ICYMI: Anne Lamott and more
May 7, 2018 § 1 Comment
As some of you know, I’ve taken a hiatus from the world of writing since the beginning of the year. This wasn’t planned. If ever you think you know the trajectory of your life, think again. Someone once told me: Life usually turns out far better and far worse than you imagined it would. Since last October, when I first felt the dull edge of pain that would blossom into what I now call my “weird” illness, I’ve found this to be true.
My life took a turn: pain in my neck, my back, and my hands so excruciating I couldn’t use the mouse for my computer, sometimes couldn’t turn my head, most of the time wore heating pads stuck to my spine. Fatigue so extreme, I would go out to dinner with friends only to leave early because I feared I would be too weak to drive myself home. Strange muscle pain I described to my many doctors as, “burning in my arms and legs.” Aching in my knees and elbows. An inability to get enough air into my lungs. There is much more I could write about what’s happened; maybe sometime I will.
For now there is this: hope. Hope in the fact that today I can sit at my computer and type this blog post. Hope in the form of doctors who think they’ve landed on a diagnosis at last (could it be Lyme Disease? it seems likely). Hope in the fact that my energy ever so slowly has returned, the pain ever so slowly abated, that though my recovery may be long, there can be full recovery.
Also: in the midst of this, physical manifestations of God’s mercy. Maybe some day I will write about that, too. Suffice it to say, the far better part has been true also.
In the meantime, I’ve been meaning to share on this blog some of the stories I wrote before taking my hiatus.
First, an interview with the lovely, quirky Anne Lamott. Like so many, I’m a fan of Bird by Bird, so you can imagine my excitement upon interviewing her!
And second, I wrote a few stories about classical music in the Dallas area. The Dallas Symphony Chorus celebrated their 40th anniversary this year and a new choral ensemble, Verdigris, appeared on the music scene. If you’re a Dallasite, I recommend them both to you! And even if you’re not, the stories of their successes and differing approaches to art inspired and intrigued me quite a bit…maybe they will you as well.
February 7, 2017 § 2 Comments
One of the joys of working as a freelance writer? Meeting interesting people willing to share their stories with me. It’s always an honor to write about the people I meet and the interesting things they do.
Most recently, I wrote a profile of local Dallas author Sanderia Faye, whose passion led her to transition from accountant to writer to literary advocate. She’s the author of the award-winning novel Mourner’s Bench, which is about life in the Arkansas Delta during the civil rights movement. Faye now hosts literary events around Dallas.
Read about her here.
Fluff Muffin Killer
November 8, 2016 § 1 Comment
There are few things more effective at waking me in the morning than stumbling into the kitchen for some hot black coffee only to find a dead rat lying on the rug.
Since moving in with my grandmother and our two family pets, Scout, the black and white border collie, and Lucifer, the black cat named after the devil, this has happened to me not once, but several times. My grandmother’s house in Dallas runs up against a drainage ditch that all kinds of wild animals call home — possums, raccoons, squirrels, and, yes, rats — and either Scout or Lucifer (I can’t be absolutely sure which) wants to show me his respects by offering up these kills.
Common knowledge tells me it’s the cat who’s bringing me my morning surprises. After all, cats are notorious for hunting rats. But Lucifer is rather fat and lazy, and she hardly ever leaves my bedroom or her favorite sunlit cushion in the living room, so my hunch is it’s Scout.
Technically, Scout is my brother’s dog, but since my brother rents a single bedroom in a tiny house in Burbank and I live in a whole house with a yard in Dallas, he’s essentially become my grandmother’s dog and my dog.
Scout is a beautiful dog, and I’m not just saying that because he’s mine. Everybody thinks so. Or at least, all of my neighbors do.
He has a half white, half black face split perfectly down the middle (at one point, my family tossed around the idea of calling him Phantom). He’s smart, as most border collies are. His favorite activities include sleeping at the foot of my grandmother’s bed, taking an afternoon walk, rooting around in the backyard shrubs, being scratched by my grandmother behind his legs, eating ginger-flavored dog treats, eating table scraps of any kind, barking at pedestrians, barking at other dogs, barking at cats, barking at squirrels, and barking at absolutely nothing — usually, at night.
I like to call Scout “Fluff Muffin”. My brother likes to call him “Killer”. When I say, “Fluff Muffin, come get a treatie!”, my brother likes to remind me that once, “Killer” jumped into the air and caught a bird in mid-flight.
The dead rats I almost stepped on always made me wish Scout was a little bit less of a killer and more of a fluff muffin. That was, until I found the live rat.
I was sitting in my grandmother’s living room, enjoying an evening bowl of ice cream while watching the Olympics on TV, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a gigantic rodent with a long grey tail scuttle across the brick wall from the fireplace in the corner to the dark shadow behind the TV. It happened in a flash, in less than a millisecond, so quick I thought perhaps I was hallucinating. After all, can rats really climb on walls?!
It turns out, yes, yes, they can. They have sharp, strong claws that can grip the sides of just about anything. I discovered this while watching with horror a number of YouTube videos on the very phenomena later that week.
“Mim!” I said, turning to my grandmother where she sat in her favorite armchair. “I think I just saw a rat on the wall!”
“What did you see?”
“A rat, a huge rat!”
“A rat? No.”
“Yes, there was a rat! I saw it!”
Unperturbed, my grandmother adjusted her shoulders and went back to watching Kerri Walsh Jennings serve a volleyball effortlessly over the net.
“Well, Scout will get it.”
Scout lay asleep on the floor. When I sunk my fingers into his fur to wake him, he simply rolled over, exposing his belly for me to rub.
I did not finish my ice cream that night. I also slept with my bedroom door closed.
Several days later, I was back watching the Olympics, Mimi sitting in her usual armchair, I seated on the couch beside her moving on to my second piece of biscotti, when there again, the rat! It ran across the wall!
“Mim!” I shouted, jumping to my feet.
“What? What is it?”
“The rat! I saw the rat!”
“Behind the TV! There is a rat behind the TV!”
“Well, what do you want me to do about it? I can’t catch a rat.”
“But we have to do something!”
“Scout will get it.”
Scout’s ears twitched in his sleep. He did not open his eyes.
The next day, my grandmother called her yard man who is also the man who deals with her wild animal problems. He set up a small metal trap on the mantel above the fireplace. I stopped eating desert in front of the TV. My bedroom door stayed closed all day.
After a week, though, neither Scout nor the trap had caught the rat.
“Scout,” I said to him on one of our afternoon walks. “How come you won’t catch that rat?”
After all, he had caught all of those other rats and left them, dead, for me to find.
Scout stopped to sniff a maroon-colored rock, the same rock he always stops to sniff. A squirrel ran by and his ears perked up. I got no answer.
The next day, my father came to visit. When I told him about the rat living behind our TV, he shined a flashlight back there and sure enough, two white eyes stared back. My father smiled.
“I’m a master rat catcher,” he said. “But first, let’s see if Scout or Luci will catch it.”
It turns out, it isn’t that hard to get a rat from behind a TV. All you have to do is bang on the side of said TV and soon enough, the rat will flee. A few seconds into my father’s hitting the TV, in a flash, the rat ran across the living room floor, burrowing deep beneath my grandmother’s desk.
“Scout! Get that rat!” my father cried.
Scout looked between my father, my grandmother, and me, and then rested his head on his paws.
My father tried again, this time banging on the side of my grandmother’s desk. Sure enough, out came the rat! It streaked across the carpet in a grey blur, returning to its former home behind the TV.
“Scout! Luci! Get that rat!”
Again, neither cat nor dog moved.
My father shook his head.
That evening, my father set several traps all over the house — one beneath the TV, one in the fireplace, and one beside my grandmother’s desk. As grossed out as I was by the rat, I couldn’t help feeling bad for it. After all, my father was a master rat catcher. I remembered him catching rats, raccoons, and even a skunk when I was a kid. My rat didn’t stand a chance.
But if my father was a master rat catcher, then the rat must have been a masterful fugitive, because the next morning, all of the traps were empty and we never saw that rat again.
I did see another rat, however. Several weeks later, Scout was back to his old tricks, and one morning I almost stepped on a dead rodent lying in the middle of our kitchen floor.
“Scout,” I said, ruffling his ears as he panted up at me, staring lovingly through those big brown eyes. “I guess you’re half fluff muffin, half killer.”
Then, I used a rag to pick up the rat by its long, skinny tail and tossed it in the ditch outside.
One night in South Sudan
October 26, 2016 § 4 Comments
A year and a few months ago, I visited South Sudan with the Dallas-based microfinance nonprofit Seed Effect.
I wrote this story about my first night in South Sudan a while back, but wanted to share it now in anticipation of Seed Effect’s fundraising event on Thursday, Oct. 27. If you’re interested in attending this event or learning more about the organization in general, please let me know!
When a small African country appears on the pages of an international newspaper, the news is almost certainly bad, and if that small African country is South Sudan, you don’t need to read the headline to know that the story is proclaiming horrific calamities far beyond the scope of most Western lives.
South Sudan has been in the news a lot recently, with stories coming out about rape, mass murder, and the dislocation of millions. As a result, most people who discover that I visited the country within the past year are, at first, shocked that I had the audacity to go, and then, shocked again to realize that I returned alive.
“I can’t believe you went there,” people say. Or, “Isn’t that a war zone?”
I never know quite how to respond to these questions.
After all, I was only in South Sudan for two weeks, which hardly makes me an expert on the country, and while any visit to South Sudan is somewhat dangerous, during my short stay, I remained within the confines of a small village in the south, while the violence occurred far to the north in an area only reachable by poorly maintained red dirt roads. As one of my fellow travelers put it, getting from our village in the south to the violence in the north would be like trying to drive from Dallas to Oklahoma City without a car or a road. She was exaggerating, of course, but you get the gist.
When people ask me what South Sudan was like, I usually, once again, find myself at a loss for words.
Sometimes, I describe the town where I stayed.
Kajo Keji is lush and green, I say, with rolling cornfields and leafy trees. Goats are tied to stakes along the road. Many South Sudanese live in mud huts called tukuls. Children collect well water in plastic buckets. Men ride motorcycles through town. Women cook chicken over fires with babies strapped to their backs.
Other times, I talk about the war.
It’s caused by two tribes fighting in the country’s oil-rich north, I say, quoting what I’ve read in the paper. And while all of the atrocities you read about are true, the South Sudanese I met were fundamentally joyful. They were generous and gracious and tremendously faithful, and I admire them very much.
Usually, people want to know whether I felt safe. To which I reply: yes, and also, no.
Yes, I felt safe in Kajo Keji. It was safe enough for me, a twenty-something-year-old American woman, to wander away from my fellow travelers in the market and buy avocados from a South Sudanese woman with a baby in her lap. It was safe enough for me to eat some unknown meat prepared over a fire in an outdoor kitchen. And it was safe enough for me to walk alone amongst the tukuls on a Sunday afternoon while barefoot children skipped beside me shouting “Hieee!” and “Galatot!” – Kuku for “white person.”
Yet, it was not safe enough for us to sleep in a concrete bunker at night without a South Sudanese man guarding the place with a bow and arrow. It was not safe enough to prevent one of my fellow travelers from observing toward the end of our stay that he was glad we were leaving soon – he’d recently heard that soldiers from the north were moving into Kajo Keji in case of a coup.
And it was not safe enough for us to cross the border from Uganda into South Sudan without being stopped in the dead of night by soldiers with vicious-looking semi-automatic rifles.
I’d been fast asleep against the square window of the Cessna Caravan, the small propeller-powered plane flying us over the rural countryside of Uganda, when we began the descent. I awoke just in time to stare in awe at the thatched roofs of the tukuls, the smoke from the outdoor fires, and the children running through the bush.
We landed on a bumpy grass field which served as the airport in Moyo, a small Ugandan village on the border of South Sudan. The field happened to be located beside the village school, and as soon as the propellers stopped turning, dozens of children of all ages crowded in a circle around the plane. Though many of them weren’t wearing any shoes and most of their clothes were more like filthy rags, some of the teenagers owned flip phones, and they unabashedly took photos of us as we stepped off the plane.
We’d left Dallas over forty-eight hours earlier, but Moyo wasn’t our final destination. We still had to drive over the Ugandan border into South Sudan, where the twelve of us would spend two weeks working with Seed Effect in Kajo Keji.
Originally, we’d planned to fly into Juba, the country’s capitol. But the day before our planned departure, news of possible violence and travel moratoriums in Juba caused us to change plans. We were now entering South Sudan through Uganda by bus.
We were a group of Texans of various ages and backgrounds with one thing in common: we’d all felt a spiritual call toward South Sudan.
As for me, the decision to go had been fairly easy. Ever since I first learned about microfinancing in my high school world studies class, I’d admired how it empowers individuals in low income situations. As a budding journalist, I would be able to write a profile of the organization’s founder for my local newspaper. Plus, I love traveling, especially traveling to exotic places, and though I was wary of using this personal enjoyment as a reason to go, I must admit that it came into play. I never felt God whispering in my ear, “Go to South Sudan,” or anything like that, but I’d been told that God doesn’t always talk to you in your dreams; sometimes, the right path to take is simply the one laid out in front of you.
Now, however, I was doubting all of my reasons to come.
We’d waded through the throngs of Ugandan children to climb aboard a mud-splattered bus with the words “reaching the unreached” scrawled in faded blue paint along the side. I’d sat in a window seat toward the back with the intention of getting a good view of the African bush. It was a short distance from Moyo to Kajo Keji, and if we’d been on a paved road in the U.S., we would have reached it in less than an hour. But the roads in these parts of East Africa are not only unpaved, they are dusty and full of potholes.
Our ride would be bumpy and slow, and we had to stop three times before we reached South Sudan: first, when a Ugandan soldier on a motorcycle with a machine gun strapped to his back gave us a ticket for breaking some mysterious law; second, at the Ugandan border, where we relieved ourselves in a shack built over a cement hole and were told by a Ugandan border guard that we needed to pay him a good deal of money for Visas to leave the country; and third, at the South Sudanese border, where we sat on hard benches in a hot room watching a monkey tied to a stake turn circles around himself while we waited for the South Sudanese border guard to finally tell us that the Visas we obtained in the U.S. were now worthless and we would need to purchase new ones – at a high price.
By then, the sun had set, and when the sun sets in South Sudan, it is pitch black. We stumbled through the dark, most of us only half lucid, and climbed back onto the bus to begin the final leg into Kajo Keji.
I was just beginning to consider using my duffel bag as a pillow – after all, I couldn’t see any of the tukuls or leafy trees or sloping hills in the dark – when lights flashed on the road ahead.
The bus pulled to a stop.
We were immediately alert. The driver and our South Sudanese escort whispered to one another in the front of the bus. Outside, I saw the outline of several tall, lanky South Sudanese men in camouflage standing in the headlights, holding semi-automatic rifles.
Our escort, a young woman in khaki slacks and a magenta button-up, got out of the bus. When she returned, her expression was unreadable.
We’d been stopped by the soldiers, she said. They wanted to search the bus. Everyone had to get out.
Oh my God, I thought to myself as I followed the rest of the group down the aisle. Today is the day I am going to die.
My mind flashed back to the many news articles I’d read in preparation for the trip, stories about mass rape and murder. We’d been assured that violence of that kind rarely happened in this part of the country, but what if we were the rare exception?
I saw us lined up against the side of the bus and shot. I saw us kidnapped for ransom. I couldn’t imagine what rape would be like, but I wondered if that might happen, too.
As we huddled together in the dark, the South Sudanese soldiers encircling us with their guns held loosely, black barrels jaunting to the side, I began to pray.
More often than not, when I take the time to pray, my prayers are accompanied by the voice of doubt, which wonders whether prayer has any real efficacy at all. I mean, when all is said and done, sometimes it seems our prayers are answered, but other times, it seems they’re not.
Sometimes, the circumstances in our lives line up so perfectly that wonderful miracles happen. Other times, the circumstances in our lives line up so unfortunately that inconceivable tragedies occur. How can I equate one to the answer of prayer without simply turning a blind eye on the other?
But the voice of doubt was not in my head that evening as the South Sudanese soldiers forced our vulnerable group to circle the bus. It never is when you’re really in trouble. I prayed ceaselessly, relying solely on the fervency of my prayer and the hope that God was listening. After all, what else did I have to protect myself if the situation made a turn for the worse? I’m not sure I had ever really prayed in my life until then.
The soldiers wanted each of us to remove our suitcases from the back of the bus.
The first member of our group to bravely step forward was a lady who loved Disney more than almost anything in the world, and when the young soldier aimed his flashlight down at her bag, the barrel of his gun swinging precariously, we saw that the suitcase was shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head. And when the soldier gestured for her to open it, we saw that the insides were chalk full of blow-up balls and candy bracelets – gifts she’d planned to give to the South Sudanese children.
There we were in the dark, in the middle of South Sudan, with Mickey Mouse grinning up at us and the soldiers with guns leering down at the candy inside his head. If the situation hadn’t been so terrifyingly surreal, I would have laughed. As it was, I was too busy praying.
So it went. One by one, each of us opened our suitcases on the dirt road while the South Sudanese soldiers loomed over us with flashlights blazing, guns ominously clanking. After about the fourth suitcase, the soldiers decided they’d had enough and waved us back onto the bus.
I did not feel safe again until we were barreling down the road away from them. Another half an hour later, we pulled into the compound at Kajo Keji, which would be our home for the next two weeks.
Later, after a solid night’s sleep and a breakfast of scrambled eggs and a thick flatbread called chapati, we would speculate on why the soldiers stopped us, finally deciding on what seemed the most plausible answer: the soldiers in the south were bored and jealous of their compatriots in the north, who got to see all the action.
Scaring us was a way to pass the time.
When people ask me about South Sudan, I am always wary of sharing this story of our crossing the border because I fear my telling of it will come across flippant or opportunistic: flippant, because the event was so frighteningly strange any retelling of it becomes comical, and opportunistic, because it was a brush with danger that makes a great adventure story for me, the American who made it home to her house in the suburbs, while for the South Sudanese I left behind, the life-threatening dangers remain.
Though I only spent two weeks with my South Sudanese hosts in Kajo Keji, I feel close to them. I am Facebook friends with a number of them, and every time they post prayer requests about friends who have been bitten by black mambas, relatives who’ve been injured in motorcycle accidents, or nearby villagers who’ve been wounded in violent massacres, I feel a combination of powerlessness and a desire to do something, anything, to help. I care about them, I guess is what I mean, and I want every story I share about my time in South Sudan to reflect that.
Yet, I’ve felt compelled to share this story nonetheless, seeing that I add the above caveat, because it’s an example of what it’s like to live a life so obviously prey to forces outside one’s control.
The South Sudanese live at the mercy of so much: unstable political forces like those which caused the soldiers to stop us in the night, as well as every unpredictable force of nature you can imagine, including illnesses like malaria, wild animals like the poisonous black mamba, and even the rain, which they rely on to water their crops and fill their wells.
Reading articles about South Sudan these days, I often feel a chill, partly because, in some small way, I experienced what it’s like be at the mercy of these forces, and partly because I wonder if our Western lives are much less under control than we’d like to think. In many ways, the South Sudanese know this truth – that we are fragile and dependent creatures – better than we do, simply by virtue of where they live.
I suppose that’s why, when I listened to them pray again and again during those two weeks, praying over bowls of fried chicken, praying inside overheated churches, and praying under the shade of leafy palm trees, I always felt the voice of doubt had little air to breathe.
After all, when faced with your own vulnerability, it hardly ever does.
A few links
October 23, 2016 § 2 Comments
Happy weekend, y’all! Here are a few links to things I’ve written lately.
Of all the things I ever thought I’d publish, poetry was not one of them. Which is why I’m glad I sometimes (okay, a lot of the times) get things wrong.
This month, one of my poems was published in the beautiful online literary magazine s/word! You can read the poem in the magazine or check it out here:
I’ve talked before about my work with The Well Community, a nonprofit that serves those who struggle with mental illness in Oak Cliff, a borough of Dallas. The Well is a super organization, and I recommend them to anyone in the Dallas area (or beyond) wanting to help those on the margins.
This month, I wrote several stories for their blog:
- I hung out with their members, those who struggle with mental illness, during their biannual spiritual retreat.
- I chatted with several volunteers about their experience helping The Well.
- And I hung out with a group of firefighters renovating The Well’s boarding house.
If you’re interested in learning more about The Well, please drop me a note! I’d love to answer any questions about them.
Also, I recently created a Facebook page where I post links to things I write. You can check it out here!
The Devil’s in the Name
October 15, 2016 § 7 Comments
In my family, we have a tradition.
It began a year before I was born, back when my parents were newlyweds, and like almost every other family tradition out there, it’s somewhat peculiar.
My mother wanted a cat. She’d grown up in rural Montana surrounded by animals of all different kinds – frogs, wild geese, a beloved Boston Bull Terrier – and when the church’s pastor announced at the end of Sunday service that there was a box of kittens waiting to be adopted in the reception room, she looked over at my father with pleading eyes.
To which he emphatically replied, “No.”
The way my mother tells it, they were just going to take a look. Scratch a pink nose, tug a triangular ear, rub a furry belly. I have my doubts about this. I am fairly certain that my mother never planned to leave that church without a kitten.
In any case, they had just entered the gymnasium, the cardboard box on the other side of the room, when one of the kittens boldly climbed the box’s side, sauntered over to where my mother stood, wrapped its claws around her ankle, and sunk its teeth in.
For anyone else, this would have been reason to shriek out in pain or, perhaps, kick the cat across the room. But not for my mother. Instead, she looked down at that fuzzy fur ball and cooed.
The kitten was small and black, with bright yellow eyes.
“No,” said my father. “No. No. No.”
But the kitten was already in my mother’s arms, batting at her chin with its tiny clawed paws. And so, my parents left that church, a tiny black kitten snuggled in my mother’s coat.
And because the cat was black, as black as those cats in horror movies who howl and run out of dark alleyway shadows, and because my parents have a wry sense of humor, they named the kitten Diablo – Devil in Spanish.
Thus the tradition began. Any cat my parents owned had to be black and had to be named, in some language or another, after the devil.
Though I am technically the elder in our family of four, my mother always called Diablo her “first baby.” By the time I was born a year later, Diablo had lodged himself firmly in her heart. And though he was a cat, he certainly lived up to all of the stereotypes of oldest siblings.
For one thing, he was extremely protective. My mother loves to tell the story of how I used to crawl around the house until I found Diablo lying sprawled asleep in a patch of late afternoon sun and promptly flop myself directly onto his exposed belly. Or how I used to grab onto his bewitching tail, stick it in my mouth, and chomp down. All this torment Diablo took with a kind of Stoic patience, as though he understood that I was merely a baby who did not know any better and that no matter what I did to him, there was no situation in which he would be allowed to retaliate in turn.
Then, there were the German Shepherds, another story my mother loves to regale. We lived in a townhouse at the time, and because my mother felt bad for any cat cooped up inside, but didn’t want to let Diablo out for fear he’d be killed by a negligent driver, she took to walking him around the block – on a leash, like a dog.
For other cats, this may not have gone over so well. But Diablo was a special cat, and he took to his afternoon walks like it was second nature.
A number of our neighbors also had pets, including two older ladies who owned two German Shepherds. Now my mother, who had a bad experience with a German Shepherd as a child, was deathly afraid of these dogs. Whenever they came around the corner, she would stop stalk still, holding Diablo’s leash as if it were a lifeline. Diablo, on the other hand, was not the least bit afraid. In fact, as though he could sense my mother’s fear, he would raise his shackles and pierce those muzzled German Shepherds with a fierce glare. The way my mother tells it, those German Shepherds took one look at Diablo, turned around, and took off running, the only sound their expandable leashes whirling in their shocked owners’ hands.
Diablo was a gentlemanly cat. In the mornings, he would leap gracefully into my mother’s porcelain tub and wait for her to fill it with an inch of lukewarm water in which he would give himself a thorough bath. He disliked milk and catnip, treats that were far beneath him, but loved my mother’s gourmet cooking, licking up such expensive dinners as roast beef, steak on the grill, and honey glazed ham.
If his manners were graceful, his stature was even more so. His black fur was slick and shone in the sun. He walked slowly, plodding along as though he had nowhere in particular to go, and yet every step he took was deliberate. Once, my brother and I told one of our neighborhood friends that Diablo was actually an African panther, and he believed us. Nevertheless, I still denigrated his genteel nature, nicknaming him such epithets as “Bubba” and “Bobbles” and, the only one my mother ever used, “Dobs.”
No one, least of all my father, expected Diablo to live as long as he did. Which is why we adopted our second black cat when he was still alive, my father naively assuming that old Dobs wouldn’t be around for much longer.
But cats always have one more life than you think. Diablo, it turned out, would live for eighteen years, until the night he disappeared suddenly, without a trace.
My mother walked around the house crying for days. My father used it as an opportunity to teach my brother and me about the mysterious, yet absolute reality of death. Meanwhile, I would wake up in the middle of the night, thinking Diablo was there, sitting stately at the edge of my bed like he had ever since I was born, but he was gone.
Given my family’s patriotism and penchant for free market economics, it’s always struck me as ironic that our second cat was a bona fide Canadian. We were vacationing in Prince Edward Island off the coast of Nova Scotia when the manager of the B&B told my parents about the litter of kittens living in her barn.
Of course, we had to see them. My mother, brother, and I spent a glorious morning playing with those energetic fur balls. I was partial to a white one with a little brown spot beneath her chin. My brother loved a fluffy gray one we nicknamed Grayball. My mother, a black one with a partially bald eye. We carried them around beneath our arms. I plucked daisies and stuck them behind the ears of the ones I thought were girls. The little black kitten: definitely a girl. She got extra daisies to cover up her bald spot.
All of us were sad when my father emerged to tell us it was time to leave. That night, we had reservations at an Anne of Green Gables-themed B&B.
But on our last day of vacation, my father woke us with a surprise.
“We’re going to visit the kittens,” he said.
“Really?” said my mother.
“Just for fun,” he said. “It’s on our way.”
My brother and I were ecstatic. No one, not even my mother, expected what my father had up his sleeve. For as the three of us happily snuggled with the kittens in the barn, my father diligently packed an old cardboard box with crumpled-up newspaper, a plastic baggy filled with cat food, and a red plastic bowl so that we might take home a small, black, bald-spotted kitten.
My father named him Teufel – pronounced Toy-full – which was Devil in German, and it wasn’t until after we took him to the vet that we found out he wasn’t a girl.
If Diablo was a stately gentleman, Teufel was a fiendish rogue.
He was first and foremost, a barn cat, which meant he was skilled at catching and devouring all manner of small creatures. Rats, mice, snakes, birds – you name it, he would kill it and eat it, leaving only a small pile of bones. Once, when I was seventeen, I drove all the way to high school, parked in the coveted senior parking lot, and slammed the car door, only to find the remains of a large rat stuck to the trunk of my car. I refused to clean it, instead letting its long pink tail, scruffy grey skin, and bloated purple intestines dry to a crisp in the hot Texas sun.
Teufel was unabashedly audacious. He stood down a wild fox, winding my mother into hysterics as she listened to their wild snarls. He roamed at night through the tall Texas grass, braving coyotes, rattlesnakes, and cougars.
Of the four of us, he liked my brother best.
Every morning, he would plod into my brother’s room, leap onto his bed, and settle himself directly onto my brother’s solid, warm back. My brother would wake to Teufel’s purring — a sound that did not necessarily mean the cat wasn’t about to lash out at you with razor sharp claws — the feeling of those claws lightly digging his skin.
I suppose Teufel liked my brother because he didn’t treat him special in any way. Whereas my mother doted on him, offering him nibbles from the dinner table, and my father had, on several occasions, slapped him off that very table, my brother ignored him completely. And as a rogue cat – my brother and I often called him the pirate – this was exactly what he wanted.
Me, on the other hand, Teufel didn’t seem to like very much.
I suppose it was because I once thought he was a girl and put daisies behind his ear. Teufel was the kind of cat to hold a grudge.
After I moved away for college, Teufel became very sick. Cancer, said the vet, all over his mouth.
I wasn’t around for that last year of his life, but my mother tells me that Teufel knew he was sick, the way animals often do. He became very dependent on her, and so much was her love for him that in the final days of his life, when the cancer was causing pieces of his pink tongue to fall out of his mouth, she fed him warm water and watered-down cat food with a plastic syringe.
On his last day, Teufel, who hadn’t been outside for days, walked the perimeter of our Texas home, my mother watching him through the kitchen window. He smelled the sweet grass and watched the sun fling brilliant rays of light across the mesquite trees along the horizon. Then, she took him to the vet.
She called me several days later with the news. Although by then I felt rather detached from Teufel, a cat I’d never felt that close with and remembered more for the times he’d slashed me in anger than cuddled me in love, I was still sad I didn’t get to say goodbye.
As I write this, my family’s third black cat, a corpulent female with a white tuft of fur just beneath her chin, lies sprawled across my desk, sleeping contently.
I was never supposed to end up with this cat. My mother rescued her as a kitten and so technically, the cat should live with her. But my mother and father now live in a tiny apartment in Washington, D.C., while I live in a suburban house in Dallas, a living arrangement that’s landed me with the cat who’s currently shedding clumps of fur all over my room. Incidentally, fur is somewhat like glitter: just when you think you’ve gotten rid of it all, more appears, matted to your bedspread, perhaps, or stuck to the legs of your yoga pants.
My father named our third black cat Lucifer, a name that was promptly shortened to Luci when the vet told us she was a girl.
Luci, as I said, was a rescue cat. My mother found her in the dead of winter, hiding in an empty home that was under-construction. She was near freezing and living on bugs when my mother used a can of tuna to coax her out of a hole in the home’s cement foundation.
My mother paid dearly for rescuing Luci. The terrified kitten was so excited at the prospect of eating real food for the first time in her life, she gobbled up all of the tuna and then tried to eat my mother’s fingers too. Lest any kitten fool you with its adorable eyes and miniature paws, let me remind you that these animals are relatives of the mighty lions. Their teeth cut through skin and bone. My mother walked around for a week with a giant bandage wrapped around her throbbing index finger. But she is a saint to all lost kittens, and despite the pain, Luci was allowed to come home.
Like all creatures, the early months of a cat’s life are its formative years. Before her rescue, Luci’s life was marked by starvation and fear. All alone in the frigid cold, she survived by catching and eating anything smaller than she – mainly, bugs – and hiding in her hole from anything larger – mainly, the coyotes who roamed the Texas hills. To this day, Luci is marked by these habits of survival.
She gobbles up bowls of Meow Mix as though it’s the only food she’s ever had and may ever see again. Then, she gobbles up what’s left of the dog’s food. And then, she winds herself around my ankles, tail curling up my leg in the hopes that I’ll drop her a tasty morsel of my own meal (which, of course, I always do).
When she was younger, Luci jumped at the slightest noise. She hid under the bed when any stranger entered our home. She hated to be outside. Now, she is a calmer, older cat who spends her days immersed in her two favorite things: sleeping in the sunlight that illuminates my room and eating like a deranged wolf.
She is a sweet cat who’s never once lashed out at me, and I love her companionship very much. In many ways, she is the perfect pet. She loves it when I scratch the top of her head and will snuggle against me for hours while I rub her nose, yet she is also perfectly content to lie around the house by herself, requiring nothing more than to be left alone.
Growing up, people sometimes told my mother, “I would never own a black cat.” I saw shock on the faces of these same people when my mother told them our cats’ names. “You mean you named your cat after the Devil?” Why yes, yes we did.
What is it about black cats that engender so much fear among us? In many cultures, they are considered signs of evil. The association of black cats with Satanic forces goes back to the Medieval Age. If one crosses your path, it means suffering and death lie in your future. If you pet a black cat, you may also find yourself in the company of the Devil himself. If you let one aboard your ship, on its next journey, the ship will sink. The list of bad omens goes on and on.
Yet if we are going to take up superstitions, I’d rather be like the Scots, who believe a black cat in the home brings prosperity. Or the English, who believe if a fisherman’s wife owns a black cat, it will keep her husband safe at sea. Or the Celts, who believe a woman who dwells with a black cat will attract many suitors.
In case I didn’t mention it above, I am, in fact, a single woman living with a black cat. A black cat named Lucifer, perhaps, but after all, the Devil’s only in the name.
Life these days: a few links
July 23, 2016 § Leave a comment
It’s summer in Texas, and that means life these days involves traveling north as often as possible, eating Blue Bell ice cream on the back porch in the sun, and befriending anyone you can think of who might have a pool. It also means staying inside your room where you can type away at your computer while the friendly air conditioner hums.
Here are a few things I’ve written inside my air conditioned room this summer.
I recently began writing for several nonprofits in Dallas. One is The Well Community, a small but stellar organization that serves those who struggle with mental illness in Oak Cliff, a borough of Dallas.
I’ve written about their weekly event Thursday Night Life, where Well members — those who deal with mental illnesses — are invited to fellowship with one another and volunteers and staff; a short profile of one of the Well members who battles schizoaffective disorder, a mental illness that has features of both schizophrenia and a mood irregularity like major depression or bipolar disorder; a peek into life at the boarding house where several Well members live; and a look at how The Well Community has become a family for the marginalized among us.
This nonprofit is wonderful, and I highly recommend it to anyone in Dallas or elsewhere wanting to help those in need.
In May, I traveled to Iceland, a country which is becoming increasingly popular among tourists these days (for good reason, as you can see below!).
If you’re interested in why it’s become so popular, as well as some of the best sites along the Ring Road, I wrote two travel stories for The Dallas Morning News based on my experience:
Iceland may be the coolest place to visit right now
The 6 most magical waterfalls of Iceland
These days, I write for a number of nonprofits, startups, and other organizations. If you’re looking for a writer to help you on a project, big or small, please don’t hesitate to drop me a note! I would love to hear from you!
May 5, 2016 § 2 Comments
When you are shrouded, how does one go? Who am I, that which beget me? Love which holds the universe fastened together,
where do I pass and are you mindful? Why, if you are?
That such intricacies exist which we do not know: a caterpillar chewing a green leaf, a frog dying in a pond alone, baby chicks hatching in a needled nest, me by myself drinking coffee. Such personalities! Such extravagance, and I’m more interested in what’s for dinner.
Expand our hearts so that we might see — the universe within us, and without. Show us your radiance in it all, in an early morning sunbeam and the minuscule growth of a fingernail.
These images, pasted together, amount to a glimpse, but still you remain hidden behind layers and layers of starry black cloth. It doesn’t end here. There is more to be given, and received. Fold us into your shadowy veil.
*Photos from my recent trip to Texas Hill Country.
After the Storm: an essay
April 25, 2016 § Leave a comment
I shared this essay on all of the usual social media sites when it was published several weeks ago, but in case you missed it (and if you’re interested!), my essay After the Storm appeared in the fifth issue of the lovely Cordella Magazine, an online literary magazine that features the work of women artists and writers across the world.
The piece is a somber reflection on the aftermath of the tornadoes that hit North Texas over Christmas.
It started with some meditations I jotted down after helping some friends who’d survived the tornadoes clean up their house, and through the editorial advice of a friend, became the essay it is.
We say a prayer of thanksgiving for safety, and I am glad to whisper it. I have known safety in moments of danger, and it is something to be thankful for.
For any interested readers, you can find the essay here.
The car that saved my life
April 7, 2016 § Leave a comment
A year ago today, I posted an essay about a car accident that I should not have walked away from. I try not to talk about the accident too much because I don’t want to be that girl who’s always talking about her near-death experience. But the truth is, I think about it fairly often.
I think about what one of my wise friends told me afterwards: that I can think of every day since the accident as extended time, time that, really, I should not have.
And so, I’m reposting this essay today as a reminder of the wonderful gift that life is, the wonderful grace of existence. It was also adapted as a Sunday essay in The Dallas Morning News, and you can read it there as well.
Once, I had a car named John Russell.
An odd name for a car, you might say, and many people did. But if you’re going to name a car, you might as well name him something special, and John Russell deserved a special name.
He was a college graduation gift from my parents, a dusty gold Ford Escape, used, but complete with everything a 20-something-year-old could want: sunroof, CD player, and cargo trunk, ready for road trips, ready for adventures.
And we had some adventures.
We drove halfway across the country and back. We drove up and down the West coast. We drove in the mountains. We drove in the desert. We drove in the snow. And we drove in the rain.
I gave John Russell his name on our inaugural adventure.
I’d just graduated from college and was driving from Texas to California for my first job as a post-graduate. And because it was my first job, and because it was my first time driving halfway across the country, and because they love me, my parents came along.
Which meant: I got to spend a good deal of the trip reading in the backseat (a reason to let the parents tag along, in my opinion).
Before we left, I visited the local used bookstore to find the perfect novel to accompany me on my adventure West. The great Elmore Leonard had died that summer, so I sauntered over to the Westerns in search of his name. A thin yellow paperback caught my eye.
Within seconds, I knew this was the book.
In Hombre, Leonard tells the story of John Russell, a white man raised by Apaches. John Russell is taking a stagecoach ride with a bunch of other white folk who, because of his association with the Apaches, don’t like him much. In fact, they dislike him so much they force him to sit up top with the driver rather than inside with them.
Of course, their attitude changes when outlaws attack.
Suddenly, John Russell, with his wily Apache ways, is the only one who can save them.
And he does.
But in the process (spoiler alert), he dies.
I read Hombre while driving west. While the dry Texas plains and the hot New Mexico desert and the rain-streaked Arizona rocks zipped past, I read how John Russell gave his life for some people he didn’t know, some people who thought he was less than the clotted mud on the bottom of his moccasins.
And because Hombre was the first novel I read in my car, and because I loved the character so much, I named my car after him – a Christ-like figure in a cowboy hat.
Now, as you can imagine, explaining the origin of John Russell’s name was always a bit of an ordeal. In fact, the explanation was so tedious it usually left me wishing I’d chosen something simpler or, better yet, nothing at all.
And so, only a handful of people knew his name, but those who did used it affectionately.
When his transmission broke, they said, “John Russell has a stomach ache.”
When I took him to the car wash, they said, “John Russell’s taking a bath.”
But in the days after the crash, we never once called him John Russell. Instead, we referred to him only as “the car.”
I was driving on the highway from Dallas to Austin, and it was raining. John Russell and I had been in the rain before, and though I doubt he liked it much, I certainly did. I’ve always loved the rain, especially the rain in Texas.
I was listening to the radio. At first, NPR. Then later, Johann Pachelbel’s Magnificat in D, Mary’s song of praise when she finds out she’s pregnant. And still later, some obnoxious new country song.
I hit a patch of water, which caused me to hydroplane and lose control. I slid right and John Russell’s nose went left. The steering wheel jumped away. I was drifting fast, trying to brake, not sure if I should brake, headed toward a semi truck on my right, sure my tires would hit a strip of dry road and the car would flip and the semi would barrel through me.
I thought I was going to die. I cried out to God.
When we hit the concrete median, John Russell crumpled like an empty soda can, the hood buckled, the glass shattered. I bit my tongue hard and my head snapped side to side.
I should have died. I should have cracked my skull or fissured my spine or broken my arm, but I didn’t. All the energy that should have shattered my bones, John Russell absorbed instead.
Afterward, I rode in an ambulance to the emergency room and never saw him again.
The way I see it, there are two ways to interpret our lives: either the things that happen are meaningless, or they’re not. And if they’re not, then we can look at our lives and read them like a story to discover the purpose underneath.
Reading my life like a story sounds nice when it’s day-to-day, but when it’s something as profound as a near-death experience, every interpretation sounds hollow in comparison to the real thing, as though it’s too extraordinary to understand through human eyes.
What’s more, I will forget details of the event and botch the story.
I will forget that earlier that day I was filled with a surge of hope for the future, but that I was frustrated when I left Dallas.
I will forget that in the ambulance I repeated over and over to myself the Jesus prayer, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner, because even though I was safe, I was still afraid that my luck would run out and God would let me die right there on the gurney from some unknown internal wound.
I will forget that on the drive home from the hospital, my body wracking with sobs, my father calmed me by telling stories of his own near-death experiences.
I will forget all these details and pull together others to make a story that makes sense to me in the hope that it is the right story, or at least one true story out of many possible ones.
But what else can I do? Meaninglessness isn’t an option.
My interpretation goes like this:
Before the accident, I was scared, mostly about the kinds of things I imagine most 20-something-year-olds are scared about: the scant number of dollars in our bank accounts, the pressure to find a job that both pays extremely well and fulfills our unattainable desire to absolutely love our work, the unfounded belief that with each friend’s wedding we move closer to spinsterhood, and other things as well.
After the accident, I was no longer scared.
Though my whole body ached, though bruises began to appear in black splotches on my arms and legs, though a red mark emerged where the seat belt had dug into my collar, I’d never felt better. I was keenly aware of having survived something I should not have survived, that my very existence was a gift, that I was a living testament of grace.
Survival brought with it a kind of freedom. I was grateful to be alive. What else mattered?
God had been there, a hand of protection when I swerved all over the watery road and slammed into the concrete, so near to me in that moment when my heart was a hand that reached out and grabbed him, when I yelled “Help!”
And yet, where was he, really? I didn’t see him. Not on the road or in the ambulance or in the hot shower that night when I scrubbed the sticky tape leftover from where the medic had stuck an IV in my arm, or when I curled, shaking, under the comforter and tried to sleep.
And why me? I know others have not been as fortunate. Nor am I now untouchable by evil, by pain, by death, though I’m as likely as anyone to naively believe in her own immortality.
To have an encounter with death like that, to know God’s protection in a moment of complete lack of control, and then to find afterward that God is still too huge to comprehend, too different to even find to approach, too vast to experience fully – it is disquieting.
This is what moments of closeness to the other world do to a person. They awaken in us acknowledgement of God, acknowledgement of grace.
What am I saying?
I’m merely saying that this life is grace, that both the accident and surviving the accident were gifts. I’m merely saying that this moment of survival, along with the thousands of breaths we take per day, are given to us and could just as easily be taken away. I’m merely saying that I experienced a holy being who loves me, who undergirds my existence, who in doing so is nearer to me than I am to myself, and in being able to do so is farther from me than the farthest star from the Earth, a being who would crumple and bleed to keep me safe, just like John Russell.
I miss John Russell, of course.
I miss the memories we made with my bare feet sticking out his back window. I miss reading on his sunlit seat. I miss finding sand scattered on his floor after a day at the beach. I even miss checking his oil and filling his tank with gasoline – or, as I used to say, “taking him out for a drink.”
As I write this, my old friend’s in an impound lot in West, Texas, a blip on the map just north of Waco, sides scraped, bumper hanging loose, frame twisted, and windows smashed. Meanwhile, I’m sitting on my front porch in Dallas on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, sunlight dappling the grass and a light breeze rustling the leafy branches of an old oak tree.
John Russell saved me.
But in the process, he died.
A tall calling for a used car, but John Russell had a tall name. I’d say he lived up to it.