Toys for Tots

My father was a poor kid. Born in the 30’s, he grew up in the rough part of town and lived through the Great Depression and WWII. My grandmother was a single mom with four children for much of my father’s childhood, a time when there was a lot of shame, condemnation, and little support for that circumstance.

The local newspaper, the Peoria Journal Star, ran a toy drive during the Christmas season during those years. It was a charity of gently used toys collected then given new homes, distributed to disadvantage children. My father was a recipient of those toys.

Later in life he was a college educated professional, a mechanical engineer by trade, but he never forgot where he came from. My mother likes to tell the story of coming down the basement stairs to discover dad and my brother Billy sorting through the toy box. My father encouraged my brother to pick out some toys to give to the poorer kids for Christmas.

The largest modern iteration of this type of program is the United States Marine Corps mission, Toys for Tots. The deadline for donating to their 2018 campaign is fast approaching, ending December 16. Toys for Tots collects new unwrapped toys for children ages 0-15, often with a shortage of toys for infants or teenagers. Toys for Tots has been running since 1947 and has distributed some 548 million toys to 251 million children

For years, I delighted in buying toys for my nieces and nephews, but they are all grown up now. I choose to place Toys for Tots on my Christmas list every year. I am paying forward the life that my father provided me. I was the youngest child born at the height of his career. I never had a lack of toys to choose from. Unfortunately, he died when I was 12 years old, but I will never forget what he taught me.

What I understand is this: it’s not just about the joy that is offered- but the dignity.

It is hard for some to imagine that after paying for rent, food, bills, etc. that there really is no money left. Maybe you’ve got $20 in the bank for the next two weeks. Early on in my adult years, I lived that reality too. There were no gifts, no real celebration. I could not afford the gasoline to go home for Christmas or if I did, my presence was the present. But I had no children. I only had to look out for my own ego, my own feelings.

Christmas is a luxury. I cannot imagine what it is like for children who do not have a toy to open on Christmas morning. If the bounty of my professional career can provide someone with some small measure of community, belonging, dignity, and joy- what sweeter fruits of my labor are there? Is that not exactly what Christmas is all about?

 

Please donate to your local Toys for Tots. For more information, please visit their website: https://www.toysfortots.org/

 

Copyright C.M. Mounts, December 2018

Christmas Cards

I celebrate Christmas and annually travel to Illinois to spend the holiday with my family. In the weeks leading up to it, I don’t do much besides shop for gifts to take home with me. As a single professional, what is the point of decorating a Christmas tree besides to serve as an extra-large cat toy? I hang a wreath instead.

I don’t go to Christmas shows or events because I do not have anyone to go with. I have attended events alone for years, so that’s not the problem. It just gets old. And lonely. And if you attend family events alone, people look at you with suspicion like you are there to snatch their husband or baby or purse. It’s a terrible world we live in.

Christmas cards are one of the few holiday activities I participate in.

I have collected many friends and acquaintances over the years. As much as social media might want us to believe it has brought us closer together, I mostly see disconnection. I sometimes find myself searching through the newsfeed for help and come back with emptiness. If I have learned one thing living in a highly commercialized society, it is that you will not find real connection in marketing- whether it’s for an actual product or by an ordinary person presenting an image, trying to brand themselves.

I don’t see everyone, every year. Some I haven’t seen in decades. And I may not see some people ever again. My former boss Margaret comes to mind. When I first started out in my career 20 years ago, she taught me what it meant to be a smart, hard-working, professional woman. She set an example for me that I carried through my work to this day. We remained friends after I left the job and I delighted in terrorizing her around Halloween about just how many days were left until Christmas. I sent her a Christmas card every year until now. Cancer took her September 13, 2018. I have to cross her name off my list…

All I ever get in the mail these days are bills, advertisements, or junk. The art of the hand-written letter is all but dead. Do you remember what that was like? How exciting it was to get an envelope addressed to you in a familiar hand. That was replaced with the excitement of getting an email in the mid-90’s. Now email seems to just suck the life out of you. Letters haven’t returned. So, I mail Christmas cards that are funny or beautiful. I hand write messages of good will in each to simply let people know I am thinking about them.

I know some people think cards are stupid and don’t bother. I know others who play a yuletide version of ‘chicken’ in which they watch the mailbox for Christmas cards, then only send out cards in response to those they’ve received. I have also watched people open my card looking for money and when they only found my message, toss it aside in disappointment. Here is the truth folks: Love is spelled T.I.M.E. not M.O.N.E.Y.

I still have Christmas cards sent to me from my grandmothers who have both been dead for over 20 years. As I age, I have come to recognize that the time people spent writing out cards and letters was the love they were sending me. Christmas cards return me to a simpler time. They remind me of the days of anticipation for Christmas day. When I fill out my cards, I walk down memory lane, think about the people and the time we have spent together. I suppose I do it as much for me as for them.

“Photographs and memories
Christmas cards you sent to me
All that I have are these
To remember you”
– Jim Croce

 

Copyright C.M. Mounts, December 2018

Sell Out

I had an odd experience in February 2009. I went home to see my mother, about a month after the end of my last long-term relationship (I’ve had two). When I walked into her kitchen, she said in surprise, “It’s nice to see you… I haven’t seen you in a long time…” She didn’t mean physically. She meant my spirit, my being, my inner self. I asked her how long it had been since she had seen ‘me’.

1993. Sixteen years. Before I sold out.

I knew what she meant. Back then, I intentionally changed who I was. I hated who I was. I wanted something more, something different, something that I thought was better than what I naturally am. I gave up being an artist in favor of a technical career.

I am a sellout.

No, it’s true. I am a musician, a pianist. Most people don’t know that because I gave it up many years ago. I used to bleed music. I could read it before I could read language. Mom says I wrote my first song at age three… musical notation, not lyrics.

My sister taught me to harmonize when I was very small, in the bathtub while washing my hair so that we could sing together in the beautiful acoustics of the bathroom. From that moment on, I bled music. When I would hear melodies, I would write accompaniment in my mind and sing harmonies. I thought that was what I was supposed to do. I knew very few melodies to songs for I’d only sing in harmony.

I was in band, choir, and theater. My mom provided me with piano lessons. But I was terrified of performing solo. I did not excel at playing instruments because I was afraid to practice and I didn’t do it enough. I think the only way I got through being a lead in the school musical was because I was pretending to be someone else. That and the stage lights and being a natural ham…

By the time I went to college in 1990, I was listening to music no less than 12 hours a day. It was all I ever wanted to do as a career. Music was my first major in college. I practiced and practiced and my abilities flourished. But I had to face a soul crushing truth. While music easily flows into me, it does not easily flow out. I have such horrible musical performance stage fright that it crippled my ability to be a professional musician. It broke my heart.

When I finally gave up hope, I stopped playing music and singing altogether. I refused to even look at a piano for five years. If I walked into a room and there was a piano in it, I would intentionally turn my back on it. It had defined who I was for so long that it crushed me thoroughly to give up my dream of being a professional musician. I could not face it.

I switched over to writing, an English major in 1992, but soon the voice in my head that told me I wasn’t good enough took its toll and I turned to a technical career. Many people told me it was a good thing to put away frivolous and childish things in favor of real work, that I was better off this way. Welcome to the machine.

To me it was a betrayal of my ideals, my belief that one should pursue one’s passions, one’s calling instead of money. I justified my choices by thinking that I was getting a great day job so that I could afford to do what I wanted to do the rest of the time. That has turned out to be true at this stage of my life. This is in fact what most artists must do in order to survive. The problem was that I wasn’t pursuing my arts at all and did not for many years. It took its toll on my psyche and my relationships.

My last long-term relationship was with a drummer who played out at clubs with friends. Watching them stirred up the call in me to play music again. The greatest gift I ever got was a keyboard in October 2000, celebrating my 28th birthday. I did play it for some time but never got over my trouble of playing in front of others. I got ‘caught’ by friends once playing Bach’s ‘Toccata and Fugue in D minor’. They told me they thought the classical music station was on… so sweet.

In 2005, I made a conscience choice to stop playing music in favor of writing. To play the piano at that level took a lot of time and practice. I felt like I could either be OK at piano and writing or give up one to excel at the other. I chose writing. Now I bleed ink instead of music. Music comes in, words go out. Mom says I wrote my first poem at age six. Of all the great many gifts with which I have been blessed, I believe writing is my greatest. I believe it is my calling and strangely, my crippling stage fright with music has forced me to write instead.

But I know in my heart that my fear of performing music is a personal challenge associated with my inability to accept myself and allow myself to be vulnerable. In 2014, I started to take on that challenge. I took voice lessons for the first time at age 41. That experience with my wonderful voice teacher Julie broke up a lot of my stage fright. I sing out now with much greater ease and joy. I sing out publicly and willingly participate in karaoke. You can see a video of me singing ‘Natural Woman’ here:

I guess my point is that we take many roads to find ourselves, even some that lead away for a time. But ultimately, we do eventually point toward home. And it’s never too late to find joy in those things we truly love. My music may not look today like I wish it could have but I do have it. It is forever part of the artistry that I am.

 

Copyright C.M. Mounts, November 2018

Wayfarers Thanksgiving

In 2010, I was faced with a terrible realization: I had nowhere to spend Thanksgiving. My hometown and family were 400 miles away in Illinois. Old friendships from school were dormant and scattered across the country. I had been in a long-term relationship that ended in 2009 and the people in my life outside of that relationship consisted mostly of coworkers. I did not have a strong connection to my community. I did not have the friendships, colleagues, or writing contemporaries that I have today.

I can’t recall now how it happened, but friends of another friend got wind that I was without a place to share Thanksgiving dinner. They generously opened their family table to me. I spent that Thanksgiving among near strangers, watching a family dynamic not my own, and having a wonderful holiday. I spent Thanksgiving 2011 with them as well.

My niece moved to Minnesota in 2012. Suddenly, I had family in town and when Thanksgiving came around, I knew that I wanted to celebrate the holiday together. But it seemed silly to cook a feast for two of us. I remembered that terrible feeling of exclusion, that feeling of isolation and disappointment from two years before. Surely there were others in this same predicament- new residents, recently single, travelers, or folks just isolated for whatever reason.

It was then I decided to start hosting Wayfarers Thanksgiving.

Wayfarers Thanksgiving 2012

Wayfarers Thanksgiving is for ‘lonely travelers’. It is an extension of my table, an extra seat, a sharing of the bounty and blessings that life has heaped upon me. It is about creating community where there wasn’t one, breaking bread with people you would otherwise not meet. It is often a mixed bag- some family, some old friends, and new friends I’ve just met as they walk through my door. They vary in age and background, but we come together over the feast and wine, to break our isolation and loneliness.

I once stood in line with my grocery cart full of canned goods and a frozen turkey in preparation of the feast. A woman behind me complained loudly to the two men that were with her, family members, that Thanksgiving was just a waste of time and money and there was no way she was going to cook. She repeated this over and over, exasperated and looking for an argument. Her family members’ faces said it all: shame, exclusion, not worthy. They were hurt but stoic, their lips pressed in silence. I can not know their story- she may have lost a job or a family member or had very bad memories of previous holidays.

But for all the headache that Thanksgiving can bring, there is something important and special about the way we celebrate it. It ties our past to our future. I cook recipes from my long dead great-aunt for my niece and friends. It is a time to pause and think about the harvest. The bounty we have reaped once meant our very survival during the coming winter and still does in many parts of the world. There is no pressure of gift giving. Only feasting and imbibing and with any luck, ignoring our troubles and our differences for at least one day.

I have deep gratitude for my ability to host the Thanksgiving table. But there will come a time many, many years from now when I will no longer be able. My hope is that all those who have and will celebrate with me over the years, will look back in fondness, pay that generosity forward, add an extra chair to their own table, and offer a smile and a welcome to a fellow wayfarer.

Wayfarers Thanksgiving Queen

 

Copyright C.M. Mounts, November 2018

Life as I know it: November 10, 2018

Life as I know it is this: My mother has a terminal blood cancer diagnosis (MDS). I am an artist with a professional career in IT. I am dog person living alone with two cats. And I burn with deep pain and passions that frequently erupt into the quiet practice of writing.

What is the function of my blog in my life? I consider the direction it has taken. I have many poems, hundreds probably, and have posted them here. I could keep up with that work, but I feel the call to something different.

My friend Todd blogged his personal journey through blood cancer- from his leukemia diagnosis to untimely death. It is a body of work I believe has helped others on that same journey (Popcorn from the Void). In the coming months, I intend to write about my own journey through grief alongside my creative writing.

Grief is my constant companion. It is the direct result of loving and having loved deeply and lost. I don’t write about my broken heart very much, but it plagues me with rage and sorrow. My deep fibers. They take my breath away.

I am standing on the tracks and there is a light coming toward me, a freight train that I cannot escape. I have read that all other death is merely practice for the death of your mother. Having lost my beloved father at age 12, it is difficult for me to imagine anything more painful than that (other than child death).

My mother is fine right now. She has treatments of chemo to deal with the cancer and anti-biotics to deal with the infections that low white blood cell counts allow to grow. She is active and living her life as normally as possible. She is not close to death yet.

But I am experiencing pre-grief. It is the sort of thing that comes at you sideways. It is feeling anxious without being able to do anything about it. It’s waking up, walking out, letting go. The ground beneath me is shifting- by my choice. I shaved my head. I broke my celibacy. I accepted a promotion.

In the midst of crisis, I am calm. This is typical for people who grew up like I did. I can be calm because I delay. I hold my shit together in order to get through it, to calmer waters. And when I get there, I let it wash over me. I experience the grief, the pain, the anger, the loss. But I have had a lot of crisis these past five years. I have both outgoing and oncoming grief now.

So, what is the solution?

I am in the in-between hours. It is the time for collecting good memories, to fill my cup, to feel free and alive, and take stock. I am visiting with friends, seeing live music, cuddling my cats, reading books- simply being without driving myself to some more constructive end. When the difficulties arrive, I will be able to look back on this time of my life and rejoice. There is happiness within me and within those I love.

It is precious to me, a reminder that life is not all darkness even when it is the darkest.

 

Copyright C.M. Mounts, November 2018

Months in review: Jul-Oct 2018

It’s November and this post was intended to be a quarterly Jul-Sep check-in but then life happened… I’ve had celebrations, out of town visitors, and/or business travel every weekend for the past five weeks. Since I mostly write and blog on the weekends you can understand my absence this past month. But really, who’s keeping track?

I submitted a piece for publication. It’s been over a decade since I last tried. Back then, I was writing children’s stories. If you know me, this fact may come as a bit of a shock- but it’s true. In the early days when I was first breaking out and sharing my work, they were simple, funny stories and did not disturb the deep fibers of my soul. Fast forward to today and you can read the lyrics that erupt when I strum those fibers.

I submitted the story after a friend and someone I consider a writing mentor urged me to do so. It feels like the natural next step to my writing career, such as it is. I have been asked by others why I am not published. And the answer is easy: because I don’t try. But the natural progression of questioning leads to why I don’t try, which I don’t have a good answer for.

You can chalk it up to laziness or perfectionism, but the truth is that it’s just the constraints of a professional working life. Consider our 168 hours every week, minus 56 of sleep (if we are lucky), minus the 60 hours dedicated to weekday work prep, commute, meals, and work day. That leaves 52 hours to rest, clean, shop, exercise, socialize, read, write, etc. Now add in the random universal chaos generator and there you have it. It’s not an excuse, just reality.

There is writing and then there is writing business. Searching for appropriate markets takes time and effort I am not willing to dedicate to my poetry and short fiction. So, I blog it here dear reader. I did manage to post ten times in the last four months, as well as attend open mics around town. This blog is my own magazine, entirely constructed of my work, for free and for my true fans.

But… what are my writing goals? What is it that I want to have accomplished by the end of my days? It’s not fame and fortune. We all know that is the same dream as winning the lottery. Still you can’t win if you don’t have a ticket, right? But I really don’t want that anyway. My dream is more about making a living outside the cube farm from the fruits of my creative writing. Maybe it’s my retirement dream, I don’t know.

My mission in writing is to make my readers feel the way I feel. I want others to know that they are not alone in this world. That the feelings and longings that they are ashamed of are a natural part of this human experience. I find life to be incredibly isolating- some of that by choice and some by circumstance. The difficulty of finding kindred spirits is universal. There are so many paths through life and different kinds of people navigating them. We often face the same trials with different responses and perspectives. I can learn from your experience and maybe you can learn from mine.

But those deep fibers have not rung out yet and finding markets for such stories will require fortitude, energy, and faith that I can and will find my place. That last one… that one fails me too often. Who exactly wants to read about all this crap rattling around in my head and heart? I have no great ego around my writing that makes me think the world needs to hear me, yet I am angered by the suggestion that I am not trying hard enough. I have fantastically wild dreams about my ideal writing life even while I still punch the time card…

The question I ask myself is why publish? Why not remain safe, pouring my guts out in anonymity? Why not leave all the notebooks behind and shock whoever is tasked with putting my final affairs in order? When I was first published in the Journal of Ordinary Thought back in 2002, a publication of the now defunct Neighborhood Writing Alliance in Chicago, I simply could not believe it. Yes, this was the parent organization of my writing group and yes, we were all guaranteed publication (unpaid) once per year, but there was still nothing else like seeing my writing in print. Some unknown someone was going to read it and react to it for good or bad. And in 2003, when I finished the first draft of my first novel, it felt as great as my college graduation. I felt like I could fly to the moon and back again.

Maybe that ride is reason enough for me.

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, November 2018

Loneliness

You never understood fear of being alone
Having been alone most of your life

People ask, “Are you lonely?”
of course, but what of that?

“Better to be alone than in bad company”
You know how bad company can get

Still, who knows your story?
Who can sit with a bottle of wine

Remember when? Your journals
Writing is a cast of the hole dug into you

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, December 2017