Tag Archives: quitting my 9-5

Happy Birthday to Joe; Lessons Learned from a Sparrow’s Journey

5 Jul
Sparrow in prison book cover

Still a Good Summer Read!

This week we celebrate a birthday, of sorts, as my baby, “Caged Sparrow” is officially one year old. I suspect that’s about 20 in book years, judging by how much of my energy went into raising it.

Although completing one book hardly qualifies me as an expert in anything, I would like to share a few lessons I’ve learned over the past few years, because I know my dream was just one in a sea of dreams still to be fulfilled in the world.

It’s been two and a half years since I walked away from my “day job,” a job that paid quite well, where I loved my co-workers and needed to invest only three more years to qualify for retirement benefits.

But I couldn’t shake the pull to write full time.

I tried to ignore it, working 8-hour days during the week and spending my nights and weekends juggling responsibilities as wife and mother. Stories and characters filled my head until I thought I might burst. Every once in a while I’d have to steal away to a quiet corner and dash off a few pages of one project or another. Rarely did I finish anything. I did create a collection of short stories, but had no idea how to market them.

My one annual indulgence was to escape every May to attend the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers’ Conference near Asheville, NC. Although I felt like a phony there, a pretend writer surrounded by real writers, I couldn’t stay away. Something about the creativity flowing through everyone I met wrapped around me like a lasso of possibility and just kept tugging.

This IS where I belong.

I drank in the writing seminars and workshops, basked in the warm writing talk at every meal, and left the conference on fire to keep writing, even though nobody wanted to read my short stories.

“Short stories just don’t sell,” said the experts.

Then “Caged Sparrow” fell into my lap in a most unconventional manner, during small talk in a lounge area at the writers’ conference with two women I’d never met. When I mentioned I liked to write people’s stories, the first, Linda Rondeau, became quite animated.

“I know someone with a story!” She then described this former undercover cop who had been framed and sent to prison among the very people he’d been putting in jail for nearly 20 years. As she finished telling me about Joe Tuttolomondo, the second woman, Diana Flegal, leaned over and said, “If you write it, I’ll take a look at it.”

She’s an agent! Who knew?

The rest is history. I started planning my departure from the typical work force almost immediately. Most of my co-workers expressed incredulous encouragement. I couldn’t blame them for the incredulous part, as I felt the same.

Am I really going to do this?
Why yes, I really am.

Today I’m barely making a living, editing documents and writing short stories to cover the cost of gas and groceries so I can write my own stories on the side. Both family cars will need to be replaced soon, the front porch is falling down, and there’s this barely perceptible drip, drip, drip coming from the pipes above the kitchen ceiling. But I’m not worried. As with everything else over the past two years, somehow, the Lord will ensure those issues are taken care of.

joe

Who could say no to someone filled with this much joy for the Lord?

I may go back to work at some point, but I haven’t regretted leaving for a minute, because Caged Sparrow is an actual book, available in book stores. And because Joe is so gosh darned tickled pink to have his story in print, it makes me giggle inside. And because I am a “real” writer and have been since I was 14. (To anyone who feels the same as I did during my early writers’ conference years, know that you’re a writer because you write, not because you sell.)

 

I will wrap up by telling you some of the advice I heard along my journey:

 

It’s irresponsible to quit your day job for a dream. To that I say, humbug. If it’s really your passion, you’ll find a way to make it work. I’d trade 12 “safe” years for two years of living on the edge while doing what I love. Oh, wait, that’s what I did.

Nobody reads memoirs. Humbug again. These are real stories about real people. Memoirs can inspire, uplift, encourage, and enable others to dream. Perhaps if we could get our young generations to read more memoirs, we’d need fewer animated cartoon heroes. Oh, and did I mention, at this year’s writing conference, it took first place in the 2016 Selah awards for best memoir, and overall director’s choice for best non-fiction book of the year! Not bad for something nobody wants to read.

Self-publishing is risky business. So is crossing the street. Sometimes, however, self-publishing is the only way to go. Although Ms Flegal did take on my book, she met up against a brick wall of “nobody reads memoirs” publishers, so I took it back. I’m glad I did, because Joe’s story needed to be told. Of course, if you’re planning to go this route, ensure your book is professionally edited, make sure you’re linking up with a reputable company, and get yourself a kick-butt cover designer, but then, by all means, go for it.

Without a publisher, you can probably hope to sell about 300 copies. To that I say, 1,300 copies later, wait, what?

If you’re going to autograph your books with a reference, make sure you memorize it. Okay, this I have to agree with. I chose the encouraging, hope-filled verse from Proverbs 16:9, which states, “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps,” because it’s the story of my life. However, somewhere around the 30th copy I noticed I was referring people to Proverbs 19:6, which is NOT my life verse at all. In fact, it states, “Many curry favor with a ruler, and everyone is the friend of one who gives gifts.” No doubt, the recipients of those autographs are still confused. (NOTE: If you’re one of those lucky few, consider yours a special “error copy,” which will no doubt be worth something one day.)

So here I am, about to release my second book, “From the Remnants,” and still clutching my collection of short stories that some expert has told me won’t sell. Considering all the advice I’ve received recently, what do you think I’m going to do with these?

You are correct…which is why I’m now resuming work on “The Perfect Parent, Parables for the New Believer.”  Details coming soon.

——-

A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God – Ecclesiastes 2:24

Writing Tips about Readers: One is Enough to Get You Started

19 Sep
Stephen King's On Writing

Good place to start a writing journey

Today’s blog is inspired by Stephen King, and an unknown reader.

I’ve just finished reading a book that I recommend to anyone who writes or wants to, whether for a living or just for the simple pleasure of putting words on the page.

It’s Stephen King’s On Writing; A Memoir of the Craft.

Author’s Note: Let me make it clear here, I tend to avoid Stephen King books because I have an imagination that cannot relinquish images once they flash before my mind’s eye. (The Green Mile’s John Coffey is as real to me as any person I’ve ever met; he scares me, and he’s one of the good guys.)  However, I appreciate good writing and admire King’s work because he can create those vivid images, and in a way that seems effortless. In fact, if he weren’t such a phenomenal writer, I wouldn’t have to avoid his work—how’s that for a back-handed compliment?

But this book is different. It’s a beautiful depiction of writing as a passion that, once it grabs you, simply must be acknowledged and satisfied. King’s memoir weaves stories of his personal journey with bits of advice and encouragement to writers and examples of beautiful prose in a way that would have inspired me to quit my day job if I hadn’t already. He makes me appreciate anew the joy of writing for writing’s sake.

And as a bonus, from the pages of King’s beautifully written narrative, I’ve picked up two valuable bits of advice that I’m incorporating into my life right away.

The first is that to write, one must read. If Stephen King says so, it must be so.

All I can say is, YAY!

(If there were a way to make that look happier without one of those flashy neon “marching ants” borders, I’d do it; it’s just that cool. But for now, “Yay!” will have to suffice).

So, in the Portrait Writer’s world, reading is now a sanctioned, necessary part of the job. That’s like sending a kid to a candy shop for time out. To all of you back at the office who are still suffering through those annual training classes on filling out travel claims and understanding the importance of submitting form 3C with your timecard request to adjust for an unanticipated increase in traffic volume on I95, I can only say…

“Boo-ya! I’m studying Barbara Kingsolver!”

Of course, I will share my reading adventures and recommendations along the way, so you can skip right to the good stuff on your own reading list. (Life’s too short to waste time reading bad books.)

The second concept I’m adopting is to write to an ideal audience, and this epiphany couldn’t have come at a better time. I’ve learned over the past few weeks that not everyone likes everything I write (gasp!) and, if I took to heart all the advice I’ve received lately, my next blog would be a politically correct, non-offending piece of drivel. I’m grateful for every person who reads my blog, and I appreciate your feedback, particularly because it helps me see some things from different perspectives, but it won’t change my writing. In fact, I suspect that when I hit a nerve, it’s not the words that cause you to wince.

King suggests writers choose one person that they respect and know well, and write only to that person. And so I have identified my ideal reader as a young man we’ll call Fred. He’s well educated and knows who God is, but has never really read God’s love letter to mankind. He’s angry at this entity we call God and, as a matter of fact, is gathering evidence to support his claim that if God does exist, He can’t possibly care for us very much. I cannot convince Fred otherwise, but I can show him over time why I believe differently.

And by the way, Fred thinks I’m hilarious. That’s why every once in a while I have to write something silly, just to make him laugh.

Fred, I promise you that if you keep reading, I will keep writing. I wish I could promise more, but the rest is not up to me. I’m a Proverbs 16:9 girl; I’m not sure where this train is heading, but I’m glad to be along for the ride.

 

In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” Pr 16:9

 

Waiting on The Call: Roping Time with a Molasses Lasso

3 Jun

I’m not good at waiting.

I remember a time early in my marriage when I was struck by a creative muse and got up around midnight to write a story that wouldn’t let me go. When it was finished, I liked it so much it made me giddy. I wanted so badly to share it that I woke my husband from a sound sleep, turned the reading lamp on to its highest setting, and pushed my story under his nose.

“Read it!”

Startled by my exuberance and the brilliant illumination, he shielded his eyes and squinted at me to determine the source of my distress. When he realized there was none, his entire body sighed with exasperation. He would have given me his incredulous face if he could have held his eyes open.

Instead, he took the pages as he rolled away from the lamp’s glaring light, and slid MY MASTERPIECE under his pillow on his way back into dreamland.

Not one to give up easily, I yanked his shoulder back so I could retrieve the captive pages and encouraged him again to take a look.

“I can’t believe you won’t support me,” I wailed.

Sensing he was somehow in the wrong, my husband struggled to sit up. He took the papers and honestly tried to focus. Instead of reading, I suspect his brain was weakly calculating the requisite number of seconds he had to sit upright before I’d believe he’d read it. He handed the papers back and mumbled, “Looks good,” before slipping away again. Never mind that they were upside-down.

I spent the rest of the night pouting.

He finally read it the next day, somewhat alert and mostly awake after a poor night’s sleep. He gave me good comments and some constructive feedback. His serious attention to the details compelled me to go back and look at it again. I realized it wasn’t as good as I’d thought the night before, and I rewrote it three or four times before I liked it again.

Since then, I’ve learned to be a bit more considerate about when to share, and to put my ego on the back burner. At least I hope I have.

However, when I took Joe’s story proposal to the writers’ conference recently, that giddy kid resurfaced. I drove down to Asheville feeling a bit like Ralphie in A Christmas Story, who just knew his teacher would like his paper about the Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle with a compass in the stock so much that she would tell his parents to purchase one immediately.

My appointment with the agent was on the first day, and I approached her table with a mix of excitement and fear. I didn’t bring the giant basket of fruit as Ralphie would have, but I did almost give her that knowing wink. And I must confess, I looked around for a blackboard on which she could scrawl “A++++++!”

She took my proposal and read. For a long time. The voices in my head waged a battle of conjecture as I watched. “She loves it. She hates it. She’s read 50 others just like it today alone. I should have worked harder on the opening. She nodded! She likes it. She’s taking too long. She hates it…”

At last she looked up, smiled at me, and said, “Would you e-mail this to me?”

YES! YES! YES! Wait, what?

She didn’t ask for my manuscript, but for an electronic copy of the proposal. For a while, I was crushed. Surely, she saw the potential in Joe’s story. I’d been expecting to leave this place an agented author.

But then I remembered that long-ago late-night “reading” and found peace. I received the best possible response for a conference setting. There was no way she could give that proposal a definite assessment there, with hundreds of would-be authors clamoring for her attention. She wants to read it again, later, when she can give it serious focus. And I must wait. She said it could take two or three months for Joe’s story to reach the top of her pile. Sigh.

Calendar with the days marked off

Like sand through the hourglass…

I sincerely believe that because patience is one of the many virtues I lack, the less content I am with waiting, the longer it will take. So, I’m back at my writing desk. While I wait, I will finish the final chapter of Joe’s story and start working on my web page, to make it a more active place of business.

Instead of pining for answers, I will be thankful for how far along this book has come, and I will quote the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who said, “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”

The agent will contact me at just the right time. I will be patient, and I will remember that she did smile.

I will also keep checking behind the stereo for a package. You never know.

 

“I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” Psalm 27:13-14

Real Freelancers Don’t Wear Flannel: ADD and Other Time-sucking Distractions

24 Apr

I’m learning some valuable lessons about working from home.

First and foremost, it’s nothing like the pictures in the brochures.

You know what I mean, all those things we imagined back when we were thinking about quitting that Day Job to start our own business—hanging out in pjs and slippers, tossing down the bon-bons and sipping from a glass of Chateau Morrisette’s Sweet Mountain Laurel while somehow creating reams upon reams of productivity every day.

Well I’m here today to tell you, that’s all rather bunk-ish.

Thinking of taking the leap? It’s not for the faint-hearted, my friends. And by faint-hearted I mean people who like to eat…anything other than Ramen noodles. Right off the bat I can tell you that bon-bons and Sweet Mountain Laurel are NOT in the budget. Nor are they conducive to prolific prose (although I do believe that some of my greatest work was—no, never mind…I just re-read it).

Sadly, I realized almost from Day One that the pajamas would have to go. It’s difficult to take work seriously when dressed in flannel strawberries. Also, there seems to be some strange subliminal connection between pajamas and sleeping that makes it impossible to stay awake for any great length of time. In fact, the first reams of production that this writer produced consisted of 24 forehead-induced pages of the letter “h,” in seemingly endless rows. When I awoke and tried to read it, my first thought was, “How cool, church pews!”

And, of course, to keep you from breaking away to type a bunch of “h” rows on your computer, I shall provide:

hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

And then, of course, I had to type 25 other letter rows to be sure the “h” has the coolest character. I decided the “m” is rather intriguing as well, because it looked like something I could fall asleep on…

mmmmmmmmmmmmmm

…which brings me to the second giant oak tree of a barrier that has fallen across the road ahead of me: Attention Deficit Disorder.

I’m learning that I will break for anything.

  • I break to watch the cat bathe. It’s mesmerizing how he can move his leg like that. I can verify that it’s not a feat humans should attempt to replicate because I gave it a shot (ADD at its finest moment) and nearly had to call 911. Fortunately, I was in my pajamas so I just slept it off until my limbs unfolded.
  • I break to check my blog traffic…every fifteen minutes. (By the way, whoever you are in Brazil, boa tarde and thanks for noticing me. Your visits make me feel like an international star!) Watching blog stats can be addicting if you aren’t careful. Every time someone views my pages, I know it. Sadly, that’s all I know: someone was there. I just wish the data could tell me if you read it all, if you liked it, if you hated it, if I made you giggle at least once, and if right now you ‘re lifting my words for some motivational poster that’s going to come to me on the next social media mass-mailing, or worse, to be used in a class on how NOT to write. For the most part, checking stats makes me smile. Plus, I’m still so new at this blog thing that every time someone “shares” a post rather than just “like” it, I do a grateful little happy dance, which, for someone with ADD, could also lead to a 911 call.
  • Even the food mocks me

    You Rack Diciprine!

    I break for food. Sometimes when I’m not at all hungry. The fridge has a telepathic ability to serenade me from the kitchen, and, as with any other earworm, I cannot get its song out of my head. The avocado will go bad in three minutes if you don’t eat it! …Chicken, I got some chicken heah! And the worst: Ahh, sweet, velvety chocolate; Easter is over, you can’t leave this stuff lying around!

  • I break for email. Even e-mail from stranded Sudanese princes who need to put millions in my bank account to protect it from Somali pirates.

OK, that last isn’t true. Everyone knows even the Somali pirates have my account numbers.

My point is, I still haven’t mastered the art of what I’ve heard writer (and probably quip-lifter) Alton Gansky call “butt-in-seat” focus. I’m averaging about five hours of real writing each day.

On the helpful side, I’m fortunate in that my current project, Joe’s story, still fascinates me, and that some days he’s my greatest distraction—I really want to see how this book is going to end. I keep the pages open on my computer so whenever I DO untangle myself and sit down, I’m immediately drawn into them and start typing.

So,

  • Get dressed: check.
  • Turn off the computer sound, so the email ding doesn’t: check.
  • Keep sitting back down: check.

I’m sure there are many other words of wisdom my fellow ADD freelancers can share that will help us all up our game. Care to share? We’re all ears…what are your tricks for keeping at it?

(Ha! I just realized how mean that question is. I’ll understand if you don’t answer…but you can’t not, can you?)

Survey Says: What the heck was I thinking?

27 Mar

It took me a long time to decide to write this because I thought displaying my lack of faith would discredit the amazing things God has done for me thus far. After all, I’ve been saying all along that the one constant on my journey to become a full-time writer has been my conviction that it’s exactly what God wants me to do.

So, of course He’s going to take care of me, right?

Compass

To find your direction…

Well, he did for a while. It’s been two months since I left my paying job, and we’ve been successfully balancing atop a financially precarious fence by relying on predictability. I mean, absolutely NO surprises.

Then yesterday I noticed the cat behaving as if he has another infection (something he usually conveys by “marking” the floor). Setting that issue on the back burner, I took my youngest to his dentist appointment, where I learned his wisdom teeth need to be pulled, like, now. Also, the dentist says, his lower teeth are turning—he needs to go back to the orthodontist. Finally, as I drove home I noticed with dismay that the “check engine” light on my dashboard is flashing.

I can’t afford all of these crises, and certainly not all at once.

Despair washed over me in an avalanche of self-doubt:

What the heck was I thinking, leaving a perfectly good job? If I were “working,” these issues could have been easily resolved!

My knee-jerk reaction should have jerked me to my knees. But I sped right past that and settled for just being a jerk.

I have to make some income, I thought, turning to the internet in a panic. Somehow all my wild clicking landed me on some “pay-for-survey” sites, where companies “pay you handsomely for ten minutes of your time.”

Perfect! I have opinions…they want to pay me for them? How cool is that?

So I spent hours clicking boxes, typing in preferences, and disclosing the darkest secrets about the potions and lotions lurking in my medicine cabinet. My clicking finger became sore, my shoulders ached, my eyes started burning from staring so intently, but I kept on. Finally, when I could no longer focus, I quit for the night. I made $6.50, which, apparently, I now have to report to the IRS.

After a fretful night’s sleep, I started this morning stumbling blindly in a cloud of defeat, but this time I did turn to God, praying my oft-recited, “I believe Lord; help me in my unbelief.”

Instead of finding an answer, I found my mind wandering through an uncharted outline of an intriguing story idea, one with many layers, and action, and joy, and discovery, and—wait! I already have a writing project; I don’t need another!

Frustrated, I left my time of prayer (and I jotted down a few notes about the story idea, because it really is cool…)

compass and cross

…you first have to know where you’re going.

Then, on my way back from my son’s bus stop, I heard a one-minute radio spot that brought me back to solid ground. I was reminded that, much like a pilot navigating through a fog, I know where I’m going and I can trust the navigation tools I’m relying on to get me there.

I had to admonish myself for perhaps the millionth time: You’re exactly where God wants you to be. He never said it would be easy, but He did say, “Trust me.”

So I went into the house and got to work, beginning my day as usual by reading a psalm. Today it was Psalm 142. I got no further than verse 3: “When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you who knows my way.”

With a bit of a jolt I thought back to the cool story outline. Criminy! That was His promise! He’s telling me there’s something next. And there will be something after that, and after that. The bills will get paid, and we will be fine. He knows the way; I don’t have to.

So I write about my momentary lack of faith because it shows I’m human, but it also demonstrates how our faith can actually grow through moments like this. I’m more certain about what I’m doing than ever. Besides, as my friend Liz reminded me this morning, with some whiskey and a good pair of pliers, I can handle that ol’ wisdom teeth issue…

By the way, my inbox was flooded this morning with survey opportunities screaming at me: Tell us about your car! What’s the best soft drink? Do you have insurance? Click here, Click HERE, CLICK HERE!

I not only deleted the emails, but took the extra two minutes to hit the “unsubscribe,” which is the “morning-after” click for irrational internet panic.

Now I shall return to Joe’s story, my friend and current project, knowing I’m right where I’m supposed to be, and that He knows the way to where we’re going.

I hope He has pliers.

Gasping at the deep end

19 Mar

In my defense, I was nearly finished with my swim. By the time he showed up I had completed either 17 or 28 laps (I sometimes lose count because I’m an English major).

So I was tired. Let’s get that straight.

I like to swim in the center lane because most folks take the outsides so they can climb out more easily. I’d rather duck under three floating lane dividers and dodge Butterfly-stroke Man on my way to the side than swim next to someone. Nothing against other swimmers, but I’m a tad competitive and I have an attention deficit, which means I can’t ignore people.

Of course, he chose the lane next to mine.

At first I felt no threat. He was easily in his 90s, sitting at the pool’s edge, dangling his feet in the water while he donned his goggles. I sized him up as I approached: scrawny arms, boney knees. I could take him.

He still hadn’t entered the water when I reached the end of my lane. I didn’t stop, but made a quick U-turn and sped away. (No, not like the Olympic athletes who gracefully sink at exactly the right point, flip around, and magically jettison across the pool like a bullet; I tend to meet the wall, take a gasping breath, yank my too-small cap back down over my ears, empty the water from my goggles, and then splash out about a whole foot before I level off).

I was surprised, therefore, when I turned around at the opposite end of the pool and there he was right beside me. He kicked off the wall and was already gliding effortlessly away, leaving me panting at the wall, collecting chlorine in my gaping mouth.

Oh, heck no. This wasn’t going to happen. I may not be a spring chicken. Ok, I’m not even a summer chicken anymore, but I could take him.

I vaulted off the wall and stretched out fully. (For you non-swimmers, it’s like when you run past someone you know and somehow get taller and start breathing the way you should have been all along. The difference is that at the pool, the only one to notice is the lifeguard, and let’s just say ours wasn’t a Baywatch lifeguard candidate and leave it at that.)

Determined to catch my nonagenarian, I put every ounce of energy I could muster into that lap. I spread open my fingers for maximum water displacement, grabbed at the water the way a hole-digging dog tosses back dirt, and started kicking my feet as fast as I could. In my mind I looked like an electric mixer on high speed, but I could tell when I passed the lifeguard that I probably looked somewhat less efficient.

Goggles full of water

Are the goggles half full or half empty?

To show him I was ok, I made my concentration face—drawing my eyebrows close together in a serious frown. Unfortunately, doing anything eye-related while wearing swimming goggles breaks the seal. Water poured in, half-filling the left lens. I closed my left eye and with the other I looked at the lifeguard, giving a small smile to show that he needn’t worry but swallowing some serious pool water in the process. He stood up, staring at me intently. Ol’ Motorboat Legs was reaching the far side again, a full three lengths ahead of me. He was hardly trying at all and yet I couldn’t keep up! I was amazed and ashamed.

I hit the wall and paused, pretending to adjust my cap so he could take off solo. If I let him get far enough ahead, perhaps my competitive spirit would lay off. But it didn’t. I exhausted myself trying to catch him again.

He swam only three or ten more laps or so, which was fortunate for me because I was spent, and the lifeguard was still in alarm mode. Gramps then bobbed under the lane lines, dodged Butterfly-stroke Man, and climbed the ladder.

That’s when I saw his feet for the first time. Flippers. The man was wearing flippers. Big. Long. Superpower flippers.

I drove home feeling foolish, and perhaps a bit wiser. I know I shouldn’t compare myself to others. I’m exactly who I’m supposed to be, and my only goal should be to improve upon my own abilities.

I notice that in my writing life too. I catch myself whining because I’m not making money yet, like those writers who have been at it for longer than two months. There are no writing flippers, although I wish there were. It’s just going to take time.

Still, I’m not done with Mr. Frog Feet. Same time tomorrow morning, buddy, but this time I’ll catch you. I’ll carb up tonight and enter the water with my goggles cinched so tight my ears will flatten. Best of all, I’ve got a fancy high-power backstroke that will blow you out of the water…if the lifeguard doesn’t pull me out first.

A Charleston Portrait

4 Feb

To celebrate our 30th anniversary (and to mark my leap from steady paycheck to struggling writer status), my husband and I spent last week in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. We chose Charleston because we wanted to go somewhere we’d never been, that was near enough to drive to but far enough away that we could escape the cold Virginia winter.

Naturally, we spent three of our five days practically snowed in.

“First storm like this we’ve had this decade,” said all the locals.

Ravenel Bridge

Beautiful, but quite useless in a snowstorm, Ravenel Bridge

It wasn’t much by Virginia standards, but it was enough to shut down the city. Even the elegant Ravenel Bridge, the main route to the downtown area, was closed throughout most of our visit. It was opened briefly when temperatures warmed, but quickly closed again when ice falling from the rigging began crashing onto crossing vehicles, apparently annoying drivers in them.

Because we were staying at Mount Pleasant, this meant either taking the alternate route with hundreds of cranky re-routed commuters or staying on the island and seeing the sights there.Initially, I was quite disappointed. I wanted to experience the Charleston I’d been hearing about for so many years, its lovely markets and restaurants, and that legendary Southern charm.

We instead went out to Isle of Palms, and explored Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island. It was all quite nice, but cold, and I’d hardly say charming.

Then we met Mazie Brown, a sweetgrass basket weaver with a small stand on Highway 17. Sweetgrass weaving, South Carolina’s official handcraft, is an art only found in this region, and the baskets are sold only in the downtown markets and along this highway. Mazie was one of only a few weavers brave enough to set up shop that day, when cold was warding off potential customers.

From the moment we entered her tiny hut we were charmed. Mazie flashed us a wide and welcoming grin, and commenced to chatting as if we were old friends.

“You’re lucky you come by when you did,” she said. “Soon the only place you’ll see baskets like this is in the museums.”

Mazie talked about her art, which she’d been practicing since she was 6, and this stand, which her Mama had established 29 years ago and which Mazie had taken over after retiring from her nursing career. While I listened, I pulled down some of her creations, running my fingers along the intricate patterns woven from grasses and palms.

“Those dark parts is pine and bullrush,” she said, pride emanating from her deep brown eyes. “And that’s palmetto, holdin’ it all together.”

Her weathered hands stayed busy, braiding a stalk of sweetgrass into a circle, the way her Mama had taught her: in the Gullah tradition maintained more than 300 years by Africans brought to America in slavery.

“It’s dyin’ though,” she said. “My children want nothin’ to do with it. They don’t have the patience…rather play on their textin’ machines.”

My husband held up a serving platter that she said took about two and a half days of weaving to complete. What a shame this art might disappear. We’ve since learned that not only is the coming generation losing interest, but regional development is depleting the sweetgrass supply. Access to the grasslands is limited; harvesters travel nearly 90 miles to find grass, or they buy it like Mazie does.

“When I was a girl, I used to go with my Daddy to pull it up,” she said. “Wouldn’t do that today. There’s so many snakes in the grasses now.”

We purchased the platter and asked her to sign the back. Her face lit up afresh and she pulled a sharpie of her pocket; our request wasn’t original.

“Some folks don’t want ‘em signed, but I’m always happy to do it,” she said.

As she carefully spelled out her name on the evenly spaced palmetto coils, Mazie continued to talk about her family, being alone despite two marriages, surviving cancer seven years now, and about her love for the weaving craft. We could have listened for hours; she had such a sweet storytelling gift.

Mazie Brown

Mazie Brown, artist and storyteller, Charleston personified

So enchanted was I by Miss Mazie, I did something I rarely do, as anyone who knows me will attest. I wanted to have my picture taken with her. I could tell when I asked that she shared my loathing for the camera, but she obliged (albeit, never looking into the lens). Jerry and I both felt compelled to hug her goodbye.

We eventually got to the city, to a few good restaurants (shout out to Page’s Okra Grill!) and to the market where baskets similar to Maize’s were triple the price and stalls were just business establishments. After Mazie, it was a bit anticlimactic.

I’m not sure we would have met Maize if not for the weather; I’m so glad we did. To me, she is now family. To me, she is Charleston. And a lovely, charming place it is.