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.

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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!

 

If You Can Ask Google About Loki…

I’ve run across some fairly awful grammatical, spelling, and stylistic errors in my time, but most of them were made by teenagers—people (hopefully) still learning how to write well. However, thanks to meme generators, e-card makers, and other innumerable sites that allow people to create their own images, we’re now caught up in a tsunami of awful writing. And the worst part is, no one seems to notice. How do I know? Because they create and share the stuff without a second thought. Take this one for instance.

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**Images can be enlarged by clicking on them.**

Someone tagged me in this one on Facebook because I’m a St. Louis Cardinals fan, and while I appreciate the sentiment, I can’t get over the fact there are two errors in this card. First off, “that” is the incorrect relative pronoun; it’s typically used for objects, animals, things, and groups. For instance, you could say, “The bees that stung me are in a hive up that tree.” Girls who love baseball (in addition to being awesome) are most definitely not objects. Hence, “who” is the correct relative pronoun in this case.

There is also a glaring run-on sentence that could be fixed by placing comma right in front of the “and.” Brother, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve added one of those to a sentence for someone, I could pay to house Mark Harmon in a manor on the English moors and make him pretend to be Mr. Rochester for my literary amusement.

And then there’s this one that makes me despair because it’s a witty observation ruined by a single incorrect letter.

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A “suicide pack”? Seriously? It would have taken two seconds to check the many meanings of “pack,” none of which is “an agreement, covenant, or compact.”

I’ve taught English for more than a decade. I know the English language can be an aggressive, hairy she-beast sometimes. It is unwieldy and hard to train, but the Internet has made it so much easier to prevent errors like this one. Back in the 80s when I was wee, I used to think the phrase was “for all intensive purposes,” and I was roundly chastised by a teacher (in front of the entire class) for writing it that way.

Today, I would simply look it up on the good ole’ world wide web, correct my mistake in the privacy of my own home, and save myself the public shaming. It also would’ve saved Mrs. Wilcox from an afternoon spent wiping up a bottle of liquid  soap off the bathroom floor. (Hey, she brought it on herself. I just worked out my feelings with the tools that were available to me. Don’t judge.)

There are teeny tiny errors that make exactness impossible….

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Which owl trusts the cat? We’ll never know. (My money’s on the one to its right. He looks pretty content with the state of the world.)

And there are enormous errors that make a sentence’s true meaning completely indiscernible.

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The way this sign reads, the only person who can hope to take a leak in this facility must be disabled, elderly, pregnant, and a child. I could see someone being elderly and disabled. That’s easy peezie, lemon squeezie. Disabled and pregnant? Sure, that’s plausible. Elderly and pregnant? Hey, it happened to Sarah. But the only person I know who could combine “elderly” and “child” is Benjamin Button, and even he couldn’t be both at once. So while the owners of this store are very excited about you shopping with them (hence the “THANK YOU” written in all caps), the bathroom is verboten to all patrons, even those who meet some of the qualifications. We all know what they meant, but that’s not what they said.

And then there are errors that just make me wonder what the heck is going on with the public schools these days.

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People with a limp-wristed grasp of grammar always claim, “I know it’s correct because it sounds right to my ear.” I hate to break it to you, but your ear is only as good as the stuff it hears. So if you’re surrounded by yutzes “that don’t talk good,”  chances are you aren’t going to either. Your ear is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.

I know verb tenses can be treacherous, like staircases in Europe, but the correct one is easy to discover. And, let’s face it, “I would have came” is as awkward on the ears as a rousing chorus of “Let It Go” performed by precocious children. “I would have come,” on the other hand, is pure bliss, the auditory equivalent to a glass of ’47 Cheval Blanc. Besides, why would you trust a person who spells wisdom with a Z?

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If people can ask pressing questions like “Why does everyone I know like ‘The Walking Dead,'” surely, they can ask “What does suicide pack mean” and discover their word choice is flawed. So simple. And it would make the world (at least my corner of it) a little better.

But I’m totally with the people who asked Google about Loki. I can’t figure out why the sight of Tom Hiddleston drives some women to self-immolation. Seriously, he looks like he should be playing D&D in his parents’ basement and working at Sbarro.

I don’t even know if Google’s algorithms can solve this mystery.

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Shhhhhh….it’s a secret.

What do you think? Is good grammar dead and gone, or can it make a comeback? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the sad state of American English. However, if there’s an error in this blog, don’t point it out. Keep that little gem to yourself. 🙂

Shared Dish, Shared Life

Thanksgiving will be here before too much long . I know this not because of the falling leaves or cooling temperatures, but because the November issue of In Touch Magazine hit homes this week!

The second feature is a fun, five-part read called Memorable Meals. The goal for the piece was to feature—you guessed it—food. But not just lavish holiday feasts. We wanted our writers to tell us the stories in which food played a part, and we got a wide variety. Seriously, everything from roasted goat served in the Sahara to a nuked hamburger shared in a prison visiting center.

And if this special feature wasn’t special enough, we decided to kick it up a notch and add an audio component. Each piece was recorded in the In Touch audio suites, some by the authors themselves and others by members of the In Touch Ministries’ staff. The feature as a whole can be seen (and heard) here. And if you want to suffer through me reading the text below, feel free to click here.

Two things I learned through creating this short piece. Writing about food is always fun, and listening to a recording of yourself is pure torture. 🙂

However, I’d love to hear your stories. What’s your favorite memory involving food?

Also, after you take a listen to the stories on our website, I’d love to hear your feedback. Is this something we should do more of? Let me know!

Taming the Wildebeest

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This week, I had the chance to attend the Richard Ellman Lecture Series at Emory University. It is a four-part event, held biannually, that features a great literary thinker. The last presenter, Margaret Atwood, was wonderful, and I expected nothing less of this year’s speaker—Paul Simon.

He gave two lectures, had a public conversation with Billy Collins, and gave a concert to bring the event to a close. I had tickets to all parts except the concert (because they went like wildfire the morning they were released). But that didn’t matter because, during the conversation, I got to hear Billy Collins read five poems and Paul Simon sing three songs—“Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” “The Sound of Silence,” and “Slip Slidin’ Away.”

I also briefly met both men after their time on stage was up, which was a thrill to say the least! And, despite the long, hectic day, they were wonderful and gracious and signed the stuff I stuck in front of them.

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I got both in one day. Color me excited!

During their discussion of songwriting/poetry, they agreed that there is no moment in a piece of writing that is without consequence. As Mr. Collins said, “No line must sleep; every line must make a contribution.”

They went back and forth for the better part of an hour discussing exactly how to go about it (and how you could know you had accomplished this lofty goal.) However, the most interesting point for me was the “wildebeest note” example Mr. Simon gave.

Apparently, when he was recording “Rewrite,” a song on his 2011 album So Beautiful So What, a note at the end of a repeated phrase just sounded “wrong.” Not out of tune or a poor fit for the key, just flat out wrong. It sounded, according to him, “like a note being played on an acoustic guitar in a recording studio.”

That’s exactly what it was, but he wanted it to have an altogether different color, a distinctive depth of tone. So he said he thought on it for awhile and decided to blend that slightly pear-shaped note with a sound he had recorded on his last visit to Africa.

Photograph by ABPL/Gerald Hinde/Animals Animals—Earth Scenes. Image courtesy of National Geographic.
Photograph by ABPL/Gerald Hinde/Animals Animals—Earth Scenes. Image courtesy of National Geographic.

Yep, you guessed it….a wildebeest. There is a note in “Rewrite” that is part guitar and part wild animal, but for the life of me, I cannot hear it. Can you?

He went to amazing lengths to get a sound precisely correct. He labored over it for who knows how long until it resonated just the way he thought it should. My ears cannot suss it out, and had I not attended this lecture series, I wouldn’t even know to listen for it. But it’s there just the same.

That’s the kind of attention to detail that has to be present when we create anything, be it in the field of music, art, dance or writing. And it made me ask myself, “Am I always paying that much attention to the things I create? Have I settled for an almost-right word instead of going back to the thesaurus one more time? Have I gotten lazy with my sentence structure and gone for what’s safe instead of what’s best?”

Hearing Paul Simon tell this story made me realize that creating something from nothing is hard. I mean damned hard. But it’s also worth it. And with everything I write in the future, I’m going to ask myself if I can add a “wildebeest noise,” a certain element that makes the piece feel natural and beautiful. There will always be an element I can slyly place in my work to make it flow more organically without sounding forced. To be worth it, writing must be done to that level of painstaking detail. Always.

Can you tell me a way you’ve done it? Is there something you’ve added, some tweak you’ve made to a piece of art or a performance that made it perfect? Was it worth it even if you were the only one who knew it was there? I’d love to hear all about it in the comments. Lay it on me!

Stories Matter

The author and poet Barry Lopez once said, “Everything is held together with stories. That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.” Over the last eight or so months, the staff of In Touch Magazine has been privileged to tell the stories of many wonderful people who God has used in a mighty way. If you haven’t already checked out our special micro-site, click on the image below and read more about them.

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We were also able to work with the amazingly talented team of professionals in our ministry’s broadcast department to produce five videos, one for each month of the project. For the folks who aren’t as into words as we are, we thought these were a great way to experience the stories and hear the hearts of the people we featured. I thought I’d collect them together here as well.

The last month’s special report–The Searcher–will be coming out in September, and with it, the project comes to a close. Looking back over it now, I can see just how much I’ve grown–both as a Christian and as a writer, and I know without doubt that none of this would have been possible if God hadn’t been in it from the start. We all had to decrease so He might increase.

Bret Lott writes in his book Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian, “What I saw in [Carver’s] work was that in my own, I had to be the last one heard from in this pile of words I was arranging, and that humility was the most valuable tool I could have, because the people about whom I wanted to write mattered so very much more than the paltry desires of the writer himself. They mattered so very much more than me. My job was to get out of the way.” Here’s to hoping that with these pieces and others I’ll write, I can somehow manage to do just that—get out of the way.

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Michael and Jessica Beates (June–The Special Needs Community)

Rhonda, Faith, and Hope Slinkosky  (July–The Orphan)

Dot Hutcheson and Howard Webb (June–The Widow and Widower)

James Murray (July–The Prisoner)

Scarlett Rigsby and Truth (August–The Needy)

No Ifs, Ands, or Buts

Last Saturday evening, my husband received a cryptic text message from Stan, a friend and fellow trombonist. It was something straight out of The Matrix, an indecipherable garble of letters and numbers, and Wayne decided he’d have to tease Stan about it at church the next day.

He wasted no time and shouted across the orchestra room, “Stan, what are you doing butt dialing me in the middle of the night?”

The older man’s head whipped up, a deep furrow creasing his forehead, and he snapped, “Son, you ought not talk like that in the Lord’s house.”

Wayne looked at me, panicked—like a kid who’d forgotten his one and only line in the school play. He stammered and sheepishly asked, “What did I say? ‘Butt’?”

“Worse than that,” Stan replied. “I’m not mad, but you just shouldn’t use sex talk here.”

Then it clicked in my head, and I couldn’t stop laughing. I kept on even though my gut hurt and tears filled my eyes.

“Wayne,” I said, trying to catch my breath, “he thought you meant ‘booty call.’”

A few beats later, Wayne got the joke as well. Then the only one not snickering was Stan. It was then my rather unenviable job to explain the difference between “booty call” and “butt dial” to a man thirty years my senior. It was uncomfortable to say the least, like having to tell your teacher the meaning of a dirty word when she (and you) would be better off if she remained blissfully oblivious. But, thankfully, by the time I finished, he was shaking his head and laughing too—a deep, whole body chuckle that made his shoulders shake.

Several years ago, I taught ESL classes and enjoyed many zany moments like this. And if there’s one thing those amazingly determined students taught me it’s that words matter. Especially when they have different connotations. For example, when it comes to her body, a woman would much rather be described as “voluptuous” than “chubby.” The same holds true for someone who’s good with money; I’m willing to bet “thrifty” is much preferable to “stingy.” (I wouldn’t know as I’m as prodigal as they come.)

And vocabularies, unlike currency, don’t always convert well. Consider the word “fag.” Say it in England, and a Brit will go looking for his pack of smokes. However, it’s disrespectful on this side of the pond. And you better not call your bag a “fanny pack” when you’re looking for some bob to pay for your fish and chips. It will end with you being roundly mocked.

Words also morph over time, changing their colors as easily as a chameleon does. The word “awful” once meant “full of awe” (something wonderful and amazing.) Now, it’s the last word you’d use to describe the Mona Lisa. Same goes for “manufacture.” It’s original meaning was “made by hand.” Now that term only applies to mass produced junk coming from the bowels of a factory. That’s why the sentence, “The awful manufactured lamp made my house look bright and gay” means something radically different than it did a century or so ago.

Yeah, words matter—no ifs, ands, or “butts” about it.