What We Leave Behind

Yesterday, I was added as a contributor over at The Mighty, a website that publishes “real stories by real people facing real challenges.” It’s an amazingly honest and encouraging place for people who have disabilities, chronic/rare diseases, or mental illnesses. As someone who has one of the many conditions listed on their site (Multiple Sclerosis or MS), I was thrilled to be able to add my voice to their robust community. If you’d like to read them, please click here.

Seeing my story on their page and reading those of other people whose lives have been impacted by MS, I started thinking about the value of words. Ever since I was little, I’ve always loved working with them, stacking them end to end to make a beautiful sentence or poetic phrase. I love the way certain words sound (Go ahead and say “mellifluous” out loud and fail to enjoy it. I dare you.) And even after 30+ years of using them, I’m still amazed at the way they can morph from noun to adjective (novel), adjective to verb (stiff), verb to noun (grid).

But I didn’t come by this lifelong obsession naturally. Many of my family members are readers, some more voracious than others. But only a few are writers, and most of them are in my generation. I have a few letters and handwritten notes written from loved ones who have passed, each of which I treasure, but there are entire branches on my family tree that have died without leaving a single syllable behind.

I have sermon notes and a short letter from my great uncle James.

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A letter from my paternal grandmother, Betty Lou Hill, given to me just weeks before she died.

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I even have a postcard and a book inscription from Myrl Rhine Mueller, a lady in my hometown who published a book about the history of Greene County. When I was in third grade, I lugged a boom box to her little house, which was down the street from my grandparents’ and conducted an interview with her for a history project.

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But there are no diaries, no journals, and no handwritten notes in the margins of beloved books.

It’s an absence I’m feeling more acutely these days as members on both sides of my family pass away. I can no longer ask Papaw, my maternal grandfather, his thoughts on a current event or hear about the things he had a passion for. He loved to sing. I know that for certain, but I don’t know how singing made him feel or why he enjoyed it so much.

He played a small role in the Civil Rights movement too, but no matter how many questions I ask or how deeply I dig, I’ll never know the entire story.

In the early 1960s, he was the assistant manager of an S.H. Kress & Co. in Memphis, Tennessee. For many weeks in the late summer and early fall, young black students would stage sit-ins at the Curly-Q Luncheonette inside the store. He was given strict orders that if one happened on his watch, he should immediately stop service and turn off the lights. Some time after this, the protesters would get up and leave. It was always peaceful, always respectful, but every time Papaw flipped those lights, he felt pitiful. He was a boy from rural Arkansas—a farmer’s son, dirt poor in every sense of the word—and some of his closest friends were black. He believed in their cause, but because he had a wife and two young daughters at home, he had to toe the company line and keep the job. But he did the one thing he could do: he apologized to each of them as they walked out.

It’s not a big story of great sacrifice or drama, but it’s his. That makes it mine too in some small way, and I love it, despite the fact it’s secondhand and shaggy around the edges.

Our two kids, who we are adopting from the foster care system, already have a lot of holes in their stories. Several members of their birth families were also adopted or given up for adoption, so there’s no way of knowing exactly where they came from, who they favor in looks and temperament, who their “people” are. There’s nothing I can do about that, but I do want to leave them a legacy, a heritage of sorts.

There will be notes in my favorite books, so they’ll know why I loved them. There will be journals, short stories, poems, essays, and articles. I want to leave behind an ocean of words for them to swim in—to find me and perhaps, in some small way, to find themselves.

Our Level Best

It’s always a treat when I get to write about my family for the magazine. I’ve been honored to tell stories about a great date, memories, and even my testimony in previous issues. And in July/August, it’s all about my husband and his penchant for perfectly straight pictures.
It goes a little something like this….
Image courtesy of blog.forever.com.
Image courtesy of blog.forever.com

When my husband and I married 16 years ago, we came from very different backgrounds. He’d spent most of his life in the same home, his surroundings largely unchanged. I, on the other hand, am the daughter of a retail manager and—like the children of military men—was used to putting my things in a box every two years. Moving on so my father could move up.

By the 12th new address, my family could strip a house, pack a truck, and do a final clean and patch job in under 10 hours. We were never sure if this was something we should be proud of or sorry for. And when we got to the rented house in the next town, we’d unload in much the same way—placing furniture and slapping pictures on walls at a pace that would make a NASCAR pit crew jealous.

But just because the work was done quickly didn’t mean it was done well….

Check out the rest here!

 

The Wonder of Words

Of all the wise aphorisms and sayings in Poor Richard’s Almanack, my favorite is, “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.” These days, I don’t have much time to squander, so I make the most of the free minutes I do have. If I’m not slaving away over a laptop, helping with homework, doing chores, or cheering at a little league game, I’m reading or trying my best to come up with an idea for an article.

But one of the few things I do allow myself is a glance at Prufrock News, which shows up in my inbox each weekday morning. It is a newsletter on books, arts, and philosophy. Usually, it contains 10 to 14 links to various topics, and more often than not, I read (or at least scan) them all. (By the way, it’s free. You can sign up here.) Well, a week or three back, I came across a book review that sounded interesting, so I clicked on through to the other side and started to read.

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To my delight, I discovered something so much better than a simple review.  The author–who I will not name for reasons you will see later–wrote sharp and witty prose. The sentence structure was fresh and engaging, the opinion honest and fair. It had me laughing and nodding along in agreement throughout. And this wasn’t an essay, a poem, or even a short story. It was a book review! There are hundreds of thousands of them on the internet, and that number is growing by the second. However, most of them are, shall we say, lacking. Go check your average review on Goodreads, and you’ll see something like this:

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Not so with the review I read. It was erudite and entertaining from beginning to end. So much so, in fact, that I did a little digging, found out where the author worked, and wrote him/her an email to say thanks and to gush briefly about how much I enjoyed the piece. Believe you me, I hesitated a bit before doing so. I mean, I’m not the type to hang around backstage doors (except for that one time I waited for Paul Simon), and I’m not an autograph hound (despite what the pyramid of signed baseballs on my bookshelves say). But I felt duty-bound as a fellow wordsmith to contact this author, compelled even. So I screwed my courage to the sticking place, wrote the email, and after about nineteen rounds of editing, took a deep breath and hit “Send.”

Imagine my surprise when a reply showed up in my inbox five hours later.

The author thanked me for my kind and encouraging words, and then he/she hit me with this:

I particularly appreciate your comments as this has been a difficult week—my mother passed away very suddenly and unexpectedly on Monday, aged only 68. At such times, a friendly email from a reader is like a gentle hand on one’s back, reminding one that life goes on and that laughter is an important part of it.

Flabbergasted, I re-read the brief note several times and sent back a reply to let the author know that I also experienced a loss recently and to say that he/she was in my prayers. That’s where it stopped. I’ve heard nothing back since, and I don’t need to.

However, weeks later, I’m still thinking about that exchange and what we both would have missed out on had it not occurred.

The writer of Hebrews tells us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (13:2). And, in some strange way, I feel like this is exactly what happened in our brief sharing of words. Despite my need to squeeze time dry and use every precious minute to keep up with my hectic workaday life, that day, something in me said, “Don’t be afraid. And whatever you do, don’t waste this moment.”

I could have used the fifteen minutes it took for me to write, edit, and send my message some other way. Knocking some tiny item off my to-do list perhaps or getting ahead on a monthly task for the magazine. But time that’s spent prudently isn’t always spent wisely. That’s why I’m glad to have used that quarter of an hour the way I did. Those minutes weren’t wasted because they were spent helping someone. And while the author and I might not be close in the traditional sense, for those few moments, we were. I was able to help him/her at a difficult time, and it’s humbling and astonishing to be used by God in such a way.

Proverbs 16:24 says, “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” I’m inclined to believe that’s true—for the hearer as well as the speaker. 

What about you, dear reader? Have you ever felt something tugging at you, telling you to do something that made little sense at the time? I’d love to hear about your moment in the comment section below!

Backyard Philosophy

When I started blocking out this piece, I had half a mind to send it off to Garden & Gun as a potential submission for their column “Good Dog.” However, when I started reading through the previous installments to make sure my piece had the style, tone, and voice they’re looking for, I noticed something that threw a Mason jar of cold water on all my big ideas. By each contributor’s name, I saw phrases like “author of more than thirty books,” “senior writer for the New York Times,” and “Pulitzer Prize winner.” But despite the fact I don’t have the pedigree those other folks do (Ha! See what I did there?), I went ahead and submitted it. Sadly, three months have gone by with nary a peep from those fine folks, so I have to assume my piece was DOA.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that Shadow was a damn fine dog. And this is a story that needs telling—regardless of where it’s published. I hope you enjoy.

 

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The concept of carpe diem has always resonated with me, but Robert Herrick, Andrew Marvell, Virgil, Horace, the venerable prophet Isaiah, or John Keating (the character played by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society) have little to do with it. Most of the credit goes to Shadow, a black spaniel mix my family adopted in the early 90s.

He came into our life the way a lot of strays do—by happenstance. My father, a co-manager of a SAM’S Club and well on his way up the corporate ladder, finally knuckled under to my grandmother’s assertion that “Every growing boy needs a dog.” (Apparently girls like me could manage without help.) So we bought a copy of the Ocala Star-Banner, looked through the want ads, and found a few people in town who were looking to match homeless pets with owners.

“Now, don’t forget,” Dad said as he buckled his safety belt, “we’re not gonna get the first dog we see.”

“Alright, Dad,” we both chirped from the backseat, unaware we’d soon make liars out of ourselves.

We figured we’d start with the pooch closest to us and work our way out from there, but there was no need. The second Shadow came walking around the corner—replete with feathery feet, wavy Cocker Spaniel ears, and caramel-colored eyes—we were smitten. And when we heard that he was found shivering in the median of I-75 and jumped into the man’s car without hesitation, well, it added a second seal to the deal.

My brother and I fell on him like a couple of overzealous courtiers, and Dad realized his earlier decree had been rendered null and void by a wet nose and wiggly butt. He sighed and asked, “How much?”

“Nine dollars,” the man replied.

It had cost nine bucks to run the ad in the paper for a few weeks, and that’s the only thing he was looking to recover from the deal. Dad only had a twenty, and no amount of reasoning could get the Good Samaritan to take it. So we shot off to the corner market, bought three Coke Icees, and came back with change. A fiver and some singles exchanged hands, the gentlemen shook on it, and we went home with a dog—our dog—in the back seat.

Shadow (so named because of his black fur and despite my aggressive campaign to name him Falkor, after the luckdragon from The Neverending Story) was a dog of many quirks. No matter what we tried, he wouldn’t bark. He didn’t like his feet touched. He sneezed when he got excited. He was especially fond of hors d’oeuvres he snatched from the cat box. But strangest of all were his eating habits. If you gave him a hamburger patty that had been broken into pieces, he’d gobble it down. But that same piece of meat served whole? He didn’t know what to do with such bounty. Rather than eat it, he’d stand patiently by the back door with the food in his mouth, waiting to make a deposit in the Backyard Building and Loan.

No matter what we gave him—hot dogs, Rice Krispie treats, pieces of steak— if it was served in bits, it went straight down his gullet. Whole, it went uneaten into the ground. My guess is he wanted to put it away for hard times. After all, his life had been one of want, and having a ready meal under a nearby tree was probably a solid idea.

His incessant need to save made me think of my grandmother—gone four years earlier thanks to breast cancer—a woman whose fists the world had methodically tightened through poverty and hard work, hunger and necessity. A survivor of the Great Depression, she washed and reused tinfoil and disposable plates, stuffed her house with furniture she might one day need, and haggled at farmer’s markets with a zeal that would have impressed even Scrooge McDuck.

But there was one thing stranger still about Shadow. The dog loved ice cubes. If we gave him a piece, he’d chomp on it in the corner of his mouth, his lip curled like some furry version of Edward G. Robinson. (Yeah, see…. I got this ice, see…) One hot summer day, we kept feeding him cubes. With pieces one through seven, he happily crunched away and begged for more, but number eight was a bridge too far. He pocketed it and headed for the back door. We all watched as he selected a spot under a sago palm, dug a small hole, and dropped his already melting prize inside.

My family chuckled, both bemused and entertained, and called relatives that night to tell them the story. But it was a moment so adorably woebegone that I couldn’t bring myself to laugh along with them. We fed Shadow so often there was no need to forage in the backyard, but every so often, we’d catch him digging up his bounty and gnawing on a disgusting, dirt-covered goodie. The thought of him looking for that ice cube and finding nothing broke my selfish, sixteen-year-old heart in a way that nothing else could. So a vigil of sorts began. I stood on our screen porch and watched every time he was let out, waiting for him to return to the spot that I knew sat empty, plundered by meteorological forces beyond canine comprehension.

A few weeks later, my hunch paid off. Shadow headed for the sago palm, and I went inside to the freezer. Walking across the yard, my right hand already numb with cold, I couldn’t decide if what I was doing was noble or beyond ridiculous. More than once, I almost dropped the ice and went back inside. But I could see him digging, digging, digging…until he hit the spot where the treasure should have been. Then he stopped, paws in the earth and head cocked to one side in bewilderment.

There are moments when you know things with a certainty beyond argument. There’s no way to predict when or why they happen, and there’s no denying them when they do. Like a solid thump in the gut, they nearly knock you over and then fill up every hollow in you with the knowing until your bones are heavy with it. I felt it the first time I was betrayed, the instant before I was named the winner of a scholarship, and the early morning hour when my beloved grandfather passed.

“Hey, boy,” I said, reaching down with my free hand to scratch behind an ear. Shadow turned his dirt-covered face up to me, and while distracting him with lovin’, I stashed the cubes in the hole. He must have heard them clicking together because his head whipped around, and once he saw the loot was once again where he’d left it, the poor thing nearly wiggled and sneezed himself to death with the joy of it.

Smiling, I sat down on the ground beside him, not caring about the palm fronds poking me in the arm or the Florida sun sitting heavy as a blanket on my bare shoulders, and savored the matchless sight of a happy dog.

On the Radio (Whoa Oh)

Today, I had the pleasure of speaking to John Hall and Kathy Emmons on 101.5-WORD FM in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Mr. Hall read my most recent article on her.meneutics, contacted me through this very blog, and asked if I’d be interested in sharing my story with their listeners. Who knew it was as simple as all that!?

For a person who makes a living behind the relative safety of a keyboard, a live radio session was more than a little daunting, but both hosts were wonderful. They asked some great questions, and I can’t thank them enough for letting me come on to tell folks about adoption—both the hard parts and the beautiful ones.

If you’d like to listen to the interview, please click the player below. (My segment starts around 1:17:44.)

 

 

 

 

And now I have this song stuck in my head.

From Ohio to the Oval Office

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I thought this quote rather apropos considering that tomorrow is Super Tuesday and Donald Trump is likely to win several states including Tennessee and Georgia. This entire primary process has been confusing and disheartening by turns, and it doesn’t look like things are going to get better any time soon. People have been asking, “How could this happen?” and “Is this really America?” But the truth is, we allowed Trump to rise to prominence. Because we weren’t vigilant, because we didn’t expect and demand better of our representatives, they didn’t think they should bother. They got lazy and complacent, people got angry, and we got Trump.

When faced with the choice between The Donald and Hillary Clinton this November, I can’t help but wax nostalgic about presidents past. Many a solid and honorable man has occupied the Oval Office over the last two hundred years, and it is because of their example that we know what a president should look like. And sadly, there have been more than a few scumbags in that hallowed space too. Don’t believe me? Go read up on Warren G. Harding. (Teapot Dome, anyone!?)

That’s why I wrote a web-exclusive article for In Touch Magazine about my favorite president, James Abram Garfield.If you don’t know much about him, no worries. He served less than a year because he was assassinated in a D.C. rail station and was literally poked and prodded to death by doctors who had no clue what they were doing. If you’re interested in learning more about our 20th Commander In Chief, I highly suggest Candace Millard’s biography, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President. It’s incredibly well researched and interesting from top to bottom.

The opening paragraphs of my article are below. If you’re interested in reading the rest, hop on over to In Touch Ministries’ website. We’ll be happy to have you!

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“Who’s your favorite president?”

It’s a common question—one that allows a person to give an honest answer without treading too far into politics, one of the verboten topics of polite conversation.

But for all the heavy hitters in American history, the man who gets my vote is one most people never think of. When the question is asked of me, I proudly answer, “James Garfield,” only to be met by quizzical stares, as if to say, “Who?”

The response is understandable. Garfield—the 20th President of the United States—served only 200 days before he was assassinated by a madman named Charles Guiteau. Yet, as is often the case, quality matters more than quantity, and the 49 years Garfield lived before stepping into the Oval Office are a far better measure of his worth—an example of humility and service we Christians would all do well to study….

Read the rest here!

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Save Yourselfies

There’s a popular adage that reminds humans the best course of action when interacting with nature is to “Take only pictures. Leave only footprints. Kill only time.” But apparently, we can’t even manage that anymore.

Last week, an unfortunate baby dolphin, more specifically an endangered species known as a La Plata or Franciscana dolphin, was plucked out of the ocean and onto an Argentinian beach. The reason? People wanted to pet and take selfies with it.

Yes, selfies. With a dolphin. On land.

Video footage of the incident shows a ever-growing mob of people surrounding the poor little thing, cameras at the ready. According to Peter Holley at The Washington Times, “At no point in the footage does it appear that anyone in the crowd intervened or attempted to return the animal to the water,” and eventually, the dolphin died from dehydration. But it didn’t stop there. People kept on snapping pictures of its corpse and then left it to rot in the damp, trampled sand. How does something like this happen?

 

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We have all seen the reports that women spend somewhere around five hours a week taking, editing, and posting selfies on social media. But that doesn’t mean guys are blameless. Of the one million selfies—yes ONE MILLION selfies—taken each day, men are responsible for about half. And these snapshots do so add up. All told, according to a recent survey, the average millennial could take up to 25,700 selfies in his or her lifetime.

Think about that for a minute. 25,700 pictures of one person. Sweet heck.

Van Gogh only painted 30 or so self portraits. Rembrandt left us about 90. Frida created 55. If it was sufficient for three of the greatest artists in history to create fewer than 100 images each, you’d think we could survive with a couple thousand or so of ourselves. And by making the comparison, I’m not saying that the self-portrait and the selfie share much common ground. For Van Gogh and Frida, self portraits were a way of exploring their inner demons and giving voice to their pain. For us? We’ll take a selfie just to show how on fleek our eyebrows are or to give ourselves gravitas at serious places like Ground Zero, the Holocaust Memorial, or a funeral.

Frida Kahlo, The Broken Column, 1944, Oil on canvas mounted on masonite, 40 x 30,7 cm, Museum Dolores Olmedo Patino, Mexico-City, Mexico.
Frida Kahlo, The Broken Column, 1944, Oil on canvas mounted on masonite, 40 x 30,7 cm, Museum Dolores Olmedo Patino, Mexico-City, Mexico.

Aldous Huxley said, “Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards.” And I’d have to agree. We’d like to think we’re a cut above our ancestors, but I firmly believe that if the patrician class had had the means to take them, museums would be full of selfies with the Roman Colosseum in the background. (Along with necessary hashtags like #Lions4TheWin #ChristianItsWhatsForDinner #HailCaesar #BreadAndCircuses4Life) At least they took the time to watch the “entertainment” being provided. We can’t quite manage to stop taking pictures of ourselves long enough to watch nine innings of baseball. We’re too busy being the deities of our own 4.7 inch universes to be bothered to take in the beauty around us or *gasp* interact with people.

Now, rather than drink deeply and fully imbibe this thing called life, we frantically try to capture “the perfect moment” on phones. Why bother? There is no camera better than the human eye, no file more detailed than one stored in a human mind. Yet we keep scrambling for our devices, recording our lives rather than living them. How many of us have missed a gorgeous sunset because we were too busy trying to frame it up correctly to post on Instagram? How many fireworks shows have we only seen slivers of because we have to make sure we had something perfect for Vine? How long before we realize the hundreds of images we’re collecting of ourselves our limited worlds are keeping us from enjoying the greater (and much more interesting) places we inhabit? Maybe we don’t want to. Maybe we can’t bear the thought of not being the center of the universe.

The Swiss playwright and novelist Max Frisch, who was keen to explore once said that technology was nothing more than “the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.” And for the life of me, I don’t know why we’re willing to make such a poor trade. I’d much rather be the elderly woman at the Black Mass premier than the other folks around her. She’ll have a memory of that red-carpet night that’s more exciting and detailed than anything captured on camera.

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But maybe that’s how moments like the one on that Argentinian beach happen. People get so absorbed in the egocentric crush to capture what makes them unique that they’re willing to sacrifice anything to make it happen. After all, it isn’t just a photograph they’re taking; it’s proof of life.