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Multigenerational Mom Muses on Twin Toddlers & Twenty-Something Daughters

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Layer Cakes and Legends: My Apocryphal Appalachian Roots

Today I baked up a blackberry jam cake — a triple layer one, coated in caramel, and dusted in roasted pecans. And for some nutty reason, it reminded me of my grandmother.

Not because she used to bake blackberry jam cake. (She didn’t.) Nor because she loved to bake at all. (She didn’t.) There was only one cake she ever made, and she made it every fall for Thanksgiving — a German Chocolate Layer Cake, triple-stacked to heaven and beyond. It defied natural laws.

Baking my own triple layer cake this morning somehow conjured up my grandmother’s spirit. Out of nowhere, a warm fragrant memory slipped in — a peppery whiff of Scotch snuff amid baking layers — and I was instantly transported back. Back into the warm half-circle spotlight of her bifocals, where she peered up at me with love and adoration… and then demanded I write down a select few of her stories.

Yup. Demanded. And Grandma always gets her way — even from beyond the grave. (Compromise was never her middle name.)

And she really was quite the storyteller — I like to think that’s where I get my passion for words — and her tales were always tall. As impossibly tall as her German Chocolate Layer Cake.  She told some doozies, but there was always truth in the pudding, er, batter… batter thick and sweet and loaded with flavor.

Her stories infused every room in her small house. They found you in every corner. You couldn’t escape them. Through the darkness of night, she was sitting on your mattress while you slept, telling you a story.  Through the closed bathroom door, you were sitting on the toilet while you shat, she was telling you a story. No exaggeration.

Her stories were a never-ending narrative. I’d heard them a thousand times. I thought I could recite them backwards. They were a constant. Like a beating heart. Always there. Always.

Until they weren’t.

I took them for granted. I tuned them out. I never wrote them down. I really wish I’d recorded them, old cassette ribbon winding like stretched caramel from one receptacle to another to help me transcribe her words from one era into another, today. Alas, I did not.

But this past summer, my family celebrated her oldest son — my Uncle Pal’s — 80th birthday. My two aunts and my father were there, too, rounding out her initial genetic contribution to this world.

The four sat atop a green, overstuffed sofa and held court, flipping through old pictures and regaling the second and third generations with Grandma’s tales of our Appalachian roots.

peters

Most of the stories I recalled immediately… their familiar cadence returning to me like skip rope chants learned in my childhood:

My grandma the buxom beauty — her breasts swelling so large when she contracted mumps at twelve that they never returned to what she considered a respectable size. She and her sister Margaret would mash them tightly in scarves, trying to achieve the ideal body image of her age — flat-chested flapper girl — to no avail.

grandma

My grandma the axe murderer — her one and only victim, a Harley Hog my dad bought knowing she hated them. Her brother had almost died on one; her son would not have the same opportunity. The Hog died instead, a quick, violent death from hatchet-strike to the fuel tank. Dad wept as his full-fendered baby girl bled out in front of him… the original chopped Harley.

My grandma, the exile — sent in her early twenties to country music legend Mama Maybelle Carter’s house, her childhood friend and neighbor. My great grandfather sent her away to keep the clambering boys away from the self-proclaimed prettiest girl in five Virginia counties. (Humility was also not her middle name.) Grandma spent an entire summer dancing the Charleston, little June Carter running between her flashing legs while Mama Maybelle scratched her guitar.

IMG_1149

Keeping Grandma away from the boys worked for a while, but she finally managed to run off and marry the love of her life at the ripe old age of 25 — an old maid by Appalachian standards. Grandpa was years younger than she was, also unheard of in that time period.  (I guess I get that from her, too.)

My aunts and uncle also told us a few tales I’d maybe heard, but had long since forgotten.

Like the seven-foot tall distant relative named Pleasant who was so small when he was born they could fit his head in a tea cup, and who slept in a Singer sewing machine drawer next to his parents’ bed. Pleasant grew up to be large and in charge, and was famous for once throwing a man out a second-story speak easy.

I also heard about an ancestor who, at 98-years young, could stand and do a somersault in the air. Backwards. That’s a back tuck, by the way. Cheerleaders drool for that kind of skill. He could do it at 98. Unfortunately, no one remembered his name.

But a whole lot of other names were remembered in my uncle’s living room this past July — names summoned from my grandmother’s looping cursive, scrawled in her black-papered memory book. Names like Viney and Velma, Tom and Tate, Willie and Chapman, and Emmy and Spencer, and Pleasant, of course. (I kind of wish I could have another kid, simply so I could name him or her Pleasant. No, scratch that. I’ll leave that up to my girls…)

Those names, written in Grandma’s looping penmanship, lassoed us all and pulled us back — back to our childhoods and beyond. Back to the crags and coal of the Virginia mountains. Back to the looping, sprawling deep-settled roots of our family tree.

The tree itself juts high and strong these days, with limbs spread far and wide. From London to Phoenix, her descendants are scattered like leaves in haphazard drifts of color and contrast in a beautiful, autumnal haze. We, indeed, have a glorious family tree. And her stories — our stories — deserve to be told.

* * *

Yes, today I baked up a blackberry jam cake — a triple layer one, coated in caramel, and dusted with roasted pecans. And for some nutty reason, it conjured my grandma, who channelled my fingers and hijacked my blog  — to write about an Appalachian beauty with a penchant for layer cake and a story or two thousand to tell.

My guess is, she isn’t quite done with me yet.

In my 50s with a far-from-empty nest

Being a mother of five-year-old twin boys at 53 is a whole nother level of tired. Like 4th-circle-of-eternal-boulder-pushing-with-Sisyphus-riding-piggy-back tired.

Some days I just don’t know where I’m going to get the energy.

The boys’ constant demand for attention is so… demanding. The endless bickering, boundless messes, bottomless hunger… it all saps my energy.

While they themselves are unending bands of the stuff, bouncing and careening over any and all semblance of peace and order. And legos and play doh. And happy meal toys and wrappers. And the last remaining vestiges of nerves that make up my life.

I wonder… can I steal some of that energy? Harness it for the stamina I need to entertain these green goblins of go-gettedness for the next fourteen hours? The next fifteen years? Because I seem to have zero reserves of go-gettedness left. Zilch.

I don’t recall being anywhere near this kind of tired when my girls where little. But then again, I wasn’t anywhere near this kind of age when my girls were little. I was a young mom to young kids. Now I’m a — well, let’s just say an older mom to young kids.

Which makes my life way more than a wee-bit more exhausting. I would swear I’m anemic, but they’ve tested me for that.

Mercy. Most days I beg for mercy. And mercifully, most days, there’s the swimming pool.

Swimming is their favorite right now. They love to splash in the coolness, to feel the ripples across their shoulders, to dive beneath the surface and hear their warbling words come out in whomps that burst in bubbles above their drifting curls.

So I take them to the pool. For them — and for me. It gives them play. And it gives me peace.

It’s the easiest part of my day right now. Demands diminish in the calm, soft ripples of silver and blue. The boys splash and play like sweet little sprites, and I’m granted a blessed disconnect from the harshness of my real — and really hard — world. Until…

My goggles are slipping! I’m hungry! My noodle is missing! There’s a frog in the pool! Parker won’t talk to me! Tate broke my head! I’m hungry!!!

The whines cut the calm like a chainsaw, severing it into the bloody little jagged pieces of pandemonium that is my life.

And it dawns on me. I’m not anemic. I’m exsanguinated. There’s nothing left to bleed.

I saw a story the other day from the Wall Street Journal celebrating a slew of women in their fifties, empty-nesters with newfound freedom to fly the coop and reinvent themselves.

One woman picked up and moved to the crater of a volcano. Another biked across the United States in a peace sign pattern. A third went snorkeling in the Galapagos Islands. None though, said, “Hey, I’ll raise a second set of kids.” None.

Many women I know commented on the article, saying they’d had their children early, and now they were living their best lives.

Well… I had my children early. And I had my children late. My nest is ragged and worn, with a whole lotta years left to go.

Perhaps there’s a reason God made sure most women don’t have babies after 40, much less 48.

And now, in my summer of 53, with school about to begin again, and Sisyphus and his boulder on my back, and my 5 year old twins in my nest, and me on my own for the next six months while my husband resumes his football duties — I refuse to believe I can’t still reinvent myself. In my fifties. With a far-from-empty nest.

I will work even harder to make this writing dream of mine come true.

I will continue to carve out words from the smallest slivers of time. I will keep stringing stolen seconds into sentences. I will keep climbing the steep and thorny path of progress while keeping my nestlings as content as two five-year-old boys can possibly be. Which isn’t very. And not often.

But I will not give in. Because inside the exhaustion of it all, there is also inspiration. And there is also breathtaking beauty.

This morning, my little goblins came creeping into my bedroom at Seven-Zero-Zero, as my oldest son says. (They are NOT allowed to leave their rooms until that six-five-nine has flipped. And they waste nary a second once it has.)

For a minute, I SO wanted to bark at them to go back where they came from and just let mama sleep.

But then, they are where they came from… curled up on my body like fiddlehead ferns, tentacles tracing my cheek, lips kissing my eyelids, chattering away like baby birds about their daddy and the swimming pool and the desperate need to water the garden before it rains. We have to GET UP… NOW. And how could I be mad at that?

They are where they came from, and they are where they belong. For this season. And for always.

And yes, there’s a reason God made sure most women don’t have babies at fifty. But you know what? I’m not most women.

I can raise these boys with the grace and the grit they deserve. With the same grace and grit I raised my girls with. I will. They deserve no less.

And I can also write my memoirs and my musings and murder my little darlings (it’s a writing metaphor, please do not be alarmed…) with the grace and the grit that I deserve, too. I can and I will.

Because I’m not most women.

I had my children early, and I had my children late. My family is beautiful and messy and more-than-I-can-handle most Mondays and a whole lot of other days, too. But still… I am absolutely living my best life AND reinventing myself, too.

And while I’m not swimming with turtles off a Darwinian desert isle, it is still survival of the fittest in all its glory. It’s all fight AND all flight. And while most days I feel I’ve been exsanguinated, I’m not dead yet.

Have Mercy!

Cockadoodle Carnage and Bathtub Baptism

I was baptized in a bathtub. The exact same tub that housed the sinewy corpses of dozens of elderly, free-range chickens just one week before.

By this time, our family had moved into a new house in a decent neighborhood — nary a naked hippy or homeless grad student to be found. Plenty of drunks though. It was the era of the cocktail hour, after all.

Ours was a yellow split level, with redwood deck and screened porch and a crawl space just big enough to lock away our Llewellyn Setter, Belle — the second-best quail dog who ever did live. When she wasn’t in heat.

When she was in heat, she was an infernal creature chained inside the crawl space, where she commenced to fumigate the entire house with ripe, gamey smells that drove my mama half-crazy. No amount of Spic and Span could rid the house of that stench.

But back to the cockadoodle carnage and bathtub baptism…

Daddy decided one day that poultry production would be an economic way to feed his evangelical, not-a-cult-yet, bible-study group. That, and he could trade rough-hewn fence posts for a couple hundred Plymouth Rock hens, so why not?

As a newly-ordained shepherd in the Discipleship Movement of the 70s, he took his duties seriously. And one of those duties was to provide for his flock. We had a newly-planted victory garden with acres of okra and peas. And now we had chickens.

Let me tell ya, physicists have no business playing farmer. And in this tale, there are TWO physicists… my dad and his fellow Ole Miss faculty member, Dan. (We’ll call him Dan because he was a no-nonsense Yankee with clipped vowels from Michigan State, so Boaz or Silas as a scriptural pseudonym just never would fit.) So, Dan it is.

Now this was a cockamamie scheme (wink, wink) from the get go, for all sorts of reasons. First off, these were some tough old birds — Methuselah-old in chicken years. To say they were ready for the Purina pet food factory would NOT be an exaggeration. That, plus the fact Daddy didn’t have the proper equipment to butcher and clean poultry were just two reasons.

But a man who understood alpha particles and chaos theory wasn’t gonna let a bunch of chickens get the best of him. So he gathered up his meagre-but-eager flock of neophytes and in no time, they’d assembled a paltry little poultry production line:

  • machete
  • canning pots
  • table for plucking
  • buck knife
  • bathtub

The carnage began in the backyard. It was like Salome and John the Baptist out there — chickens losing heads right and left — with a particularly large and gregarious gentleman wielding the machete. We’ll call him Rufus because, well, he had red hair and lived in a trailer park, so it suits him. That, plus he’s the hunter who taught Daddy to pop off quail heads and feed them to Belle as her point-and-retrieve reward. (The ensuing belches rivaled Hell’s sulfurous fumes.) If a red-haired, trailer-park-living, bird-dog loving southern man ain’t tailor-made for the name Rufus, I don’t know who is.

Back in the kitchen, Daddy baptized the newly-headless chickens in 20-qt speckled enamel pots chock full of rapidly boiling water. (He was always looking to dunk somebody, so this was great practice.) The birds got two minutes each, just prior to plucking. No more. No less. Too long, boiled flesh. Too less, torn breasts.

The plucking came next. In the hallway. With a dagger. (Not really. I just couldn’t pass on the Clue allusion …). But it really did happen in the hallway, only with bare hands.

It was a sticky, heinous job. Rufus (after making mincemeat of the machete business) and Dan-the-physics-man found themselves covered top to toe in soaking-wet, blue and black and white and silver feathers. They looked like fish with fluffy scales. Or Harpies.

Harpies are typically half-bird, half-female creatures, but travel back to Oxford in the summer of ’76 and you’ll find two of the male variety, squatting over a table, fingers puckered from plucking, lashes dripping with downy detritus — one well over six feet; the other, not-so-much.

Last on the production line, the newly-naked corpses were tossed upstairs to the bathroom, where they lost their innards and feet at the hands of Hiram — a former Vietnam chopper pilot. Entrails were dropped in orange paint buckets, birds in the ice-filled tub.

Where they were left in waiting on the womenfolk.

The women were charged with dissection — 200 cadavers at ten pieces each. No small undertaking. Even with steel buck knifes. And once the dismemberment was final, the job was far from over.

Those chickens had come to a sticky end. And my mother soon found herself in the STICKIEST of situations.

Here’s a little-known chicken butchering fact (at least for physicists-turned farmers): If the fatty scent glands of a chicken aren’t excised properly, they leech a stinky, oily grease.

And these weren’t. So these did. All over Mama’s gold fiberglass tub/shower combo…

The clean-up was monumental. Exxon Valdiz monumental. No way Dawn Dishwashing Liquid was taking that grease out of her way. It stucketh to that tub closer than a brother.

Second little-known chicken butchering fact: fatty scent glands are the mark of Cain. They are made of impenetrable stuff.

My mama scrubbed her fingers raw. That grease still probably lingers to this day, haunting all past, present and future tenants.

Which brings us to our baptism side of the story on a Saturday evening a week or so later… when this narrator was washed in the blood of the lamb — and the oil of the fatty scent glands of two-hundred plymouth rock poultry.

I had just walked down the aisle as a junior bridesmaid and is a day that will forever live in fondness and infamy.

For the wedding, I wore a dotted swiss, lemon yellow dress with square neck and white rick rack. The collar just highlighted the tiny raised mole above my right breast — along with my burgeoning need for a training bra.

Those sprouting acorn-sized lumps must’ve constituted an emergency. That, plus the strawberry lip gloss the bride smeared across my mouth like a Sodomite stain…

Whatever the prompting, I found myself sitting in a tub full of water in a scooter skirt and tank, Daddy praying fervently over my soul.

I’m sure I looked wild-eyed and mortified.

I’d attended baptisms before, but never my own. And always at the riverside. Never tub-side. Where was the murky water? The threat of cottonmouth nests? The promise of fried chicken and RC Cola after? This felt all wrong.

Rufus, Hiram, and Dan made it the requisite Two-or-Three-Or-More-Are-Gathered-in-my-Name official. They sang a slightly off-tune “Let’s Go Down to the River to Pray,” which calmed me. A little.

Until Daddy dunked me.

At ten, I was a long-legged filly (maybe another reason Daddy decided he could tary not one second more), so I’m not entirely certain my knobby knees made it under. Which is worrisome. Because it’s total dunk or no deal in Daddy’s nondenominational eyes. On sprinkle or pour, he casts aspersions.

But my noggin knocked fiberglass, of this I know. So here’s hoping it stuck.

I know the grease from the 200 fatty scent glands of the Plymouth Rock hens stuck. My hair had enough oil to light the lamps of the ten virgins in the parable for perpetuity.

I was one prepared virgin, at least. I know this much is true…

(And as for those chickens… chewy and tough as Methuselah’s boots. All Mama could do was grind them down to chicken salad — with a wallop of Duke’s mayonnaise and a half-a-patch of dill weed, you could still taste those fatty scent glands.)

My kind of Sexy

…is a summertime morning striptease. (It’s not what you think. Tell my husband not to get too excited.)

Summer mornings are my favorite. Especially ones like today. Do-nothing mornings — where I can sit and watch the fog drift in wisps on the silvery light — moth-wings light, lamb’s wool light, low-slung and easy.

I love to watch the sky unwind those ribbons of lambs-wool light, to slowly unwrap the earth — a long, sensual striptease revealing round, lush tree tops, and soft, dripping foliage.

The katydids swell with approval, the birds erupt in chorus, a woodpecker pulses the beat.

Somewhere amid the clover, a bee, slow from his overindulgence on nectar the night before, treads water in the liquid air. Not quite ready to start his day, not quite ready to get busy.

I get it. It’s so easy to overindulge in the potent nectar of these perfect summer days. The sun is long and tempting, and nature bursts free of her seams. She is hot and completely undone.

Gardens grow blousy with feverish growth and roadsides explode, keeping pace.

And we, as humans, we just want to imbibe. There is just so much fun to be had. Trails. Rivers. Beaches. Pools. Family. Friendship. Fireworks. Fun.

Like the wings of the hummingbirds at my feeder, summer is a blur of glittering seconds, so fast you can only see where it’s been, rarely standing still to see the up-close-and-perfect detail.

We cram action, hummingbird style, into layers and layers of summertime fun. Time is a frenzy most days.

But this morning I’m taking it slow. Because slow is my kind of sexy.

My boys — they get bored. All three of them. They like action. They like fun. And to them, sitting still and soaking it all in is a far cry from fun. So they’ve gathered up their things and taken off to the pool.

But me, I’m saddled up in this morning, eager to sit for a spell. Literally. Waiting for a spell. For creativity to light, to take up my fingers, to tickle my keyboard, and to unchain my mind.

And it takes awhile. The words appear slow, a tantalizing striptease.

Tendrils of misty promise, backlit by vision, fuzzy and opaque, flit about, flirting with my senses. Then, slivers of clarity — a single word, tweaked and pulled to a taut, perfect pearl. More coaxing ensues, until finally, big, rounded handfuls of glittering splendor are revealed. Eager and pliable. Hot and ready to couple and link.

It takes time to tease words into the light –to convince them to unveil their secrets and put themselves on full display.

And time is a frenzy most days.

But today, even the hummingbirds have slowed their windspeed. They defy their nature and perch at the feeder. Drinking deeply. Soaking in the sweet syrup of summertime.

It is — or was — a beautiful, do-nothing morning, succulent and ripe, and ready to open, to yield her secrets beneath my eager persistence.

But now. Now our time together is done. The show is over. Life demands my attention more than my words.

But as always, I’m left yearning for more. And that is my kind of sexy.

Being Authentic — in Life and in Writing (oh, and excising big, hairy, tooth-filled teratomas)

Was it the bible or the bard who said there’s nothing new under the sun? Either way, it’s gospel truth. Beautifully original is impossible. Especially living in today’s world. The world of social media, where I realize every day that even if I think I’ve gone and done something worthwhile — baked something bodacious and beautiful; written something poetically profound; experienced some sort of mommy enlightenment – I’m knocked back down to my rickety reality with a single swipe of my Instagram. I’m barely hanging on, and I definitely can’t compete.

Take, for example, Joanna Gaines’ perfectly appointed farm house sink, tiny bean sprouts perched prettily all in a row on the ledge behind it. Planted by her daughter. My girls, they planted seedlings once. They mildewed and drowned in their own Dixie cups. The seedlings. Not my daughters. I did manage to keep them alive. So there’s that. And they are currently beautiful and independent and flourishing, even if their little bean sprouts never made it. So, yeah — there’s that.

In another swipe, I spy with my little eye…Matthew Stafford’s lake house, complete with soaring eagle and cute little size zero cheerleader wife. A wife who is two months (nay not so much, not two) months postpartum with twins. Twins. Me, I have twins. And a lake in my backyard — a muddy, shitty one (they’re dredging our septic tank). And I am my coaching husband’s greatest cheerleader…  But as far as being a size zero… try multiplying that times … wait, it doesn’t work that way. Or… YES, yes it does. Do that! And then, lookie there: I AM a size zero cheerleader wife who’s three years (yea, quite so much, quite three) YEARS postpartum with twins. And with a (muddy, shitty) backyard lake. No eagle, though. Although we do have crows nesting in our gas-powered grill. So there’s that.

And then I swipe again, straight into an Anne Lamott essay or a Mary Oliver poem. And holy shit. They are profound and powerful and absolutely perfect. And I am far from that. And so are my words. Some days I think I am profound and powerful and perfect. I think I’ve written something I can feel good about. But then I see Anne Lamott on my newsfeed, her careening pinball prose depicting the messiness of life and the tender mercies we can find within all that mess…

It reminds me, believe it or not, of the teratoma my eldest daughter removed a few weeks back – a tumor full of tissue and organ components, and even teeth and hair. The excision of something profoundly messy and twisted and ugly – and the healing that came after. That’s how Annie Lamott writes. I want to write like that. I want to excise teratomas. I want to tackle the hairy and the messy, the stuff with the teeth and the brains. But I don’t know that I’m skilled enough to do that.

So I scroll some more. And there I see Mary Oliver’s handiwork. And I realize her poems are the exact opposite of Annie Lamott’s prose –they are quiet and they are calculated. They are hushed. But then again, they are exactly the same, too. Because beneath her pen, nature’s truths are untangled, separated — carefully and deftly — into thin slices of ink and placed under a microscope. Where she leaves them for me to analyze, to interpret, to explore. Her teratomas are cut down to size. But they’re still full of the messy stuff. And the hairy stuff with teeth. They bubble and swim beneath the scrutiny.

She has a poem called “Sometimes.” It is beautiful. And still. And liquid. And hairy and wet and tangled. And one of the stanzas gives me hope. Helps cure my cancerous self-doubt.

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention

Be astonished

Tell about it.

No, it’s NOT possible to be original. Not in anything. Not in motherhood, not in life, not in writing… not even in teratoma surgery. Those suckers may be weird, but they aren’t that uncommon.

No you can’t be original. But you can be authentic. You can be true to yourself. It’s true, I’m no Fixer Upper goddess, or a size zero NFL wife with twin daughters. Nor am I a progressive and unorthodox, recovering addict writer with self-deprecating humor and dreadlocks. Or a hushed and reverent nature poet with a Pulitzer Prize in my back pocket.

But I am me. I am Heather Candela — décor-loving, size 8 writer and teacher and coach’s wife with twin sons and adult daughters. And I WILL untangle the complexities of life in my writing. I will tackle the beautiful and the shiny and silver, but I will also tackle the hairy, the stuff with teeth and brains. I will excise teratomas. At least the metaphorical ones. I’ll leave the real ones to my daughter.

I will pay attention. Be astonished. And tell about it.

authentic

Keeping the Faith and Following the Signs

Remember lucky pencils from elementary school? The ones your teachers would give you so you would ace those standardized tests?

Well, I have a lucky pencil. It’s an old-fashioned #2 pencil. It’s a deep, slate blue #2 pencil. It’s got gold lettering on the side. And a simple, profound message: TELL YOUR STORY.

It arrived n the mail last year when I ordered a children’s story for my boys, a book about building tree houses from Magnolia Market— the world-renowned Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia Market, the same Magnolia Market to which I had entered (and not won), a writing contest earlier that spring.

I took that pencil as a sign.

A sign that somebody over there in the land of Magnolia milk and honey had remembered me and my writing and decided to send along some manna from Magnolia to encourage and sustain me along my writing journey through the wilderness.

And while odds are that was not the case, and odds are that my inspirational magic pencil was quite simply a gift-with-purchase that every patron receives, I like to think otherwise. I like to think it is special. Because my words — and my story — are special. That’s what I like to think.

Only now,  my magic pencil is gone.

I noticed its absence yesterday morning while applying my eyeliner.

Normally, my magic pencil hangs out in my bathroom in a ceramic container along with my toenail clippers and eyebrow scissors. (I don’t actually WRITE with it. It’s a symbol. A sign. A powerful promise, if you will.) And so it sits prominently in my line of vision (or it did until yesterday), reminding me every day to do what it commands me to do.

And some days, I notice the message has twisted round to where I can’t see it, so I rotate my promise, feeling its hexagonal planes shift beneath my thumb and forefinger, until I can see it again. Because I need to see it daily. I need reminding. Daily.

Especially lately, when my words seem to get lost in the frantic shuffle of my busy teaching and twin-mom world. Lately my words have been getting harder and harder to find, and once found, to put in some semblance of order.

And even when I do manage to round them up — recently in rather ramshackle fashion — I don’t know that they really make much of an impact at all…

So I need my sign, my writing-on-the-writing-utensil sign, shipped from some random, nameless, faceless true believer of both me and my story out in Waco-turned-Canaan, Texas (intentional or otherwise.)

Because me… sometimes I don’t believe. Sometimes I lose my faith.

And now, tragedy has struck. My magic pencil has gone missing. And I’ve looked everywhere. And my husband has looked everywhere. (And he’s much better at finding things than I am. He found me in the eleventh hour after all, and saved me from drought and famine, and I am forever in his debt.)

So my magic pencil has gone missing and I see this as an ominous sign. And I’m a firm believer in signs. But then, you already know that.  So I guess that means…

Okay. Wait.

This is going to be hard to believe, but I swear to you it is the God’s honest truth…

Just as I closed my computer, thinking I was pretty much done with my blog (as well as my entire storytelling career), my youngest son bent down at a spot we had all gone over with a fine-tooth comb and exclaimed…

“Mama, is this your pencil?”

Why, yes. Yes it is.

And since I’m a firm believer in signs… I guess I know what I have to do now. I have to obey.

So I’m sending this story — and many, many more — out into the universe.

The Writing Process: Fishing Serendipity and the Swampland to Serve up Batter-dipped, Panfried Truths

There’s this weird feeling I get sometimes. Like someone has hit a tuning fork — but the tuning fork is my body. And it rings and vibrates. Like a silver spoon hitting chilled stainless. Like ice hitting back molars. Like wintergreen hitting my veins. And the one hitting the tuning fork is the universe. Is God, if you will.

I feel awake and alive and almost raw.

So I go to my computer and I dive into the current of serendipity’s stream. And I pay really careful attention.

Words swirl around me, boomerang back at me like white water rapids. They carry me, roll me, drive me forward. The universe is in charge, and I am on a wild ride. Where I’m going is out of my hands – but I know I’m on the right track.

So I swim. Hard. And fast. To stay inside that current. Not sink beneath it.

Because the universe has given me a gift — it has given me a path and a process. But it has expectations. It has demands. And those demands are rigorous. They are… well… demanding.

This current will take me to my goal, but only with a whole lot of work.

So work, I do. At first I’m cold and rusty, and my mind misfires. A lot. But I remind myself I’m trained for this. I can do this hard thing. I am prepared. And so I just keep kicking, doing my best to stay afloat and follow directions as the words swirl around me, bump up against me.

Inside the current, my mind warms, loosens — perhaps even unravels a bit – allowing flexibility and vision and a bit of slack to reel in the difficult bits, the hard bits. Of life. Particularly, my life. My past.

Because the hard and difficult bits require a whole lot of slack — lest I get too wound up, too tense, and then break the line and lose the way, the truth, and the life. My way. My truth. My life.

Barbara Kingsolver once stated that “memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.” And I totally get it — especially when the memory itself is incredibly complicated, when the truth you are recording — the twisted religion of your formative years — was itself a relative to truth, but not its twin. Maybe not even the same family… or neighborhood. But definitely the same region. My truth fits within the region — the southern region, that is.

The South — where truths become memories, loosely maintained, that become yarns, wildly spun, that become tales, twisty and gnarled.  Where truths become monstrosities.

Here in the land of Faulkner and Flannery, we drill holes in mama’s coffin (and right on through to her face) so she can breathe in the hereafter. We have kinky morticians and corrupt bible salesmen and Presbyterian ax vigilantes. We have deaf mutes and hunchbacks and dwarves – oh my! All so we can safely unearth the darkened roots of our deep-seated insecurities.

Here in the South, we love a little batter on our vegetables and a little gothic on our histories. Sure, maybe raw is better for you – but they taste so much better in a solid bath of debauchery and a heavy dusting of sin. (Minimalist, we are not!)

It’s as much about embellishment as it is about fact here. We hide our tender bits inside hyperbole and the grotesque. The crazier the tale, the deeper the truth.

For me, swimming serendipity’s stream may begin with the exquisite chill of a spoon hitting stainless, but it never fails to dump me where stainless will always fall victim to stain: childhood and the fears and tears that form its fecund swamplands.

The water there is brackish and foul with trash and monsters. Monsters ready to be raised from the near-dead. Demons with watermelon rinds for smiles. Disciples with oily words and cardboard hearts.

I land there each and every time. And after I catch my breath and adjust to the temperature change, I dredge the swamp.

And as the silt and sludge swirls, I bring in my haul — words writhing and thick with hard muscle, slippery sinew, scaly gill. They emerge slowly, but in netfuls, tangled and twisted. Words glinting with a thousand splendid refractions, bending and contorting in the light. Piercing.

I capture them all by capturing my past. Finding the way and the truth from my life.

My biggest and most-tangled of truths thus far — a Pentecostal pastor’s circumcised daughter — flesh faulted and excised amid great ceremony and pain. She emerges from the darkness demanding her reckoning. She flips silver on my screen.

She is forged from the cold steel of serendipity’s stream, humming with the frequency of the tuning fork. The chill of wintergreen hangs in the air… along with the sweetness and rot of the swamp.

I gut her and clean her. I batter-dip her in admonition and intuition and the blood of the Lamb. I sear her on tongues of flame. I lay her on a slaw of shredded scripture. And I serve her up to the world.

+ + +

In the beginning was the word.

And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us — howling to be heard. To be seen. To be known.

Ex nihilo.

 

Teaching English Composition: The Delicate and Demanding Job of a Voice Midwife

On dark days, I wonder why I blog.  Why I put myself through the peeling back of layer after layer of tender, hidden embryonic self-truths, exposing the fresh new bits to a cold, fickle world…

And no matter how much I tell myself it doesn’t matter whether my musings are acknowledged and well-received, it does. It matters a lot. Because everyone wants to be heard. Everyone wants to feel valued and validated. And when it doesn’t happen, it brings on floods of insecurities and self-doubt. Especially after the painful process of self-revelation.

It makes me question why I blog about my life at all? What do I have of value to offer up to the world? I’m not young and good looking. I’m not rich and famous. I’m no makeup expert or flashy fashionista. And I’m certainly not a ninety-something grandma in tie dye lingerie smoking weed and dancing the Charleston to gangsta rap. So why do I even think I can compete in this world of crazy gimmicks and material world wisdom? What the hell do I think I’m doing, blogging about my stuff — my boring, middle-aged mother stuff, the stomach bugs and family vacays and potty-training-woe-is-me stuff.

And hitting these dark, despondent days of doubt – these total eclipses of confidence, if you will — makes me consider my students. Because my paying job is teaching high schoolers to find and use their voices through literature and composition – and I take my job very seriously. And they despise me for it – particularly the composition part. They act like I’m tearing out their fingernails with a pair of needle-nose pliers, followed by a chaser of hydrochloric acid.

If you want to know what the shrieks belched out from the bowels of hell sound like, step into my classroom the morning I announce an essay assignment. Lord, the bellyaching.

And I get it. I honestly do. If it’s done right, writing’s a painful process. I’ve felt the needle-nose pliers and hydrochloric acid many times. But it’s also enlightening (which is precisely why it’s so painful) for both the writer and the reader. The more you write, the more you know – not about the world (though that happens too) – but about yourself. Who you are. What makes you tick and why. All sorts of unacknowledged truths claw their way to the surface when you write. It’s like you’re giving birth to yourself. So of course, that’s gonna hurt. Like, a lot.

But pain is this generation’s enemy. They run from it. They prefer high GPAs with minimal effort and zero pain. And I’ve discovered that quite often, that’s what gets served up. They hold out their tray, they get their perfect little A.

(I once had an AP student brag to me that in an honors English class she never once turned in a weekly journal assignment — what should have totaled 16 zeros on her report card — yet she still walked away with a 100 in the class. And naturally she adored that teacher. Why wouldn’t she? An easy A equals a happy student, happy parents, and therein, happy teacher.)

And this scenario is not that uncommon, folks. Teachers are not making their students write. Why? No pain — and pain-free seems to be the way of the world right now. Consider all the scheduled C-sections with full makeup and perfectly coiffed hair. (I know, I know… there are necessary c sections, I’m not saying there aren’t – I had one with the boys this last time around, but so many are simply the easy way out…)

But I’m here to tell you there are no scheduled c sections in my English class. My students are going to birth their ideas one painful quote incorporation at a time. But I promise you, when it’s over and done, it will be worth it. Birthing a voice is a beautiful thing. A beautiful, gut-wrenching thing.

But when we as teachers don’t require our students to go through that painful birthing process – or if we do, but then we don’t acknowledge that fledgling voice with commentary, both critical and complimentary — then we are teaching them that their voices don’t matter.

And we are teaching them that they can do absolutely nothing and succeed at life.

And neither of these is true. And I honestly don’t know which lie is worse, but as a person who’s been denied a voice when I was exactly their age, I tend to think it’s the first. Voice matters, people.

Like I said, I know what it feels like to believe my voice doesn’t matter — to feel pointless and small and ready to quit. To feel powerless.

But I don’t quit when I start feeling small and weak and ineffective because I have enough willpower and confidence, and I have enough love of self and craft to overcome the doubt. I have age and wisdom on my side, brought about by teachers and loved ones who believed in me.

But our students seemingly have none of these.

Our job as educators is to empower. By not having students write — or by requiring they do and then not grading their work — we teachers are failing our students. If the essays aren’t being evaluated and validated – if they are not receiving written commentary, if the students themselves are not getting the time and attention and INSTRUCTION they so deserve (and so many are NOT), then what exactly are we teachers teaching them?

We are teaching our students that they are not worthy of confidence and self-respect and a future. And the saddest part about this situation to me is that our students are okay with that. Because it is easier.

Writing papers is hard work. Grading papers is hard work. Taking a student from point A to point Z in a semester is hard work. But guess what? Education and educating SHOULD both be hard work. It’s a job. So we need to do the hard thing to the best of our abilities. All of us. Teachers and students alike.

This year, due to unique and unavoidable circumstances, I face a teaching schedule unlike any I’ve ever held before. I am teaching two separate courses (nothing new there), with two high stakes exams tied to each course at semester end (that’s the big stressor, here).

I am a bit overwhelmed, to say the least. It would be really easy for me to say that there is just way too much grading involved and way too many students to accommodate. That this is only a temporary schedule, so I’m simply going to coast my way through it all. I’m just going to give it a lick and a promise, keep the parents off my back, keep the kids happy with completion grades, and chalk it all up to doing the best I can under the circumstances.

But I would be doing myself and my students a disservice. And I’m not ok with that.

Because while these kids would be happy with their easy As — and all the accolades and scholarships and privileges that come along with them — that sort of teaching philosophy also gives them little to no true skill sets, no true self-respect, and no true future. And I refuse to do that. To them or to me.

I have an incredibly tough year ahead of me. And so do my students. Because they will write. And I will grade that writing. That’s my job as an educator: I am a voice midwife. I coax, cajole, demand, deliver. They are birthing their voices, their identities. It’s not easy. But nothing worthwhile ever is. And they and their voices are worthwhile.

So pardon me while I pick myself up by my ballpoints and crank out some commentary on the pile of newborn essays just screaming for some attention.

 

 

 

Why I’m Afraid of the Dark: True Southern Gothic

The summer solstice is here. That means summertime. Where the days are long and the nights are sticky. Pools and fireworks and barbecued weenies. Mermaid days. Firefly nights.

I love me some summer. Always have. As a teacher, I love them even more than ever. They are my chance to relax and recover. They are unbelievably important to my state of mind.

But I remember one summer way back when that totally wracked my state of mind. It was the summer that ended my childhood. It was the summer before my sixth-grade year. It was the summer I heard demons in my living room. It was the summer I learned we were moving to a giant metropolis and leaving my friends and fun and beloved frog pond far behind. It was the summer of my fall.

Up until then I’d been knobby-kneed, sun kissed, and barefoot. I had three sisters, a new baby brother, and more than a mild addiction to lime Kool Aid. I wore my hair long and tangled and crunchy with chlorine. I loved horses and roller skates and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I knew nothing about life but what my small little patch of Yoknapatawpha had taught me: kudzu and snake skins and sandy creek beds; frog ponds and field corn and honeysuckle vines. My own little Garden of Eden postage stamp.

My friends and I – a neighborhood pack of elementary school vagabonds — roamed the backroads and the brambles in search of the most perfect summer. And we damned near found it amidst a syrup of sweat and random scents: deadheaded marigolds, sunbaked magnolia blossoms, warm pine needles, maypops cracked wide open on hot asphalt, and truckloads of mosquito spray, which we rode our bikes behind like we were soaring through clouds in fighter jets.  Those are the smells I remember from that summer. It was a summer full to the brim. Mosquitoes and memories multiplying under a speckled canopy of freckles and stars.

And then came the demons.

It wasn’t what you would think. It wasn’t howling and hissing and holy water sizzling on flesh. I saw that sort of thing later, in some Hollywood versions of possession. No, this to me was, and still is, far scarier. Because it happened. To me. In real life. And it was nothing like in the movies.

It happened in a run-of-the-mill southern den, amid a velveteen sofa, a couple of flame-stitched wingbacks, and a good many, good-intentioned, God-fearing people. There was a laying-on of hands, a cacophony of tongue-speaking… and hissing. I remember harsh, guttural hissings. Lots of repetitive phrases, lots of In the Name of the Lords and Get behind me, Satans.

This is not something your average eleven-year-old should be exposed to. Just saying.

It left me terrified of the dark to this day.

It happened in our living room during a cell meeting – the little home prayer groups that were sprouting up all around our neck of the southeast back then. Led by people dissatisfied with the ways of organized religion. Rather ironic, considering they organized their own, new brand of religion, which ended up leaving me terrified of any and all organized religion.

It was just a small gathering of people I’d grown up around. And they were there, in our living room, worshipping God in the way they thought best. Lots of singing, praying, lifting of hands, and speaking in tongues. I was used to it.

Until it took that turn. That devilish turn. I remember – or maybe I invented — a smile. The biggest smile you ever did see on the biggest, best man I ever knew. A great, big-bellied, big-hearted man with a great big watermelon smile. Only this smile wasn’t his smile. It was creepy and folded in. Like a jack-o-lantern two weeks too old.

As dozens of men surrounded the smile, and dozens of women prayed fervently, that smile broke my innocence. And I can never go back.

To this day, I can’t watch possession movies. I just can’t. Give me all the Criminal Minds and Law & Orders and Sherlocks you’ve got. I lap them up — my adult version of lime Kool-Aid. I am more than mildly addicted. But possession flicks? Nope. Not happening.

And whenever I wake at 3:00 AM – the witching hour, the devil’s hour — I shiver and slide over closer to my sleeping husband, terrified of the knowledge I absorbed way back then.

It can’t be undone. It can’t be dismissed.

Were the demons real? Who knows? I was told once that I was possessed, too. I was pretty sure I wasn’t. Still, it was scary as all get out to be told that. And to witness all that I witnessed. For there were far more exorcisms than just the one.

And this summer, I’ve been revisiting that time — working on a novel that integrates some of those same situations and the ensuing darkness that enveloped me.

It all began with a grinning demon. And it all ended with a damsel in distress.

It took her years to escape. She’s still working on it, actually.

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