Sunday, December 27, 2015

Year's End

A writing friend of mine, Laurel Siena, shared an end-of-the-year tradition that her family celebrates as Christmas approaches. Each member spends the day looking back upon his or her individual heartaches and failures, committing them to symbols, objects and writing. Some are shared, some not. "But all of them are baggage--the things of the past that serve no purpose in our future," she says. And so they sit around a solemn fire in the evening and burn them. The next day, "with clean hearts, we will begin to decorate our new living tree...." What a marevelous tradition.

I have another friend, Dick Richards, who used to turn off his phone and spend the last day of the year in reflection. In his words, he did an annual inventory of his life. Where had his personal values carried him through, and where had his character flaws brought him up short? Where did he need to improve, and what  or who did he need to let go? After he completed hs inventory, he brought out the written inventories he'd done over 40+ years and read through them. (You can see why he took the entire day and into the night.) He said the ritual allowed him to see how he was growing into the man that God created him to be. It was a lifelong process and he focused on the journey rather than any destination of having "arrived." He died April 29, 2009, at the age of 82, but his tradition is carried on. 

On a personal note, I need to let go of atttidues and behaviors that no longer serve me. I need to adopt this idea of reflecting and letting go, so I plan to put pen to paper and inventory my assets and shortcomings. Once I've cleared my head, heart and soul, I plan to start 2016 with a new tradition. I'm going to buy an empty mason jar, and throughout the year, I'm going to write down on little pieces of paper  the good things that happen to me--my daily blessings. I got the idea from Danette May, but I'm making it my own. Then on my next birthday (New Year's Eve), I'm going to open my "blessings in a jar" and read all about my amazing year.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The power of personal story

I’m working with my friend Pat LaPointe to develop a workshop curriculum for women writers, tentatively titled Life in Transition. The project has caused me to reflect on the power of words, especially the power of personal story.

Christina Baldwin, author, journal keeper, and teacher, states in her book Storycatcher: “Writing organizes the mind and the actions that lead from the mind. Over time, the decisions and choices we make in the rush of the moment are informed by the self-knowledge our story gives us. We learn that if we practiced articulating our story, if we have honored the path to this moment of writing it down, the choices we make are congruent with who we are. That is one of the primary promises of story—we live it twice: once in the experience, and again in the recording and reflecting upon our experience.”

Think about your family: who was the brightest, who was the troublemaker, the quiet one, the stubborn one, the peacemaker, the artist, the nurturer, the lost one? As children, we’re under the dominion of adults who begin to shape us by telling us we have our grandmother’s eyes, our dad’s curly hair, our uncle’s temperament… the list goes on. But as we grow into adolescence, we begin to differentiate ourselves from our family’s view of us. We try on various personas out of curiosity to see if there’s a better fit. 

I have a friend who was painfully shy as a girl, but when she got to high school, she decided she was going to shed that role and abandon her shell. She joined every school club she could fit into her schedule, and from a secure cocoon, she emerged a social butterfly. How cool is that? The point is, our fates are not necessarily determined by the dictates of our familly.  

It is written that God gives us free will, so we are (at least) co-creators of our life’s plotline. We have choices regarding the outcome of the twists and turns of our lives. Paying attention to the choices we have in life gives us the ability to be intentional and to live out loud.

A woman’s life has four distinct transitional points: girlhood, adolescence, womanhood, and elderhood. Menses heralds adolescence, and menopause announces elderhood. Each stage impacts our story, for our roles change as we leave one stage and enter another. Do we have any say in how our story develops? Of course we do. Each of us is the author of her life story. 

Pat and I are developing a program that gives you an outline of what your personal story may look like—but while our journeys may be similar, the details are unique to each of us, and it’s in the details that a story’s richness is found. In a journal, it is raw and unleashed and instructive. When it is shared, it is powerful, both for the writer and the reader/listener.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Share your story

America is known for its excess, and no other time is it more obvious than during the holidays. We're slammed with ads for Star Wars toys, Chi pets, dozens of style choices in boots, sweaters, jewelry, and cars, domestic and foreign.

Sit down and make a list of the gifts you received and gave to your beloved over the last 5 years. Some may be able to remember what you got and gave last year, but I bet you'll not remember much more than a year or two back. Never mind that the gifts probably cost a great deal of time and money.

I have a better idea this year. Consider giving your family/friends the gift of story... specifically the story of a Christmas past filled with memories you made with your beloved(s). My OWL (Older Women's Legacy) writers did that this year and shared them with each other at our annual holiday luncheon at Beverly Barissi's home before mailing them. The stories were printed on holiday-themed paper that you can get at a stationery store or online.

The stories were simple and heart-warming. Stories about sleighing downhill on snow-packed hills back East, about Grandmother's gingerbread cookies, about baby Jesus and Midnight Mass, about Christmas tamales, about heirloom and homemade decorations, about military brothers and sister coming home for the holidays, about the love and fellowship.

Sit quietly and let your mind wander to the holidays of your youth and the traditions you embraced. What sounds, sights, and aromas do you recall? What did the Christmas of past  feel like? what did it taste like? As these memories drift through your mind, let one experience grow in focus. Concentrate on the details, the joy, and let your senses flood through your pen or computer keyboard.

When you are finished, print your story on holiday paper... and share so others may re-live the memory as well. Merry, merry memories to all my friends and family!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Holiday Cooking

‘Tis the season for holiday celebrations, family traditions and making memories.
One of the most sacred customs is home cooking. Turkeys are the focal point for many family tables, but how the turkey is prepared depends on regional traditions—from deep fried turkeys with cornbread dressing to roasted turkey with oyster stuffing and every variation imaginable. The side dishes vary a bit also, but traditional recipes and menu selections run as deeply as family roots. 

Some of my favorite family stories come from my younger brother’s adherence to our mother’s choice of meal preparation. When Mark married Michelle, an ardent healthy eating homemaker, he introduced Michelle’s young son to at least two menu items he’d never experienced: white bread and beef. As Mark remembers, Kolby loved the purity of the white bread over wheat, and when the youngster tasted beef for the first time, he opined: “This is the best chicken I’ve ever eaten!”

In contrast, Mark is not as adventurous in his eating habits and resists changes to his diet. As I indicated before, he is faithful to the food he grew up with. Take, for instance, the first time Michelle cooked for Thanksgiving. She bought a free-range turkey, organic cranberries, and fresh green beans from the Farmer’s Market, among other things. Mark was mortified. “Where’d you get this stuff? Our turkey needs to be a Butterball! And this cranberry relish is all wrong. We have to have Ocean Spray cranberry sauce. And Del Monte canned beans, honey, you should have gotten Del Monte—and the string beans, not the fancy French cut.” (Oh the trials and errors we go through as newly married.)

I cooked for Thanksgiving this year. Yes, I cooked a Butterball turkey, made green bean casserole (made with Del Monte green beans, Campbell’s, cream of mushroom soup and French’s fried onion rings), along with Mother’s recipe for cornbread stuffing, Del Monte canned corn, fruit salad, and dinner rolls (with real butter not margarine). The pumpkin and pecan pies were “homemade” from HEB, but tasted as well or better than I could have done. I cooked for my man, my son and a neighbor. Afterwards Ronnie asked: “How did you know how to cook all this?” Why, from my momma, of course.

Since then I have asked my colleagues at work how they made their family holiday meal and I was so surprised to hear the younger ones (ages 30s and 40s) don’t have recipes. If they don’t go to their mother’s house, they buy the cooked turkeys and all the trimmings from grocery stores—or they take the family out to a restaurant or hotel. Okay, I Admit, I’ve done the same, but I do know how to do it myself and these friends are saying they do not.

I’m saddened. The holidays are times for family gatherings, and mealtime is the best part of it because everyone is at the same table and talking with each other… assuming the TV trays in front of the big screen and the smart phones are banned. I feel the tradition may be endangered, and that is not a good thing for us as a people.

I believe the importance of Thanksgiving and Christmas and other December family celebrations ought to be embraced and cherished. It is a time for us to reacquaint ourselves with one another in our immediate family and/or our family of choice, along with our extended family. We do this best over a beautiful meal prepared by loving hands.

I will yield to the idea that the holiday menu does not necessarily have to be rigidly followed, from mother to daughter ad infinitum, and that even favorite sons should be more open to the gifts of their wives. Michelle eased Mark away from his questionable tastes by replacing the traditional dinner of his childhood with a delicious one fit for his manly tastes, and now a tradition in their home. Among other things, it includes a prime rib roast instead of a Butterball turkey.

As for my family here in Navasota, my guys will joyfully eat anything I prepare, but I know their favorites so I think, for Christmas, I’ll prepare the first thing I ever learned to cook as a young girl in Texas: chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and cream gravy. Oh, and canned green beans and corn… you know which brand.


Sunday, November 29, 2015

Passing on the family history

Jean Murray Parker is 86 years old and very frail. Barbara Jean and I have been talking about making a visit to Norman, OK, where she lives. Aunt Jean is guardian to us both, serving that role since our Catholic baptisms, and she is the oldest living relative in our family.

I've often told people that we all have a story to tell. My aunt is the keeper of the Murray story, the story of growing up third generation Irish Catholic with an alcoholic father. She also is keeper of the early stories of her siblings--my dad and Barbara Jean's mom. Those stories are sketchy because Daddy and Aunt Kay were 13 and 10 years older than Aunt Jean. But they are long gone and any hope we have of getting any facts to go with the mythical tales our parents told us rest with Aunt Jean. So we plan to fly to Oklahoma as soon as the college breaks for the holidays. We'd drive, but the roads north of Dallas are icy and better weather is not in the forecast. With ISIS on a killing rampage in Paris, Yemen, Tunisia and Turkey and threats they will bring the bombings across the Atlantic, we know flying is risky, but we remember the terrorist who bombed Oklahoma was an American.

I'm a great believer in recollecting and recording one's life experiences, challenges, triumphs, and yes, even--and maybe especially--family secrets, so the generations to come will have access to their family history. I often give workshop participants a quick quiz, which includes questions like these:

  1. What was life like when your grandparents grew up?
  2. Where did they go to school? What were their interests?
  3. What was their hometown like? Their home?
  4. How did your grandparents meet? What was their courtship like? Their wedding?
  5. What were their biggest challenges as parents?
  6. What job(s) did they have?
  7. Did they struggle or thrive during economic hard times?
  8. What were the  traditions of the family?
  9. What was the hardest lesson(s) they learned?
  10. What were their values?
Can you answer these questions about your grandparents? Can your grandchildren answer these questions about you? It's only been recently--with the popularity of FaceBook and other social media--that people have begun to track their happy moments and sad times. Going public, however, isn't necessary. There's a reason we all know what TMI stands for. Having said that, I believe your family should know about the lives and lessons of their relatives. Family history provides a moral compass for descendants.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Mosquito Control

My cousin Barbara Jean is visiting us this week, and we’ve entertained each other with tales of growing up in the late 1950s. It is amazing to me that children of this era share similar stories even though they lived miles and miles from each other.

Sitting on the porch and drinking coffee this morning, Ronnie told us about the trucks that drove up and down the alleys in Pampa, TX, spraying chemicals to rid the night of biting mosquitos.  They called the drivers “smoke men” and chased after them, inhaling the sweet aroma of DDT. Since DDT has no odor, the scent must have been added by the city’s public works department—or maybe from the manufacturers—so people could be assured the pesticide was saturating the air.

Barbara Jean and I responded with our own stories of the numerous times my family visited hers in Baytown, TX. Our parents, enjoying their cocktail hour, frequently sent us children outside to play in the dusk. More times than not, that meant chasing the mosquito killing trucks that drove around the neighborhood. Summer after summer, we probably inhaled enough DDT to grow an extra set of ears.

Breathing DDT particles in the air, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, affects the nervous system.  The government agency says the pesticide was used on insects that carried malaria, so Americans had a choice: Would folks rather be eaten alive by mosquitos that might be carrying deadly diseases or douse themselves with harmful repellents full of potentially dangerous chemicals? In the 1950s manufacturers convinced the public to choose the latter.  Given the choice, the danger of malaria trumped any concerns about neurological problems.

Times have changed. Today, DDT is banned in the U.S. and has been since 1972.
The replacements for DDT, however, are not free of side effects. Products with high concentrates of DEET can cause rashes, disorientation, and seizures. Picaridin and oil of lemon eucalyptus are two other repellents that have come to stores in the last decade. Experts say these repellents make good alternatives to DEET. They also have side effects, but they are less serious… temporary irritation of the skin, eyes, and/or lungs. (I guess temporary is the descriptor that makes them less serious.)

The fact is, three-fourths of the American public, according to Consumer Reports, are more concerned about West Nile and other deadly diseases carried by those pesky flying insects that populate warmer climates than any side effects the pesticides have. As the old saying goes, “Better living through chemistry.”

But is it the right call? I don’t know.

I can only tell you this, decades later, neither Barbara Jean, Ronnie, nor I have any more visible ears than the original two God gave us. As for the mosquitoes that are swarming around us in the late afternoons, they are keeping their distance. Our nervous systems? That’s a different story.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Sisterhood Retreat

I'm getting my groove on.

In another week I will be host the Sisterhood Retreat for a group of Lone Star College female students. A group of them came last year and we had such a delightful time that my colleague Cassandra Boyd and I decided to make it an annual event. I affectionately call my small town Nava-slow-da, and it is, which makes it a perfect place for students to get away from the frantic scrabble of college-work-family and slow their pace for reflection and renewal.

I’m welcoming these female students into my 1875 Victorian home, which sits on a corner in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Navasota. I’m creating a space where they can search inside their heads and hearts and share their stories of struggle and triumph. They will write, they will dance, they will talk, and in doing so, they will honor and support each other’s dreams.

Nothing is stronger than a circle of women sharing their stories.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Día de Muertos/ Day of the Dead

Today is Día de Muertos — the Day of the Dead —one of the biggest holidays in Mexico, and its celebration has crossed the Texas-Mexican border. Tradition says during the time of the Aztecs, a month-long summer celebration was overseen by the goddess Mictecacihuatl, the Lady of the Dead. After the Aztecs were conquered by Catholic Spaniards, the customs became intertwined with the Christian commemoration of All Saints' Day.

I love the tradition, mostly because it is so different from my Celtic Halloween tradition that fears death. Instead of scaring away ghosts, we welcome the souls of the departed on Día de Muertos.

Today I honor the deceased from my family two generations back: my maternal grandparents E.J. and Elise Porter Stone, my paternal grandparents Thomas J. and Elinor Meis Murray, my parents Thomas F. and Joyce Elaine (Lane) Stone Murray, my father’s sister Kathleen Murray Tarski and my mother’s brother Jack Porter Stone. My brothers and I are now the Elders of the family.

I also honor my childhood friend Charlotte Ann Stout Lynch. We became friends in the third grade. She grew up in a hotel with her father and grandmother. I lived down the street in a house my older brother dubbed the “slump,” part slum and part dump. I finished college in three years; Charlotte dropped out about 6 credits from having her bachelor’s degree. My dad convinced her to finish it long after she’d begun working as an accountant for Gulf Oil. After that, she earned her CPA and then went on to finish a law degree. That’s when I realized many people “stop out” of school rather than drop out.  Only governmental agencies and thoughtless people label them as losers. I was maid of honor in her wedding; she held the reception for mine in her home. We were planning a girlfriends’ weekend getaway on a Mexican beach when she died from a blood clot, a complication from minor surgery. I still miss her.

I honor Johnny Campbell who taught me to kiss one summer night on the back porch. He was a senior and my older brother’s best friend. I was a 15-year-old high school freshman and instantly in love after that long, steamy kiss. My mother made sure I never got another by forbidding me to date him. I never quite forgave her until I learned many, many years later that my mother was 15 and a freshman in college (she was incredibly smart, don’t you know) when a football player asked her out. Now I understand that she knew the regret that could come from kissing a boy who was too old and worldly. I thought she was being mean, but she was being protective.

And I honor James Alexander Scott who I never married, but loved so dearly throughout high school. We were so innocent and so hot for each other. If you ever saw the movie “Splendor in the Grass,” you know the teenage angst we felt. He went to Viet Nam when he was eighteen, and although he returned, he never came back, if you know what I mean. Jimmy’s job was to put the American dead in body bags before sending them home. He became part of the walking wounded, and he committed suicide in his sister’s backyard when he was forty. I still ache thinking about the twisted pain he must have felt all those years, and I curse my government for continuing to send our young to war on foreign soil.

Today especially, I honor the souls of these dearly departed who remain in my heart. They were important people in my younger life, for they helped shape me into the woman I am. God hold them close and fill them with heavenly bliss throughout eternity.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Hands of Time

Art Linkletter always said, "Kids say the darnedest things." He was right, too. Perhaps that's because they are so observant of their physical world, but blind to the subtleties of mature egos. That certainly describes my niece Megan Lane in those precious years when she grew from a toddler to a little girl.

I remember a day when my mother was sitting in her favorite leather chair watching the Astros play baseball on television, and Megan approached her and gazing down at her hands, asked, "What's wrong with your hands?"

Puzzled, my mother answered, "Nothing's wrong with them, sweetheart. Why?" Megan didn't say anything, but placed her tiny plump hand next to Mother's hand. Megan's milky, almost translucent skin looked like smooth alabaster next to the lined, freckled with age spots hand of her grandmother.

Mother chuckled with understanding. "Oh, sweetheart, Grandmother's hand is just old." She lovingly stroked the back of Megan's hand. "And your hand is young."

Later that evening Megan was romping with my dad--her grandfather. He tickled her tummy and gave her butterfly kisses until she got hiccups from laughing. Exhausted, she crawled up in his  lap and grasped his hands. "Look!" she squealed in sudden discovery. "You have hands like Grandma Lane's."

He grinned. "How's that, baby? You think they're pretty?"

She touched the back of one hand and played connect-the-dots with the liver spots that age had tattooed on him. "Pretty old," she murmured.

Ha! No doubt about it, with that innocent quip, Megan should have been the headliner in Art Linkletter's next television special. The memory still stirs laughter in my heart.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

My maternal grandmother

I was cleaning out a box this morning and found the bulletin from my grandmother's home church in Sudan, TX, dated Oct. 7, 1956. The bulletin is yellowed with age, and most certainly a manual typewriter was used to type the information about services, including the fact that "139 were present in classes last Lord's Day to study the Will of the Lord," and that "Granny Hanson seems to be getting along very nicely now. She is 96 years young this month."

Within the Church of Christ folded bulletin, I found these words:

Funeral services for Sister E.J.* [Elise Porter] Stone were conducted in the church last Wednesday afternoon by Brother Blake. She passed away Monday morning in the West Texas Plains Hospital, Muleshoe. Much could be written and spoken concerning the life and deeds of this fine woman, but space and feeble words cannot convey the fullness of life as she lived it. When we think of her life, above all we think of her as a faithful, devoted Christian, an untiring worker in the Lord's Kingdom, a loyal companion, mother, citizen, and builder of this community, state, and nation. 

She loved all people---little children, middle-aged, and elders, and they all in turn loved and respected her. She was a continual source of inspiration and encouragement to all who were doing anything worthwhile. She loved that which was good, high, holy, wholesome, and pure, and abhorred that which was base, evil, and ungodly.

She was an outstanding scholar of the Bible, having spent many long hours in its study, in preparation for teaching classes, in preparing for living life, and especially in preparation for life eternal. She possessed a broad knowledge on many subjects, and was a good conversationalist. Her mind was keen and had been developed to a high degree.

There will always be that vacant seat in the church, in her home, in the community, and everywhere she went. Even though she is not present in body, we know that in spirit and that her good works and deeds will last throughout this present world & extend into eternity.

Let us each be courageous and fight the good fight as she fought it, and lay up treasures in heaven as she did. May God's richest blessing abide with [husband] Sib and his children as they go through the period of readjustment.

As I finish reading, I think about how my grandmother cashed in her Texas teacher retirement (she had taught 3rd grade) so that my mother could complete her senior year at Texas Tech and become a teacher. My mother went on to be hired as the founding superintendent of the Windham Schools, within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Mother and my daddy paid my tuition through Sam Houston State Teachers College so I could become a teacher, and I paid my son's way through University of Texas so he could be a teacher, too. Yes, my grandmother was a source of inspiration and encouragement, but her vacant seat has been filled with three generations (and counting) of believers in God's Word and Texas educators.

Her legacy lives on.

*  Eusebius Jefferson Stone was my grandfather's name. He went by "Sib."

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Violence in America

A 26-year-old student armed himself with two handguns and an assault rife last Thursday morning and headed for his Oregon community college on a killing spree. The Umpqua Community College is closed until tomorrow. Counting its dead, comforting its survivors.

With the 10 casualties in Oregon, the total deaths in the U.S. by mass shootings this year is 380.  We are 274 days into the year; another 90 days to go. A brutal future that replicates the past is likely.

I get it, the NRA will make sure guns are not banned in this country. Gun ownership is in the Constitution--a second amendment right. But precious, innocent human beings are being sacrificed. Gun safety needs to be examined, analyzed, and made public law. As journalist Nicholas Kristof writes: We need an evidence-based public health approach so we can learn to coexist with guns in our society.

Otherwise, doing the same thing over and over again will get the same results--as the statistics are showing.

But they are more than numbers; they are human beings.


Sunday, September 27, 2015

The day you were born

The first time I attempted writing about my life was in the ninth grade. Mrs. Burton, my English teacher, assigned the class the task of writing our autobiographies. Of course, my life was far from over, so the autobiography was short, more of a memoir than an autobiography. Although the paper has long been lost, I still remember my dramatic opening, which described my birth day in upstate New York: 'Twas New Year's Eve and bitter cold that morn of '45. 

Quite the budding literary, don't you think? Obviously I was not writing from my birth memory, but from my parents' story of my birth. Were you a joy to behold or a disappointment because you weren't a boy? We are shaped by the stories our family tells about us.  Looking back, what impact did these stories have on your self-confidence as you grew from a toddler to a girl, to a teenager, to a woman?

Our culture also shapes us. What were the major events surrounding your birth? I was born at the end of World War II in an Army Air Corps base hospital outside of Rome, New York. The war was over, but my father was still in the service because he was one of the clerks who processed thousands of discharge papers so others could be mustered out. There was already a first born son and money was tight, so Daddy was very, very happy that I came on the last day of the year because I counted as a tax deduction for the entire year. He reminded me of this fact throughout my life--my brothers teased me and said my tax credit was what made me his favorite child.

Another interesting note about my birth: I was a Sooner Boomer; that is, I arrived a day earlier than the official date for identifying Baby Boomers, which is 1946. Truth is, I've always felt a little like the settlers in Oklahoma who sneaked in to stake their homestead a day ahead of the official opening day in 1889. Those Sooners got the choice sections since they got in ahead of the masses. Similarly, as a Sooner Boomer, I enjoy receiving my monthly social security check while late Boomers worry the agaency is going bankrupt.

What's your story? Do some research and discover what people's interests were when you were being born. Read the headlines from the newspapers. Look through old almanacs. There are sites, like, that have summaries of every year regarding politics, science, literature, etc. It's fascinating to know what was going on in your community and the world at large on that important day, the day you were born.This was the environment and social climate that surrounded your arrival.

Take time to examine the world as it was when you showed up to join the human race. Knowing your history helps in making sense of your life.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Shopping with my BFF

I’m going shopping with my best friend today. We were going to go Saturday, but the Aggies were winning a football game on Kyle Field, which meant College Station was one huge tailgate party.

I love shopping with Wynell. We both like similar things, so we’re constantly holding up outfits for each other and saying, “You should try on this.” Chico’s is our favorite boutique, but we only look at the sale rack now. Macy’s is on the list because… well, honestly, Macy’s always has a sale going on. And then we hit the off-price/discount stores: Marshalls, DSW, and TJ Maxx.

My sweetie says there is no room for more clothes because I have already taken over three closets in the Navasota home and one closet in the Houston condo. But he’s wrong. I recycled four bags of skirts, dresses, jackets, and shoes last week.

Besides that, it is not necessary to actually buy something when I go shopping with my BFF. The most fun is to take different things from different racks and put them together, such as a red jacket with grey slacks, and an ivory silk blouse, paired with several ropes of pearls and silver hooped earrings. I call it playing Barbie, grown-up style. (People in the stores call it fashion merchandising and pay employees to do it.) When we’re through with our pairings, we may or may not buy. After all, the real fun is in the shopping.

My cousin Barbara Jean and I have shopped our way through Hawaii, Ireland, Greece, and Israel. As a result, I have the most exquisite scarves, spectacular earrings, and unique rings. My “aunt” Alice and I can shop anywhere, even in an airport, and find great sales items. We shopped for silver and turquoise one year in Santa Fe, and when we returned a whole year later, three different shop keepers in three different stores remembered us. Not because we bought all their merchandize but because we always make shopping such a party. (Okay, maybe we did buy some pretty amazing pieces, but we left a lot on the counter as well.)

When my childhood friend Charlotte was still alive, she, her younger sister Janice, and I would go to the various church Christmas festivals around Houston and to the specialty shops in Kemah every year. We entertained each other with the wildest “finds” for the relatives on our lists and laughed till our sides hurt. We would hit downtown Macy’s for its after-holiday sales, which was always so empty on a Saturday that it was like having our own private store. Janice still has a Y2K sweater she got for mere pennies on the dollar. It is a stunning designer sweater that should be good for any New Year's Eve party until the next millennium.

I am amazed that there are women who hate shopping. Not me. I go every chance I get. Maybe it’s because shopping isn’t so much about the clothes and accessories  as it is about friendship and being with the girlfriends I love. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

A secret worth sharing

I remember having a reaccuring dream over the better part of a summer when I was in my mid-thirties. In the dream I discovered the secret to life, and each night I dreamed it, I'd wake so happy. But… I couldn’t remember what the secret was! I only knew that whatever it was brought me great joy. Each morning I’d awaken with the answer just on the other side of slumber. I wanted so much to bring the answer to consciousness because I knew it would change my life. 

Finally, finally, FINALLY, I awoke one morning and the answer slipped into consciousness as the sunrise peeked through my curtains. The secret to life is attitude.

And it is. 

No matter what happens to me, or to loved ones in my family, or to my community, or to my world, I have a choice.

Will I react or respond?

Reaction is that knee-jerk retort: freeze, fly away or fight. It usually comes from that deep down loser attitude of being a victim to my circumstances.

Response comes after I breathe deeply, several times, and feel myself grounded and connected to my Higher Power before making my choice. When I respond from a stance of calm, the attitude I have is one of intellect and heart. I have an acceptance of what is, and almost instantaneously, I have the ability to see possibilities for healthy change.

It’s all in attitude. Nothing changes but my attitude. And yet, with that change, everything changes.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Honky tonkin' in Navasota

We went to the Dizzy Llama last night. It’s a local bar complete with pool tables, dart boards and lots of town folk out having a good time. It’s the part of Navasota they call Navagetdownsota.

We ran into our favorite waitress Kristi who used to work at the Filling Station Cafe and Diner before it closed. She introduced us to her new sweetheart Robert. Tall, blond, knock-dead handsome. The best part, he is very, very good to her. It warms my heart to see twentysomething-year-olds delight in each other as they test the waters of new love.

Our friend Mitch White was there with his band Brickyard Kane. The band is solid now with Jarret  on drums, Kevin on bass, Tyler on lead and Mitch on rhythm guitar. Primo badass and rollicking fun. The beer (and O'Douels "make believe beer") came to the table icy cold and the music was hip-swaying hot. We had the best time.

Brickyard Kane recently signed a three year contract with Bad Dog Records. Soon they will be traveling across the country promoting an album they’ll cut with their new label. Mitch said 12 weeks on and 2 weeks off. I think they will find it hard living on the road, but they are excited about the chance to hit the charts with their Texas blues rocker sound. They'll play like they did tonight with guitars blazing, drums pounding till the walls shimmy, and Mitch shouting the blues and rocking full throttle. 

Just think, Ronnie and I will be able to say we knew these guys when they were first starting out. How cool is that?

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Lunch in Brenham

After a dreary winter, my sweetie and I mounted our Gold Wing trike this weekend and joined the other bikers on the farm-to-market (FM) roads in this part of Texas. There were quite a few on the road between here and Brenham, which was our destination.

We traveled Hwy105 west, enjoying the cool undercurrent in the warm air. We're still under a burn ban, but I smelled timber smoke about 8 miles out of town. Whoever was snubbing his nose at the law must have incinerated his pile of tree stumps, trunks, and limbs late last night because no smoke colored the horizon. The smell, however, was distinct.

We had lunch at the Must Be Heaven Sandwich Shoppe, a destination eatery in historic downtown. With Mitch's Filling Station Café and Diner closed, it's been hard to find a place in Navasota for lunch. Yes, there's the Dairy Queen, Cow Town out by the livestock auction barn, a barbecue place by the Roadway Inn, and Eric's Mexican restaurant, but none of them has the mouth watering food that Mitch served (even if FourSquare touts Cow Town's burgers as "the best in town."). So yesterday, we headed west. It's only 30 miles to Brenham, the county seat of Washington County and home to Blue Bell Creameries.

We feasted on fat Reuben sandwiches, made with butter-toasted wheat bread instead of rye. The mouthwatering sauerkraut would make your German grandmother jealous. We each ordered a side of broccoli salad, created from a closely held secret recipe, blending cheese, bacon, mayo, and amazing herbs together in a way I haven't figured out how to replicate.

The restaurant is decorated in country chintzy; the music is vintage American rock 'n roll.  The syrupy lyrics of "To Know Him is to Love Him" brought back memories of slow dancing on prom night in the high school gymnasium. Perfect music for belly rubbing, until, of course, one of the old biddy chaperones marched out on the basketball court and pulled you apart from your pimply faced boyfriend.

Ronnie and I took our time, enjoying our lunch and each other's company. Only one item could have made the meal perfect, and yes, we did try to order a dish. But, alas, we were told Texas's favorite dessert will not return until Monday. I bet folks line up around the block tomorrow at lunch for a taste of Blue Bell. It's been a looooong time without.




Sunday, August 23, 2015

Small Town Problems

In this week’s newspaper, The Navasota Examiner, the front page reported how the county judge gave pay raises to employees in a couple of departments without the county commissioners giving their okay. The commissioners thought the employees shouldn’t get across the board raises, even if they were underpaid sheriff deputies. Instead, they thought all the employees should get merit raises; in other words, they should earn their raises.

Well, I’m here to tell you, if that happens, I think the public works employees shouldn’t get squat. (Maybe the county doesn’t have them on payroll; maybe they’re city workers. I get confused about who works for whom since they are all public employees who actually get paid by my neighbors and me--the taxpayers.)

Here’s why I’m peeved at the city works department.

My sweetie and I recently hired the services of ABC Lawn Services from College Station to trim the trees in our front yard. When they were finished (and they did a great job), they gathered the limbs and neatly stacked them in the side yard. We waited three weeks for “heavy trash day." Five men and a truck with a heavy-duty wood chipper machine showed up on Monday morning, looked at our neat piles, and before Ronnie could get downstairs to talk with them, they’d put a slip of paper on the front door with the pre-printed message: Quantity Too Large. If they hadn’t hopped on the truck and already hustled four blocks down the street, I think my man would have chased them.

Ronnie and I had been reading about the brouhaha over city services in The Examiner during previous months, and these workers’ actions were totally passive-aggressive.  You see, the city workers have been balking at the growing trash from broken tree limbs (caused by the dry drought followed by wind and rain). The city council talked about adding an additional charge to our city bill to motivate the workers, but the retired folks raised hell about being on fixed incomes. Then, the city council talked about requiring residents to cut the limbs into sticks and bundle them, but the retired folks raised hell again, this time about ailing bodies and weak backs. I don’t remember ever reading anything about the amount. Which brings up the question: How will the amount diminish if city workers refuse to pick up any of it? Should we ask neighbors to take 5x5x10 lots of it and spread it out so the five workers can spend the day stopping at three houses instead of one?

I’ve been mad as an African killer bee all week, but my man has a cooler head focused on solving problems. Instead of raising Cain, Ronnie had my son come up from Houston with two male buddies on Friday. They took care of the tree limbs, easy peasy—and cleaned out the garage.

The best part, it only cost a six-pack of Bud Light from the Valero gas station and two large Super Supreme pizzas from Pizza Hut.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Filling Station Cafe and Diner

The Filling Station Café and Diner is closed, and I am heartbroken. This Navasota eating establishment has been a central meeting place in our new hometown. Ronnie and I first stopped here when we came to Navasota to see the house we now live in. Mitch, who was the proprietor, greeted us, and waitress Kristi served us homemade cherry pie topped with vanilla Blue Bell. Their friendliness and menu hooked us from the get-go, and we stopped there for breakfast or lunch on a weekly basis for 18 months.

Mitch was our guide in setting up house and settling in. We asked him for recommendations regarding a family physician, the best place to buy meat, how to find nightlife without driving all the way to College Station, and where to find a reliable plumber, housekeeper or lawn service. He always pointed us in the right direction.

Last Sunday Mitch’s daughter headed off to Texas State University, and Mitch is moving on as well. He and some buddies formed a band a while back—Brickyard Kane—and they’re really good. Old school rock music and a flair for fun on the bandstand, they always attract a crowd. A Mississippi record producer approached them a few weeks ago, so maybe the band is going to be more than a serious sideline for him. With Rebecca in college, Mitch can focus on his other aspirations.

I wish him well, of course. But I wish he had given me his recipe for chicken ‘n dumplings.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Love Bug

The summer before I entered high school my parents went to New Orleans on a couple’s vacation—meaning none of us three kids accompanied them—and they returned in a matador red 1960 Volkswagen convertible with a tan rag top and tan interior. Anyone who attended Huntsville High School during the 1960s remembers that snappy little foreign car. She was the first VW to appear in my hometown, and made quite an impression on the townsfolk.

I learned to drive in that car, with its stick shift and rear engine. Like many classmates, I took driver’s education from Coach Lewis and got my license when I was fourteen years old. The Volkswagen was like riding around in a pregnant roller-skate. But my, oh my, what great mileage it got! With gas at 29.9 cents per gallon, we could drive around all night—even travel to the next town and home again—for less than a dollar.

My older brother was seventeen when my folks brought home that red bug. He was dating the newspaper editor’s daughter and the first time Stone drove the convertible over to pick her up for a date, her father wanted to know what he was doing in one of Hitler’s cars, asked him if we’d become communists.

The scariest and most exhilarating time in the car had to be the night my younger brother played car tag with his friends. Eight of us were crammed in that little bug with its top down—two in the front seats, three in the backseat and three of us sitting across the back and hanging on for dear life by grabbing the canvas convertible top. Mark easily drove 40-50 mph, careening down side streets through dark neighborhoods, twice dousing the headlights, trying to escape our pursuers. I have no idea what would have happened if we’d been caught, either by the other kids in their cars or by the local police, but I believe we are lucky to have lived to tell the tale.

My brothers taught me how to disconnect the speedometer cables so our parents wouldn’t know I drove to Trinity to buy beer, or to Conroe to see a boyfriend, or to the rock quarry to swim in the moonlight. Most of the time, though, I parked that sweet ride at the Tastee Freeze where my girlfriends and I drank Cokes and flirted with boys who cruised by real slow.

Both brothers and I drove that car throughout our high school years, and I took it to Austin for the semester my dad sent me to University of Texas to experience Southwest Conference football. By then, first gear didn’t work anymore, so uphill streets with stop signs had to be avoided. (I learned that lesson the hard way.)

When I got out of college, the first car I bought was a Volkswagen. An air-conditioned 1967 Beetle, it cost around $1,800. I was teaching at Spring Woods High School in Houston, and my students placed a TIGERPOWER bumper-sticker across the back. Following that, I owned several other Volkswagens, including two VW buses, but my favorite was that 1960 convertible. I was sad when the last Beetle rolled off the Puebla, Mexico, assembly line in the summer of 2003. The end of a groovy era.

Now, I drive a Mini Cooper.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

It all began a long time ago...

Someone asked me last week how long have I been writing, which has brought back the memories of how my love for writing began…

In the seventh grade, my friends Gail Allman, Linda Ryan, Carolyn Taylor, and I started an organization called “Future Writers of America.” We had no adult adviser although Linda often checked with her mother and inserted conversationally “Mama says…” before we voted on new rules or made big decisions. I can’t remember what any of those were other than I insisted members had to actually write stories or they couldn’t be in the club. I wrote westerns, fashioned after the characters on “Wagon Train,” “Rawhide,” and “The Rifleman.”  

Having no filing cabinet, much less an office, I kept my novel-in-progress on the floor of my closet for two years. My mother repeatedly griped and scolded me about “the mess in your closet” until, in a spiteful fit of anger, I threw away the unfinished manuscript and asked in that belligerent tone teenagers have, “Satisfied?” Yes, as a matter of fact, she was. I, on the other hand, deeply regret that I tossed the novel instead of putting it in one of my dresser drawers. (Spitefulness is a character flaw that raised its ugly head in my teens and still can bring ruckus to my life if I don’t turn from my emotions and use the brain God gave me.)

I stopped writing, other than high school compositions, until my sophomore year when I signed up for journalism. Once again, I found my passion. Karey Bresenhan was the faculty adviser of the school newspaper, the Hornet Hive, and I can still remember her perfect handwriting above my typed articles where she suggested edits to my pieces. She served as my copy editor; I paid attention and improved. 

(An interesting aside: Karey is now president of Quilts, Inc., and director of International Quilt Festival and International Quilt Market. Quilting, throughout history, has been a creative way that women have stitched stories into fabric.)

I stayed with journalism throughout college, even majored in school public relations in my master’s program. I’ve depended on my writing skills in every job I’ve had and I have also freelanced my writing, on the side, throughout my adulthood. My best year of freelance brought $20,000 extra income to my bank account. I don’t write for the money, but it is tasty “frosting on the cake,” as they say.

My current novel-in-progress is in my computer, with a back-up on a thumb drive and a hard copy in a 3-ring notebook. My mother is probably standing beside St. Peter and smiling from heavens’ gate at my organized tidiness. My mentors and teachers, Karleen Koen and Charlotte Gullick, continue their encouragement.

I am a writer. Writing is what I do. It is my passion, my purpose. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Lifting the sag

For my entire writing career I have struggled with “sagging middles,” fighting and failing to sustain a story’s plot in the middle. That’s right: I can write a riveting opening and a memorable ending, but the middle of my novels sag like an old mattress, whether writing a rollicking romance or a thriller-suspense. 

My last novel, Undercover, was a finalist in the Writers’ League of Texas 2013 Manuscript Competition, but judges only considered the first section, and as I said, I sizzle when it comes to the opening scenes. Alas, I have sent the novel to a dozen agents who have returned it with a “no thanks… not the novel for me… good luck…”

I’ll be honest. These rejections unleashed my Internal Critic constant taunt: “Why are you still writing? You know you’re gonna write another milquetoast middle.” I stalled on Chapter 5 of my current novel.

But no more.

I’m home from the summer writing retreat, sponsored by Writers League of Texas, in Alpine, TX, and I am so PUMPED. Thanks to the amazing novelist Charlotte Gullick, I am confident that I have the skill-set to lift and tighten those middles by following her advice.

I finally understand revision, as in “re-vision,” as in “see with a different lens.” I’m ready to look at my Undercover manuscript again, but today I’ll use a focused lens to review the plot. Does the character in each scene have a goal? Is there a drama in each scene? Predictability breeds reader boredom.

It’s okay if you don’t understand, because I do, and I am sure that Undercover, after its next revision, will be marketable. 

The current novel? No longer stalled, it awaits its turn in line.

NOTE: Please order Charlotte Gullick’s novel By Way of Water on She is a phenomenal novelist (referred to as “the current John Steinbeck” by Jody Pryor—and I agree, although I think she carves a deeper emoitonal landscape). She is also a creative writing professor at Austin Community College, and all I can say about that is, her students are both lucky and blessed.

Sunday, July 19, 2015


When I look back over my life, I know that courage got me where I am today, but creativity is the personal trait I truly embrace. I claim it all: create, recreate, co-create.

I have been working on several writing projects over the summer, and I'm very excited about the results. First, I developed a 6-week course on "Writing the Journey into Womanhood" for the Jung Center in Houston, which will be offered this fall. The course will focus on girlhood, womanhood, and elderhood with writing prompts to encourage deep reflection regarding each phase.

I also finished a workbook last month that takes people through the common themes of memoir writing: home, family traditions, education, courtship, important people/role models, choices, and spiritual wisdom. I've titled it Stories from a Well-Lived Life Workbook, and it'll be available on my website soon.

More recently I finished a proposal for a TEDxTalk in October that is being sponsored by Lone Star College-Tomball. I want to give a talk on "The Power of Words," and how expressive writing can lead to inspriation, healing, and change. I'll know in August if I'm among those selected. (Prayers to the Great Creator are much appreciated.)

All of this creating and co-creating has been absolutely exhilarating. But I have to be honest... my creative juices are beginning to dry out. So I've come to the well of creativity, surrounding myself with like-minded writers and poets at a weeklong writers' retreat in far west Texas. I will soak in their intoxicating creativity until I am so satiated that my imagination generates its own adrenalin-charged ideas to the zenith once again.

Sweet mercy, I love my life.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Loss of innocence

My father brought me into the living room and directed me to sit on the divan. My 5-year-old body barely caused a dent in the pillowed bench. Excitement beat like a jackhammer along my skin--I was delirious.

"Abra-ca-da-bra." My father intoned the beginning of a chant that would create a toy beneath the cushion.

My 7-year-old brother slithered  into the room. "It's fake. Look now. The toy is already there!"

What? Really? My eyes widened, and I started to get up, but my father placed a gentle hand on my shoulder.

"Don't listen to him," my father warned. "If you look, you'll kill the magic."

But like Eve in the Garden, my curiosity had been unleashed by a snake, this time in the shape of my older brother.

I can still see my father's eyes, kind and steady, willing me to remain innocent and rely on his magnificent magical powers to feed my wonder. Countless times his magical chant had created a plastic doll, or a book of rhymes, or a wooden whistle, or some other marvelous prize. When I tried to conjur a toy without his presence, even though I'd repeat his chant, I could create nothing. My father was the Great Magician... Or was he?

Curiosity nipped at the edges of my developing brain. I turned to my brother.

"Do it! Look! He's tricking you!" My brother jumped around like popcorn on a hot skillet.

Time stopped as my eyes danced between my father and my brother.

Curiosity won out over obedience and I jumped up, raised the cushion, and discovered the bright red ball.

"Okay," my father said, resignation tainting his acquiescence.

The full reality of the moment sunk in and I knew two things: I could keep the ball, but the game of magic was over. Forever.

I felt like I imagine Eve felt in the Bible story...  so very sorry, and couldn't we just pretend that I'd never looked? But it didn't matter how I felt--the veil of magic had been pierced, and my world was forever changed.

Years later, looking back on this memory, I see a third thing in this experience: Curiosity. I took ownership of this powerful emotion that afternoon. I think it's good that I did because curiosity is what eventually leads us from our comfort zone of safety and onto a path of adventure. Without it, we'd never leave home when it's time to journey into the larger world.

I have to say, truth be told, I'd rather have the driving curiosity I have today than a childlike, childish innocence.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The taming of a cat (and much more!)

Anne Kaier has written a lovely memoir about rescuing a stray cat, bringing him home to her new house, and building a relationship that helps make her house a home for the both of them. She has been on a blog tour with her book, and I invited her to Sunday TOAST so she can share her process with us.

JB: Anne, can you tell us what compelled you to write this delightful book, Home with Henry?

AK: Curiosity played  a large part. I had literally picked up a wounded feral cat after someone had hit him in a busy road. I had no idea what to do with him. After the vet checked him out, I brought him home to live with me. However, he hid under the bed and hissed every time I approached. Who, except for my dear vet, would give me advice about how to tame him? It was 1997. The internet was in its infancy, so I couldn't go online to get help. I kept a journal to record Henry's daily progress--or lack of it--so I would have a record of what happened. I thought it would be interesting to reread in later years. When I stopped keeping the journal, I realized I had a manuscript that people might enjoy reading. When a publisher approached me, I thought a cat memoir would reach a broad audience. Home with Henry is now my publisher's best selling book.

JB: What are the themes you explored in this memoir? Did they emerge organically in writing the draft, or did you purposely choose the themes before you began writing?

AK: Life as a single woman is a major theme. How do you construct a kind of "alternate family" when you are single and, as in my case, have no children? I purposely included my adventures with my friends and my nephew Tommy, a frisky ten-year-old, to show how I have brought people into my life. The human-animal bond, with all its joys, is obviously a major theme. The importance of work friends is also a biggie. I wanted to include scenes set at work because my work friends helped me as I was taming Henry. The city dweller's need for a natural world also figured in the book. Some of these themes appeared in my original journal entries, which became the first draft of the book. Others, such as the emphasis on the natural world, emerged organically in later drafts.

JB: You are a poet, an essayist, and a memoirist. How do you select a genre for a particular subject? In particular, why was Home with Henry told in journal entries rather than a series of essays or a poetry chapbook?

AK: When I wrote journal entries as I was trying to domesticate Henry, I didn't know how the story would end. Would Henry spend his life hiding under the bed? Would he run away? I wanted the reader to have the same feeling of suspense as I did. So I kept it in chronological journal format.

JB: What was hardest or most challenging about writing the book?

AK: One of the hardest things was to weave all the themes together. I wanted to keep the primary focus on the cat, but sub-themes entered the story. I rewrote several times to get a good balance between the cat scenes and the nephew scenes, for example.

JB: One of the reasons people write about their life is to make sense of it. You once said in an interview published in Wordgathering: "When I'm writing about my life, I feel that I can partially define how I am perceived--and perhaps, influence how I see myself." Can you expand on this statement?

AK: As a single woman and a person with a physical difference--I have a skin problem like psoriasis--I can easily be stereotyped. Especially in a cat story. I wanted to be perceived as the fairly complicated, intelligent woman I am. However, this is a pet memoir, so I saw it as lighter in tone than other essays and poems I've written. I worked to bring the nuance and humor into my self-portrait. 

JB: An editor once told me that you have to give up a piece of yourself for a story to be more than a nice, or funny, or sad, or horrific memory turned into a story. Do you think it takes courage to write from one's life? What parts of yourself did you give to the reader in Home with Henry?

AK: Your editor had a great insight. It does take courage to write an honest memoir. It's always hard to reveal your vulnerabilities. I wanted to be honest about my life as a single woman. I also wanted to celebrate the choices I've made. And I wanted to celebate Henry himself. That was the easy part--to write about his quirky ways and his innate sweetness.

JB: Thank you, Anne. Now... for my loyal readers, you can purchase Home with Henry: a memoir by Anne Kaier online at or at It is a book you will want to share with your friends and your children, for it is a classic in the making.

And, if you are inspired to write your own cat story, Anne has authored "Tall Tails: How to Write about Your Cat." It's free and available on her website:

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Date with Anne Kaier

In a few weeks (July 5, to be exact) I am going to post an interview with Anne Kaier, author Home with Henry: a memoir. Pet lovers will adore this book!  As with most pet owners, Anne learned a great deal about herself by opening her heart and home to a feisty stray tomcat that she rescued right before he became road kill. The book is one you will want to keep on your bookcase, or by the bedside in your guest room. John Grogan, author of the international best-seller memoir Marley and Me, writes, “Pet lovers will lap up every word.” I heartily agree.

I am interviewing Anne as part of a blog book tour she is on. I encourage you to mosey over to the blogs listed below to read reviews of this darling book as well as guest blog posts from Anne (who, by the way, holds a Ph.D. from Harvard and in addition to being a book author, is a poet, essayist, and creative writing teacher). Beginning tomorrow (June 29) and almost every day until July 9, I invite you to click on the following links:

July 4 Caturday at
July 5 (That’s the address for my blog Sunday TOAST)

When it's my turn to play host her, I'm going to ask Anne questions about her inspiration to write a memoir about her cat, and hopefully, you cat and dog and horse lovers will be inspired to write about your own beloved pets. We don't all have to publish our stories, of course, but I think it's important to capture those stories so we can revel in our memoires. Anne is going to share her process and give you insight and confidence to capture your animal tales (pun intended).

I'm calling out  my pet owner friends...Wynell Wall, Jill Hinkle, Grimilda Stanley, Melanie Hilburn, Michael and Christine Holland, Cisco Cardenas, Leslie LaPres, Jack and Wendy Hartsoe, Mary Montgomery, Janice Newman, Candy Duncan, Pat Gray, Jennifer Welsh, Steve King, Mary Ellen Arbuckle, Sue Cabat, Laurie Passmore, Jack Dixon, Tara Edwards, Melissa Bermudaz, Jimmie Ann Rankin, Apolinar Chuca, to name only a few. You've got great pet stories to share, so get ready, but don't stress... help is on its way. 

Anne has the best little pamphlet on her website, "Tall Tails: How to Write about Your Cat." You can find it at  

In the meanwhile, order her book Home with Henry (available on You'll be delighted that you did.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Games children play

Sunlight, dappling through the copse of aspen, warms my skin as I lie in a nest of pungent pine needles, aspen leaves, and Douglas fir. I've dragged the 1920s Victrola record player from the three-room log cabin where we vacation every summer, wound the handle, and placed my father's favorite 78 rpm vinyl record on the turntable. Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" reverberates among the mountains surrounding me, giving the chimpmonks their marching orders. I tap the cadence on my tummy, and watch, through slitted eyelids, the pillowy clouds shapeshift into ponies, bears, hoot owls, and unicorns.

The slam of a wood frame screen door and the maniacal whoops of two boys cut through the music.

"Find her!"

These two words, ordered by my older brother, bring me to my feet. I know they have their birthday BB guns and I know I'm the target. I take off, running like the summer wind through the trees and up the mountain behind our cabin. But I cannot outrun the copper-plated iron pellets. I hear the pump and pop of the guns first, and then the stinging between my shoulder blades on the tender skin covering my spine. Primal fear sticks in my throat, strangling my scream. Like the shape of the shapeshifting clouds, I become a hunted animal.

I lose myself in the trees and circle around to the cabin. Ripping open the screen door, I fly, as if on the wings of a unicorn, inside to my daddy's protectived arms.

"What's wrong, honey?" he asks, giving me a comforting hug.

I hear my brothers trying to catch their breath outside on the porch. I imagine I can smell their sweat, but it's my own stink of fear that I'm inhaling.

I know I'm not supposed to tattle on my brothers, but the words spill out: "The boys..."

Like the two words my brother Stone uttered that sent me running, I can hear Stone and Mark scamper off the porch. I'm sure they've sprinted across the meadow in front of the cabin and are headed for the river banks of the Red River.

They don't come back until late afternoon, but when they do, my daddy confiscates the rifles. "Your sister is not a target. You were supposed to shoot at the paper targets we got you, not each other."

My daddy was my protector. And even though I've learned to protect myself, I miss him so much.

Happy Father's Day, Daddy.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

An amazing writing tip

Disclaimer: I found this advice in one of my computer files. I have no idea where it came from, but I am fairly certain it is not my work. Having said that, I think it is outstanding advice to those of us who are trying to make TOAST by Telling Our Amazing Stories Together. My apologies to the author who shared this strategy for writing memoir. If I knew who you were, I'd certainly give you credit. 

“Remember to remember,” writes novelist Henry Miller. The primary resource for your life stories is YOU, that is, your own recollections of events that took place in your earlier life. However, memory is imperfect. Did you ever notice how different relatives will give distinct versions of what happened at a family event? That’s because our memory is selective.

One way to sharpen your memory is through meditation. If you aren’t in a formal meditation class or don’t know how, here is a guideline:
  1. Find a quiet place, a time, and a setting in which you can clear your mind and think back on your life. What was it like? What really transpired? 
  2.  Focus on one part of your life at a time. Tell yourself, “Today I’m going to think about my school days,” or “my first job” or “my mother’s relationship with me” or “my job at…”
  3. Visualize, visualize, visualize! The psychiatric profession advises this also in the practice of relaxation therapy. Form a picture in your mind of the way things were. Take a visual trip in your mind through the hallways of your old elementary school. Visualize that trip down the Guadalupe River on that last summer vacation with your dad. Run a movie in your mind, the movie of your life, one scene at a time. 
  4.  Form the mental pictures in your mind and watch the movie, rewind if necessary but try not to fast forward through the sad parts.
  5. Transfer that visual movie into prose. Re-create your life through memory and visualization.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Soul Journey

I’ve been thinking lately about grief and grace, about experiencing and surviving unspeakable loss, about the soul’s journey, from transition to transcendence.

How does anyone survive those defining transition points? The suicide of a spouse, the death sentence of a terminal disease, the violent experience of rape,  a freak accident that leaves your athletic child a quadriplegic, the death of a marriage made in heaven, being displaced from your dream job at age fifty something, or fill-in-the-blank your worst nightmare?

I won’t go into the details of my loss, but I can tell you that I remember vividly Day 6. That is the day the shock of it all began to fade and reality set in. No matter what, my life would never be the same again because the sameness had taken a sharp turn into the abyss. My life no longer had the predictability it had before that fateful Day 1 when everything changed. Nothing had prepared me for these circumstances, for these feelings, or for this reality. The numbness gave way to a keening pain that seemed to suck the very life from me. I remember saying aloud, alone in my bedroom, “I can’t do this.” And I meant it.

But I did “do it,” because the only way to get past the howling pain of grief is to go through it. You never get over the loss, of course. There is a blank space in your life--that transitional place that defines your life before x happened and your life after x happened. That place can last a year, ten years, a lifetime. It is the place where I, and people in my tribe, write in a journal to define and document what has happened. We journal the details and our raw, primal reaction to our loss.

Eventually, inevitably we turn from reacting because we realize, although not initially, that we have a choice. We begin to respond to life based on our core values. Will the loss define me, or will I find a new way of being in this life of mine? Am I a victim—yes! Have I been robbed—yes! But do I have to live my life as a victim? No, I can transcend the experience and make peace with myself, by myself, and for myself.

After that, I can tend to others in my tribe. I know what it is like to be broken. I can listen to them—really listen with my heart’s ear—and be present and bear witness to their soul’s journey.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Jazz and Trixie

Our family dog Jazz died yesterday. She was my son's constant companion. I rescued her, but she rescued Matthew when he came home after a heartbreaking divorce. She was both adorable and adoring. Devoted and loving and playful and fun and loyal and fiesty and protective and.... The list is endless.

Every once in a while a dog will select one person, pick him or her out of a crowd or in a family, and choose to be that person's constant companion. Jazz did that with Matthew.

I was blessed with a dog like that, too. I got her at the city pound for Matthew's birthday. He was leaving for college at Texas Tech, and I thought he'd need the company.

I had to get into the dog cage with her, she was so withdrawn and scared. I remember filling out a 3-page adoption application and going through an intimidating interview. My friend Lee Orrell was with me and he vouched for my character, telling the interviewer, "Ma'am, that dog is gonna think she died and went to heaven after she gets home with Joyce."

When my son came home with a few guy friends that afternoon, the dog backed herself under the table and barked and barked and barked. It became obvious she had a problem with men, possibly the result of neglect and abuse. Matt summed up the situation and told me, "This is not my dog, Mother, she's yours." And he was right. Turned out, I was the one who needed the company, and somehow she sensed that.

She was an Australian shepherd-terrier mix, and I named her Trixie. She was the best pet I ever had. She listened to my whining without ever giving advice, she took me for walks every day, and she never lectured me for eating Blue Bell at midnight--even let me share. She was crazy for a toy duck that went "Quack-Quack" when she bit into it just right. She'd shake it, toss it, chase it, and bite into it again.

She loved to sleep in my bed, loved to eat food from the table, loved to sit on the couch next to me, loved to have her tummy rubbed. Most of all, she loved me. Completely.

Trixie is dead now, has been for six years, but her spirit still feeds me. That's the gift you get from a dog who chooses you. That's the gift Matthew received from Jazz. Unconditonal love.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The thrill is gone

BB King died two days ago. He, Fats Domino, and Bo Diddley introduced me to the blues.  The music originated in the Mississippi Delta where black musicians played in the juke joints after working in the cotten fields (from sun-up to sun-down for 50 cents a day) back in the last century.

I love the blues; I love the way the music moves me. The mind empties and the body moves to the beat. The lyrics are simple, repetitive, and earthy, speaking to the soul rather than the intellect.

Raw, rough, and real, baby.

BB King earned many awards and accolades during his life and inspired countless blues players. But he warned young blues guitarists not to aspire to be the next BB King or the next Eric Clapton. He said, "Don't mimic; be yourself." He said it is important to find your own style, your own sound. I think that's brillant advice for anyone in the creative arts, and it's advice I need to remember as I tackle the next draft of my novel.

He's right, you know. I don't want to sound like someone else. The real reason I'm a writer is because I want people to hear me, not the echo of someone I might try to imitate. And so while I may have my idols, I need to be true to my voice.

RIP, BB. Thank you for the music and the advice. I hear you, man. I really do hear you.

Saturday, May 9, 2015


I've been struggling lately.

Struggling with revising a novel. Struggling with building an online class. Struggling with being a better person.

Where has all this gotten me? To be honest, it's gotten me very tired. But yesterday I learned an important lesson from a very gifted teacher.

Charlotte Gullick is an author and creative writing teacher in Austin, TX, and I spent the day with her--along with 20 other writers who've been struggling with their revision process. Charlotte broke down the process for us and then she gave us time to play with different perspectives, suggestions, and strategies.

Aha! In six hours I discovered the process for unraveling the twisted parts of my manuscript and filling in where it is threadbare. But that's not all. I also discovered I could apply what I learned about revising to my creating an online course that is engaging and my developing into the woman I long to be.

The Aha moment came with the way Charlotte had us break down the process into one specific element at a time. Instead of attacking the mammoth manuscript all at once, she advised us to rate each craft element (plot, point of view, verb choices, etc.). Each revision draft focuses on one craft element only, so the writer can concentrate on what needs her attention.

I can do that with my manuscript now, and I am so excited and so ready.

Over the last six weeks, I have built an online class for English 1301 that, now that it is finished, I absolutely "hate" what I've done. There is no pacing, no rhythm, no enjoyment. But I have hope. I'm going to revise the course, one element at a time, and make it sizzle. I believe I can do that now, thanks to Charlotte's class.

Lately, I have been hard to get along with. My sweetie says I've lost my sense of humor--that I take everything wrong, that I'm so fast to pick a fight. As I think about Charlotte' class yesterday, I recall the title for her course was "Honing the Spark," because she thinks it is crucial for us to remember and embrace the spark that first led us to undertake a full-fledged novel. That spark is what sustains us as we revise and move from good to better to great. I think remembering the spark is important for relationships as well.

Ronnie felt an instant spark, he says, when he first met me. He says it was my smile that grabbed his heart that day almost four years ago when I walked in the restaurant. For me, the spark came later and took awhile to ignite. I'd been badly burned before and not so quick to be dazzled. But he is the love of my life, and I want to be the woman he deserves. So today, I will focus on the spark and let go of my petty-mindedness that leads only to regret. And tomorrow I will focus on another element of my love for him so I become more of the woman I want to be.

Thank you, Charlotte, for a map for revising my manuscript, and the other important things in my life!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Porch sitting

My sweetie and I are trying to perfect the art of porch sitting. We have three porches attached to our 1875 Victorian home in Navasota, Texas: a downstairs front porch, a back porch, and an upstairs porch. It is the upstairs porch where we sit and have morning coffee that brings us the most pleasure these days.

We count the trucks, cars, SUVs, motorcycles, bicycles  and people on foot to determine which is the most popular form of transportation. Answer: pickup trucks are three times more popular than anything else on the street, and Ford 150s are the most favored although Ram and Tacoma are gaining popularity.

We also pay attention to who's going to work, taking their kids to school, making a run to the grocery store; who's out for exercise and who's out to play. In a small town everyone is supposed to know everyone else's business, so we're just trying to keep up.

But there's more to do than counting vehicles and people watching. Yesterday, for example, we noticed the wasps are coming back. Last summer we had a slew of wasps that built nests under our eaves and between the windowpanes and screens. I'm not kidding--we easily had a dozen nests connected to our 2-story house. I really didn't want to see another dozen replace the ones that winter destroyed.

My introduction to wasps occurred when I was around five years old. My two brothers and I discovered a hive of hornets under the roof of a neighbor's porch. My older brother Stone charged in and poked the nest with a stick. In those days, I'd follow my older brother anywhere, so I ran up the porch steps as he retreated. The hornets flew at me and despite my trying to bat them away, I got stung on my neck. My younger brother Mark watched and decided to stay as far away as he could. Is it any surprise he grew up to be the smartest?

My sweetie remembers being stung as well when he was climbing a tree and upset a nest of yellow jackets. He was stung on his head, his back, and his arms before he flung himself from the branches and ran like the wind to escape those flying warriors.

We talked yesterday about the returning wasps and what we could do to deter them. After much discussion, we decided it might be best that we give them a wide birth.  Wasps, you see, eat those other pesky insects, like spiders. I'd rather put up with a few wasps than face a Black Widow spider...  which wasps love to eat as much as I love Blue Bell ice cream. Just saying.