Family Affairs – A Short Story

The following excerpt is from my short story, entitled Family Affairs, which was recently published on the Short Fiction Break website (link to full story is below). Enjoy!

The private dining room, despite its sophisticated walnut accents and warm tones, was both stifling and somber. A fitting place for this particular family dinner.

Sliding open the paneled screen, a waiter entered the small space and set a plate of edamame down on the white linen tablecloth. He then stood waiting at the end of the table, clasping his hands behind his back.

Dennis Martinson dismissed the waiter with a wave of his hand, then picked up a pod and munched. He was a man used to getting his way, and he regarded his son with irritation, not hiding the disdain in his voice. “So, Adam, tell me again why you’re planning to leave the business?”

Adam looked around the table at his family, settling his gaze on his mother, Annie, who averted her eyes. He exhaled a loud breath, but when Adam spoke, his voice was steady. “It’s like I already told you. I never did like manufacturing. It was fine when I first got out of school, but it’s been a few years. I need to do my own thing now.”

Click HERE for the story in its entirety!

A Resolution of JOY

Despite 12 years of Catholic education, I consider myself more spiritual than religious.

You may argue that “spiritual” and “religious” mean the same thing. But to me, being spiritual relates to matters of the soul and intangible things, including heavenly beings. Being “religious” pertains to the specific beliefs of a particular religion.

My blog, my opinion.

It’s fair to say that I believe in God as well as angels. I hope like hell there is a heaven (pun intended) in the afterlife. All other details are up for negotiation.

Consequently, Christmas has become a time of reflection and introspection for me, rather than a religious celebration. So when my daughter asked me to accompany her to church on Christmas Eve, I decided to go more for her than for the experience. After all, I finally figured out that God is everywhere, and I don’t need a church to talk to Him or pray to Him.

Now I have to mention that my daughter’s church is a non-denominational Christian fellowship that she was introduced to by friends a while back. Not exactly traditional, or even familiar, for that matter. But she loves it. I vowed to keep an open mind.

The “church” was really an auditorium, and the stage (couldn’t call it an altar) was arranged like a concert with a drum set on risers and various musical instruments in stands. About a dozen small lighted birch trees were evenly scattered on the stage, like soldiers in formation. A huge digital screen above it, displaying messages and song lyrics during the service. It was definitely a different experience than I am used to.

But the heart and soul of any religious service is the sermon. If the message is clear AND is communicated without judgment AND sticks with me for hours or perhaps days…well, let’s just say that this sermon really spoke to me.

The pastor spoke of JOY. Which makes sense because it was Christmas Eve, and JOY is what the birth of Jesus is supposed to bring to Christians all over the world. He quoted numerous scripture verses that mention JOY. He pointed out that the word JOY appears 214 times in the Bible. We sang “JOY to the World” after his sermon.

All that being said, my fascination with his message about JOY had very little to do with religion. He spoke specifically about the difference between HAPPINESS and JOY. 

The pastor referenced happiness as this wonderfully pleasant feeling that many people seek. When you eat a delicious meal with family around the table, it makes you happy. Or if you receive something special, like a gift or a compliment or recognition for something, you will be happy. 

Happiness is something many people seek and work hard to achieve. I mean, who doesn’t want to be happy? I even wrote a post several months ago about it called Be Happy: A Grammatical Perspective. I liked writing that post and, at the time, strongly believed in what I was writing.

But my semantics were off.

Happiness is fleeting and temporary. It is a reaction to something that happens to you. When good things happen, happiness increases. When bad things happen, happiness decreases. Happiness goes up and down like a rollercoaster. 

JOY, on the other hand, is not generated by exterior causes. JOY is an attitude that comes from within. It is powerful, and it is resilient.

While some people seek happiness as their main goal in life, I realize now that they are missing the point. Reaching a goal implies an ending. JOY is about the journey. JOY is the perspective along the way. While happiness dissipates after the source is removed, JOY involves lasting satisfaction. JOY exists even in the face of adversity, in spite of those things that might make us unhappy. 

joy2

Is JOY easy to attain? Is it inevitable for everyone? Of course not. It is a conscious choice. A state of mind. But when you seek JOY and find it, it changes the way you live your life. It changes everything. It becomes an undercurrent in the everyday existence. So while happiness comes and happiness goes, JOY is enduring.

This JOY vs. HAPPINESS debate is not new. It’s been written about many times over. Like here and here. So why is it that I am just now truly understanding what this means? Part of it is attention. I suppose I never really paid attention to the differences. They were always just interchangeable words to me. Also, I believe that you must reach a certain point in your life where you give a shit about those differences. I think people need the clarity of those ups and downs of happiness, resulting from external sources, to truly appreciate the internal nature of JOY. 

It’s kind of like what Glinda the Good Witch told Dorothy at the very end of The Wizard of Oz. And yes, this is paraphrased: “You’ve always had the power, my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.”

For 2019, I am making a resolution of JOY. I know this won’t be easy. In truth, I’m not even sure how to accomplish this! This mindset goes against my natural inclination to feel (and wallow in) every single emotion I have. But in truth, I can still experience all those crazy emotions because JOY will carry me through.

So forget the resolutions of “I will lose 20 pounds” or “I will do more volunteer work” or “I am going to take up painting/gardening/salsa-dancing.” Resolutions don’t have to be about doing something. They can be about feeling something.

I resolve to feel JOY.

I’m not a graphic designer, but…

OK, so I know I’m supposed to be editing (and I am, I SWEAR!), but I needed a break so I started playing with my book cover design. Not that it matters anyway, because I’m going to finish this novel AND get an agent AND get a publishing contract which will include a cover design anyway.

But I was having fun.

Here is my original design:

My Side cover

 

And here is my new one (you can see I have a vision about this cover):

My Side cover2

A graphic designer I am not. But, hey, a girl can have a little fun on Sunday afternoon.

Thoughts? Comments? Suggestions? Would you buy this book based on this cover? Why or why not? You are my audience so I am clearly open to ideas!

Thanks, as always, for supporting me!

Karen

My Side of the Bed: Chapter 2

Here is a sneak peek of Chapter 2 (UPDATED) of my novel My Side of the Bed (unpublished). Feel free to comment and let me know what you think! If you missed (or forget) Chapter 1, you might want to click here first.

Later The Day I Left

My fingers tingle as I grip the steering wheel and navigate my way out of the parking lot. Reaching the road, I stop at the red light and take a deep breath. I don’t want to go home, I think, and lower my head. In fact, I shouldn’t go home. What I should do is turn the car around and go back into the store to finish the shopping. A horn beeps loudly behind me, and I look up to see that the light has turned green.

Home is to the right. I turn left.

My mind is a jumble of emotions. Frustration, anger, panic, guilt. But I also feel numb. I don’t know what came over me back there in the store. I’ve never abandoned a cart full of groceries, but here I am driving away from the supermarket with nary a box of cereal, headed nowhere in particular.

“Where exactly are you going?” I say out loud as if I am talking to a rebellious child and not myself. My heart is racing as I drive by all the familiar landmarks of my life: Leyland Public Library where we go every Thursday evening for story time, the Chinese restaurant where I went into labor with Rissa, the cleaners who lost Michael’s favorite sports jacket.

It’s only a matter of time before I come to my senses and return to my chores, my responsibilities, and my life. I know this because it’s what I’m expected to do. But until then, I want to do anything BUT what is responsible. So I just drive.

Today started out to be a decent day actually. I got my kids out the door on time, which is easier now that there are only a few days of school left. On my way into work, Angela texted me that she already picked up coffee, so I didn’t have to stop. And just after my third period British Lit final, one of my students told me that her family is going to London this summer and she insisted that they visit the Charles Dickens Museum and the British Library while they were there! Proud teacher moment!

I keep driving, out of Leyland and away from my obligations. I should make my way back to the FoodMart where I fully expect to find my overloaded cart still sitting in aisle 7, the milk getting warmer by the second, the frozen peas defrosted.

Or maybe I should just skip the supermarket and go straight to pick up Rissa from school for her dentist appointment. At least check one thing off my list for the day. We can have the cookout tomorrow night. Oh shit! That won’t work because Odie has his swim lesson after school tomorrow, and then I signed up for a yoga class at 6. Dinner was going to be leftovers from tonight. I guess I’ll have to skip my class again. What a waste of money for my gym membership. I’m never there.

I shake my head and try to clear my brain, but the weight of all my obligations stays put. Before I know it, I see signs for the expressway.

What’s nice about Leyland is that it’s smack dab in the middle of South Jersey. Even though I grew up in Virginia, I have come to love Michael’s hometown, especially because of how close it is to everything. In an hour, I can be in Philadelphia or head the other way and hit the beach.

A few minutes later, I am cruising along the highway, heading east toward the shore. With no kids in the car, I tune the radio to my favorite station and crank up the volume. The music fills the car, and I sing along, relishing this little bit of freedom. All moms need a break every now and then.

I recall a day last summer when I had a vicious headache and couldn’t handle one more little person asking for a playdate or a popsicle or just one more “Mommy, watch me!” I know it was irresponsible, but I locked myself in my bedroom and refused to come out. Hearing their little voices calling for me from the other side of the door wasn’t fun, but I needed some time to myself, or I was going to lose my mind. At least that’s how I saw it at the time. Besides, they were safe and sound in their own home. The front door was locked. Plenty of toys to keep them occupied. When Michael arrived home, he took over, ordering pizza for dinner and getting the kids ready for bed. I didn’t come out for the rest of the night.

So today, instead of locking myself behind a closed door, I am driving away. When I don’t show up to Rissa’s school to pick her up, they will just put her on the bus. Both girls know that if they don’t see my car in the driveway, they are supposed to go next door to Mrs. Neri’s house. Maggie Dawson’s mom has Odie covered. And Michael won’t be that late. They’ll be fine without me for a few hours.

*   *   *   *   *

Before I know it, I am taking the exit toward my favorite beach town. Ocean City, New Jersey, has been our favorite shore spot ever since we started coming here just after we got married. The beaches are clean, and the boardwalk is packed with shops, rides, and food. It’s a relaxed, family-friendly place. My kids love the rollercoaster at Wonderland and Skee-Ball at Jilly’s. Me? I love the people-watching on the boardwalk.

Parking downtown is easy since the streets are not yet teeming with summer tourists. Still seated in the car, I pull out my phone to check the time. It’s just past three so the girls should be getting off the bus soon. Mrs. Neri will likely give them cookies and let them watch Disney Channel until Michael comes to get them. Callie and Rissa adore Mrs. Neri’s schnauzer, Ruby, and, without a doubt, will torture the poor thing all afternoon.

I start typing out a text to Michael, telling him I need a few hours to escape. I’ll be home later tonight. Of course, he’s going to ask why, or worse…he will call me. I just want some time to myself. With no explanations for the time being.

Before I touch the blue arrow to send the message, I notice a mom pushing a double stroller along the sidewalk past my passenger side window. She stops at the SUV parked in front of me and begins the long process of extracting the two whining toddlers from the stroller and then loading them into their car seats. Seeing her haggard-looking face as she moves from stroller to car, stroller to car, I feel compelled to lean out the window, get her attention, and assure her that it gets better. But in my present state of mind, I don’t think I will be too reassuring. Instead, I watch her wrangle all the gear into her car, yanking down the lift gate, slamming multiple doors. Then she drives away.

My phone, along with its incendiary message to Michael, weighs heavily in my hand. Rather than send the text, I stuff my phone in my purse and get out of the car. The text can wait.

The afternoon is sunny and warm with a few puffy clouds punctuating the perfectly blue sky. This is just the thing I need to soothe my soul, I think to myself as I walk up the ramp onto the boardwalk. There are quite a few people milling around for a weekday in early June. I head north, passing restaurants offering all kinds of beach-friendly food. There are shops selling personalized bracelets, crappy t-shirts adorned with stupid sayings, hermit crabs, and enough beach toys to give one to every child in the country.

I stroll by a gallery with some local artists’ work on display and wander inside. Tables line each side of the store with rows and rows of acrylic paintings leaning up against the walls. Several large, framed oil paintings hang above them. Toward the back of the gallery, mirrored cases house some ceramic vases, glass trinkets, pewter jewelry, and a swarm of crystal figurines shaped like every sea creature imaginable.

It feels refreshing to just pop into a store that is not geared toward small children. No plastic toys, no electronic nonsense, no sugary distractions. Not only that, there are no little people pulling at my arm, whining about wanting to leave, or needing to be herded away from the breakables. Flipping through a stack of landscapes at one of the tables, I notice that one artist used a young couple as a focal point in several versions of the same beach backdrop. For some reason, it reminds me of Aruba, where Michael and I honeymooned over a decade ago.

The sales associate, a rotund middle-aged woman with long brown hair, steps up to me. “May I help you find something?”

“Oh, no thank you,” I say, smiling. “I’m just looking.”

And indeed, it feels good to have the time to just look. After browsing through the paintings, I go over to one of the mirrored cases and peer inside. There is a tiny pink crystal seahorse on a shelf amongst crabs, dolphins, and mermaids. Rissa’s current obsession is seahorses. And since we missed her dentist appointment and the promised ice cream cone after, I think it will make a nice peace offering.

Back out on the boardwalk, my purchase wrapped and nestled in a small white bag, I continue walking, stopping in stores that interest me and passing on those that don’t. When I reach the north end, I turn around and head back, scanning the dunes and ocean to my left. The unrelenting waves crash onto the sand, hiss, and retreat. Seagulls scurry along the edge of the water foraging for stray crabs. A few brave souls are splashing around in the surf, even though the water has to be freezing this early in the season.

I take a seat on an empty bench and check my phone. It’s 4:15. The text I wrote to Michael still sits there unsent. I really should let him know where I am. But he will be home soon and can handle the kids and dinner. So I put the phone on silent mode and slip it back into my purse. Leaning back, I watch people of all shapes and sizes stroll by on the boardwalk. A middle-aged couple holding hands. A pack of rowdy teenagers. Several families with doting parents of over-excited children. Seeing the kids, I feel a twinge of guilt for having run off from mine, even if it’s only for an afternoon. And then an image of the abandoned cart pops into my head, so I guess I’ll have to that all over again. Maybe tomorrow? I have one more exam tomorrow, but that’s it. Summer break is nearly upon me!

Of course, this sounds wonderful except for the fact that my three kids are also off all summer. So summer won’t exactly be a break. It will consist of camps and crafts and backyard baseball and playdates at the pool and endless snacks and the inevitable boredom that strikes the hearts of every single American child during the summer months.

But for now, I am happy to be sitting here—alone—on this bench on a lovely warm afternoon, watching strangers drift past while the ocean waves crash against the shore behind me.

BE HAPPY: A Grammatical Perspective

Earlier today I was on the treadmill at my gym reading a book (which is what nerds like me do when they actually make the time to work out!). During a fairly benign scene in chapter twenty-seven, two characters in the novel were discussing what they want out of life, and predictably, one of the characters said, “I want to be happy, I suppose.”

Coincidentally, but perhaps not so much, I looked up from my book and out the picture window of the gym that faced a row of homes across the street. Perched in an upstairs window of a house just to the left was a small sign with bold white letters: “BE HAPPY.”

So this got me to thinking. Which can be a dangerous sport.

Continue reading “BE HAPPY: A Grammatical Perspective”