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Redefining Beauty

What physical qualities deem a person beautiful? Beauty is rumored to be subjective; but is it really, with the ubiquitous bombardment of ads in modern America?  No longer limited to billboards or magazines, insidious marketing schemes remain notoriously lopsided when it comes to women, race, age, and weight.  Although marketing trends have pivoted towards multi-ethnicity, they remain sluggish in most mainstream magazines and online advertisements. Next time you are in the grocery store thumb through a Family Circle or Yoga Journal or randomly peruse various publications. Thin women, regardless of race, continue to dominate photoshoots while obesity trends for children continue to rise.  How then, does all of this impact the way, we as women and girls, view beauty?

How often is a woman touted as beautiful because she is witty, intelligent, or incredibly wise?  .  If we are going to attempt to level the playing field in terms of defining beauty through a more multiplicity, we need to stop homogenizing.  The 1950’s should be behind us. America is an ideal country, to expose female beauty in all of its rawest forms setting up fertile ground for focusing on character development rather than trying to shoehorn femininity into a societal trend.

I recently watched an interesting short, A Conversation with Black Women on Race, which had a common thread strewn into each discussion; that of not being seen and/or not being seen as beautiful.  As I listened I was reminded of a graduate research paper I wrote: The Lack of Black Heroes in Children’s Literature, which I wrote twenty years ago.  Not much has changed. I was also reminded of a time, when I lived on the east coast as a teenager and worked part-time at a women’s clothing shop—I was the only Caucasian employee.  I recall my self-hatred for the lack of pigment in my skin; I thought how beautiful the African American and Latina women were that I worked with.  It occurred to me later, that surroundings have a powerful impact on perception.  Unfortunately, the adage that “beauty is only skin deep” is not the display most women, especially women of color, see.

For the record, I am not suggesting we obliterate the beauty industry (nobody is taking my Maybeline mascara from me); what I am purposing is that we expand our focus and in particular when it comes to women.  Men, can be pudgy, bald, grey, idiotic and still be splashed across front pages or heralded ad nauseam.

Women bear the stigma that kindness or brilliance is secondary to physical beauty.  Looks matter.  According to a recent study at Zhejiang University in China “lookism creates inequalities comparable to those created by racism, sexism, and background.”  The article reiterated, what innately most of us have known, that physically beautiful people get away with bad behavior and vice versa are able to finagle their wants and needs more easily.  This would not be as prevalent if marketing priorities were not as aligned with the façade of beauty.

In these turbulent uncertain times, what if we revered peacemaking attributes that may help to reverse the world’s inequities?  If women of all color, shapes, and ages were displayed from the rafters of every social media and advertising, would this impact a women’s vision of herself.? If we create a culture in America, where women are brought to wisdom’s table not merely to look at or objectify, but rather to contribute to conflict resolution, since as far as I can see, men have botched the job on a fairly consistent basis.  Give females the respect and laude to make real effective change.  Take the attention off the faces and bodies of women and put them at the tables discussing, national and international security.

Without consciousness we circumvent the fact that women, historically, have been the pursuers of peace, yet they continue to remain virtually invisible at the international roundtables.  I believe that one reason is young girls, from a young age, are taught to focus on outer appearance rather than exploring their inner strengths of knowledge and insight.  Again, not that wanting to “look pretty” is a terrible character flaw, but the pervasive obsession with outer beauty has mushroomed into a cloud of Pink.  Women, deserve equal expectation that their bra or butt size is not paramount to their prowess.  We don’t ask men what their penis size is and then if too small disqualify their merit.

Women, let’s begin to recognize that lasting beauty does come from deep within and if fostered, can be an influential force to resolutions around the globe.  Let’s together, spend less time and finances on the fraudulent business of beauty and more on finding our commonality and inner strengths.

 

 

 

 

 

Relishing the Gifts of Winter

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Days are shorter the bears and bats are hibernating, and the cooler temperatures keep us indoors a bit more. Winter is nature’s time to rest and renew before the bustle of spring arrives. For humans, winter offers a magical opportunity to travel inward, to find comfort in slowing down, recuperating, and listening to our inner stillness. Whether gazing at the crackle of a fireplace or snuggling under the warmth of blanket curled up reading a delicious book, Winter provides a plethora of gifts we can learn to relish.

Winter invites me to reup by meditation practice, especially after skimping on it during the holidays. There’s a tranquility, reserved energy during this season that makes it easier to close my eyes, breathe, and let go. Winter calls for hunkering down, it provides time to stop running in every direction, to stay put and relish time with myself and others. It helps me get indoor things done that when the weather is nicer, I don’t want to deal with.

I used to chastise myself for feeling lazier during the winter, needing more sleep, but I have learned to embrace the seasonal cycles, realizing that winter is a retreat if I let it be, from the chaos of busier seasons. It is fitting that it comes right after the autumn harvests and is followed by the flurry of spring.

While on a walk last week, I tried cultivating an awareness of winter’s beauty. The trees although bare, are magnificent with their dark branches juxtaposed against a blue or gray or white sky. I appreciate winter’s quietness; the soft powdery look of snow, or the gentle patter of rain against the window, long shadows draped over a lawn or field. Because of the cooler drier air, winter sunsets are considered the most spectacular with their vibrant hues of orange, reds, and coral that linger over swaths of clouds. It is literally a scientific fact that in the winter months because of improved air quality and colder temperatures, the colors of a sunset are more vibrant than any other time of the year. Since dusk lasts longer in winter, the alluring sunsets linger much longer before darkness settles in.

If you are a person who is light sensitive and tend to get a bit down during the winter, try spending more time outside during sunrise and sunsets. Use light in your house, open curtains, bundle up and go for a brisk walk notice the crisp air on your skin. If you live in places where it snows a lot and being outside is difficult, exercise indoors, set up your winter routine, be sure to still move it helps deal with the blues, if you are prone to them. Sometimes I will play music and dance or practice yoga or Pilates. Also, invite friends over for a game night, or dive into your passions. Use the winter months to create, paint, write, sculpt, finish an indoor project you’ve been wanting to complete. Winter gives us permission to be alone, to indulge in those solo practices and passions that fulfill us.

Winter can also be a wonderful time to enjoy different activities, skiing or snowboarding or ice-skating. If you are like me and don’t have the cash flow (or penchant) for winter sports, snowshoe or cross-country ski or simply spend a day sledding with your kids. It is incredibly rejuvenating to spend time in the snow or cold outdoors, then come inside for a warm cup of tea or cocoa.

For me, winter is the perfect time to catch up on my reading. I love going to the library and finding gems that I haven’t read yet or buying new books to get lost in. It feels natural to cozy up to a good book when the weather is brewing up a winter storm, while the barren landscape is resting, I yearn to read. Winter also is my teatime.  I drink a lot of different tea in the winter, exploring different flavors and medicinal remedies like elderberry to boost my immune system or dandelion to detox.

The gifts of winter are unique, like an understated beauty that at first you may miss. If I have listened to winters advice to slow down, I am ready and excited for the spring when it’s time to pick up the pace again. But for now, I’ll enjoy those gorgeous sunsets, the cozy fireplace reading, and the chance to step off life’s merry-go-round for a bit.

 

Lighten Up with Laughter

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“A smile is a curve that sets everything straight.”

I have no idea who said the above quote but it makes me smile when I read it. It is simple and dead on. Think back to a day, a week, a month that felt as though you had been trudging uphill in mud up to your waist. Your perception of those difficult times is usually caused from the lack of a good guffaw. Infusing laughter into your daily routine will not only lighten your mood, and your load, it will also improve the trajectory of your life.

Take a moment to think about how you feel at work, at school, in the gym, after you’ve had a chuckle or two with someone compared to being in a room full of grumpy, stressed, snappy people. Anger erupts easier when your sense of humor is boxed in the garage somewhere, or when you or those around you are taking things a little too serious. When you get lopsided and weighed down from over thinking or from feeling frustrated, a dose of laughter can quite literally make a bad mood disappear.

When you laugh, scientific research has proven that your brain releases a feel good endorphin; it is also a powerful pain reliever. Physiologically, you feel happier because of these potent chemicals, and when you feel happier you are able to have more compassion, you become more forgiving. Let’s face it, who can be funny or lighthearted when you don’t feel well? Learning to laugh more (some of us have to develop our sense of humor, you know who you are) is physically and mentally healthy for you.

When you are happier, (this is a relative term meaning not feeling angry or resentful, instead feeling positive upbeat), it is accompanied by a sense of freedom that allows you  to gather your mettle to be confident to make changes or decisions that will benefit your future. Having a laugh, helps you balance out the day’s drudgery it is a pressure release valve that you have control over. When you laugh more, you have less heartache, less negativity, less emotional and physical pain.

Bolstering your sense of humor does not mean you aren’t a serious person, it simply means that you are able to mine out the nugget of lightness that is in almost all situations. Naturally there are tragic events that leave us deeply troubled or sadden, but when the immediacy of those moments pass, laughter can help you heal and recover.  Nurturing humor is not demeaning or being irreverent, I am not talking about the person who laughs at everything and never takes anything to heart. I am referring to the capacity to let go and allow yourself to smile, to release your pain, your anger, your frustration and swap it out for a laugh with a friend.

Laughter helps develop relationships, it is communal and takes on a life of it’s own. We all have a friend who is hilarious or know someone who can have you literally holding your sides from laughing too hard. Think about how much better you feel when you’ve spent time laughing with another person rather than gossiping or begrudging others. Laugher stays with you long after the joke has faded.  Humor strengthens friendships, marriages, partnerships. It allows people to be themselves. Cracking a few jokes or sharing funny stories can help you escape cycles of self pity, or being in a chronic bad mood. It also stimulates your creativity.

Sprinkle some laughter into your yoga routine, when you run or cycle, let go of the tight fisted need to be overly disciplined with yourself and others. You can still accomplish goals and overcome challenges, and with a bit of laughter in the mix, you will probably be a lot happier and easier to be around.

Give yourself the gift of laughter, let your guard down, start your day with a smile, chuckle at your good fortunes (there are many once you start looking for them), and watch as your mental and physical well being blossoms.

Unplugging

Reflections

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The unrelenting cacophony of cars, and computers, of deadlines, of people demanding and complaining had me listless, frazzled, kaput. At work the screen staring back at me cackled knowing that the online work I was doing had me in a chokehold. Enough. I decided that the phone and the computer had strangled enough energy out of me. My imagination was dangling in Pluto, my connection to my husband in the garage buried under boxes labeled Christmas, and summers end had creeped up without us ever getting away; it was time to unplug!
I planned an escape, to find some rest in the arms of nature. I felt desperate to drink in her quiet solace and spiritual sustenance. That kind of oasis doesn’t exist in the city of Sacramento, where we currently live, where there is rarely a reprieve from leaf blowers, stereos, and traffic noise. I needed time to hear…

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Unplugging

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The unrelenting cacophony of cars, and computers, of deadlines, of people demanding and complaining had me listless, frazzled, kaput. At work the screen staring back at me cackled knowing that the online work I was doing had me in a chokehold. Enough. I decided that the phone and the computer had strangled enough energy out of me. My imagination was dangling in Pluto, my connection to my husband in the garage buried under boxes labeled Christmas, and summers end had creeped up without us ever getting away; it was time to unplug!
I planned an escape, to find some rest in the arms of nature. I felt desperate to drink in her quiet solace and spiritual sustenance. That kind of oasis doesn’t exist in the city of Sacramento, where we currently live, where there is rarely a reprieve from leaf blowers, stereos, and traffic noise. I needed time to hear the wind rustle the summer leaves, to be lulled by the singing of a nearby bird, I/We needed less people, more silence. The Inverness coast around the corner from Tamales bay was the perfect spot…there was no internet, no cell coverage, no stampede of automobiles.
For the first time this summer, I set my cellphone and computer down and didn’t look at it for two days, and guess what, the world didn’t fall apart, there were no urgent emails demanding my immediate attention, no one died or moved away. I began to realize how much time I have spent scrolling my phone or emails when I could have unplugged, read a book, wrote (yes that is done on a computer) but if I don’t get caught up in ‘research” I can stay focused and present.
Getting away and unplugging reminded me of the impermanence of life. That looking into my husbands eyes, spending time watching the waves crash on the sand, witnessing the changing hues of color in the sky as the sun set is all temporary. If I don’t practice presence in those moments, they are gone. I will have deprived myself of magnificent beauty that quiets and soothes the spirit.
Choosing to disconnect for the weekend not only settled my frayed nerves, it rejuvenated my relationship with my husband, my partner, my friend. Day to day conversations often lose out to checking Facebook posts or answering emails or texts while good ole conversation pouts patiently in the backseat. Unplugging gave us a chance to rediscover ourselves and each other. I read my husband new poems I had written, he showed me photos of the ocean tides and clouds he had captured, we collaborated, laughed, and listened with deeper intent.
Embracing nature and welcoming silence and tuning into the natural sounds allowed my consciousness to reawaken. I was able to stumble back to that quiet place within. Emotions (which often show up like an unwanted guests) get tangled up with daily demands, shutting out technology for a bit helps me sort them out put things back in perspective. Most of the time we are inundated with stimuli which distracts us. Being able to stare at the ocean or sit under the shade of a tree calmed my spirit made me less reactive, nature gives me room to breathe to think.
Unplugging gives you the opportunity to play, to be unanchored, to explore ways of being. I did yoga on the sand without a mat, my husband and I walked together as our goofy dog Trevor leaped for joy in chasing the ball. We looked at shapes of clouds and imagined what it was like to sail around the world. We took it all in, I didn’t take any photos, I wanted simply to be present to sear the memory so that when I returned, I could escape back to that serenity that Mother Nature graciously gave me. All I had to do was listen.
That Monday, back in the bustle my husband said he felt less stressed even in traffic, which is not usual for him. I recommend everyone, take the time to escape to unplug and to reconnect with nature, with yourself, and with those you love. Make it a priority, pull the plug on your machines, and just be, no agenda except to breathe.

Yoga…Dealing with Death

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Recently a beloved uncle of mine passed away, and although his health was deteriorating from a progressive disease, it still came as a shock when he died suddenly from a heart attack. Bill was a kind man whose generosity and smile warmed the hearts of many. Processing the passing of a loved one ripples through core beliefs and often provokes a need to examine your own sense of mortality and of those you love. Death barges in on complacency and in a matter of minutes can fragment your life into a jigsaw puzzle. One thing that has helped me with grief and loss time and time again, is my yoga practice. It is there like a friend offering a hug and a warm cup of tea.

The very nature of yoga is reflective. It offers you a safe haven to stop, to breathe, to take a back seat away from the whirlwind of life. And it is in those moments of introspection, yoga provides a solace. When someone you love dies, the sheer permanency of knowing that you will never see this person (in their earthy body) again can be gut wrenching.

Yoga can help you align your spirit and reconnect on a different energetic plane . When I returned to my practice after my uncle’s funeral, I had a strong sense that Bill was with me, that he was letting me know in his usual quiet way, that he was free, but present. While teaching my first class after coming back home, I knew that he was with me, and I told my class, “I’m sure this is my uncle’s first yoga class, but not his last.” This has happened to me after the passing of other people and pets in my life.

Yoga gives you a space to convene with the spiritual side of life. Because it captures your attention through the breath and relaxes the mind, messages and intuitive consciousness becomes audible. Imagine being in a room full of people all yelling at once, and in the corner is a person chanting quietly a beautiful prayer. If you don’t quiet the other voices your spiritual nature can’t be heard.

Strong emotions, like grief and sadness can paralyze you, yoga gently calls you back and gets you moving again. Asanas (postures) and breath work are symbolic of both life and death. With each inhale you receive, with exhale you release. Each pose has a unique way of strengthening one part of your body while relaxing another. When I begin to practice after experiencing deep pain, the flow of the breath connecting with my body reminds me that I have much to be grateful for. That I am in tune with the rhythms of life.

For me, yoga is like a friend who gets me and when I return to my mat, after a loss, I feel the familiar, embrace me. The ancient Sanskrit word, Ahisma, means nonviolence or not harming others, which also applies to self. This sweet word gently reminds me when I practice while grieving to be kind to myself. This isn’t the time for hard core power yoga, but rather a slower flow or even restorative practice that helps you open blocked or clogged channels of energy and to nurture yourself.

 

Here is a sample yoga practice you can try while grieving the loss of a loved one. Turn the lights to low, use candles or perhaps practice outside during sunrise or sunset.

 

1. Begin in a wide kneed child’s pose as you allow the earth below you to support the weight of your body. Connect with your breath. Watch as your rib cage expands with the inhalation, and collapses with the exhalation. Plant an intention for your lost loved one in your heart. Take 5 more breaths here.

2. Remain in child’s pose, on an inhalation, walk both arms and hands over to the right side of your mat (your hands may come of the mat). Breathe into the left side body. If you practice uygi breathe initiate it here. Remember, ujigy pranayama means the removal of obstacles or victory breath. Take 5 breaths here and repeat to the other side, walking the arms over to the left breathing into the right side body. Explore your sense of expansion and letting go.
3. On an inhale, lift yourself up to all fours, exhale there. Inhale as you curl toes under and come into downward facing dog. Pedal your legs out, the find stillness for 5 breaths. Feel your heart space pressing towards your thighs, visualize the breath originating from your hands and rolling all the way down the back as you exhale tension from the back body. Take 5 breaths.

4. Come back down on an inhale to table top (all fours) exhale. Slowly as you inhale and exhale begin to walk your hands out towards the top of the mat, resting your forehead on the mat, hips right above the knees for Anahata (heart opening pose) or Puppy dog pose. Allow your heart to hammock between your upper arms, if your forehead does not reach the floor, use a block or a book. Take 10 slow mindful breaths here.
5. Come back up to a table top with an inhale and as you exhale find downward facing dog, take 10 breaths. Sometimes I like to do three legged dog here, taking 5 breaths on each side.
6. Inhale to a plank pose, drop your right knee, ground through your left foot, inhale and reach your left arm up and over your left ear. Modified side plank, take 5 breaths and repeat to the other side moving through plank.
7. Inhale to plank and drop both knees on an exhale. Inhale take your right foot in front to a low lunge 5 breaths here then step forward on an exhale, inhale halfway lift, exhale fold forward (Utasana) inhale to standing, bring your hands to your heart center.
8. Mountain pose hands at your side, palms facing forward, root through your feet as the crown of the head lifts towards sky. Take 5 breaths.
9. Inhale arms lift, exhale fold, inhale halfway lift exhale ben your knees come to a seat, draw your knees in towards your chest drop your chin to your chest, inhale straighten your legs, exhale and fold forward, take 5 breaths, lengthen your spine, gently draw your shoulders down your back, inhale roll all the way then exhale to lying on your back.

10. Inhale bring the soles of your feet together, knees gently open you may put blocks underneath both knees for support, Supta Baddhakonasana take 5 breaths, then extend your legs to either side of the mat allow your arms to rest at your side, palms up for your final resting pose, Savasana.

Allow yourself to relish in the gifts of your practice, knowing that you are loved and connected to your loved one by the freedom of spirit.

The Old Man and the Rain

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The old man puffed his cigar spitting out the tip as he stared at the solid veil of rain he had been waiting for. “California,” he muttered to himself half disgusted and partly relieved. “Took long enough,” he sighed. The entire damn state had been in a drought barring the occasional pockets of showers that fell February past. They did little to raise the depleted reservoirs and dusty stream beds. A musky smell of moist dirt rose to comfort him as he shuffled to sit on the re-strung ladder back rocker. Its dilapidated legs moaning like an old dog as he settled into the seat. Back and forth the squeaking rocker swayed as the old man lifted his eyes to scan the sky and ground, alternating between the two. Swirls of gray exhaled cigar smoke snaked around his face filling the porch. The porch suffered from withered paint peels that hung like shavings off a carving stick. Patches of stained wood speckled the floor slats while the shingled walls of the two-bedroom house sagged from neglect. Colby had bought the, now jalopy looking, home, forty years prior when it stood tall like a soldier saluting his country’s flag. He’d survived the granddaddy of wars, WWII, lived to forget about it, marry his sweetheart, and even raise a brood of kids in this house
“I reckon this will help.” Colby said aloud as if the rain would reply back. He rocked and pondered in a way that people do when their days are no longer filled with urgency. Two weeks ago, he received a letter from his youngest daughter that said she’d be passing through. Said she wanted to stop in for a visit and could he put her up for a few nights? He hadn’t heard a word from the girl in over a year. She’d been deployed to Iraq picking up where her old man had left off. He tried to prevent her from joining the Army but Grace Anne was stubborn; about as stubborn as he was and never would heed the old man’s advice. Colby’s stomach clenched inward like a fist as he thought about her arrival. He tried, as best he could, to gussy up the place but money had whittled away once he could no longer clutch a hammer. Arthritis had crept in cursing him with aching joints that stiffened like steel. And his pension was barely visible; being a war Vet paid next to nothing.
Colby weathered his life challenges, those unforeseen and unwanted events with his dog Jess a mutt of seventeen years. Jess half hound, half unknown and stone deaf, hobbled out to watch the descending droplets with the old man. He lay down with a familiar moan at Colby’s feet staring at the steady downpour. He had wandered on to the property as a pup two days after Colby’s wife, Nora, passed away. Her death remained a mystery to him, a cancer of some sort that stole her away like his buddy blown to bits by the Germans. It was a vague death, like strolling through a dream, waking and realizing it was real.
“I know boy, this isn’t your favorite weather.” Colby said patting the dog on its head. Jess responded with a slow motion roll like a large sea lion stuck in the sand
“She should be here sometime soon, I suspect. Leave it to the youngest one to run off, she’s the closest thing to a son I have.” Colby spoke to the dog as if they were two brothers or friends, sitting on bar stools drinking beer.
Grace Anne was the youngest of five girls. Colby’s other daughters were scattered in states far from California. Although Colby denied it, she was his favorite, As he rocked back and forth, he roamed through the years they had canoed and fished on Lake Havasu together. Grace Anne had come along as a surprise seven years after the youngest daughter, Claire, was born. Nora used to call her the “miracle menopause baby.”
“You remember that time she caught herself a thirty pounder– big mouth bass?” Colby chuckled while the rain bounced off the railings and the sopped wooden steps. “Wonder if she’d take a trip with me back to Havasu?” Colby puffed his cigar then brought it in front of his face to examine the remains. “I haven’t been fishin for years. Don’t know if I can still hold a rod, oh hell, I can.”
Colby had not been around as much for the older girls—work took him away and he often felt a gnawing that left him guilty.
A car drove down the pebbled driveway next door and a young woman with a bag of groceries got out.
“Nice weather we’re having.” She shouted to Colby from under her black umbrella.
“Much needed, not sure how nice. You need some help Maria?” Colby shouted back.
“No sir, I have it. I’ll stop by maybe later.” Maria said.
“That’s okay, my daughter…” Colby didn’t finish as the woman had already scrambled out of the rain. He heard the slamming of Maria’s wooden door echo over the pines.
Maria had been his neighbor for three years. She had moved from Mexico to work in a distant relative’s restaurant, one of the sworn secrets designated for locals. She’d come by occasionally to chat or share a cup of coffee. Maria was well acquainted with Colby’s loneliness, she had left her own family in Santa Rosita, the small town in Mexico she had lived most of her life. She would drift effortlessly into the old news or story that was most current in Colby’s mind; nodding her head to assure him she was listening.
“Maybe Maria can make us a batch of her cornbread.” He said as he resumed rocking on the faded chair. The dog groaned again and rolled over.
“Kacie’d like that I bet.”
Colby wasn’t sure how long he’d been rocking, waiting for time to march across his porch, when the sound of wet tires drew in from the distance. He didn’t recognize the car and immediately felt a surge of excitement sting his skin. This must be my daughter; he thought and stubbed out the last of the cigar. He patted the front of his brown sweater and sat up tall with anticipation. The rain had retreated to a steady drizzle but the sky remained dark and laden with heavy clouds. He had squinted struggling to see the driver.
“Well, this is it Jess, our Kace has come to pay us a visit.” Colby tapped the dog in an effort to rouse him from a long session of snoring. He looked up and rolled forward with all the effort an old dog could muster. He sniffed the air and crooned a pathetic, out of tune howl.
“That a boy.”
A woman in a full dress military uniform hunched under an umbrella stomped her boots into the muddy ground. The driver, a thirty something man tall with a gaunt body type got out of the car whispering something to the woman. They exchanged glances as they walked towards the porch. Colby reckoned they were there to let him know Kacie was on her way—probably a little later than expected.
The rain grew heavy again as if a switch had been turned on.
“Sir, we are looking for Mr. Matthers?” The woman said while the rain pelted the porch roof.
“I am he.” The old man said standing proud as if he were receiving an award.
“Mr. Mathers, your daughter Kacie, sir she will be coming home as a hero.” She saved the lives of…their voices drifted off into the drumming of droplets—unwavering, hypnotic—the rain, drowning out their words.