A Vacation of Highs and Lows

This post begins a series on our experiences under COVID-19, inspired by the realization that “we are all field collectors” in the effort to someday tell the story of what happened in 2020. The essays I post here are drawn from First Monday, First Person salons since last spring. I’m sure we all experienced a memorable series of events as the world changed last March, as Ellen did. Consider this an invitation to write your own stories of pandemic life, and to submit for publication on this blog–guidelines here.

By Ellen Magee


My long-awaited trip to visit friends and family on the West Coast started on a cold, dark Wisconsin morning.  Retired, on a fixed income, this was a real splurge for me.  After the direct flight to Seattle, with nary a glitch, my brother Sam picked me up and took me to the phantasmagorical maze of shops at Pike Place by the harbor.  In spite of a steady rain, we were in a celebratory mood.

We met my cousin and his wife later at an upscale ethnic restaurant.  Having arrived first,  my cousin greeted us, “Great to see you!  But better not hug since the virus is spreading.”  During dinner, I processed the discussion of COVID 19, and sensed a strange culture shock since until then the virus had been, for us in Wisconsin, far away in China.

3/2 to 3/6/20

While with Sam, we did the things we both love: hiking to beautiful places, “forest bathing” in the rainforest, and exploring eateries, shops and galleries.  Much of the time we just enjoyed quiet companionship in his cozy home at the foot of the Olympic Mountains.


Sam drove me back to SeaTac for my flight on to San Francisco.  He offered me hand sanitizer and cough drops for my travels. I rendezvoused at the SF Airport with a long-time college buddy, Mary, who flew in from Los Angeles for our college mini-reunion.  After sanitizing the steering wheel, we climbed into her rental car and headed south to Moss Beach, the home of my second college buddy, Jamie.  Jamie set us up in a near-by motel for the night. Mary handed me a stack of letters she had saved from our correspondence in the 70’s which brought back both the fun of our hijinks as well as the insanity of our drug and alcohol abuse.

Western College Class of ’74 reunion, Ferndale, CA, (author far right).


Fun, fun and more fun!  In addition to Jamie,we now had Hannah from Oakland, also Class of 74, and the four of us set out for our road-trip to the Redwoods.  Druggies from the 70’s were high on life in our 60’s — and sober!  We found the quaint B & B we had reserved for two nights. We pulled out old yearbooks, laughed and hooted, and finally settled down for the night.



After a large breakfast at the town bar, we headed for The Avenue of the Giant Redwoods. Since experiencing the redwoods was my bucket list goal, it took patience on my part to let my friends wander “The Lost Coast” on the way.  I admit it did provide gorgeous seascapes.  The energy of the giant Redwoods was a spirit thing for me, and I hated to leave,  but it was a group decision to head back to town.  Tired and happy, we were getting ready to watch “Reefer Madness” on TV when there was a loud, clattering bang. Being a midwesterner, it took me some moments to realize we were having an earthquake! After a minute or so of chandelier-swinging and wall-rattling, it was quiet.  We learned later it was a 6.8 quake with it’s epicenter in a town we had driven through on the Lost Coast a few hours before.


We got going early heading back to Moss Beach.  Jamie’s accommodations this time were a room in the Lighthouse Hostel overlooking the Pacific — a room for 4 with bunk beds.  Perched on the top of a squeaking bunk, my dismounts were funny enough to get us laughing and screaming again, just like when we were 18.  That night I was somewhat concerned with my cough. My sense was it was seasonal allergies, but I had to use yoga techniques to keep from coughing constantly.


It was a hard night, but I felt fine in the morning and was able to calm my cough. Mary headed for the airport to turn in the car and fly home to LA.  Jamie was scheduled to work that afternoon, so Hannah and I took her car and tooled around her Oakland neighborhood.  Going across the Bay, we saw the Grand Princess cruise ship quarantined near port. Hannah knew I love Nature so we found a park. We drove around quite a while until Hannah found what she was looking for:  a parking space near a bench, where she could sit. “To make sure nobody tries to break into my car!”  I saw a few captive birds near a polluted pond, and went back to sit down. I discovered the natural beauty:  people of all hues and languages peacefully coexisting.

Hannah was kind enough to drive me to my next stop, Sacramento.  I was welcomed by my niece’s ex, Pat, his partner Lori and their kids.  My niece teaches school and wasn’t available until the weekend.  It was a beautiful home with mature redwoods, but there was stress.  Pat was scheduled to present a paper in Sweden the next week and Lori also had a business trip.  They were counting on their older neighbor to stay with the children in their absence, but she had decided she needed to quarantine.  Later in the day that concern became moot as both the Sweden and out of state events were cancelled due to COVID 19 travel restrictions.


My niece, Kat, picked me and the children up after school Friday to spend the weekend with her and her partner.  There were all kinds of events scheduled for that weekend so it was a juggling act with me there.  I thought if they were too busy, I might return to Pat and Lori’s. Then, one by one, events were cancelled and even whether school would continue after the weekend was up in the air.  We spent the next few days all together at home, catching up, cooking and reading. Frankly, I was happy just to be soaking up warm sun by the pool. Kat did have to report for school Monday, but the kid’s were going to finish their year online.


Kat dropped me off at the Sacramento airport on her way to work on a rainy, cool Monday. I picked up my rental car and headed South to San Francisco and Route 1.  Jamie, my Moss Beach friend met me for an early lunch at one of her favorite eateries.  It was take-out only, but the outdoor area overlooked the Pacific with early morning surfers- and the sun came out.  We talked about COVID 19 precautions I needed to take on the road, to the extent that even stopping to take a bathroom break felt like a life or death gamble that day. When I saw a place open for take-out food service, I stocked up to keep my stops to a minimum.  The drive that first day on hairpin curves, with little between me and the cliffs high above the Pacific, was both terrifying and euphoric. Each curve opened up to a more spectacular view of the sparkling Pacific.  I exclaimed to myself, “Oh my God!  Wow!  WOW!! Just WOW!!!”  I stopped at Big Sur. The lady running the tourist shop where I used the facilities was lamenting to a friend what the newest travel restrictions would do to her business.  This only added to my anxiety.  When the hills leveled off I could see beach after beach full of elephant seals, but I was too anxious to stop at the viewing area.  I stopped at a Motel 6 after ten hours of driving, ate a wilted sandwich and went to bed.

Amazing California Route 1!


I woke up in better spirits.  I would see Mary in LA this evening!  I found a cute little carry-out deli and stocked up for the day.  Without much thought, I started up my navigator to book it to LA.  I was also talking to my travel agent in Madison to move up my flight to tomorrow. I cut away from the coast and drove through the most beautiful emerald hills- on St. Patrick’s Day no less. Gradually the geography became flat and brown.  I noticed a few oil derricks, then many and then I was bathing in a forest of them! I drove through stretches of vegetable fields, under a crop duster, and suddenly, up into mountains and snow! Then the descent into LA.  My friend Mary picked me up wearing a face mask and coughing.  She had tried to get tested but having no fever was told to go home.  We were both relieved that I was heading home the next morning, as she was hoping to to work from home.


The LA airport was all business and orderly lines.  The plane was about a third full.  Someone behind and across the isle from me wore a hooded, full-body Pink Panther suit, but otherwise the flight back to Madison was uneventful.  We arrived in Madison to a balmy 40 degrees. The airport was eerily empty as was the street in front.  I had just barely squeaked home under the wire.

© 2020 Ellen Magee

Ellen lives in Madison with her husband and animals too numerous to mention.  She is a retired social worker.  Her family includes her son, two step-sons and their assorted kids.  She keeps busy during COVID by writing racial justice-themed letters to decision makers and editors, mentoring people in substance abuse recovery, dancing, kayaking and e-biking.  Her goal in retirement is to cultivate her friendships.

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Sew What!

This post continues a series on “objects” inspired by Martie McNabb’s Show & Tales events. In writing, the concrete will always have more power than the abstract, because with concrete words come images. Let Faith’s words bring images to your mind… and consider this an invitation to write your own “object lessons”–stories inspired by and focused on the things that have meaning for us, because we know their story.

By Faith Ellestad

What on earth was the matter with me, I wondered, as I stood shivering on the sidewalk in front of the Technical College, in a too-light jacket, waiting for my friend to arrive. I should have been home watching “The Waltons” as I did every Thursday evening, not preparing to begin a course in “Intermediate Knit Dress.”  What hadI been thinking?  Just the term “intermediate” which suggested some proficiency, should have given me pause. To date, my total sewing experience consisted of hemming two large red cloth rectangles into what passed for curtains in our first apartment. They beat hanging a sheet in the window, but barely.

Oh, if only my husband hadn’t been working nights, and I wasn’t pregnant and anxious, I would never have agreed to this class. But Nancy had caught me in a vulnerable moment, so too late now. John-Boy and Mary Ellen were just going to have to deal with life on their own for eight weeks while I attempted to attain a domestic art, of which my marriage resumé was currently devoid.

Genetically, I should have been predisposed to sewing competence.  My mother was an excellent seamstress.  I remember her making dresses for my sister and me and little sport coats for my brothers, even doll clothes for beloved vinyl babies. Mom took great satisfaction from her creativity.  I considered my sister a sewing savant.  She’d find a yard or two of material, eyeball it, and create a skirt or shorts without even using a pattern. My two recently acquired sisters-in-law could zip up a set of ruffled curtains or cushion cover seemingly without effort or angst.  I simply hadn’t inherited the arts and craft gene.  Yes, I had agreed with Nancy that a course in “Intermediate knit dress” could be just the springboard we needed to catapult ourselves into the realm of fashion design, but in reality, this sewing class rated very low on my interest scale and somewhere between daunting and minefield in terms of potential for success.

Nevertheless, here we were, Nancy and I, on this crisp, October evening, preparing to hone our skills. She exuded enthusiasm, excited to be adding a new knit dress to her wardrobe. I, on the other hand, just hoped to avoid complete humiliation. As we entered the classroom, we were greeted by three rows of gleaming black, rather fierce looking console sewing machines, twelve in all, plenty of equipment for the nine intermediate-level (I assumed) students and me. Our instructor introduced herself and suggested we each select a “sewing station.”  I settled in at the back-left station and watched with some dismay as Nancy abandoned me for a position front row center, far, far away.

This course was no-nonsense.  There were syllabi and everything.  Week one, re-acquaint yourself with the machine. Week two, practice seam techniques. (News to me.  I thought sewing seams was the technique.)  Week three: work with a pattern, and so forth, all the way to week eight, model and critique.

After the syllabus overview, we were instructed to thread our machines, insert bobbins, and sew a straight line in a piece of scrap material.  Having observed my mother in years past, I felt uncharacteristically capable as I threaded the machine, winding the thread around wheels and through levers and ultimately into the needle, leaving a nice tail, as demonstrated.  I slid open a little chrome door, popped in a bobbin, slid the door closed and inserted some fabric under the needle.  I pressed the power lever with my knee and voila.   Nothing happened.  I pressed harder. The material whipped through the machine and shot cleanly out the back unmarred by a single stitch. Certainly not the result I had anticipated.

Amy, the student next to me, noticed my look of consternation.

“Check your bobbin,” she suggested.

Obviously, she had been discreetly observing me.

“Oh.” I replied. “Right.”

I slid the little door open and extracted the bobbin.  I had forgotten to load it with thread.  My brief flirtation with confidence ended then.  I carefully added thread, replaced the bobbin, and prepared to try again.

Place material, flip needle down onto material, press power lever, watch material disappear briskly into the bowels of the machine. The little feet that were supposed to engage and move it along weren’t doing their job.  Stop. Flip up needle, tug at material in embarrassing attempt to get it back. Swear softly. Accept more help from Amy, who was trying unsuccessfully not to look amused.  She showed me how to reverse the machine, and pointed out that my thread had dislodged itself from the needle, so the material was just tangling up in the bobbin, again not forming the neat row of tidy stitches I was by this time desperate to achieve.  Damn bobbins.

By the time I had gotten the machine properly set up for a third try, class was over.  Homework was assigned. We were to go to a fabric store, select a pattern, and choose some knit material. Next week we would be pinning and cutting patterns out of tissue paper instead of practicing sewing seams since everyone, according to our instructor, seemed pretty comfortable with that skill. (Hello?)


A couple days before our next class, I went shopping for a maternity pattern and fabric.  In the bargain bin I found a piece of print polyester that I assumed would qualify as a knit. The royal blue background was emblazoned with a Pennsylvania Dutch pattern of little red and white men and women in breeches and dirndls as you might see in an illustration of Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates. It was really cheap, so I bought a few yards and some matching thread.  I was ready for week two.

After week one’s series of unfortunate events, week two seemed almost too easy.  We traced patterns onto tissue paper, cut and pinned pieces to the real patterns.  There was a demonstration of how to cut according to the material’s weave. Kind of like carving a corned beef.  At last I was learning technique.

Week three was the start of real business. We were asked to pair up and take each other’s measurements prior to cutting out our dress patterns. My partner was Martha, a very sweet woman just a little older than me who mentioned repeatedly that she hadn’t been able to lose her post-pregnancy weight.  Being pregnant myself, I should have found this upsetting, but she was so nice, and clearly so self-conscious, that I felt sorry for her.  I was easy to measure since I would be making a tent with sleeves, but Martha had in mind a sheath-style dress which required much more attention to detail.  As I began to measure, she began to cry.  I really wanted her to feel better about herself, so I did what I thought was a kindness.  I knocked an inch off each of her measurements as I reported them.  She was much happier by the time we cut out our dress pieces.

The following week we basted our garments.  My machine was giving me trouble, losing power and then surging, which made about every fifth stitch pucker.  I was losing heart and interest. I could tell by the look of my dress I would never actually wear it, but Martha’s material was a really attractive gold knit.  She was eager for the next class which included trying on our semi-finished creations.

After a week off for Thanksgiving, we reconvened the following Thursday. Everyone brought their garment, basted and ready to try. When my turn came, I was able to showcase a strangely shaped poncho in an especially garish, yet patriotically colored print.  People were either kind or speechless, maybe both. I didn’t ask for a critique. Martha was in the back of the room struggling to put on her dress which seemed tighter than a sausage casing. I watched, horrified, as Martha became weepy, thinking she had gained weight over Thanksgiving and I realized the awful mistake of my perceived kind gesture as our instructor helped her wriggle out, suggesting they might be able to adjust the seams and “add a little to the back”.

Of course I should have admitted my folly, but I felt so guilty and stupid, I stayed silent.  When after an eternity, class finally ended, I rolled up my dress, stuck it in my bag, and, feeling really sick, fled as fast as I possibly could, never to return.  I don’t know if Martha was able to repair the damage, I didn’t ask Nancy  and she kindly never brought it up


Years later while preparing to move, I unearthed that dreadful garment with the guilt still rolled up inside, and flung it into a Goodwill box, where someone probably, stunned by its hideousness, tossed it in the rag pile. Good riddance! I never did learn to sew, but I assure you the hair shirt I created for myself fit even tighter than Martha’s dress.

© 2020 Faith Ellestad

Faith has been writing to amuse her family since she was old enough to print letters to her grandparents. Now retired, she has the opportunity (and with Covid restrictions, the time) to share some personal stories, and in the process, discover more about herself.  Faith and her husband live with two elderly cats in Madison, Wisconsin. They are the parents of two great sons and a loving daughter in law.


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The Power of a Thing, Or, The Tea Cart Goes Away

This post continues a series on “objects” inspired by Martie McNabb’s Show & Tales events. In writing, the concrete will always have more power than the abstract, because with concrete words come images. Let my words bring images to your mind… and consider this an invitation to write your own “object lessons”–stories inspired by and focused on the things that have meaning for us, because we know their story.


By Sarah White

It is 28 inches long, 18 inches wide, and 26 inches high. It has big wheels at one end and little wheels on the end of legs at the other. Two rounded, drop-down panels can pop up to turn it into a table. A handle folds away at the end with the legs. It is of a style popular in the early 20thcentury—Japonerie. Vaguely Asian scenes are embossed on the drop-down panels. When it was produced in the 1920s, it was designed to live in a formal parlor and be wheeled into position for tea service.


When I first met the tea cart, it was in my Aunt Flosh’s home. She was an elderly bon vivant whose career in publishing in New York City had ended when she retired back to Muncie, Indiana, but she continued to entertain, and the tea cart surely saw use as a cocktail serving station when little girls were not around.

I coveted it and hoped someday it would be mine, like the delicate Czechoslovakian tea set that had probably been purchased at the same time.

Both items date from a time in my father’s life when dysfunction emerged from the primordial muck of family dynamics, took the form of what we came to call The Lovely Things, and stayed. The story, in a nutshell, goes like this: My father’s mother died when he was 6, after painful years suffering from an undiagnosed and worsening brain tumor. She left six motherless children ranging in age from toddler to teen.

My father’s father remarried. The new wife had two daughters of her own, older than the father’s children, about to be launched in society (and in Muncie in the 1920s, that was still something the better families did.)  The stepmother was glamorous. Where the children’s mother had lived frugally as their father established his law practice, the stepmother entered the scene as their father became more prosperous. He indulged her with many purchased of Lovely Things—a Haviland china dinner service, Revere candlesticks, coffee service and silverware, the tea cart and other furniture.

Think of those children, growing up with pain and frugality, to be replaced by an acquisitive woman who focused her attention on her own daughters, who were lovely, and ignored the stepchildren, who were plain. The Lovely Things became invested with all that hurt, totems destined to carry it forward.

My aunt Flosh serving little me at a holiday dinner. The table is set with some of the Lovely Things.


When the stepmother died many years later, she made a list of who was to have which. Over the ensuing decades the Lovely Things were distributed and redistributed. Each time the story was told again.

My Aunt Flosh came into possession of the tea cart. It drifted down from pride-of-place in her living room to serving as a plant stand in the breezeway, but she made room for it in her tiny apartment at the Westminster Home, and that says something about the persistent power of the Lovely Things. My mother received it after her death.

The tea cart came to me in 1992 when my mother closed out her Indiana home a few years after my father died. Preparing for her move to Florida, she sent a list of the Lovely Things to me, my siblings, and our cousins descended from the original Whites of Muncie. I, of course, claimed the tea cart. I got the Czechoslavakian tea set and Haviland china too, but they went into boxes and have only come out a few times for special events. The tea cart has lived in my dining room for 28 years.

I grew from covetous, to neutral, to resentment about it, over the years. Once gained, the things we want seldom hold the power they had when they were shimmering desires. But could I part with it? Wouldn’t I have to find a White descendant who wanted it, and pass it along with a retelling of the story of the Lovely Things?

My siblings and cousins said “no thanks.” Finally enough people have died that the legend has lost its power. I’m backing away from the computer right now and taking it to the thrift store for donation.

© 2020 Sarah White

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This post continues a series on “objects”, inspired by Martie McNabb’s Show & Tales events. In writing, the concrete will always have more power than the abstract, because with concrete words come images. Let John’s words bring images to your mind… and consider this an invitation to write your own “object lessons”–stories inspired by and focused on the things that have meaning for us, because we know their story.

By John Pfender

It’s surprising how it can be the little things that make such strong memories. I remember my brother and I, as small kids, running across the wide open lawn at our summer cottage and out onto the long pier that stretched out into the wide, turquoise blue water of the St. Clair River.  At this moment it was not the passing proud freighters or endless pleasure craft that attracted our attention, but the hope of river minnows. Our running steps slapped against the deck boards and stopped abruptly as we knelt and pulled the rope tied to the railing.

Up came the minnow net through the crystal clear water, towards our expectant faces and excited voices. The net was teeming with many small silvery minnows gathered to nibble the flour paste off the cotton netting.  We pulled the net clear of the water and brought it to rest upon the catwalk. We also hauled up the old steel minnow bucket, peppered with holes to let the river water in, and opened its creaky lid to accept its new prisoners.  The minnows in the net flashed the colors of the rainbow: patches of red, green, blue and orange against shiny silver sides and white bellies. Excited voices went silent as we stared at the beauty.

Our concentration broke as the minnows started to gasp for air, their almost-transparent lips and liquid eyes seemingly staring up at us. Dad came out in his white shirt and khaki pants, preceded by the smell of his cigar. We all looked together, then quickly dumped the minnows back into the river–bypassing the waiting pail. The minnows regained themselves then in small groups darted back into the deep river.

As a parent, I think part of the reason the memory of those brilliantly-colored minnows is so strong is that such minnows no longer live in our river. They have been replaced by newcomers from other continents. My children are entranced nonetheless by the large, ugly imposters that make their way these days into the old minnow net.  It is bittersweet to hear them exclaim with wonder: “Look Dad, aren’t they great?”

© 2020 John Pfender

John Pfender lives in Madison, Wisconsin where he likes to putter around the garden and old house, read, play the accordion and write the occasional memoir for his children and grand kids. He spends time each summer at the family’s ancestral cottage in the St. Clair Flats on the Michigan-Ontario border.

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This Way to Darshan

This post begins a series on “objects”, inspired by Martie McNabb’s Show & Tales events. In writing, the concrete will always have more power than the abstract, because with concrete words come images. Let Mona Jean’s words bring images to your mind… and consider this an invitation to write your own “object lessons”–stories inspired by and focused on the things that have meaning for us, because we know their story.

By Mona Jean Harley

I sat down to sip my morning tea, Indian black tea from Munnar, and I remembered the lush green tea plantations terracing the hills of South India, visiting the tea museum where I learned that white, green, and black teas all come from the same plant.  The way the leaves are processed produces the different types of tea. Who knew?

As I swallowed a taste of that black tea, leaves that had been on the bottom of the stalk,  I looked down at my dining room table where the hand-blocked flower-and-leaf print met my eyes, and I could see the colorful textiles lining the shelves of Soma, a popular store in India where they continue the ancient art of hand-blocking fabric.

I spread this tablecloth on my dining room table two days ago as I was preparing to host my neighborhood Bunko group, with an India theme.  To get ready for the evening I had made a vegetable curry that had simmered all day, bathing in the fragrances of curry powder, cardamom, and Garam Masala. I had made a quadruple batch of palak paneer, which I had already made several times since returning from India two months ago.  I needed to be sure there were leftovers, so my kids would have plenty to take in their lunches, and wouldn’t have to fight over the meager remains as they had after previous dinners.

I placed the stainless steel cups on the table, ones I had bought at the market “underneath” the Shree Meenakshi Temple in Madurai. That temple was massive, covering fourteen acres and it had forty-five hundred columns inside and outside the structure, plus an elephant that gave blessings.  I can still feel the tickle on my nose, the joy in my heart, and the laughter on my lips from that elephant’s long trunk blessing me.  We left our sandals outside the temple and walked through an outdoor tunnel to enter the temple, with a sign overhead that read, “This way to Darshan.” I felt intrigued seeing both English and Hindi combined in one sentence, not yet knowing what “seeing” and blessing I would experience inside the temple walls, and throughout my India journey.

I continued to prepare for the evening festivity by putting some Indian snack mixes in a tiffin box, and taking the samosas and pakoras out of the freezer.   It had been such a joy to buy these items at one of the local Indian markets in Madison, and observing the now-familiar head bobble as the owner bagged my food items.

I had prizes for the evening, as well as simple gifts for each neighbor, that I had selected from Blue Mango, the women’s cooperative where I had spent five days. Before my guests arrived, I excitedly dressed in one of my salwar kameez outfits. Stepping into the clothing transformed me in Madison, as it had for those 17 days in India, where I became even more open to the people, the culture, and the experience of India.  I draped the dupatta, the scarf, around my neck as the first guest arrived. It was a delightful evening sharing food, gifts, and stories.

After finishing my morning tea I decided to check Facebook. I saw the beautiful picture of fellow traveler Pam’s dear daughter Amanda, as Pam was remembering her daughter’s birthday today.  I spent time thinking about Pam, and Amanda, a young woman I never met, and never will meet, yet I learned to know her and care about her, through her mother’s stories.

Then I thought of another traveling companion, Peg, who had also lost a child.  One-by-one each of the women in the group came to mind with deep appreciation, smiles, and a few chuckles, which led me to looking at photos from the trip. I spent time perusing some of my hundreds of photographs and created an album of the village home visits.  It was so pleasurable to take time to really focus on the women, the villages, each of the five homes we were invited to tour, the village residents who gathered and watched our group of American women, and the feelings that filled me.

As I was reliving all of this I experienced an almost startled thought: “I was in India!”  I felt overwhelmed, and filled with delight, and awe.  And with ache. At that moment I wanted so much to be right back in that village, right inside the first very tiny one-room home, to see the lovely chalk Kolam on the floor of the second home, to see the delight and pride once again as Marialama showed us her sewing machine in the third home, to watch 13-year-old Anish take us immediately into the second room of his house and proudly point to the framed photo of his deceased father on the wall of the fourth home, and to, once again, feel the warm concrete underneath my bare feet on Priya’s rooftop, the warm sunshine on my face, even the sweat dripping down my body, in the fifth home.

Mona Jean with friends in a rickshaw

I need to write down the India Stream of Consciousness I am experiencing today.  I am listening to Carrie Newcomer singing the song “A Small Flashlight,” and a phrase jumped out to me: “…only in looking back do we understand that the way was true, like an open hand.”  YES!  True understanding does not simply occur in a moment or in an experience, but in looking back, and continuing to look back, at life experiences.  Truly it is the Darshan, the seeing.  I am so grateful for the “open hand”—and hearts—by Lakshmi and Sarasong and all of the Blue Mango Women and children, by the Avenue Regent Hotel Staff, by Beena and her staff at Cultural Academy for Peace, by the Vipin Village women and children, by Dr. Bhasi, by the women and children at Shanti Bhivan Women’s Shelter “Peace House,” and, without a doubt, the open hand and heart from each of my traveling companions on this Cultural Connections sojourn.  I feel like my hand and heart have opened in new and bigger ways, seeing not only through eyesight, transforming me then, and now.

After wandering inside the small, dusty Ghandi bookstore in Madurai, I stepped outside to find my sandals. I looked back at the entrance, and there was the bookstore owner in the doorway, leaning against the door frame. I held up my camera, gesturing if I could take his picture.  He gave me a head bobble, an affirmative.  I snapped a perfect picture.  He took his two fingers to his eyes, then extended them to me, then back to him.  This was the Darshan.  The seeing. A glimpse of the holy, for him, and for me.

Ghandi Bookstore


© 2020 Mona Jean Harley

Mona Jean Harley was delighted to stumble across the “First Monday First Person” writing group in Madison Wisconsin in the fall of 2018, which has been a perfect space to become more fully inspired in writing and in paying attention to life.

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Martie McNabb, “Heartist”: Holding Space for Story-Sharing and Listening

I’ve found a partial solution to how to blog while experiencing a COVID-19 pandemic-related form of writers’ block: I’m sharing resources offered by friends/colleagues who are finding their own ways to help “ordinary” people cope in such an extraordinary time.

Martie McNabb

In a world where meeting with others in person has become Russian Roulette, one of my friends from the world of personal historians is hosting virtual events that nourish the human heart—and helping others do so too.

Brooklyn (the Van)

Martie McNabb, formerly of Brooklyn, NY and now living part-time in rural Vermont and Brooklyn (the RV), has been dubbed a “Heartist” for her unique blend of creative pursuits. When we first met as members of the Association of Personal Historians, her work involved creating visual narratives from client’s photo, document, and memorabilia archives. Before long, she was developing her signature story-sharing events, dubbed Show & Tales. Now, she’s coaching others to use these events to build their community and drive new business opportunities.

“It’s like Antiques Roadshow meets The Moth,” Martie says of Show & Tales. What makes these events unique is that people bring a special photo or object and share its story for up to five minutes. The room fills with laughter, tears, and camaraderie, as people bond over recalling memories triggered by each “show-er.”

Martie originally launched Show & Tales after she attended some storytelling events, but found them restrictive. “I wondered, ‘Why no props, no objects? Why can’t things be shown and a story told about them?’” she said. Martie uses the term story-sharing, not story-telling to differentiate the Show & Tale ethos. “It’s nice to come to a space where the stories aren’t practiced.”

Martie chose a friend’s bar, the Branded Saloon, in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, for her first event, creating a casual atmosphere where guests could relax, sit back, and listen. There’s no pressure to “deliver” or “perform” the story. “Look-ers”—the people who come just to look and listen—are just as welcome as “show-ers.” Both connect on a deep level, bearing witness to the meaning that resides in everyday objects (if you know their story).

She soon learned to focus each event on a pre-set theme, which brought out the common ground among participants’ experience. Themes also made finding event partner-sponsors easier. A natural fit for the theme “Old, New, Borrowed, and Blue” would be a wedding venue, photographer, or planner. Her vacation-themed events make partnering with the travel industry (which is looking for new opportunities these days) easy.

An in-person Show & Tales

Martie envisioned Show & Tales as a way to call attention to her work as a visual artist who “tells stories with other people’s stuff.” She thought it might help her build business, Memories Out of the Box. Then she realized the Show & Tales model could help other artists and legacy professionals (what I call “memory savers”) build their businesses, as well.

She shared the event model with members of the Association of Personal Historians, which offered its members a “grab and go” kit with everything a host needed to organize an event, such as how to select venues, attract attendees, and approach partner-sponsors. “Then I got people reaching out to me, wanting to know how to get people to the events,” Martie said, and that led to the growth of her Show & Tales brand.

“My original model when I decided to start a separate business for Show & Tales was Paint Nite,” Martie said, who admired the way that company gave artists an additional income stream and brand-building opportunity with very little investment required. She prepared to launch Show & Tales nationally with a similar licensing model, but pivoted to a membership model earlier this year. Members who join the Show & Tales community receive access to all marketing collateral, branded merchandise, training to learn how to host their own events and grow their business, and opportunities to collaborate with her on retreats, reunions, and corporate events.

Since its start almost ten years ago, Martie has hosted over 130 Show & Tales in person. When the COVID19 pandemic put in-person events on hold, she moved her events online. Reservations are necessary to receive the log-in link. A donation is suggested, but not required.

An online Show & Tales hosted over Zoom, from inside Brooklyn (the RV).

“Show & Tales is one of the major ways I can be of service” during the pandemic, Martie said. Show & Tales offer a meaningful way to connect with each other, countering isolation and loneliness. The events bring together people from different backgrounds who might not otherwise meet. Superficial differences disappear as stories showcase our shared humanity.

I hope I’ve made you want to attend a Show & Tales event yourself! Find Martie’s schedule of upcoming virtual meetings at her website, ShowandTales.com.

© Martie McNabb and Sarah White

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I have these workshops starting in July–all online!

Wherever you are, you are welcome in my virtual classroom for 2 workshops starting in July. Originally planned for in-classroom, these two workshops have moved online and are open to anybody, anywhere.


3-week workshop offered by the Fitchburg Public Library

Be the ancestor you wish you had! Learn to create lively, richly detailed stories for future generations to enjoy. In this workshop for beginning writers, we explore how to write and share stories that reveal your family’s formative experiences, values, and life lessons. We will spend three sessions discussing how to find the stories worth telling; how to convey the essence of people, places and events; and how to share your work with others! For each class meeting, students write a few pages. Each class meeting includes time to share writing in a supportive environment.

  • When: Thursdays 10:30-12:30 (central) on July 9, 16, and 23
  • Where: via Zoom.
  • How much: Free
  • To register: Send email to: library.reference@fitchburgwi.gov


6-week workshop offered through Madison College

At a time when we cannot travel or even make plans, memories of past travel can be a lovely escape. The trip of a lifetime can also be the story of a lifetime. Turn your photos and travel experiences into a compelling essay that can be your best souvenir! In this workshop, explore what to write about, why, and who to write for. Bring your story to life with vivid characters, settings, focus, and drama, and find the personal meaning in your travel memories. Whether you’re new to writing or a working writer, you’ll learn skills that you can apply in writing a piece of work for publication, for blogging, or memorializing your experience to share with friends and family.

I hope you’ll join me in the virtual classroom in July!

  • Sarah White
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Janelle Hardy: Connecting body, mind, and spirit through life story work

I’ve found a partial solution to how to blog while experiencing a COVID-19 pandemic-related form of writers’ block: I’m sharing resources offered by friends/colleagues who are finding their own ways to help “ordinary” people cope in such an extraordinary time.

Janelle Hardy, life story practitioner (and more)

What’s a bodyworker/workshop leader doing to be helpful during this time of pandemic? That’s the question I asked Janelle Hardy, creator and teacher of an online transformational memoir-writing course called The Art of Personal Mythmaking. Her process uses body-based trauma-informed writing prompts, fairytales, and themed modules to support creative folks who are interested in healing from their lifestories as they write their memoirs. Born and raised in Canada’s Yukon, she now lives in British Columbia.

Asked what she is seeing in this time of pandemic complicated by justified anger at systemic racism, Janelle says, “A lot more people are enrolling in my classes. The change I’m seeing is that people are taking the leap with more ease—which is not what I expected, but makes sense in times of crisis. Folks are really wanting to learn and grow, and receive support. Rather than retreating, it seems to push them to say ‘I will do this for myself.’ It’s great for me, and for them.” (Find more information on the workshops at the end of this post.) A new workshop starts in in Autumn of 2020.

Janelle worked as a trauma-informed bodyworker for more than a decade, and has been a working artist (writing, painting + dance) for even longer. Throughout that time she’s taught adults out of her living room, arts centers, universities and community colleges.

“I bring a lot of body-based nervous-system-regulating techniques into the process of life story work, because I’ve found that it is really common for people to confess to me that they’ve wanted to write down their life story for over twenty years—but haven’t started.” Janelle told me.

“A lot of times it’s a fear of not knowing if they will be able to handle the difficult parts. And there are other fears—am I a good enough writer? Is my life interesting enough? Although I’m not a coach, I do a lot of coaching around resistance, self-doubt, procrastination, and overwhelm—those are, in my experience, related to a need for healing. The more I direct people toward nervous system re-regulation, the more the resistance seems to melt.”

I asked Janelle how she came to connect bodywork to life story.  “In North America, we are socialized to stay stuck in our heads. I’ve always been an artist, and I studied anthropology. Mind, body, and spirit are connected, which again, is something, we’re socialized to not understand.”

Through her work as a Structural Integration practitioner (Rolfing), Janelle learned that releases in the body were accompanied by an emotional release that brought out stories, feelings, and memories. “It’s not possible to separate that. I got interested in integrating creative writing with body-based awareness and healing.”

Janelle connects life story to personal mythmaking, saying, “We have more agency to reclaim our stories than we think. There’s a lot of power in examining our stories, first for ourselves, secondly for our loved ones as a legacy. I make it fun by bringing myth and fairytale into the process.”

Janelle’s interest took her deep into how we make meaning out of our lives, connecting individual life experiences, family culture, and social history. She pointed out that in North America, because of our colonial imperialistic history, many people know very little about their past, having lost knowledge of their ancestries, languages, cultures and lands of origin. “Reclaiming that is essential to understanding ourselves as well.”

We talked a bit more about the impact of racist colonial processes on minds and bodies, and then our conversation came around to what Janelle is doing to be helpful in the time of COVID.

Janelle’s workshop business model centers on her course,  The Art of Personal Mythmakingwhich she teaches as a live online workshop offered twice a year. The next cohort of students will begin in Autumn of 2020. The 5-month course involves a supportive weekly class and interaction with “creative, caring classmates,” according to Janelle’s website. The fee is $2100, or $215 in 10 payments, but there are early bird rates when you sign up for her newsletter. Find more here.

Janelle offers a free introductory workshop, Outline Your Memoiron demand. It consists of a recorded 2-hour video plus downloadable prompts and chat support. Access it here.

Janelle also occasionally offers a DIY Marketing workshop geared for creatives and what she delightfully terms “sensitive solopreneurs.” The course offers tips on marketing, especially online—crucial at this time—and access to a comprehensive resource library.

“I created it for people like me—healers or teachers—big-hearted people who are not thriving in their practices. It’s knowledge that’s hard to find, so it’s the course I needed when I was getting started,” Janelle said. During the pandemic, she is offering the workshop at “super-accessible pricing” and a sliding scale. Find more information on the workshop here.

“If you’re curious about my work—try the free outlining workshop,” Janelle suggests. Whether you’re interested in writing your own story or building a business helping others save their memories, Janelle has a unique approach worth checking out.

© Sarah White and Janelle Hardy

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COVID19 has jailed our elders

May 15, 2020

On March 15, the assisted living facility where my mother lives went into lock-down to attempt to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Visitation was immediately restricted to only those receiving end-of-life care. Group dining was suspended. So were all group activities.

I am a member of a cohort of daughters who are lifelines to the free world for our elders in care homes like this one. For nearly everyone, that lifeline was severed that day in March. My mother is enrolled in hospice, so I was still allowed in. What I see is taking its toll on me.

One of the things we Daughters do is decorate to mark the passing seasons. This is especially important in winter months when most residents stop going outside. Our displays provide reminders of the passing seasons for their daily strolls around the halls.

As the weeks–now months–since March 15 unfolded outside the institution, time stood still inside. The impact of all those daughter-visits gone missing gradually became visible. In mid-May, according to the displays, it was still St. Patrick’s Day.

Memos from the institution’s management advised of ongoing restrictions. We all knew, as the memos told us, that “in a long-term care setting, the potential for rapid spread can be extremely high and life-threatening.” TV news of nursing-home deaths made that clearer than any memo could.

Warmer days arrived, and residents began to be allowed outside to meet a family member or two in socially-distanced groups. Family members occasionally “chalk-bombed” the sidewalks, cheering on their elders and their caregivers.

May 27, 2020

Between the lines of the memos from management, you could read the increasing desperation. “We understand the challenges of staying in place. However, we each have responsibility to help stop the spread of the virus…. You understand that if you fail to follow the community’s rules and protocols, you are placing yourself, our residents and others in our community at higher risk. Avoid outings or limit outings outside the community to only essential outings, such as hospital or health care visits.”

I visit almost every day, grateful for my relative privilege due to the administrative exception for end-of-life. I try to bring a little joy in with me in any way I can… cookies for the staff, flowers for the front desk. My husband and I planted up a flower box outside.


Now, Summer Solstice is approaching. My heart cracks each time I walk past those St. Patrick’s Day displays. I want to see them sent to the Wisconsin Historical Society, to commemorate this pain.

There is so much I want to unsee–the Culver’s burger and milkshake consumed by mother and son on either side of a closed window. The front-desk clerk lumbering to her feet to unlock the door yet again, her desk job transmogrified into a concierge with life-and-death responsibilities. The staff wheeling the styrofoam boxed meals through the halls, which are gradually becoming stained with food-spills no one has time or energy to clean up.

This is an inhumane way to live, especially when you consider any month may be any resident’s last. It is unspeakable, and has stolen the words from my mouth.

But not from Beverly Blietz’s, who penned and read her essay for Outbreak Wisconsin, which I heard on WPR last week. Outbreak Wisconsin chronicles people’s journeys through the coronavirus crisis, exposes failing systems and explores solutions. Beverly speaks the truth about “independent living” in COVID times.

Listen to Beverly Blietz’s first audio diary, produced by Coburn Dukehart for WPR

© 2020 Sarah White

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No Words

By Sarah White

Lake Superior, around Ontonagon, Michigan, 46° N, 89° W.  Zero positive tests for COVID19. 100% positive energy. Wish you were here,


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