The Continuity of Things

It has been a year of loss. Fires, floods, and tornadoes have ravaged many areas, including my community of Bowling Green, Kentucky. Add to that the devastating toll Covid has taken on the life and health of countless individuals, and it is no wonder survivors have been left reeling and struggling to make sense of it all. I thought this morning about loss, and how we learn to deal with it. I wrote the following a few years ago. It seems time to share it.

This morning, along with the other dishes, I washed a small, vintage Pyrex bowl. It is white, with a pink design, called Gooseberry. My companion uses it when he prepares his breakfast. We found it when we cleaned out an old schoolhouse. The bowl was miraculously intact, considering it was buried under towering piles of junk–ranging from bureaus drawers full of mouse-eaten sweaters to boxes containing pots, pans, and mason jars. Stacked in every conceivable space were also the kept items from a long-defunct gas station and garage.

We waded through heaps of oily tools and barrels of unknown lubricants. Tossed onto this mound of rubbish were soft drink signs, huge oak doors, a wardrobe with mirror still intact, tires, scrap metal, disintegrating chairs, old lamp shades, broken furniture–the detritus of two dismantled households and a business.

As each of his grandparent died, his family stored the unwanted household belongings in the schoolhouse. What may have begun as orderly stacks, and good intentions, fell victim to pressing schedules and higher priorities. As the years went by, the remnants of the two households rested in the old schoolhouse, gradually turning to mouse fluff and rubble.

When it began to seem masochistic to even try to sort out the mound of trash, treasures surfaced. A cut glass candy dish that sat on his paternal grandmother’s dining room table. A delicate item in the home of a down-to-earth grandmother; one who thought nothing of waking at dawn, going into the woods and shooting a squirrel or two for breakfast. She skinned, gutted, and fried the game with eggs from her henhouse, as easily and nonchalantly as I rip open a package and pop it into the microwave.

Another box wielded books that had belonged to the maternal grandmother, a woman as different from the other as possible. This one was a superintendent of schools, educated and refined, who’d probably never shot a squirrel in her life, much less held a gun.

From both came small treasures: a 1950s’ tablecloth, mercifully spared from the sharp teeth of rodents, with turquoise and brown patterns dancing across a snowy white background. A small stool, cut glass candle holders, a pretty vase, a cast iron frying pan, and two pink bowls, survivors of a set of four.

As I dried the small bowl and put it away, I wondered what his long dead grandmother would think if she could see him using the bowl she must have held so often. I wonder if she was left-handed like him. Does he thinks of her when he holds the bowl? He’s not sentimental, so maybe to him it is just a useful bowl, the right size with a good pour spout on one side.

Today, in my kitchen, I thought about our connection to everyday items that have no monetary value. Every time I open a bottle, I use a bottle opener that reads Casper Liquor Store. It belonged to my mother, and she used it before the advent of twist-off bottle caps. It has an honored place in my utility drawer, and when I feel the smooth, red and white plastic handle, I see her again, sitting in a lawn chair on a hot, Wyoming summer night, prying the cap off a chilled bottle of beer, then handing the opener to me to perform an identical ritual with a bottle of cola.

On my desk sits a red, square Hills Brothers Coffee measure; it is also vintage and rested for years in my mother’s coffee canister. When full, it measures the perfect amount of coffee for brewing two cups. The canister was tin, decorated with tulip decals and a topped with a chocolate brown lid.

The measure now holds a tiny sea shell, two unusual pebbles, and a sprig of eucalyptus. I look at it every day, touch it, feel a strong connection to my mother who died far too young, and far too soon. The coffee measure reminds me of how she would make coffee for both of us, lace hers with canned milk, then smile at me as though our drinking coffee together made her world complete.

Why do we keep mundane, everyday objects of little worth? Bent serving spoons? Tattered linens? Why do I cherish my father’s carpenter square and level, although the last time I used either was years ago in a house long abandoned?

Perhaps because when we see and touch these well-worn items, they connect us to the hands that held them–join us in a tangible way that hazy memories cannot. The singular act of using and caring for inherited objects is, in itself, a form of devotion: a reminder that the chain of life–and love–extends far beyond individual existence, linking us to the past as surely as it grounds us in the present.

I’ll continue to carefully wash and dry the pink-and-white bowl every day, make sure the bottle opener is put away clean so it won’t rust, and seek solace in the continuity of things. © Jennie L. Brown

Other Than That, Are You Writing?

This morning, I said to my resident musician, “Other than the pandemic, the fact your car is up on blocks until it’s repaired, and the malfunction of our home heating system, how are you?” I was reminded of the hackneyed phrase that made the rounds some years ago, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln . . ..”

My question for other writers is one I ask myself, “Other than the impact the pandemic has had on you, and the inevitable disruption of your usual pursuits, are you writing?” I admit, I haven’t been. The most I’ve accomplished the last year was to prepare two manuscripts for submission. I am sitting on one trying to decide what to do with it. I finally contacted two publishers on the other (a British mystery). One rejection; one still pending.

I’ve coped with the stress by reading–reading a lot, as it turns out. On the plus side, all those books have improved my at-home Jeopardy score. I now know more trivia than every before. Can I use that in my writing? Maybe. Since March of 2020, I’ve also developed a different attitude toward my writing–more forgiving, more introspective, and, surprisingly, more playful. More of a “What the hell, why not?” attitude.

Many of us, in times of difficulty, reorder our priorities, put aside petty concerns and concentrate on what really matters to us. Certainly, loved one and friends take a larger role in our awareness, as does the general health of our community.

It hasn’t been just the pandemic that has made many of us examine our values, our opinions, and our resiliency. It has, undoubtedly, been a very tough year in nearly every sector of our society. So, it’s no wonder writing is not foremost on many author’s minds. While some people have found solace in Journaling, tackled the novel they always wanted to write, or expressed themselves through poetry, others are too distracted or disheartened to write much of anything.

But is a writing hiatus a bad thing? I initially thought so, beating myself up over not being motivated to make more than a sporadic effort, but then I began to see it wasn’t all negative. If you’ve slacked off on your writing, had a problem with sustaining a creative thought, then take heart. You may have also opened yourself up to new insights, new compassion, and new understanding of the human psyche; all of which will only enhance the words you commit to paper in the future.

Have you been writing? More? Less? Different? I’d love to hear from you.

Washing Bananas: A Writer’s Response to the Pandemic

I’ve just finished washing and drying two bunches of bananas, one avocado, one lime, and two broccoli crowns. They are currently drying on a towel on my kitchen counter. I am also thinking about how I’ve neglected my writing since March 11. On that Tuesday, I had an appointment with my hairdresser at 9 a.m. After that, a quick stop at the grocery store and a drive home to our country cottage. It was the last time I shopped with ease, or carried on with my normal activities.

I started out with good intentions, determined that if I was sheltering in place, I would finish two major projects: edit a manuscript that has taken me away from this blog site for months, and edit and prepare for publication a biography that is 98 percent complete. Maybe I’d even start something new.

None of that transpired. I was too distracted to focus on any writing other than commenting to a few friends on social media, or writing an email here and there. I knew I’d feel better if I sat down, turned on the computer, and worked. I had the desk, the chair, and the computer, but what was sorely lacking was motivation. At the end of each day, with nothing accomplished, I mentally beat myself up for being so “lazy.” After all, the hard work was mostly behind me; I had two projects very close to completion. All I had to do was apply myself, but . . .

I found myself bouncing around the house, busying myself with household chores, cooking, and reading–a lot of reading. It was all I could focus on for any length of time. The only thing that seemed like a win was finally perfecting a low-fat brownie recipe.
Then, I read an article that said, in effect, “What in the hell do you expect from yourself–or anyone–in the midst of a pandemic that’s taking lives at an alarming rate?” What indeed?

And that was when I decided to let reading a favorite author, popping a dark chocolate truffle occasionally, and surrendering to the rhythm of the days–as numbingly  repetitious as they have become–be sufficient for now. Perhaps the next seventy-five days will be more productive. At least, a more relaxed attitude has yielded small gains–pages if not chapters.

I often heard the slogan, “Practice what you preach,” as a kid growing up in a prairie state. I still adhere to it, so I won’t tell you to write every day, become the most creative you’ve ever been, or write the memoir you’ve had simmering for years. The only writing pointer I can suggest is to be kind to yourself, write when it makes you happy, and trust that the muse will return.

Elroy and the Haints

Happy Halloween. May all your haints be benevolent.

Elroy and the Haints

Rumor had it the house was haunted. The city people bought it anyway. Elroy, who lived across the way,  scoffed at the stories that went around. He didn’t believe in ghosts and, as far as he was concerned, it was just a rundown place on a hill that got too much wind.

At the Community Hall’s pancake breakfast, to benefit the volunteer fire department, his neighbor, Albert, cornered him.

“Hey there, Elroy. I been wondering about the folks who bought Liz’s old house? Think they’ll see any of them spirits?”

Elroy slathered more sorghum on his pancakes and shook his head.

“I think that spook business is a bunch of hooey. The only problem they’re gonna have is fixing up that place. It’s been hard used.”

“Liz used to swear there was haints up there,” Albert said.

Elroy laid down his fork. “The only haint up there was Liz, but she was a good one while she lasted.”

Later that week, when Elroy stole the new owners’ chain saw, he didn’t think much about it; they acted like people who wouldn’t notice such a little thing. When they’d first bought the house, he dropped by to shoot the breeze. He was disappointed to find they were hurried, preoccupied with renovating. They were polite, but made it clear they didn’t want to stop what they were doing to visit with him–or offer him a cold, sweet tea. It was then he realized how much he missed jawing with Liz, missed her full-hipped body.

Besides, he figured it was their own fault for leaving tools in a garage that didn’t have a lock. Shoot! He could’ve taken the riding lawn mower, or a whole slew of bigger items, but all he snatched was that piddling chain saw. He figured they’d buy another one right away, but when he saw the new owner, Richard, out trying to cut down a sapling with an undersized hand saw, it made Elroy feel wicked. After Richard gave up and drove back into town, Elroy took his own chain saw, finished the job, and hauled away the wood.

That should have been the end of it, but when he saw the big, shiny, new lock on Richard’s garage door, he was shamed. Finally, he couldn’t drive by their house anymore, and took the long way into town. He stopped answering his own door. When he lost weight and couldn’t sleep nights, he put up a sign: For Sale By Owner.

He accepted the first offer he got, and turned over his house, furniture and all. He packed a suitcase, waited until full dark, then drove the familiar road for the last time. Just before he got to the main highway, he flung Richard’s chain saw into a ditch filled with spring runoff.

“Some things ain’t for keeping,” he said to his dog. “I’m glad to put the whole disagreeable business behind me.”

Years later, in a cold, northern city, a police officer shook his head.

“This is the damnedest suicide note I’ve read in a long time. What do you think that poor slob meant by “The haints followed me.”

 Jennie L. Brown ©2016

The One Who Looked

This post isn’t about writing pointers. It’s not a “how to” or my take on writing. Rather, it is about a note found in a brick wall–and the message it carried.

Yesterday, I was having a long coffee/catch-up session with a friend of mine. We were at a local coffee shop, eating, drinking, talking . . . and talking. We sat at a small table next to a vintage brick wall. This particular coffee shop occupies a large space in an old building that’s seen much history. Like all old brick, interior walls, it has charm and a feeling of authenticity not found in modern, industrial architecture. It also, as it turns out, held a secret.

We’d been there a couple of hours when I glanced at a place level with my right shoulder, which was nearest the wall. In a broken corner of brick–a small crevice–was a white paper. At first, I thought it was just a napkin or a receipt that someone had wadded up and shoved in there. Maybe a bored child who’d found something to amuse them.

Curiosity took over, and I extracted it, hoping it wasn’t a used tissue. To my surprise it was a carefully folded note. This is what it said:

For You – The One Who Looked

There is only one point in time. Now.
Oh, You lucky lovely Bird! This, now is yours!
You are whole and holy–
A divine spark that
will never go out.
Look in the eyes of others
and you will see their divine spark too.
Though many don’t ever know that gift they have.
You can remind them with your sparkling presence.
They will see you and say aaahhh!


The date indicated it had been written the day before, and perhaps lodged in it’s hiding place for 24 hours.

The scrap of paper could have been any type of message–a joke, a “made you look,” or a “gotcha.”  Instead, the mystery writer chose to write an uplifting, positive message. In a world so torn with violence, tragedy, and disruption, it is encouraging to know that someone opted to offer inspiring words to the “one who looked.”

My only advice today is to remember that, as writers, your words are important. Keep your pencil busy, your pen inked, and your keyboard humming. Those wonderful combinations of letters, that come together to record the human experience, really are “mightier than the sword.”


Last Thursday, I began writing my next blog–a discussion about the hard decisions a writer has to make when committing to a memoir. How do we protect our dignity yet still tell the truth–or at least keep the fictionalized version to a minimum?  I’ll  post that soon, but in the meantime, a complaint about distraction (or why that blog still isn’t finished).

Everything about a warmer clime calls to me right now. First, you have to know that for the past ten years, we’ve lived in a rural setting; our house sits on a hill eleven miles from the closest town. Living out here was fun, initially, but circumstances change with professional demands.

On Friday morning, the weather reports were dire: freezing temperatures, snow accumulation, hazardous roads. Not different from what other areas were experiencing, but a bit more worrisome here, since we are serviced by a twisting, county road that doesn’t get first priority for plowing or sanding. Snowed in really means just that.

In keeping with Murphy’s Law, about 2 hours after my partner left last Friday (with his band for an out-of-state gig), the power went off while I was outside sweeping snow off the steps and cars. Naturally, I called the power company, since there is a fuse that goes out about once a month at a small church located a quarter of mile from here. Usually they fix it and we’re good until the next squirrel or bird attacks that particular fuse box.

Thirty minutes later, two really huge power trucks (the kind with pole rigs) show up in my driveway (digging a significant rut) and two burly guys get out and investigate the outside fuse box, the transformer on the pole, etc. They conclude it might be in the inside breaker box. They hesitate to come in because their boots are snowy/muddy.

I point out to them that this is an all-electric house; I will be alone here three days; the pipes will likely freeze; I have a damn cat that I can’t haul into a hotel in town; thus, my floors and their boots are at the bottom of my priorities. Just get the bloody power back on.  I knew where the new power box was, but it didn’t have a main switch so there must be another one. I call my partner on his cell and, although he was somewhere between Nashville and Chattanooga by then, in a van with noisy musicians, he heard his phone and, miraculously, answered.

With my new knowledge, I lead “Muddy Boots” into my resident musician’s room and prepare to find the electric box in his closet. But first I have to unload it because he uses the closet in the other bedroom for clothes and this one is stacked with music shit. Okay, we find the box, the main switch has tripped, “Muddy Boots” restores it and I have power, but he warns me the switch is old and can “go at any time,” to which, showing remarkable restraint, I say, “Okay” instead of “Simply fxxxing lovely.”

So far, the power is on and my floors are mopped clean. I’ll get to that other blog yet.

The Cuckoo in the Bush

Recreating Your Travel

“It was our first full day in Rome. Jo and I sat at a tiny, outdoor table, nibbling on slabs of Pizza Margherita. The pizzeria was located in a cobbled-stoned alley near the Via del Corso, a neighborhood of small hotels and great shopping. “What is that strange noise?” Jo asked, washing down a bite of pizza with her cola.
“Oh,” I said wearily, “that’s just the cuckoo in the bush.”
She glanced over her shoulder and shrugged. Burrowed into a bush by the cafe door was a man whose hat, clothes, shoes, hair, hands and face were spray painted a shiny silver. His features were sharp–think Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek–and his eyebrows and handlebar mustache gleamed like a newly minted dime in the sunlight. He was swigging from a liter-sized bottle of beer and cooing in perfect imitation of the bird. We’d been in Rome for less than 24 hours and were so grateful to have a roof over our heads, the cuckoo in the bush could have been a nightingale in the moonlight for all we cared.”
This was how I began an account of a trip I took with my good friend, Joanne, a few months after I learned she had a serious illness and wouldn’t be taking any more trips with me. I wanted her to have it for the memory; but mostly, I wanted to make her smile.
My friend, Jo, was a flight attendant. We were flying “space available” to Rome.  Although we were listed, and the plane wasn’t fully booked, someone might come along with more seniority. So, bags packed, we met at the Dulles airport in D.C. I’d taken two flights from Kentucky to meet her, and she’d flown from the Pacific northwest.
Since we weren’t sure of the flight, we’d decided if we couldn’t get the flight to Rome, we’d go somewhere else. Maybe Frankfort. Maybe France. But, we would have a trip. We had euros; we had our passports; we had two weeks. It seemed enough.
Recently, I was talking about writing to a young man in my family. He has spent an incredible year abroad: teaching in Thailand, trekking in Nepal, walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. He’s planning to write about his year, but told me he’d inadvertently lost his Nepal notes while bicycling in Paris. We discussed how he might begin his book.
“Recreate,” I said. “Forget about chronological order for the moment. Write scenes, descriptions, snatches of remembered conversations. Recall the sensation of taste, smell, sound, sight. Write as much as you can and don’t worry about how it will all fit. Weave it together after you find the predominating theme.”
As I wrote, and assembled remembered scenes about my trip with Joanne, the theme and title became obvious: Tuscany Without A Plan. Although I hadn’t taken notes on the trip–I was two busy driving our rental, 6-speed manual transmission Fiat and trying to keep us alive in traffic–I found it wasn’t hard to recreate our trip with the help of several maps, hotel and restaurant receipts, and a travel guide that would remind me of the correct names and spelling of the places we’d visited.
It’s really all you need; the humor, travails, joys and descriptions will not desert you. The people you met will come alive in your pages; the streets will invite you to walk them again; the sunset will thrill you anew.

Note: Long time between posts: A book fair, a workshop I presented on Oral History and the Art of Creative Eavesdropping, and a family medical issue has eaten up time. I promise to do better.

My First Straw

Why The First Straw?

It’s not uncommon, when frustrated or angry, to shout, “That’s the last straw!”
But what about the first straw? I never gave it any thought until I was digging into a bowl of soup and a hunk of bread one afternoon at a local sandwich shop. I wasn’t planning to eavesdrop, although I confess I do so at times. But that is a different type of eavesdropping, deliberate and with the purpose of getting a feel for “voice” and language patterns (not a bad idea for any writer of fictional dialogue).
This time, hearing the conversation at the booth adjacent to my table was unavoidable. An earnest young man was explaining his motivation for going to college to an older couple. Apparently the young man was just beginning his studies and was being sponsored–or at least advised–by the couple.
The prospective student launched into a description of why he’d left home and what had brought him to our university town.
“What I always wanted was a brother, a dog, and a real family–a home. But I didn’t get it. So, that was my can of beans.”
I perked up. Can of beans? Perfect. I love it when I hear someone describe something in unusual terms. Next, he said, “Had to call my stepmom Mamma Jane, but that just didn’t flow. You know, sounded like a restaurant with a woman’s name. That was the first straw.”
The cafe was crowded and I was getting pointed stares that said, “You are finished with your lunch. Get the hell out of here and let us have that table,” so I never heard what the student’s last straw was, but I couldn’t get the idea of a first straw out of my mind. What is the first straw, anyway? For me, it was a pointer to a new direction–that moment when I realized things had to change, and the responsibility for that change rested with me.
Since I write, and want to hear from writers–or those who are friendly to writers–I will share my first straw with you. No, it wasn’t the 38 rejections of my first novel; it wasn’t a publisher who cut my neat, 21 personal narratives book to 17 and left me to explain to four angry women why their stories wouldn’t be in the book when it came out. It wasn’t an editor who told me the memoir I’d written of my parents’ life on a sheep ranch in Wyoming was “unrealistic.” She thought she was reading a novel? It wasn’t even the publishers who said they loved my latest novel, but thought it was too regional. Well, okay, it was set in Kentucky, not Manhattan, but really?
No, my first straw was when an editor responded to my query letter by requesting that, instead of the usual sample chapter or two, she wanted the entire manuscript of my latest novel–all 350 pages. It was to be a hard copy, double spaced, one side only, and packaged just so. It  was expensive and cumbersome, but I sent it as requested. Afterall, not everyone likes to read from a computer screen, and I was under the illusion she intended to read it. Wrong.
On what had to have been the day she received it–unless some angel hand-carried it to her ten minutes after I dropped it off at the post office–she fired off an email that was so off the wall I question if she opened the package, let alone read the first few pages. My best guess is she had it confused with something she’d dreamed the night before.
That was my first straw, and that was when I decided to self-publish, even though I’m aware of all the drawbacks. I suspect we all have a first straw–a defining moment. What’s yours? Hit that first straw yet?