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.

james_letter

 

james_sermonnotes_tight

 

james_sermonnotes_wide

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

betty_letter

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.

muller_book

 

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!

 

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.

 

shadshad
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.

The Rear View and the Forward Gaze

“Society is built, instead, upon the countless habits and rituals of its members, both living and dead. Since collective identity emerges imperceptibly from these everyday experiences, our understanding of ourselves is always rather nebulous and imprecise — like one of those optical illusions that, when one focuses too hard, dissolves back into the page. As each generation passes, we forget something essential — if intangible—about ourselves. With the final breath of every dying person, some small spirit of the age escapes irretrievably into the air.”

Kit Wilson, “Sentimental Nihilism and Popular Culture”

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Perhaps it’s because I’m reading A Canticle for Leibowitz or because my grandfather is slowly dying from Alzheimer’s or because the world is changing so quickly that I feel powerless and totally other in my own skin, but whatever the reason, this article by Kit Wilson struck somewhere deep within me and sent everything to rattling and swaying. But that was a good thing because—in some strange roundabout way—it helped me to replait a few loose thoughts.

The Value of History
I highly recommend reading the piece in its entirety, but for the purposes of this blog, I’ll give you the précis. Focusing on the arts, Wilson argues that a shared history is essential to culture, that tradition has a greater purpose than we know. When we hurl those things out the window in favor of the new, when we embrace only what is deemed relevant and “burn the great oaks of Western culture to the ground,” it is we who end of sitting on and sifting through the ashes. And without a robust understanding of tradition and shared history, “Every last inherited standard — every last comfort — must be torn from us once and for all.”

Image courtesy of http://mentalfloss.com/article/51788/62-worlds-most-beautiful-libraries
Image courtesy of http://mentalfloss.com/article/51788/62-worlds-most-beautiful-libraries

The nihilism that plagues us will be our undoing, according to Wilson. To combat it, we must embrace history and “engage with one another as members of a common group.” And the best way to do so is through pop culture, which has “stayed the course of the 20th century much more successfully than [its] ‘higher’ cousins.”

“Popular culture crystallised archetypically Western tropes that, if nurtured, may still blossom again,” Wilson says. “So ingrained in the public’s mind are the perfect cadence and the love story that not even the Enlightenment’s cynical ticks can burrow deep enough to suck them out. Today, like the lounge suit, their ubiquity conceals a quintessentially Western inheritance. But it cannot look after us alone. It is but one part of an urgently needed review of who we are and where we’re going. And to face the future with any confidence, we must begin with the memory of where we once came from.” (Emphasis mine)

The artistic past we tried so hard to erase is still there, hidden in plain sight. The familiar strain in the mundane. And I heartily agree with his call to redeem the past. There is absolutely no shame in remembering where you came from, in asserting that your culture’s past (tangled and flawed as it might be) is valuable and worth preserving.

I think about literature, my own beloved discipline, and I am grateful for the professors who taught me Shakespeare as well as those who exposed me to Lorraine Hansberry. Incorporating Mariama Ba into my life doesn’t mean George Orwell needs to go the way of the Dodo. Making room for Ishmael Reed doesn’t make it impossible for me to keep on loving T.S. Eliot. (And if you want another interesting read from an unexpected place, check out what Monica Lewinksky—yes that Monica Lewinsky—has to say about him.)

Image courtesy of http://www.classicfm.com/discover/music/classical-street-art/beethoven-wall/
Image courtesy of http://www.classicfm.com/discover/music/classical-street-art/beethoven-wall/

In Life As Well As Art
The brutal murder of nine people in Charleston, South Carolina last week has had us all doing a lot of soul searching, and a great dialogue has opened up regarding race and the many meanings of the Confederate flag. It is most definitely not all things to all people.

Days after the shooting, many called for the flag to be taken down, calling it an unseemly relic from a painful era in our nation’s history that has no place before a government building. I have lived in three states during my 37 years on this planet, and all three of them seceded from the union. So yes, I am a Southerner. However, I have always had a rather ambivalent relationship with the flag. I always thought there were better symbols for the beautiful place I call home—sweet tea, bar-b-que, graceful front porches, fried okra, fireflies, green fields full of grazing horses, and magnolia trees for starters. It is those things and dozens more like them that come to my mind when I think of the South, and I know I’m not the only one.

Image courtesy of https://www.etsy.com/listing/109743290/nature-photography-savannahs-wormsloe
Image courtesy of https://www.etsy.com/listing/109743290/nature-photography-savannahs-wormsloe

That’s why, as a white southerner born and raised, I am all for retiring the stars and bars. For too long, it’s been an obstruction to race relations, an unnecessary distraction that somehow keeps us from the business of getting to know and love one another as human beings. It’s proper place is not flying before any state capital, but resting in a museum where it can be displayed in a way that allows it retain whatever respect it is due.

But there are some who aren’t satisfied with the quiet and peaceful removal of the flag and objects like it. Instead, they want it abolished, destroyed, and otherwise scrubbed from the pages of history. Some are also calling for the removal of monuments to Confederate generals and soldiers, and one writer has even gone so far to say that Gone With the Wind and shows like The Dukes of Hazzard should be removed from store shelves and cast aside. Even Apple joined the fracas when it stopped selling all gaming apps that had anything to do with the Civil War.

As one who believes kindness is paramount, I agree that there is value in sensitivity and in caring for the needs of others. However, doing so shouldn’t mean we rip the past up by the roots and toss it on the compost heap. That is a Pyrrhic victory in every sense of the word.

The Holistic View
To dispose of every reminder of an unpleasant era is to remove a piece of a culture’s bedrock, to mar its matrix so to speak. It also casts aside those things in the past that were good and worthy of praise. And most dangerous of all, eradicating the past robs us of the ability to learn from our mistakes and avoid repeating them in the future.

Image courtesy of NBC.com
Image courtesy of NBC.com

As Wilson said, “With the final breath of every dying person, some small spirit of the age escapes irretrievably into the air.” The generation who marched for Civil Rights won’t be with us forever, and when they are gone, how will children grasp the greatness of that movement as well as why it was necessary? Without preserving the past, what came of it, and what caused it, our understanding of ourselves is incomplete. Our history will become a book with chapters ripped out.

Preserving things like the Confederate flag and safekeeping them for future generations is the only way our culture can live beyond us, and that’s why we must not do away with unpleasantness in the name of political correctness. To do so is only to deny ourselves permanence.

Tow Mater, an unrecognized sage of the modern era, got it half right when he said, “Ain’t no need to watch where I’m going. Just need to know where I’ve been.” I mention him partially in jest, but the statement—like many of the things that Pixar creates—points to a greater truth. We need to know where we came from, but we must also be sure to keep our eyes on the road ahead if our culture is to get to its final destination in one piece.

No nation is perfect, but the United State of America is ours. It is up to us to both preserve and better it by maintaining a holistic view of history. That’s why we must doggedly maintain both a rear view and a forward gaze, and may God help us if we relinquish either.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

 

Free Indeed

Meet Valeri and Valentina Seleznev—two of the most amazing, godly people I have ever had the honor to get to know. They are the In Touch Ministries employees selected as the March 2015 Faces of In Touch special feature, and I was blessed to be able to sit down with them to hear their story and to share it with our readers. I knew the rough outline from talking to folks around the ministry, but when the Seleznevs filled in all the blanks, I just sat with my mouth hanging open. Talk about guts!

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Photography by Ben Rollins

Valeri Seleznev is a man you can’t help but look up to—oftentimes because, as the senior maintenance technician at In Touch Ministries, he’s perched atop a ladder, changing a light bulb or repairing HVAC fixtures. But no matter what he’s working on, Valeri never fails to wave or say hello to passersby. His warm smile and openness make it hard to imagine who he was 20 years ago—an official in the Communist party who was labeled as disloyal to the Soviet Union. Eventually, he knew it was no longer safe to stay in his home country. And so he fled to the West with his wife Valentina, unsure of what awaited them in a new land.

A few weeks after the Seleznevs learned they were under suspicion, they boarded a plane in Moscow for a 10-hour flight to New York City. And they were up in the air—both literally and figuratively—every minute of it. Their paperwork had been acquired through back channels, and they weren’t sure if it was even valid. When they landed, the couple would either be allowed to enter the United States or be forced back to the country they loved but had to flee….

To read the full article, head over to In Touch Ministries’ website. And don’t forget to leave a comment there!

Set Junkie

One of the many wonderful things about my job is the fact that I get to work with several hundred very passionate, talented people. There are so many wonderful folks at In Touch, so many wonderful stories, that we decided to make it a running special feature called “The Faces of In Touch.” Gary Longenecker, our Director of Photography, was the first person to grace the pages of our magazine, and it was my honor to interview and write about him. 

“Ah ha!”

Gary Longenecker stands triumphantly in the doorway, a battered rake in his hands and a mischievous glint in his blue eyes. Everything had been set—the subject in place, video and audio crews ready to record—but Longenecker hesitated. To him, there was something wrong with the look of the scene.

When you’re working on location, anything and everything can happen. Sunlight that shone perfectly through a window one minute can spoil a shot the next. That’s where creativity comes in—something Longenecker, In Touch Ministries’ Director of Photography, has in ample supply. He straps the rake to a hodgepodge of grip equipment, adjusts the angle, and the light filters through it, creating a pleasing shadow on what had previously been a blank wall.

And with that, it’s time to roll camera.

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If you’d like to read the rest of the article, pop on over to In Touch Ministries’ website. And don’t forget to leave a comment!

In Due Season

Believe it or not, November is just around the corner. And that means cooler temperatures, football, and Thanksgiving! We decided to feature food articles once again in In Touch magazine, and opted to include several different articles about the way it feeds our souls as well as our bodies. My contribution for this special section features my grandfather and the way he and I spent time working a BBQ smoker/grill.

This is a collection of articles I highly suggest you enjoy in print, so please visit this site and get yourself a free subscription. The layout is just gorgeous and is filled will illustrations created by the uber talented Jeff Gregory.

You can also view my article and the other wonderful pieces from authors like Rachel Marie Stone, Leslie Leyland Fields, Matt Woodley, Chad Thomas Johnston, Aline Mello, and Leigh McLeroy by clicking here.