December 13 Ritual of Dawn

Last night I intended to observe the sunset, but I was drinking wine and writing out Christmas cards and didn’t notice when the snowy grey afternoon faded to snowy gray evening.

Not a cloud left in the sky this morning to retain any heat from the day before. The 6-degree temperature necessitated a few more layers of clothing: long sleeves, tall socks and boots, a vest.

A much noisier morning than yesterday. Still the dogs and the trains, but also the crunch and scrape and growl of snow removal operations on the neighborhood’s driveways and sidewalks. (No snow removal happening on the residential streets – in this climate, the city can save money and wait for the sun to clear the roads.)

The street lights are on, until they aren’t. It’s plenty bright enough to see, anyhow. The light blanket of snow brightens up the scene. The sky is blue / blue-white with an infusion of gold at the bottom.

At 7 a.m., church bells ring from a new blocks away. It’s Sunday. No people on the sidewalks yet. No cars on the street. I think fewer people are attending services in person, on account of the pandemic. Streamed worship services are a boon for people who have a hard time getting around, especially on snowy mornings. There are some good things to have come from this awful situation.

I see movement on the next block, between the houses, between the trees. Birds? I stare.

No, just the exhaust from a furnace wafting into the sky, matching my own steamy breath, both of us exhaling carbon dioxide, the product of each of our systems of creating warmth and life.

There is some bird activity this morning. I hear a scolding chickadee up the block, another small bird twittering in the neighbor’s bushes. A sudden intrusion on the porch as a bird zooms by from right to left between the porch pillars, two feet from my face, twittering as it flies.

There doesn’t seem to be any movement of the air, though the forecast later in the day includes a high wind warning. Still, small clumps of snow occasionally slough from the tree branches and dust the air below.

A neighbor on the block south fires up his snow blower. I loathe those things, how they tear the air with their stink and roar. But they are efficient. And this neighbor has a habit of clearing the sidewalk on his whole block, carefully angling into the curb cuts at the street corners. A wonderful courtesy for the neighbors as well as the people who will pass his house on foot.

Me, I greatly prefer to hand-shovel my driveway and sidewalks. It’s relatively quiet, cheap, better for the environment, and good exercise. It’ll be an easy task this morning, with only an inch or two of light, granular snow.

The light brightens. Without fanfare to mark the moment, the sun has risen above the horizon.

A new day has begun.

Copyright 2020 by Katie Bradshaw

Ritual of dawn

Six months ago, I made a break. Week by week, it had become clear that the place I was working was no longer the right place for me to be. So I left. Leapt into the foggy arroyo the pandemic has opened up in so many lives.

At first, I worked. I took a writing class. I experimented with different forms of self-expression. But I could not write. Eventually, I stopped creating. Stopped trying. What was the point? Nothing mattered. Day upon day, the same gray sameness. No future. Only the present and the past. Laboring to meet the most basic needs. Food. Cleanliness. Occasional community service.

But there was also reading, boosted in large part by the Little Free Library I started in my driveway. New books coming into my sphere, a drive to hurry up and read books so I could get them out in the library, an obsession with used and remainder book sales.

I read about social justice issues and growled with anger. I read about history and tried to put things into perspective. I read memoirs and experienced different lives. I read classics and wondered how I’d managed to miss them. I read stories and marveled at the dance of imagination that could create worlds more true than the one we lived in.

And I read “Wintering.”

I’d read an interview with the author, Katherine May, and was drawn to the book. I posted about it online. I tried to buy a copy – backordered everywhere.

Miraculously, the book appeared on my porch that very day, courtesy of a friend who’d likewise been intrigued by the book and had purchased several copies to give as gifts.

The author explains “wintering” as:

a season of cold. It is a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world, feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress, or cast in the role of an outsider. Perhaps it results from an illness or a life event such as a bereavement or the birth of a child; perhaps it comes from a humiliation or failure. Perhaps you’re in a period of transition and have temporarily fallen between two worlds. Some winterings creep upon us more slowly, accompanying the protracted death of a relationship, the gradual ratcheting up of caring responsibilities as our parents age, the drip-drip-drip of lost confidence. Some are appallingly sudden, like discovering one day that your skills are considered obsolete, the company you worked for has gone bankrupt, or your partner is in love with someone else. However it arrives, wintering is usually involuntary, lonely, and deeply painful.

But she goes on to explain the consoling fact of the matter, that wintering is inevitable:

We like to imagine that it’s possible for life to be one eternal summer and that we have uniquely failed to achieve that for ourselves. We dream of an equatorial habitat, forever close to the sun, an endless, unvarying high season. But life’s not like that. Emotionally, we’re prone to stifling summers and low, dark winters, to sudden drops in temperature, to light and shade. Even if by some extraordinary stroke of self-control and good luck we were able to keep control of our own health and happiness for an entire lifetime, we still couldn’t avoid the winter. Our parents would age and die; our friends would undertake minor acts of betrayal; the machinations of the world would eventually weigh against us. Somewhere along the line, we would screw up. Winter would quietly roll in.

One of the hardest “adulting” things I’ve had to deal with was the shift from school, with its pattern of endings and new beginnings, to the working world, with its infinite timeline of sameness, one week following the next and the next and the next, a jumble of Mondays and Fridays and Sunday night dread. I need seasonality in my life. I need beginnings and middles and ends. I can’t do infinite growth. I need the blazing senescence of autumn, the defiant energy that the cold of winter triggers in my soul. I need for one door to close and another to open.

In “Wintering”, the author pulls in a quote from the school of wisdom that we humans are a part of the natural world, and that our physical and mental health are tied to its seasons, though she frames it in the context of ritual:

I am reminded yet again of the quiet value of ritual in my life, and of the words of D.H. Lawrence: “We must get back into relation: vivid and nourishing relation to the cosmos and the universe . . . We must once more practice the ritual of dawn and noon and sunset, the ritual of kindling fire and pouring water, the ritual of the first breath and the last.”

These last months have been one long, formless mass of time. Days run into weeks and into months before I notice. Suddenly the sun is in a different position in the sky, belying the unseasonably warm weather. Suddenly the morning has turned to afternoon and the light is growing dim.

With a push towards friluftsliv from a news article encouraging outdoor socialization during the pandemic, I resolve to bundle up and sit outside with my coffee to greet the dawn. Sunrise at 7:14 a.m. Temperature 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Over my pajamas, I pull on a sweatshirt and windbreaker, lifting the hoods up over a knit hat with ear flaps. I run hot water in a travel mug to warm it before filling it with coffee. I don mittens, step out onto my porch with the coffee, lay a folded towel on the metal chair out there, sit down, and tuck a blanket around my legs.

6:45 a.m. The sky is already blue-gray to the east with hints of pink in the clouds. A light breeze blows, chilling my bare ankles above my slippers, causing the wheels on a bicycle wind spinner in the yard to gently turn and squeak. All the roofs of the houses on the block are white with frost.

Several dogs around the neighborhood bark now and again. A train roars by on the tracks three-quarters of a mile away. Another train somewhere sounds its horn. The heat kicks on at the house across the street, sending up a plume of steam.

The clouds are warming to an orange-yellow, turning the blue sky at the horizon a bit greenish near the point where the sun will appear. A rabbit runs across the yard. The squirrels must still be sleeping. The birds, too. The air is silent. No people on the sidewalk, no cars in the street.

The trees are no longer the same tone as the sky, brown on gray-blue. They have become distinct – black frames for the warmth of orange and pink.

A view of the sunrise from the author's porch, the street and a few houses across the street are visible beneath the dark silhouettes of trees set against an orange-pink sky.

I don’t actually see the sun rise. My view of the horizon is obscured in town. But I feel my pupils contract as the light quickly strengthens.

A new day has begun.

I stand up, gather my blanket, and go inside to write.

Copyright 2020 by Katie Bradshaw

A story told two ways

I’ve started experimenting with creating zines.

In this post, I’m presenting the same story, about a time I offered a handmade item for a charity auction, two ways:  once as a zine, and once as a blog post.

It’s kind of hard to directly compare them, since in a non-online format, the zine would be presented in a small paper booklet, and the blog is in its native form. Still, which do you like better, and why?





Making art for a charity auction

Some years ago, I started attending a church in an older section of an Iowa town that had a wealth of stained-glass windows.

One Sunday, a particular window – dubbed “the Elmo window” because the bottom part of the glass design resembled the top part of that Sesame Street character’s head – became the subject of the day’s sermon.

The point of the sermon has long since been forgotten, but the window lives on in my memory, and in my photo album.

Soon after the “Elmo window” sermon, a fundraiser auction was announced for the church. Because I’d taken up stained glass as a hobby, I decided to re-create a sized-down model of the window as a suncatcher to donate to the auction.

I climbed the steps partway up to the balcony and took a picture of the Elmo window, then used photo-editing software to highlight the borders of the window’s shapes. I printed the edited image to use as the design template and cut pattern pieces out of cardboard. I chose glass colors similar to those used in the original window and cut the glass – a total of 65 pieces. I carefully ground down the edges of the glass pieces to smooth them out and make sure they fit the pattern exactly. I wrapped each of the 65 glass pieces in strips of copper foil, along with 5 glass gems. I laid out all the pieces on my work board and soldered them together; first the front side, then the back. I cut some pieces of zinc to make a frame, then soldered it together, complete with hanging loops and a chain.

I can’t tell you how many hours I spent working on that “Elmo window” suncatcher, or how much money I spent on supplies. I didn’t track the nitty-gritty details. This was a labor of love, and I was pretty dang proud of my work. I’d managed to create a clearly-recognizable facsimile of the original window, sized down to hang as a piece of tasteful, colorful art in any modern house or office window. It even had a good story to go along with it. Surely, people who heard the sermon and who loved the church’s building would clamor to take home this memento!

On the day of the auction, a small crowd gathered. The auctioneer started in on the business at hand, coaxing bids ever higher on baby quilts and cookie platters, fancy Bibles and business gift certificates. There was a minor frenzy over some quarts of pickled beets made by a grand dame of the church – fifty dollars for a jar of pickled beets!

My Elmo window was up next! The auctioneer read out the little card explaining the significance of the stained glass window hanging. He started out the bidding at $50. Seemed reasonable, given the price for the beets.

Fifty dollars for this unique piece of art. Just fifty dollars, five-oh dollars. Can I get a bidder for the Elmo window at fifty dollars?


Ok how about twenty-five? Get the bidding started on this lovely stained glass piece for a good cause at twenty-five dollars. Let me see someone start the bidding at twenty-five dollars.

No one I knew at the church was at the auction. No one at the auction knew me or knew how much work I’d put into that suncatcher. There was no one to come to the rescue with a pity bid.

Come on, folks, how about twenty dollars? Can I get a bidder at twenty dollars?

A woman with a couple of kids in tow weakly raised her hand.

We have a bidder at twenty dollars! Twenty dollars for the Elmo window. Who wants it for twenty-five. Twenty-five for the Elmo window. At twenty, twenty-five.

Twenty dollars going once.

I froze.

Twenty dollars going twice.

I had brought money with me. Why didn’t I bid on my own donated item? Take it back home and basically make a cash donation to the church?

SOLD for twenty dollars!

The woman walked up to the sale table, handed over a twenty-dollar bill and picked up the Elmo window.

My heart sank into my gut.

All the thought and effort I put into that piece of art – worth $20? The supplies alone cost more than $20. A jar of friggin’ PICKLED BEETS sold for $50, and the stained glass art I worked so hard on sold for a mere twenty bucks?

I walked out of the auction before it ended and slunk back home, trying to fight the bitter feeling in my heart.

Yep, I learned a few lessons that day more valuable than a jar of pickled beets – about pride, charitable giving, church cliques, and the value of art.

I hope that Iowa woman treasures her Elmo window and to this day tells stories of how she got it for a song at a charity auction.

LEFT: the actual Elmo window, RIGHT: my Elmo window reproduction

Copyright 2020 by Katie Bradshaw

Permission from a fairy godmother

I continue to struggle with this idea of “being a writer,” to the point that I very nearly didn’t sign up for the Story Catcher Summer Writing Workshop.

I’ve attended writing workshops in the past that made me feel like a poser. Rather than energizing me, those workshops left me feeling small and discouraged. (This probably says more about my personal journey then the workshops themselves. Also, I now have a project I’m actively working on, which makes a huge difference.)

Thanks to some encouragement to find a writing community (thank you, Sue Kelsey!), I decided to attend Story Catcher, since the price was right, and it was only 100 miles from my home.

Right out of the gate, writer-in-residence Anna Keesey’s craft lecture delivered some things I really needed to hear.

“Your writing self is fragile,” she said. “It needs attention to further its cause.”

Anna fashioned herself into a fairy godmother of sorts, bearing a “bouquet of permissions.” Among them:

Permission to go inward, to find the times and places where distraction is minimized.

Permission to write imperfectly, to tolerate uncertainty, to wander around feeling lost because that wandering journey may be the only way to understand the destination.

Permission to be irreverent, wrong, rude. “You do not have to toe the party line on anything.”

Permission to waste time.

Permission to use “up time” for writing, or not-writing.

Permission to put your uncertainty ahead of someone else’s certainty, your future ahead of someone else’s now.

Permission to work on small projects – give someone a gift of your words, write a letter to someone who is not yet born, keep a dialogue with yourself.

This all sounded so familiar. These past months I’ve been giving myself stern talks along these same lines, but I’ve struggled to believe me.

Sometimes all we need is a little bit of ordinary magic, like permission from a fairy godmother.