As the fall season approaches, I get the urge to cook up some of my favorite recipes. With the ease and skill of a circus juggler, I will have slow simmering soups on my stove top while a combination of apple and pumpkin recipes rotate in and out of the oven. The combustion of these intoxicating fumes quickly ground me as they fill the air and whisk me back to my childhood in Western, NC.
It is no secret, whether we own it or not, we all have a favorite comfort food or two. My go-to comfort food year round is macaroni and cheese. I know, not very original, but hot pasta dripping with cheese…what’s not to love? Whether it comes out of a box, or homemade out of the oven, the feel good neurotransmitters start with that first cheesy spoonful. From a psychological standpoint, the taste and smell of food is attached to a memory or person that anchors us in feelings of love and security. A few bites in I am enveloped in the love and comfort of all those who once filled my belly but now, years later, fill my soul with sweet memories of family dinners and holiday gatherings.
Recently, while having a casual conversation with friends over coffee, the topic of bears came up. North Carolina has our fair share of these rascals, both black and brown bears. In the mountains of NC, the beloved Mildred the bear roamed in the Great Smoky Mountains for twenty six years capturing the hearts of children and adults alike. Down east, the bear is the mascot for New Bern and every corner is adorned with unique bear statues.
From childhood, I have heard stories of bears wandering into places that are strictly for humans only and “no bears allowed”. Yet, these mischievous creatures, with zero stealth abilities, still take the risk in search of a tasty snack. Hey, you can’t blame a bear for trying! I can’t say that on those rare occasions that I forget to bring my lunch to work that I may or may not have explored my surroundings for snack possibilities. As this conversation evolved, I discovered that not only do humans have favorite comfort foods but apparently so do bears. However, their comfort food of choice was not what I expected at all.
Thanks to my favorite bear from childhood, Winnie the Pooh, I thought for sure honey was the “bear approved” sweet comfort food of choice. I mean anytime Winnie the Pooh had a “rumbly in his tumbly” it was honey that he needed to fill his ravenous void. However, it turns out that bears not only have a sweet tooth for honey, but also they quite fancy cinnamon. In fact, they love cinnamon so much, they will let nothing stand in their way. Many documented reports show bears tearing away board by board at cabins just to get to this delicious spice. Videos on social media show the disbelief of shocked humans as they stumble into ransacked cabins to find…wait for it… a small container of cinnamon licked completely clean.
This crazy fact about bears and cinnamon started a chain of racing thoughts in my head. I know, it’s truly crazy the things that spark the mind of a writer! Nonetheless, it really did start to make me think. What’s my cinnamon? What is the thing that I want desperately enough that I will literally tear away at every barrier to get what I want? After feeling so inspired over the last year as I wrote Common Threads, I have to admit I was experiencing a little let down and loss of writer libido. With this new nugget of info related to all things bears, I decided it was time to reflect on my journey as a writer and decide what I wanted to create next.
In therapy, we ask our clients, “Tell me the earliest memory you have related to the issues we are addressing”. As my mind travels back in time, there is no doubt that as a child, books were my cinnamon. I was a bookworm from birth and every single book was comfort food to my mind and soul. It was the typical book addict progression. My addiction started innocently, as my mom read to me every single night. Of course, as would be expected, she was also knee deep in her own book addictions. From there, it was a quick progression on to Little Golden Books. Legend has been told in the hills of Western NC that I was known to be able to conduct exemplary behavior on grocery shopping trips just to get that coveted prize. The feel of that perfectly square book in my hands, perfect golden spine intact, and knowing I was the first person to crack open the pages of this book, sheer exhilaration.
Next, it was on to Childcraft encyclopedias and then unashamedly chapter books. I read and reread every Beverly Cleary and Nancy Drew book penned, I just couldn’t stop myself. My book delinquency deepened as I read under the covers by flashlight at night, heart racing, just hoping to avoid being caught by my parents. As my addiction grew, I was a repeat offender at the local library, evidenced by the wear and tear of my library card. It was here that I stumbled onto the hard stuff and I began to consume every biography and literary classic I could get my hands on. No, there was no turning back now.
While my appetite for reading grew, so did my curiosity and love of writing. I was a young cub hungry to get that cinnamon and I saw no reason I couldn’t achieve that dream. In elementary school I wrote a short play and my cradle baby friend Misty agreed to act in the premiere of this play. We gave a sell out performance. OK, so it was just our Moms, but when you are ten, that is a sell out. This experience only fed my writing ego. In high school, I began to write ridiculous amounts of poetry and the thirst for this cinnamon increased. Soon, I was writing short stories and was falling more in love with the craft of writing.
When I was a junior in high school, my English teacher gave us a creative writing assignment to write a fiction short story. My first thought was, “Is he serious? This doesn’t even feel like homework because it is too much fun!” I wrote feverishly page after page (for the record with an erasable ballpoint pen and real paper) and was so excited about the story that I had created. A few days later, I beamed with pride as I handed that manuscript over to my teacher as if it was the next New York Times bestseller.
Weeks later, I waited with great anticipation for my glowing review, but when I received my returned paper, the remarks were not what I had hoped. The neon glowing red pen remarks read something like, “This ending is too predictable, and not very original.” The sigh I am sure was audible as my writing bear heart was crushed. It was as if a supposedly “wiser bear” had said to the younger cub, “Give it up. Those humans have sealed that cabin and you will never reach the cinnamon.” Sadly, I believed that old, grouchy bear and didn’t write creatively again for over twenty years. Note: I wish I had his current address to send him an autographed copy of my latest book, in red pen of course (insert celebratory emojis)!
My inspiration to return to writing came in my early 40s while I was homeschooling my children. Yes, I said homeschooling, an insanity blog for another day. We did a unit on The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, which for the record is my favorite juvenile fiction book. It was during this that time that I discovered Elizabeth George Speare, like myself, had longed in her heart to write, but her duties as a wife and mother kept her from her cinnamon. Her first book was not published until she was 49 (my current age, wink wink) and then she proceeded to craft two Newberry medals, an honorary Newberry award, and Scott O’Dell award for historical fiction. I would say that that bear found her cinnamon, well done!
Inspired by her story, I decided it was time to start tearing away at that cabin that I had once been told was sealed. The number one question I get asked at book events is this, “ How do you have time to write?” Time has always been the number one challenge to my writing. Years ago it was the duties as a working mother to three young children. Today it is the responsibilities of a single mom with multiple jobs to support and launch adult children into the world. I have so many entries in my journals that start with …”The number one enemy to me writing is finding the time.”
Well, that is kind of the secret of writing or anything really, there will never be enough time. We have to make the time. My writing has truly become my cinnamon. Whatever it takes, I have to make it happen. I will tear away, sneak away, and make time wherever I can to feed this addiction. As a writer I have to embrace that my work is not for everyone. Full disclosure I love chocolate and ice cream but I despise chocolate ice cream (please don’t stop reading). I have also decided to silence all the grouchy old bear voices that tell me, “You don’t have time … No one wants to read that… You’re too old” and do what I feel compelled to do, just write.
So, what’s your cinnamon? What will you persist at until you get that sweet taste of satisfaction? Whatever it is, I invite you to join me on your quest to tear away, piece by piece, board by board, until you reach that delicious prize. Don’t let anyone tell you that your cinnamon cannot be reached. The only limitations that you have are the ones that you set on yourself. Now go, find your cinnamon, or macaroni and cheese, and lick that bowl clean!
As always, may you be well, may you be loved, and may you know true peace.
Read more about Melissa C. Harrell and her work. She is the author of Common Threads: Why the Answers to the Present Lie in the Past.
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The purpose of this blog is to offer educational information related to mental wellness. Resiliency Counseling & Consulting, PLLC and Melissa Harrell do not offer diagnosis or treatment through this medium. If you feel that you or a family member needs to access mental health services, first contact your primary care physician for assessment and direction in your area. If you need immediate help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.