Colleen Swain

About Colleen Swain

I am a content writer with years of experience writing for national companies and small businesses. I make sure that my client’s message is consistent with their business brand. I tell their story by writing clear, concise content for web and print communications that is original and engaging, making them stand out as a go-to business. Compelling content builds brand credibility. That’s what I do.

If You Value Your Life, Why Not Improve Your Health?

Emerson Quote: "The First Wealth is Health"When I got married, I knew nothing about nutrition, or how to cook. I had been given all kinds of kitchen stuff at my wedding shower, but was clueless about what to do with it all.

Early Marriage Culture Shock

Our first apartment didn’t help. It was on the ground floor of an old two-story Victorian house. It had a small living room, one bedroom, a tiny bathroom, and a very large kitchen area, which was basically an empty room except for a small gas range, an old GE fridge, and a deep double sink of stained porcelain. There was a closet lined with shelves to be used as a pantry, and there were no counters. I lined up all my shower gifts on the linoleum floor, stared at them in a panic, and cried. In such a large room I had no space. And I had no idea how to set up a kitchen, much less cook in one.

I was clueless – and overwhelmed. I was in culture shock.

My husband drove us over to the nearest Goodwill store in our blue and white VW bus where we found our first items of furniture: an old drop leaf oak table, two mismatched wooden chairs, and a two-door, waist-high wooden cabinet with a top drawer and three shelves inside. We brought them back to our empty room of a kitchen. He refinished the table and chairs to a luster, and then he built a butcher-block top for the cabinet that would serve as my counter space. The finishing touch was a peace sign he painted in black in the lower right corner. (Yeah, we were sort of hippies back then.)

Nutrition Awareness Takes Over

Our first kitchen began to take shape – as did my first attempts at cooking. Though my mom was a first-generation Canadian-American brought up within Eastern European culinary traditions, she was more swayed into the “revolutionary” convenience of processed foods marketed by an emerging post-World War II food industry. I grew up with no idea how to cook a meal from scratch. So, in those first months of marriage, I relied on familiar boxes of Rice-a-Roni and Hamburger Helper for our dinners. As I said, I was clueless.

But I do remember quite clearly the tipping point that stirred what must have been a latent creative desire within me to cook more like my grandmother.

I had baked a yellow cake decorated with canned vanilla frosting, and had proudly set it on my much-loved butcher-block counter top. My husband ate a piece and said, “Delicious. You’re a good baker.” I thought about that long and hard. All I had done was empty the cake mix from a box into a bowl, whisk it with water and an egg, pour it into a cake pan and pop it into a preheated oven. How could he say I was a “good baker?” I really had nothing to do with the end result.

Cookbook CollectionI realized that to earn compliments for my cooking, I needed to really cook. So I began reading cookbooks, devouring them like bestseller novels, which led me to research nutrition, which led me to shy away from artificially processed foods. Reading food labels, buying organic as much as possible, and cooking from scratch became my passion.

For several years we ate vegetarian, much to my mom’s chagrin, and then, to keep the peace at holiday gatherings, we gave in and added back poultry and fish. It turns out we were basically following a Mediterranean diet before knowing there was a name for our healthy-eating lifestyle.

Good Food Defines a Way of Life

Once our two children came along, my focus on healthy eating took on even greater importance because I understood the strong connection whole food nutrition has on maintaining good health.

And, oddly, my self-taught exploration into health and nutrition got my mother interested in digging up old family recipes. It seemed like the better I got at cooking, so did she. When she died, I found her hand-written collection of recipe journals. They have become family treasures that some day will be passed on to her grandchildren who remember favorite dishes my mom made for them – delicious memories that are far better than mine growing up.

And now that my kids are adults, I know that they consciously continue to make wholesome food choices – and I’m proud of that.

Healthy eating is a way of life for my family. But, apparently it’s not that way for everyone.

Disease and Disability

I woke up to that fact in 2009, when I started writing for a Social Security disability advocacy group. Disability claims, specifically among baby boomers, were soaring so much so that there was a serious backlog of disability claims from people who could not work because of chronic health conditions.

While doing research in order to write about medical conditions that qualify for disability benefits, I found it so disheartening to learn that not only is chronic illness in boomers on the rise but conditions such as obesity and diabetes are becoming more prevalent in children. Nearly 12.7 million children are obese. And, in 2012, about 208,000 children under the age of 20 were diagnosed with diabetes.

I find these stats disturbing. And it’s getting worse.

According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) “rates of chronic diseases —many of which are related to poor quality diet and physical inactivity — have increased.”

USDA Dietary Guidelines Quote

And, even more disturbing to me is this: “About half of all American adults have one or more preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and overweight and obesity.”

Preventable Diet-related Disability – Why?

The guidelines go on to say that “higher intakes of vegetables and fruits consistently have been identified as characteristics of healthy eating patterns…” Yet, a USDA nutrition survey conducted from 2007-2010 found that 87 percent of Americans consume less than two and a half cups of veggies per day and 75 percent of Americans consume less than two cups of fruits per day.

Clearly, most Americans are not even coming close to meeting USDA’s recommendation of eating seven to 13 servings of fruits and vegetables a day – and it’s showing.

Serious Illness Can Strike Anyone

It was a strange twist of fate, when, after several years of writing stories about medical conditions and disability, I found myself a witness to a story that would devastate my own family – and most of all, my daughter – and I was powerless to do anything about it.

In April 2014, her otherwise strong and healthy husband died of leukemia at the age of 36, even Brown Bird Mandalaafter a successful bone marrow transplant. This ravaging blood cancer struck him, seemingly, out of the blue a year prior, while they were on tour performing as the popular music duo Brown Bird. Was the cause environmental from past years working as an electrician in a shipyard? Was it from a weak link in his DNA? We will never know.

But there is one thing I do know. Health should never ever be taken for granted. I find it hard to accept that so many Americans have allowed themselves to fall victim, unlike what happened to my son-in-law, to “preventable, diet-related chronic diseases” that are compromising quality of life.

I know I sound harsh, but if we don’t have our health, what else matters?

Good Nutrition Heals

I do believe that healing through nutrition can help reverse the costly epidemic of chronic health conditions that is gripping too many Americans regardless of age. In fact, the True Health Initiative, a “lifestyle as medicine” coalition of health experts, says that nearly 40 percent of Americans – that’s 130 million people – are sick with chronic diseases and that “the next generation will inherit a world where chronic disease and premature death are the norm, not the exception.”

Stats True Health Initiative

Source
True Health Initiative

I don’t know about you, but I want to stay healthy. I want the people I love to stay healthy. And I want to do what I can to inspire healthy living in others I meet on this journey called life.

We Need to Eat More Fruits and Vegetables

I am not a trained nutritionist but I do believe we should be treating our bodies like finely tuned engines. Why not fuel our bodies with more fruits and vegetables if that’s what it takes to stay healthy? Regardless of how national nutrition guidelines have changed over the years, one recommendation has never changed. Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables every day is essential to good health.

I truly believe that making simple lifestyle changes – a better diet; more physical exercise – can help people who have issues with their health feel better. And for those who are seemingly healthy, why not take steps to ensure they stay that way?

The Greek physician Hippocrates, called the “father of medicine,” said, “ If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health.” He also said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

I think it’s time to take his ancient wisdom to heart.

By the way, we still have that old butcher-block cabinet. It’s been repurposed several times over the years, and is now sitting somewhere in the depths of our cluttered garage. I think it serves as storage for old paint cans. It’s one of those pieces of furniture that (sorry Marie Kondo) still “sparks joy.” And the peace sign hasn’t faded over time.

Eat More Fruits & Vegetables

 

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The Unbelievable Reality of the Sandy Hook Shooting Three Years Later

Sandy Hook Three Years LaterIt’s been three years since the horrific Sandy Hook School shooting that killed 26 innocent people – 20 of them small children no more than six or seven years of age. They should be three years older now – moving on with their precious lives – as their parents had planned.

What I find more unbelievable than the gruesome reality of this heartbreaking event is that there are law-abiding citizens in this country who admit they have a hard time believing it ever happened. My adult children, who are musicians and tour and travel the country extensively, have met a few of them this year.

My son told me he was drawn into conversation with a disbeliever at a coffee shop in Virginia the morning a TV reporter and cameraman from a Roanoke TV station were shot dead on the air. He was an Iraq-Afghanistan war veteran from Idaho who brought up shootings and then Sandy Hook, admitting that he didn’t believe it happened. It didn’t matter that my son grew up in Sandy Hook and went to Sandy Hook Elementary School. The man just shook his head in denial and walked away. What more could my son say? He succeeded in no breakthrough.

Yes, the shooting here was unbelievable, and because of that, I am almost willing to grant a “grain of salt” to disbelievers from other parts of the country, influenced by biased media or conspiracy theories. They don’t live here. Distance makes it unreal – and surreal – even to those of us who do.

The so-called “Truthers” continue to seek ways to discredit the “story.” Some have actually confronted leaders in our community for that purpose. They’ve written outlandish books about the shooting that, to their way of thinking, proves it never happened, and they work to spread their delusional views on social media. What is crazy to me is that people are actually buying into this “idiocracy” and joining in by cruelly hurting the very people who have lost the most.

Yes, what happened here is unbelievable. But it happened. Why would a community fabricate such a thing?

In my heart, I wish the “Truthers” – which is such a blatant misnomer – were right. This tragedy should never have happened. But the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012 most certainly did, and has gone down in history as one of the worst mass shootings in this country’s history.

This is not fiction. It is not a made up horror story. Just ask the parents who lost their children that day, and mourn them every day.

This pain is real. And since that intensely bright, sunny winter day in the midst of our holiday season that screeched to a panic-stricken halt, shaking this community to its very foundation with grief unimaginable, more lives have been lost because of mass shootings and gun violence.

What is more unbelievable to me is why?

 

Don’t Call Me a Copywriter – I Write Content

CSwainLogo 2

The first thing I do after walking into the restaurant and into the room reserved for the networking meeting is wave to the attending waitress and order a beer. Then I turn to the greeter who signs me in with a warm smile and gives me my pre-printed nametag, conveniently swinging on a lanyard – Colleen Swain, Content Writer. I’m relieved about the lanyard because I don’t like fumbling with pinning the nametag on my jacket, or worrying about pinning it wrong. Is it the right or left side? I can never remember. Centering it in the middle works for me.

I’m a leftie, but I say I’m ambidextrous – sort of. When I was little, my mom insisted that I eat with my right hand. She’d say, “I won’t have you banging elbows with people at the table.” I navigate my computer mouse with my right hand, too. It just feels right. (no pun intended) Other than that, I’m very much left-handed. So, the networking etiquette of remembering which side to wear a nametag can be a problem.

It takes a while for me to warm up at these networking events. The beer helps. I take a modest sip and scan the room looking for a familiar face, but remembering names of people I’ve met before  is another problem. Thank goodness for those nametags.

What Do You Do?

A woman, perhaps in her fifties, walks up to me. We haven’t met before. I can’t help feeling a little awkward staring at her chest to read her name and what she does for a living, even though she’s staring at my chest too. And then this happens:

“A content writer, eh?” So you’re a copywriter?” An image of Peggy Olson in a scene from “Mad Men” pitching a concept for selling lipstick flashes before me.

I run my tongue over my teeth, smile, and say, “Well, not exactly.”

Then I try to explain what I do.

“I’ve written ads, but my expertise is focused more on writing content that will help a business promote their brand online as well as in print.”

“Oh,” she says. She gives me a blank look. “So, what do you mean by ‘content’?

That’s when I realize that maybe to her the term “content” means stuff contained in something, like the percentage of hops in my beer.

The Internet Changes Everything

I flash back to the mid 90s, before computers changed how we work. I can see myself typing an inter-office memo using an IBM electric typewriter, making copies on a Xerox copier and then walking around the office to manually deliver them to each employee, (no e-mail). I’d archive the original in a three-ring binder stored with other binders dated by year in a jammed-full file cabinet. What a waste of paper, space, and time back then!

Then I flash forward to 2000. By then, my boss, the communications director, was pressuring the CEO to invest in building a website. “It’s the future we can’t afford to ignore,” he said. It was a hard sell. We got the go-ahead, but we had no idea how to do it. We were a department of marketing wordsmiths – not techies. This new language of web code was way over our heads. We had no choice but to succumb to the mercy of programmers – and they had no concept of marketing whatsoever.

It was a learn-as-you-go strategy, if you can call it that. We ended up with hundreds of web pages crammed with hard-to-read copy.

We had to fix it.

That’s about when I attended my first seminar on website writing and was tasked to bring back what I learned to the marketing team. It was called “How to Write Killer Content” with Gerry McGovern, offered by Marketing Profs, a leading educational training resource for marketers.

That may have been the first time I heard the term “content” in relation to writing for the Web. And, I realize, this may be the first time my new acquaintance – her nametag says “Accountant” – has met someone who writes it.

As Simon Dumenco, columnist for Advertising Age, put it, “I remember when people first started referring to ‘content.’ The term really gained currency circa Web 1.0 – during that moment when coders gained the upper-hand, and creative types, backed into a corner, felt compelled to defensively declare things like ‘Content is King’ … When I was a kid, nobody talked about words and pictures as ‘content.’” (Yup! I remember.)

At the seminar, I also remember noticing a young woman sitting in the back of the room. She was on the Marketing Profs team and she was monitoring McGovern’s presentation. I don’t know what her title was then but Ann Handley has built herself a reputation in the marketing world as a top digital marketer and writer. She is now their Chief Content Officer. Way to go!

And I am a content writer. But even at my last full-time job, just a few years back, that wasn’t my title. It was “Copywriter,” though I wasn’t writing ads. My job was to help the SEO Manager get our company website ranked on the first page of Google. (Hmmm. My accountant friend definitely won’t know what SEO means.) That was just about the time when Google wised up to the bad practices of SEO (search engine optimization) that used link-building trickery and poor-quality, keyword-stuffed writing spitted out by writers working for content mills. I never bought into it.

Unfortunately, now that I’m freelance, I’m still competing with lower-paid content-mill writers, though all signals point to the demise of content mills. The trend – finally – is to produce quality content that delivers value. Thank you Google. “Content is King” after all.

Gerry McGovern said as much in the Introduction of his book, Killer Web Content, “The Web runs on content. It is its hidden asset, its gold. Yet for so long it has been treated like coal – a low-grade, low-cost commodity best published in bulk… I have always taken a content first, technology second approach…the best website creators know that it’s the content that counts now.” Yes! And this was before Google’s Panda and Penguin algorithm changes were made to ensure quality content on the Web.

Ann Handley, in her book, Everybody Writes, stated, “Writing matters more now, not less. Our online words are our emissaries: They tell our customers who we are…and that means you have to put a new value on an often-overlooked skill…how to write, and how to tell a true story well.”

What Is Content?

So what do I mean by content? I tell my “numbers” lady that it’s everything she finds online to read, listen to or watch – packaged in different ways – from flash ads to YouTube videos to articles she finds when searching for info on anything that may interest her, like the latest tax codes. It’s also print stuff, such as junk mail, or the brochure she picks up at her doctor’s office.

I love to write – always have. And, yes, I’ve worked as a copywriter in the past, but the term “content writer” better describes what I do now.

“I get it,” she says, as we walk together to the buffet table to fill our plates with appetizers, “So, if I ever want a website for my business, you can write it for me?”

“Absolutely. And anything else you may need to market your accounting business.”

We join a table of other attendees and sit down to make new contacts.

And then we come to the portion of the meeting when each person in the room stands up, introduces themselves and gives a very brief (under one minute) “elevator speech’ about what they do.

Just when I decide which hand to hold my fork – it’s always a conscious decision and sometimes it’s my left (sorry Mom!) – it’s my turn.

“Hi, I’m Colleen Swain. I’m a content writer. In essence, I’m a brand storyteller. I help businesses, from startups to national corporations, build awareness about their brand by crafting clear, concise content for their web and print communications that is original, engaging, optimized, and shared.”

 

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Is Switching Back to Standard Time Worth the Trouble?

November Sunset

I woke up today confused and out of sorts. At first I thought I overslept – by one hour. And then I remembered. We’re back to Standard Time. Supposedly, I gained an extra hour of sleep at 2 am when time reset itself back to 1 am. I guess I should feel a little more rested today, but I don’t. November SkyInstead I’m kind of cranky. The time change signals that winter is on its way – my least favorite season.

It usually takes a while for me to adjust. It doesn’t help that I intentionally won’t reset one battery-operated clock for a couple days just because I want to remind myself of what it was like outside before falling back to Standard Time. It takes my cat far longer to adjust to waiting an hour longer to get fed! Fluffy Cat

I especially hated it during the years I was commuting to work. Leaving the office in the dark was so depressing! So, while working as sole content writer for my last full time employer, Freedom Disability, I decided to do some research and write about it. This is what I wrote for the company blog:

Why Do We Add an Hour in the Spring Just to Lose It in the Fall?

Time is measured by the sun’s position in the sky. It is what it is and has been measured this way for millions of years.  So why is it okay to push our clocks forward one hour in the spring and then push it back again in the fall? Why do we do it? And who came up with this idea anyway?

Ben Franklin’s Whimsy

The original idea dawned in the great mind of Benjamin Franklin when he was startled awake at 6 am on a spring morning in 1874 to discover his room flooded with light. Usually, the curtains were drawn until noon when he would get up for the day.  Upon further astronomical investigation he discovered that the sun rose earlier and earlier each day until the end of June.  Revelation struck! Had he not awakened as he did, he would have slept through six hours of daylight, as always, and stayed up six hours longer by candlelight, as usual.

And so, he wrote a humorous essay “An Economical Project” to suggest an idea. If people were forced awake earlier in the summer months they would make better use of daylight hours. Then they wouldn’t stay up as late, which would save on tallow for candles. They would be conserving candlepower!  And so he came up with all kinds of whimsical incentives to make it work, which, of course, would not. Years later, the idea of taking an hour away from the morning and adding it to the evening made more sense.

Why We are Confused

The concept of Daylight Saving Time (DST) is to extend daylight into the evening to conserve energy, and to also enjoy more of summer daylight. However, DST has caused a lot of confusion over the years.

Daylight Saving Time first became law in the United States on March 19, 1918 during World War I. Lots of people didn’t like it. So it was repealed in 1919. However, some states kept the law.

It was re-instituted year-round during World War II.

After the war, there was no federal law at all. It was a matter of choice made by any state, city or town to decide when it should start and end.

In 1966 the Uniform Time Act was established for all of the United States to make time consistent, except for those state legislatures that voted against it. And then there were several revisions after that, until 1986.

At that point, the law stated that DST began the first Sunday of April and ended the last Sunday of October. It stayed that way until 2007 when another revision changed DST to what it is now: the second Sunday of March until the first Sunday of November.

But wait. Congress has the right to change the dates again if there is no significant gain in energy savings due to extending the span of Daylight Saving Time.

And, then there’s the rest of the world.  There simply is no consistency, whatsoever. Just a lot of confusion.

Why Bother at All?

Many people don’t like Daylight Saving Time. Some say the change upsets sleep patterns and affects productivity for days.  Parents think it’s too dark in the morning for children waiting at school bus stops. Poultry farmers say it takes weeks for their chickens to adjust! And, then some say, there’s no real energy savings.

______________________________________________________________________________

So, there you have it! This is why I’m cranky today. Looking out my window, the sun is already low in the sky, and it’s only 4 pm. In another hour it will be DARK!

Waxing Crescent Moon

What do you think? Is the time-change practice to “fall back, spring forward” worth the trouble? I say it’s served its time!

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Brown Bird Mandalas Connect Us

Brown Bird Mandala Tattoo

Brown Bird Mandala Tattoo

On the day of the memorial service for my son-in-law David Lamb of Brown Bird, I got my first tattoo. It was a Brown Bird mandala. The experience was the catalyst for helping me find the words I was able to say at the memorial to honor Dave.

I actually didn’t intend to say anything. What could I say about this gentle, charismatic man who so unexpectedly lost his life to leukemia in spite of a successful bone marrow transplant? Dave was my daughter MorganEve’s husband and music partner. He was her soul mate. I am heartbroken for her.

But looking back, I am so proud that I did find the words. And I am so proud that I was able to tell my story at the memorial because what I said turned out to be a gift to MorganEve. She has been a source of inspiration to me from the moment of Dave’s illness on through to where we are now on this roller coaster ride of grief with all its ups, downs, dips and turns. It was she who encouraged me to share my tribute to Dave on this blog.

Had I not done so, I would never have known about a little girl named Julia and how much of a positive impression Brown Bird had made on her. Julia’s dad, Chris Chirco found my post online and decided to contact me via e-mail to tell me his story about Julia’s special connection to MorganEve and to Brown Bird. I think of it as a gift. With his permission, and MorganEve’s, I have decided to share our e-mails here, as another tribute to the beautiful couple we love as Brown Bird:

A Dad Shares a Story about His Little Girl Meeting Music Duo Brown Bird

E-mail fromBrown Bird Mandala Chris Chirco: Your Daughter’s Influence on My Daughter

Hello Ms. Swain,

I came across your blog and your story about David Lamb [The Mandala of Dave Lamb’s Life is Now Complete] when I was searching online for images of the tattoo that David had on his left hand (the same as the design on the Brown Bird CD Fits of Reason) and I felt compelled to drop you a note to tell you about the influence MorganEve has had on my seven-year-old daughter, Julia. 

Julia has always been very musically inclined. She could hum songs in key before she could talk. One night, while on my home computer, Julia came into the room. I was listening to Brown Bird at the time and I noticed how she instantly took to the music.  I decided then that I would try and find an upcoming Brown Bird show and take her to it. The opportunity came in April 2013 when they were playing in Portland, Maine.

They were playing two shows. Since Julia was only six years old then, the earlier show was perfect for us. Before heading to the venue, Julia drew a picture of David and MorganEve she wanted to give to them. 

Brown Bird Drawing

Brown Bird Drawing
by Julia Chirco

We got to the venue early and got seats up front.  When David and MorganEve came out to set up their instruments, MorganEve noticed Julia and her picture and came over to have a look and to talk to her. That’s when Julia gave MorganEve her picture. When MorganEve showed it to David, he gave Julia a big smile.  That moment left an indelible mark on Julia that she still talks about to this day.  Julia’s drawing was even posted on Brown Bird’s Instagram page and in the Gallery of the Brown Bird website. Julia is extremely excited about that.

Julia has not been able to listen to Brown Bird since David’s death. She said it makes her sad. But she does like to sing some of their songs, particularly the ones that MorganEve sings.  One of her favorites is “End of Days.”  Shortly after David’s death she asked me to make a video of her singing it.

Since I am a musician in a local band, it gives me such great pleasure to think that a musician like your daughter would take a minute before her show to talk to a little girl who was almost too shy to give MorganEve her drawing.

MorganEve truly influenced my daughter with her kindness, and I know that Julia, as well as the rest of our family, will never forget MorganEve, David and Brown Bird.

Julia Chirco Brown Bird Fan

Julia Chirco

My E-mail Response:

Thank you so much, Chris, for sharing your beautiful story about Julia and MorganEve with me. I know Julia’s drawing very well. MorganEve keeps it in a special box of treasures and after reading this I do remember MorganEve telling me about meeting Julia. That had to have been just before Dave got sick, so Julia is a very lucky girl to have such a wonderful memory to hold on to.

I understand how Julia feels about listening to Brown Bird now. I, too, find it difficult. It will take time, but I’m sure she will again, because even though it is so sad that Dave is not here, he is with us forever because of the music he and MorganEve created together. Their music is a very special gift that will carry us through and help us get past this overwhelming grief.

Tell Julia that MorganEve is very strong. She inspires her family and everyone who knows her with her grace and courage. The love and support she has received from fans like you and Julia is helping MorganEve fulfill what Dave instilled in her to do – to move forward with her life and to continue with her career, creating more beautiful music.

During the time Dave was confined at home after his bone marrow transplant, he wrote a lot of songs for their next album. MorganEve is working on completing that album. She is also working on her own music, so tell Julia there will be more songs from MorganEve for her to sing.

I am very honored that you found me and chose to reach out. Thank you so much.

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I am sure there are many more stories about special encounters Brown Bird fans have had with Dave and MorganEve over the years.

Perhaps the mandala images that are part of Brown Bird have also become our links, in a way,  to the stories that connect us – just as their music always will.

 

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A Memory of a Long Ago Summer Stays with Me Still

Zinnias and Polished Shoes

It’s odd how a taste, a smell or an action can stir the senses into recalling a memory. The zinnias in my garden have that effect on me, as does biting into a peach or rubbing shoe polish into old leather. All these things make me think of another summer, when I was a little girl, with my grandfather.

My grandparents lived in Ottawa, Ontario. We visited them every summer for two weeks. It was the only time my Canadian mom got to see them. I remember how she’d cry in the car each time we left to go back home. She’d cry until we crossed over the border back into New York State and then she’d stay quiet throughout the 10-hour ride home to Connecticut.

That summer, for whatever reason, my parents decided to let me stay with my grandparents until it was time for school. They would come back for me at the end of August. Maybe it was to give me my first experience away from home. Maybe it was to give my mom another visit. I don’t know the reason why. I was never told. I was nine years old.Garden Zinnias

On this summer day, as I cut zinnias for a fresh bouquet, I can actually see myself walking hand-in-hand with my grandfather. Our walks were ours alone.

He was a cobbler with his own shoe repair shop. I thought that was pretty special. It became a ritual for me to meet him there at the end of the day to share his walk back home. I did this all by myself. I walked one block down Second Avenue, then took a left onto Bank Street and walked two blocks more until I reached a storefront with a large plate glass window. Looking in I could see him standing behind a worktable, a dark apron covering a blue work shirt with sleeves rolled up showing sinewy arms. His hands were large and his fingers were long, with fingertips stained black from his work.

Polished Shoes and ZinniasI’d open the door and breathe deep the smell of leather and shoe polish that filled the small room tinged with cold fluorescent light. Behind my grandfather were shelves from floor to ceiling filled with neat rows of shoes and boots in all sizes and colors, made to look new again.

My grandfather was tall. He would look down at me, his blue eyes peering over the edge of silver-framed glasses. A smile would soften his angular face and, in a low voice he would say my name with a hint of an accent. “Kalinka. Is it time already?” (The nickname he called me, which was a variation of my name, is Russian and means “red juniper berry.”)

He would wipe his hands on his apron and then take if off and carefully hang it on a peg in the corner of the room. Next to the apron was a metal circle of keys. He’d take them down and prepare to lock up. He didn’t say much but that was fine. I was content to just sit there on a stool by the customer counter and watch him as he put his work “to bed.”

After locking up, we would always stop at the fruit stand outside the small grocery store next door to his shop. Peaches were in season then. He’d let me select enough to fill a yellow mesh bag. He’d weigh the bag and then pull out some coin from his pocket and help me count out the exact amount to pay the grocer. (It was my grandfather who taught me how to count change. He always said to start with the quarters.) Then he would cradle the bag in the crook of one arm, take my hand, so small, in his big one, and we’d start our walk home.

Zinnias in the GardenSometimes we’d walk a different route from the one I’d taken, through a park that had several large circular flowerbeds full of zinnias in different sizes, shapes and in brilliant colors – the flowers that were in bloom that time of year. I loved to run around the perimeters until I got dizzy. My grandfather would quietly laugh – his voice was always soft and low – as he watched me. “Come Kalinka, it’s getting late. Your Nanny and our supper are waiting for us.”Zinnias and Peaches on the Kitchen Windowsill

Then we would continue on our way with me trying in vain to match my steps with his long, slow stride. We would always make it home just in time – 6 o’clock – for supper.

Afterwards, we would sit together in green wicker chairs on the long veranda of my grandparents’ house until it got dark, listening to the quieting city – eating peaches.

As I arrange my fresh-cut flowers this serene summer day, I can almost hear the sound of his voice. “Kalinka, will you be coming to meet me at the shop tomorrow? ”

“Yes, Bompa. (My name for him.) And let’s go to the park again. I want to see the zinnias.”

It is a satisfying memory, so sweet in its simplicity. Why it has stuck with me all these years, I don’t know. It represents but one small fraction of the whole of me, recalled every time I taste a peach, sniff polished leather, or pick zinnias from my garden.

To this day, I love that he called me “Kalinka.”

Zinnias Shu Crop

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Have I Lost Optimism After Sandy Hook?

Sandy Hook Elementary SchoolUpdated 12/14/14

I have a new mantra. It’s a quote from the writer Joseph Conrad who said, “Facing it, always facing it, that’s the way to get through. Face it.” It has become my reality check, my call to action to get over this feeling of inertia that has stood in my way like a cement wall, blocking me from writing in this space for – I can’t believe it – over a year.

I know I don’t have to explain to anyone why there’s a space of absence on this blog. I could simply start from here. Why would I want to call attention to the very thing I tell my clients they should never do if they want to have a credible online brand image?

It’s because I’m compelled to do it – to be honest with myself – and I realize now that for me to creatively move on I have to do what I’ve avoided doing – write about why. So here goes:

Shock

I stopped writing in this space the day 20 first-graders and six educators were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It wasn’t a conscious thing to stop. It’s just that what happened here, where I live, was so horrendous, so shocking, that I, like everyone else, was shattered. Work for clients was a distraction – but I simply didn’t have the ambition to write here.

Sadness

It’s still so hard to believe it happened in Newtown, yet there are reminders everywhere. Ribbons of green and white – the Sandy Hook School colors – still drape mailboxes, signposts, trees and utility poles. Sometimes bunches of bright balloons mark the roadsides to honor a single-digit birthday for one of the 20 children. Often they are left drifting for weeks. It seems no one has the heart to remove them.

Every day, in my neighborhood, I drive by the houses of two of the families. I don’t know them, but I see their homes and sense their loss, and cry for them at the oddest moments. It’s not the same living here.

Disbelief

And it’s all so close. My son and daughter went to Sandy Hook Elementary School. Though it was over 20 years ago, it seems like yesterday – the familiarity of it all.

It was a great school for my kids. They loved their principal and still remember all their teachers’ names. The friends they made there are still among their closest – and the parents of those friends are among ours. Wasn’t it a blink ago that the school mascot, the Jolly Green Giant, was smudging their noses with a thumbprint of green paint at the annual school fair?

Back then I was an active PTA parent. I was responsible for booking cultural arts programs to enhance the school’s curricula. It was very important to Principal Ron Vitarelli, himself a jazz guitarist, to instill a life-long appreciation for the arts in young children. As a creative, I was very proud of what I was doing for the school. My husband, a graphic artist, designed the posters announcing when theatre groups, dance ensembles, artists, musicians or writers were coming to visit. They were on display in the cafetorium for years.

It’s odd how you remember things, like when I was talking to a longtime Sandy Hook parent-friend about how our kids, now grown and on creative career paths, loved those programs. The memory triggered a vision of the posters hanging on the walls and I dreamily said, “I wonder if they’re still there.” As soon as I said it I felt the air suck right out of me. I flashed back and saw the school – its hallways, the offices and classrooms. I knew the layout of the building as well as the shooter did. Of course the posters are gone. The school is gone. Nothing is as it was.

Despair

Last winter I was reading a story in The Newtown Bee, our local paper, about a writer and an illustrator who collaborated months after the shootings to create a new children’s book. The illustrator, Steven Kellogg, had lived in Sandy Hook for 35 years and, like my family, has strong ties to the Sandy Hook community. Kellogg is renown here for his whimsical Newtown-influenced children’s book illustrations and his story-telling art demonstrations.

I read that the collaboration began after Kellogg had reached out to his friend, award-winning children’s author Patricia MacLachlan, and told her, “I think I have lost the optimism to do what I do.”

Kellogg and MacLaghlan helped each other work out their separate grief by creating “Snowflakes Fall,” a beautifully written and illustrated book in honor of the children. Kellogg said his illustrations for the book became his “celebration of the kind of childhood we provided our family in Sandy Hook.”

The story stuck with me. I thought about what Kellogg said about losing optimism after the shootings. Is that it? Have I lost optimism?

Anger

A general definition of “optimism” is a hopefulness that good things will happen. But I feel anger, given what I know about gun-industry politics, after each and every needless shooting that has happened since Sandy Hook. I guess the one good thing, (if you can call it that) coming out of our tragedy, is that more people are waking up to our society’s gun violence culture and are taking action to do something to achieve some measure of positive cultural change to help save innocent lives. It’s complicated. Am I hopeful? Not really.

And then I think about the idyllic innocence my children had growing up here in Sandy Hook – the carefree magic of childhood that Kellogg alluded to – and I am so angry to think that the shootings have compromised “that kind of childhood.” It will take years to know just how much.

Strength

What I do know is that collectively we are a strong and resilient community. The resolve of its citizens to not allow this horrific tragedy define Newtown – is inspiring.

I also understand that the cliché “life goes on” is profoundly true. I get that. In the midst of Newtown’s push to move on, we’ve all had personal stuff happen to us, too – births, milestones, illness and death. Good times, bad times, happy and sad. Grief is complex – but so is life.

Face It Quote Joseph Contrad

Facing It

Which is why, I must get back to doing for myself the very thing I love to do – write.

It’s time to face this inertia – to break down that cement wall and allow it to crumble away. “That’s the way to get through. Face it.” I know I can do it.

As for optimism – I’m working on it.

Update – December 14, 2014

It’s been two years since the Sandy Hook school shooting. The trauma has not faded, but instead invades our town like a storm cloud, darkening our holiday preparations. Today we can’t help but remember. Today is a sad day. That will never change.

Oddly for me,  Steven Kellogg, who has unkowingly helped me get back to my personal writing,  has once again influenced my sense of optimism with another article in The Newtown Bee. He wrote about why he felt it necessary to revise and re-illustrate one of his stories written 35 years ago, Pinkerton Behaves, about a Great Dane pup. The story included an illustration of a burglar with a gun. Kellogg wrote:

” In creating the burglar back in mid-1970s, I had patterned him after the stereotyped caricature of comic book bad guys I remembered from my childhood, and I portrayed him wielding an oversized pistol.”

“As time passed, the prevalence of domestic gun violence became a growing national concern, and the inclusion of that menacing gun elicited objections and protests from adult readers who were sharing the book with children in their lives. In light of the Sandy Hook tragedy, and the alarming statistics of gun violence (with more than 80 school shootings having occurred in the country since December 14, 2012), I recognized that my thinking had changed and the book must change.”

To mark the 35th anniversary of Pinkerton Behaves, Kellogg removed the gun.

“I was motivated by the conviction that caring citizens must try to reprogram their society for the safety and well-being of everyone, and authors and illustrators have an obligation to create the highest quality literature and art in order to enrich the lives of children.”

Things have changed since Sandy Hook. I’m thinking that maybe there is a reason for optimism. As we close out another year, perhaps this quote  from Alfred Lord Tennyson may inspire:

“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier.'”