Category Archives: Writing

When Life Hits Hard

I learned today that a friend of mine has been diagnosed with ALS.  She and her husband are writers and have been chronicling this experience for several months, though today was the day they announced it out in the world.  Their journal entries, which they have shared with friends, are so full of love, pain, and down-to-the-guts honesty that I feel not only privileged to be allowed such access but also awe-struck at their bravery as they face this passage in their lives. I know the whole family and we have all cooked breakfast together for the homeless at our “Breakfast Club” on more than one occasion in years past. They are special people, each of them, and they certainly deserve any kind thought or small prayer you may have to offer up.

At a time like this, my inclination is to turn to Mary Oliver, who sometimes says the words that help express how I feel.

Heavy by Mary Oliver

That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer,
and I did not die.
Surely God
had his hand in this,

as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said,

was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel,
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it –
books, bricks, grief –
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?

Have you heard
the laughter
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?

How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe

also troubled –
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
a love
to which there is no reply?

— “Heavy” by Mary Oliver from Thirst.

54cc869747c2b5ab5e3def013297d8fe.jpg

Repost: To My Dad for Father’s Day

I wrote this piece several years ago, but on the eve of Father’s Day I can’t help but want to share it again. My dad was a very good man, which, I believe, is reflected in this piece. He was born and bred in Texas and had a way of expressing himself that reflected his Texas roots. I feel as if I can hear him in this piece, which is one of the reasons that I love it.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy.  I hold you close to my heart every day.

 

“Have I told you today how much I love you?” This was a question my father asked me every day I was growing up.

“I love you, too, Daddy,” I said, and I did. My father was the handsomest, nicest man I knew and he smelled good, too. A combination of Old Spice, Listerine, and unfiltered Camels. I’d come up and hug him tight just to breathe him in.

My father was fifty when I was born. I was the fifth out of seven children, the only daughter beside my sister Leslie, who was eleven years older. By the time I came along, Daddy was ready for a baby girl again.

One of my earliest memories was a family outing to see a movie at the Bonham drive-in. “Come on over here, Tootsie Roll,” he said. “I bet you’d like to drive.” I crawled into Daddy’s lap, leaning back against his warm chest, his hands on top of my hands as I guided the car down the highway. I felt so big.

My father owned a livestock commission business, a barn where cattle, hogs and horses were brought in weekly from the three surrounding counties to be auctioned off to farmers and ranchers. On sale days, he sat in his brown paneled office at the back and entertained his best customers. They smoked cigarettes, swapped stories and told jokes.

When I walked into Daddy’s office, all the men stopped talking and turned their attention to me. “Well, howdy, little lady,” John Daniels, Daddy’s barn manager, would say, tipping his cowboy hat, “You’re looking awful pretty today.”

My father would wrap me up in a hug. “She’s a jim dandy, isn’t she, boys?”

The men looked at me with friendly eyes. “She’s a little jewel. Ain’t no doubt about it.”

I liked those men with their sweat-streaked cowboy hats and cigarettes dangling from their lips. They felt solid and good to me, like my daddy.

When I was ten or eleven, Daddy would say to me in late afternoons, “Come go with me to feed the cows.” We’d drive from our house in our old pickup and listen to Patsy Cline on the radio with the windows down. We’d usually stop at a little gas station along the way and get a Coke and some peanuts. We’d drive the old pickup past the barn and down the dirt road to the pasture. Once we got out there, I’d climb behind the wheel of that old Ford truck with the gear shift on the column and buck and grind down the pasture to the pool.

“Honk and let’em know we’re coming, honey,” Daddy’d say as we bumped along the dirt road. I’d hit the high-pitched horn five or six times and watch as the cows looked up and started following us.

“Soo-ey,” my dad would call from the window. “Soo-ey.” And the cows would follow just like the rats with the Piper from Hamlin.

My dad got sick in early November of my freshmen year at the University of Texas. He was diagnosed with inoperable oat cell carcinoma caused from smoking. I went home as often as I could over the next few months to spend time with him. A few weeks away from his seventieth birthday, I arrived again for the weekend. We spent time together watching Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and all of his favorite television shows. Just as I was about to leave to go back to school late Sunday afternoon, he patted the bed next to him. “Sit down, Tootsie Roll, I want to talk to you for a second.”

He looked so thin, so sick. I felt a terrible sadness wash over me.

“Now, honey, this old dog’s not gonna hunt much longer. You know that, don’t you?”

My throat tightened and tears stung my eyes. “No, daddy, that’s not true.”

He took my hand. “Yes, it is true, and we both know it.”

Tears rolled down my cheeks. He squeezed my hand tight.

“There’s something I want you to remember, no matter what. Okay?

I nodded, unable to speak.

There hasn’t been a day of your life that I haven’t loved you. Not one minute of one day.” He lifted my hand up to his lips and kissed it. “And that love never goes away, you understand that?”

I leaned over and hugged him, breathing in that smell of his. “I love you, Daddy,” I whispered.

The next night my father slipped into a coma. He died a few hours later.

***

Every day of my life, I look at my three children and say, “Have I told you today that I love you?”

“I love you, too,” they each say, and come close to get a hug.

Each day I think of my father’s words and know their truth. His love is always there. It will never go away.

My dad is the only one without a hat in this photo.

Daddy

Repost: Letter to a Long-Dead Friend

I was thinking about your death the other day. About how you had been reluctant to let me know you had lung cancer, and then pretended you were getting better just before you died. I was disappointed that you didn’t trust me enough to tell me the truth, or was it that you just couldn’t tell yourself the truth? I guess I’ll never know. It seemed more than coincidental that you died on the day that your propane tank ran out. But then again, you always were a practical sort.

We arrived two days later in the dead of winter in northeastern Missouri and met your sons at your home. They had missed your death by a few hours because they had gotten stoned on the way to the Houston airport and missed their flight. Your daughter-in-law who stayed at home swore she saw you walking in her backyard at the exact time that you passed away. I wondered about that since you had made it clear to me that she wasn’t high on your list of favorite people, and as a new ghost couldn’t you have chosen instead that old Chevy van your boys were driving ever so slowly? They would have been happy to see you.

I think you would have been pleased with the turnout of the Amish who came to pay their respects. They clearly appreciated the time you had spent driving them to and fro to town or to weddings or funerals in your van. They came that cold night in dark blues and blacks, the women in their bonnets and shawls, the men in their waistcoats and dress pants, the children little miniatures of their parents. They stood in a circle round your dining room table where you lay in state in one of their homemade pine coffins. They remained there in silence for several minutes before the women turned and started serving the pies and cakes they had brought and filling big mugs with steaming coffee that we had brewed up for the occasion. The Amish were in no hurry to leave. They stood in small groups and chatted among themselves, leaving us “English” to do the same. After an hour or so, they headed out into the cold to their horses and buggies and quietly climbed inside. The sky was cold and clear with no city lights obscuring the view of the Milky Way or Orion. The air was clean as it had followed the same path you had when you’d tried to outrun your past, first in Canada and then in the US.

Back inside, I sat with your family and friends around the kitchen table and we told stories of you and your exploits. How you’d pulled drowned rats out of the cistern of that very house when you’d moved in and only boiled the water for a day or two before deciding that was good enough. How your dog had kept you warm when you’d fallen two nights prior, before a friend had discovered you prone on your kitchen floor, in the coma from which you would not emerge. How when my husband and your younger son were moving your body from the undertaker’s van into the house, your son broke down in tears and left my husband holding all 5’ 8” and 150 pounds of you in his arms, dead-weight. “She had the last laugh, for sure,” he said, knowing too well what a love/hate relationship you two had had.

I couldn’t believe you were dead so soon, only 64, when you had survived so much: World War II in Germany, the dual suicides of your parents when the Russians invaded, the “scales falling from your eyes” when the camps were liberated and a Jewish woman knocked on your door to ask if you had a comb, the years post-War as a German woman in England with a sadistic new husband who hated your German sons. How could something as small as the endless cigarettes you smoked finally succeed in bringing you down?

You knew I was angry that you had harshly disciplined my oldest daughter when she had “misbehaved.” You narrowed your eyes when I said, “If you ever touch her or any of my children again in anger, I will throw you out of my house without a word.” Perhaps that’s why you didn’t want to tell me about your illness. Maybe you thought my reaction was overly dramatic. After all, your second husband had thrust your oldest son in a water barrel and held him there by his heels. You said you picked up a brick to hit him, but he brought the child up out of the water just in time. Perhaps you thought that spanking with a board or a light slap to the face were nothing in comparison. You surely could tell that I didn’t give a good god damn what you thought when it came to the welfare of my children.

The day of your funeral was cold and gray and filled with the sound of horses and buggies as the Amish formed a procession to their cemetery. They had already dug your grave in that cold ground before we came and then used ropes to lower your casket into the earth while we watched. Each person walked by and tossed a handful of dirt on top of your casket and then all the men grabbed shovels and quickly filled in the hole. I knew you’d be pleased that you were on top of a hill looking out on pasture land; that the Amish made an exception and allowed you, an English driver, to be buried among them; that your closest family and friends were there to see you properly planted.

I do miss you. I miss your passion and vigor; your gypsy nature and sense of adventure. Your big laugh, gold-sprinkled front tooth, your deep-blue eyes.
You were the first woman I’d ever met who lived life like a man, never limiting your vision or considering a task too big. I loved that you traveled cross-country without a thought; kept a German shepherd as a guard dog so you could walk at night whenever and wherever you pleased. I admired how free you were of all the fears that women share. Of strangers, dark alleys, and breakdowns on a lonely road.

Not you.

Too bad your temper got the best of you when it came to my kids. That breach was not an easy one to mend no matter how deep our affection. After all, it required looking a situation straight in the face and naming what was going on.

Trusting in the truth.

I hope you wander across that pasture land and enjoy the open country and the bright shimmering stars. You deserve some freedom and peace after that life of yours. You deserve some peace indeed.

amish

Happy Holiday

Ray and I have just returned to LA and at this moment, I really should go to sleep.  It is 9:24 pm here and 5:24 am on Friday in London, meaning I’ve been up 23 hours since I got up in London at 6:30 am on Thursday morning.  Before I head upstairs, however, I wanted to say that I’ve had a wonderful vacation with lots of walking, lots of art and lots of time spent with family and friends. The weather in both Barcelona and London was really lovely.  Though it rained on and off, we had our trusty umbrellas and the weather was nice and cool. This was in contrast to other parts of Spain that were described as already hot by some fellow travelers with whom I chatted today at the airport.  London was absolutely glorious weather-wise with mid-70s temperatures and blue skies and there were loads of people basking in the sun in all the parks and sidewalk cafes in every part of the city where we visited.

We traveled around both cities using the subway systems and just today, we took the tube to Victoria Station, jumped on the train to Gatwick, flew on a plane to the US, took a bus to the car park, and then drove home in our car.  Yesterday, we took a river bus to a dock right next to the Tate Modern, which was pretty darned cool.  Here’s to good public transportation!  We didn’t ride in any double-decker buses while in London, however. We’ll have to do that next trip.

I am happy to be home.  We have been zipping around for almost two weeks and that is quite plenty for me. I am delighted to be back with my puppies (thank you, Ian Elliot Davies, for watching them) and am looking forward to crawling into my own bed.

The highlights of the trip?  Exploring Barcelona with my children, son-in-law, and grandchildren absolutely tops the list. Also, all things Gaudi, the Miro Museum, along with the pure beauty of Barcelona itself.  In London?  Seeing my nephew Jim, staying in our friends’ lovely home and having time to visit, the Thomas Cole and Ed Ruscha exhibitions at the National Gallery and the entire Tate Modern.  Plus, I’d have to throw in a lively evening discussion led by Father David Peebles at St. George’s, Bloomsbury about how we, as Christians, can relate to the world’s religions

I only wish I could have seen my Welsh friends.  We have to plan that for another trip.

And on that note, I will close.  My eyelids are growing heavy and my bed is calling.

I’ll check back in with you again tomorrow.

View of London from the River Bus

IMG_3841

 

A Little Chat from the Masters at the Tate Modern

Yesterday, Ray and I spent the afternoon at The Tate Modern Art Museum.  We both have been there before, but somehow it felt new and different this time round. (Maybe I was less tired and harried.)  The building itself is beautiful with exposed support beams, lots of concrete and glass, and a view of London from the tenth-floor terrace that is jaw-dropping.  It could be argued the building alone is worth the visit, at least from my point-of-view. But the art, wow, now that is something else.

I go into an art museum with an inquiring mind.  I am there to experience the art, but also to learn what I can read about the artist and his/her techniques, point-of-view, historical perspective, etc. Some museums are better at providing this information than others; the Tate Modern is in the category of excellent regarding this educational aspect.  For example, yesterday, I wandered into a room where the focus was on the studio of the artist and here are a few examples of what I saw and learned:

Why is this important, you may ask?  Because not only do I see an everyday scene from 1915, but I also learn that Bonnard valued painting intimate parts of his life.  As a writer, this helps me to see the benefit in writing about the little things in my life, which reflect what is important to me.

Here is another:

Here is Picasso’s studio in 1955.  Why is this interesting to me?  Because I learn that Picasso created twelve different paintings of this studio over the time he lived there, helping me to see that you can use the same subject matter over and over and view it each time from a different perspective. As a writer, it’s easy to dismiss the idea of repeating a story or a memory because you’ve “already told that one.” Picasso’s repetition of the same material helps me to see that I can learn from looking at a story or memoir piece from different angles to expose other layers of truth.

Here’s one more:

Matisse did this same bronze of the back of a woman four times over his lifetime, reflecting his different perspective as he aged. The last piece remained in his studio until he died.  This helps me to understand that exploring different parts of my life at different times in my life will provide new perspectives on those events. What I created at twenty may look very different than what I may create in my sixties. No better, no worse. Simply a different perspective based on time and experience. There is freedom in that realization for me. Sometimes I think, “There’s no reason to rehash that. I’ve done that already.” Which may be true in some cases.  The subject may feel resolved and consequently closed. However, there are other topics that may have been explored, but still feel unresolved. Venturing back down that path may indeed bring fruitful results since time and experience may offer an awareness I previously could not have attained.

So, these art museum forays are for me a way to commune not just with the art, but also with the artists. To learn from his/her process and to open my heart and mind to guidance that comes from their wisdom. I left the Tate Modern yesterday feeling more heartened about my writing than I have felt in a long time.  As if I had been sat down and given a pep talk by the likes of Bonnard, Picasso and Matisse, only to mention a few.

Today we will return to explore the International Surrealist rooms, which are many.  I am excited.

I will check back in tomorrow and let you know how it went.

My Writing Student Honored by State of Michigan!

My student Lara King wrote me tonight and sent me these two photos. One is of a  certificate issued by the State of Michigan, honoring her for her national Silver Medal in the Personal Essay category of the Scholastic Artists and Writers competition.  The second is of Lara with her State Representative, Sue Allor.

Lara wrote, “I’m going to make you famous in Michigan.” Ha!  I could not be more pleased.  Lara’s essay was in the top 1% of the 350,000 entries in the oldest and most prestigious art and writing contest for youth in the United States.  She joins Truman Capote, Saul Bellow, Joyce Carol Oates, to name only a few, who have been honored on the national level in this contest, which was started in 1925.

Congratulations, Lara!  I am pleased and proud to be mentioned in this certificate.  What a treat!  Thank you, Michigan!

Big hugs, my dear. Well deserved.  You did a bang-up job on that essay.  It is a champ and so are you.

State of Michigan

Lara King and Sue Allor, Michigan State Representative

Lara

Getting Ready for a Big Trip

My happy news is that on Sunday evening, Ray, Rachael and I are heading off to Barcelona to meet up with Liz, Sarah, Gregorio, Luna and Nico. (We are flying different airlines since we booked our trips a few days apart.)  Our kids and grandkids have a wedding to attend in Switzerland; Ray and I are tagging along for the Barcelona part of the trip just for the fun of it. I would say I am excited – well, I AM excited – but I must admit I am ready for the trip preparation to be over so I can just relax.

This evening, I went to six different stores and tried on at least 25 different shoes just to find a comfortable pair of tennis shoes for the trip.  Lord, Lord, I am NOT  a shopper.  In fact, that was more shopping than I’ve done since Christmas and then I only went to three stores, not six.  These short, wide feet, however, are not the easiest to find shoes for. When I was growing up, my mother just gave up and put me in high top basketball shoes. Her response to my words of protest: “Maybe you’ll start a new trend.”  Well, it is true that girls now wear high tops all the time with their skirts and dresses, but I ‘m pretty sure that I was not the trendsetter back in 1964.  Maybe my mother had a vision that I just couldn’t see!

Alas, I found some lace-up, extra wide black Skechers (my new favorite brand) with memory foam. Even better, I stumbled upon a sale where I got one pair of shoes for a discounted price and the other pair for 50% off its discounted price.  Score.  That was, of course, the very last store I went to at 9:45 after leaving home 3 hours earlier.

Still, I now have my new tennis shoes plus a pair of sandals for the trip.  Hopefully, these will allow me to keep up with Luna and Nico as we explore Barcelona.  Yes, I truly am excited.

On that note, I’ll take my shopping-weary self up to bed.

I’ll check back in again tomorrow.

skechers-flex-appeal-20-break-free-1