All posts by lenleatherwood

I am a native Texan who has lived for the past 21 years in Los Angeles. I am a published author of both short memoir and fiction, a 2015 Pushcart nominee, a nationally award-winning writing teacher, an editor, as well as a Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of Texas. In addition, I am the mother of three grown daughters of whom I am extremely proud, a grandmother of two darling children and the wife of a man I still love after 35 years.

The Kindness of Strangers

I recently reposted a blog about the power of a smile.  This one is about another chance encounter with a stranger that touched my heart. 

 

Many of you know that I wrote recently that my friend Peter is dying. What I didn’t tell you was what happened right after I found out about this news.

The gist is this: My husband Ray withheld from me for two days the news of Peter’s terminal illness. I was working long hours with several students on their final college term papers and Ray waited until the last paper was turned in before sitting down and telling me. He knew I was going to be very sad about this news so in his words, “I didn’t think waiting two days to tell you would make a huge difference in the big picture.” I understood his logic and appreciated his sensitivity to my work situation, but I also felt terrible that I had not yet called Peter or his partner, Jan.

I immediately telephoned Jan and got the lowdown on the situation. The diagnosis was terminal with Peter having less than 6 months to live. Jan is a hospice nurse by profession so this information was relayed in a calm and emotion-free voice. I asked about calling Peter and Jan said, “By all means. He’ll be happy to hear from you.”

Once I hung up the phone, I sat for a minute absorbing the information and steeling myself for my call to Peter. Vowing to stay calm, I dialed his number only to get an automated voice mail message. At the beep, I said, “Peter, I’ve heard the news.” At this point, much to my chagrin, I burst into tears and cried for at least a full minute. I didn’t want to do this or mean to do this. After all, I am aware that my phone call was supposed to offer comfort, not cause distress. I told Peter in the message that I loved him and he was in my prayers, then left my return phone number and hung up. As soon as I was off the phone I started kicking myself. How could I have done that crybaby thing? Peter needed strength, not a meltdown. I was extremely annoyed with myself that I went straight to tears instead of keeping myself together.

A few minutes later, I heard the ding on my phone that meant I had a text.

The text read: I am so sorry you are sad. However, I am not Peter. You dialed the wrong number.

I was horrified that I had left that pathetic message on a total stranger’s voicemail. How awful. But I was secretly relieved that poor Peter had not heard my message.

I immediately texted the anonymous person back and apologized for his having to hear my distressing message.

He wrote back instantly and said, “I am deeply sorry for your loss. No problem at all.”

At this point, I had to laugh. What a nice person to absorb all my pain with not a shred of malice. I screwed up my courage and re-called Peter, this time verifying his number very carefully.

“Hello, Peter,” I said, “how are you doing, my friend?”

“Aw, Len, so good to hear from you.”

I must say that it almost felt as if there was a bit of divine intervention when it came to my misdial. I am glad that my actual interaction with Peter was straightforward and calm, nothing like my emotion-soaked message.

There are those who would say that it wouldn’t have hurt Peter one bit to hear the sadness I was feeling. After all, he might actually have appreciated knowing how much he is loved by me. This is unarguably true, it probably would have been all right had my call gone directly to him. However, my experience with those who are dying is that they regard the dying process in extremely practical terms, and overwrought emotions are seen as an irritant, not a great help.

Luckily for Peter and unluckily for the anonymous recipient of that message, I was able to purge my emotion before actually speaking to Peter.

As for that man who texted me back, his sensitivity was laudable and also greatly appreciated.

He clarified for me that there are truly good people out in the world.

Thank God for the kindness of strangers.

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Revisiting the Same Old Questions, Which Is Clearly Part of the Drill

I wrote this in 2012.  I could have written it tonight.  Apparently, these are questions that come back again and again.  Part of the process, I suppose.  

Blankness. That’s where I am now with this writing thing. Pure blank. Why is that? I can look around and see prompts I could start with: a chair, a lamp, a staircase, a corgi, a clock, folded clothes, a mirror and yet…I am not finding myself jumping in with any of these. Why? Because I am now asking myself what possible relevance does any of this have? Why do I have this blog in the first place? Shouldn’t I have an agenda that I am promoting? Or a product? Do people reading want to read some drivel about my life or some bad flash fiction story that I pound out? Honestly, is this the best use of my time or my writing skills? Shouldn’t I be doing something with all of this?

If you want to know the truth, I have no idea what I’m doing with my writing. I love writing. I feel better when I’m connected to people through my writing, but in the big picture the real question is so what? So what I feel better? What purpose is it serving? So what if I like being connected to people? How long will I be connected through this medium and is it a real connection or me just pounding away at the keys?

Let me make this clear: this is not some sad effort to get reassurance. That’s not the goal of this current pounding on the keys. These are the real questions that are plaguing me at the moment and they have to be answered by me in order to make sense out of what I’m doing. Not that I would mind a little guidance if anybody out there faces this same kind of self-doubt and has come up with some wisdom. I would dearly appreciate that.

I know that writers often question what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. “What’s the point?” is a common discussion if you’re around writers very long since the odds of publication from a bona fide publisher are so damn remote. And even with a blog where some people actually do read your work, there is also the question of what are you writing for? After all, I don’t want to waste people’s time with some self-indulgent b.s. At the moment, I’m not sure what I want to do.

I have always been a helping sort of person – you know, the one with the towel to wipe off your mouth when you’ve just thrown up or who takes care of your dog when you’re away on vacation. Reliable. Dependable. Purposeful. I am not used to forcing people to endure my endless ramblings on whatever comes to mind. How self-absorbed that is and I do really mean that. I loathe self-absorbed people. Okay, loathe may be too strong a word, but let’s just say, I’m not interested or attracted to people of that ilk. So, here I am acting like someone with something to say when I know very well I have nothing to add to the general knowledge pool that others don’t already know. So, here we are back to why am I writing this blog? What purpose does it serve?

I don’t know is the truth. I started it so that I could have an experience to point to when I conduct my workshop at the Story Circle Network Memoir conference in April in Austin. “See,” I could say to my attendees, “I wrote on my blog for a minimum of 20 minutes a day for the past four months, and here’s what I learned from doing it.” All right, that is a reasonable thing to do, I believe, and may be part of what happens to most people who blog – except for those who are either ego-maniacs or have some platform they are promoting (which doesn’t mean they are not also the former). Maybe this is one of the legitimate concerns that bloggers and writers in general have, which is basically, “Why should I bother to write?” So, what is the answer to that very legitimate question?

I don’t have a clue. I truly don’t. On a better day, I’d have all sorts of platitudes to offer – you know – the “Do what you love no matter the outcome” sort of crap, but dog-gone-it, I am not in the mood for that tonight. I mean really why should I or anybody else take the time to put their thoughts down on paper whether they make it public or private? Is there value in that action? Does it really make you a better person? Wouldn’t it be better to be doing something more worthwhile with your time? Just how many people’s thoughts/opinions does the world need? And I mean that really, truly with all sincerity.

I am not going to suddenly offer answers to these questions. If I had them, I wouldn’t be posing them on here. I would instead know why I am writing and just write. So, here we are, back where we started.

Okay, I am going to at least try to salvage this time I’ve spent with a few basic truths as they relate to me. Hmmm. What are those? I have no idea. Okay, here goes…

1) I have no idea what value my writing has to anyone, including myself. I am aware that writing is a way for me to express what I think – however under-developed many of my ideas may be – and maybe that is a decent reason for me to write words/ thoughts down = to see that I actually do think about a thing or two.

2) I am good with people, I know this. I love people and their stories. So why am I not an active psychotherapist at the moment? Wouldn’t that be the way to hear those stories and do something positive with my time? The truth is that I have been resistant to going back to work as a therapist mainly because I want to write instead. But there we are back to the original question: why? What purpose is that writing serving?

3) I have always read that people who have “a purpose in life” are happier. They have goals related to that purpose and they form plans to make those goals happen. But how do you make really realistic goals in a field where you can work on a book for ten years (yes, that’s how long my first memoir turned novel took) and then still not publish it? What kind of crazy person are you (am I?) for continuing in a field where the odds are so against the average Joe making it? And yet, I know plenty of famous authors whose first books (or second or third) were rejected and they still kept on going and eventually hit on that one or two or three books that made their reputation. So, I know it’s not personal that my first book has not been published. Still, it sucks. Period.

4) So, you can see I’m discouraged. Or since there is probably not a soul who has read this far, I can say to myself, so I can see you’re discouraged. Yes, I am. Yes, I am.

5) What to do when you’re discouraged? When the truth is that the odds are not in your favor? When the truth is that for your whole life you may never have that big break? What do you do with that truth looking you straight in the face? I don’t know, just like I said. I do know that I will feel like crap giving up. That will feel bad. I guess you could ask, “Who is it hurting to keep on plugging? Nobody is forced to read this blog. I am not hurting anybody with my dream. I don’t take important time or attention away from those who really need me. But am I just fooling myself? Acting a fool?

6) I get annoyed with the whole line of thinking related to acting a fool. That makes me mad to even think about. Why do I care if I’m acting a fool? Isn’t that better than being a stick-in-the-mud no-nothing with nothing interesting to show? Doesn’t writing bring interesting people into your life? Don’t you have a whole slew of writing friends that you wouldn’t have if you played it extra safe? And besides, what else would you be doing at 7:45 in the evening? Watching tv? Eating? Crocheting? (You don’t crochet, remember?) Don’t forget, the kids have grown up. You need a hobby, for God’s sake or you’re going to drive everybody crazy.

7) Speaking of crazy, now it seems that one side of me is lecturing the other side of me. Well, that is for damn sure, girlfriend. You need a good lecture. The truth is that nobody cares what you do and that’s a good thing. Nobody needs for you to write except you and you’re important enough on your own to do it for no other reason than just that: you. You get to do what you damn well please and it doesn’t matter one tick of the clock what “worthwhile” comes of it. Life is about living everyday the best you can and if writing helps you to do that, then just get it done and stop whining about it.

8) I guess that is the bottom line: Get it done and stop whining about it. But…

9) No buts. Just get it done and realize that everybody that’s ever written more than a few lines has felt the same way you’re feeling and if they haven’t, then maybe they’re the ones who are writing crap.

10) So, I can just sit down and write whatever and make that good enough? That is all you can do and don’t ever forget it. What you think is nothing might hit someone right between the eyes, and something you think is great might be the very thing that never gets the reaction you hoped for. You can’t write for that. You can write for you. Period.

All right, so I have answered my own questions with that other part of my brain and that is just fine by me. I will write and let it be what it is, good or bad, and just keep moving forward. Step after step after step. That will be good enough. That is good enough. Good is as good as it needs to be. Nothing more. Okay, that’s is fine and now I can stop.

P.S. I have to laugh. That other part of my brain sounds like a big black woman with her hand on her hips. My sweet childhood housekeeper Lorene shifted around inside my head to be my cheerleader, my coach, my “get off your lazy rear-end and get moving” mentor. I am not schizophrenic, I promise. Though it might be hard to prove with that little interchange!

2012 Flash Memoir: Never Underestimate the Power of a Smile (With Updated Notes from Today)

I wrote this piece back in 2012.  Somehow it feels pertinent this week after the testimony of Dr. Ford. For those of you who read my blog post last week entitled, “Visiting a Past Trauma While Watching Dr. Ford Today,” please note that I am writing below about the summer in which those three days occurred. In fact, I flew to Texas from Utah to visit my “boyfriend,” and returned three days later forever changed. However, I still managed to connect with the young man in the story below on the most basic of levels: a simple smile. The truth is that our innocent encounters were as important to me as they were to him.  It’s just taken over forty years  (and Dr. Ford’s testimony) for me to realize that truth.  Such is the power of trauma and repression. The parts in blue are my comments today. The black type is what I wrote in 2012.

When I was nineteen, I transferred from the University of Texas to the University of Utah. (I initially was just at the University of Utah for the summer, but after the traumatic event with my boyfriend, I decided to officially transfer.) My sister was getting a divorce and asked if I would come out and be there in Salt Lake City with her and her kids. I was happy to do that. The idea of being out-of-state for the first time in my life appealed to me. (I knew I needed to be as far away from this man as possible.) 

I lived in the dorms on campus that first summer and every day on the way to the cafeteria, I passed a fellow who was about my same age. We smiled at each other and said, “Good morning,” and it developed into one of those silly, sort-of private jokes we shared after only a few days. A greeting and a smile, day after day. (This began before I went to Texas for those three days and resumed immediately after I returned.) 

I saw that same fellow over the next 3 years, occasionally in the student union or en route to class and we always repeated our smiles and our salutations. It was as if we were old friends though we had never said more than 2 words to each other. Just before I graduated, I saw my “friend” at the University pool. Unlike the other times, he walked up to me and said, “Could we talk for just a minute?”

“Sure,” I said. 

“I need for you to know something about me.”

“Okay.”

“That summer we were both in the dorms was a really terrible time for me. My dad had just died and I was so depressed I was considering suicide.”

“Oh, dear…” (Post-trauma, I was terrified that my “respectable” boyfriend was going to show up unexpectedly, take me away and hurt me again. That fear included people seeing us leaving the library where I studied and not having any idea what danger I was in.) 

“Knowing that you were going to give me that big smile of yours is the one thing I held onto that whole summer…your smile saved my life.” (I looked forward to his sweet smile as well after recognizing that he had no ulterior motive besides our daily short encounters.) 

I didn’t know what to say… (At that point, I had compartmentalized my trauma so effectively that I didn’t even recognize that he and I helped each other that summer.)

He touched my arm.  “Never underestimate the power of a smile. Sometimes that’s all a person needs until life turns a corner.” (I recognized the truth in that statement, but not in terms of how it related to me as a person in pain.)

We hugged and said good-bye.

Over these past forty years, I’ve made a point to smile at people when I walk down the street. (I do this even in LA where it’s not common.  Most people don’t give me eye contact, but some do and this feels good.)

After all, I never know when someone might be waiting for life to turn that corner. (Or when I may need that small connection as I wait for my life to turn its own painful corner.)

Len-photo

 

Flash Fiction: Sunset Boulevard

He was standing on the corner when she saw him.  A tall man, he had an air of authority about him that suggested that he was comfortable in life, perhaps living out in the suburbs in a gated community where all the houses matched with variation coming only with the floor plans.  He was wearing jeans and a sweater with a hole in the sleeve right at the elbow, as if he was used to sitting at a table or desk leaning on that spot, wearing it down over time.  His hair, dark and wavy, was too long in an artist sort of way, slightly disheveled and yet somehow groomed to look just right.  It was his lack of shoes that caught her attention.  What was this guy doing walking down Sunset Boulevard without shoes?

She slowed her pace so that she could assess him further.  Maybe he was homeless and she just hadn’t picked up the tell-tale signs.  She looked near him: no bags or shopping cart or even a backpack.  She decided to cross the street to get a better look at him.  Maybe he just presented well like some of the homeless people did – the ones who rode the buses all night so they could sleep and then go to storage lockers they rented where they had clean clothes and could change daily.  She’d known a man through a choir she’d sung in who did just that and cleaned up every day in the bathroom of the storage facility.  She was shocked when he asked for a ride one evening after choir practice and then wanted to be dropped off at a Starbucks near a bus stop.  “I could take you home,” she’d said and he’d looked at her and said, “You clearly haven’t heard my story.”  An intelligent man with a beautiful voice who never said how he had ended up on the street, but had instead chronicled his daily schedule which included the bus, the storage building, then off to a Denny’s for breakfast, before heading for the public library where he spent his days working on his computer, reading classics and categorizing sacred music.

As she drew close to this young man – he couldn’t have been more than twenty-five – she saw that not only were his feet clean, but his toenails were cut straight across, suggesting he attended to them regularly.  He was also humming quietly as if he were strolling through a lovely park rather than down a congested city street.  A tourist, she concluded, here from some Midwestern state where he’d heard his whole life about the Sunset Strip and had decided to come to see it for himself.  Yes, that must be what he was, a man from a country town who didn’t realize city sidewalks were not clean enough for bare feet.  She was almost to the FedEx where she worked when she heard something that made her turn around.

He had begun to sing – in a resonant baritone voice – a song about love and loss and the beauty of life for offering such intense emotions.  She smiled.  A singer-songwriter, that’s what he was, just the sort of person who moved to Los Angeles to live his dream, even if it meant living in one room and flipping burgers to make ends meet, and perhaps ending up riding buses at night to have a safe place to sleep.

She smiled.  That’s why she loved this place.  She and all the others who’d come, just like him, with hope in their hearts.  How things actually turned out didn’t seem nearly as important as just getting here. 

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Repost: An Excellent Snickerdoodle Recipe

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I realized today that I bake when I’m feeling a little droopy. Yes, I am a simple creature. Comfort food does indeed bring me comfort. So, today, I made for the very first time a cookie that many refined sugar eaters take for granted – the snickerdoodle. I didn’t know that this cookie had cinnamon and sugar as two of its basic ingredients. How would I know since I stopped eating refined sugar before ever entering the snickerdoodle world? (Though I realize that some people have been making and eating these cookies for a very long time). Still, in my case, I only came across the snickerdoodle once I moved to California in the mid-90’s, but these were always conventionally sweetened.  So, today was a big day. My first taste of this delicious cookie sweetened with honey and maple sugar.

As I have said before, I am a huge fan of The Big Fat Cookie Cookbook by Elinor Klivans.  Today, I took her recipe and simply made a few substitutions.  However, for those of you who would prefer Klivans’s original recipe, I have included it below.

This recipe calls for cream of tartar and baking soda and apparently that accounts for the softness of this cookie. It is firm on the outside, but SOFT on the inside. Quite a treat.

I don’t know what a regular snickerdoodle tastes like, but if it’s anything like this, then I know why people like them so much.

Ray ate at least five. I may have had one or two…

So, here you go. When and if you want a pick-me-up from the aspects of life that are forcing you to stretch and grow emotionally, then whip up this recipe and try not to eat so many that you stretch and grow physically.

As always, if you try the recipe, please let me know how it turns out for you.

Snickerdoodles

This is taken from The Big Fat Cookie Cookbook by Elinor Klivans, but has additional information to sweeten with honey and maple sugar instead of refined white sugar, if you prefer.

2 3/4 cups of unbleached all-purpose flour (add another 1/4 cup flour if you’re using honey)
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups sugar (I used 1 1/4 cup honey for the batter + 1/2 cup maple sugar, plus an additional 1/4 cup maple sugar for the topping)
1 tablespoon of cinnamon
1/2 cup (one stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) of vegetable shortening
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon of almond extract

Position a rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat to 350F | 175C. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or a non-stick silicone baking mat.

Sift the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt into a medium bowl and set aside. In a small bowl stir together 1/4 cup of the sugar (or maple sugar if you’re going the non-refined sugar route) + cinnamon: set aside. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer on medium speed, beat the butter, vegetable shortening and remaining 1 1/2 cups of sugar (or 1 1/4 cup of honey + 1/4 cup maple sugar) until smooth and fluffy @ 1 minute. Stop the mixer and scrape the sides of the bowl as needed during mixing. Add the eggs, vanilla and almond extract and mix until blended, about 1 minute. On low-speed, add the flour mixture, mixing just until it is incorporated. The dough will be soft and smooth.

If you’re using honey, then now you need to chill the dough until it’s firm. Otherwise, proceed with the directions below.

Using an ice-cream scoop or a measuring cup with 1/4 cup capacity, scoop out portions of dough. Roll each one between the palms of your hands into a smooth ball, roll each ball in the cinnamon sugar (or maple sugar) mixture to coat evenly, and place the cookies 3 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets.

Bake the cookies one sheet at a time until the bottoms + edges are golden for 18 mins. The centers of the cookies should feel firm on top and soft underneath – this indicates that the cookies will have the desired soft, slightly chewy center. Cool the cookies for 5 minutes on the baking sheets, then use a wide metal spatula to transfer them to a wire rack to cool thoroughly.

Makes 18 cookies.

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Photos of a Lovely 24 Hours with Grandkids at Home, Church and with Friends.

Introducing Josephine or Jo, age 3 weeks, one of two new daughters of our friends, Mackenzie and Vic May.

Luna, Nico and their new friend Vivian playing after church today at St.Thomas the Apostle, Hollywood.

Luna and Vivian

Baby Rosalind with her Auntie. (Jo’s Twin)

Luna and Jo

Nico, Luna and Vivian

Nico and Grandpa playing with blocks.

Luna drawing and playing Parcheesi with Grandma.