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“That is the ugliest piece of pottery I have ever seen!” My ceramics teacher glanced at the basket I held in front of me as he turned on his heel to talk to the next student.
The comment was brief, brisk, and cruel. My beautiful woven clay Easter basket with bright, cheerful yellows and pinks and baby blues sat in my hands exactly the way I wanted it. I envisioned it stuffed with overflowing green Easter grass, some hand-painted eggs, and my mom’s smile on Easter morning.
Instead, I headed toward the paints to select every angry color I could find. Metallic blacks and browns haphazardly brushed onto every crevasse covering the pale pastels. I wanted to keep painting repulsive red, grungy green, bitter blue. My vision smashed by one sentence, as if it were a bowl tipped casually to a cement floor, broken into a thousand shards.
I no longer cared about my basket or the class or the teacher. I would be a high school graduate in a few short months and told myself I would never look back again.
The next day, my creation sat next to all the others as students picked through the various pieces to find their own designs. It wasn’t as ugly as I had hoped. There was a copper shimmer that caught the light and a reflective nickel that created movement if you tipped the basket left or right.
“Much better,” the teacher said as I, once again, held the basket in my hands.
Maybe my teacher wanted me to be an artist. Maybe he hoped that I wanted to be an artist. Maybe all I wanted was an easy class to while away the time prior to the next chapter of my life.
For years, the basket sat on a shelf in my parent’s guest bathroom, the perch it received after I presented it to Mom on Easter morning. It had never been filled with eggs dipped in happy colors. To me, it was filled with a reminder that words have power. They have the power to scorn as well as the power to shine.
My parents no longer have that house, and I no longer have that basket. But if I did, I’d fill it with my collection of ceramic Easter eggs, each lovingly made, each with a craftsman’s signature. My basket was designed to hold pretty things, not painful words.
That gives me an idea…maybe I should sign up for a pottery class.
“So, Al, what are you going to do with an English degree when you graduate?”
“Dad, it’s a liberal arts degree, everyone will want to hire me.”
My dad’s advice fell on deaf ears. I was too big for my britches, and my dad knew it. He encouraged me to contact alums to investigate career options, but I didn’t follow his advice. Instead, I stormed the real-world with my inflated ego and landed a job as a receptionist at a stock brokerage firm in Dallas.
I hadn’t thought much about that first job until recently. After a quick Google search, I discovered the firm was still in business, and my first boss now donned an impressive title. Actually, he was my second boss. After one week of answering phones with a smile, I received a promotion to sales assistant. I felt like Melanie Griffith in the movie Working Girl as I rode the bus downtown in my cheap business suit with my high heels tucked into my oversized purse.
My tasks included crafting correspondence (the good, the bad, and the ugly) to clients and a teachable moment on writing. It’s the type of lesson that transformed the trajectory of my life—and I’m sure my former manager would have zero recollection of ever offering it.
He instructed me to write a letter informing a client to “pay up or else.” I wrote, “Client, you must pay or else.” Of course, I’m paraphrasing, but my boss, rather than chiding me for the harsh tone, said the letter sounded as if I pointed a scolding finger toward the client, who only needed to pay an invoice, not hire a lawyer. Once again, I’m paraphrasing, but I took the lesson to heart: never alienate the reader.
Fast forward 31 years and I still consider this the best advice I’d ever received. Without invested readers, writing would be a fruitless endeavor. What I want “you” to think, to feel, to believe drives my writing content and determines how I connect with the audience. Writers can open doors as quickly as they can close them. Revealing the rising fog as it slowly lifts from the marshy bayou in late spring sets the mood. What I say matters as much as what you read.
Even though I might not have thought about my first “real-world” job in a while, the lesson that the audience matters is one I have retold many times. It matters when writing a blog article, posting social media, or telling a story. We are the creators of what others view, and it helps to have an ideal audience in mind whether it is a client who needs to “pay or else,” novice bloggers, or a roomful of college students. Audience always matters.
Today, my audience is my Dad, the man who made practical suggestions to a girl who believed she was “all that” and the gentle lesson that if the britches don’t fit, try on a smaller ego.
At 9:00 pm, I received a text from my husband. Our son needs to be home by Friday before the European Corona Virus travel ban begins.
For years, I pushed our children to explore the world, study abroad, expand horizons. Our youngest finally did by participating in a Transitional Economies course, which included a week in the Czech Republic, visiting corporations, attending lectures, and sightseeing.
I hadn’t fallen for the COVID-19 hype—I had an adequate amount of toilet paper, plenty of bleach, and an extra bottle of Dawn Ultra with 50% less scrubbing and 3x the grease cleaning power—until my child was about to be stuck in Europe for a month.
As an experienced traveler, I hopped on the internet and within a minute, acquired the ticket he needed. But the date was incorrect. Ugg. No problem, I bought him a second ticket one minute later only to discover he’d been waitlisted. Wait. What? No. NO. NO!
I felt my hands began to tremble, just a little. I called the airline: “We are experiencing higher than normal call volumn.” I fumbled with my computer mouse. My clicks weren’t connecting as panic slowly started to bubble inside. I Googled the airline for information. Nothing. I called another number. Busy. I felt myself falling apart until a little voice said, Alison. Stop. Breathe.
So I did. One inhale in. One slow exhale out. A few calmer clicks later, my world traveler was booked and on his way to the airport.
When I look at the craziness all around me: schools closing, markets falling, baseball postponing the season, I imagine this is what pandemonium looks like. I realize it doesn’t take much to be swept up by hysteria—regardless of how much toilet paper I have. I will count myself lucky that I have that little voice to remind me to breathe, to recalibrate.
As everything seems to fall apart around me, I am going to make one simple suggestion to the world: let’s give ourselves a pause. Let’s stop and breathe. Really, it’s quite amazing what a slow inhale and exhale can accomplish. Now, where is hand sanitizer?
Asking for help often gives me anxiety, you know, sweaty palms, heart palpitations, dry mouth. But when someone asks me for help, I am flattered. I thank them for asking.
Yes. I thank the asker because it’s an honor to have someone ask.
Instead of thinking only about my discomfort in asking for help, I need to remind myself that it is an honor to be asked. And that fact alone makes asking for help easier.
Here are some quick tips to help you get out of your head and ask for the help you need:
1. You are not a burden. People like to help. If we don’t ask, we deprive them of the opportunity to help someone. Think of it as your duty to humanity.
2. You are not weak. As an overburdened caregiver, I told my friends, I could handle “it.” I couldn’t. They brought me food. I ate. Win-win.
3. You are not stupid. We’ve all thought it, “They will think I’m stupid. They won’t like me anymore. It will be the death of me.” Okay, that’s a bit melodramatic, but if I’ve thought it, chances are you have, too.
4. Ask the right questions. If you ask me about the best time to plant lemon trees, I’ll shrug my shoulders and suggest “Spring?” But, if you ask me how to write a speech, I will entertain you with endless suggestions to help you on your journey because I’m super excited to help someone on their pubic speaking path.
So, the next time you need help. Ask. It’s good for you, it’s good for them, and it’s good for humanity. Win-win.
What an opportunity! I joined the And I Thought Ladies on their interview show….Watch it now!
Alison Nissen wears so many hats she should own a shop. Alison is the president of the Flordia’s Writer’s Association, a professor, and a ghostwriter. She does so much we had to ask how she balances it all in one day.
To answer that question…you’ll have to listen to find out! (There’s even a Facebook Premier, November 22 @ 6:00p.m. (est). Facebook Premiere
The And I Thought Ladies, Wilnona & Jade, produce magazines, conferences, book festivals, podcasts, Roku TV and a docuseries.
Our leader stepped out of our vehicle and hoisted his body-length shovel to his shoulder. “This way,” he shouted with enthusiasm and vigor.
We followed, carrying pails and trowels and shovels of our own. We were a ragtag bunch, but we had confidence in our leader as we slowly traversed the creaky wooden platform to the hot sand below. We removed our shoes and walked barefoot until we reached the light green-blue waters at the edge of the beach.
The sound of the waves lapping slowly onto the shore soothed our intense energy. We were prepared for the task at hand. We had studied the map, read the lore, and spoke to locals who knew the stories of the pirate Gasparilla.
Gasparilla’s exploits were not as well researched in this part of Florida, but our uncovered evidence assured us that we would be looking in the right place: The Three Stumps.
Legend has it that, for fear of mutiny, Gasparilla left his crew and buried a separate treasure somewhere along the shores of Clam Pass’s mangrove swamp.
We hustled along the beach as fast as we could, waves washing away any evidence of the arrival and departure of each step. “There it is!”
The worn edges of the mangrove swap spilled onto the beach as the Gulf of Mexico gave way to a small river, pulling in the tides and washing them away while birds and spiders played within the rotted trees.
“This has to be the place!” our leader announced and slowly brought his 3-foot, red plastic shovel to the sand.
“There, there’s a stump!” the second in command pointed. “It has the X, just like the picture.”
“Get the book, let’s look,” the leader said to me as I lowered my sack and pulled out the tattered thrift shop find, Pirates in Naples.
I read: Fearing a revolt by his men, the famous pirate Gasparilla crept off his ship and hid a treasure-trove of gold and jewels by the Three Stumps at the foot of Clam Pass. Next to the words was a picture of three stumps at this very place. The third had a giant X drawn in red Sharpie over the photograph.
“Dig,” the leader shouted.
We dug next to the first stump. Nothing. The second stump. Nothing. The third stump, my small plastic yellow hand shovel hit something solid.
“Here!” my seven-year-old shouted as he tossed his spade onto the nearby beach towel.
He and my four-year-old dove to their knees and with hands and fingers, scooped the surrounding sand until they uncovered the blue marble chest buried in the soggy brackish shore.
Slowly, we treasure hunters watched as my child pulled off the lid, revealing gold and silver coins hidden beneath. Red and green plastic gems sparkled in the brilliant sunlight.
“We’re rich, we’re rich,” the two shouted as they held up each trinket to study. Gold necklaces bought at the local dollar store, beads from the craft store, and coins found at the nearby five-and-dime were, indeed, priceless.
You see, my father had lovingly shopped for each accessory to place it into the thrift store jewelry box he found. He bought a book and added the appropriate clues. My father imaged what it must be like to be seven once again, and as best he could, he created a fortune that money cannot buy. Instead, he crafted a memory with love and thoughtfulness.
For several years, my oldest would visit his treasure, imagining what it would be like to one day spend it, knowing, as he aged, that the spending would never be as much fun as the finding.
I was twenty-three and newly engaged. My mother’s friends decided to host a bridal shower.
Dressed in an aqua linen skirt with a matching silk tank top, I was treated like a princess. We had finger sandwiches and drank sweetened iced tea garnished with lemons. A few of my high school and college friends joined us but the majority of ladies were my other “mothers,” those who watched me grow, make mistakes, graduate, and find love. They were still Mrs. Whoever, but I always knew I could call on any one of them and they’d be there to pick up whatever pieces were toppled to the floor during an emergency.
The April afternoon sent fractures of light through the tall pines that surrounded the dining hall where I had spent my summers as a counselor. The same tables and chairs I ate on years earlier, lacquered and cleaned, now held our dainty lunch, surrounded by flowers and boxes and bows. It was a cherished place for me and special to be there surrounded by people I’d known most of my life.
“Alison, open your presents!” a voice sounded a call and small cheers erupted.
I smiled and someone began to put 30 chairs in a semi-circle while everyone else slowly took their place.
“Alison, sit in the middle so we can all watch.”
I nodded and moved my chair next to a giant pile of gifts. I slowly pulled the paper from one while all eyes focused on what I was about to do: Unwrap my present and hold it up for all to see.
While women hooped and hollered, in their politest, indoor voices, a hush returned as I pulled another one. There was a mummer, “That’s mine.”
My cheeks began to flush with the recognition that the attention of everyone was solely on my reaction to the gift. What if I didn’t like it? Would I disappoint someone? Would they be mad at me? Would they be mad at my mother?
These might be irrational thoughts, but they were my thoughts, nonetheless.
Fully aware that my hands started to tremble as I pulled the end of a velvet bow, the thing that has always haunted me happened. Tears began to hover on my lower lids. I smiled harder, hoping to stave them off. The thought of crying mortified me, which, of course, made me want to cry more.
Embarrassed, I looked down to see my blue skirt absorb the first droplet, followed by another.
I opened the gift with a sniffle and false grin and pulled a box from the table, as my embarrassment grew. More tears, more awkwardness, more embarrassment, a vicious cycle began.
Softly, someone pulled their chair next to mine. Placing her hand gently on my shoulders she silently sat next to me and handed me a package. She never said a word, but intuitively knew to stay, calmly handing me gifts, as I dried my cheeks with the back of my hand.
My countenance returned to normal and I showed my appreciation to what my “other” mothers had given me. More importantly, however, was the knowledge that someone gave me something that money can’t buy. I don’t recall any of the items wrapped in paper and bows. But I do know that I was given an example of how to be supportive and kind. Life is filled with things of all shapes and sizes. I remember my bridal shower not because of the tangible articles picked from a registry. No, that day, I was given a memory that showered me with compassion when I needed it. As simple and almost silly as it was, it is one of the best memories of all.