Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Word is "Love"

You don't need to be Superman to have super powers.

My friend Mindy wrote on our word this week about a guy who loved without obligation. You should read that first.

***

My oldest sister, who knew him before he was a raging drunk, says my dad was stupid in love with my mom. Totally gaga. He had to be. The one thing he ever did to defy his mother was to marry mine.

And everything was peachy until something came between him and his true love. Took her time. Divided her loyalties. Broke up his ideal life of a woman in total devotion to him. We happened to him. His children.

Some of us fared better than others.

I didn't have the worst of it by a long shot. He treated me, when he was paying any attention at all, as a kind of toy. I was a talking yo-yo, or maybe a smart set of jacks. He could use me to amaze the trashy women he flirted with at the bar we frequented while my mother earned money for the family.

"She's a little cutie, Jim. I'm gonna buy her some peanuts." From toy to circus monkey.

Worst was when Daddy used me like a marionette, pulling the strings to dance me around like a favorite in order to torment another sibling. Too little to understand the manipulation, I was made a partner in his cruelty.

Although this business wasn't the reason I only had one child, I have often thought it a blessing I couldn't repeat that little Punch and Judy show with my own kids.

***

I married Clark Kent.

It's true. Glasses on his face, affable smile, and mild-mannered down to his sensible shoes.

From the day we met, he loved me so much it was fearsome to behold. Totally gaga. So in love, he wouldn't protect himself from the love and openly told me how he couldn't believe I was with him. He bared his heart in his chest and stuck my hand inside, pressing my fingers around the pulsing muscular lump of it. Every beat said It's yours.

Wake in the night to whispers in my ear. "Are you sure you want to marry me?"

I was sure. I did.

And we had a child. And here is where I became suspicious that he was wearing red and blue tights underneath his clothes.

He was smitten. Knocked out crazy over the moon gaga over that girl.

"I can't believe how lucky I am."

Every minute of his life as a father has been the antithesis of what my own Daddy represented. He gave our daughter so much -- support, guidance, unconditional love. Best of all, he loves her mother. He never made being a family a game of musical chairs where one could find herself on the outside looking in, wishing for love and respect.

It's his birthday this week. This is my present for my Clark Kent. Thank you, honey. I'm still sure.

Friday, January 03, 2014

The Word is "Waiting"

Every December, Adrian takes off between Christmas and New Year's Day. This year, he doesn't go back until Monday, 6 January. Since 2007, I have been on break from classes every Christmas, too. We huddle on the couch in our pajamas, binge watch some good TV series or movies, and eat too much.

I graduated in May of 2013. There are no natural breaks in my year since I became a novelist. I grant my own vacations. So, I have taken a break from writing, except for these prompts from my writing group. The word is "Waiting."

I am, by nature, an active waiter. When I am at the pharmacy, I pull out my iPad and read or write. If I am ready for someone to pick me up at home, I clean things while checking the window occasionally. I even tidy up my makeup drawer while stuck timing my hair color. Twenty minutes is just about right.

It would seem I have to be puttering around all the time. Busy, busy.

But I don't.

I can sit and stare out the window or lie about on the deck on a chaise lounge, weather permitting, and just be there, doing nothing more than breathing and noticing the sights and sounds around me.

I am able to close my eyes in just about any situation and meditate my way into a calm state that reduces pain.

Sitting and staring in nature came to me when I spent lots of time as a child up a tree. Because of my age, I was between groups of kids in my rural home. I don't socialize well or gladly. I spent a lot of time alone.

The first years, I would wander on the ground under the trees on my grandparents' farm or in the fields on their out-lying property. I was earth-bound, a natural putterer. My grandmother Tommie encouraged me to branch out. She showed me how to get under the house with a casual, "Watch out for snakes. Make noise." She led me to the attic access and told me how to step on the rafters. My first high spot was a window in that attic. From there, I could see Tommie and Granddaddy taking the afternoon rest under a maple tree as they read the newspaper.

Years later, my grandparents retired from farming to their smaller house up on the hill, the one I had lived in when they farmed. The property had, and still has, the most amazing black oak trees. In a community with no two-story houses, the attic of the farmhouse had seemed high. On the hill, those trees were the top of the world, as I knew it.

Still fearless for me when I couldn't be for myself, Tommie instructed me in the art of climbing a tree. Pick a low limb with a forked branch that will hold your weight. Grab each branch, facing into the fork. Let your weight fall back as you throw your feet up into the space between your arms and the forked branch. Wrap your knees around the branch. Hook your toes around the limbs and use your thigh muscles to assist your arms as they pull you into the tree. Stand up from the sitting position and feel for a limb above you to steady you as you walk the limb up to the trunk of the tree.


Find a perch.

Watch and wait.

And the tree will talk to you. The stories a tree will tell can wait for another word prompt.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Word is "Vulnerable"

It is the cold time.

When I think on Keeling from here in my life that has run from poverty past sufficient to plenty, I think of summers, with blackberries found on spider-ridden brambles or of trees that harbor all manner of insects but usually something outstanding like locusts that shed their skins when they grow out of their previous selves.

Sometimes it is spring that I snatch from my brain's long thing gray lines of axons and dendrites--cobwebby and spidery at the same time. If spring, it is buttercups--single, doubles and scrambled egg ones--that my grandmother Tommie says were spread down Hwy 70 when the state put the road in across the front of her daddy's land, taking their front yard and its many drifts of bulbs and redistributing it for miles. Years later, buttercups lined the road a ways down where I lived in a house trailer on family land.

I rarely think of cold times. Funny how I can think of the many fireplaces and wood stoves, another favorite recall, without drawing a line to the chill air that drives us to them. But wood stoves were also for cooking, and I usually prefer to jump that particular synapse, which leads inevitably to strong coffee in a tin pot, biscuits, and the safe, gentle woodsmoke smell of Granddaddy.

If I took the other path at the memory junction of cold times, it would lead to electric heaters that must be kept clear of all paper and cloth so they won't send the trailer up in flames. I learned, when our neighbor lost his, that a trailer home is the most efficient incinerator outside of a crematorium. All heat and combustion is directed inside, with only the exploded windows to leak out any flames. And they are too busy respirating the whole conflagration. Hungry fire sucks and sucks oxygen. Everything inside the metal walls is dust by time the volunteer truck arrives. Walls melt. Only the iron undercarriage lasts, and it's a warped mess.

Or I think of the electric stove, which my mama would turn on and leave its door ajar to add a little warmth to the kitchen where breath could be seen. The light bill will be high, but I cain't help it. We cain't freeze. We didn't freeze. We shivered. The water line froze, though. Lots of times. Once, on a rare time when my daddy was around, he came to thaw the pipes while mother worked and we were at school. He managed to set light to the bottom of the trailer while using a blow torch to warm the lines that came up under the bathroom. Didn't burn much. Just left a mouse-sized hole after he patched it up. Jack of all trades; master of none. At least I could finally wash my hair, even if it meant goose bumps.

Summer means vegetable gardens and neighbors who lets you pick corn.

Winter means burning up precious calories staying warm.

Summer is up a tree; winter is under the covers all day.

***

When Adrian and I moved back to Germany the last time, the oil furnace of the base housing row house put out so much heat it stifled me. Adrian was fine. Ariane had never known want. I gasped and woke up with warm hands on my lungs, pressing out the air. We learned to leave a window open near the head of the bed on my side. Drafts of icy air slid down my throat, pinked my nose, prickled my ears. That's more like it.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

10 Hate Crimes Against Students


The blogger at The Other Class created a list of Top Ten Hate Crimes Against Professors, "things students do that constitute hate crimes (because we hate it)." I'm at that midway point where I have finished my MA but am not teaching. I feel the need to clarify now, before I change sides, the hate crimes against students, things professors do that constitute hate crimes (because we hate them).

1. Holding yourself and your knowledge in such esteem that you can't admit your humanity. -- You make mistakes. [Like that pronoun disagreement in the quoted sentence.] Professors cannot hold all knowledge. The vast majority of my professors freely admit when they don't know something. But there are those, and their pompous pictures are popping up in your head right now, who will prevaricate, pontificate, postulate, and puff rather than say, "I don't know that" or "I can't recall right now." It makes you untrustworthy. We know the difference between not being prepared for what you are teaching now and not remembering every character from every book you have ever read.

2. Syllabus proofreading crimes -- You cut and pasted that from another semester, didn't you? And now, since it says in section two of your syllabus not to ask you questions in email about things on the syllabus, we don't want to email you and ask whether you want papers turned in "ONLY in class," as it says in section four, or if you want them in the dropbox on Blackboard, like it says in section six, or, and hand to God this happened, if you want them turned in to your office two days before class. My very favorite professor called himself "calendar challenged." He took to sending his syllabus to me for proofreading before publishing. He was not a puffy postulator.

3. Instructions vs. Syllabus War-- If your syllabus says Paper Number Two is due on March 5 at 4pm, please tell me why the instruction guide for Paper Number Two insists that it is due at class time on March 2. This could be why you get emails at 8pm on March 1.

4. Allowing students to flaunt rules. -- Your syllabus says that tardiness is a serious problem and that it is disrespectful. That one girl is late to class every day. Seriously? Once or twice is bad enough. If she is late every day, you are losing your standing as the leader of this band of merry scholars. We talk about this outside of class and, believe me, students hate it when someone gets away with murder. If you really don't want students texting, make that clear, state the consequences, and then toss him out of class when he texts. How about this? Phones Off, On the Table, Screen Down, Hands Off.

5. Changing the syllabus -- every week. We know that things get messy during the semester. We also know the difference between shifting things around to meet educational needs and you not having a handle on what is happening in your class. I know of at least one professor who has a hard time filling up a class because every student says that she cannot ever produce a syllabus that works. Often, she wouldn't have a syllabus at all. It makes us insane to never know what is going on with due dates and expectations. We have lives and jobs and children.

6. Giving an extension on a paper because some people didn't do the work, or worse, to build in a little extra time. This may just be a personal peeve. Other students seem thrilled to know that the paper due today will not really, really be due until next week. However, today means today for me. I didn't go with my daughter to a play on Friday night. I skipped my husband's award dinner last week. I did those things because our contract said that I had to turn in twenty-five thoughtful pages today. So, instead of relief, I am just pissed that you "built in a little extra time" by publishing the due date a week ahead. Let today mean today. You are not helping the slackers learn to wake up by changing the alarm clock.

7. Germs: Errors of Omission and Errors of Commission -- We all know it. School is a breeding ground for sickness. I don't want to be in class with a cougher. I don't want to be in class while sick. Understand that when you say our grades will drop one letter grade -- "no exceptions" -- for more that two absences, you have just herded sick people into your class. This is a tricky line to walk. You want students in class. You want sick students at home. Why not address sickness and absences together in the same paragraph of the syllabus. Let the conscientious student know that there is wiggle room. Encourage them to contact you in case of contagion. I have heard this many times from a red-eyed sniffler: "I feel awful, but I can't afford to lose a letter grade."

8. Ambiguously worded questions on a test. -- One of the best things about going into grad school studying English is that I never took another test written by someone who is not a competent writer. Questions should not be so "ambiguous, misleading, or poorly worded" that the student wonders if she is playing the quiz on Michael Feldman's Whad'Ya Know? show.  I had one religion professor so adept at writing questions that could be answered several ways that I was forced to rewrite them in the margins so that I could show which one I was answering.

9. Technophobic Professors -- We are studying in 2013. Know how to use a computer to produce study materials.  Be able to produce a graphic to support your lectures. Know how to use the basic features of your college's course interface or learning portal. Embrace digital media learning. Post messages. Update the syllabus. Put all handouts online where your forgetful or absent students can find them. Enter names into the class roster online. Encourage students to interact online by making sure they can contact each other to ask those questions you don't want coming to you in email.

10. Not showing up or being late for office hours (or class -- yes, this happened). -- No meeting is that important. Post office hours on the door so that students without a smart phone don't have to run to the library to check the syllabus. Send out an email and post on the course interface immediately, if you are sick or late. More than once, I drove to campus only to find a cancellation note on the class door. More than once, the technophobic professor knew she wouldn't be in class early enough to have prevented my hour-long trip in heavy traffic.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Three Films


The Wizard of Oz (1939), Victor Fleming, director

This film speaks volumes about my upbringing. I don't mean the theme of valuing home and family.  I am not referring to the parallel of a little girl out wandering the countryside with animals for her only companions.  It's not even Dorothy's fears, although there is certainly something there. 

The Wizard of Oz points out how integral church was in my life.  Yep.  Church.

I lived right behind Keeling Baptist Church.  I could roll out my front door and wind up at the bottom of the hill up against the church's back wall.  We were church-going peeople...well, my mother and siblings and I were. My father wasn't a churchgoer.  His membership was recorded at the Cypress Hut, a beer joint down in the Hatchie bottoms.  But we kids went to church.  Oh, yes.  Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday prayer meeting.  And we didn't miss for anything.

Well, there was one thing.  Sometimes.  Every once in a while there was The Wizard of Oz.

Once a year, the local tv station would show Dorothy and her pals on a Sunday night.  As soon as we heard the promo, we would beg to be allowed to stay home to watch.  Julie got the privelige way before I did.  My mother felt I was too little to tolerate the Wicked Witch without nightmares.  When I was old enough to stay, Julie still poked fun at me about hiding my eyes during the scary parts. 

Who killed my sister?   It terrified me.  I inevitably had trouble sleeping.  And yet, I couldn't wait to watch it again the next year.

Funny how the real life terrors never got that much attention. 

My father was a terror.  He delighted especially in scaring Julie on the way back from the outhouse.  Our little house on the hill wasn't equipped with a flush toilet.  We used the outhouse at the back of the church property until I was in second grade.  She used to ask me to go with her.  I wasn't as afraid of the dark as she was, even though I was four years younger.  With Daddy out there to torment her, who can blame her?  He was tall, well over 6 feet and Ichabod Crane thin back then. 

He would alternately pound on the walls of the stinking shithole or lay in wait for her on the way back. Sometimes he would say, "Something is gonna get you out there," with a gleeful grin on his gaunt face.  And then, he wouldn't do a thing.  The trip to the toilet would be full of anticipatory fear and nothing would happen.  He was clever about his terror tactics.

Dorothy walked a scary road with her companions too.  The witch was always there in their minds, with her threats hanging in the air like fog.  I'll get you, Pretty, and your little dog too.

Sometimes the wait for the Wicked Witch to pop up was worse than the reality of her appearance in a cloud of hellish smoke.  Same for Daddy.

Dorothy left Oz.  I left Tennessee.   

There ends the parallel, though.  When Dorothy went back to Kansas she found her truth: There's no place like home.  When I left Tennessee, I prayed there would never be.

~~~


All three of my films are The Wizard of Oz.  I first viewed Dorothy's story as a way to learn to take my eyes down from my face and see my fears without letting terror control me.  This was a handy skill to have.  I wasn't done facing the dangers of the road when Daddy left my life.  It's a lot easier to fight a witch when you can see where she is and find a big pot of water. 

Next, The Wizard of Oz became something else for me, as I focused on Oz, the Great and Powerful.  Oz, it turns out, is just a man and not even a very accomplished or erudite one.  He did what he could with the Emerald City and they benefitted from it, even after he flew away on a balloon.  I have tried to do that along the way...leave a little something behind.

Finally, TheWizard of Oz is for me a story of home and how to make home with those you find along the way.  It's embracing the misfits of life and finding that they have your back and will go right into the witch's castle to rescue you. It's looking back on that life later and saying it was a good one.  It's appreciating how a life's story can turn out.

All those other Sunday morning and nights were filled with stories.  They provided a kind of map of the road.  Turns out all that church attendance was useful.  I would hide out there and the other local church to escape from what was at home.  Church saved me, and not just in the usual sense of the word.  It was a place of sanctuary for me.  It modeled a safe haven that I used later to create family. My road would have been much longer without it. 

Thanks for meeting me at this place on the road.

And you were there.  And you, and you...


Sunday, October 30, 2011

Story Books

Four books. 

This is impossible.  So I will give you four stories about books.

***

Book Story One.  Baptist Hymnal. 

Today, Kyndall gave us a sermon at Covenant with the topic of All Saints Day.  As a part of the service, we could go up and light a candle in honor of someone who has died that embodied Christ's presence for us.  For Baptists, this is pretty unfamiliar territory.  We aren't the standard brand of Baptists. 

Just before and during the candle lighting, we sang a capella "Be Still My Soul."  This is one of the old traditional high church hymns that I find particularly meaningful.  I love the melody and hearing the congregation sing the various parts.  Singing it makes my mouth, my heart, and my head feel in right relationship. 

After lighting my candle for Granddaddy, I went to the back door to look out at the green growing things.  All I know about the land and animals I learned from Jim Thompson, Sr.  While the rest of the congregation sang the last verses, I just listened.

It occurred to me that I was hearing the song I want the ones I love to hear when I am remembered after I die.  That is very appropriate for the day.




 Book Story Two.  Bible.

Specifically, 1 John 3:1-3.  "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are." 

And that is what we are.  My granddaddy was a loving man.  He would allow me to give him a manicure on his gnarled arthritic fingers. I could brush his lush white hair and put a bow in it.  He could run a farm and keep everyone fed.  He never made me afraid.  Jim Thompson, Sr. is the reason that I can hear the word Father in connection with God without throwing up. Jimmy Junior did not ever give me one minute of the calm, ordered presence that Jim Senior did.  That, my friends, is the embodied presence of God in a work shirt. 

***

Book Story Three.  The Book of My Life.

People show up in the scenes of my life for a while.  I have lived a long time and moved a lot, living all over the world.  Marriage to a military man has made my book of life one of short chapters, with characters popping up for too brief appearances.

Liz and Jason, and now little Sarah Rose, are two of those people.  They came here because Liz was stationed with the Air Force as a Psychiatrist at Wilford Hall at Lackland Air Force Base.  Liz is a Christian.  Jason is Jewish.  Sarah Rose has the religion of preciousness, and I hope she learns more of that as her life's story progresses.  Covenant is one of the places that the family lived out their respective faith traditions while here in San Antonio.

Liz has completed her active duty.  They are moving to Virginia to work and grow in that place.  It is a great move for them, but it means that they are no longer going to be available for cameo appearances in my life.  I was sad about that today.  We all were.

We sang the song we always sing for them, putting hands on their shoulders, standing very close. 

Traveling Mercies --

...take bread for the journey and strength for the fight



comfort to sleep through the night


the wisdom to choose at the fork in the road


and a heart that knows the way home

And for the faithful, and for the weary, and for the hopeless, here is our prayer:


go in peace live in grace


trust in the arms that will hold you


go in peace live in grace

trust God’s love.



***

Book Four. A Thousand Wonders.

I am writing a book.  It has become something more than just the words I use to create sentences and move plot.  It is becoming one of those things that defines a life.  I don't have enough time to work on it and keep up with my work for grad school.  I manage to combine the two in a fiction writing workshop this semester. 

I am learning things from myself as I write the stories that make up the larger work.  It is doing things for me that I am grateful to experience.  I want to write in support of this work all the time. 

You might wonder why I am writing about four books for a blog meme when I have papers to write and the book is calling me. 

I wonder too.  My only answer is that I promised I would do this every week.  I have already fallen one week behind once in the ten assignments. I don't often miss a deadline.  Hardly ever.  And I find something in this writing too.  It has opened me up to write publicly since 2007.  It is part of the way I spend my life.

This is my Sunday.  Remembering Saints.  Singing songs for my own funeral.  Saying farewell.  Writing.  Always writing.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Food Moves Me



I'm late for dinner.  I should have posted this last Monday.  It's past time to blog about five foods.  I have read some of my other friends' work.  They make me hungry and make me think.  I think I will refer you to my other blog, A Thousand Wonders, for this week.  A Thousand Wonders is the place where I am blogging my writing process as I craft some stories into a novel.  This week's prompt here goes well with my last post about going home while thinking about the food of that place. 

Here's a bit, with way more than five foods:

Pecan and chess pie for holidays. Homecoming meant pimento-cheese sandwiches, fried chicken, potato salad, and deviled eggs. Every time someone set down a platter or dish, the wood would sag a bit. I always worried for the food. Brunswick stew cooked up in a big iron cauldron over a wood fire under my tree. Grandy stroking and stirring and scraping with a boat paddle he used just for stew. People would come from all around on a Brunswick stew day, bringing Mason jars and appetites. Nobody ever went hungry at Grandy and Memma’s house. Bourne, back then, saw too many hungry people though.

To read more you can visit A Thousand Wonders - Food Takes You Back.  To start at the beginning of my writing process, go here instead and read up.