“Ask, Listen, Care,” Sept. 17, 2019

It happened years ago, a chance encounter on an airport escalator that lasted for only a few moments. But I’ve never forgotten it. I hope I never will.

My husband and I had cleared security and were on our way to the gate, leaving Las Vegas, our home at the time, to fly to California to visit family.

He’d gotten ahead of me, as he often does when in a rush, and I was wondering exactly how long it would take him to miss me. Finally, at the top of the escalator, he looked down and saw I was just getting on it.

I waved and called “Meet you at the gate!” Then I turned to smile at a man behind me. He looked like a visitor, not a local.

“Did you have fun in Vegas?” I asked. I like to ask questions of strangers on escalators. The answers are always interesting. But this one broke my heart.

The man looked in my eyes, as if weighing how much to tell me. Then he poured out this story.

He had come to Vegas to visit an old friend he’d not seen since they broke up, just before he left to be a pilot in World War II.

“I’d told her not to wait for me. So she married someone else. I went to see her this week because she’s dying. I should have married her 50 years ago.”

I’m not sure what I said to him. I hugged him, which wasn’t easy on an escalator. Then we went our separate ways.

My husband was watching. I told him the story. He said, “He told you that on an escalator?”

“I think he needed to tell someone,” I said. “And I asked.”

Sometimes one question is all it takes to get a friend or a loved one or a total stranger to open up and tell you what they long to tell someone who will care. Often, “How are you?” is enough. For someone you don’t know, try, “Where are you from and what brings you here?”

Show you’re interested, then leave it up to them. If they want to talk, they probably will.

Why should you bother? Well, you shouldn’t, really, unless you care. If you care, that’s reason enough.

We all have different gifts. My husband, for example, is a great editor, a gifted musician and a really good grandpa. Me? I’m pretty good at getting people to talk. My kids claim I wear a sign on my back that says, “Confess.” I love hearing people’s stories. Maybe you do, too?

Here’s another story I hope I’ll never forget. I was 21, newly married to a rookie teacher, on our way to a faculty party, where I would know no one but him. I’d spent hours getting ready, doing my hair and makeup, changing my mind on what to wear a dozen times, only to look (I realized going out the door) no better than I ever did.

I would be meeting people who were smarter, richer and better educated than I was. I wanted to make a good impression. I kept asking myself, what on Earth will they think of me?

The answer came moments before I walked into the party. I heard a voice. I think it was God, but it sounded a lot like my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Camp. She often sounded like God.

“You are whole,” it said. “You have all you need. You don’t need to impress. Just be who you are. Ask questions. Listen to the answers. And care.”

Since then, that voice has whispered that same message to me countless times. I tend to forget it, but it always comes back to remind me. The words may vary, but the meaning remains the same:

To be heard, we need first to listen; to be understood, we need first to understand; to be human, we need always to care.

I still talk a lot. Too much sometimes. And I still wonder what people will think of me. But I try to remember that I am whole, and all I need to do is ask and listen and care. If I forget, the voice reminds me.

So. How are you?

“Remembering 9/11,” Sept. 10, 2019

Eighteen years ago, on Sept. 11, 2001, 19 terrorists hijacked and crashed four U.S. passenger planes, killing all on board and nearly 3,000 on the ground. Two flights hit the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. The third hit the Pentagon. The fourth crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pa., after passengers and crew tried to stop the hijackers.

Most of us who are old enough to remember that day have a personal story to tell about it. This is mine.

Early that morning, my husband’s father awoke at his home in Stockton, Calif., turned on CNN, and immediately phoned us. While my husband stared in horror at the TV, I tried to call my son in New York.

Josh was living in Manhattan, appearing in a TV series called “Ed.” I had visited him often enough to know his apartment was near the World Trade Center. He drove by those towers every day on his way to the set. I needed to hear his voice and know he was OK.

Phone lines were swamped. I couldn’t get through. There was nothing to do but wait and pray.

At noon, when he finally was able to get a call through to me, he was standing on the balcony of his apartment watching smoke billow up from the World Trade Center. He told me he had watched a firetruck pull out of a station that morning.

“It was loaded with big guys like me,” he said, “hanging on the side of that truck, going to risk their lives to save others.”

He later learned that all 15 of the firemen who were on that truck lost their lives that day.

After we said goodbye, I broke down and cried. I was thankful my son was safe. But my heart was broken for the thousands of lives that had been stolen, and for countless others who were grieving for them.

The news became even more personal that evening as I tried to comfort a neighbor who had just received confirmation that her daughter had died in the plane crash at the Pentagon.

Eighteen years is a long time to remember so much grief and pain. But there are things about that day I hope never to forget.

First, I want to remember the victims and those who mourn for them. They are my neighbors and loved ones and friends.

I want to remember, not the terrorists, but the heroes, those who ran toward danger, not from it; the firefighters and police officers and others who risked and lost their lives so that others might live; and the soldiers who have served and continue to serve to ensure it never happens again.

I want to remember how it felt to hear my son’s voice and know that he was safe. I want to feel that kind of gratitude every day.

I want to remember, not the horror of that day, but the grace that came with it — all the good that rose up in the face of such evil. We may never have been stronger as a nation, or better as people, than we were in the wake of 9/11. I want to believe we hold the power to be that strong and that good always.

I want to remember to pray for our country and our world — and for our enemies, because my faith commands it. I don’t know if prayer changes those we pray for, but I’ve seen it change those who pray, including me.

I want to remember that life is short and precious and fragile.

I want to remember the vow I made seeing people on TV jump from a burning building to their death: “I will live every day,” I said, “as if it were my last.”

I don’t always keep that vow, but to honor the victims of 9/11, I want to remember to try.

Most of all I want to remember to be alive. To make decisions based on love, not fear. To live life freely to its fullest.

I want to remember that the opposite of terror is freedom.

“How to Make a Dream Come True,” Sept. 3, 2019

What’s your dream? Lately I’ve been working like a house on fire, trying to finish something I started years ago.

I’m not sure why, after letting it languish for so long, I decided it was time to get back to it.

Oh, wait. I remember. I kept reading obituaries for folks who were younger than I am. It made me realize the time to do it might be now or never. If you don’t read the obits, you might want to start. They’re highly motivating.

This thing I want to finish is, of all things, a novel. Don’t ask me if it’s a good one. I have no idea. But I do think it’s a pretty good story — one worth telling and hearing — and I’m trying my dangdest to tell it well.

The reason I told you about it is not because I want you to buy it. You’ll be welcome to do so when I finish it. But that’s not likely to happen soon. For now, I just want to share with you some things I’ve realized along the way.

I’m probably not the only soul on Earth who wants to finish something sooner, rather than later. Maybe you’d like to finish something, too? A project you’ve been thinking about? A place you’d like to visit? Something you’ve wanted to say to someone you love, but never quite found the time, or the nerve?

Whatever it may be, I feel for you. It’s not easy to make a dream come true. Or even to try. But here, for what it’s worth, are a few things that have helped me get back to work. Maybe you will find them helpful, too.

1. I already mentioned reading obits. But I think the best way to start doing something you keep putting off is by asking yourself why do you want to do it? The reason can be anything. Fame and fortune, or in my case, wanting people to quit nagging you about it. But in the end, the reason that will matter most to you is the realization that you want to do this fine thing for yourself; that you deserve to make your dream come true; and that you are, in fact, the only one who can.

2. Next, tell the people closest to you (or anyone who’ll care) that you’re starting it. Don’t tell them until you mean it, because they will promptly start to ask, “Aren’t you finished yet?” But when you’re truly ready to start, tell them. Listen to their reactions. Ignore negativity. But take great heart in how happy it will make them to hear it.

I wish you could’ve heard the responses from my loved ones. My sister hadn’t hooted that loud since the day I bumped her in the bumper car arena and knocked her wig on the floor.

3. Telling people about it will also give you an excuse to say, “Sorry, I can’t help you now, I’m working on my dream.” Or words to that effect. You’ll know what to say. Just say it. Often.

4. Spend as much as time as possible working on it every possible day. Let go of things that can wait. Stop pretending you can do everything. If you think you can do everything, think again. Ask for help and take it. Work hard on your dream. Keep at it day by day. If you do, you will know that you’ve given it your best. And our best is the best that we can do.

5. Finally, don’t worry about the finished product. Just finish it. Dreams are like life, not a destination so much as a journey. Try to enjoy the ride.

Here’s one last thought: In a novel, the writer gets to choose, more or less, the beginning and the middle and the end. In reality, we can’t choose how the story of our life will start. And most of us won’t choose when or how it will end.

But in the middle there are choices that are ours alone to make. Some of them will lead to one of two ends: Lingering regret, or a dream come true.

What’s your dream? Dust off an old one or dream up a new. Rewrite the story of your life.

“Looking Back and Letting Go,” Aug. 27, 2019

Slowly, we are trying to unpack, in a new house that’s half the size of the old one we moved out of three months ago.

We wanted to downsize. But wanting to do something is not the same as getting it done. Part of the problem is that my husband, bless him, is an incredibly sentimental soul.

OK, fine, we both are.

We’ve been blessed to live full and interesting lives, including the almost 20 years we’ve been together. And we’ve got the stuff to prove it:

Paintings and photos and family keepsakes; cards and drawings our kids made in school; mementos and gifts from friends and loved ones who are gone but not forgotten; posters from concerts we think we attended and souvenirs from places we think we went; awards we won for doing stuff that we don’t remember doing.

We got rid of so much of it before we moved that now, when we look at all those boxes stacked in our new garage, we think maybe the moving company got us mixed up with people who are wondering what happened to all their stuff.

Actually, we don’t think that. We have looked inside most of those boxes. We know that stuff is ours. We just need to do one of three things: (1) Get rid of it; (2) Leave it where it is; or (3) Find some place to put it.

We’ve ruled out options 1 and 2, more or less, and are now scratching our heads on 3.

I swore when we moved here we wouldn’t clutter it up. I need to remember not to swear. This place is filling up fast, floors and walls, cupboards and closets, drawers and shelves, nooks and crannies, even the dark creepy places under the sinks where dark creepy spiders lie in wait.

A few days ago, my husband generously decided to give me any space that’s left in the house (not that there’s much) for my stuff, and he would take the garage — or rather, any garage walls not covered with boxes.

Then he went in the garage and started hammering. He hammered a long time. Finally, he took a break and he yelled for me to come look.

I wish you could’ve seen it.

There were pictures of his boys when they were small. A couple of paintings he did in college. A shot of his dad in the newsroom where he worked. A scorecard from the Giants’ first victory at Pac Bell Park. A poster from a Keb Mo concert. And two lovely photos of happy couples on their wedding day — his folks and us.

“Looks great!” I told him.

“Thanks,” he said, pointing, “but look behind you.”

By the door to the kitchen, in a space that was supposed to have been for his things, he had hung two of my favorite keepsakes:

The first was a painting of the house we moved from, the place where I raised my kids. I had packed it for the move and wasn’t sure I could look at it again. But seeing it hanging there felt good, like running into an old friend and remembering all the good times we’d shared.

The other treasure was a long ago Mother’s Day gift from my daughter: A framed collection of snapshots showing me with her and her two brothers in a span of 25 years from when they were born until they were grown.

In each of those photos, my hair is a different style and a different color. It looks like a catalog for cheap wigs. But the woman in those photos seems happy and content, as if she were meant to be a mother and wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Why did my husband choose to hang those things for me?

I can think of two reasons: First, he likes making me happy. It’s part of why I married him.

Second, he knows me well. That’s also part of why I married him, even when it annoys me.

Letting go is never easy. But it helps somehow to see reminders of where I’ve been and what I’ve done and all the people I have known and loved. It makes me want to wake up each day just to see what will happen next.

“Tell Me a Story,” Aug. 20, 2019

Where do stories come from? Why do they surface in our memories at unexpected times and make us want to tell them to anyone who will listen?

In the Blue Ridge Mountains, where I grew up, storytelling is a part of life, like breathing air and swatting mosquitoes. It originated with the Native Americans, who lived there long before settlers showed up from faraway places and started telling stories of their own.

The storytellers in those mountains were sometimes known as “liars” — not because they were deceitful, but because their stories were often more fabricated than factual. Yet they were cleverly true of the human condition, intended not just to inform, but to entertain and enlighten and inspire.

I come from a family of “liars.” My grandparents and parents, aunts and uncles, dozens of cousins, my blind baby brother, the dogs that slept under the porch, even the fleas that slept on the dogs — we all told stories.

Maybe you do, too. Most of us do. Every place I go, every state, every country, every culture, people will tell me their stories and listen politely to mine.

Why? Stories tell us who we are and how we’re alike. They let us connect and stay connected with one another and ourselves.

I told you all of that to tell you this. My husband I were talking with Henry, our 7-year-old grandson, who is an expert on all things animal. He was telling us about a “tanuki,” a kind of dog that looks like a raccoon.

“It’s one of my favorite animals,” Henry said. “It lives in Japan. Maybe someday I’ll go there and get to see a real one.”

“You will,” I said. “And it will tell you a story that you can come back and tell me!”

He laughed his weasel laugh. It sounds a lot like a weasel.

Suddenly I recalled a day that I never want to forget.

“Wanna hear a story?” I said.

Henry’s eyes lit up. He loves stories almost as much as he loves animals. So I told him how, years ago, while on a speaking trip to Nebraska, I put on everything I had packed in my suitcase and went out in freezing weather at 5 a.m. to stand in a duck blind and watch hundreds of thousands of birds wake up and take wing.

Not just any birds. They were big, graceful, ghostly gray sandhill cranes, 3 to 4 feet tall with a wingspan of 6 feet, and weighing 8 to 12 pounds.

I wish you could’ve seen them.

Every spring, for what some say has been 9 million years, a 60-mile stretch along the Platte River (from Grand Island to Kearney to Overton) becomes a stopover for a half million or so sandhill cranes that take a break from their migration to fatten up in the area’s vast cornfields before the long flight north.

“Henry,” I said, “when those birds took off, all those wings flapping together sounded like a train! Can you imagine looking up at a sky filled with hundreds of thousands of giant birds?”

“Whoa,” he said, “that just sounds amazing, Nana!”

It’s fun to impress a 7 year old. I don’t manage to do it often, but when I do, I like it a lot.

While I was telling Henry that story, my husband found some TV documentaries on sandhill cranes and the three of us watched them together. They were stunning. A picture is, after all, worth a thousand words. But seeing and hearing for yourself is believing. Even in freezing weather at 5 a.m.

Nature is a master storyteller. Birds and valleys and rivers and stars tell tales we need to hear.

Henry said, “Maybe someday I’ll go to Nebraska and get to see those cranes for myself.”

“You will,” I said. “And they will tell you a story that you can come back and tell me!”

He laughed his weasel laugh, adding, “And then I’ll go to Japan and see a tanuki.”

“A Junkie’s Confession,” Aug. 13, 2019

I am an excellent packer. And I certainly should be, given the number of times (and years) that I have needed to pack.

But the story I’m about to tell you isn’t really about packing. It’s more about the lessons we can learn when life doesn’t go quite the way we planned.

First, a bit of background. Long ago, I adopted a policy that has served me well, both in travel and in life. Basically, it’s a firmly held belief that the mark of a good outing — whether it’s a walk in the park or a marathon run on the rocky road of life — is how little you take along.

Think about it. Baggage (of all kinds) demands attention. It weighs you down. It makes you crazy. The more of it you carry, the less fun you’re likely to have. So I try to pack light and have as much fun as possible. Maybe you do, too. Aren’t we smart?

Recently I planned to fly to Los Angeles to spend a few days with my oldest and his wife and their 4-month-old, Jonah. I like my oldest and his wife a lot, but the main attraction was Jonah. It had been only a few weeks since I last saw him, but babies change fast. One minute they’re in diapers. Then you blink and they’re shaving and begging to borrow your car. I was hungry to hold him.

Maybe, while packing, I got distracted thinking of Jonah. It’s easy to blame kids for stuff. I used to blame my three for making the house a mess. But they grew up and moved out and the house is still a mess.

Packing for LA, I did my usual. I filled a small, carry-on suitcase with four changes of clothing (one per day, plus an extra for accidents); a spare pair of shoes; and a minimum of travel-sized toiletries stuffed in a quart-size bag that would allow me, I hoped, to get through security without being strip searched.

That was it. Plus my purse. And ticket. And ID. And laptop. And cell phone. And e-reader. And chargers to keep them charged. And a sweater, because airplanes are flying ice buckets.

I did one last check, threw in a pair of warm socks, zipped it all up and was good to go. My husband dropped me off at the airport. I waved goodbye as he drove away, then I headed for the security line. That’s when it hit me. I had left my cell phone on the nightstand by the bed.

In a panic, my mind raced to think of options. I could text my husband from my laptop. But he was driving and wouldn’t see the text. Or I could beg a stranger to let me use their phone to call him. But even if he answered, there wasn’t time for him to drive home, get my phone and drive back before my flight left.

I had never thought of myself as a cell phone addict. But there I was, a junkie in withdrawal.

My son was planning to pick me up curbside at LAX. I’d told him I’d call when I landed to say where (out of a zillion possible locations) I’d be waiting. Instead, I texted him from my laptop and he texted back: “No worries, Mama. I will find you.”

Have I mentioned he’s a really good boy? He said he’d meet me at baggage claim. And there he was, grinning like a mule eating briars. I was almost as happy to see him as I was when he was 5, the day he got lost in a mall for the longest hour of my life.

For four days, I was phone-less. I kept reaching for it only to find (argh!) it wasn’t there. But slowly I began to realize something important: Less time on my phone gave me more time with Jonah and his parents.

To me, no random, useless bit of cell phone trivia will ever be worth watching Jonah smile and seeing my boy and his sweet wife take such delight in him.

The next time I leave home, I hope I’ll remember to take my phone. But I will keep it shut off until I really, truly need it.

The mark of a good outing isn’t just how little we take along. It’s how well we choose to spend one of life’s most precious gifts — time with those we love.

“One Sweet Life,” Aug. 6, 2019

What will you do with your one sweet life? I was 18, soon to finish high school, the first time I heard that question. My English teacher, Mr. Prince, suggested it for an essay. Then he said to me, “You really are a writer.”

Huh? I didn’t know what “writer” meant. I knew writers wrote things, but I didn’t know any writers personally. Women in my family raised babies or worked in mills or waited tables. Some of them, like my mother, did all three. Those were hard jobs. Writing seemed easy. I couldn’t imagine getting paid to do it.

(Later, I learned that writing is actually hard and it can pay, but not usually very much.)

Mr. Prince was well named. I liked him a lot, even before he said I was a writer. I didn’t want to disappoint him. So I wrote an essay entitled, “What Will I Do with My One Sweet Life?”

I have no idea what I said in it. It was a long time ago. Never mind how long. I thought I might marry my high school boyfriend and raise babies, but I wouldn’t put that in an essay.

Maybe I said I wanted to go to college to study English (I liked to read) but I would never want to teach it to people who didn’t know what “writer” meant.

Mr. Prince gave it an A, with a note saying it could’ve been an A+, if not for the crack about teaching. When I asked him about that, he laughed.

“I love teaching,” he said. “I try to make the most of my one sweet life. I hope you will, too.”

Then I went off to college, and my high school boyfriend went to Vietnam. When he came back, we split up and I moved to California, married a teacher and started raising babies.

I also took a part-time job writing (it paid, but not much) for a local newspaper. I never doubted that I was making the most of my one sweet life. But in time I’d realize that for some of us, life isn’t just one life. It’s a series of lives told in chapters.

My children were in their late teens and early 20’s when we lost their dad to cancer. We were close as a family, but his death drew us closer. That’s one of the gifts that come with loss.

The kids didn’t need raising any more. But they needed me to make the most of that chapter of my life. I needed it, too. I wanted to be an example for them and honor their dad’s memory by moving forward and being fully alive. So I traveled, worked, wrote and played.

Years later, when I remarried, it was for all those reasons and more. Mostly it was for love. Love makes every life sweeter.

Then the grandbabes started showing up. Eight babes in eight years. Now, when I plan what to do with my day, the plan often includes one or more little people. And their parents. And a trip to the market for something my husband, bless him, will grill. And a big bottle of Biofreeze for my back.

Life doesn’t get much sweeter than that. Still, there are a few more things I hope to do to make the most of this chapter:

_ I want to finish a novel that I started and stopped some years ago. (I recently read about a 101-year-old woman who just published her first book of poetry. Yes, I am fired up.)

_ I’d like to visit places that carry my column and meet readers and editors and other friends I’ve never met.

_ I want to see my husband get really old and keep his marriage vows to always play his bass and try to be more like his dad.

_ I’d love to watch my children make the most of their sweet lives, raise their children and see all their dreams come true.

After that? Who knows?

If we’re lucky, you and I, we will make the most of not just one sweet life, but a blockbuster series, with a brand new chapter beginning every day.

What will you do with yours?

“Hope in the Heart of a Child,” July 31, 2019

(Note to Readers: I’m taking this week off to spend time with my family. The following column was published in Oct. 2012, when I lived in Las Vegas. Thanks for reading! _ Sharon)

One wrong turn landed us in a part of Las Vegas seldom seen by tourists who prefer to spend their time and money in the neon glow of the Strip. We were driving to Mount Charleston, an 11,000-foot peak an hour from Vegas. It’s a ski resort in winter and a respite from the desert inferno in summer. But in autumn, it’s a chance to see some fall color. Not like the autumns I knew as a child in the Carolinas, but better than no color at all.

I was homesick for fall. My husband knew it. When I said, “Let’s go,” he said, “Yes, let’s.” You have to like the kind of man who says that.

When a missed exit on the freeway put us, as life often will, on a slightly different path, we found ourselves waiting at a traffic light trying to avoid eye contact with people on the street who were trying hard to sell us things we didn’t want to buy.

That’s when I spotted her — a skinny little girl, 3 or 4 years old. Her hair was braided in swirly rows, pinned to her scalp with pink barrettes. She wore a ruffly dress with leggings and sandals, and a smile to outshine all the neon on the Strip. Even at a distance, I could see the light that danced in her eyes.

She seemed well-cared for and happy, skipping along, holding the hand of a woman who struck me, as my grandmother would say, like someone who knew how to raise a child right.

Minutes later, back on the freeway, I kept thinking about that little girl. Something about her reminded me of another child from a lifetime ago.

That long ago child grew up in the country, not the city, crossing cow pastures, not crowded streets. Her family had just enough, usually, to keep cornbread on the table, a tin roof over her head and hand-me-down shoes on her feet. At times she wished for things other children took for granted — lunch money or Christmas presents or parents who didn’t fight. But mostly, she felt lucky.

She had teachers who made her feel smart. Sunday school teachers who made her feel loved. Grandparents who made her think she could hang the moon and all its stars. And a small, caring community of people who believed in her, cheered for her, opened their hearts and their homes to her, helped her grow up and get a scholarship to go to college, and always prayed for her best.

Children don’t need much. But they need to know they matter.

That evening I sat on a balcony at Mount Charleston, with aspen leaves glittering like gold coins in the distance and a neon sunset spilling over the desert, and remembered the little girl I saw on the street. I suspect I’ll never forget her.

I hope she has all she needs — someone to make her feel smart and loved and capable of anything, even the impossible. Especially the impossible.

I hope her parents are happy, together or apart, and make choices based on her best.

I hope she has a good, reliable dog. A big sister to look out for her. A kid brother to bug her. And grandparents who swear she hangs the moon and stars.

I hope the women in her life stick by her, the men say “yes, let’s,” and her car always starts.

I hope she goes to college, lands a job she loves and keeps it for as long as she wants.

I hope she marries well, raises her children right and gets to spoil her grandchildren.

I hope she knows she matters.

And in the autumn of her life, if she ever forgets, I hope she’ll see a child on the street and be reminded of how lucky, how very blessed, she has been.

“Toys Are So Us,” July 23, 2019

The toys were taking over. Not my toys. I don’t have any. And not my husband’s toys, either, though he has plenty  — basses and guitars and ukuleles and plastic fruit noise makers.

He calls them musical instruments. I could talk about them until the cows come home. But I will save that topic for another occasion.

For now, I’m talking about all the stuff we keep to entertain our grandkids (five boys, three girls, ages 8 years to 3 months) when they come to visit:

Boxes of Legos. Games and puzzles and books and crayons and washable (thank you!) markers. A bag of cowboys and indians that are a huge hit with 6-year-old Wiley. Stuffed animals and puppets. Plastic dinosaurs and sea creatures. A set of dominoes handed down from my husband’s dad. And a box of checkers I use to teach my grandkids the game my grandparents taught me.

We even have a battery operated weasel ball. It’s a plastic ball that rolls around on the floor while a stuffed weasel flops back and forth, hanging onto that ball by the skin of its teeth. The kids think it’s a hoot. My husband does, too. He might deny this, but I think he plays with it when nobody’s around.

We also have a video game that he and the older boys play together. I’m no big fan of video games, but I love to hear the boys shriek, “Look out, Papa Mark, there’s a ZOMBIE!”

Anyhow, we had all this stuff and no place to store it. So I did a bit of research and ordered two 4-feet long faux-leather storage benches that I hoped would fit in our living room.

They were delivered a few days ago, minutes after my husband left to go play music. Wiley was spending the night with us. He wanted to open the boxes.

“Let’s wait, sweetie,” I said, “until Papa Mark gets home.”

“Nah,” he said, “let’s surprise him. I’ll help. It’ll be fun!”

So we ripped open the boxes and pulled out the benches, the legs, the screws and the lengthy instructions for assembly.

“Nana?” Wiley said. “Don’t we need tools? When my dad fixes stuff, he always uses tools.”

“Tools?” I said. “I hope not. Hand me one of those legs.”

Wiley helped a lot. Mostly he served as an excellent reason to  refrain from losing my religion.

An hour later, we attached the last leg, shoved the benches into place, wiped the sweat from our brows and stood back to admire our handiwork. The benches looked good. Best of all, they fit.

Wiley went to work organizing the toys in their new homes. And I went to take two Advil.

When Papa Mark came home, he was not just surprised, but amazed at what we had done.

I winked at Wiley. He grinned at me. Then we all took a dip in the hot tub and studied the stars over the mountains.

The next day, before Wiley’s mom came to get him, I told him he had done such a fine job of organizing the toys in those benches that from now on, when his brother and sister and cousins came to play, he would be the official Toy Master.

“Toy Master?” he said, wrinkling his nose the way he does when I burn his toast.

“They’ll help you put the toys away,” I said, “but you’ll say where everything goes. Deal?”

He gave me a thumbs up.

That evening, after Wiley had gone home and my husband left to practice with the band, I sat in the living room, admiring the new benches and thinking about all those toys that were now neatly tucked away out of sight, thanks to Wiley’s help.

Do you think toys get lonely?

Lifting the lid on one of the benches, I spotted the bag of cowboys and indians.

“Don’t worry, guys,” I told them, ‘Wiley will be back soon.”

And then, deep inside the pile of toys, I thought I heard the weasel ball whine, “What time will Papa Mark be back?”

“Surprises in Work and in Life,” July 16, 2019

When asked what I do for a living, I’m tempted to say, “I’m an entertainer. I stand half naked in public, baring my soul and juggling live chickens.”

It isn’t far from the truth. But instead, I say, “I’m a columnist. I write about life and whatever comes along.” It’s an odd way to earn a living, but I’ve done it for so long it seems almost normal. And it’s full of surprises.

For example:

1. I’m surprised I never run out of things to write about. I remember my first column, almost 30 years ago. I didn’t want to do it, but my editor insisted. So I wrote about how my grandmother and my blind baby brother taught me to see the world. I promised readers that in future columns I’d take a look at whatever came along and write about what I saw.

It didn’t seem very interesting, even to me. But people called the paper to say they liked it. So I thought, “OK, I can do this.”

Then I realized I’d have to do it again. And again. What on Earth would I write about?

“Make a list,” said my editor, “of every column idea you can think of. Then, if you’re ever stumped, you can write about something on the list.”

So I listed 100 ideas for columns and put the list in a drawer. And I have never needed to take it out. Why? I try to stay alive and pay attention. If you do that, things will keep coming along.

Some of those things might break your heart. But in writing, as in life, you don’t get to choose what comes along. You just take it as comes and give it your best.

2. I’m surprised to see how much we’re alike. There is surely no shortage of things we disagree on: Politics, religion, social injustice, what to teach, what to eat, what to wear. But to understand our differences, and to agree to disagree, I believe we first need to understand all that we share in common.

So I write about the things I care most about; my hopes and dreams for my children and grandchildren and for you and yours; things that make me thankful and glad to be alive.

The surprise is hearing day after day from readers around the country who say they care about those things, too.

When I visit places that carry my column, I meet hundreds of strangers who treat me as if I’m long lost kin. It’s like a family reunion without the fist fights.

Our differences make us interesting. But the things we care most about make us one.

3. Maybe the best surprise in my work and my life is getting to see, time and again, the amazing human capacity for kindness.

Soon after I began doing the column, my first husband was diagnosed with colon cancer and told he had six months to live. With the strength of his will, the grace of God and an awful lot of treatment, he turned six months into four good years.

I never planned to write about cancer. Or death. Or being a widow. Or watching my kids lose their dad. But I wrote about those things and more. Then I heard from countless readers who said they were sorry for our sorrows; that they had faced sorrows, too; they were praying for us; and their children were praying for our children.

The kindness of strangers — along with that of family and friends — kept me afloat. It changed me profoundly. I’m sure it changed them, too.

That’s what kindness does. It’s a gift to the giver, as well as to the receiver. It heals us and makes us strong. It persuades a broken heart to go on beating.

Life is a small boat and the world can be a troubled sea. But we keep each other afloat with loving kindness. And tender mercies. And a lot of laughter.

Be kind. Stay alive. Pay attention. Juggle chickens. You’ll be surprised at the things that will keep coming along.