Sunday, October 26, 2014

Veterans War Project

The Veterans History Project was created by the United States Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 2000. Housed in the Library of Congress American Folklife Center, the project is primarily an oral history of American war veterans.

The personal accounts of the veterans are collected through interviews, preserved by the Library of Congress and made accessible to researchers and the pubic so "future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war." The project includes first hand accounts of American veterans from World War I (it was called the war to end all wars) to the current Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts (evidently we don't call them wars anymore).

I have assigned my students in English class to locate a war veteran and interview him or her for the project. Since these are college freshmen and not journalism majors, I decided to model how the interview should flow. My sweetie is a Vietnam vet and he agreed to be interviewed by me (with the entire class sitting back as witnesses in the darkened background).

He came dressed in his boots, jeans, cowboy shirt and hat, with his silver streaked hair covering his shirt collar. He looked exactly like a semi-retired man from small town Navasota, which is who he is.

We set up the iPad so that it recorded his face and voice as he answered my questions. He told how he joined the Navy to avoid being drafted by the Marines. One of his friends had come back in a body bag after being drafted by the Marines so Ronnie decided he was better off on a aircraft carrier n he Tonkin Gulf than in-country. However, to his surprise, he was sent to a land-based squadron in Da Nang, Vietnam, where he served between 1969 and 1970. His squadron transported cargo and personnel between Da Nang and the carriers. In between that, he maintained the aircraft, working on the aircraft skins, frames, pneumatics, hydraulics, and landing gear.

He remembered and told us about the air base being subjected to nightly sniper, rocket, and mortar attacks. "You could set your watch by the attacks; they started at 1 a.m."

He escaped being killed and doesn't believe he ever came close... well, there was the time that he was with a friend and the buddy was hit  with shrapnel that tore into his chin and neck. The buddy was walking just ahead of Ronnie so there's no doubt the shrapnel would have hit him had he been walking alone. But for the most part, the nightly attacks that intruded in his dreams are probably part of the reason he suffers from PTSD and has trouble sleeping.

He got daily doses of Agent Orange from the vehicles covered with thick dusting of the leaf defoliate that the Seabees brought back to camp from their work in the bush. The wind brought more to camp when the military dumped it over Freedom Hill behind the camp. Ronnie told us there of the times he and his buddies drank beer and watched the attacks on Freedom Hill. "It was like fireworks on the Fourth of July." He didn't realize the contaminated air he was breathing would result in high blood pressure, two heart attacks, and Diabetes II.

Ronnie returned stateside in 1970, and the war protesters were still quite vocal. The protesters targeted returning vets like Ronnie and accosted them in airports calling them baby killers. Some were even spat upon. He says he never killed anyone, man or woman, infant of elder, in Vietnam. But he knows where the name baby killer comes from. He described for us how the Viet Cong would place grenades under the arms of children and send them running from a hut to the American soldiers entering  village. When the children raised their arms to be lifted up, the grenades fell to the ground and exploded, killing or maiming everyone in the vicinity.

He told us that he drank a lot and ran with a wild crowd when he returned. Finally, he said that he got his act together and enrolled in college on the GI Bill, majoring in law enforcement.

When he finished his story, the students, without prompting and to my surprise and his, stood from their chairs and applauded him. Many of them had no idea what Agent Orange was, or that people spat on veterans when they returned from war. They thanked him for telling his story, and they thanked him for his service.

If you would like to listen to some of the veterans' stories from 1914 to the present, go to the website: If you'd like to participate, there is a guidebook to lead you through the process.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

State Fair

My sweetie and I went to Dallas to visit my younger brother and his wife and go to the State Fair. It was the best weekend for all our calendars--unfortunately we didn't check the football schedule. That's right... it was the Red River rumble between University of Texas and Oklahoma  University. The stadium was packed. The overflow of Longhorns and Sooners filled the fairgrounds and kept up with the game by watching big screen TVs strategically placed throughout the place.

We passed up the fried olives, the fried pickles, the fried green tomatoes, and fried ice cream. But we each had a corn dog slathered in yellow mustard with a nutty bar (nut and chocolate covered vanilla ice cream on a stick) for dessert.

We saw a dog show with pups that have appeared on David Letterman and that could fetch Frisbees at almost warp speed before splashing into water. Other dogs ran an obstacle course--the blue dog team against the red dog team. The red dog team won, but maybe not--it seemed scripted. There was a three-legged dog that the barker ( no pun intended--that's the carnival term for the announcer and by this time, the atmosphere had a carnie feel) promised would be around for family photo ops. We moved on to the goat show and watched the judge pick the champion goat. The winner (that is, the owner of the champion goat) was euphoric, while the other contestants put on brave smiles but you could see the disappointment in their eyes.

I loved the quilt exhibits. The grand champion prize went to a quilter who took two years to create her winning quilt. It looked like it was made of Tibetan silk. Beautiful, exotic.

My sister-in-law and I got Deep in the Heart of Texans 2014 Cookbooks with a collection of State Fair prize winning recipes from the 2013 competitions. Recipes include Bacon Spud Hugs; Roasted Corn, Peppers and Jicama Salad; Southern Comfort Buttermilk Fried Chicken; Jalapeno Cheese Bread; and Angel Food Cake with Heath Bar Icing.

If I can get an ambulance on speed dial to take Ronnie and me to the ER, I may cook up that menu for dinner next Sunday.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Goin' to the chapel

"Certain experiences remain within us from the day they occurred throughout the rest of our lives, " writes Nan Phifer in her book Memoirs of the Souls. "They formed us. They might be as small as the over-hearing of a whispered sentence, but we recorded them in our memories, and they became part of who we are."

I went to my second cousin Caroline's wedding to Ben Lauber this weekend in San Antonio. The wedding was absolutely perfect, and I hope there are lots of pictures for Caroline to look over with Ben when they get back from their honeymoon. Personally, I remember having a hard time being present at either of my weddings--they were both really a blur except for a couple of moments, which, yes, now that I think about it, will remain in my memory for the rest of my life.

The Tarski-Lauber wedding had many whispered oohs and ahhs, laughter, hugs, toasts, prayers, and family from all over the country coming together to witness the vows exchanged by these two adorable young adults.

I wonder what moments Caroline will take into her heart. Perhaps she'll laugh over the way niece Olivia (Livi) dropped the rose pedals on the carpet like a responsible flower girl should while her younger sister Charlotte (Charli) followed behind and picked them up... Or maybe she will remember, and hold dear, the way Ben's eyes widened in appreciation as she entered the church in bridal white... Or maybe she will smile whimsically as she recalls what her dad said to her during the traditional father and bride dance...

A wedding day is an important turning point in two people's lives. Sweet Caroline, may your and Ben's marriage be blessed as you grow into the shape of a couple.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Are you saved?

At the core of One Amazing Thing, by Chitra Divakaruni, the people trapped after an earthquake in the passport office decide to tell an amazing story that they have never shared before with anyone. The stories give a depth and understanding to the characters that we wouldn’t have had if they hadn’t told their amazing stories.

And so it is with us.

I have my father’s journal that he kept his senior year in Battle Creek, Michigan. In it he writes about the Spanish-American war, about running and losing the race for class president as the new kid and the bullying that ensued, about the difference (in his teenage mind in the 1920s) between a good girl and a floosy.

I have my son’s journal that he kept during his 7th grade in Meadows, TX, a suburb of Houston. When he graduated from UT with honors and began teaching 7th grade geography, I got it out and let him read it. He was shocked by how much he defied authority. But having the evidence in writing helped him become a more insightful teacher.

I have my own pink journal that I kept after my divorce. Page after page I try to make sense of the betrayal, of the death of a marriage, of the hopelessness… and little by little, hope shows up again, and I move on with my life. The life I have today is filled with a joy I could  not imagine in 1991, but I have "walked through the valley of death" to get here, and my pink journal documents the journey.

 "When a person dies, a library is burned," writes author and poet Jandy Nelson. And it is true. If the person does not write her story--her legacy to her descendants.

Are you saved?

I challenge you to weave together your amazing stories from the threads of your life and make an heirloom tapestry that will be handed down from generation to generation.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

High School Football

Despite threatening rain clouds, homecoming at Navasota High School brought out the entire town. Alumni as far back as the Class of '35 were honored (that's 80 amazing years!), and the bleachers were filled with people of all ages dressed in blue and white attire.

While the rain stayed way, memories of my own high school senior year homecoming flooded my mind. Navasota's Rattler Nation includes a marching band complete with a majorette and six flag girls, the Diamonette drill team, a slew of cheerleaders, and no less than 54 football players who suited up for the game. Back in my day, the green and white fighting Huntsville Hornets had no drill team, no flag girls, only six cheerleaders, and maybe 20 players.

But the hometown spirit was the same: Friday night football in Texas rules!

In the 1960s, we girls wore mums to homecoming. We'd keep them afterwards, pinned to our mirrors or walls where they turned brown and dried to fragile artifacts. My mind conjured the images of those big fat white flowers, and I thought how times have changed.

The corsages I saw Friday night were made of artificial flowers and accessorized with bling on steroids. Lots of different styles, too. The style I'd consider traditional was worn on the left shoulder, but oh my gosh, the glittered streamers flowed from shoulder to ankle. There were also corsages as necklaces, as armbands, and the most popular: as garters worn on the thigh. The garters were favored by the cheerleaders in their min-skirts, as well as spectators in blue jean shorts.

How times have changed.

Even though the 1960s claimed Drugs, Sex, and Rock 'Roll as its banner in American culture, Huntsville High School officials held tightly to the values of the 1950s, and cheerleader skirts were required to hit mid-calf, covering darn near all of their legs. Even if flower-clad garters had been available (and trust me, they were not), L.K. Westmoreland would never have allowed the cheerleaders on the field had they dared to wear them.

Confession: Ronnie and I did not stay for the entire game. The Rattlers were ahead 42-3 at halftime, and we felt confident the hometown team could win without our cheering from the stands. We bought "Navasota Rattlers Get Ready" t-shirts because we heard that the Rattlers will probably go to District and we will want to be in the stands to witness their win. We watched the crowning of Rebecca White as homecoming queen and listened to the Class of '35 and the Class of '45 sing the school song. While most folks stayed for the rest of the game, hollering and stomping and cheering the Rattlers as the second half began, we sneaked out.

While I  waited for Ronnie to get the car from the crowded parking lot, I sang my school song softy to myself ("Oh, Huntsville High School, hear us singing our love and loyalty to thee beneath the shadows of the pine trees..."). We moseyed over to the Wrangler steak house on Hwy 6 and talked about how much we love this small town.

What are your high school homecoming memories?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Friday night at the fairgrounds

My sweetie and I went to the Bubba Can Barbecue Cook-off at the Navasota Fairgrounds Friday night. Our friend Mitch invited us. A big karaoke contest was the centerpiece of the entertainment. Eighteen contestants were vying for a $1,000 first prize, and Mitch was one of the judges.

Woodsmoke perfumed with chicken, pork, and beef cooking in barrel drums, slathered with secret sauces and rubs, filled our nostrils as we entered the fairgrounds. Campers converted to cookhouses bordered the covered pavilion. We sampled the ribs and found seats on the aluminum stadium bleachers. The stage, bathed in neon violet light, was at the opposite end of the dirt arena. Kids were running wild, kicking up dust like tumbleweeds. The smallest among them swirled with their arms spread like desert dervishes. Their skin shimmered in the neon glow.

Next to the beer concession, a local vendor sold  girly baseball caps encrusted with sparkling glass crystals,  trays of costume jewelry, blinged out cigarette holders, and purses with compartments for concealed handguns. Business was steady.

The karaoke choices ran the gamut, from traditional western swing to the downtown blues to old time rock 'n roll. Supporters punched the air with their fists and whooped and hollered. Dozens of couples danced in the dirt in front of the stage. The contestants seemed to love the convivial merrymaking. We sure did, and we joined in.

The men were dressed in jeans, sleeveless western shirts or cotton t-shirts, and boots, their heads covered with straw cowboy hats or billed caps; western tooled holsters filled with cell phones hung from their leather belts. Their partners were dressed in blue-jean cut-offs and colorful tops with spaghetti straps. They were long-haired and long-legged, swinging and swaying in step with the music.

My sweetie got in a discussion about Harley motorcycles overheating in traffic with Mark, the husband of one of the barbecue cook-off contenders. Ronnie told Mark about the numerous times we had to pull over on the side of the road in Houston because the Harley trike overheated and stalled out.  The last time was in 100-plus degree heat, and we thought we were going to die of heat stroke. Shortly thereafter, we surrendered that trike for a water-cooled Honda Goldwing trike.

Mark shrugged. "I dunno, man. I have a Harley now and I gotta say, it runs great. No trouble at all."
Ronnie was sure the man was joking. "Really??? Not even in traffic?" The man smiled. "Man, I live in the country and I work in Navasota. What traffic?"

Point well made.

One of the benefits of small town living is the absolute lack of traffic jams, (except for the bumper-to-bumper lines at the railroad crossings that dissect the town). Ron and I feel like hamsters on a wheel in Houston. It's nice to enjoy a cool night at the Navasota Fairgrounds and be reminded that we are lucky enough to have an escape plan from the city.

Sunday, September 7, 2014


When I was younger, I collected lots of wonderful treasures, including dolls and picture books. My father started me with my first collection: stamps.  I never was particularly interested in that hobby, but I was very interested in being the center of my daddy’s attention, so I took the stamps he brought me and dutifully placed them into the binders. Lord only knows where those collections are now…

When I was a little older, I became a tomboy, which was only natural since I was the middle child born between two boys. I collected scrapes and bruises from following them over fences and through blackberry bushes or by following the culverts and tunnels that guided the Town Creek from Sam Houston's home and museum and our house. I also collected a toughness that comes from playing firecracker shootouts and having an occasional firework explode in my hand rather than in the air flying toward a brother’s head.

As I entered my teens, I collected lots of personas along with fitting names, trying to find the right fit for the individual I would become. My cousin and I gave each other sassy names to fit the images we had of becoming saucy women someday. I was Kitten; she, Bubbles. My older brother Stone’s friends named my younger brother Pebble and named me Rox.  We felt very cool among our friends who had no siblings and were faceless to the older crowd.  My friends had fun giving me derivatives of my given name Joyce: I was called Jerse, Joycie, Juice, and Jice. Because I was named after my mother, my daddy kept trying to get me to adopt the name Junior, but I was  past my tomboy days and had no desire to be known as Junior.

I collected my first boyfriend at sixteen, and my favorite name, Baby, came out of his mouth in that easy Southern drawl of his, pronounced, “Baay-be.”  Occasionally I was known by another “b” name for my cattiness, especially when it came to trashing some other girl’s reputation because she didn’t fit the standard I had set for teens outside my clique. Shame on me.

During my young adult years, I collected college degrees and years of experience in classrooms as both a student and as a teacher. I found that the best way to become an expert in anything was to teach the subject. As a result, I became an expert in college marketing and collected a slew of awards and plaques from state and national organizations while I climbed the ladder in administration and made a reputation for myself. For about a decade, I was one of go-to women in the Texas community college movement. I also collected two sets of divorce papers.

At mid-life I collected illnesses and maladies: fibroid tumors, ulcerative colitis, psoriasis, diabetes… but thankfully, I also had a collection of friends who would not let me give up, lie down, or step off the path but, rather, to move on to the next collection, which is the greatest one of all—the collection of memories.

I may be battered, but I’m far from through!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Amazng File

Years ago (as in thirty years ago),  my friend Jackie Crowley gave a seminar for her colleagues at Houston Community College. TAF stood for The Amazing File, and the idea was for us to create a file and fill it with photos, letters of accolades, awards, and other things that documented how uniquely wonderful we were.

Jackie gave each of us a red file folder labelled "TAF 101."  ("So you can find it quickly among all those manila folders in your filing cabinet," she explained.) She had her own file to show us--although it was an expandable file because she'd had it awhile and needed more space for her documents.

I came across my file recently. Here's what is in it:
  • a photo that Jackie took of me in a hotel room reading the New York Times, documenting the time she and I had been sent by the college president to a national marketing seminar that ultimately led to my doctoral dissertation;
  • a letter from my son expressing his love and belief in me;
  • a thank you card from a colleague for helping her get funding for a project;
  • an honorable mention from Southwest Writers Conference for the opening chapter of a novel;
  • birthday cards from friends and family with personal notes written inside telling me what a fun and caring person I am;
  • a letter from the United Way thanking me for chairing the campaign for the college district;
  • a transcript from Texas A&M University showing heaps of A's earned in grad school;
  • pictures of Christmas parties I hosted over the years for friends who couldn't go home for the holidays;
  • certificates of appreciation for service work on various community and  college committees;
  •  pictures of Ireland from my first trip across the Atlantic that I took with my cousin "Bubbles";
  • a letter from my dad conveying his delight and pride in being my father; and
  • my beloved Trixie Ann's dog tags.
Going through the file always gives me such a warm feeling because I can see clearly that my life matters, not because of the job I have or my job title, but because of who I am as a person.

It's good to have a file where I can go and be reminded of my value because, unfortunately, there are days when I am so depressed and discouraged that I need to see concrete evidence that tells me I'm not a failure.

If you don't have a file on yourself, I highly recommend that you begin building one.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Love Story

I think it's important that we share the stories that make up our family history, for it's those stories that keep us rooted in our relationships. My sweetie and I did that last night. I started it by making a request: "Tell me your favorite Ronnie and Joyce story."

He didn't have to think about it--his response was immediate. "The first day I met you... we had lunch at Saltgrass Steakhouse, and I'll never forget that beautiful smile on your face. I knew then that you were someone special."

We traded stories for the better part of the evening. We remembered how I left for Dallas to spend a week with my brother and sister-in-law immediately after that lunch meeting. He called me every night I was there. He said he didn't want me to forget about him... And I didn't. In fact, I started looking forward to his call.

Our official first date was July 4, 2011. He picked me up on his Harley trike, and we rode the freeway that circled downtown, pulling off to watch Freedom Over Texas, the fireworks extravaganza flashing from Eleanor Tinsley Park and exploding over Buffalo Bayou. The official first date ritual is repeated every year... Last summer we celebrated by riding the trike to College Station to watch the fireworks being launched from the George Bush Presidential Library. Instead of staying on the trike, we hauled camp chairs out on one of the Aggie soccer fields and held hands while we oohed and awed at the splendor.

Our first kiss was in a Houston parking lot in front of a Souper Salad on West Gray. I'd been giving him a hug and a peck on the cheek for several dates in a row, but on this particular night he was pressing for the real deal. So... What can I tell you? Souper Salad is now closed on West Gray. (Honest.) To give you more details might be TMI. However, we love retelling that first kiss story to each other.

Our first fight.... Okay, you get the idea. No need for you to know the details of every story. You can know this: Ronnie and I  remember not only the fights, but more importantly, the lessons we learned from those careless misunderstandings and humongous arguments we've had.

We have three years worth of Ronnie and Joyce stories, and we're adding more every day we're together. It's our personal narrative.

Why do we take time to remember them and retell them to each other? It allows us to reflect on the development of our relationship, the progress we are making as a couple, and the evolution of our love for one another. I think it's important for couples to do that so they don't get too settled and take each other for granted.

Time and again, Ronnie and I recount for one another the favorite chapters of our love story. He's no Prince Charming, and God knows, I'm not Cinderella, but I surely do like where the story is headed.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Writing in Alpine

I spent last week in Alpine at a summer writing retreat, sponsored by the Writers League of Texas. Writers swooped down on the tiny town from all corners of Texas and parts of Louisiana and Oklahoma. They were writers of fiction, non-fiction, memoir, and poetry, and like me, they came to explore their craft--with each other and with the pros who make up the WLT faculty.

This is my third year at the retreat. My sweeties comes with me every year and hangs out while I'm in class. At night we go out and do fun things... for me anyway.

The first evening we gathered at a writing instructor's rented casita and watched the sky turn orange, red, purple, deepening to navy as the sun sunk behind the Davis Mountains while a version of King Ranch casserole cooked in the oven. We listened to the night birds, watched billy goats across the road, slapped at biting mosquitoes, and talked about the juicy alchemy of Alpine on the writer's soul.

The second evening a panel, comprised of the WLT faculty, fed our curiosity with details about their successful writer lives. Although these journalists, authors, and poets seemed to have fallen into their writing careers by accident or the intercession of a benevolent Fate, Joseph Campbell would be proud of their heroic quest to become noteworthy. We listened, infatuated by their stories, and yearned for our own benevolent Fate to favor us with the Holy Grail, a publishing contract.

The third evening three of us drove to nearby Marfa and sat on the patio of the Hotel Paisano where Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, Natalie Wood and other cast members stayed while filming the movie Giant. We watched other tourists and a couple of ranchers and their families enjoy the cool desert evening and a fine meal. We had the restaurant's signature entrée: pistachio crusted fried steak, garlic mashed potatoes, and fresh string beans. If you want to know how to charge $16 for a chicken fried steak, I just told you. Alas, even though it was past eight o'clock when we headed back home, it was too early to see the Marfa lights.

The fourth evening we met up with 2008 Texas Poet Laureate Larry Thomas and his wife Lisa in the Holland Hotel bar. My sweetie and several writer friends are partial to the margaritas there. Larry, an Alpine resident transplanted from Houston, pumped us for city news while we envied his and Lisa's languid life in the Big Sky Country. Afterwards we went to the public library to hear fellow workshop participants read their work. Yes, I was the designated driver, and happy to be of service.

The fifth night we fretted over our approaching departure. This annual summer retreat is grueling work, but I am so viscerally affected, being among this tribe of writers who migrate to the desert every August, that I feel a deep sadness when it is time to leave.

Sunday, August 3, 2014


Let me say upfront that I don’t believe in writer’s block. However, I do believe in being stuck. 

Chuck Sambuchino recently tweeted a column he wrote previously for Writer’s Digest about finding ways to increase writing productivity by focusing on brainstorming. The advice includes excellent ways to get unstuck.

He lists five brainstorming opportunities: while driving, while doing chores, while falling asleep, while cooking, and while waiting (in line or in the reception area of the doctor’s office).

Two of his five are favorites of mine. I especially like to “sleep on it” when I’m having problems with a scene. Sambuchino writes: "Think about your novel as you fall asleep, envisioning scenes as if they're in a movie,"  and I do exactly that. I play different scenes in my head and rewind and edit and replay until I figure out what my character does or says next. 

I also "daydream" about plot twists and scene sequels while I'm waiting to see the dentist or the dermatologist or the physician. (Amazing how many doctors I have to see on a regular basis now that I'm on the north side of sixty.) 

His other suggestions are not on my list. I need to pay attention when I'm driving, especially on Houston freeways. Getting lost in thoughts about my novel could be as risky as texting. As for cooking, I prefer getting lost in the creative process of making a recipe my own, so I leave story-crafting outside the kitchen.

Doing chores? No, thank you. I pay other people to do those bothersome but necessary chores. Doing so leaves me more time to write.

Sunday, July 27, 2014


My honey took me dancing last night at the Western Club, which is out on the highway in Navasota. It was our first time there, and Jody Nix was playing the best western swing I've heard since I was nineteen and saw Bob Wills and his band play at the local VFW ("Yee-haw, sing it, Leon"). Jody Nix's band covered a lot of those old Bob Wills songs, along with others made classic by Ray Price.

At the Western Club, the average person on the dance floor is 65 years old, doing the Texas two-step, moving in a circle around the dance floor as one big happy mass. There were easily two hundred people, paying $15 apiece, to drink longnecks and belly rub with their wives, or a widow woman, or divorcée, or a neighbor's wife. It was amazing to see so many folks out having  a rousing good time without even one of them getting knee-walking drunk.

These men and women came to dance, and dance they did--even during the band's breaks when the music was piped through the club's sound system. They two-stepped, waltzed, and jitterbugged the night away. My man and I, having been out of practice and easily winded, only made it to the dance floor five or six times, but we had almost as much fun people-watching.

Just in case you decide to stop at one of these dance halls that speckle Texas' landscape, you might want to know what the dress code is, so you don't stand out like a dude. The men wear cowboy hats, straw since it's summer,  and snap-button cowboy shirts they probably bought at the Tractor Supply Store (which has lots more than tractors for sale). They wear Levis or Wranglers held up by decorative belts and silver buckles as large as any champion cowboy ever won on the rodeo circuit. Their women folk are clad in jeans or skirts with white blouses or something with a Southwestern flair. Most wear no makeup, just the sun-kissed complexion from daily work in a garden, but their hair is newly coifed. Nearly everyone wears boots.

Ronnie told me to get a good look at everyone's face so I could recognize anyone who showed up at the First Baptist Church this morning. Heathens that we are, we didn't make it to First Baptist or any other church this morning; we overslept. We don't have cattle and chickens that we need to rise early to care for, so we stayed in bed. Our animals are family dogs, and they were more than happy to sleep in with us.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Class of '64

My 50th Huntsville high school class reunion was this weekend, and holy smoke, about fourth-fifths of the class showed up--Art Koeniger as far away as Alaska and Nancy Hall-Hollis as close as a couple of blocks away. My cousin, Barbara Jean, aka Bubbles, who spent most summers with me and dated many of the guys in my class, accompanied me as did my sweetheart, Ron.

Sweet mercy, it was so good to see everyone. Many of us went all the way through public school together, from  first grade through high school. Others like Pat Wood and Margaret Nuchia moved to Huntsville their junior year in high school and graduated with the class of 1964. When Bill Roy (he goes by Bill now, living in Arizona and no longer needing that two-name Texas moniker) introduced me to his wife, I told her that Bill and I danced the minuet in Colonial costumes when we were in Mrs. Jackson's first grade class. She replied, "Maybe that explains why it took me 40 years to get him on the dance floor."

Many of my female classmates had southern double names: Mary Ethel, Mary Elizabeth, Mary Nell, Nancy Gay, Carol Ann, Amy Lou, Linda Lou... you get the idea. Except for Mary Elizabeth, they have dropped the second name. As for the guys, almost all of them have dropped the "y" or "ie" on their boyhood names of Danny, Jimmy, Donnie, Ronnie... again, you get the idea. I think there's probably a rule of agreement that men can do that after they are 50 years old or have moved out of state.

We reminisced about the major impact Coach J.J. Head and journalism teacher Karey Bresenhan, among others, had on our lives. Coach Head is deceased; Karey Bresenhan went on to become the founder of the International Quilt Association. She was a surprise guest to our class meeting as was Grace's mother, Velda Hall, who at 105 is the oldest living parent of the class members. I was able to personally thank Karey B. for the solid foundation and encouragement she provided me as a young journalist. Grace's mother, who uses a walker to get around  and has a mind sharper than mine, had us laughing in the aisles with the quick-witted repartee she exchanged at the podium with her niece Nancy.

We recalled climbing the Huntsville water tower, sneaking cigarettes, driving to the bootlegger on Gospel Hill, Friday night football, slumber parties, learning the Garner stomp (similar to the today's Texas 2-step), meeting at the Tastee Freeze after school, Mrs. Oliver's typing class, going to the college to "paste up" the high school student newspaper (the Hornet Hive) and checking our shoes to be sure we didn't have part of the newspaper clued there .... such memories!

We all agreed that we grew up in intense times (Cuban Missle Crisis, Kennedy Assassination, beginning of the Vietnam War), and that may be the reason we still care about each other. There are no cliques anymore
--we love each other for the survivors we are. We lived through interesting times and now we live interesting lives, and it's good to hear about our university research, our writing projects, our medical care work, our volunteer service in schools, hospitals, clinics, and our children and their children.

So much went into the weekend activities. Larry and Merrie Monzingo provided commemorative drink coozies and commemorative labeled bottled water for us. Margaret Prentice and Nancy Hall were the amazing coordinators who managed to track us down and make all the arrangements for a grrrrrrreat reunion. I wish I could recall all the individuals who contributed their time, leadership, and finances for this once-in-a-lifetime event, but I'm getting up in the years and it was taxing enough to put names to faces.

 Hornet Hugs to all my classmates.

*FYI: Huntsville High School's mascot is the Fighting Hornet.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

In the flow

The writing life is multi-layered. The fun part is the creative process. It's what keeps us coming back to the computer screen.

I've been struggling with my main character in my second novel, which is about a race for Texas governor. The race itself has lots of twists and turns—typical Texas politics with backroom pacts and dirty tricks in the mix. She’s covering the race and you’d think she’d be as flashy as the plotline, but she’s been stiff as cardboard.

My friend Karleen reminds me that this is typical in the process. The character is new to me and I don’t know her yet, so I put her in different situations and figure out how she might react. Eventually, as I will get to know her and what makes her tick, I won’t have to force anything. She’ll take over and write her own story. I’ll just be taking dictation. Until then, my job is to keep exploring her character, looking for the interior story, for what motivates her.

Last night, for example, after weeks of drafting five chapters and moving her from scene to scene, she showed me how ambitious she is. It helped me see why she wants to make this journey. She’s going to risk her reputation in this story, and I couldn’t see how someone so strongly identified by her career would put it on the line. But now I see: her ambition drives her to the brink. Wow. I did not know this when I started writing this novel.

Today adrenalin is popping through my veins and I’m writing “in the flow” as Karleen likes to call it. In the flow, for you who don’t know, involves those times when the story comes out hard and fast. A writer’s job, when this happens, is to jump into the rapids and write as fast as she can, capturing the story. (To hell with punctuation and spelling, I’ll handle that in the editing.)

Will I be able to ride the flow to the end of the book? Possible, but unlikely. And frankly, I don’t care. Right now I’m just thrilled with the ride.

PostScript: I mention my friend Karleen Koen occasionally in this blog. She is a best-selling historical novelist who will be revealing ways to wrangle a finished novel from the rough draft at a weeklong retreat in Alpine, TX. She’s an amazing Sorceress who graciously shares her magic potions.

Interested? Go to and click on Conferences and Retreats for detailed information about the 2014 Summer Retreat. This will be my third time to attend the retreat. Hope to see you there.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Finding an agent

Writers League of Texas awarded my novel UNDERCOVER a finalist place in its 2014 Manuscript Competition and I've been sending queries to New York literary agencies trying to find an agent to represent me. It's a long, arduous process.

Each agent has specific guidelines--one wants a short synopsis and five pages, another wants a chapter-by-chapter synopsis and the first ten pages, another wants the first chapter but in rich text, and another wants... well, you get the idea. And each agent is unwavering about following her particular guidelines, or else. The "or else" means that she won't read the partial manuscript, and since that is the whole reason for contacting her, I follow each one meticulously.

It's not easy finding someone to represent an unpublished novelist, even if I'm a contestant finalist. Literary agencies receive hundreds of email and snail mail submissions on a daily basis. Okay, I get that. They're busy folks who have lots and lots of wannabe authors vying for their attention. But hey, isn't that the core of their business? Could they exist if wannabe authors weren't trying to get agency representation?

 My man created a manuscript tracker for me, so I could keep up with my queries and to whom I sent them. I've got nine queries out there right now, looking for a connection.

It's funny but I feel like I'm on because even when an agent expresses interest, she may not be the right agent for me. I'm working on the draft of my second novel and have started the idea file for a third one. This lady is no one-trick pony, so it's important that I find an agent who is interested in my writing goals and publishing dreams, not just in selling one novel.

The dance has begun. I'm both excited and impatient to see who will be my partner.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

10,000-Hour Rule

I've been thinking about the "10,000-Hour Rule" in Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, which postulates that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to master a skill, be it excelling in sports, computer programming, music, or writing the great American novel.

Gladwell points to the success of the Beatles and Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates as evidence of the 10,000-hour theory and even notes that Gladwell himself took exactly 10 years to meet the 10,000-Hour Rule, counting from his days at The American Spectator until his tenure at The Washington Post.

For the record, the Canadian writer has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996. He has written five books, The Tipping Point (2000), Blink (2005), Outliers (2008), What the Dog Saw (2009), and David and Goliath (2013). And, in case you didn't know, all five books have been on The New York Times Best Seller List. Nice to know he didn't stop practicing his craft at the 10K mark, because I have all of those books, and I absolutely loooooove reading them--the books challenge my mind in the most intriguing, compelling ways.

So... I've been thinking about the time we creative people spend on our craft. We write, we paint, we sculpt, we strum our guitar, we blow our harmonica, we click our heels and soar through the air because there is a wildness in our spirit that has to be expressed; it is as necessary to our creative spirit as breathing is to our physical bodies. Truth is, we create our art for the sheer joy of creating. 

Often, however, when we begin a project, the internal critic rears its satanic head. The internal critic  is the villain who is always looking for the opportunity to kill the spirit in anyone's creative life. The internal critic whispers, "Don't put it out there in public view. You'll be destroyed by the bad press. You're not good enough. Face it, you can't create with the same perfection as the Great Ones."

Here's my response: "To hell with that malarkey. It's called practice, and I'm racking up my 10,000 hours with every sentence I write."

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Summer Solstice

Yesterday was the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year. I celebrated it with fourteen women who joined me at Church Street Retreat. My friend Wynell brought magnificent sunflowers to adorn the table around which we gathered in a circle of trust. We filled the space with hope and willing hearts. We explored our dreams, letting go of the ones that no longer served us and embracing those we wanted to bring into reality.

We lunched on homemade vegetable soup and garden fresh salad. My friend Lil brought a made-from-scratch baked pecan pie and a fig torte to share with us. The sweetness of the effort intensified the blend of the ingredients. Sumptuous.

In the afternoon, we listened to a guided meditation by Cassie Premo Steele, inviting us to plant the seeds of our creativity. We wrote about the seeds growing inside us and about whether we were living a life that gives joy to our soul--and if not, how we could realign ourselves so that we could follow our heart's desire in the days ahead. We gave a collective voice to our intentions to live authentic lives.

And we wrote our dreams on red and purple tissue paper, folded them into cylinders, lit the tips and watched them burn brightly and take flight to heaven. ( is where you can purchase your own.) The house literally shimmied with the creative force of feminine energy and the divine.

I am wowed and inspired by the power unleashed by these women.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Father's Day Thoughts

One-half gallon of pistachio ice cream has always been a staple in my freezer for the three months that Blue Bell makes it. Pistachio was my father's favorite. He introduced it to me at Howard Johnson's on a family trip to Houston. I was a child--probably 10 years old and in the third grade--but I remember clearly how grown up it tasted. Crunchy, exotic.

For the 19 years since his death, I reached for the green carton of Blue Bell when pistachio came in season. I would spoon the ice cream in my mouth and savor the sweet, sweet memory of my daddy. Most times I could delight in 1/2 cup, but occasionally I was so lonely for him that I'd gorge in the entire carton till I was sugar drunk and had to sleep it off.

I miss my daddy, especially today; it's Father's Day. But ice cream is not on the menu. Instead, I let my heart ache as his memory washes over me. No need to anesthetize my feelings and let them get stuck and cripple me. Instead, I focus on my son and how much of my father's best qualities he carries. Matthew is creative and kind and loving and intelligent and compassionate and adventuresome. Irish-American blood runs deep currents of steadfastness in the souls of its ancestry. My father has left this world and yet the best parts of him still live within and through his grandson.

I am blessed.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Exploring less traveled roads

I've been thinking about life. How it twists and turns and manages to surprise us no matter how carefully we try to plan our future to fit our dreams.

Has anyone lived the life he/she planned? It occurs to me that little American girls dream of growing up and having lavish weddings to handsome men, giving easy births to obedient children, living in a mansion on a hill with a vacation home in the mountains or on the beach, and.... well, you get the picture.

I look at my life and those of the women I know, and I see the complexity of lives that are shaped by the premise M. Scott Peck's book A Road Less Traveled: "Life is difficult." Or as Buddha taught: "Life is suffering." Buddhists believe that when we accept life is suffering, we transcend it because once we accept the fact that life is suffering and difficult, the fact that life is suffering and difficult no longer matters. 

One way to look at life is to see it basically as a series of problems to be solved. Peck says what makes life difficult is the painful process of confronting and solving our problems. However, it is in the meeting and working through our problems that we find meaning in our respective lives. "Problems call forth our courage and or wisdom; in fact, they create our courage and wisdom," Peck writes.  Pretty deep, wouldn't you say?

Of course we're human, so we work hard to avoid pain. We do this by avoiding the problems that confront us. But in actuality we only suppress our pain by repressing our feelings.

Eventually, though, if we are to live fully and grasp the full meaning of life, we embrace the FROG motto--Finally Relying On God, because--at least for me--the way to face the painful hardships in life is to feel them,  move through them, and learn from them. And yes, my friend, doing that takes courage.

In his "The Road Not Taken," Robert Frost writes: "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,/And sorry I could not travel both/" He ends the poem with: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,/ I took the one less traveled,/ And that has made all the difference."

The choice is ours. Do we take the road that "appears" safe, or do we go within, to the dark corners of our souls, and learn from our difficulties? Either way, we have amazing stories to tell about the journey, wouldn't you say?

Which roads have you taken that have changed your life and given it meaning?

Sunday, June 1, 2014


My day job is serving  director of faculty development at Lone Star College-North Harris. I just returned from the annual Teaching Professor Conference, held this year in Boston. One of the sessions was "Self Care: Preventing Burnout and Re-engaging Passion." The session was packed.

If you're not a college teacher, you may wonder what kind of ninnies can pack a workshop on faculty burnout. Get real, you may be thinking. Most faculty teach 15 hours per week, and many take off summers. Burnout? You gotta be kidding. In fact, I remember a friend's husband telling me regularly that I got big bucks--huge dollars--when you figured how little time I actually worked. He was working on the assumption that the 15 hours in the classroom were my only working hours.

Of course he was wrong. And frankly the fault is mine because I, like my colleagues, make teaching look so easy.

The truth is, teaching takes preparation... about 3 hours of prep time for each hour in class, and another 10-plus hours dedicated to grading the 120-160 essays and other short papers students turn in weekly. There's another 5 hours (minimum) of office hours where students drop by to argue over points deducted for spelling errors or why they believe they should be allowed to turn in late work. In addition to all this (do the math, we've gotten to a 70 hour week so far), there's also several hours a week working on one committee or another. As for those summers off? They're often spent working on a project to improve our teaching.

Bottom line: many faculty work as many hours as those contemporaries climbing the corporate ladder and pulling bigger paychecks.

The burnout comes from blurred boundaries. We take our work home: grading papers, answering emails, evaluating new textbooks, looking for relevant YouTube and Ted Talks and other resources to liven up class... the list goes on.

The consequences are serious. Burnout results in emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (detachment from students and cynicism) and a sense of ineffectiveness. We gain weight,  neglect our spiritual practice, and neglect our families.

The cure? You need to pay attention to your emotional and physical state so that you can de-stress instead of soldiering through until you implode. Some of the best advice I heard in the session:
  •  Keep a gratitude journal (write down specific things you are grateful for each day)
  • Keep a folder of "fan mail" (notes from students and colleagues about the specific instances where you made a significant difference or contribution)
  • Meditate (schedule quiet time in the busy-ness of your day)
  • Move the body--take a walk in nature
  • Have date night with your sweetie on a weekly basis
Great ideas, and not just for teachers. Writers will find more enthusiasm, productivity, and happiness in their daily work if they, too, incorporate these ideas. As Steve Covey reminds us, we need to take time to sharpen the saw. If we don't, life will become dull and we'll lose our passion.

How do you care for yourself so you don't crash and burn?

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Telling Our Amazing Stories Together

One of the gifts I received at the retreat in Comfort, TX, last week was learning how a "third thing" can open my heart and speak to my soul. These "third things" include poetry, music, images, movement and nature, to name a few. For example, Enya sings:

Each heart is a pilgrim,
each one wants to know
the reason why the winds die
and where the stories go.
Pilgrim, in your journey
you may travel far,
for a pilgrim it's a long way
to find out who you are..."
("Pilgrim," A Day Without Rain)

The lines "each heart is a pilgrim" and "where the stories go" resonate deeply in me. Telling our stories is how we share our hero/heroine journeys and diverse cultures. Where do the stories go? They lead us on daily quests, both exterior and interior.

I am on a pilgrimage into the world collecting stories from life about what matters, making connections and forming relationships. Each time I share, whether by telling my own or listening to yours, I refill my heart with love for the human spirit.

And that, dear friend, is what makes TOAST so yummy.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

When the well is dry

I love the clatter of the keyboard against the pads of my fingertips that sounds like rain on a tin roof. When I'm in the flow, the story gushes forth, like a torrential waterfall from a crevice in my imagination, pouring out almost effortlessly. I'm high on creative adrenaline.

But it isn't always that way. There are times when I begin to question myself, my artistic talent, my wordplay. That's when writing is hard. And the more I question myself as a writer, the more I allow doubt to rise in my chest and cripple my fingers. Everything I write sounds silted, forced, tired, and shallow. Fear opens wounds of unworthiness. Darkness gathers, and I feel I am a fraud.

In the old days, that is to say, in the days of my youth, when these feelings came over me, I'd shut down and sink into an abyss of depression. Now, however, I know these feelings aren't an indictment of my being an interloper. Instead, they are an indication that the well is dry.

The reality is, creativity needs nourishment just as the body needs food. When the well is dry, I need to take care of myself, nurture my creativity, let it drink from other streams of life.

Poetry feeds me. The way poets can turn a phrase helps unlock my mind to new possibilities. I delight in another's palate. Tasting, savoring Rumi, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, the Psalmists.

Nature satisfies me. Summer is approaching and seeds have burst, forming into tomato plants, yellow squash, peaches, watermelon. A mother dove made a nest in the eaves of the roof over our back porch. I've watched the babies hatch and grow until they could fly on their own and leave the nest for the trees in the backyard. Along with the red birds, the mockingbirds, and martens, they greet me with song in the mornings. The squirrel, who lives among the pecan trees, shares with the birds the grain in a bowl that my sweetie fills every day. The birds sneak water from the dogs' bowls when they're dozing in the shade or chasing the neighbor's cats.

I am packing for a week-long retreat in Comfort, TX, to steep myself in the philosophy of the Quakers, as shared by Parker Palmer, and open my writer's soul to renewal and wholeness. As Palmer writes: "It's time to slow down, do more with less, and listen to the rhythm."

My well is being filled.

What do you do when the well is dry?

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The heart remembers

My mother died in 2009, but her memory lives on in my heart and my brothers' hearts. That's the way it is with those you love--their life story and its impact on you continues for as long as the heart remembers.

After my father died in 1996, my younger brother called my mother every day. I know his calls pulled her through her grief until she cold find her spark for life again. Mother loved all three of her children, but Mark was her favorite and no wonder. He adored her as only the baby boy in a family can adore his mother, and their daily conversations were filled with gossip, sports, and laughter.

After she turned 80, Mother started pulling in her world. She went to the nail salon and the hair salon, but she had Mr. Ennis do her grocery shopping, pick up her mail at the post office, and run other errands around town. She stayed home, watched sports, and read books that Mark brought her by the armload. She loved to read, but had to put her initials at the end of a novel so she would know she'd read it already (or she'd begin it again and be half-way through before she realized the storyline was familiar). I have to admit, though I am still in my 60s, I have to put my initials at the end of the books I read.

One of my strongest memories is a time when we had driven to Oklahoma City to see relatives on my dad's side of the family. We stopped at I-Hop for breakfast, and we both got the Senior Special. Her mother had died when she was in her 30s, so I always felt blessed that Mother and I were able to grow old together .

We called her the Queen Mother, and I grew up in her shadow, for she was so boldly beautiful and steely strong and people smart and just so darn dazzling that I felt like the waning moon to a bright, bright sun.

But the truth is, I have her genes... which makes me the Princess-of-Quite-a-Lot.

Happy Mother's Day, everyone.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Church Street Retreat

Yesterday marked the inauguration of my writing retreat in Navasota. The Church Street Retreat house opened its doors to nine women who drove from Houston to write about "Life Matters," which was the theme for the day.

We had a grand day writing out bucket lists of the future plans, dreams and aspirations we have while we listened to a MP3 of Tim McGraw singing "Live Like You're Dying." The exercise helped us focus on what's really important to each of us at this stage of our lives and put us in the right frame of mind to compose legacy letters.

Legacy letters are similar to ethical wills, except ethical wills are usually kept with people's last will & testament and read after their death. People leave their material things in a last will & testament, and they leave their wisdom and values in an ethical will.

My sweetie's mother left an ethical will to her children in which she told them to prepare for heaven and the rapture by reading and living by the Word. She wrote that she loved each of them dearly and that she would see them again in the next life. A gold framed copy of that ethical will sits on the mantle in our living room.

A legacy letter, on the the hand, is one that you write and present to someone important in your life. It is one that expresses your love for that person as well as the insights you've had about life, thus far in your life (because you can write a legacy letter at any time in your life, not just toward the end of your life). For example, you could write a letter to your grandson as he is graduating from high school and traveling to another city, maybe even another state halfway across the country. You could share with him what you know now in your 50s or 60s that you wish you'd known when you were his age going off to college. Words to the wise, right?

My 40-year-old son Matthew earlier this year wrote me a letter that could easily fit the category of legacy letter. Being a modern day man, he emailed the letter rather than handwriting it, but I promise you, it is the most treasured gift he has ever given me.

The nine women yesterday wrote heart-warming letters, too. If you are one of the recipients, you will be exceedingly blessed by receiving one. If not, perhaps you can write one to someone you love or admire. In fact, if you will send me your email, I'll send you an outline for a legacy letter to get you started.

In the meanwhile, a heartfelt thank you to Carol,  Diane, Dixie, Gayla, Imelda, Lil, Nancy, MaryLynn and Wynell for making this first writing retreat so remarkable.

What's on your bucket list?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Riding the wildflowers

I love riding a motorcycle with my man. I used to ride my own Harley, but I prefer the view from the "queen seat" now. I can look around and think how blessed I am while Ronnie keeps us upright and between the lines.

We spent last weekend riding the wildflowers on the back roads around Navasota, TX, our new hometown, which, with a population of 7,000+, is the largest town in Grimes County.

On Friday we stopped first at the Filling Station Cafe and Restaurant on E Washington Ave., for breakfast, where our favorite waitress served us omelets and biscuits and coffee. After gassing up at the Valero station, we headed for Anderson, the county seat. We had business there, such as getting our vehicles registered and obtaining a DBA for writing retreats at our 1875 Victorian house.

According to the website, the county clerk's office is open from 8 am until 4:30 pm. We'd called to be sure and an answering machine repeated the same hours listed on the website. However, the door was locked when we arrived. We weren't surprised. Not really. Last Friday was Good Friday and Grimes County is a Christian stronghold, not full of profit-driven heathens like the big cities have. We, being more Christian than heathen ourselves, saw it as a sign to enjoy the countryside and took a farm-to-market road to Carlos, TX.

The sun warmed our backs and the scents of bluebonnets, buttercups, lavender, wild lilies and other field flowers filled our noses. We passed ranches where Herefords and Brahmans and Texas longhorns moseyed the pastures and glimpsed other pastures that were home to Palomino horses and goats. Vegetable gardens and lush rose bushes bumped up against ranch houses and mobile homes. Such a startling and welcomed contrast to Houston skyscrapers and concrete.

The next day we got a late start and headed in the opposite direction to Washington-on-the-Brazos. We stopped at the state park where Ronnie had to surrender his Derringer pistol while we toured the museum. Men and their guns! But I guess, after seeing Easy Rider in the 60's, a biker, war veteran and former police officer wants to be prepared for the worst on the road.

We learned some Texas history that we didn't know before, thanks to a documentary produced by Blinn College in nearby Brenham. Afterwards, we rode a back road to Chappell Hill. Farmers had planted bluebonnet seeds in fallow land, and we enjoyed the contrast of deep blue-purple against green clover and greener grass. A miniature pony farm caught our attention, but our tummies grumbled so we continued following the road to town. We stopped at a place that advertised great homemade pies, but stuck to roasted meat and mashed potatoes and collard greens. (I'm off sugar these days and Ronnie is supportive in that he doesn't feed his sweet tooth when I'm around. One more reason I love him.)

We found a pretty little nursery with big pots of lavender. I love the slender beauty of lavender stalks and the calming scent of its flowers. I did not know lavender is a natural mosquito repellent. Ronnie plans to return in the Jeep this week and load up 6 pots for our backyard patio. (See how easy it is for me to find reasons to loved him?)

We looked for roadside vendors selling homegrown tomatoes on our way home by way of Hempstead, but only saw truck beds loaded with watermelons. Oh well, no worries. Wed just have one more reason to mount that bike and ride the wildflowers.

What do you do to enjoy  the Texas springtime?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Holy Land

Today is Easter Sunday, which reminds me of my trip to the Holy Land in October. The memories of that trip have forever changed Easter for me.

Thursday I was reminded of our group's vigil in Gethsemane. I was sure I could stay awake as we remembered and honored Jesus's hour in the garden. Only one hour, 60 minutes, to show Christ Jesus that I could be vigilant where his apostles had failed. But... I fell asleep. Twice. The ego is strong, but the flesh is weak.

In Jerusalem our group made pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulcher. My spirit broke as I dipped my hand in the space where it is believed the cross of Jesus was erected. I could not control myself--tears streaked my cheeks and sobs racked my body. To think God chose, actually made the choice, to be born a helpless baby to a Hebrew mother, and then to grow into manhood to be scourged and crucified without mercy is mind-blowing and heart-breaking.

Because I was part of a Franciscan pilgrimage, my group was able to celebrate Mass and receive Holy Communion inside the burial tomb where it is believed that Jesus laid for three days. To receive Communion in the tomb, from whence Jesus rose from the dead so that we could be born again, is a definitive life-changing moment. I shall never forget the grace I felt that morning, and continue to feel every time I receive Communion.

Jerusalem today is filled with Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and they are fighting over God just as piously, righteously, and unrelentingly as always. All three of these world religions teach tolerance and love, but we are willful children who are more interested in being the rightful heirs to the kingdom than in being tolerant and loving. So we continue to marginalize and persecute each other.

God must be so weary.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Hometown memories

I'm facilitating a workshop at Story Circle Network's national conference today. The topic is "Home is Where the Heart Is," and I've been thinking about the different places I've lived, the different homes I've had, and that thinking led to the idea that one's hometown is the larger home that we all share.

Songwriters have certainly used the hometown theme to evoke strong emotional memories. The first, "Home Sweet Home," was written over 190 years ago by John Howard Payne about his early life at his grandfather's house in East Hampton, Maine.

More recently, Eric Church's "Give Me Back My Hometown" is a bittersweet ballad of faded love and bright memories. The lyrics are emblematic of every small town across the south and southwest.

I was born on an Army-Air base in upstate New York at the end of World War II, but I grew up in Texas and call Huntsville my hometown. There is a state college and a state prison in my hometown. The college, a university now, was the first teacher-training school in the southwest United States. The state prison housed the electric chair where 361 convicts died between 1924 and 1964. Most kids' parents worked at one of these institutions.

My dad was hired to teach at the college in 1949 after receiving his graduate degree from Harvard University in teacher education. When a colleague who was showing him around found out he was Catholic, the colleague turned a stone ear to any more conversation. It was awkward, to say the least. My brothers and I were oblivious to this act of unkindness. As we each entered school through the next five years, we took our turn to pray over the loud speaker which carried the message through classroom intercoms. We were supposed to write a prayer, but sometimes I forgot and so I would say one I knew from memory. Looking back, I'm sure more than one teacher, most likely a Southern Baptist or a deacon in the Church of Christ, trembled and quaked when I began reciting "Hail Mary, full of grace...." But if anyone gave me even a disapproving look, I don't remember. God looks after the innocent children.

We lived in five houses, from 1949-1967, while I was living at home full time, or hanging out between college semesters.

Our first home was a rehabbed army barracks in a place called Country Campus, east of Huntsville on Hwy 19. It had been a prisoners of war camp during the war and turned into faculty housing for a time afterwards. Families came together for family picnics. I remember watermelon, iced down in galvanized tubs, and eating out the hearts. I remember spitting seeds or taking a few and planting them. I remember hand-churned ice cream parties and adding fresh peaches or strawberries to the mix. I remember dirt-daubers and honey bees, and I remember getting stung more than once while tagging after my brothers. Today there's an 18-hole golf course there, but nothing much else.

Our second home was in town. In 1952, we moved into a two-story brick house on 15th Street. My older brother talked my younger brother into jumping off the second story soon after we'd seen Peter Pan. Stone convinced Mark he could fly, but of course, he could not. Mark missed the concrete patio by about ten inches and because he was five and still growing his bones, he suffered only a sprained ankle. God looks after the innocent children, indeed.

Our third home was across town near the college. My dad was not ready to cash in his GI bill for a mortgage, so we stayed in what my older brother called the "slump," the combination of a dump and a slum. It was in the living room of this house where my dad offered me the humongous amount of one hundred dollars to read ten books over the summer between my third and fourth grade in school. It was in the living room of this house where my older brother gave me a black eye for turning the TV channel. It was in the living room of this house that my younger brother watched Saturday westerns while dressed in his fringed Roy Rogers cowboy outfit with his 6-shooter guns strapped on.

Our fourth home was across from Piggly Wiggly grocery store. It was my favorite. Maybe because Johnny Campbell taught me how to kiss in that backyard. Probably because several other boys kissed me in the driveway and on the front porch, but none was as loved as Jimmy Scott. Both Johnny and Jimmy were victims of Vietnam. Johnny's plane crashed in the Indian Ocean; Jimmy took his own life when he couldn't re-adjust to civilian life after his year-long tour, which consisted mostly of sending home the dead in body bags.

Our fifth home was an old Victorian house next to the Methodist Church. It had stained glass windows, mahogany sliding doors, wide wrap-around porches, 15-foot ceilings, and a staircase built by convict labor in the 1800s.  In 1971 I got married in that home. My dad was walking me down the stairs when he whispered, "We can keep walking, honey, and go right out that front door." I thought it was a bad joke, but I should have listened--the marriage lasted only 5 years.

Interstate 45 bypasses Huntsville, and the town has grown toward the freeway. The drugstore and clothiers around the courthouse have been replaced by "antique" stores, filled mostly with second hand furniture, Fiesta dishware, art decor perfume bottles, mismatched china, crocheted lace doilies, plastic dolls, wooden trains, and  Mexican pottery. My parents are dead and so are a number of my friends. Most of those who are still living have moved away, many to the suburbs of Dallas or Houston, but some live out of state, one as far away as Alaska. I'll return to Huntsville this summer for my 50th high school class reunion. I'm amazed, and heartened, by how many are coming. There is no doubt, we'll listen to the music of Eric Church, and through the fragments of our shared memories, take back our hometown.

Where is your hometown?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Why I am a writer

My friend Nancy asked me yesterday in an email, "What is it that makes you want to write, that removes writer's block, that gets the creative stream flowing for you?" I see that as a 3-part question. Here's my answer.

I am the middle child, the only girl, bookended by two boys in a family that prized males. I have strong memories of my brothers shouting to be heard over each other, but when I  tried to put in my 2 cents, my parents would scold me. "Be quiet, or "Stop being so loud." I remember at least once saying (probably whining) to my mother, "Stone and Mark are being loud. Why aren't you saying anything to them?" We were in West Texas at my grandmother's breakfast table eating bacon and eggs, and biscuits and cream gravy. My brothers, ages 10 and 5 at the time, and I were having some kind of competition to show who had the fullest tummy by sticking out our bellies and each of us claiming victory. Mother answered, "They're boys." The subtext was loud and  clear even to a 6-year-old. Boys are going to be heard even if they have to shout, and they should shout to be heard because, as my mother so succinctly put it, "they're boys."  I got very quiet.

Over the years, though, I still tried to say what was on my mind or in my heart. But I'd get excited and my voice would rise several octaves, which must have threatened everyone's peace because I'd get the order: "Lower your voice!" Those three words used to paint scarlet blotches of shame across my face. Truth is, they still do. I may be in my 60s, but if you tell me to lower my vice, no matter what the reason, I become a red-faced 6-year-old. Therapy helped me understand why, but my body's response is visceral not intellectual. Is it any wonder I started writing when I was in grade school?

I write today because I want to matter. I want to be heard. I need to give voice to what I know, to what I believe, to what I dream, to what I imagine, to what I know for sure and what I'm still wondering about. I write to get your attention. Can you hear me?

Writer's block comes when I'm not sure where I'm going.  I feel like I'm stuttering and stammering, unsure of my direction, writing off the map. I'm afraid my writing looks messy and unfocused and you'll think I'm illiterate if you read it. But writer's block goes away as soon as I remind myself that writing IS messy. False starts, side trails, backtracks, do-overs, trivialities, banalities--they're all part of the stew that stirs the story. The messiness is part of the process, probably the most important part, to tell the truth. But its' not the part that goes public. It's similar to when an artist mixes paint. You're not privy to that. Only when the colors are bended to the artist's satisfaction, whether Pollock or Thomas Kincaid, do you get to view the painting. So I remind myself that writing is organically messy, and I delve into my subconscious like a child digging into finger paints and  my writer's block dissolves like sugar in the rain.

My friend and writing mentor Karleen Koen talks about "the flow." If I show up and do the work, there'll come those moments when I get into the flow. Don't worry about spelling, punctuation or any of that stuff, she advises. So I've learned to go with the flow and capture the words that bring life to the story, grammar be damned. Editing can show up later, but right now, it's me and my creative muse riding the rapids.

What keeps the creative stream flowing is two-fold: giving up myself to the process (see above) and being a voracious reader. I loooooove to read. My house is filled with hardbound and paperback books; my iPad is filled with electronic editions. I enjoy getting inside other writers' minds, seeing how they think, imagine, create. They show me, by example, how to describe a setting, turn a phrase, twist a plot and blow people's minds. They are my tribe, and I learn the art of storytelling on the pages within their books. I only have to remind myself, sometimes over and over and over again, that I'm reading the finished piece and not the messiness they embraced to get there. They inspire me, they encourage me, and they show me that writing is more lasting than the echo of young boys shouting.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Silencing the internal critic

I read somewhere that it's important to listen to the creative muse rather than the internal critic when you are writing stories from your life. Makes sense, doesn't it?

The internal critic sounds very much like the critical parent who reminds you that you are childish instead of childlike, that you're messy when you color outside the lines instead of wildly creative, that you need to tone it down instead of loudly laughing from your belly and shouting from the rooftop.

Yes, we all have strong internal critics who tell us that we have no stories that are worth hearing. That our lives are commonplace. But isn't that often the very reason for sharing them? After all, "American Graffiti" (1973) grossed over $200 million with the coming of age story that my generation shares, no matter what part of the nation we're from. I often wonder where young people gather nowadays. They don't seem to be hanging out at the Dairy Queen or driving in droves up and down Main Street. Someone told me they find a vacant, fallow field in the country and circle their cars and trucks with lights shining on the center where the beer is iced down. I have no idea if this is true or just something they tell curious old women. Guess I'll have to wait until they share their coming of age stories on down the line.

It's important to keep that internal critic from shutting you down and silencing your ability to tell your life story. If your critic is very vocal and very intimidating, you might draw a picture of him or her. I've done that for myself and I've had students do it as well. We spend an hour drawing the critic. Sometimes the result is a picture of two very large eyes watching and criticizing our pen's every move. Sometimes the result is a stern red-haired devil woman ready to smack us for revealing family secrets. Sometimes the result is enormous newspaper headlines to tell the world we're imposters--nobodies trying to be somebodies instead of staying in the shadows where we belong. Just so you know: all of these critics are LIARS. By drawing them, they "come to life" rather than being that unnamed negative force in our heads. We take the time to give them form, and then we turn them to the wall while we write. It's a ritual that seems to work for many of us.

What does your internal critic look like?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Rodeo Time

I went to Rodeo Houston at Reliant Center yesterday. The Band Perry, known for merging country with rock & roll, was the headliner.

I felt so strange. While this ain't my first rodeo, as we like to say in Texas, 2014 has such a different vibe to it. Maybe that's because my first rodeo was in 1957. It was called the Houston Fat Stock Show back then, and it was held at the Sam Houston Coliseum on Bagby Street (I think where Hobby Center is today). Roy Rogers, the king of the cowboys, was the headliner, and he brought with him the whole gang:  Dale Evans, Gabby Hayes and the Sons of the Pioneers. The songs were "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," "Cool Water," and "Ghost Riders in the Sky," rather than "If I Die Young," "Hip to My Heart," and "Independence."

Maybe it's my age, but I don't think I'm going to remember Rodeo Houston with the same awe as I still remember running down to the first row so I could shake hands with Roy and Dale as they rode their horses, Trigger and Buttermilk, around the perimeter of the coliseum arena.

I had such a crush on ol' Roy. In fact, my first career goal was to be a movie star and marry that singing cowboy. Since he was already married to Dale with a passel of children my age and younger, I'm sure I would've been satisfied if we were married in the movies only. Dale could take care of him in real life.

Roy Rogers was a role model to me and other children in my generation. He was a kind man with a song in his heart who loved the land and respected the law. A good role model, don't you think?

When you were growing up, who were your role models? 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Family dogs

My sweetie and I recently moved to Navasota, and with us came three dogs. We're a blended family--Lucy, the oldest, is his; Jazz, the smallest, is mine; and Riley, the fast-growing pup, is ours. Labrador, Shih-Tzu, and Springer.

Riley is rambunctious, rowdy, and the life of the party. He's 11 months old and leaps, like a jack rabbit or antelope, rather than runs. He love-bites Lucy, pounces on her like a kid bushwhacking an older sibling, and chases around the yard like a dust storm. Lucy is subdued and maternal, sort of like a menopausal mom. She's patient and will rough-house with Riley, tugging with a rawhide or squeaky toy, until she gets tired. When that happens, her growl will change from playful to a don't-mess-with-me tone, and Riley backs off.

Jazz, who was an only dog for six years and still hangs onto that notion, is stand-offish with the other dogs. She flops off by herself and watches the frolicking with tepid interest. She's used to being pampered, not pawed, and she sees no logic in pretending to like Riley's attention.

My sweetie fenced in the yard and put a wire kennel on the back porch for the dogs. Lucy and Riley pile together inside the kennel. There's plenty of room for Jazz, too, but she sleeps outside on the porch by the back door. What can I say? She does not share well; she wants her own space. My sweetie, who understands that every dog is as unique as its paw print, is building her something to fit.

When we leave the house for errands, I bribe the dogs with milk bones so they won't whimper and yowl. Lucy gobbles her treat in three bites. Riley takes longer, but he chomps it down pretty fast. Jazz, on the other hand, grabs her treat with her sharp little teeth and retreats under the picnic table. Like a princess having her own private tea party, she mouths the treat and takes tiny bites, making it last. Lucy will eat as many as you give her, but she won't steal from the others. Riley? Well, that's another matter. With his eyes averted, he takes the sand crab approach, walking sideways but moving closer to Jazz. Jazz isn't fooled though, and she growls around the treat that sticks out of her mouth like a slim cigarillo, letting Riley know that she'll take a piece of him before he will get a piece of her treat.

I sit in the backyard with them in the mornings while my sweetie does his man chores. Riley will pounce around the yard with a chewy bone in his mouth as a challenge to Lucy or Jazz. Sometimes Lucy will chase after him. If the chew bone drops and they continue to parry and play, Jazz will walk over, get it, and scoot back where I'm sitting in the shade of a Bartlett pear tree. She'll nestle between my feet and gnaw on the bone, confident that the other two will consider her off limits. Doesn't matter. Riley is more interested in having a good time than in chewing a gnarly old bone crusted with dirt. Lucy tires before Riley and drops in a cool bed of clover. Riley paws at her, trying to get her back in the game, but she ignores him. He gives up and bounces over to the fence to play sentry guard, checking the perimeter. The neighbor's cat, hidden in the monkey grass, is startled to its feet, and Riley howls. All three dogs are suddenly in hot pursuit, but the cat fires through the fence to safety.

My sweetie is a former police officer, so he's adamant about locking the house and securing the gates. He thinks there's an element out there in any community that, given the chance, will rob you blind, so he believes in canceling their chances. I'm more trusting, but my trust is in our dogs. They're sweet and loving and loyal. But I have no doubt, they'd eat you alive before they'd let you burglarize our home. They're territorial and protective. Just ask the cat.

Sunday, March 9, 2014


Today is the first Sunday in Lent. When I was growing up, my third generation Irish-American Catholic daddy gave up whiskey and my mother gave up chocolates. They laid their sins of the flesh on the altar and white knuckled it for forty days and forty nights.

I sacrificed, too, whatever I loved best at the time, to show Lord Jesus that a third grader, a fifth grader, a ninth grader could suffer in remembrance of his Great Sacrifice. In the early years of my childhood I gave up dessert or Coca-Cola. One year I gave up bickering with my brothers. I assure you, that was no easy task because they could be such bullies.

Another year I thought about giving up gossiping, but  honestly, I can't remember if I actually went through with it. And I would remember because it would have caused an angst that would have been seared in my memory. I was a freshman in high school, and gossip had enormous social cache.

The hardest was giving up cigarettes my junior year in college. I was a journalism major and we smoked in class, peering through the smoky haze as our fingers pecked out stories on Royal typewriters. Trust me, surrounded by the pungent second hand smoke, it was a sacrifice. But the good news is that I didn't pick them up after church on Easter morning. In fact, I didn't smoke for almost two months. But  then final exam time rolled around, and I bought a pack of Marlborough and blew smoke to fight the stress.

People still "give up" their vices for Lent, but nowadays the idea has expanded to more than giving up shortcomings. The extra step is to replace them with virtues. For example, a friend of mine has decided to curb her self-centeredness by listening to others, without judgment, with her heart's ear. In a city with four million people, it's easy to get lost in the crowd, to be anonymous and heartbreakingly lonely, so I think my friend's Lenten practice is more than selfless--it's truly inspiring. She is a prayer in action.

There are others who are volunteering at the Houston Food Bank, or being their brothers' keeper by helping returning veterans to re-enter society, or advocating for children, the wounded victims in domestic violence.

Lent is more than doing without, more than fighting the pull of carnal hunger, more than 40 days of sobriety.

Growing up as a  child, how did you celebrate the Lenten season? How, now that you are an adult, will you celebrate this season?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Family gatherings

My cousin Mike celebrated his 60th birthday this weekend. All his siblings flew in for the party. So did a slew of friends from his hometown in Baytown, TX, where his dad was a chemist for Exxon and his mother was principal of St. Joseph Catholic School.  The toasts described an adventurous kid.

Mike grew up to attend UT and then headed for Dallas to earn his law degree from SMU. Alumni from both institutions raised their glasses after retelling of high jinks and close calls from his college years and beyond. The remainder of the 95 guests at his party laughed and gasped.

His wife Sandi asked his family to send photos of Mike growing up, and there were framed photos of him at different ages: a tow-headed, skinny kid with a buzzed haircut that was so popular in the 1950s; a strong bodied, tanned youngster with his Sunfish on Black Duck Bay; a laughing, carefree young adult with a black Camero. The more recent photos were of him as an established attorney exchanging marriage vows with Sandi.

There was a deejay at the party as well, spinning a good mix of country & western, R&B, and hard rock. The dance floor attracted all ages, from 18-month-old grandson Julian (he can move his booty!) and the kids who are now in their late 20s and 30s to the older crowd, us.

My head is spinning with the stories we shared last night. A photo of Mike and his brother in pristine white suits had a couple of folks wondering. "Were they extras on Fantasy Island?" someone asked with a laugh. "No," I replied, "they're dressed for their First Communion!" One song and then another would bring back the memories of going to the Elk's Club, or doing the Garner Stomp at a state park pavilion, or singing as we washed dishes (my aunt didn't need a dishwasher with five kids and visiting cousins).

My sides are sore from all the laughing. I will admit, I shed a few tears, too.  Family ties run deeply. We're blood, and on occasions like last night, we feel the bond right to the core of our soul.

Look through your family photos. What memories do they evoke?

Sunday, February 23, 2014


My adventures as a redhead, no matter what hue, illustrate the personas I tried as I grew into womanhood. The color, the length, and the style reflected my mood, my outlook, my perception of my place in the world.

I became a redhead the summer between junior high and high school, thanks to Miss Clairol. Born Irish-American I had the peaches and cream complexion of a redhead, even had a splatter of freckles scattered across my nose, but my mother's genes from her luscious dark brunette hair mixed with those Irish genes of my dad's and the combination resulted in a mousy bland brown on my head.

That all changed in 1960. In less than an hour I became a reddish blonde.

I stayed that way for the summer, but I quickly selected more exotics reds as I moved through high school and college: Coppertone, Sparkling Sherry, Red Ginger. Oh, how I loved those rich, vibrant colors. If I were meeting  you for the first time, I didn't have to describe what I'd be wearing. Instead I'd say, "I'm a redhead." And sure enough, you could pick me from the crowd. Being a redhead was bold.

When I graduated from college and started working as a journalist, I changed from Clairol to L'Oreal. It cost about a dime more, but as the commercial said, I was worth it. It was the sixties and I was feeling the feminist stirrings of self worth. Of course, in Texas, that meant Big Hair--and the attitude to go with it. Bold became bodacious.

The length and style changed over the years as well. I wore it shoulder length. I wore it in a French twist. I wore it in a ponytail. I cut it short and spiked it with hair product. I grew it into a classic bob. I adorned my hair with turquoise burettes, silver clips, velvet headbands, fresh flowers, and braided leather. My hair was silky and thick, with a natural curl that I hated in my teens and twenties but embraced from my thirties and beyond.

For fifty years, until my hair turned so gray that the auburn dye faded too quickly, I lived life as a dramatic redhead.

Truth is, I felt unsure and insecure at many stages in my life, always thinking I needed five points added to my IQ and ten pounds deducted from my weight. So I hid behind fiery bravado. In essence, color from a bottle transformed me from blah brown to radiant red; it was an affordable and immediate transformation. I might be quaking inside but my exterior shouted brassy and sassy. It was the narrative I was writing for myself and eventually I became the character of my own invention. With each new chapter in my life, when it came time to reinvent myself, the color red was always a part of the ritual.

What is the story of your hair? How has your crowning glory changed through the years?

Sunday, February 16, 2014


When I was moving this year, I found an old Valentine’s card from my ex-husband. The card had the inscription: The best is yet to be. We divorced two years later. He broke my heart, and I didn’t think life had much to offer… I was just marking time, wanting and waiting to die.

In the cycle of life, after all endings come new beginnings. Not immediately, however. There is a middle ground—I call it the wasteland, that desert where you wander in your howling grief, being stripped down to the bare bones of you, sustained only by daily manna from God.

Barbara, Jackie, Maya, Elda, Charlotte and Wynell were my manna. They were unrelenting in their care; they fed and comforted me when I could not.

I stayed in that wasteland until I could let go of my old way of being and walk out, a “new” person. I did not jump into a new relationship after my divorce (Thank you, God!). I don’t think it was because I had good sense; I believe it was because I trusted God to lead me rather than my pushing or rushing to a new beginning. It has been a long road, but as I always believed in my heart, when I got to the other side, I knew it would be worth the hard lessons and time alone to find out exactly who I am at my core.

There is a new man in my life. We met twenty years after my divorce, and we have been together for almost three years. For Valentine’s Day, I received such a surprise when I arrived home… the sweetest bouquet of pink tulips sat right inside the front door, a bouquet of long stemmed red roses greeted me in the kitchen—along with a box of chocolate truffles—and a bouquet of red roses awaited me in the bedroom. Ron did not do this because he felt he had to compete with a memory or impress me with grandeur. He did it because he knew I didn’t expect it, and he delights in surprising me.

On Valentine’s night we went out to a local restaurant to listen to a band we know. Misslette reminded the audience that God loved us first, so if anyone was alone, to remember that none of us is alone or unloved. Truer words have never been spoken.

The last song Misslette performed was Etta James’s “At Last,” and Ron danced with me. The next morning I thought about the line in Robert Browning’s poem. The entire first stanza of the poem—not just one line—describes my life today.

GROW old along with me!

The best is yet to be,

The last of life, for which the first was made:

Our times are in his hand

Who saith, ``A whole I planned,

Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!''


Where are you in the turning points of your life today—at an ending, beginning or betwixt (in the wasteland)?