Blowing on Embers

Blowing on Embers

I came across this lovely phrase the other day.

Have you ever sat around an evening campfire? Remember how when it started to die out and you weren’t quite ready to call it a night or maybe you wanted just one more toasted marshmallow, you blew on the embers to keep the fire alive?glowing coalsWell, Johanne from has  put a new spin on that old tradition. After she lost her father, mother, and a special aunt, all within a year, Johanne and her sister wanted to make certain they wouldn’t forget their own story.  They began a new family tradition—trading stories of childhood memories. In other words, they began blowing on embers of the dying fire of their family’s personal history.

Reading Johanne’s story, I immediately identified with the concept. Recalling memories is a favorite pastime around here. It’s why I create and peruse photo albums and scrapbooks. And it’s what I do with much of my writing.

I’ve told children and grandchildren about memories from when I was no more than two years old, one from even earlier in my life. These “memories” are actually no more than snapshots in time, and I’ve come to realize I don’t so much remember them as I remember the remembering of them from stories told and retold. But that’s the point, and it’s why it’s so important to keep recounting them.

Reminiscing is a social activity that gives meaning and coherence to our personal narratives. It keeps family history alive. It triggers nostalgia, and nostalgia gives us an endorphin boost, improving our mood and making us feel better able to tackle whatever challenge we face at the moment.

Memories, especially childhood ones, are fragile. Without jogging them, they fade, ultimately dissolving, like a morning fog, into nothingness. Yet, our early moments are powerful ones, shaping our lives. As we weave the vignettes into a whole, our life stories emerge. We better understand who we have become.

The accumulation of childhood memories, even those enhanced by retelling, also influences our on-going behavior. There’s evidence that when childhood memories are triggered, we behave more kindly and ethically towards others. Our memories, it turns out, serve as a moral compass.

So let’s get to work. I’ll be blowing on my own embers on this blog. Maybe the glowing coals of my stories will spark some of your fondest childhood memories. Share them. It will do you—and the world around you—good. I’d love to hear your stories. Feel free to share them in comments beneath each post.

I Blog For Mother Earth News!

I’m excited to announce that I’ve been accepted as a blogger for Mother Earth News. If you’re a regular reader, you know a little about Mother’s influence on me. There’s this favorite soup recipe for instance.

This opportunity solves a blogging conundrum that’s been bugging me for awhile. My broad interests may sometimes make my Living on the Diagonal blog disjointed and, depending on readers’ interests, sometimes irrelevant.

From now on, Living on the Diagonal will focus on personal essays, miscellaneous musings, daily life up here on the diagonal, and a little poetry and photography. While you may still find a few gardening, food, or modern homesteading posts here, I’ll be posting most articles of this sort to the Mother Earth News site. By all means, come on over and check me out. You’ll need to use this link to my tag page to find me. It’s not easy to remember, so make it easy on yourself and bookmark it:“Carole%20Coates”.

I expect to be posting to Mother Earth News every two weeks or so while maintaining my current schedule of weekly posts to Living on the Diagonal.

Thanks to everyone for your continued interest and support of my blogging.

Our Grand Road Trip, Part VI: The Touristy Things

Oh, goodness! I just realized I never published this last post about our almost-cross-country road trip last fall. If you’ve been following along, you may recall that way back in May and early June, I wrote a five-part series about some pretty magnificent sights we were lucky enough to visit—natural wonders, national parks and monuments, historic sites. We managed to fit in a few typical touristy things, too.

After the Badlands (already covered here), we made a quick side trip to the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, another of those things I’d heard about and yearned to see for years. Pretty amazing, especially when you learn that the organizers, all volunteers, put up an entirely new display with a different theme, every year. The 2016 theme was Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Exterior view of the Corn Palace

Exterior of the Mitchell, SD, Corn Palace

I know you recognize this guy!

This one, too. These murals are made of nothing but corn (over 275,000 ears, 13 different shades, no dyes) with a couple of other grains and native grasses used for the borders. It takes about four months each year to complete the decorating process. See? I told you it was amazing. There are more corn scenes inside—and it’s all free.

We began seeing signs for Wall Drug a full three hundred miles to the east, another of those legendary “must see” places. Is it blasphemy to say we were a little disappointed? I’d expected to see a huge store—after all, that’s what they advertise—but it’s really a jumble of individual shops, many of them selling identical or nearly identical items, and most of them your standard souvenirs. Besides, we’d have had to wait an hour or so even to get one of those famous doughnuts we’d been drooling over for several hours’ worth of roadside ads. Just not worth it with the Black Hills in our near future.

Ah, the Black Hills. Here’s what we learned. It’s a fairly long drive from Keystone, the nearest town, to Custer State Park (which, though the scenery along the way is quite spectacular, is where the fun really begins). Next time, we’ll plan on renting a cabin in the park boundaries—and taking all our food and necessary supplies. That way we won’t waste precious time just getting to and from. In the park, there’s a n eighteen-mile loop you can drive in hopes of close-up encounters with wildlife like bison, donkeys, prairie dogs, and big horned sheep. (You can see some Black Hills pictures here.)

In Rapid City, South Dakota, we spent a couple of hours at the Dahl Arts Center. I was flat out gobsmacked by the 180-foot oil-on-canvas panoramic cyclorama mural depicting 200 years of U. S. economic history, painted by acclaimed muralist Bernard P. Thomas. I sat in the center of the room for more than an hour, my eyes and brain soaking in every single scene. Pictures wouldn’t do it justice. If you’re ever in the area, check it out. It’s a hidden gem. Admission to the Dahl is free.

While we were in Rapid City, we drove out to the  Chapel in the Hills. The chapel itself is an exact reproduction of the famous Borgund Stavkirke of Laerdal, Norway. I felt like this stop was a little extra tribute to my Minnesota cousins, who have Norwegian ancestry. We were first greeted by the “Stabbur,” an authentic grass-roofed storehouse which serves as the Chapel’s visitors’ center. It was built in Norway and assembled on site. The grounds, complete with wooded trail, are lovely. The perfect place for a quiet, reflective afternoon. You can see pictures and learn more about the architecture here. In lieu of an admission fee, goodwill donations are accepted.

In  Lolo,Montana, we visited Traveler’s Rest, the only archaeologically verified campsite of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery.  Without knowing it, we were stalking Lewis and Clark for much of our trip, so this stop was pretty cool. 

We also spent a little time at the historic St. Mary’s Mission, the first settlement in Stevensville, Montana, “where Montana began.” DSCF2503


I’ve already written about our too-brief visits to Glacier, The Grand Tetons, and Yellowstone National Parks, all of which qualify as typical tourist attractions and stupendous natural wonders.

Here are a few last miscellaneous looks at our trip.

DSCF1235 - Copy (2)

Until next time.

Dashed Dreams

(In previous posts, I’ve mentioned that I’m an essayist. I’ve decided a more accurate term, at least in some cases, is vignettist. Here’s an example.)

When I was a child of eight, I had one—and only one—goal in life: to become a movie star. My parents, as if my dreams had wings, did their darnedest to dissuade me.

Every time I waxed poetic about life as a Hollywood starlet, they responded with some sort of negative. The probably mentioned how unlikely it was to succeed in show business or brought up the hardscrabble life of acting wannabes, raising the specter of years waiting tables for tips as I waited to be discovered.

Maybe they said those things; maybe not. I only remember one overarching argument against an acting career: actors are always getting divorced. They waved their prime example, Elizabeth Taylor, in my face. But I had the perfect eight-year-old comeback: “Not Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher!” They were my proof positive that acting could be divorce-free.

And then my idols went and ruined it for me. I guess you could say Debbie and Eddie—and Liz—are the reasons I never made it on the big screen.

It only took one play to hook me on acting. For that, I thank our ever ebullient drama director, Dorothy Murphree, who made it so much fun. (The cast party didn’t hurt, either.) I portrayed a Chinese child in our church play about Lottie Moon, a Baptist foreign missionary.

About that Terrible, Horrible, Very Bad, No Good Day

I recently wrote about a bad day I was having. It seemed pretty horrible at the time. And it wasn’t good. But . . . there are some really terrible, horrible things that happen in this world. I won’t do the litany; you know them. Suffice it to say none of those kinds of things happened to me on my bad day.

That awareness isn’t about making myself feel good that I’ve skirted woes when others haven’t been so lucky. To me, that feels a little like that old saying, “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” This kind of sentiment has always struck me as a little perverse—the notion that seeing someone else’s misfortune should somehow make me feel better. As if the Power of All has randomly chosen me for good fortune and just as randomly chosen another for very bad fortune. As if I should feel grateful for such  capriciousness.

I prefer looking at such incidents in another way, as a reminder of what’s genuinely important in this life. To recognize, to understand, to appreciate what really matters. The little things as well as the great big ones. To not be so self-absorbed. Seems to me it’s the best chance we have to make the world a better place—certainly the best chance for contentment and true joy.

Just wanted to get that out there.

The Candy Incident

(Last week, I wrote a story about my dad. It’s only fair to share something about my mother, too. This piece, in a slightly different form, originally appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times.)

My mom has a reputation. It’s all about her sunny disposition, her ever-present smile, her consistently quiet and pleasant manner. So perhaps it’s understandable that I’m drawn to stories about the times her temper has gotten the better of her.

At ninety-three, she’s had plenty of opportunities for temper tantrums, but I can count hers on one hand and still have a finger or two left over. One of my favorites goes like this:

Mother was nineteen or so when she was at the stove in her family’s kitchen making candy for her boyfriend (who later became my father). With her sisters gathered round, the inevitable teasing began. Mother didn’t like being teased, especially when it came to matters of the heart. Her anger only egged her siblings on. Finally, she’d had enough. In her fury, she flung the entire pot full of boiling candy mixture across the room.

The hot, syrupy liquid missed her sisters, but it landed on a glass pane of the back door, oozing down in a streak. When their father came in from his day’s chores, he saw what looked for all the world like a crack in the glass. Frugal man that he was, he saw repair bill dollar signs and was ready to mete out some harsh punishment for the perpetrator.

The girls were quick to set him straight. What not one of them was willing to do, though, was to clean up the mess. Mother’s righteous indignation prevented her from doing the job, and her sisters refused all responsibility—after all, they hadn’t thrown the stuff. The hardened candy remained where it landed.

As the years passed, no one could any longer recall how long the streak stayed there or who finally broke down and cleaned it. They never forgot the event, itself, though, and often when they got together, one or another of them would retell the tale to everyone’s delight, even Mother’s.


My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

It all started the night before. As my netbook (the computer where I do all my writing) was updating, the screen suddenly went black. Then these words appeared: no bootable device found. No, this wasn’t part of the worldwide ransomware attack. My problem occurred days earlier.

I tried not to panic. But practically everything I’d ever written was on that computer. While most of it had been backed up on a flash drive, I’d forgotten to do that for the last few months. You see, I have this challenge. It applies to all facets of my life. I can be going along just fine, doing everything I’m supposed to. Then something happens to interrupt the pattern—a trip, an ailment, anything that gets me out of my routine. That’s when my brain suffers the same kind of fate my computer did. No bootable device found.

Still, there was nothing to do but attempt a good night’s sleep before taking the netbook to the local computer docs for a thorough internal exam. The fellow at the desk assured me it’s almost always possible to retrieve the data. Stay calm, he cooed. “Stay calm” was the mantra I kept repeating while the Gnome and I ran a couple of errands before going home to await the call from the self-proclaimed computer geeks.

One of those errands was to the local big box home improvement store to pick up some drywall and painting supplies for our latest home rehab project. The clerk said we were in luck. This was the last day of a 10% discount on paint and paint supplies. I moaned to the Gnome. If only we’d known, we could have gotten the couple of gallons of paint we’d need shortly. Paint is expensive! The clerk reminded us we had until 9:00 pm. Not likely—we had work to do and another hour-long round trip to town wasn’t in the cards.

The call came in the early afternoon. Stay calm. Stay calm. It’s almost always possible . . .

Almost. The operative word. “We’ve done all we can do here,” the guy said. Our hard drive had a mechanical failure. The next step was to send it off to intensive care specialists. It would take a couple of weeks and if—if—there was anything salvageable (that didn’t sound optimistic), it would cost another $400-$1,000. Plus the cost of repairing or replacing my computer.

By this time, I couldn’t remember anything that was on my computer. Could any of it be worth $1,000? Especially if I couldn’t remember what that might be? I couldn’t concentrate. Everything began to go wrong. I varnished the wrong side of the treads for the new stairs we were building, for one. Seemed like a good day to chuck it all.

I suggested we go back to town, after all, and pick up a pizza. We could use the trip to see what computers were available locally and maybe we could even get that discounted paint. We searched in vain for a paint chip naming the paint we needed to match, so we grabbed an old paint can with the paint code on the lid.

While the paint guy tried to match the code, we perused paint chips. We were sure we’d recognize ours if we saw the name. But all we found were names like Dust Bunny, Wool Coat, Basket, Spirited, Capricious. Really? Do you have any idea what kinds of colors those are? Then there was La La Love, Someday, Semi-Sweet, and Panacea. I could have used a little semi-sweet panacea about then. The name of our paint had been nothing like these. Besides, we’d gotten that can six years ago—an eon in paint time. All the names had changed.

We had a long time to scour paint chips. The paint guy simply could not make a match. Every gallon he mixed up, and he mixed up plenty, came out wrong. Too pink, too green, too anything but what we had.

We’d been waiting almost two hours when he came up with a color that was pretty close. Good enough on a new wall, perhaps. But not where we needed patches in existing walls. Maybe the remaining paint in our old can would stretch far enough to make those touch-ups. We decided to get the new mix, along with a can of white. Thinking about the 10% discount, we picked up some more paint-related supplies.

That’s when the checkout clerk (followed by a manager) told us the paint discount only applied to business accounts. What?! We could have waited till some other day for the disappointment of not finding a match. Too late now to look at potential computer replacements. Dejected from head to toe, we just grabbed a to-go pizza and headed home.

On the way to the house, we checked our mailbox. Nothing jumped out at us, so we laid the small pile on the counter and ate our pizza as we mulled over possible next computer steps. Then I took a second look at the mail. A letter from our utility company. I figured it was the next month’s bill; instead, it was for a fuel delivery I’d already paid—apparently a few days late, though there was no due date listed on the bill and I’d paid it well within 30 days of its receipt. Turns out that’s not their measure, so I owed a whopping forty-six cents in finance charges.

Forty-six cents. Perfect ending.

Post script: Still haven’t figured out what to do about my lost data. We found a highly-reputable service on line whose maximum charge is less than the minimum quoted to us on that no good day. I vacillate between going for it (it would be nice to get my e-mail address book back, for instance) or just throwing my arms up in surrender and starting all over with a clean slate. Decluttering, even if forced, can be refreshing—my own personal reboot.