From the Files: Sunshine and Snowbanks

My communities have seen too much tragedy this week. But there’s been little rays of sunshine breaking through the clouds.

This morning I needed to get out of the house. My options are limited (thanks COVID) but I decided to go to town, pick up breakfast, and run a few errands.

Before I could do that I needed to clear out the driveway. I can bumble through a foot of powder with the truck but I try to avoid barreling through the plow drift at the end of the driveway unless it’s an emergency. I decided I’d shovel out the plow drift, go to town, and then tackle the rest of the driveway when I got home.

The plow drift was such a fine specimen that I should have logged it for scientific purposes. It was about four feet deep, about two and a half feet tall, and almost entirely made of dense, compacted powder. I started carving it away, quickly slipping into a scoop-lift-throw rhythm.

One of my local guys drove by, backed up, and said he’d take a pass off the end of the drive. Three quick swipes and he’d cleared away the whole plow drift and cleared enough space at the end of the drive to get the truck out without any trouble.

I thanked him and he continued on his way.

I went back inside, called Missie, and began crying.

After this week, I needed that casual kindness. It made my whole day better.

People talk a lot about changing the world. Heroic acts. Daring deeds. There’s nothing wrong with that; the world desperately needs heroes.

But in a world that isn’t kind, being recklessly kind and unconditionally loving is a heroic act. Sometimes the best way to change the world as a whole is to change the world around you.

This week has been hard. But people keep bringing rays of sunshine through the clouds.

I’m so thankful for them.

Do me a favor? Hug your kids and tell them you love them.

Originally posted on Facebook on February 1, 2021.

From the Files: Stage Fright

A few years ago I spent some time with a class of fifth grade students in one of my dad’s schools. I was doing a “book talk”, where I gave a presentation, then I would answer questions afterwards.

I have anxiety, and it was really bad at that time, so I had a script written out for my presentation.

I tripped up in the first minute or two of my presentation. I misspoke and couldn’t find my place again.

And then I jumped off script for a minute even though everything in me screamed to just push through and get through the script and be done.

“Sorry,” I said, tapping my script. “I get anxious sometimes when I’m talking to people, so for today I wrote out what I was going to say to make it easier. Sometimes I trip up anyway and have to take a second to find my place again.”

“That’s okay!” One of the kids yelled. “That’s called stage fright. I LIKE talking to people and I still get it.”

The next couple minutes were filled with these kiddos reassuring me that it’s okay if I have stage fright, telling me that they have stage fright, and even giving me a couple ideas for coping with it.

Those fifth graders were the best class I’ve ever spoken with and, honestly, that experience has helped me so much. I don’t think I lowered my expectations — I do expect to be able to speak without tripping over myself — but I gave myself space and time to build up to those expectations. I stopped beating myself up if I misspoke. I started to insert a little pause instead of mumbling while I found my words again.

I did take the advice of those fifth grade students. They told me that I’ll get better at it the more I practice. And they told me that it’s still okay to mess up.

Now, I tell my writing students and the kids I work with that you can do anything. You can be anything. And I tell them that it’s okay if they don’t know what they want to do or be yet. It’s okay. Give yourself time to figure it out.

If you have stories to tell but you can’t spell, write them anyway and get someone to help you edit. Don’t let anything hold you back from something that you want to do.

Stories are a human trait. We tell stories, we sing and dance and create art, because that is a form of communication. Humans need to communicate. That is almost an instinct. We need to communicate, and for more than just survival and living. We need to share stories.

I know far too many people who say you have to be good at writing, or singing, or dancing, or art. You have to be good at it if you want to do it.

No.

You have to do it.

That’s it.

If you want to write, then write. And don’t worry about it being good. Just write. Tell the story you want to tell. Don’t know how it ends? Don’t worry about it! I have HUNDREDS of unfinished stories on my hard drive. It’s the best kind of practice there is. You will get stronger at writing with every word you write.

At the end of the day, the best way to get good at something is to just do it, and do it over and over again. Sometimes you have talents or gifts that make it easier or faster, but you still need practice and repetition to develop and strengthen you.

If you want to write, do it.

If you want to sing, dance, or create art, do it.

Don’t worry about anyone else. If you want to do it, then do it.

We are all made up of stories. Find your voice and tell yours. Even if it’s a story or song or picture that you create in your own head and never share with another person, you will be happier for it.

Originally shared on Facebook on February 10, 2021.

From the Files: It Gets Better

“It does get better.”

Someone told me that a number of years ago when I was really struggling to just slog through the day. My entire world was gray, flat, and lifeless. I could barely handle one day at a time, much less look forward to the future. But someone I knew and trusted told me that it did get better, if I just held on.

You know something?

They were right.

They were absolutely right.

Life is always going to throw curveballs at you. It is always going to be up and down. There will be good days and bad days, and you will cry and laugh and hurt and love. There will always be shadows and darkness.

But healing is possible. You just keep moving forward, one step at a time, and you’ll start to see the sunshine more often. You will begin to feel stronger. You’ll laugh more than you cry and you’ll find that the pain, once so fresh and harsh, is fading into old scars and memory. You will learn to be honest with yourself and you will learn to give yourself grace. You will start to see yourself grow.

There will still be hard times but it will be worth it.

Nothing could have prepared me for the sheer overwhelming joy of watching the sunrise, of feeding the birds, of sitting quietly and listening to the river talk. These were all things that I lost during the dark times and things that I got back as I got better. In some ways, the absence made those simple experiences more vibrant and lovely than they had seemed before.

You’re the only you that we’ve got, and you are worth waiting for. So yes, take your time. Walk through the shadows. Grieve the losses and take the time to process the trauma. Do whatever you need to in order to heal. But believe that the sunrise is coming, and the world is waiting for you. And if you can’t believe in the good in yourself and the good in the world, then I will believe in it for you until you can.

It does get better, friend. I promise. It does.

Originally posted on Facebook on March 2, 2021

Welcome to 2023!

Happy new year!

I did not stay up until midnight, and I only caught a couple minutes of the fireworks last night. I ended 2022 with the flu and I’m still dealing with that last lingering cough, so I’ve been laying low for a few days.

Today I’ve been revamping my website and getting some new content lined up for you all.

To start things off…

Here’s the current front cover for my upcoming release, The People We Know: Volume One.

This book will be released on June 1, 2023 and will be available for pre-order in a few weeks!

(I can’t wait to share this with you, but I have been told that it needs a tissue warning.)

Next up, I’ve touched up my Patreon page!

Subscribers on my Patreon page get ‘Butterfly Mail’ every month, sent anywhere a USPS postage stamp can take it – including internationally. In the past they’ve gotten poems, cards, essays, photos, artwork, early release copies of my books, and more. This year, in addition to the monthly mailing, I’ll be adding more digital content exclusively for my Patreon supporters as a thank-you – they pay for my grocery bill!

If you’d like to sign up on my Patreon account, click here.

One final note – I can always be reached via email, a direct message on my Facebook page, or by a good old-fashioned letter in the mail.

I can’t wait to see what 2023 brings!

All my best,

Annie Louise

The Cat’s Christmas Gift


One night, a very long time ago, all the animals in the barn were awake late into the night.

They had a most unexpected visitor that night: a brand new baby. A special baby.

The animals tried to stay quiet, to let the baby and his exhausted parents sleep, but they talked amongst themselves as they nibbled and munched on the hay.

“I carried her all the way here,” the donkey said proudly. “I was so careful to make sure she was safe.”

“We gave up our stall,” the horses said, towering over the rest. “We made room for them here when no one else would.”

The chickens merely slept on the perch. The rooster would have his own boasts to make come dawn, but for now the hens tucked their heads under their wings and hummed a gentle lullaby.

“We gave the wool for the blankets the shepherds brought the Holy Child,” the sheep bleated. “We made sure he would be safe and warm.”

“When she needed help to feed him, we gave her milk,” the goats said. “And we haven’t jumped on top of the manger, not once.” They butted each other, unable to resist the urge to play, but the baby began to wake and they hushed themselves.

“I have chased away all the rats,” said the old shaggy dog from his place by the barn door. “And I am keeping watch over the baby all night.”

Four little paws pattered into the barn. Two bright eyes peered around.

“What will you give to the Holy Child?” The dog asked the cat. “You have nothing to bring that has not already been given.”

The cat only purred. On quiet stealthy feet she danced to the manger where the newborn baby lay, restless and starting to fuss.

Lightly she leapt up into the hay and curled up on his soft woolen blanket, right against his side. A purr began, deep in her belly, and she blinked her eyes as the baby settled back into sleep, soothed by her warmth and the comfortable purr.

“I give myself,” the cat said softly.

From the Files: Nearly October

Originally posted on Facebook September 30, 2021.

I saw the flash of fur first, then the Frisbee arcing through the air, then the man.

He was standing at the edge of the dooryard, arm raised still from throwing the Frisbee over the sizable lawn. His white hair made him stand out while his dark red flannel shirt made him fade into the crimson maple leaves on the tree behind him.

His dog leapt into the air, all four feet off the ground — Aussie shepherd, most likely, based on the size, coloring, and coat.

The road carried me off before I could see the rest but I have seen this scene enough to know that her jaws will snap on the Frisbee and she will carry it back to earth with her; she will barely touch the ground before she races back to him, legs moving so fast you only see a blur. He will take the Frisbee and send it soaring out again and she will fly like a bullet to snap it out of the air again.

The road wound north to the mountains. I know it is nearly straight north because in the morning and in the evening the sunlight slants through the trees on either side of the road, making a flickering ‘piano key’ set of shadows almost all the way home.

The trees are starting to turn and the air was cold today, so cold that for the first time since early May I kept my windows closed for the entire drive.

When I got home, I sat in the truck in the driveway for a few minutes, catching up on emails for work. Two of my crows flew into the yard and hopped around, pecking at the grass and whatever interesting bites they were finding there. They ignored me as I turned off the truck, rolled down the window, and leaned out to watch them, but as soon as I pulled out the camera and tried to take a picture, they flew up into a pine and scolded me.

It is nearly October. It is a good time to be here.

📷: Smalls Falls near Rangeley, September 29, 2021.

Sand Castles

The beach was three hours away.

Really, it was a little over two hours, but when you factored in the number of stops required when traveling with a cacophony of children, all under the age of 13, it turned pretty quickly into a three hour trip.

It was the first time I’d been to the ocean. It was before we were six, before the baby, before I was one of the middle kids, when I was still one of the little kids.

You measure time in odd ways when you are growing up. There aren’t any good ways to measure it when everything is new and changing, and simultaneously, constant and eternal.

The water at Popham Beach is cold. The river flows through into the Atlantic, so the water is always moving and the temperatures are frigid, even for Maine.

The big boys went swimming, shrieking about the cold water, until Mom called them back to shore to sit on the sand until their fingers and toes turned pink again.

I waded, with my other brothers, and searched for seashells and sea glass in the sand and seaweed on the beach.

After a picnic lunch of sandwiches and sand, as the tide started to wander back in, all five of us collected our sand pails and plastic shovels and set about building a sand castle.

Built like the medieval castles in my big brothers’ history books, it had a keep, towering over the courtyards and stables and sheds and outer buildings. There were walls and watchtowers and turrets, decorated with mussel shells and polished driftwood sticks and smooth pebbles sifted out of the sand. There was a gate, which my oldest brother labored over for a long time, using wet sand and sticks and stones to sculpt the curved arch so it would stand upright. There was a moat, filled with so many pails of seawater that the sand around it became waterlogged and the moat actually held water for a few minutes at a time. There were flagpoles at the top of every tower, some with seaweed for the flag, and some with imaginary flags.

Photo by Phil Hearing on Unsplash

The big boys were the designers and architects, and they kept us little kids busy, running down to the ocean to fill pails of water and collect wet salty sand from the waterline for cementing the castle together.

The finished castle was fairly monolithic, even by adult standards, judging by the one photograph I found a few years ago. It was large enough for all five of us to sit behind for the photo, all wearing swimsuits and hoodies – Maine’s summer uniform – and happy smiles.

It was three hours home – a little over two hours, but with a cacophony of sleepy, sandy children, it turned into three hours pretty quickly. So we packed up in the middle of the afternoon, when there were still people coming and going on the beach.

One little girl – smaller than me – and her grandmother came down to the beach and claimed the space near us. The little girl had her own sand pail and shovel, and she worked on building her castle. She wanted to build a big castle like ours, but ours was hours of work with five of us, and she was only one.

When we were finishing up our packing, towels and seashells and sand pails and shovels and the lunch cooler and the hundred-and-one other things that go to the beach, my big brothers wandered over to the little girl and her grandmother, and invited her to move in to our castle.

We were leaving, and it was a very good castle, and the tide would wash it all away in a little while longer, and she could make it bigger if she wanted, and we would be happy if someone got to enjoy all our hard work.

I don’t remember anything about her. Not her hair, her swimsuit, nothing. But I remember, clearly, her smile.

Days later, when I was out on the back porch sorting through my seashells in my sand pail, I dumped out the sand in the bottom of the pail – the sand was everywhere for days and weeks after our trip – and in the sand in the bottom of the pail was a perfect sand dollar the size of a dime.

The sand dollar is still in a tiny fishing tackle box with other tiny seashells I found that day. Every time I look at it – and often when I look at a normal dime – I remember that little girl and that sand castle.

From the Files: Enough

Originally posted on September 2, 2021, on Facebook.

It’s been more than six years since I asked myself “what is the point of all this?”

At that time it didn’t look like there was any point.

But there was. There is.

Today, I’m sitting on the porch railing listening to the rain fall. If I reach my fingers out a few inches, I can feel the drops, cold and fresh against my skin. It is still early, and the air is cold. I am bundled in a flannel shirt and my breakfast is on the railing next to me.

There’s nothing fancy or expensive or momentous about this: my flannel shirt is well loved and worn, there is a cobweb overhead for my back porch spider, and none of my dishes match. I have to go to work in an hour.

But the food on my plate is fresh, from a farm down the road, and the coffee is cold brew I made myself, and this house is a space that I can call my own, at least for now.

There is gas in the truck to get me to work and a few dollars tucked in my wallet for iced coffee when I go to town tomorrow.

Most importantly, there is peace.

When I was asking myself “what’s the point?” it wasn’t because I felt nothing–it was because I felt everything, and I was drowning.

It took time and hard work, and there is still work to do, but there is peace here on the back porch railing with the rain falling.

There are birds singing in the trees at the back of the yard.

Someone told me that when I asked myself “what’s the point?” I needed to put my foot down and MAKE a point.

Something tiny, like ‘next week the grocery store has a sale on my favorite fruit’ or something huge, like ‘there are still mountains I haven’t climbed’.

There are people I haven’t met and songs I haven’t heard and books I haven’t read. There are rainy mornings waiting for me, and sunny ones too.

One of these days I will coax the song birds to eat out of my hand.

I am here and that is enough.

I am here.

And so are you.

I love you.

Thanks for reading. It means the world to me. All my love.

A

Laundry Baskets

She used to come over and fold laundry.

I was probably five or six. She’d come over every few days, sit in the living room, and fold baskets of laundry. With five kids under the age of 15, there was always laundry to be folded.

Sometimes she read books to us. Other times we played cards, mostly Skipbo.

I remember that her hands would tremble if they sat still too long, and so she liked to keep busy.

At church, on Sundays, she played the organ.

My older brothers would go over and mow her lawn in the summertime. I was jealous that they got to go see her more often than I did.

When she passed away, her family gave my parents the little white sedan she drove. They gave me one of her china dolls. And one of my brothers got the Skipbo cards.

But out of all the things I remember about her, I remember the laundry.

I have no memory of her asking if she could help. I remember her coming in, putting her coat aside, and diving in. When she ran out of laundry, she’d send us to go check and see if there was any more on the clothesline.

With the clothes folded and put back in the baskets to be put away, she seemed to feel like her job was done, and done well. She’d sometimes stay and read, or play games, but sometimes she would just leave after the laundry was folded.

I’ve always held onto that. She saw a need — what mother of small children doesn’t need help with the laundry? — and she helped out. Not once or twice, but consistently, for such a long time that I don’t remember when it started.

Being there when someone needs you is important, but sometimes it looks unexpected. Sometimes it looks like laundry baskets.

Originally published on Facebook in 2021.

Where Humanity and Divinity Meet

(Note: this is about as “preachy” as I ever get. I’m not a historian or a Bible scholar, just a journalist who asks too many questions.)

My dad taught me, from an early age, to pay attention to what lens I am using to view the world. He plays a very annoying game called ‘Devil’s Advocate’ and makes me defend myself when I say a declarative statement, even if he agrees with me. He pushes me to explore all the perspectives I can find and explain my own, and weigh them out. It’s been really useful, given my day job. 


Years of studying the Bible tells me that the Bible is viewing the world from a primarily masculine lens. There’s nothing wrong with that—it is part of the human story—but it doesn’t show the whole picture. 


Did you know that the Bible you read today was carefully selected and arranged centuries ago by a large counsel of religious leaders, primarily men? I do believe that the Bible contains the Word of God, and that it was prayerfully and carefully chosen, but it’s not like God set up a printing press and personally autographed each copy. 


(This is when I usually get called a heretic, but really: the history of the actual book you hold in your hands is a fascinating story and should be talked about more often.)


There is more to the human story than the words written in the Bible, and I have always wondered how many stories we’ve lost. On average, half of humanity is missing from the Bible. The stories are primarily about men and were primarily written by men. I studied Bible History for about fifteen years and to this day I can only name a dozen or so women. Their stories—my stories—are largely absent.


Mother Mary is, of course, the most well-known and the most frequently discussed. It’s Advent, leading up to the Christmas holiday, so her part of the story is open for discussion: but it seems only the verses in the Bible. The two books that discuss the immaculate conception and the birth of Christ were written by men, largely translated and selected by men. Nothing in Mary’s story is a man’s story.


For me, Mary’s story has more questions than answers. 


Scholars believe that, given the time and culture in which her story took place, she was likely between the age of fourteen and sixteen. 


Consider: a fourteen-year-old is engaged to be married when an angel of God appears and calls her ‘favored one’. The angel tells her that she has been chosen to bear the divine child; the embodiment of God in human form. 


But take it farther. Explore the possibilities. Did Mary remember the story of Moses, when he begged for a chance to see the Divine Creator? Did she remember how God placed Moses in a cleft of the rock and only allowed him to see His back, otherwise he would die? Did she wonder if becoming the bridge between humanity and divinity would kill her? 


Did she hesitate, knowing that conceiving a child before her marriage was consummated would shame her and her family, destroy her relationship with Joseph, and potentially ruin the life of this child?


Mary said yes. It’s a tiny little verse in Luke and again, it seems to me to only be a part of the story, but she said yes. 


I’ve always felt that she DID have a choice. I’ve always felt that she could have said no and gone on with her normal life. But she said yes. 


What was it like, telling Joseph? Joseph was a righteous man—I understand the verses to mean he was a kind man. He wanted to protect her from the shame and harm that would befall her if it became public information that she was pregnant out of wedlock, but he planned to ‘quietly’ send her away. An angel appeared to him in a dream and told him not to, and he listened in the morning, but imagine Mary’s feelings through that night. 


During her pregnancy, did she have morning sickness? I have been told before that she would have had an easy pregnancy and birth, but the Bible is very clear that this was God made Flesh—this is where divinity and humanity reconnect. There is no real reason to believe that Mary’s pregnancy was anything other than a normal human pregnancy.


Did her back ache? Did her ankles swell? 


Late-term, she had to do a road trip, with none of our modern comforts. I remember my mother’s struggles with traveling the month before the baby was born: frequent bathroom stops, constant adjustments and fidgeting to get comfortable, lots of naps and resting. What was it like for Mary?


Did she know that she was too close to her due date? Did she know when they left home that she might have to give birth in a strange city without her mother and sisters there? Did she know that she wouldn’t have her own midwife there? Did she pack swaddling clothes in her bag?


My understanding is that men weren’t involved in the labor and delivery at that time and in that culture. It was women’s work. Did Mary know that she may have to deliver this baby entirely on her own? 


When did the contractions start? Were they rushing to Bethlehem to try and find shelter as she experienced the first pains of childbirth? 


How long was she in labor? How long before the holy child was born? 


He was holy, divine, but he was human too. Did he scream? Did she? How did she wash him clean?


A barn, even a three-sided shelter for sheep, is better than giving birth in the street. At least she could rest the baby in the feed trough with fresh sweet hay, and I’ve had enough farm experience to know that the animals generate warmth and barns are messy but not filthy–again, better than the streets.


Did he nurse? Did he latch on right away? Did her milk come in, or did they both lie there and cry in frustration?


How long did she rest in Bethlehem before she had to travel again? How many nights did she spend in that barn? 


When he was a toddler, did he ever provoke her? Did she scold him and then see in his eyes the whole knowledge of the universe? Did he throw his food on the floor if he didn’t like the taste of it? Did he cry at night because of the weight of being human? Did she pace the floor, holding him close, and cry herself because she couldn’t calm him? 


There is so much of the feminine story that is left untold and that means that part of the human story is left untold.


Why do so many men in the Bible hear and see angels in their dreams, while it seems that Mary essentially had an angel over for coffee and brunch? 


For so many years I felt disconnected from the Creator because I experienced divinity in a very physical, tangible way—and God rarely seemed to embody physical form to interact with men in the Bible. In fact, the Bible is very specific about it at times. Men travel to holy places and sacred spaces to speak with God. I felt that meant I was interacting with God the wrong way: I interacted with Him with my hands, not my head. But it is clear that the angel came into the house where Mary was and spoke with her, face to face. Maybe, after all, I am living the part of the story that women have always lived? Maybe when God speaks with women, He comes and stands by the kitchen sink while they wash the dishes. 


Every year when I hear Mary talked about in church, I am left holding these unanswered questions. At the same time I know the answers in my bones. I know this story better than any story I have ever read: it is my mother’s story and my grandmother’s story and the story of all the mothers who came before me. Women’s bodies remember things for generations: I was first a possibility while my mother was still in her mother’s womb. There have been four women in my family line in the last 125 years: me, my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother. Only four.


Mary reminds me that in the beginning, we were created human, and we were not just good—we were very good. Mary reminds me that this part of the story, the part where we get our hands dirty and our hearts broken, is so important that God came and experienced it, too. 


Mary reminds me that it’s not wrong to be human and that being human is, in fact, part of my divine calling.