The secret success of the magnolia tree


Image courtesy of Liz West and

I took the dog for a walk. The act wasn’t particularly notable. I haven’t been confined to the house for an extended period, or otherwise recovering from some debilitating injury or illness. This isn’t a story of bravery. It wasn’t cold outside, nor was it overly hot. This isn’t a story about overcoming the elements. In fact, there was very little about that morning’s walk that might differentiate it from any other walk I might take on a given day. But on this average walk on an average day, for whatever reason, I happened to beyond the space where my feet came in contact with the sidewalk.

“Mindfulness isn’t difficult, we just need to remember to do it.” – Sharon Salzberg

I saw a tree in a neighbor’s yard. A magnolia to be exact. Its blooms had started taking on the yellowish tone of petals past their prime and the leaves were already showing signs of summer browning. It wasn’t a particularly beautiful specimen, but it wasn’t remarkably ugly either. The best word that I can use to describe it is, average. Being that we naturally prefer to seek out that extraordinary, my eyes immediately sought something more interesting to look at and landed on the more wooded area behind the magnolia where trees more than twice the magnolia’s height swayed against each other in the breeze. In comparison, the average magnolia now looked isolated and puny. It looked almost as if it wasn’t even trying.

“Just because Fate doesn’t deal you the right cards, it doesn’t mean you should give up. It just means you have to play the cards you get to their maximum potential.” – Les Brown

I felt a little sorry for the tree as I compared it with those behind it. I remember a magnolia tree in front of my childhood home that seemed to touch the sky. I remember climbing its thick branches, pretending to set up a home well above the ground like Tarzan or the Swiss Family Robinson, and using its huge strong leaves as a fan in the summer. When I was a child, there was no grander tree than a magnolia. It made me pause. To think, I was now considering this magnolia tree small and weak when the tree in my memory had achieved so much more.

“Many people never reach greater because they don’t leave good enough behind.” – Steven Furtick

The trees that towered behind average magnolia did not grow to their massive heights overnight. With so many close together fighting for the same sunlight, they had no choice but to grow up with each new generation building upon the last growing ever so taller. That kind of success takes time as much as determination.

“You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.” – Warren Buffett

As I continued my walk I imagined what the other trees might say to the average magnolia were they to talk. (I know, it might sound odd, but that’s the sort of thing that crosses my mind especially early in the morning). Did the other trees look down on their tiny neighbor in disdain, confident in their combined successful heights like some stereotypical A-list high school clique? Or did they secretly envy the shorter tree for the wide open space around its branches as theirs were tangled with their neighbor’s?

“A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at him.” – David Brinkley

It occurred to me then why the magnolia tree had stopped growing upward. It didn’t need to reach the same heights as its neighbors to be successful. It grew where no other trees did, spreading its branches out to collect sunlight where little competition existed. The average magnolia had achieved an entirely different sort of success.

“The strongest oak of the forest is not the one that is protected from the storm and hidden from the sun. It’s the one that stands in the open where it is compelled to struggle for its existence against the winds and rains and the scorching sun.” -Napoleon Hill

And so as I finished my loop around my block, my thoughts about the magnolia tree also came full circle.

“There is a choice you have to make in everything you do. So keep in mind that in the end, the choice you make, makes you.”

“The most important key to achieving great success is to decide upon your goal and launch, get started, take action, move.”

– John Wooden

At the end of the day though it doesn’t matter if a tree grows up or out. To be successful all a tree has to do is grow a little every day. The same applies to people too.

quotes courtesy of


It helps if you buy a ticket

John, who was in financial difficulty, walked into a church and started to pray. ”Listen God,” John said. ”I know I haven’t been perfect but I really need to win the lottery. I don’t have a lot of money. Please help me out.”

He left the church, a week went by, and he hadn’t won the lottery, so he walked into a synagogue. ”Come on, God,” he said. ”I really need this money. My mom needs surgery and I have bills to pay. Please let me win the lottery.”

He left the synagogue, a week went by, and he didn’t win the lottery. So, he went to a mosque and started to pray again. ”You’re starting to disappoint me, God,” he said. ”I’ve prayed and prayed. If you just let me win the lottery, I’ll be a better person. I don’t have to win the jackpot, just enough to get me out of debt. I’ll give some to charity, even. Just let me win the lottery.”

John thought this did it, so he got up and walked outside. The clouds opened up and a booming voice said, ”John, buy a f’ing lottery ticket.”

There are a few variations on this joke out there. I found this version on at Comedy Central without specific author attribution. What I like about this version over the others is that in it, John seems like a pretty decent, open-minded guy. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to be instantly successful except for one thing – do the actual work.

There is a pretty good chance that neither you nor I were one of the lucky winners fortunate enough to share one-third of the $1.6 billion (that’s billion with a B) prize in the national lottery. Which means if we want to be successful, our only option left is to do the work. Unfortunately, in my case, this means heading out for another round of business travel. You’d think the day job would have learned by now not to send me on these sort of things. I should be back to writing as usual next week…that is unless I’ve won, in which case, I’ll still be writing, but with better scenery in the background.

It’s all relative

its relative

Background image courtesy of Unsplash

I was honored to present the following on The North Raleigh Rotary Club’s family day.

In high school, one of my English teachers gave us a creative writing assignment. We were to pick any literary classic and re-write it as a modern retelling. I thought there had been enough adaptations of stories like Romeo and Juliet. I wanted to do something different. Edgy. I picked Dante’s Inferno.

Dante’s Inferno is one of the works that make up the Divine Comedy. In it, the author is given his own personal guided tour of hell encountering various tortured souls along the way. (You know – comedy). However at its heart, it is satire, as those souls are in fact thinly veiled references to various famous people of Dante’s time.

For my retelling, I wanted to be true to the original source material, but at the same time, I didn’t exactly want to send anyone to hell. My teenaged mind got to thinking. Where would be a suitable alternative setting?

At the time of my English project, I had only participated in a handful of family reunions, although we called them something else then. They consisted of a meal with way too many people crammed into a house with too few bathrooms. You were expected to make small talk and to nod politely as someone fussed over how much taller you’d grown. (An observation, that in my case, stopped ringing true quite some time ago.) To make matters worse, there were no friends at these events. Only family.

I thought the setting was perfect.

I got to work, placing stereotypical relatives in various scenes. The end result was completely fictitious, but I thought it was hilarious. After completing the assignment, I decided to show it to my mom and stepdad and waited to hear their laughter.

None came. Instead of being amused, my stepdad almost looked hurt. As he handed me back my pages, he said, “you never put me in your writing.”

I remember thinking, did he not pick up that my characters were in a hell? He should be happy to have been left out of this story.

It took me awhile to realize that he was hurt, not because I had left him out of hell, but because I had left him out of a story about family.

I am grateful to have this opportunity to correct my slight. Not everyone is.

I was in college on September 11th. I’d met Lamont, but most of my family was hours away, including a cousin, living in Brooklyn, who no one could reach. Several hours later, I learned that my cousin had gone into town after hearing about the first crash, never expecting there to be a second crash or that the towers might come down.

My cousin was okay, but as I listened to reporters say how the world would be forever changed, all I could think of was those other people who had gotten on a plane that day or had gone into work thinking September 11th was going to be no different from September 10th and my heart went out to those they left behind. Just as it does to all those affected by any tragedy, even those that play out on a less international stage.

Tragedy teaches us that every day is precious.

The world hasn’t gotten any less scary, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Fred Rodgers, the host of one of my mom’s favorite children’s shows, once said that as a boy, when he would see scary things in the news, his mother would say, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

She was right. For every tragedy, there are stories of regular people who ran into danger instead of away from it in order to save others.

These everyday heroes create hope that good will ultimately prevail. Their stories can rally a community and make it stronger. We just have to remember to look for the right story.

After I told my family that I wanted to try writing professionally, I was given a copy of a book entitled, How to Write a Damn Good Novel. One of the best pieces of advice it offers is that before you started writing a single word, you need to identify one thing that you wholeheartedly believe and develop your story around that premise.

Well, I believe that every day has value. Even the bad ones.

My book was published. Now I didn’t just want to be an author. I wanted to be a successful one too. I once was asked to define success during a job interview. At the time, I gave the cheeky answer, to never eat Ramen Noodles again. However, I now define success as being happy with myself and with what I have.

When I started blogging, I made the conscious decision that I was going to maintain a positive site with the hope that I would attract other positive-minded people and we could grow successful together. But writing for a blog is different from writing a novel. You can’t go a year or two between publications. You are expected to regularly generate content.

I looked for inspiration. I saw my children.

Their world consists of home, school, daycare, and the occasional visit to Nana’s or a cousin’s. Some might consider their world small. And yet, to them, it is something wonderful and worth exploration. I started writing down the lessons about life my children taught me.

I became more aware of the moments. By putting my observations down in writing, I began to recall the lessons my parents, grandparents, and even Lamont had taught me, wittingly or otherwise, and as I did so, I began to develop a deeper appreciation of them. Not just for how they have supported me, but as individuals as well.

This is not to say that since starting my writing journey every day has become rainbows and lollipops. They haven’t. That’s life. Later today, traffic is going to be awful. Inevitably one kid will refuse to eat anything at all on their plate because their food either touched or wasn’t cut to their standards.

I will have plenty to complain about, but more to be grateful for.

It’s all relative.

As luck would have it, we are here

Earth as seen from Mars

Earth as seen from Mars
Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Texas A&M

Here’s a fun fact to share at your next social gathering: a Martian year is almost exactly twice as long as an Earth year. This means that unless those intrepid explorers volunteering for a one-way trip get creative with their month names, they will spend two of our Januarys, Julys, and Decembers during their new home’s single orbit around the sun.

What they are setting out to do is fairly inspiring, but if their April was anything like mine, I feel sorry for them already. It wasn’t a month I’d like to repeat.

As much as I was trying to stay upbeat (at least once a week), April did its best to knock me down. LT was suffering and I couldn’t do a thing about it. A number of things at work contributed toward my first undeniable gray hair (no, definitely not a result of my getting older). To cope, I wrote a piece about poop, which even included cussing (my blog’s PG rating be darned).

It wasn’t sure about the piece, but as my deadline approached, I was procrastinating still seeking inspiration for something better. I read a number of my next door neighbor’s status updates on Facebook. Several years ago he had visited Nepal and was superimposing his recollections of the place with news stories about the earthquake. The images of the temples reminded me of my time at the Big Buddha in Hong Kong. The updates, however, made me rethink my problems. I was still going to be able to recover from the day’s stress in the comfort of my bed. I was still able to hold my son and tell him with near certainty that things would get better. Ah, perspective.

I left the poop piece in my drafts folder (you never know when you might be in desperate need of content), and published the Stairway piece instead. As luck would have it, the next week I received word that my blog had been nominated for the Premio Dardos Award.

There are a number of blog awards that float around, awarded from one blogger to another. While they rarely have monetary value or bring you international pop-star status overnight (we really need to work on that), they are a nice way of telling your peers that their work has been noticed and is valued. I immediately looked up what this award was all about.

The Premio Dardos Award is given to bloggers who transmit cultural, ethical, literary and personal values in the form of creative and original writing.

Premio Dardos Award

Someone likes me! They really like me!

I am honored, I am humbled, I am ever so relieved I left the poop piece in the slush pile. Hmmm, I really should consider giving my blog’s content editor a raise. In fact, I will do just that. Allie, look for an additional 5% in your next paycheck!

Next, I would like to thank Antiqua A La Carte for the nomination. This site, featuring stories of life beyond the beaches of the Caribbean has been my go-to escape for cloudy days (and even some sunny days as well). I now know exactly who to call if I am ever considering trying out island life.

Now onto my nominations. Drum roll, please. They are, in alphabetical order:

Alana Munro – The Author who supports: As advertised, this site is about supporting other writers, but has also helped open my eyes to the underlying reasons behind the Scottish Independence movement.

JT Twissel: A site that has articles spanning from world travel to at-risk foster children, but still finds a way to inject humor into even the heaviest topics.

Mark My Words: Officially this is a site about the Pacific Northwest, but could just as easily be described as a site about treating yourself as you deserve to be treated whether it is diet, relationships or simply better-enjoying life.

Tastehitch: This is a hilarious site by a British ex-patriot with a fondness for food and travel, attempting to survive the early years of parenthood in a foreign land.

Yadadarcyyada – Vague Meanderings of the Broke and Obscure: A site that is very much about being true to one’s self and is filled with amusing images and several articles sharing titles with songs that routinely get stuck in my head.


Who wants some candy?

The hubby and I recently joined a new gym having accidentally forgotten to forget to go on the scale after Thanksgiving. As part of our enrollment we were given the opportunity to meet with a trainer for our free personal fitness assessment / training plan. These meetings are much like the mandatory ‘information sessions’ you are forced to attend whenever you take advantage of a resort/timeshare’s ‘free’ vacation weekend. At my day job we call these meetings “sales calls”. The only difference is the prospect is coming to you and not the other way around.

Knowing what I was getting ready to go into, I decided not to eat anything the day of my fitness assessment (because that extra pound was definitely going to make the world of difference in my BMI). Unfortunately, I am like the Incredible Hulk when I am hungry. You wouldn’t like me when I am hungry.

I arrived at my appointment armed with a basic guesstimate as to what my results would be, as my insurance premiums are directly tied to periodic health assessments. I knew I had put on a few pounds, but who hadn’t? It was the middle of the holiday season! Biff, my assigned trainer (okay that’s a fake name, but it fits), met me in the lobby and took me for a quick tour around the various implements of self-inflicted torture equipment. I then was asked to stand on something that looked like an old transporter from the original Star Trek (only with handles). LEDs flashed. Assessing… assessing… wow lady you are out of shape – I am sure glad Biff is here to help you out!

Hungry Allie no like smug Biff. Hungry Allie think transporter full of [censored]. Hungry Allie smash transporter.

From the 1978 The Incredible Hulk episode &quo...

I kept my shirt on, but you get the basic idea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Later (when my blood sugar had returned to normal) I realized I had a problem. My next insurance assessment was in January and I had been borderline for higher premiums before Thanksgiving. So I did what any person would do in my situation. I dusted off my fitbit and my myfitnesspal login, declared an embargo on sugar (except in my coffee – because me before drinking my coffee is almost as bad as me when I am hungry), cut out gluten, and limited my daily carbs to 100g. DEFCON 4!

By the time my insurance assessment came I had passed on two birthday cakes, pizza, donuts, two non-birthday cakes, and a stack of cookies. (It’s now clear as to why I put on a few). I had gritted my teeth and gone to the gym instead. All the free goodies were tempting, but the desire to prove that judgmental transporter wrong was stronger (I don’t blame Biff. He is obviously paired with a cruel and defective piece of machinery).

Ultimately, I won this particular battle. (In your electronic face, transporter!) I may still borderline, but thanks to my hard work and sacrifice, I managed to stay in my insurance group. I earned my right to celebrate. During my victory lap, one of my colleagues congratulated me and offered me some candy from her stash.

I found myself hesitating. Why? My goal was achieved. I didn’t have to hold back from the sweets any longer. I wouldn’t be cheating on myself by enjoying a little snack, and yet I found that I almost didn’t want it. That first easy snack to cross my way just didn’t seem a worthy reflection of my effort.

Part of me didn’t want my goal to end. I had achieved what I set out to do, but I knew I could be so much better if I just kept working.

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

Small rewards add up (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had to then recognize that my ‘better’ didn’t have a deadline associated with it. It was a vision, but not a goal. Sure I have a number in mind, but no good plan to get there. I could keep doing what I had been doing, but that was a knee jerk response to an immediate problem. It isn’t a sustainable lifestyle change (at least not for me). I know I would eventually fail. Even worse, I would miss out on the small rewards I could have enjoyed along the way.

As most writers will tell you, there comes a point when you have to hit the submit button on your manuscript (or otherwise show your work to the world). Could you have written (or executed) it better? If your answer is “umm…maybe” and not a solid “yes,” move on and do so with the next one. I have my vision. It is time to set a new supporting goal and execute on it. I celebrated my small win.

Yes – I ate that chocolate (it really was the polite thing to do), and the next day I hit the gym again. When the next cake comes around, I will be ready. On to the next goal.