirds. In other words, we have open field birds coming to the same feeder. Our squirrels are pretty much gone, thanks to our neighborhood hawks, who also easily spot birds near our once-hidden feeder, but are incredible animals to watch. Although, our chipmunk population has exploded.

Writing related…

Take your MC from her beloved woods and place her in unfamiliar territory– a large city, an island, a vast and open prairie. What are the visual differences? The other sensual differences? Her emotional change? Is she curious about her new environment, or constantly longing for her previous?

Happy writing.

Storm Anniversary Post, Third of Three

Literature Blogs

The worst part of a catastrophe is the people element — tragic injuries and deaths associated with the storm, and the slick, greedy folk coming into hard struck areas with their lying lips and stealing hands.

The best part of a catastrophe is the people element — neighbors coming together, family and friends near and far offering to help and asking about our welfare (material and emotional) months after the damage.

Lessons from my storm: Things can be replaced. Even if a house is swept off its foundation, even if sentimental or prized furniture is burned or broken, a catastrophe forces people to think about priorities. Playing the blame game is never helpful. Do what you can with what you are given. Cling to those things which are important — life, purpose, family, friends, neighbors. Make whatever you do count. Life is short and can have unexpected surprises. How will you act or react? Where do you find your strength to carry you though the bad times as well as the good? Where do you seek your purpose to reach out to fellow humans? Seek and find.

 

Storm Anniversary Post, Second of Three

Literature Blogs

With the one-year mark in the hindsight, I turn to reflections about what my husband and I went through when our house and yard was damaged.

The temperature changed from cool to near 100 degrees, with no electrical power (or Internet) for a week. Neighbors and their relatives swarmed upon our neighborhood. Chainsaws sang out from dawn to dusk. Tree removal  companies from around the states arrived.

We didn’t know much of anything. We called our insurance emergency number, but got a recording with a “we’ll get back to you.” A couple of years ago, a single tree fell in Neighbor Mark’s yard,  brushing some of his gutters off.  With the same insurance company, Mark gave us a different number, and we talked with a live human who gave us a claim number.

The awesome emotional shot-in-the-arm for us was our son in Milwaukee driving out on Monday and Tuesday. My husband and I were still walking around in zombie-like shock. We are on well water. Without electricity, there is no way to pump water to our sinks. Neighbor Mark across the street kindly let us pull 8 gallons of water a day from his city-water spicket. Our son willingly washed sweat and brushed his teeth from a bowl of water. It was NOT similar to camping. What we had hoped our son to help us do in those two days, he finished in the first few hours of his stay. He’d finish one project, find us working elsewhere, place his hands on his hips and say, “What next?” What a blessing!

Heavy machines making ruts in our yards and all sorts of sawing machines rumbled our neighborhood for weeks. Following the storm, the silence of the saws at night was taken up by window-rattling generators. Our dog rescue neighbors a few doors down said their dogs’ medical bills were over $1,000, mostly from stress-related. There was no place to escape the noise, day or night.

 

Garbage rotted in our refrigerators and on the curbs. The garbage truck couldn’t make it down our street from the fallen trees and both sides of the street lined with tree removal trucks. They didn’t come back – not until I called, several times over the next few days.

 

Things take on different priorities during recovery. It’s not even like camping, nor even like working on mission trips in very poor locations. In normal situation, I would have been appalled if someone put filthy work gloves on my kitchen counter. Yet, in this new situation, I often found things in odd places, like my own filthy work gloves laying on the kitchen counter.

 

For four months, while our master bedroom was repaired, my husband and I slept in the guest bedroom, on the twin beds our boys grew up on. We never realized how short those mattresses were. It took us a month of attempting sleep in the fetal position before we thought to simply move the top mattresses out four inches from the headboard.

 

I remember writing angrily a year ago about tricksters coming into storm-damaged areas and taking money from storm-shocked victims, and never seen again. It wasn’t until months later that I realized our own local (Kalamazoo) contractor had done similar things to us. (I don’t even want to talk-write about what he did even at this date. Still too angry, and not able or capable of letting it go.)

 

With live-as-usual just a couple blocks from our neighborhood, people didn’t stop their demands on us Carlsons. (I could also list things people required of us, un-storm-related, but again, it would be an angry write. When I’m able to release the emotion from that time, I hope to write about it.)

 

As I write this, I realize there are still some unresolved issues. I know that some of them will never be resolved, but that some day I must simply be able to release them. Otherwise, I know that by holding on to those ugly feelings, I will turn into a bitter old lady. I do not want to turn into a bitter old lady.

 

(I promise that tomorrow’s post will be lighter – with reflections about our new and improved life, post storm recovery.)

 

Storm Anniversary Post, First of Three

Literature Blogs

At 4:29 p.m. on Sunday, May 29, 2011, 110 mph straight line winds sent two old oaks through our house and knocked down thousands of trees in our neighborhood. When 4:30 p.m. passed us a little bit ago, even with threatening skies overhead, my husband and I released a glad sigh for surviving one year since the storm.

We chose this house, and this particular neighborhood, because we’ve been campers and hikers all our lives. We love the woodlands and the privacy it provides. Eight years ago when we bought it, our yard looked like a shaded park along with wooded lots on two of our four borders. The lawn was 1/3 moss because grass was so difficult to grow under the trees. If we wanted to see sky, we had to drive to find it. Since there was only one little patch of sunlight which moved across our backyard through the summer day, I had a sun-garden plot a mile away in a church community lot. Sunday, May 29, 2011, all that changed. Today is the anniversary date of the storm which changed our lives. This Tuesday is the anniversary date of the storm. I will write reflections of that event and aftermath over the next three days.

My husband heard the siren go off. Usually it’s me who hears it first. It’s not that I didn’t believe him, but I paused at the top of the basement steps just to listen for the confirmation. It was very soft. Once down the steps, coming through our chimney opening, we heard what sounded like a host of screaming banshees — or what I imagine they would sound like. Our house shook. Two huge thuds rocked the walls. The power went off. Then, three or four minutes later, silence. All we could do was stare at each other for a while.

We finally ventured up the stairs, not knowing if it was safe, nor what we would find there. A gentle rain fell outside. Leaves plastered our windows — BETWEEN the screens and the windows. I still don’t know how they got there. Two ancient oaks had smashed through either side of our house, one through our garage and one through our master bedroom. In a matter of minutes, we went from a 90% shaded yard to 90% open-skied yard, with no way in or out of our neighborhood because of the thousands of downed trees across the roadways.

I no longer tremble when there are dark clouds overhead. I also don’t keep my purse and a change of clothes in the basement overnight any more. But I have not passed through the “alert stage.” I am ever-mindful of winds and weather. Two blocks away, people experienced only some downed branches or tree litter in their yards. That Memorial Weekend, friends were camping just ten miles away at Fort Custer; they hardly experienced a breeze. Others who have lived in Battle Creek their whole lives say it is still a shock of unrecognition when passing into this once-wooded neighborhood.

In less than five minutes, our lives were changed forever. We’ve learned that life is fragile, and that things in this world are temporary. But life still goes on.