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!

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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The Sunshine State (A Guest Post Over At YouAreHereStories.com)

I was honored to have a piece published over at youareherestories.com today. If you haven’t checked out this site before, go! There is new writing posted almost daily from six staff writers plus lowly guests like myself. And every single article has to do with the topic of place in all its various forms and fashions.

 

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Florida has two seasons: summer and January. And flip flops can (and should) be worn during both.

Cradled between the Atlantic Ocean and its more laidback cousin, the Gulf of Mexico, it quietly putters along while the states above it tromp through seasons and mark time in the usual fashion. Like Peter Pan’s Neverland, Florida is a green, sun-soaked playground where April is indistinguishable from October and a staggering array of flowers blossom year-round between gumbo-limbo trees and cabbage palms.

To a nine-year-old child like me, born in the grubby northeast corner of Arkansas….

To read the rest, click here!

 

When There Are No Words

The world is filled with perfect words.

Sometimes, it’s because of the way they sound. Is there a better term to describe the sound mud makes under your boot that squelch? Could bacon do anything other than sizzle in the pan?

Other times, words possess a certain rightness because they’re the ideal way to express a mood or feeling. Take languish for instance, a word that means “to become weak; to droop or fade.” With all its long vowels, it slides slowly from the tongue and softens the mouth. Even the “g” in its center hangs like a fat cat’s belly, as if it barely has the strength to hold itself upright.

There are words like décolletage, anathema, palimpsest, and paronymous, all desirable for their rarity. There are also well-worn ones —friend, laugh, peace—that are threadbare from being frequently pulled from our linguistic back pockets. And like the Velveteen Rabbit, they are all the more loved for their familiarity.

Some words are so precise that they don’t have an equivalent in another language. French has retrouvailles, which means “the happiness of meeting again after a long time.” And German—a language known for plosive and guttural sounds—boasts backpfeifengesicht or “a face that cries out for a fist in it.”

English speakers know all to well that our mother tongue favors quantity over quality. So finding the perfect word means we must rummage through piles of synonyms to it suss out. Why, even a simple word like happy has more than fifty cousins—everything from cheerful and merry to ecstatic and jubilant. And like the crayons in a child’s color box, each one is a slightly different shade, a degree warmer or cooler, brighter or dimmer than those around it.

But there are also times when there is no perfect word, no combination of consonants and vowels can capture exactly we want to say.

My grandparents outside their home Arkansas in 1957.
My grandparents outside their home Arkansas in 1957.

My grandfather has Alzheimer’s disease, and his mind has declined to the point that institutionalized care is necessary. Thankfully, I can use the term in the loosest sense of the word. Far from institutional, the place where he lives has fewer than thirty patients and is filled with the trappings of home—everything from vases full of fresh flowers to hand towels in the bathrooms. People volunteer to read to and play games with the residents. A hairdresser comes in once a week to give the men a quick trim and the ladies a wash and set. Home cooked meals and snacks are served at the same time each day in the communal dining area. I’ve stayed in hotels that didn’t boast such amenities.

But this isn’t a cozy bed and breakfast. It’s a place for people who will never improve, and like the Eagles say of their symbolic Hotel California, “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” This was made clear to me when I realized the doors there required a code to get out as well as in. It’s a simple sequence: 2-0-1-5. The current year. Four digits visitors can’t forget but that their loved ones can barely remember. Because when memories are scattered like Pick-Up Stix across the kitchen floor, keeping track of time isn’t as simple as it once was.

Because I live several hours away from my grandfather, I was the only member of my family who had yet to visit him in this place, and that made me feel as if I was letting him down somehow, shirking my duties as a granddaughter because I had yet to take stock of his situation.

My grandfather was the manager of Wal-Mart #36 in Paragould, Arkansas. He was respected and beloved by his employees.
My grandfather was the manager of Wal-Mart #36 in Paragould, Arkansas. He was respected and beloved by his employees.

So I went with my mother, grandmother, husband, and kid cousin to sit with him for a few hours. We planned on enjoying the mild Florida weather in the large screened-in porch out back, to sit in the swings and talk of pleasanter times. But the instant we walked through the door, one of the patients saw my grandmother and cried, “Play! Please play!”

Unlike me, she visits daily, and part of her routine involves sitting down at the wheezy, grumbling piano to plunk out familiar tunes like “God Bless America” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” in addition to the many hymns she can perform from memory. She nods and pats the poor woman’s spindly hands reassuringly.

As she plays, her cherry red acrylic fingernails clicking on the plastic keys like a woodpecker jabbing in search of a juicy beetle, many of the patients grow still and close their eyes. Some sing. For others, the verses and choruses vanished long ago, but the tune is still there, stubborn until the end. And so they hum.

My grandfather is one of the latter. And as my grandmother finishes the final verse of “He Hideth My Soul” and switches over to “The Old Rugged Cross,” I watch his trembling lips struggle to form the once familiar words….

“On a hill far away stood and old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame…”

How many times has he sung this? I wondered. How many camp meetings, gospel sings, and Sunday services? And the words are just gone?

My grandfather, grandmother, mother, and aunt -- Father's Day 1991
My grandfather, grandmother, mother, and aunt — Father’s Day 1991

What was it I felt in that moment? It was both pity and something deeper. There was pride too, because Alzheimer’s hadn’t claimed every inch of him. Frustration. Rage. Confusion. Heartache certainly. And there was also love—a tenderness so fierce it could crush bone. They were all correct words in their way, but there wasn’t one that represented the sum total.

I could see it on my cousin’s face however. It was the mix of sadness, confusion, and grief that comes when you realize your life has been irrevocably changed—and not for the better.

I knew he saw the same expression on mine as we both sat fighting back tears, the kind that constrict your throat and make your eyes burn but never quite spill over. For that small mercy, you’re grateful. Because once you start sobbing, it will crack you wide open and release those emotions words don’t dare lay claim to. And despite the fact you are finally able to voice your hurt, you do so in a language only you can understand.

 

The Family -- Thanksgiving 2014
The Family — Thanksgiving 2014

 

Cézanne on the Highway

In his essay, “The Decay of Lying,” Oscar Wilde asserted, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”

He believed artists taught people to find beauty in life and nature through their creations rather than the other way around. One example he sites is the fog in London. Though it had been there for centuries, people only noticed its beauty because “poets and painters have taught the loveliness of such effects.” Hence, “They did not exist till art had invented them.”

Until recently, I would have taken issue with this. In my mind, nature is beautiful for its own sake. After all, it’s created by a God who delights in lovely things. And even if we never truly “saw” and understood it, that beauty would continue to exist in the world because He wishes it to.

That being said, I have always believed art can help us appreciate the excellence of the natural world in new ways or to a greater degree than we did previously. For instance, take the watercolor by Cézanne below. It is currently on display at the High Museum as part of a collection called Cézanne and the Modern, which will be in Atlanta until January 11, 2015.

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Paul Cézanne (French, 1839–1906) Trees Forming an Arch, ca. 1900 – possibly later Watercolor an graphite on buff wove paper 60.2 x 45.8 cm. (23 11/16 x 18 1/16 in.)

I highly recommend getting the High’s audio tour. There are typically two tracks–one for adults and another for children–and I often listen to both as they contain different information. For only $6, you get a lot of extra information about the artists as well as a few lessons on art history.

Matthew Simms, Professor of Art History at California State University, Long Beach, contributed much to this audio tour. Regarding this piece, he said:

“Drawing offers tonal information. It tells you what areas are dark, where forms begin and where the end. Color gives chromatic information. What is the local color of something? Is there a shadow? Is it in light? Is something greenish or more yellow? Cézanne uses his two tools—the pencil and the paintbrush—to contribute different kinds of information. The end result is a watercolor in which drawing and color combine to create a vibrant sensation of a view into a forest.”

I can appreciate the loveliness of a forest path dappled with light. I’ve walked many of them and experienced the peace and tranquility they have to offer. I’ve noticed the quiet interplay between light and shadow, heat and cold. But I’d never noticed the different colors light can create in such a space.

A few days after learning this information, I took a walk around Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park and noticed that the light that passed through green leaves took on an entirely appearance than it did when it passed through yellow and orange leaves. Both were beautiful but in different ways, and Cézanne (and Simms) showed me how to appreciate the contrast.

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Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) Still Life with Carafe, Bottle, and Fruit, 1906 Watercolour and soft graphite on pale buff wove paper 48 x 62.5 cm
I also learned Cézanne loved to emphasize something called the “kinship of forms” or “forms that rhyme with one another” in his work. For example, notice the apples, grapes, and carafe in this piece.  They all share a harmonious roundness. Their shapes “rhyme” with one another, which is an interesting word choice that I quite like. The apples and grapes aren’t as perfectly spherical as the belly of the carafe, but there’s an undeniable “sameness” to them. Like the words “place” and “grace,” these shapes rhyme. They look as similar to my eye as the words sound to my ear.

Learning this didn’t just help me see the world around me in a new or better way. It changed how I understood the things I perceived. It made me think Wilde might have been on the right track.

Last weekend, it was blustery here in Georgia. It was the kind of wind that gave the cold air a set of teeth and helped it bite through denim and fleece. I was loathe to go out in it, but I’m glad I ended up braving the elements. While I was sitting in traffic, I noticed a jumble of leaves–orange, red, yellow, and brown–swirling on the street. The wind whipped them into graceful swoops and spirals of color. The sight was lovely to be sure, but nothing I hadn’t noticed before.

But the same wind was also buoying the birds in the sky. Like the leaves hovering inches from the ground, the small birds were all angles, and they danced around one another in an intricate pasodoble of tail feather and wing. For a few seconds, flora and fauna moved with an inexplicable synchronicity. They “rhymed” with one another.

Alone, each one would have been lovely and ripe with meaning. But together, they revealed the harmony of earth and sky and became something altogether different. I’m not sure if life was imitating art or the other way around, but for the briefest of moments, I was presented with something sublime.

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What about you? Have you ever had your perception altered by something artistic? Do you think music has the same kind of power as visual arts? What about dance? I’d love to hear how the two work together to shape your viewpoint.