Flash Fiction: A Different Light

Mary Lou sank the trowel into the soft ground, digging down to sever the root of the offending dandelion. Several of the weeds sported bright yellow flowers and she found herself feeling a bit sad that she was removing these vivid spots of color from her brown lawn right in the middle of winter. Still, she knew that it was a gift to have such an unseasonably warm February day to attend to this task as well as the time to garden on a weekday when most other people had to reserve their precious weekends to get their hands in the soil. She was retired now and could do this sort of work whenever she wanted, which felt good. She sighed. Too bad it had taken Jacob’s death to finally motivate her to seize the moment. 

She felt a surge of sadness well up inside of her. Jacob, her beloved only son, who had died just three years before in an auto accident on a rainy afternoon. Her sweet boy driving a little too fast on a rain-slick road, hitting the brakes one second too late as a light changed. When he slid into that intersection had he known this was his last moment on earth or had he been looking the other way when the car plowed right into his driver’s side door?  Had he felt any pain?  Had he suffered for a few unbearable seconds? She had run the scene over a million times in her head: Jacob driving along, probably singing to a song on the radio, one minute full of life and the next, lying dead. The authorities told her he had died on impact. She hoped to heaven that he had. Mary Lou felt the familiar tears wet her cheeks and used the back of her sleeve to wipe them away. She didn’t want her husband to see that she’d been crying again, not on this glorious February day.

As Mary Lou leaned back on her heels to rest, she noticed a slight movement in the grass not far from where she was working. Peering closer, she saw a slim snake not two feet away. He was young, no longer than 10 inches, with brown skin and two beige stripes spanning the length of his body. Mary Lou suspected this was a common garter snake and posed no harm to her, but since she was, as a rule, afraid of any slithering reptile, she normally would have run for a hoe. Today, however, she found herself strangely more sympathetic than fearful. This little fellow seemed to be enjoying the warm sun as much as she was, simply lying in an S-shape, his coloring blending with the winter grass and bare ground. She marveled at the how perfectly he was protected with that design, the fact that she had noticed him at all was only because of his slight movement.

She went back to her weeding, filling her bucket with dandelions, forming a growing concentric swirl of green. Unlike the beige lines on the little snake’s body, so straight and color coordinated with its brown skin, these leaves were irregular in size and shape, with stems of varying lengths. They veritably screamed, “Weed!” as if to inform the public of the menace they presented. She had read, though, that eating the leaves directly or brewing them into a tea was an aid to digestion. How odd that thought was: a pernicious weed, the bane of any lawn or garden, helping the people who were trying so hard to eradicate it – but only if they were aware of its benefit hidden deep inside.  

The sun was sinking in the west when Mary Lou, back stiff from bending, gathered up her trowel and buckets and headed off to toss her afternoon’s labor into the garden bin in the alley. On her way, she stopped near the spot where she had seen the little snake earlier and peered in the grass to see if she could again spot him. All she could see was the beige of the winter grass and the dark brown on the ground underneath. He was now safely hidden from any predators, including herself, who might harm him. 

Once in the alley, she took a handful of the dandelion plants, shook them to remove any dirt, and put them back in her bucket. After she had the chance to wash them, she’d see if there was some truth to them being helpful for indigestion. She had been plagued with a nightly stomach ache ever since Jacob’s death; something she had accepted as part of her grieving process. But maybe it was time to learn from nature. Maybe it was possible that something unexpected could be healing if she saw it in a different light. She thought of that little snake no doubt now safe in its den. Her dear Jacob was safe as well.  Not in the way she would have ever wished, god forbid, but out of harm’s way, nonetheless. 

She sighed as she admired the crimson sunset that splashed over the western sky. “A different light indeed,” she whispered, then felt quietly at peace.

Congratulations to My Students Who Are Regional Winners in the Scholastic Artists and Writers Contest

I am very pleased to announce that I have three writing students who have won awards in the Scholastic Artists and Writers contest, the oldest and most prestigious writing contest for youth in the United States. These regional winners competed with writers from many states for this highly coveted recognition. Nationally, this contest draws around 350,000 entries; therefore, any acknowledgment means the judges viewed the work as exceptional. The truth is that I believe all of my students’ work is outstanding or else I wouldn’t encourage them to submit it. Alas, the judging of writing is highly subjective and therefore not everyone receives the recognition I believe they deserve. These three, however, struck a chord with the judges and can feel proud that their hard work has paid off. I am very proud of them!

Sophie Megaw has won a regional Gold Key in the Western Division for her personal essay, “The Other.” Sophie is a senior at Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. Her essay will go on to the national competition. National Gold Key winners will be invited to attend an award ceremony at Carnegie Hall in late spring. Past Gold Key recipients include an impressive “Who’s Who” of writers and artists, including Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Avedon, Lena Dunham and Zac Posen.

I’m wishing you luck, Sophie, in the national competition. Fingers are crossed!

Sophie Megaw


Tiger Schenkman has won a regional Honorable Mention in the Western Division for her personal essay, “The Kiss.” Tiger is a senior at the Los Angeles Zoo Magnate (the perfect school given her name). Her essay will also be published in the upcoming issue of the Story Circle Network Journal.

Tiger Schenkman

Giselle King also won an Honorable Mention for her personal essay, “Poco a Poco.” Giselle won a regional award in the Midwest region since her home is in Alpena, Michigan, where she is homeschooled. Giselle and I have never met, but we have worked on the telephone on her writing (with a shared google document) for several years now. She and her twin sister, Lara, have both been my writing students and both will have writing featured in the newly released Real Women Write Anthology published by Story Circle Network.

Giselle King

Congratulations to all three of these young women. Believe me, the world is a better place with these three in it. They are not only smart, articulate and lovely but also three of the nicest people I’ve met in a very long time.

Hooray!

The Mixed Blessings of California Rain

When Ray and I first moved to Los Angeles twenty-five years ago, we made fun of the TV weather coverage of rain. A reporter, decked out in a yellow slicker and matching boots, appeared on the television screen and spoke in cataclysmic terms about the threat of 1-2 inches of precipitation. Ray and I shook our heads. “They should see a Texas rain,” Ray’d say. “They wouldn’t know what to do with a tornado,” I’d add. 

Having grown up in North Central Texas, part of tornado alley. I knew the fear of gray-green clouds and high winds and the sight of a funnel cloud off in the distance.  And yet, as a general rule, I had always thought of rain as comforting, soothing, a blessing so crops and plants could grow, lakes could fill and groundwater levels could stay well-replenish. I had never associated rain with anxiety or outright fear. Now, having lived in SoCal for this long, I am aware that those news reporters knew something I did not. It only takes a few inches of rain here to produce mudslides, particularly on parched land or burn areas and with mudslides, rocks and houses can slip down a hillside, causing not only physical damage but also death. 

Two days ago, when the rain started, I read that due to flash flood warnings, mandatory evacuation orders had been issued in parts of LA, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. After the wild fires earlier this year and last, the vegetation-free hillsides are dangerously prone to mudslides. Last January after the Thomas fire, Montecito had a devastating mudslide that resulted in 23 deaths and the loss of 100 homes. Over the past two days, residents of those same areas have been told by county authorities to “Gather family members, pets, and essential items” since debris flow could make roads impassable. Malibu, ravaged by the Woolsey fire this past November, has closed all schools in anticipation of flash floods and mud slides.

Ironically, Southern California has been suffering from a severe drought for several years now and we are badly in need of rain. However, rain brings mudslides; no rain brings wild fires. Nature’s balance is clearly off. Experts say the higher temperatures from global warming are contributing to the flammable conditions that create brush fires. We have much work to do to help Mother Nature.

As a now seasoned Californian, I have learned that different parts of the country have unique perils. A few inches of rain on fire-damaged hillsides can be as dangerous as a small tornado skipping across the prairie. Both are unpredictable and can produce heartbreaking consequences. 

I am hopeful these next few days will be safe ones for all those folks who have evacuated from their homes. Hopefully, the showers will be gentle enough to give us much-needed moisture without bringing unnecessary pain. 

Happy 33rd Birthday, Liz!

Elizabeth Beaty, my middle daughter, is 33 years old today, the exact age I was when I had her. She and I went to a wedding last week together and this is a photo taken of us:

Liz is smart, funny and opinionated. She is also devoted and dedicated to people who are lucky enough to have her in their lives. She works hard, loves hard and laughs hard. She can make the worst curmudgeon break out in a grin with that laugh of hers.

Happy birthday, sweet Liz. I look forward to our celebration this upcoming weekend. Here’s to a great upcoming year. Keep up the fun, adventure and living life on your own terms, honey. You’re on a roll.

Hoping to Stave Off the Flu

Ray has been sick for the past several days with a high fever, deep chest cough and general flu symptoms. He is on the mend as of today with normal temperature (at least so far) and an occasional cough that is still deep, but far from the wrenching hack that he had been experiencing. I’m glad to see him with a little life back in him. He’s spent the last few days dozing on and off in a dark room with no desire even to watch tv. Occasionally, he has looked up at me and said with a resigned tone, “This is what you’re going to look like in just a few days.”

Of course, I’m hoping he’s wrong for the obvious reason. Nobody wants to be sick and especially that sick. (I will admit that a little tiny bit of illness can sometimes be nice since it gives you the perfect excuse to just rest for a day.) However, this has not been a little cold or a mild headache. He had had what can only be described as the bona fide flu. Therein lies the rub: influenza is notoriously contagious and I have definitely been exposed.

The real problem – beyond just not wanting to be sick – is that this weekend is grandson Nico’s 3rd birthday and we have a big birthday celebration planned at a beach house in Ensenada, Mexico. Our family will be joined there by Nico’s other grandparents along with his aunt, uncle and first cousin for a cookout and party on Sunday afternoon. Clearly, I do not want to miss this event or be laid up in a bedroom with the flu while everyone else is outside on the beach having fun. (Ray will surely be completely fine by then.) So, with that in mind, I am doubly motivated to add a few preventative measures to my day.

First, I made a turkey and vegetable stew packed full of fresh vegetables so I could get as many vitamins in my body as possible. Second, I’ve been scrubbing my hands with lots of soap as if I’m going in to perform surgery on some poor soul. Third, I’ve been drinking lots and lots of liquids to flush out any pesky germs that might be hanging around hoping to wander to my chest and get started multiplying down there.

I usually think I’m going to make it through flu season unscathed, only to find myself suddenly jumping out of our car and throwing up in a nearby bush because my temperature just spiked. Alas, let’s hope that is not the case this time.

Wish me luck. Send Ray a few good thoughts too. He is not quite out of the woods yet. I can hear him coughing upstairs right now and I suspect, since it’s the end of the day, his temperature may be edging back up. Tomorrow surely he will be well. As for me, I will keep the preventative measures rolling.

After all, we have a three-year-old’s birthday to celebrate. That is all the motivation I need.

Moving Forward, One Student at a Time

We are back home in LA and today has been a student day for me. I worked all morning with one of my longstanding students, Elijah, who is now applying to law school. He and I go back to his high school days when I helped him with his English term papers. Since then, he’s gone off to college, graduated, worked a couple of years and is now back with me.

Today, we were in our final edit of his law school personal statement and finally got it right after a slow and frustrating revision of one lone paragraph. When we finally got it just the way we wanted and then made corresponding minor adjustments throughout the paper, Elijah read the essay one last time for me. I started tearing up in the middle and let out a good long sob there at the end. It’s true, the essay is exceptional (I am a decent judge even if I had my hand in helping with it), but that sob may have also been an expression of my love/pride/connection with this boy who is now a young man. He will go to law school with the help of this fine essay and then he’ll go on to build a life for himself. We will have fewer and fewer occasions to work together, which makes me a bit sad, but I will always carry this sweet relationship with me.

Elijah, like so many before him, represents the best of my time with students. We have worked long hours together, dissolved into laughing fits together and even cried together. One of our most poignant moments was when I helped him compose the speech he was to deliver in his role as the captain of his high school soccer team after the untimely death of his beloved assistant coach. We cried that day indeed. And we both shed a tear or two again today in sheer relief that this piece we’ve crafted with such care has evolved from a jumble of disjointed paragraphs to a living, breathing statement of how Elijah has dealt with past difficulties and how those challenges inform his life today. Hallelujah.

I understand how wonderful it is that I have had the opportunity to share in the lives of a series of teenagers over the years. Many of these teens are now full-fledge adults, finished with college and/or graduate school and out in the world working. That certainly is an indicator of my longevity in this odd little niche I stumbled upon almost twenty years ago. I am also exceptionally fortunate because some of these “kids” have become real friends rather than simply students. We have stayed in touch over the years and rendezvous for catch-up visits when we can. That is when I understand that my job has been more than helping with the grammar or structure or the content of a paper. Instead, that paper has been the vehicle by which that student and I could push beyond the conventional barriers that would normally divide us and instead come together as two human beings with shared thoughts, feelings and experiences.

I know for certain that Elijah will soon step into a new phase of his life. I wish him well and will keep him close to my heart. Here’s to the goodness of human connection.

Heading Back to LA

After an idyllic week up at the orange grove in Ojai, Ray and I are headed back to LA this evening. I have students all day tomorrow and then a wedding on Friday before more students on Saturday.

Life is good. We are both rested and relaxed and looking forward to the adventures 2019 promises to bring.

I am very happy we had the chance to spend this much time at the orange grove. Usually we are only here for a day or two before heading back to LA. This much time has been a real treat.

We are headed to a restaurant to have dinner with Liz and Ron before making the trek. We will get to hear all about their recent trip to Mexico.

That’s a nice way to say adios to our stay here.

Off we go!

Flash Fiction, Memoir and Essay

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