The following essay was written almost seven years ago; yet, all of the characteristics that made my niece Sheridan exceptional then still hold true today as she turns fourteen. And I’m sure those traits will only strengthen over the years, making her a constant joy to everyone who knows her! Happy birthday, Sheridan!
Sheridan’s Compass (written during the fall of 2011)
“Turn right, Aunt Erin,” seven-year-old Sheridan said.
She wore a black leotard, matching leggings, a filmy ballet skirt, and cowboy boots—or “cowgirl boots” as she called them. Ballet slippers dangled from her fingers; her hair escaped from a messy ponytail. She was on her way—Sheridan style—to ballet class.
“I mean,” Sheridan clarified, “turn my right.”
I hesitated. We sat side by side—she in the passenger seat, me in the driver’s seat. Her right was my right. What was I missing?
She turned to me, blinked once–blue eyes, black lashes, a flutter of day and night. I didn’t question her directions, her misunderstanding of the term “my right.” I simply turned the truck, following Sheridan’s GPS, her way of seeing the road.
I’ve learned from experience that Sheridan’s internal compass often leads to a better place—even if you’ve been there before—and sometimes it’s best to just let her take you there.
A simple game of tag evolves into Cartwheel Tag. We never quite decided whether the tagger or tagee should be cartwheeling, but both ways ended in confusion and plenty of laughs, particularly at my attempts to cartwheel.
Or a bike ride to town transforms into an outing for root-beer floats with Sheridan, on her single-speed bicycle, always ready to tackle hills and singing B-I-N-G-O with Uncle Keith as she peddles along.
One Christmas, using her new tablet as a camera, Sheridan filmed the Snowman Video. A stuffed snowman took the starring role with Sheridan as interviewer.
“How’s it going?” she asked Mr. Snowman.
“Pretty good,” Mr. Snowman said in a deep, gravelly voice.
She used the same tablet to document The Many Faces of Sheridan, a tableau of close-up photographs, which grew into an autobiographical mini-documentary of Sheridan through several days of late December and into early January. All the photos shared two things: a hint of mischief and a literal twinkle in Sheridan’s eye, the look of someone planning fun, thinking of the next activity.
So I don’t question Sheridan when she says, “turn right, my right.” Even if it appears that our rights are the same, hers is bound to have a twist, a way of approaching life that is more original, more energetic… just more of everything. I simply turn the wheel and follow her lead, knowing the experience will be better for letting her take me there.
This morning, I made the first contribution from the royalties Quilting Cancer has earned–$250–to the St. Luke’s MSTI-Fruitland Respite House. From the St. Luke’s website: “Many of our patients and their caregivers travel long distances for cancer treatment… The Respite House will provide a safe and comfortable home away from home, helping ease some of the burdens of travel and allowing families to stay together.” Thank you all for purchasing the book and spreading the word! Also, Quilting Cancer will be featured in the April issue of Idaho Magazine. I was honored when the editor contacted me, and I’m so glad that Kelly’s inspirational message will reach a wider audience.
My family and I have been overwhelmed by the response to Quilting Cancer—thank you for the kind words, support, and enthusiasm. Kelly’s optimism, courage, and perseverance continues to thread people together and will have an impact for years to come.
But now I have a favor to ask… Everyone who has been touched by Quilting Cancer, the blog or the book, please take a few minutes to write a review–it only needs to be a sentence or two–on Amazon or Goodreads. Reviews will help Quilting Cancer reach a wider audience and make it available to a variety of promotional websites.
And, for those of you who purchased the Kindle edition, a new version is available on Amazon, with a Kindle table-of-contents, as well as other updates. If you sync your device, the updated version should automatically download.
Sometimes in life we become witnesses to incredible acts of bravery, only partially aware at the time, but later able to appreciate the full magnitude of what we experienced. During the aftermath, there is a sense, almost an obligation, of wanting to share these everyday stories of inspiration.
I know I’m not alone. Many of us brush shoulders with unforgettable acts of courage, people who possess an unlimited well of resilience. They will themselves forward, accepting their circumstances yet never giving up.
Their stories are often quiet, unfolding without fanfare, but they encompass the backbone of humanity. A silent strength that weaves us all together, and, the more we know about these people, the stronger we become as a society.
So I decided to record my sister Kelly’s journey with adversity, her eight-year battle with cancer, by publishing her blog, Quilting Cancer (available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle), along with essays reflecting on Kelly’s bravery and the lessons she taught me.
My intention is not to turn Kelly into a saint or deify her. Like all of us, Kelly had faults, yet at the end of her life, she revealed a core strength and selflessness. She learned how to fully live while also preparing to die.
Her message transcends time and location. It is the universal call to embrace life despite one’s circumstances. It speaks of selflessness—Kelly was constantly concerned with others, always thankful for even the smallest assistance—and finding joy in the simplest everyday occurrences.
To borrow from Proverbs 3:3—a verse I return to again and again—Kelly’s lessons will never leave me. They are bound around my neck, written on the tablet of my heart.
(All profit from the book will be donated to St. Luke’s MSTI-Fruitland.)
My bike’s brakes, sounding like an out-of-tune violin, announced my arrival long before I bounced into sight. With tires bumping along Copper Harbor’s Dancing Bear Trail, I clambered over rocks and roots, up and down hills in a relentless waltz, melding trees to sky and fallen leaves with mud in a muted autumn symphony.
A few seconds later, my husband Keith came into view, waiting where Dancing Bear merged into Red Trail. He nodded toward a sign, warning riders of a mother bear with cubs, just ahead on the trail. We smiled–no words necessary–and turned around to climb back up Dancing Bear.
Shifting into the granny gear, my bike and I crawled up a hill, no longer waltzing but performing a slow ballet without any grace. Keith vanished around a bend in the trail, riding with strength and balance. He hopped over roots and spun up rocky outcroppings, remaining calm despite the obstacles—his riding a reflection of his personality.
And even though sweat dripped in my eyes and I wished my bike had an even lower gear, I noticed the sun lingering in the cloudless sky, promising a few more hours of daylight. My favorite trail waited a short pedal away.
“Point Trail?” I asked Keith after I’d caught up with him “I think we have ti—.”
Keith was off again, no convincing needed. Because in a place like Copper Harbor, there’s always time for another trail. The village might not have cellular service or espresso but it has more of what matters—trails snaking into deep woods, along with an even deeper sense of tranquility.
We dashed along Point Trail’s rocky spine, rolling through woods and hesitating here and there to enjoy views of Lake Superior, Fort Wilkins State Park, and Lake Fanny Hooe. Toward the end of the trail, sunlight, filtering through trees, brushed golden fingertips across a long boardwalk.
Later, after dinner, as the afternoon sashayed into evening, leaving the forest bathed in shadows and the horizon washed in fuchsia, we walked from our campground a short distance to the Gas Lite, the only convenience store in town, for a soda. An early moon hung in the sky, while waves from Lake Superior murmured, whispering a contented tune, a Copper Harbor lullaby.
I’m very excited to share the preliminary cover for my YA novel, Cloud Warrior, due out sometime this year from Saddleback Publishing. This is my first project with a hi-lo (high interest-low reading level) press, and I’m thrilled to be working in this niche market. I hope my story of a boy descended from the Chachapoyas (the Andean Cloud Warriors) and his bravery during a kayaking disaster inspires many non-readers to dive into the world of books
Written about 13 years ago, the following essay was inspired by my niece Sierra, who turns 17 today. Even as a three-year-old, she possessed an innate ability to view the world as full of possibilities, not limitations, just one of the qualities that makes her an exceptional person. Kindness, loyalty, and a clever wit also dominate that long list. Her thoughtfulness shines on everyone around her, reflecting a selfless nature and the gift that she is to all who love her.
Happy Birthday, Sierra!
What’s it Called?
(Written during the spring of 2004.)
“Is today your birthday?” my three-year-old niece Sierra asks. She presses against my legs and looks up at me with a hopeful smile.
“Yes,” I say, peering down into her blue eyes, a blue that’s hard to define, like the sky filtered through a gray cloud.
“What’s it called?” She confuses me with the redundancy of her question. I frown, not sure what to say, and during my hesitation, she adds, “Mine’s called Barbie Birthday.”
“The name of your birthday is Barbie Birthday?” I ask.
“Yes.” She pauses and stares at me expectantly.
Shaelyn, Sierra’s older sister, catches on quickly to the game. “Let’s call it the Flower Birthday,” she says, gesturing to the pink tulips that sit on top of the dining room table, which is painted with orange flowers.
I nod and Sierra smiles. Finally, my birthday has a name, a theme. “Or how about Tulip Birthday? Or Birds of Prey Birthday?” I ask, the latter suggestion in honor of the wildlife refuge we had visited earlier in the day. Sierra thinks this over and seems pleased with the ideas.
She likes events and even objects to have a theme. Maybe it comes from having a creative mother, who often discusses decorating schemes or an imaginative grandmother, with whom she spends a great deal of time.
Regardless of where she gets this trait, I like it. I want my days to have themes: Cycling on a Summer Day or Watching a Bald Eagle Afternoon. It makes ordinary events somehow new and exciting. Running to the post office is no longer an errand, but rather A Short Drive to Check the Mail. It’s like a chapter in a novel, anything can happen.
I need Sierra to live with me. I want to hear that simple question, “What’s it called?” more often. It makes me appreciate each moment, where seen through her eyes it becomes a journey in need of a title.
Next time Sierra asks me, “What’s it called?” I’ll be ready with my answer. I’ll look into those blue-gray eyes and say, “It’s a Sierra Day.” Although she might not completely understand, I think she’ll appreciate my response.
Simply put, a Sierra Day is one brimming with wonder, with originality, of finding magic in the ordinary, and knowing with certainty that life’s adventures deserve to be named.
The letter waited more than thirty years to be found. Hidden in a shoebox, nestled in the middle of a pile of correspondence, it appeared just when I needed to find it, confirming a memory I’d begun to doubt.
Events had jumbled in the fog that occasionally shrouds my history, and I’d found myself wondering if I’d transposed people and places. The phantom recollection had haunted me, convincing me that I’d willed it into existence, finding comfort in a false memory’s sun-filled days.
But a winter afternoon spent rummaging through ancient cards and letters pushed all doubts away. The proof sat in a typed, two-page letter I’d written to my sister Kelly on August 23, 1982.
“Steve and I rented a bicycle built for two,” the letter read and went on to describe a long weekend that Steve Nelson spent with my family in Sun Valley, Idaho, right around his 16th birthday on August 18th.
The letter recounted a weekend outdoors in which we biked, walked, jogged, shopped, ate (frequently and in large quantities), and saw the movie Tron. A flat tire put an end to the biking, so we rented a paddleboat, allowing our motion-filled days to continue.
There was nothing artful about the writing, which, quite embarrassingly, even included a flatulence joke. The letter lacked substance and description, and none of our conversations were captured in any detail. Yet, I’m sure our chatter was incessant. We laughed and argued, equally annoyed and pleased with each other.
It spoke of a weekend, buried beneath insipid teenage writing, of intense companionship. No one else was mentioned; our friendship was the focus.
“Steven looked great,” I wrote at the end. “He even acquired a tan.”
I put the letter down and dug farther into the box of memories during that chilly afternoon. A few cards from grandparents, aunts, and uncles were set aside to keep. The rest were discarded, the teenage angst in some of the letters so palpable it practically seeped onto the table.
But I kept returning to my weekend with Steve. Had something more than coincidence led me to the box, just a few months before the anniversary of his death?
The hand of God? Maybe.
I’m always looking for such signs, something that will show me grace, the presence of God in our everyday lives. And I’m prone to believe in spiritual signals. If nothing else, finding that letter brought Steve back to me, along with a contemplation on the nature of friendship and aging.
Seasons compress as I grow older. A lunch visit more than 25 years ago feels like a handful of months; a phone conversation two years previous seems like yesterday. Misled by time and pushed apart by distance, people scatter and forget, taking for granted that there will be another opportunity for renewal.
But there are some relationships, particularly the ones forged long ago and sharing in a certain recognition and intimacy, in which those factors do not seem to matter. Their tensile strength is beyond measure.
And so I’ve learned that the people we love never truly leave us, whether they are absent because of physical geography or the geography of death. Our relationships alter to allow for that change, but they are near us, always, permanent residents in our hearts and minds. Steve’s vibrancy, idiosyncratic ways, survive in all who loved him.
Paddling last summer on the Pine River, I imagined Steve kayaking behind me, my single boat transformed into a tandem. He chattered in my mind, his paddle resting on the lip of the kayak as he spoke. Then all was quiet, and I pictured us together watching a turtle slip off a log into the river’s current.
He laughed, rubbing his hands together, a mannerism from our childhood, and we argued about politics or a book or something inconsequential before moving on to where we’d eat after the paddle. And then we reminisced about a summer weekend spent in Sun Valley during 1982, and a shoebox of memories that led me back to him.
His presence resonated around me, so real, I turned around in my boat, expecting to see him. The space was empty, but for a clutch of black-and-white dragonflies, chalk-fronted corporals, drawn to the heat reflected off my boat, just as I’m drawn to an invisible presence, who continues to radiate his originality and love to all who knew him.