What Are We Bleeding For?: A Special Edition

When I started this blog, I made a quiet decision to keep my political inclinations out of it. I felt like there was enough commentary on the goings on of the world and another voice would just add to the cacophony. I’m not ashamed or embarrassed about my beliefs and will readily share them on my personal pages. It’s just not why I started this blog and I didn’t want to get distracted from my intentions for it. Today I’m breaking my own rule because I’ve been completely immobilized for the last eight days. I publish new blog posts every Thursday and Sunday, but what I had planned for these past two deadlines seemed trivial and entirely inauthentic to my feelings and thoughts right now. So, for today, I’m baring it all.

On Wednesday, February 14th, fourteen children, and three adults were shot and killed at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. A nineteen-year-old man, a previously expelled student, opened fire and slaughtered them during a six-minute long shooting spree using an AR-15, a semi-automatic rifle. A favorite among mass murderers, this type of rifle was used in the Aurora theater shooting, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the San Bernardino shooting, the Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting, the Las Vegas music festival shooting, and the Sutherland Springs church shooting just three months ago.

This rifle was designed to kill quickly, and kill easily. And that’s exactly what it does. Originally designed for the military, this semi-automatic version of the M16 is everywhere. The NRA estimates that Americans own over 8 million of them. That’s enough for 1 in every 40 Americans. Sadly, this particular gun is not the only problem.

There are things like bump stocks, which are legal gun stocks that allow semi-automatic firearms to fire like an automatic. I had never even heard of one until after the shooting in Las Vegas and was shocked…but not really… that, while a ban on automatic firearms has been strictly regulated since 1934, there is no current federal ban on bump stocks.

Real quick, the difference between an automatic weapon and a semi-automatic weapon is in the firing. An automatic rifle will continuously fire while the trigger is held. A semi-automatic weapon will fire one round each time the trigger is pulled without needing to cock the weapon hammer between rounds and while preloading the next round from a magazine. An experienced shooter can fire around 90 rounds in one minute from a semi-automatic rifle, that’s including buffers for the time it takes to reload. The average magazine for a semi-automatic rifle holds 30 rounds, however, it is possible to purchase larger magazines that hold up to 100 rounds.

I tell you all of this so that you, my dear reader, will have a better understanding of what exactly we’re talking about when we talk about these guns. I have listened to and read a lot of testimony about semi-automatics and why they are so popular and something that I keep hearing, particularly regarding the rifles, is that they are, “a lot of fun.” Generally speaking, the people who purchase semi-automatic rifles are invested in the hobbyist side of gun-ownership. They may have a 9mm Glock (another semi-automatic weapon, by the way) hidden in their bedside table, or, hopefully, stored in a safe in case of a home invasion, but more often than not, they have entered into a culture that seems centered around a lighthearted collector’s mentality rather than one that truly understands the gravity and responsibility of owning a weapon like this.

It’s important to me that we understand the difference between automatic and semi-automatic because knowledge is power, right? Let’s all have a deeper understanding of what we’re all fighting about. Let’s at least acknowledge that banning automatic weapons, but allowing semi-automatic weapons, especially with modifications like bump stocks, is disingenuine and frankly, a load of BS. It’s kind of like the difference between standing in the middle of an Interstate and standing in the middle of a highway. Yeah, the traffic isn’t as fast or as busy, but I certainly wouldn’t call it safe.

Now, I’m from Texas, daughter of a gun owner, and I’ve been to a few gun shows. Frankly, I have never been more uncomfortable in my life. I wouldn’t quite say I felt unsafe because there are some safety measures taken. There are uniformed officers on the premises that check that all guns being carried into the gun show are unloaded and lock tied with plastic ties. These ties are cut with scissors or box cutters when you leave. All guns on display are required to be unloaded and lock tied as well. Vendors in Texas are required to have a Federal Firearms License only if they sell firearms for their livelihood. However, private sellers are not required to perform background checks. The last time I was at a gun show, the few tables with licensed vendors were pointed out to me with a not-so-quiet conspiratorial tone of, “Don’t go to those tables unless you want a background check.”

Interestingly, brass knuckles, ASPs, and nunchucks are prohibited because they are illegal to own in the state. The ASPs have some exceptions for security guards and things of that nature, but overall these weapons have been deemed too dangerous for the public to own.

I know I’m getting long winded, but please bear with me because I’m still grieving the death of nuance. Too many arguments are treated like the answer is black or white. Here’s a clue, it’s not. While you’ll know my thoughts and feelings by the end of this article, I invite you to use your amazingly developed brain to do some thinking and processing on your own. Follow your emotional reactions to what you read and see what’s hidden underneath that rock. I can almost guarantee there will be creepy-crawly biases chilling out.

Let’s address the elephant in the room. Yes, I’m for better gun regulation. I do not, and will never, believe that the right to own a certain type of firearm is more important than the safety of our children. Period. I know that’s upsetting to some, and I understand that it goes against the culture that we have here in America. That is ALWAYS uncomfortable for people. Change is scary no matter what kind it is. I get that. However, 150 years ago, our culture in America included owning other people based on the color of their skin. It didn’t change overnight, but we’re overdue for a cultural shift around firearms. Gun regulation has been around in some form since 1837 in the United States which means we attempted to regulate firearms before we abolished slavery. We’re overdue.

The Second Amendment is constantly debated and tossed around as the ultimate and irrefutable argument of why the legislature should never, under any circumstances, touch our right to own guns. First, here’s the actual Amendment:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

According to Merriam-Webster, a ‘militia’ is defined as:

1: a: a part of the organized armed forces of a country liable to call only in emergency
    b: a body of citizens organized for military service
2: the whole body of able-bodied male citizens declared by law as being subject to call to military service

I don’t want to derail this whole conversation by going into the history of the militia in our country, but take this information and do some research. It’s pertinent, relevant, and will give some context for the Amendment itself.

My point in bringing up the Second Amendment is to highlight the hypocrisy of how so many of our citizens wear this particular Amendment as a badge of honor while choosing to ignore the many other Amendments and Acts that have been passed since the Bill of Rights that clarify how they are to be followed. We added the 15th Amendment to allow black men the vote because it was not specifically stated in the Bill of Rights, and that omission was recognized as something that needed to be fixed. The same was done for women in 1920 when the 19th Amendment was ratified. Times changed, we grew as a country and realized that the laws in place in 1776 were no longer adequately applicable to our country and its people.

I think we’ve more than proven that, as a country, we are not mature enough to handle owning semi-automatic guns. We have not shown to be collectively capable of handling the responsibility of this level of gun ownership. We have the highest rate of gun ownership of advanced nations and the highest rate of gun violence by…a lot. Guys, it’s not even close. There are tons of comparisons of us versus other “advanced” nations, but let’s frame it a different way. According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, when compared to the ten countries in North Africa and the Middle East…you know, the ones with all the brown people we’re supposed to be afraid of…with the highest rate of gun violence, the United States of America has a rate of gun violence higher than all of them except Iraq. In 2016 our rate of violent gun deaths was 3.85 per 100,000 people in our country. That equates to roughly 12,439 violent gun deaths in one year.

We hide our household chemicals and cleaners under the sink because our children do not fully realize the potential harm they may cause. Well, what do you do with a toddler who keeps getting into the chemicals and cleaners under the sink? You install a child safety lock until they are old enough to understand and give these unsafe materials the proper care and respect they merit. Until the citizens of this country have proven themselves to be mature and stable enough to handle the great responsibility of modern gun ownership, we shouldn’t own or purchase guns without the necessary regulation that protects our people, and most importantly, our children.

Mental health is the newer, trendier scapegoat of gun violence. It easily harmonizes with the infamous NRA propaganda, “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” It places blame on the person shooting with no fault falling with the weapon. Hey, I’ve seen the memes. I know that a gun isn’t going on a killing spree all by itself, however, it’s not just the gun we’re really talking about. We’re talking about how easy we are making it for mentally ill or unstable people to acquire them. I cannot fathom the argument against a waiting period, sometimes referred to as a “cool down” period in other countries that recognize that a delay in purchasing ability can save lives when a hothead’s impulse is to kill someone. I cannot comprehend the argument against mental health checks. Is it because it’s inconvenient? Or are you afraid you won’t pass? Either way, my kids’ lives are more valuable than any argument against it.

Japan not only requires mental health examinations before purchasing a gun but yearly reexaminations to minimize the cracks and loopholes people can fall through. They also require gun training prior to purchasing a gun and a rate of accuracy over 90%. There are other laws and stipulations in place, but that’s another rabbit hole. Let’s just say Japan’s gun violence rates are so low that it’s not uncommon for the police officers to have a single-digit rate of even needing to fire a gun. Countries like Australia and the U.K. have had great success in decreasing their gun violence rates with better restrictions and regulations for gun ownership.

Oh, and we can’t forget the age-old argument about criminals. If they want to get a gun, they’ll get a gun; a silly law isn’t going to change that. Well, let’s make it a bit harder for them, please. You know, like we did at the airports after 9/11? If you aren’t willing to make it harder for people who intend harm to acquire a gun because you think the laws to prevent it won’t do any good, let’s just go ahead and do away with vehicular laws, or regulations that require fire escapes and alarms. You know, as a matter of fact, the minimal laws we have to protect our children at school, they obviously won’t stop a criminal, so let’s just chuck those, too. An argument against regulation because criminals will be criminals is an argument for anarchy.

So, Kelsey, aside from a firearms buy-back program and waiting for our legislatures to agree on gun reform, what else can we do to protect our communities and our children from gun violence? Shouldn’t we arm our teachers? Or at the very least, place armed guards in all the schools? I have a better question: Do you really want to be the kind of country that needs to militarize our educators? I don’t. We honestly aren’t paying our teachers enough as it is. We aren’t funding education adequately enough to provide everyone with enough pencils for the school year, but you want to spend the billions of dollars it would take to even begin to properly train and arm all the teachers in schools? How about we take that money and fund a better teacher/student ratio. I’d also love to see better ratios of counselors to students, so the fringe kiddos who feel rejected by the world have better resources available to them. Let’s demystify mental health and create a culture that welcomes therapy and medication when it’s needed. Universal healthcare that makes that care accessible to everyone would go quite a long way. Just saying.

I’d like to close this article with a few quotes I’ve come across in the past week that I think it’s important that we acknowledge. At the end of the day, people are hurting. People are mourning. People had to bury their children this week. People are angry. People are scared. And people have a right to be. Let’s do our part and set our egos aside. Being wrong isn’t a crime. Being wrong doesn’t make you weak. Being wrong, and accepting it, is the greatest opportunity for growth you will ever encounter.

I will not give names as I did not ask permission to provide them.

 

“Let’s take a moment to honor the sacrifice of our brave school children who lay down their lives to protect our right to bear arms.”

                                                                                                                           – a concerned citizen

“just know, i love you” “I love you too” “forever and you’re the best brother”

“We’re gonna get out of here I promise” “are the cops here? my teacher died”

                                                              – texts exchanged between two brothers during the                                                                  shooting at Stoneman Douglas

“‘Wait, Miss.’ she said, ‘If you lock us in the closet, doesn’t that mean you’ll be out here?’…’You would do that?’…’In a heartbeat. Just stay quiet so you get out alive. Make it worth it.’”

                       – A teacher’s account of the conversation she had with her students at                            a neighboring high school while they reviewed protocol for an active                              shooter situation while waiting to hear if anyone they knew had died.

“But nobody died in my classroom today. Just a piece of my heart.”

                                                                                                        – The same teacher, in closing.

 

I chose not to source my resources today because I want you to do some work. You can read this and any other article you stumble across and have some feelings about what it says, but I doubt you can do yourself the honor of formulating an honest and authentic opinion on a subject without doing some digging of your own. Nothing you read here today is hard to find information about. Check your sources, fake news is actually a real thing. And hey, learn some stuff. Surprise yourself with what you know and what you don’t know. Our children are worth it. Beyond that, let’s stop the name-calling and the finger-pointing. Something real must be done. I don’t want to be the kind of country where children feel they have take to the streets and march for their lives because us grownups can’t get our shit together.

I didn’t write this to change anyone’s mind. I just absolutely needed the catharsis of doing the research and putting my thoughts onto paper. Apparently, this is my current stage of grief. My heart and prayers meet you at yours.

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A Story, Spoken: Chapter Two

If you haven’t read Chapter One of my serial, A Story, Spoken, you can read it here.

Three months had passed since we’d lowered my mother’s body into the ground. Three months since I’d thrown a handful of dirt onto a brown box that contained the broken shell of bone and flesh that once held her soul. Three months of living a life that no longer made sense, but was my reality, though I hardly felt awake.

Nan had been released from the hospital a week after the accident. Neither of us wanted to be alone, but unable to bear speaking the words, I quietly drove her back to the apartment instead of to her house around the corner. She never asked me why.

I gave her my room, but I’d slept on the couch, pushing its aged springs and cushions past their limit with my heavy-hearted weight. It was second hand, to begin with, frayed and creaking, now it was a bowing cradle I retreated to at the end of every empty day, longing for the woman who’d rocked me in my first.

The medical bills came, then payment requests for a loan I was furious to hear Nan had taken out against her house to help me pay for college. All those years of sending checks with a simple explanation of, “It’s just something I had tucked away.” I was angry at her for the risk and angry at myself for not realizing the impossibility of her having that kind of money simply “tucked away”. Knowing that we couldn’t sustain the payments, we made the hard decision to rent out Nan’s house and officially move her into the apartment with me. We’d use the rent money to pay bills and climb out of the financial hole that seems to appear as a twin to tragedy. It wasn’t a long-term fix, but it was a place to start where we both felt comfortable.

Cheney, my best friend since grade school, had come over the day before the move to help me go through Mom’s room. I’d gone in a few times to look for documents required for a variety of things, and I’d picked out an outfit for her body to be buried in, but I hadn’t been able to handle the reality of vacant space. I think Nan had it somewhat easier in that sense. She was occupied with trying to figure out how to live without her sight, and I imagined how nice it would be to not see the obvious emptiness of life, of space, that my mother had filled.

Cheney left me in the jumble of my mother’s clothes and tchotchkes to pick up some storage bins. I had filled a box and most of a trash bag before I saw the glass on her bedside table. A thin beam of light from between the blinds was reflecting off the side and I could see a smudge on the rim. I held up the glass, staring at the rough, lined imprint of my mother’s mouth. Not one to wear lipstick, it was the slightly pink tint of cherry-flavored lip balm. I stared at that smudge, trying to trace every wrinkle into my memory. Unsure why it was so important to remember. Knowing I couldn’t ever, really. I lifted the glass and carefully aligned my lips with hers and pressed them into me. I drank the dusty water that shuddered in the bottom, taking it in like I was drinking her essence. I didn’t lick the excess moisture from my lips, not wanting to mar the sensation of the glass, and the print it held.

I stood and carried it with me outside to the flowerbed, unable to still the image of fairies scattering that flashed before my mind’s eye. I snapped and ripped the stems of the few blooms not wilting in the summer heat and carried them back to the apartment. I refilled the glass with water, placed the flowers inside, and set them on the window sill above the sink, turning the glass so the overlapping marks were facing outward to the sun.

image3 (3)

The next day found me alone in Nan’s empty house after the mover’s had left. Cheney had gone on to meet them at the apartment a few hours before and tell them where everything should go. I had stayed to clean the place up for the new tenants, enjoying the quiet of busy work without questions about where my memories of the house were to be stored or sold.

I was working on a scuff mark on the kitchen linoleum, lost in the mindless motion of the task when I realized I was writing a story.
I had been thinking about the scuff, the shape and sweeping lines of it that reminded me of an errant brush stroke. My mind skipped like a record from scuff marks to scuff marks on the soul, scuff marks on the soul that kept someone from living their lives the way they wanted to, kept them from reaching for their dreams because what dreams could come true when you are scuffed and broken.

I pictured a young man, one pained by abuse and abandonment, a true Dicksonian character. I saw him trudging down a windy city street, holding the hood of his jacket across the bottom of his face, trying to keep the rain and cold from stinging his tender skin. He was walking toward something important. No, he was walking to something mundane, but today he was aware that the act of doing it, or rather not doing it, stopping in his tracks with people bumping into him from behind, cursing him, would be life-changing. Garrett was his name, and he had just experienced a rare moment of knowing exactly what must be done to pull himself from his current state of existing and into something more.

I didn’t know the details of his story, just a very vivid understanding of that moment of clarity. I saw it play out in my mind. I saw his young face with early lines across his brow. I saw the rain dripping from his dark eyelashes. I saw him blink them away just as he blinked away the dazed life he’d been leading up until the moment that he wasn’t anymore.

He looked across the street, saw a park with open trails of calm and quiet, and then looked back toward the path he’d been walking. He followed the mundane continuation of his life stretching out before him and on into his eternity as a fabrication of a grieving mind. I watched him turn deliberately, coming to a decision, and walk toward the welcoming green of the park. I watched as the sun broke through clouds, and the rain slowed as he crossed the street into a new, unplanned future.
I battled with myself as I scrubbed, wanting to scratch the image down on paper, but not enough to stop the rhythmic motion of the brush on the floor. I was giving in to the excuses and comfort of my weaknesses, but I didn’t care. It was just a man walking to a park instead of down the street. He was nothing of substance – nothing I couldn’t call from memory later if I really needed to. I just kept swiping the brush over the scuff, silently damning the movers who’d drug Nan’s dresser instead of lifting, feeling the burn of tired muscles start to twist and tighten.

He was still in sight, not quite lost in the foliage. I could still get up and write him down. I could flesh him out. I could find out what his mundane life consisted of. I could find out what his past held, what made him afraid to be alone. I could explore whether I thought that loneliness ate at him, shaming him into solitude, or if he so craved attention and intimacy that he was cavalier with his heart and with his body. I could explore what future he was walking toward. I could find out what his dream was, the one strong enough to pull him from the ease of monotony. Would he succeed? Would he fail? Would any of that matter because it was really about the journey and not about the outcome, especially considering that stories never really die until a person does. And even then, they live on with all the other people they touched along the way. As I asked myself these questions, I was already answering them. I knew I could fill them out even more. I knew I could build his world, his entire existence into something meaningful.

But I couldn’t. Not anymore.

I moved on to another section of the floor, leaving Garrett and his story on the square of linoleum where I’d found them.

Untitled design

 

The front door opened behind me, and I jumped, nearly slipping as I turned to see who had entered.

“Hey, honey.” Cheney smiled at me as she pushed the door open before hooking her arm back through the crook of Nan’s elbow and helping her step over the threshold.

“Nan, you didn’t need to come out here. Everything’s done already.” I stood and crossed to help walk her over to the window seat in the living room.

“I know that.” she snapped. “But it’s my house and I’m here.”

Cheney eye-balled me over the top of Nan’s head. Clearly, it had not been the first sharp moment for Nan’s tongue in the hours since I’d left the apartment that morning.

“How’s it going?” Cheney changed the subject, going back to stand by the open door now that Nan was safely seated. She wanted to go. I could see she was tired and she’d already helped so much.

“I’m done. Just being nitpicky now.” I lifted one corner of my mouth in the best smile I could muster and then let her off the hook. “Why don’t you go home. We’re all set for the night. Nan and I can drive through Jake’s on the way home for dinner. Tell your mom I said thank you for helping with the consignment stuff.”

“Oh, sure. I’ll tell her.” Cheney held her hands in front of her, wanting to say more, knowing it wouldn’t help.

“It’s okay, Cheney. We’re good.” I managed both corners that time and she nodded in acceptance.

“Okie dokie,” she chirped back, clearly trying to lift the mood before retreating. “I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?”

“Yep.”

“Thank you, Cheney,” Nan called just before the door shut behind my friend. I watched Cheney turn through the window, hearing Nan’s voice and waving before sheepishly pulling her hand back down and lifting her shoulders to me in apology for forgetting Nan couldn’t see it. I waved her on and smiled a little more easily.

“Cheney waved.” I couldn’t hide my mirth. Nan grunted a small laugh in response and then a deeper chuckle rumbled up.

“Oh, that’ll be fun to give people shit about,” she sighed. “Keep snitching on them, will you?”

“Doctor Reeves even did it at your check up the other day,” I confessed with a small laugh.

“Ha! That’s rich,” she shook her head, still smiling. “Remind me next time so I can tease him.”

“You’re gonna get me in trouble, but okay.” I laughed, stretching out the tightness in my shoulders.

“I sure hope so.” Her blank eyes wandered around the room as she turned her face from side to side. “Tell me what it looks like, Annie.”

“What do you mean? It’s an empty house.” I leaned my head down, resting it on her shoulder as I stared at the hollow space before us.

“Babe, I lived here for almost forty years. Your grandpa laid the bricks on the front walk. I brought your momma home to this house. Watched her grow up in this house. She brought you home to this house after your daddy disappeared. When you ran away from home, you came here,” she paused, wiping away a tear, sniffing back the threat of more. “I never thought I’d leave it. And now I can’t even see it for the last time. But you can tell me what it looks like.” She kissed the top of my head and waited.

“Okay,” I swept the tears from my own eyes and cleared my throat. I sat up and looked around, still seeing where everything used to be, picturing vividly the moments that made it so hard to leave.

“Remember the crescent-shaped burn mark on the counter by the stove?” I began. “It’s still there. I always thought it looked like a taunting smile, endlessly reminding Mom of scorching it with that giant stock pot you guys used to make soup in,” I looked back to see Nan smile at the memory and continued. “There are dimples on the carpet where all the furniture used to be, like everything is still there, just suddenly invisible,” I looked around for something else. “The sun is coming through the kitchen window, and it’s almost to the edge of the living room carpet. I used to look for that when I was little because it meant Mom would be here to pick me up soon.”

“Really?” Nan laughed, sniffing again as more tears ran down her soft face. “I never knew you did that.”

“Yeah, every day. I don’t remember when I first noticed it, but it was like my own secret message that she was on her way. ‘When the light met the gold’” I laughed, quoting my childhood imagination.

“What’s that?”

“Well, you know the little strip of gold between the carpet and the linoleum?” she nodded in understanding.

“I don’t know. It’s just what I called it.” I shrugged, glancing around for something else to jump out at me that I could tell her, but there was nothing more to see. Stains and scuff marks were all that remained in the house she loved.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say.” I gasped in as the knot in my throat clenched and I couldn’t hold back the tears anymore. “It’s just empty.” I fell back into Nan’s arms and even as she shushed me, she cried.

I suddenly felt sick of the whole thing. I didn’t want to be in the house anymore. It hurt too much to sit on the bench my mother had read countless books on waiting for Grandpa to get home after work. I hated that when I looked up to see what time it was, the mantle clock wasn’t there to chime. I couldn’t stand that all I could smell was cleaning products and the sweat of strangers and not the mixture of staling potpourri, fresh bread, and Pledge that should have been there.

I stood, realizing I was on the verge of a panic attack and needed to move, and then I saw Nan. Her eyes were wide and frantic, glossy with tears. She was lost. I didn’t know if she couldn’t tell where she was or just worried where I was, or if she was lost in the pain of memories she could no longer call forth with visual clarity. I pulled her up off the bench and wrapped my arms around her.

“It’s okay. I’m okay.” I held her gently and somehow swallowed the rest of my sorrow for the moment. I was needed and so couldn’t need. Not right now.

“Are you ready to go?” I whispered in her ear.

“Yeah, baby. I am.”

I took her arm and walked her to the door, opened it and stepped out before her to allow more space to walk through. I turned to face her, still holding one hand, but she stopped in the doorway. She reached up and set her hand on the wooden frame, patting it gently like you would a good pet.
“Thank you,” she said. Not to me, but to the house that had held her life for so long. I could swear I saw her absorb every memory she’d let the house carry for her so she wouldn’t leave them behind. Her shoulders dropped almost imperceptibly as the weight of them settled around her. She grasped my hand tighter and stepped out on the stoop, the door swinging shut behind her.

Favorite Books: A Journey

Do you ever travel back through memories to see if you can pinpoint which things or moments altered your course in life? Not necessarily a big shift, but just recognizing that once that thing, whatever it was, was said or done or experienced you were different. Sometimes it’s special because it’s a first. The first time you jumped off the diving board. The first time you skated all around the roller rink without falling. The first time you finished a book that did something more than entertain you. As I’ve been practicing my craft and building my writer muscles, I started asking myself which books I think really made a difference. I wanted to examine which stories stayed with me over the years and what I feel they gave me.

This blog is supposed to be about my writing life and my reading life is a big part that. As you know, I’ll be sharing my reviews of newly published books this year, but I couldn’t neglect the books I’ve already read that helped lead me to this point. I want to use my love of books and writing to reach others who share that love. Maybe I’ll introduce you to a new book, or remind you of an old one you haven’t thought about in a while, but I don’t want to just talk about them…I want you to read them.

Once a month I’m going to share a book with you from my past. One that is meaningful to me in some way. If you share my blog and send a screenshot to me on Facebook or email it to me here, I will enter your name in a drawing to win a copy of the beloved book I share that day. I’ll leave the pool open for one week and then draw a winner! This won’t make me a dime, you won’t be entered into some weird database or anything, I just want to put more books in people’s hands and I thought this would be a fun way to do it!

What book is first on deck? Let’s see, shall we…

I believe I was in fourth grade when I first encountered this book. We read some of it aloud in class, but mostly had chapter assignments to read at home. While other students groaned at the reminder, “Make sure you finish Chapter Three over the weekend so we can talk about it on Monday!” I was thrilled and grateful for every spare moment I could read.

I always read ahead, even when we were asked not to. Reading books in class felt painfully slow to me. The flow of the story was broken horrendously when only a chapter a week was assigned. And reading aloud in class? Torture. As an adult, I appreciate the importance of having children practice this, but, at the time, I could hardly sit still listening to classmates stumble over words and read an emotion-filled scene with all the passion of a dust mote. I would watch their lips move, and their finger trail along under the words and wonder if they were even aware of what they were reading or just making the sounds required.

I’d trudged through weeks of trying to pace myself, only allowing a chapter or two ahead of the class before going back to read along again and wait, but I reached my limit and decided one weekend to just finish the dang book already.

I sobbed. The book made me sob. I cried so hard, my emotions swaying in a synchronized dance of heartbreaking sadness and honest surprise at the heartbreaking sadness that my mom came running into my room to see what was wrong with me. I think I just pointed at the blasted book. That! That’s what did this to me!

I’m sure she smiled, I’m positive she hugged me. She knew. She knew how books could grab hold of you and make you care. This was my first real experience with it. I had been reading since two, had gotten teary-eyed a few times before, but this visceral reaction to the written word was entirely new. That day a door opened for me. The magic of books had just jumped from card tricks to vanishing acts. The magic of books that was growing alongside me suddenly shot over my head and through the sky. Simple words. Simple story. Deeply complicated feelings. Who knew?

The book was Where the Red Fern Grows.

If you’ve never read it, don’t let my sob story keep you from it. It’s an exceptional book. I have a copy on my bookshelf waiting for the day my son is ready for it. It wasn’t originally written for children, but Rawls truly captures the spirit of childhood. The energy, the thoughts, the dreaming.

If you’ve had the unfortunate chore of growing up without having read Where the Red Fern Grows, it’s a story about a boy living in the foothills of the Ozarks. He saves up his money to buy his heart’s greatest desire, a pair of coonhounds. The journey of their friendship and training winds through the forest of his childhood so closely you can smell the leaves crunching underfoot.

Read it as an adult to reflect on days of running around barefoot and the unconditional love of a dog. Have your kids read it to discover a different time, a different way of life, and perhaps some deeper emotion stored up somewhere just waiting for a good book to draw it out. Read it for nostalgia. Read it for heart. Read it for soul. It’s worth every salt-spiked tear.

A Story, Spoken: Chapter One

Today is the start of something special…I hope.

Each November, I participate in NaNoWriMo (more on that next time), and I attempt to draft a book before the end of the month. Yes, really. Last year, all my “good” ideas were super involved and would have required lots of research and time that I had wasted leading up to the start of the project. I had had an idea for a relationship, one you’ll be introduced to shortly, and thought, “Well, I’ll just start there and see what happens.”

I’ve never been one to outline whole stories or anything, but I approached this project as a writing exercise. I had a habit in previous manuscripts of rushing through to each designated plot point and missing out on the richness in between. That’s where this story began. I ended up with a bunch of little vignettes about these characters. It was choppy, the character building was erratic, so I saved one last time and didn’t open the file again until a month ago.

When I read what I’d written I was surprised by how much I really loved it. It needed a lot of work, and I still wasn’t sure where it would ultimately end up, but I wanted to do something with these snippets of a story. Of course, this was around the time I was first setting up this blog and planning what I wanted to do with it, and I had the idea to turn this story into a serial.

This post contains the first episode of what will be an ongoing story that I will add to each month. My goal is to bring this woebegone manuscript out of the shadows and have twelve volumes of a completed story by the end of the year. I hope you enjoy these people as much as I have. Truthfully, they’ve really stolen my heart.

Without further ado – A Story, Spoken: Chapter One

 

I was a child who believed. Magic, wishes, good luck, destiny – it was all real to me. Just as real as schoolwork, the friends that lived in the apartment two doors down, or the smell of bacon frying on Saturday mornings. I had such incredible faith in the power of belief that I had entirely convinced myself that fairies lived in the moderately landscaped scrap of grass behind the complex that we called the garden. Even if they didn’t at first, I thought that if I believed unwaveringly enough they would simply sparkle into existence. So I’d squint my eyes against sunlight and watch shadows flick in the trees as wind rattled their branches and I imagined with all my might a world of fairies.

My mother played the perfect audience to my lengthy retellings of the fairy adventures that took place just steps outside the back door. The queen and king’s arguments about what kind of flowers they should magic into blossoming first come springtime were quite the kitchen gossip for us. She would ask how the princess was managing with her willful dragonfly steed and I would tumble into a tale about how she had taken a horrendous fall. Her dragonfly had turned too quickly to avoid the back fence and she fell, breaking one of her delicate silver wings. I told how they had called for a special fairy healer from a distant garden across the street and how he had bound her with thread from the finest spider’s silk and spoke ancient magic words over her tattered wing. It had taken many weeks, but miraculously, the princess had a full recovery and soon married the healer who had traveled so far and worked so tirelessly to save her. And so it went for years, the neverending fairy saga of the Cedar Creek Apartment flowerbeds.

She was beautiful, my mother. Her smile was genuine even on her worst days and her eyes shimmered with a love of life. She found wonder in small things and cherished them for their fleeting weight. Her hair was a soft curl around my tired finger; her arms an elegant length just the right height to help me twirl. Secretly, I imagined the fairy princess with her face.

She indulged me, as her mother had indulged her. Where my mother was naive and shone with a delicate beauty of fairy tales, my nan was gregarious, loud, and handsome in a blunt way that mimicked her nature. Nan had showered her daughter with love, almost pushing it onto her, dropping her affection in my mother’s lap and then retreating before my mother had time to choose whether or not she would accept it. Love, for Nan, was abundant and all-encompassing. She had a way of making you feel like the center of the universe when she bestowed her love on you, but in a way, not unlike the Eye of Sauron, it was intense. You had no choice but to accept the love, the compliment, the gift she wanted you to have. For my mother, that kind of love had a much stronger hand in her development of character than either of them cared to admit. There’s was a symbiotic relationship. They fed off of each other in subtle ways that I wasn’t really aware of until I matured enough to see the nuance of how they interacted. Once I’d seen it, I couldn’t unsee it and I found it truly fascinating. I had a front-row seat to most of it because we were almost always all together. Nan lived in a small house a few blocks away from our apartment, but I could have sworn there was a divot in the sidewalk that marked the path we had worn between our homes.

Most days, I would come home from school, Nan would arrive within an hour to sit at the kitchen table leaning towards the small open window with cafe curtains my mom had sewn, blowing the smoke from her Capri Slims out into the garden. Even as an adult, I still pictured the garden fairies hiding in their homes every afternoon from the smog that drifted into their kingdom when Nan arrived. It used to upset her when I would try to explain why the fairies I spent so much time pointing out to my mother never appeared when she was there.

I would start to put dinner together, dicing vegetables, simmering sauces, until my mom stumbled in after her shift at the kitschy boutique a few blocks away. As much as I was sure her feet hurt, she would join me in the kitchen, helping me finish up the meal, swaying back and forth to the beat of whatever oldie had caught her ear on the radio. Nan would pipe up for a verse or two, but mostly she would just watch us like we were a play. She’d sip on her cigarette and smile at us with a secret kind of pride only mothers, and then grandmothers can achieve or even understand.

After a meal, either laughing around the table or silently in front of an old musical dancing across our small television, we would quietly clean up and retreat to our chairs and read. Nan favored a floral printed wingback with a crocheted doily draped over the back. Mom usually put her feet up on the chaise, a garage sale find that Nan had gifted her for Christmas one year. I would flop onto the couch with the kind of slouchy positioning that is only comfortable when you are young and your muscles are more forgiving. And there we would stay, completely engrossed in whatever invented land, adventure, or situation we were reading about in complete silence aside from the small gasp or chuckle brought forth by those special nuggets of story that hit your humanity. It wasn’t uncommon for me to wake up in the middle of the night with a blanket thrown over me, left behind to dream undisturbed.

Breakfast was like a book club meeting. We had diverse tastes, but honest respect and admiration for any book we encountered. Sure there were some genres we generally steered away from, but as true lovers of books and stories, we had such incredible regard for anyone who had successfully written and published a book. No matter how awful the content or quality might be, they had created something out of nothing. That was the magic we all saw and believed in long after my fairies went away to slumber in the hibernation of childhood memories. Our world was small, yet infinitely vast, only limited to the size of the library or the dusty boxes of paperbacks we collected from garage sales.

I graduated high school with honors, enrolled at the junior college and worked alongside my mother at the boutique until I was able to transfer to the four-year college where I earned my Bachelor’s in English. I split my time between the campus, home, and the random shifts I was able to pick up anywhere that would take me. I was grateful for the scholarships my writing and grades had earned me, but school wasn’t cheap. Mom and Nan chipped in as much as they could, so proud of me for pursuing my dream on a road paved with words. When I earned my degree, they coerced half the neighborhood into throwing me a massive block party to celebrate. As I waded through the faces that had made up my childhood, the question echoing from each of them was, “What’s next, Annie?”

And I would smile and not knowing what else to say would reply simply with, “Words.”

As the party was winding down, and the guests were trickling back to their houses, my matriarchs linked their arms with mine and walked me back to the apartment. They asked me if I’d enjoyed the party and if I’d said goodbye to so and so, but I could feel them glancing back and forth to each other with smiles of conspiracy. I knew there was one more surprise coming, but I wasn’t at all expecting what I found when I walked through our front door. A polished, black Underwood typewriter was sitting prettily on the Formica kitchen table. The glossy paint reflected the fluorescent light in a way that made it look like the whole thing was drenched in ink. And I felt like I would drown in it.

It was beautiful, and the most thoughtful and perfect gift I had ever received, but all I could do was pray that my smile was convincing these ladies that knew me better than the mirror in the bathroom. I had always known I would be a writer, but when suddenly faced with the gift of an empty vessel aching to be filled and no reason not to begin, the blank pages stacked beside the typewriter looked like a mountain I could never hope to summit. At some point along the way of infinite security and confidence in my abilities, not without validation either, a small seed of doubt had somehow found its way into my mind and confronted with the possibility of finally fulfilling my dream, I realized that this weed of a thought had somehow managed to worm it’s way around my soul, strangling and constricting me into a web of uncertainty that was debilitating.

And then my mother died.
I was twenty-two, newly graduated, the world at my feet, with a newly discovered fear of success. Nan and my beautiful mother were driving to the store to pick up some essentials for the week and coast by a few garage sales they had seen advertised. They had turned onto the main road after leaving the grocery store, and a kid with a newly minted driver’s license rammed into the driver’s side of my mom’s hatchback. Nan, never one to wear a seatbelt, had been tossed so violently that when she hit her head on the passenger door, she was knocked unconscious and her eyes went black forever. When she woke up in the hospital that evening, she had her first panic attack when she realized the world had disappeared. She had her second a few hours later when I gripped her hand and watched the horror contort her face as the doctor told her that her daughter, my angelic, vibrant mother, had been killed.

I don’t think she cared that she couldn’t see anymore – a small death had been dwarfed and swallowed in one swift and brutal wave. I watched my own agony mirrored in her and flinched with every sob. She clung to me like a lifeline, cracking the bones in my hand, reaching, dragging me into a hard embrace. I felt like she was trying to claw her way out of her own mind, out of a horror she couldn’t comprehend, to chase a dissolving thread of hope.

From the corner of my eye, I watched the doctor retreat from the room, heard the click of the door closing behind, and the rest of the world disappeared with him. Nan and I hovered, alone and drowning, in a sea of uncertainty about what life meant now. We didn’t speak. For the first time in either of our lives, words had failed us.