Friday, January 28, 2011

*The Coldest I've Ever Been*

The coldest I've ever been was not December 27, 2009 when I watched my husband officiate the Music City Bowl.  Sitting for three hours inside the Tennessee Titans' stadium in a windchill of 17 degrees makes a body cold, to be sure.  But I've been colder.  In the 70s.

In the 70s, I liked to hear the WKEE dj who lived inside my clock radio say, "Cabell County" in the list of school cancellations.  I'd hit the off button and roll over and dream about--  What was the oldest Partridge brother's name?  Not Danny. The other one.

The smell of Maxwell House would waft under my door, and I'd know Dad was up.  I'd slide my feet into slippers, slip my arms into my robe, and join him in the kitchen.  He'd look up from his dippy egg and grin. 

"Gonna sleigh ride?"
I'd smile back.  "Yep."
I'd open the cabinet over the stove and survey the collection of cereal--Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, Sugar Pops.  Usually I picked Cheerios.  Added a teaspoon or two of sugar and a big pour of milk.
Dad would push his chair back from the table and carry his dishes to the sink.  He'd run water over his plate so the yolk streaks wouldn't turn to Super Glue.  Then he'd pat me on the back, always too hard.   I'd arch to soften, or avoid altogether, the blows.
He'd put his cheek to mine, his Abe Lincoln beard scratchy.  My nose would wrinkle with the combination of his morning and Maxwell House breath.  My mouth was full, so I'd make the brusha-brusha-brusha motion with my hand.  He'd make an almost fist, breathe into it, and sniff.  Then his eyebrows would go up. 

Before he left to walk to work, he'd come back in the kitchen and exhale in my face.  Colgate breath.  Minty fresh.  Much better.  My mouth was still full, so I gave him a thumbs up.

After I slurped the sugary milk dregs, I'd put my bowl in the sink.  Then I started collecting.  Socks, long johns, jeans--two pair. Turtleneck, sweatshirt.  Hat, scarf,  gloves.  Baggies and rubber bands--one for each foot.  The plastic bags were key.  They keep the feet dry.  Wet cold is way chillier than dry cold.  If your feet are dry, you can stay out at least an extra hour.
Next stop was the basement, for foot and outerwear--always my brothers.'  No way my coat and boots would fit over all my sleigh riding gear.  I'd root through the shoe pile under the stairs, looking for the Scotchguarded, stubby-toed hiking boots with red laces.  I'd grab my middle older brother’s arctic parka.  The fur trim almost always kept the snow spray off my face.
Into the garage.  More choices.  I'll take the . . . silver disc and the  . . . newer Flexible Flyer.   Its runners had been waxed recently.  All set.  To the cemetary.  No need to tell Mom.  It's where I always went when it snowed.

It was the best of snow days.  It was the worst of snow days.
The snow had a crisp, like potato chips, top.  Like it had snowed, drizzled, then froze.  If I was super careful, I could walk across the surface and not fall through.   The trick was weight distribution.  You had to center yourself over your feet.  If you dug in a heel, you’d crash through.  Ka-runch. On a good day, I could go six or eight steps without a breakthrough.
Us neighborhood kids had anticipated this cold snap.  We prepared for it too.  After school the day before, some of us tromped over and used a chubby stick to jam the water pump at the top of the hill where the road goes down to the giant, open Bible made of granite.
The day before, it'd been almost 40.   The water had gushed willingly.  Today it wasn’t even 20.  The water refused to flow.  Instead, it looked like a white paper towel tube coming out of the forest green, goose-necked faucet.  The road reminded me of the powdered sugar glaze on my mom's Bacardi rum cake.  Shiny.  Slick.  Speedy.
I smiled and rubbed my gloved hands together.  It's gonna be so fast.
After the faucet inspection, I walked back up the hill to where I'd left the sleds.  I picked up the reins of the Flexible Flyer.  Sitting, or on my belly?  On my belly.  I trusted my hands more than my feet when it came to steering.
I pulled the sled three feet back from the edge so I could get settled before I--  On your mark . . . get set . . . went.  I eased my Michelin-man self, tummy down, onto the Flyer's slats.  I put the rope under me, so it wouldn't get caught beneath the runners.  I put my hands at opposite ends of the guide bar.  Before I geronimoed, I pulled my muffler up over my mouth and nose 'cause I hate freezin' cold snow powder in my face.  Hate it!
When you ride a roller coaster, you're scared in the line.  At least I am.  Then, you're anxious as your car climbs the first hill.  That’s how I always feel, like there's no turning back now.  And then you're at the peak, and your stomach jumps up to keep your sternum company.  Then all h-e-double toothpicks breaks loose.  Speed.  Wind.  Adrenalin.  Bugs.  Fear.  Joy.  It's over?  Already?  Let's do it again!

Not this time.  I hunched and scooted and jerked my way to the precipice.  I paused to look at the gleaming ribbon of silver.  I considered the way it dog-legged to the left, halfway down.  Wonder how the Flyer will steer on ice? 

"Cowabunga!" I shouted to the edges of winter as I oomphed myself from flat to steep.  

It happened so quick.  I didn't get to enjoy the stinging, alarming velocity before the pain, the burning pain, set in.  The steering of the Flyer on ice?  It didn't happen.  The ice flung me down the hill so fast, by the time I approached the bend and needed to steer, it was too late. 

The Flyer slammed into the curb and stopped.  I, however, kept going.  Across the crisp, like the top of creme brulee, but cold not hot, snow.  The parka's hood flew back.  The scarf on my face abandoned ship, and the sandpaper-rough ice crust razzed my face. Took off a layer of skin on my right cheek and jaw. 

I don't know how long I laid there, motionless, like one of those baby harp seals whose eyes say, "Please don't let mean, greedy men kill me."

After awhile, the burning on the right side of my face turned to stinging.  Then it prickled.  Then itched.  Isn't this what they say frostbite feels like?  And then people's toes and fingers fall off.  Is my cheek gonna fall off?  

I lifted my face off the ice layer.  My eyes got big when I saw the pink print it left.  I rolled onto my back with a groan.  My neck and shoulders ached from the Flyer's violent kiss with the curb.  Wish the snow was soft like when it first falls and you run outside to make snow angels.

My stomach rumbled, and I opened my eyes.  I was so cold.  A jarring shiver started in my gut and shimmied up to my teeth, making 'em clack.  Sounded like the Mexican Hat Dance.  I squinted at the sky.  What time is it?  I shook my head to ease the crawling of my face skin, but it didn't help.  I reached a glove up to scratch and felt a tearing.  The fringe fibers of my scarf had mated with the beginnings of the scabs on my cheek.  My face would not surrender the muffler without more pain.  More blood.

My breath caught.  I sniffed.  My lower lip trembled.  I'm gonna be ugly.  The salt from my tears insulted my abrasions.  It'll probably leave a scar.  I've not been loved yet, and I probably never will be now.  I'll have to become a nun like Sally Field or Maria, in The Sound of Music.  The wimple will cover the thickened, angry pink skin.  That is, if I don't freeze to death first.  After all, this was the coldest I'd ever been.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Pretty Old

                                     (A pretty old picture of me)

“Excuse me, ma’am.”

I put my finger on the page and looked up. A freckly, buzz-cut boy stood in front of me.  He ground his gloved palms together.  He's 11, maybe 12.


“I just got in trouble for being mean to my little sister.”

I clicked my tongue.  “That’s not good.”

“My mom told me to do a random act of kindness to make up for it.”

“And I’m the recipient?  Not your sister?”

He nodded.  Looked over his shoulder.

I dogeared my page and closed my book.  Cradled my mocha mug.   Tried not to grin.

“Let’s hear what you’ve got.”

I winked at his mom a few tables away.  She held up crossed fingers.

The boy cleared his throat.  “You’re pretty old.”

I put my hand on my chest and coughed.  The mom sagged.  I'm pretty sure I heard her moan. 

“I’m so sorry,” she mouthed.

I winced as he pulled out the chair next to mine.  He sat.  Took his gloves off and rubbed his hands on his jeaned thighs.

“That didn’t come out right, did it?”

I shrugged.  Puffed air at my bangs.  “I’ve been called worse.”

He leaned toward me.  “No, ma’am,” he said.  “You don’t understand.”

I watched his eyes.  They started at the top of my head.  Slid down past my shoulders.

“Your hair’s so shiny.  You could do a shampoo commercial.  And your eyes.  Are they blue or green?  Your fingernails’re almost black.  That’s cool.”

I felt a small, wry smile begin to bloom on my face.

“I didn’t mean you’re old, ma’am.  I mean, you are.  Older than my mom anyway.  But you’re pretty and old.  Pretty old.  Get it?”

I covered his hands with mine.  “I got it, sweet boy,” I said.  “It’s taken me half a lifetime to get it.  But I got it.  Finally.”

“What the heck do you need a bra for?” my middle oldest brother said.  Hooted really.

I whimpered and hightailed it from the dinner table to my petal pink bedroom. 

“He’s right,” I told the only stuffed animal I ever loved.  It wasn’t even an animal.  Jot was a giant smiley face with a tee tiny body. 

“I’m too flat to need a bra and too chubby to need a belt.”

Mom came in and sat on the end of my bed.  “Let’s go to Sears.  After I do the dishes.”

I didn’t take my face off Jot’s teeny neck.  “Can I get a stretchy bra and panty set?  Light purple?  Like Jot?”

Mom touched my back so lightly I barely knew her hand was there.  “Sure, honey.  Anything you want.”

I sat in the audience and watched my best friend get crowned third place in the Miss Flame beauty contest.  Next to me, her mom and dad clapped so hard I wanted to hold my ears.  I applauded too.  ‘Cause it was the nice thing to do.  I should want her to win, right?  But she’s everything I’m not. 

I squashed the thought down.  That’s mean.  It bobbed right back up like the candy bar in the swimming pool in “Caddyshack.” 

She looks like a cross between Cher and Brooke Shields.  Me?  Cindy Brady plus Dorothy Hamill hair equal me.

Last year’s Miss Flame handed my gal pal a daisy bouquet.  Nestled a twinkly tiara into her almost-black updo.  Her legs come up to my armpits and she’s a C cup.  I sighed.  I’m an A. 

My friend’s mom stood and took a picture of the first, second, and third place Miss Flames.  I blinked a buncha times to make sure I wasn’t blind.  

The mom turned to me.  “You want a picture with her?”

I smiled, a grimace really.  “Sure.”

So everyone can look at the photo album and call her gorgeous and me cute.  Cute is a four letter word.

“I want to try something,” my hairdo girl said.  “Don’t peek.”

I squeezed my eyes shut and waited while she fiddled behind me.  What’s she up to?  A few minutes later, she twirled the chair around to face the mirror.  I tilted my head.  Who’s that?

“Do you like it?”  Tami said.

My eyes looked a little buggy in the reflection.  I stuck my hands out from under the fuschia cape and reached up to touch my hair.  It felt so soft.  And sleek.  Barely there.

 “I’ve never had straight hair,” I said.  “I look different.  Pretty.”

“Pretty?”  Tami said.  “You’re beautiful.”

I felt a ball of air inside me.  Behind my breastbone.  Have I held my breath all my life?  Just waiting?  For someone to call me beautiful?

“You look 15 years younger,” the receptionist said.  “Your kids are gonna think you’re the babysitter.”

“Bangs are the new Botox, you know,” the nail tech said.

Tami took the cape off me and patted my neck with a huge powder puff.  I stepped toward the mirrored wall.  My breath made a silver circle.  I slicked my lips with petal pink lipgloss.  Made a kissy face.

“You should enter that Mrs. America beauty contest,” the shampoo girl said.  “I bet you’d win.”

I put my fingers under my eyes.  To hide the crow’s feet. 
“But I’m old,” I said, even though I didn’t feel it.  “Getting there anyway.”

Tami snorted.  “You’re not old,” she said.  “You’re beautiful.  Really.”

I turned to face her.  “Will you say that again please?  A little louder?”  So I believe it.

Friday, January 14, 2011


Here it is again
Your going
Ginormous spans of time and distance
Echo in the gap between us

How is it
I am not mad with grief and fear?
It’s because I was shot
The last time you left on a jet plane
I was shot to the heart

The meds
Your arrival, your joy, your return
They still run through me
Like the waterfall you stood under
Eternal it seemed

Did you hear it?
Over the age old rush
Of hydrogen, oxygen, and gravity?
“This is my daughter.
Whom I love
With her I am well pleased.”

I did
Hear it
Something different
But still
“You there.
You are a modern day Mary.
You bore her, raised her, and when the time was fulfilled
You balanced her life and your punctured heart
In your trembling mama hands
Dripping with tears, not blood
You offered her as a live sacrifice
To me, to the world
Blessed are the hands that are open, not clenched
Palms without fingernail-shaped wounds
Freely, faithfully.”

The symptoms
The what ifs and will I ever
(Inhale her Pantene twirls again)
Didn’t present until 24 hours out this time
Burning eye syndrome, leaky gutter nose, shovel scrapes in the belly
They’ve only just now come
To be honest, on the pain scale, they’re a scant three or four
And then, only if I shut out everything else
Drill down
Attend the guttural jeer of she’s leaving you
For another mother
A different family

I flip my hair and anxiety, albeit lesser,
Behind me
Where I can’t see it
I almost yell at the mirror
You’re shot, remember?
It can’t hurt you
The unblessed absence of assurance
Faith exists only in the invisible
Sight and knowing?
Where is the thrill, the miracle, the mountain top, in that?

I trust
I have to
But at least I can 
‘Cause I’ve been shot
One bout with loss, fear, and the unknown
(Then reunion and recovery)
Left me so much stronger
Able, if not ready
(And really, when will I ever be ready?)
To do it all again

Friday, January 7, 2011

Write Now

"How many thumbdrives did you put your manuscript on?"

I put my tray table up and turned in my seat to face my husband.

"Four.  No, five."

He raised his eyebrows a couple times.  "Is it good?" he said.  "Your book?"

I shrugged.  "I think so."

"And it's ready?  You're sure?"

I looked out into the night.  Peered down at the sprinkle of lights that was Colorado Springs.

"Yep.  It's ready.  I'm sure."

He squeezed my hand.  "Cool.  Give one to anyone who'll take it."

Before we went to bed that night, I flipped through my Writing for the Soul conference binder.  I paused at the page titled, "20 Things a Writer Should NEVER Do."  I counted my transgressions on my fingers.  Then my toes.  I put my palms together.  They were slicked with sweat.  I glanced at my husband.  ESPN SportsCenter lit and darkened his sleeping face. 

I pushed the covers down and swung my feet onto the plush carpet.  Tiptoed over to my brown and pink, bought-just-for-this-writing-conference, Hello Kitty tote bag.  I unzipped the back pocket and dug under business cards, tampons, and lipglosses to find one, three, five jumpdrives.  I cupped them in my left hand and opened my suitcase with my right.  Found my Monday day-of-the-week undies and folded the thumbdrives inside.

"Not yet, guys," I told the bundle.  "You're not ready.  Not even close."

I switched off the bedside lamp and got back in bed.  Pulled the silky sheets and pristine down comforter up to my chin.  I looked at the mini-chandelier above me.  Moonlight twinkled on the crystals. 

"Thank you," I said in a wee voice.

Friday after breakfast, I shook hands with my first appointment--a lady agent.  I forced myself not to stare at her basketball-looking hairdo, and  I tried not to think about her biography.  "Handpaints hobbit models in her spare time."  She paints hobbits?  Really? 

The woman drummed her fake, French-manicured nails on the table between us.

"So.  Do you have a sample chapter?"

I stuck my trembling hands inside my Hello Kitty bag.  Pulled out one of six copies of what I thought was my best work.

The hobbit painter tapped the table with a red Bic pen as she scanned my work.  She didn't look up when she spoke.

"Too much telling," she said.

She turned the page.  "Not enough dialogue."

She pushed the chapter back to me.  "You write in passive.  Stop."

She took off her rainbow, polka-dotted reading glasses and leaned toward me.  Tried to smile.  All I saw were the parentheses ditches on either side of her mouth. 

"Honey, it's like you typed out a phone conversation you had with your best girlfriend.  Don't tell me what happened.  Show me.  Put me in the room with you."

She looked past me.  Raised her hand.


I stopped in front of the woman who looked like Maude--attractive, silver-haired, kind eyes.  The placard in front of her read, "Christian Writers Guild Mentor."

I breathed deep through my nose.  "You busy?" I said on the exhale.

She sat straighter.  Patted the empty chair beside her.


I sat.  Got a lipgloss out of my Hello Kitty bag.  Pinked my lips.

"So?" she said.

"So, I brought my manuscript here."


"And the lady agent who decorates Frodos said I write passive.  That I don't use enough dialogue."

She pinched at the pleats in her slacks.  "How long did it take?"

I sighed, and my lips flapped.  "'Bout two minutes."

"No," she said.  "I meant, to write the book."

I huffed.  "That's just it," I said.  "It only took six months.  It just flowed out of me.  Like pee." 

I peeked at her from under my lashes.  To see if I'd offended her.  She didn't blink.


I tilted my head.  "Oh, what?"

She took the cap off her pen and used it to clean under her nails.

"That happened to me too," she said.  "Did you think because it just came out of you, it was great?  That it was a gift from God?"

She chuckled and lifted my chin to close my mouth.

"Guess what?" she said in a whisper.

I spoke softly too.  "What?"

"That's not a book.  That's your first draft."

I was late, so I tiptoed in and took a seat in the back row of the Saturday afternoon "Thick-Skinned Manuscript Clinic."  Jerry Jenkins and his assistant stood at the front of the classroom on either side of an overhead projector.  They wore white labcoats.  Had stethoscopes around their necks.

Jerry held up a red pen.  "This," he said, "Is my scalpel.  And now, I cut."

He bent over the projector and read silently for a minute or two.  Finally he looked up.

"Okay," he said.  "First to go are the helping verbs.  Eliminate words like is, was, am, were, etcetera."

He marked, read, and slashed some more.  He turned to face his assistant.


Andy made red stripes all down the page.  "No -ing verbs," Andy said.  "Weakens the writing."

Jerry hovered beside the projector. He grinned as he drew looped lines through modifiers.

"Why use three adjectives when one will do?"

Andy tapped the overhead surface.  "Not to mention, 'tall, dark, and handsome' is a cliche.'"

He glanced up at the screen, then back down at the transparency.  He crossed out two more phrases.

"As are 'white as snow' and 'old as the hills.'"

Jerry examined the writing sample again.  More red.  The page seemed to bleed.  I heard someone whimper, up near the front of the room.

"People," Jerry said.  "You've got to omit needless words.  Trust me.  Less is more."

At the bottom of the piece, Jerry paused.  He grinned and drew a smiley face.  Tapped the transparency.

"This is great," he said.  "'They buried the farmer in his overalls, with the dirt still under his fingernails.'  I like that.  Like it a lot."

Andy walked up to the screen in front of the room and pointed to the smiley face sentence with his pen. 

"And  this is really where the story starts, don't you think, Jer?"

Jerry stroked his goatee.  "Good point. Who cares about all the stuff up top?  This is your first sentence."

On our last morning in Colorado, I went to put on my Monday day-of-the-week panties.  The five jumpdrives clattered as they hit the white tiles in front of my bare feet.

"What was that?" my husband said from bed.

"Five thumbdrives hitting the bathroom floor."  I waited.

"Five?" he said.  "You didn't give any away?  Not one?"


"Why not?

"They're not ready.  I mean--  The book's not.  I have to go home and start  over.  Omit needless words.  Put in more dialogue.  Stuff like that."

"You sure?"

"Yes. I'm sure.  Believe me.  I am very sure."


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