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.