Fantasies worth having

“Break my heart for what breaks yours. Everything I am for your Kingdom’s cause.” – “Hosanna,” by Hillsong

Today I fantasized at some length about that amazing unique gorgeous huge beautiful house we walked through in January, down between USC and Rosewood. So lovely, so much character and beauty and potential and spaciousness. And probably $1.2 million once the extensive renovations are complete.

$1.2 million. For a house in, to me, one of the most unappealing cities to call home. $1.2 million. And you’d still have swarms of pesky mosquitoes from May to November, 20-plus consecutive days of triple digit heat in July and/or August, a culture of fanatical devotion to all things football, a state that went handily to Donald Trump in the last presidential election, and let’s not even get started on the prevailing acceptance of obesity, racism, and violence that pervade the Palmetto State.

Really? Is this what I want to spend time fantasizing about? A “really nice” house here?

Help me, Jesus: the American dream threatens to overtake my zeal for your Kingdom.

So no.

This is what I don’t want, I told Daniel on our afternoon-long “strategy” date. I don’t want the majority of my time, energy, effort, or even thinking devoted to such temporal meaningless things. I live in the American Southern suburban evangelical subculture. (God help me.) But I do not want to pursue what that culture urges me to chase.

Fulfillment will not be found in the next vacation…the next party…the next (newer, bigger, fancier) house…the next (higher-paying, more prestigious) job…the next vehicle…the next (coolest, fastest, trendiest) gadget.

Oh and we all say this, don’t we? We pay generous lip service to the notion that what really matters most to us is our family, our faith, our friends. And in times of crisis this generally proves to be the case: introduce cancer into our circumstance and we’ll quickly coalesce around the truly important.

I’d like to live out Matthew 6:33 a little more in my daydreams.

That is, I’d like to daydream a little more about the things I suspect God dreams of. (Does God dream? Hm.) I suspect he dreams of things related to his kingdom, his people, his glory. The sale at Kohl’s or what kind of car we rent on vacation or whether or not the Gamecocks won yesterday – I doubt he gives a rat’s behind about those things, really.

Here are the things I suspect God actually cares about, that I would like to devote a little more time, energy, thought, and effort towards:

  • who I prayed for today (or if I prayed for anyone besides myself and my own peeps)
  • my children’s knowledge and love of Scripture
  • the fate of all those Syrian children forced and wandering from their ruined homes
  • the souls of the death row inmates
  • the lost dignity of the embarrassed woman ahead of me at Bi-Lo paying with government-issued checks
  • my friends whose hearts are broken by others, and/or by their own poor decisions
  • the millions who have never heard the true gospel
  • the hungry children (nearly 2 in 5) in the five public schools within two miles of my house
  • my missionary friends and those they’re sharing Jesus with
  • whether or not I am taking good care of the one body the Lord has given me
  • my relationships with my co-workers
  • whether I am harboring unforgiveness or walking in the light grace of forgiveness such as I have received thanks to Jesus
  • my level of honesty with myself, & my teachability
  • my stewardship of every gift he’s given me (time, money, network, talent, education, experience, influence)

What are these things? Well duh: they are “the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” and they are what I’d like to seek a great deal more.

So sure, I can take advantage of Amazon Prime, get the window treatment that makes me smile, practice due diligence when putting together my vacation (but please recognize I’m not entitled to a vacation; it’s a luxurious gift), watch the YouTube episode on how to install a water fountain in my yard, troll Facebook and comment on the Star Wars movie or the Sherlock episode.

Just don’t live there.

I don’t want to live there, anyway. We have to work, pay the bills, get the groceries, take the kids to the dentist, get new tires for the car, meet with the teacher, manage our money and home and calendar and daily schedule. But can my mind not be consumed with those things? Can I just do them, and move on to what matters?

Can I get the grocery shopping done, with good stewardship of my time and my budget and care of my one body, and then look forward to story time and prayer time with my children? ‘Cuz I’m pretty confident which of those activities has the most eternal impact.

Can I approach my conversations with co-workers with more of an eye to hearing and caring for their heart, and less of an eye toward grousing about whatever or making sure I get the proper credit (“annual review,” anyone?)?

Can I daydream about restored relationships – mine, and my friends’? Can I sit in the car line or in the DMV waiting area and find that my mind imagines my friend, who is new to faith, taking a major step of obedience?

Can I read the news with my Bible glasses on instead of my own opinions, fears, or desires? Can I read with a view to how Scripture says to think and respond? Oh I hope so.

I dunno, friends. This is hard. Nothing – nothing – in this world encourages this line of fantasy life. We live on Madison Avenue, next door to Walter Mitty, broadcasting our personal highlight reels on social media.

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTYBut Matthew 6 tells me I’m not the hero, not the Author, not the Finisher, but only the seeker…and the only thing worth seeking, the only thing worth fantasizing about, imagining, daydreaming, longing to see fulfilled – is the Kingdom of God and his righteousness. People, not things. (And not just the people I know & love. All people.)

Or as Switchfoot put it, “I want out of this machine. It doesn’t feel like freedom. This ain’t my American dream. I want to live and die for bigger things. I’m tired of fighting for just me. This ain’t my American dream.”

Published in: on February 2, 2017 at 1:56 am  Leave a Comment  

A tree grows in…

The magnolia tree in the corner of the side yard, right at the intersection of two wide quiet streets. Lowest limbs a convenient three feet off the ground, all others alternating in perfect rhythm on either side of the tough leathery trunk. Large green oval leaves – fuzzy brown on their backsides – year round.

So you could hide in any season.magnolia-tree

You could feel the stretching of your own limbs as you monkeyed to the slender limbs near the top, in the thickest refuge of branches. The big sturdy leaves, pointy at the ends, bent but didn’t break when you brushed against them. They sat spaced apart enough for you to follow the world below, but not enough for you to be viewed by any but those on a quest. The bark was rough, sometimes you scraped your palm against it and the redness lingered for hours. But the rough was reassuring, like Grandpa’s jaws before he shaved in the morning. The limbs were perfectly splayed for climbing, but unfriendly to sprawling. You sat in them for hours anyway. You were a kid, looked down on or looked over, but in here, among the impartial fractals of limb and leaf and fist-sized seeds, you were a powerful kind of near-invisible.

Because grownups never looked up.

In late spring – early May, here – the decadent, intense, sweet smell of the blooms was overwhelming, you were dizzy with their fecundity. Those massive pearly white petals were an exultation of overpowering beauty and delicacy; they exclaimed glory even as they wilted, browned, collapsed at the finest brush of your fingers. Forever and mortality lived in the curves of every brilliant bloom.

From here you could see the remains of the house across the corner, burned years ago, dusty black sentinel towers of char, random, defiant pillars of red brick, here and there some stubborn shrubbery: Burn all you want, here I stay planted, here I will bloom red berries every December.

Here on the caddy-corner sat the two-story wood frame house, a bona fide Sears & Roebuck catalog home. Your knowing eyes inevitably drawn to the second-story, on the right, above the double front screened door – and what you see is that humming, droning, terrifying, fascinating swarm of bees electrifying the air, the air alive and winged, the bees as furious and frantic in their efforts to save their home, long in the uninsulated wall of that room, as those firefighters were across the street those years ago.

It was all years ago, really. These always solitary and sometimes lonely hours up in the rough green refuge…They were before the church people installed the green-astroturf-carpeted ramp at the front door of the church across the street (the last corner left to see from your leafy, limby perch). They were before that unmentionable happened at the neighbor’s. They were before the Great Christmas Snow – or were they?

The magnolia tree is long gone anyway. Visits back home spur shock at places that seem to have shrunk in size even while they magnified in significance, as if time were some magical two-sided lens. Here, on this street, me and my friends and our bikes and our dogs, with our squeals and our youth-sure immortality, and on the heels of it, Surely this driveway was longer?

Too many people have died too many years after you knew what they really meant. So much loss, beyond bricks and mortar and honeycombs. And yet too much has stayed the same. Why does change thaw with the speed of a glacier here?

Yet you see the steadfastness of a pilgrim too, in the committed rhythms of church and home and work. You see the freedom of a child who climbs trees and sits in them for hours, unmolested by adult worry or interference. You see the seasons observed and accepted and fully lived – sowing, harvesting, lying fallow…sunrise, sunset, moonrise.

Now, solitary hours are harder to find; lonely ones are infrequent, but sting deeper. Life hasn’t gotten easier. It’s richer with strength and peace, poorer with worry and loss. There are mountains to climb now, not trees: higher, more treacherous, some of them oxygen-deficient, but grand and expansive.

The magnolia tree is long gone anyway – until you close your eyes. Close your eyes, take a breath, feel the bark and the leaves and the velvet petals, see the corners, your own brick home behind you, the world below you, the promise ahead of you…the Home that calls you in for supper.



Published in: on January 27, 2017 at 10:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

“The Gift of Failure”

The Gift of Failure

by Jessica Lahey

A review

Last April during spring break I took the kids to Sesquicentennial State Park to spend the afternoon – feeding ducks & geese, climbing trees, playing on the playground, having a picnic followed by an Easter egg hunt…and some paddle boating on the quiet lake.

We got in the boat, I installed one child at each pedal, I sat on the back bench, and then I was hands off and the kids were instruction free.

I told them nothing – not how to pedal, or how to use the “steering wheel,” or where to paddle us, or how to go backwards, or how fast or slow to go. I didn’t even make suggestions. I just sat there and let them figure it all out. I mean, it was a paddle boat, people, and my children were wearing life jackets – the risks were pretty darn low.

Why not let them figure out how to maneuver a paddle boat? It isn’t rocket science and there aren’t any dangerous parts (unlike a boat with oars or, heavens, a motor).

Why not let them have total control over where we went and how fast or slow we got there? What did I care, really? Why not be content to simply ride and enjoy the sunshine and the water and my beautiful healthy children in such bliss? Why ruin that with helicopter parenting?

And when they disagree, but have not yet come to blows, must I referee? Could I just pay attention and only intercede when truly necessary? Could I keep my mouth shut long enough for them to figure out how to give & take, how to compromise, or how to persuade the other?

I must say, both they and I had a stupendous time on that paddle boat ride. I intervened twice – once because the geese on the island where we’d stopped appeared to be getting feisty and territorial, and a second time when the kids’ disagreement threatened to get physical.

Otherwise, they just explored.

I was consciously following the advice of author Jessica Lahey in this book The Gift of Failure: How the best parents learn to let go so their children can succeed.

Lahey, a middle school teacher, journalist, and parent, submits that modern parents “helicopter parent” at unprecedented levels. The result: stressed out parents raising stressed out kids who lack independence, competence, motivation, and the ability to persevere.

So, she says, “LET. GO.”

Let your children fail while the stakes are only as high as an untied shoelace or a sandbox disagreement. This can create in your children the resilience to overcome higher obstacles like failing to turn in homework or dealing with the “mean girls.” This in turn gives them the ability to persevere through ever more significant challenges: college roommates, ex-boyfriends, job interviews.

She addresses, practically, homework, report cards, social dynamics, sports, and household chores – viewing them all through the lenses of the long-term goal: well-adjusted, capable, independent adults.

It was an excellent read.

And now Samuel (9) and Hannah (7) do their own laundry. Okay, okay, I still measure out the detergent, and do the folding (their folding is of the sort a pupgift-of-failure-coverpy might do).

Some passages I dog-eared:

“Despite the wealth of evidence revealing the folly of these methods [rewards and incentives], we continue to incorporate them into our parenting, and lacking regular performance reviews from some higher authority, many of us look to our children to provide the feedback we need in order to feel as if we are doing our jobs well….Parents, after all, are judged by their children’s accomplishments rather than their happiness, so when our children fail, we appropriate those failures as our own.” – p. xix

Well Jesus may not give me a regular performance review, per se, but he definitely qualifies as MY higher authority.

And I would submit that we appropriate our children’s successes or failures as our own because we are a society of adults with an extraordinarily low sense of self-worth. We cannot stand comfortably in our own skin. How our children do is indeed how we do. We are not our own person.

Also, we’re a culture that judges by the externals. And we reward externals, whether they took great character or not. Modern-day parenting is not immune to this.

“History is filled with stories of extraordinary people, inventers and innovators, who learned how to appropriate the gifts of failure to their own advantage, who did not run from it, but stayed in its company long enough to become comfortable amid the jumbled wreckage of their dashed hopes and flawed plans….the ability to attend to a task and stick to long-term goals is the greatest predictor of success, greater than academic achievement, extracurricular involvement, test scores, and IQ.” – p. xxi

I once heard of a female CEO, daughter of Indian immigrants to America, say that every single night at the dinner table her father would ask his children, one by one, to name something they had failed at that day.

A failure, not a success.

His theory was that if you had not failed at trying something, you weren’t trying enough. He wasn’t celebrating failure so much as he was promoting effort and resilience.

“When a teacher moves around the room, praising each kid, ‘Great job! You are so smart!’ the students figure out pretty quickly that someone is being lied to. They know they can’t all be geniuses, and they begin to doubt our honesty – or at the very least, our judgment…The truth I try to impart to every single one of my students is this: it all gets hard eventually, even the stuff you have a talent for.” – pp. 64-65

Yes, Samuel, my little mathematical brain, it will get hard for you too.

So my kids get a lot less help from me these days on things that, honestly, kids their age should know (and things that I have taught them already) – how to tie a shoelace, how to make a PB&J, how to pack their own clothes (last spring they learned the hard way that when Mom says “pack some socks” they should pack some socks – those were cold feet on that camping trip!), how to remember what’s needed at a dance rehearsal or a Cub Scout meeting or a road trip.

I’m always there to kiss boo-boos. But I’m going to stop trying to prevent them all.

Let these failures teach them now, while the stakes are low, in hopes and prayers and practice of competence, motivation, resilience, and grit when the stakes are high.

Lord willing.


Published in: on January 8, 2017 at 3:09 am  Leave a Comment  

“A Year in Posts” challenge

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is arguably the most introspective week in Western culture. These few days spawn Top 10 lists like rabbits: books, movies, celebrity deaths, headlines, discoveries, “moments in sports,” even the Top 10 best performing penny stocks, for Pete’s sake.

Herewith, my own Top 10 list: the “Your year in posts challenge.”

I think it bears reflection, who we are in this public space. It matters. Paradoxically, our social media persona affects both fewer people than we think (we just aren’t that important, really), and more than we think (you never know who’s reading, who’s desperate for a word of Truth or a blessing or a laugh).

So here’s the challenge: let’s take a stroll through our 2016 social media posts and ask ourselves a few introspective questions. (Warning: navel-gazing about to commence, get your lint roller ready….)

1. Do my social media posts bless others? Or burden them?

2. Do they encourage a greater attitude of gratitude, or entitled resentment?

3. Do they lift up or tear down?

4. Do they promote peace or inflame negativity?

5. Do my posts reflect a pursuit of truth? Or do I propagate whatever strikes my fancy without bothering to conduct any due diligence?

6. How do I respond to threads on my post? With respect, or with dismissal? Do I listen to understand, or do I see “my” profile as an unquestionable platform for whatever soapbox (or business endeavor?) I fancy? Am I on this social media platform for dialogue, or for preaching?

7. Do my posts actually reflect what I claim matters most to me? (Here that “Your Year in Words” thing may or may not come in handy.) If I say “faith and family” are the most valuable elements of my life, is that what I talk about in this public sphere? Or is my profile a place to share meaningless dribble?

8. Am I honest, part I: Is my social media profile a place to practice subtle, sophisticated passive aggressiveness?

9. Am I honest, part II: What percentage of my posts are a smooth massage of my reputation? Or am I playing only the highlight reel because it feels like it will help me keep up with the Joneses? (Only the one asking this question of him or herself knows the answer, by the way.)

10. Would I say in person (and to that person) what I say here?

Don’t misunderstand me, dear reader. These are difficult questions for me, too (especially # 9). And I don’t offer them as a tool to heap guilt or regret; most of us got enough of those poisons in our system already.

It’s simply a list to help me think, critically, and hopefully help me better grow into, well, the person my (hypothetical) dog thinks I am. I hope it helps you too – what would you add to this list?

Happy New Year.



Published in: on December 29, 2016 at 3:09 am  Leave a Comment  

Kitchens of the Great Midwest

Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal

a review

Until about five years ago, I could count on one hand – maybe on one finger! – the number of people I knew from the Midwest (unless you count Missouri, which I don’t think you do?). My knowledge of the Midwest was limited to Garrison Keillor (Saturday night) and Packers fans (fall Sunday afternoons). But now, though I live in the Southeast, they seem to be swarming all around me like an invasive species.

kitchens-book-coverBut they’re a pretty neat lot. Some of them are even pretty good friends…so when I saw this title at the library I was more intrigued than I would have been five years ago.

The novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest is the story of how Eva Thorvald (honestly, how more Midwestern a name could you have??) became the most celebrated and sought-after chef in just about the whole world.

Stradal relates Eva’s development in creative and unique ways. Each chapter is devoted to the tale of how a particular ingredient came to be part of Eva’s palate. She makes at least a cameo appearance in each chapter, but is rarely the focus of it – and yet the story climaxes with a feast that brings all the people and ingredients together in a surprisingly sweet way.

Stradal explores just about every family relationship, Lutheran church suppers and chili cook-offs, deer season and farmer’s markets, high school garage bands and world-class sommeliers, rich and poor – all scattered across the American Midwest from the early 1980s to the foodie culture of today.

Some dog-eared passages:

“When Lars [her father] first held [Eva], his heart melted over her like butter on warm bread, and he would never get it back. When mother and baby were asleep in the hospital room, he went out to the parking lot, sat in his Dodge Omri, and cried like a man who had never wanted anything in his life until now.” – p. 7

What a sweet description of the fierce love of a new parent! (Alas, things do not go well for Lars, but, no spoilers!)

Eva the teenager on a date:

“When, after at least ten seconds, they let go of each other – him first – Prager looked at her. She now looked older, like a woman, a woman whose hand he could take and stride into the darkness with, because she was a woman whose darkness matched his own, and they could fix each other without even trying. They wouldn’t even have to talk about it.” – p. 111

And isn’t this how new love feels, and isn’t this the lie our culture perpetuates daily? “They could fix each other without even trying. They wouldn’t even have to talk about it.” Of course we would never say this outright, because it’s so naïve, but it’s precisely how we think love should work – “without trying,” without having “to talk about it.” From money to sex to in-laws to parents to those secrets from the past, we all too often believe that “love conquers all” means we don’t have to work at it. Sigh.

“Women look their stupidest when they have a crush on a guy who’s out of their league.” – p. 145

Just a good funny line.

“The thought of seeing her…again pruned every competing impulse, and the priorities of what now felt like a former life, once so bright and heavy, had fallen away. This commingling of obsession and simplicity was a surprisingly satisfying way to get by.” – pp. 274-275

And isn’t that the truth? I think of a life lived wholeheartedly for Jesus, and in it, there is obsession (to live in him and for him and pursue the things of his heart), and simplicity (not striving, not a seeking to fill an emptiness, not consumed by the temporal). Sweet!

Also in the book: a recipe for peanut butter bars that will turn you diabetic just reading it.

It’s a great read.

Published in: on December 16, 2016 at 3:48 am  Leave a Comment  

The Phifer vacuum

A couple of weekends ago my husband Daniel and I removed the last of his parents’ worldly belongings out of the small storage unit where they had been kept for three and half years. It took all of one hour, involved multiple trips to the dumpster across the parking lot, and all fit in our minivan. Forget antiques and memorabilia and photo albums. The storage unit consisted almost exclusively of large plastic bins filled with CDs, old tools, and random pieces of electronic equipment.

It was representative of Gary, Daniel’s Dad, if not of Jo, his mother. And it reminded me of a story….dscn0335

Daniel’s childhood home included an unfinished basement, with the stairs to it branching off the ground floor’s main hallway. The vacuum cleaner lived in this basement along with the usual accomplices: washer, dryer, drill press, shelves and cabinets and worktables of assorted tools, power tools, and spare parts to untold numbers of appliances.

Jo was weary of hauling said vacuum cleaner (which she complained didn’t work that great anyway) up and down the basement stairs, and finally Gary had had enough of the moaning about it.

Now, Gary was an outstanding engineer of just about any type. But the man had no eye or thought for aesthetics. So here was his solution:

Go to Sears. Buy an industrial wet-dry “shop” vac. Clear three square feet out of the hall coat closet and ensconce said shop vac in it. Run the cord under the hall rug, under the door to the basement, plug it into an orange extension cord, and wrap the extension cord around the stair banister, all the way down to an outlet in the basement. Last, but not least, distribute industrial quality headphones to each member of the family.

To handle the industrial-sized roar of the shop vac.

“Gary!! This thing is TOO LOUD!!”

“Well, you said you wanted a vacuum that works.”

“But it’s too LOUD!!! And it takes up the WHOLE CLOSET!!”

“Well, you said you were tired of carrying it up and down the stairs. Now you don’t have to.”

Well what could anybody say to this?

Never mind that now there’s a lump in the hall rug. Or that the basement door won’t fully shut. Or that in reaching for the stair banister you wrap your hands around a power cord. Or that you had to wear headphones when the vacuum cleaner was running – no matter who was pushing it. Or that Hunter the cat, who fearlessly stalked possums and raccoons, ran fleeing in feline terror when the Beast was fetched from the coat closet. Or that the vacuum is so powerful all loose textiles within a six-foot radius must be secured before flipping the “on” button.

The important thing was, the thing worked, and nobody had to haul it up or down any stairs.

Y’all. This was life in Gary Phifer’s household.

You ask for a solution, and you’re likely to get it. But you’ll get what you get, and you don’t pitch a fit.

Published in: on November 30, 2016 at 3:18 am  Leave a Comment  

Carter v Reagan (aka The Spin of Shame)

My first presidential election. 1979. Carter vs. Reagan. God bless him, how could Carter possibly have won re-election when dozens of Americans remained hostages in Iran?

Whatever that meant.merry-go-round

Here’s what the 1980 (1979) presidential election meant to me: Getting to ride the merry-go-round, and realizing you can’t spin fast enough to shake shame.

I was a young seven years old. I was a runt. I was shy. I was one of 10 white children at an elementary school with just over 100 students. I had no real friends to speak of, just one or two peers who condescended to pity me enough to occasionally invite me into playground games. (Cue “Rudolph” here.) To all the rest, I was invisible.

Except the day after the election results were announced. That day, some of the children – the big ones everybody listened to-slash-were scared of – made it clear that only dummies (pretty sure that was their word choice) had voted for Carter. Reagan won, so Reagan was the Man of the Hour, and everybody affiliated with poor Mr. Carter was a loser. Never mind that the oldest child on the playground was still a decade from voting age and not one of us could tell you what the Electoral College was. Maybe not even Reagan’s first name.

Didn’t matter. No losers were allowed on the merry-go-round.

Well I’d heard these two names – Carter and Reagan – bandied around at the dinner table at my house, part of that baffling other-worldly conversation that floated between adults, mysterious to a child like clouds: you knew more or less what they were made of, but had no hope of touching them yourself.

Still, I’d caught enough of the drift (if you’ll pardon the pun) to know my parents had voted Carter.

But that merry-go-round called like a slot machine to a gambler. Each board of its floor was a different color – or at least had been during the first Roosevelt administration, judging by the fade and peel of the paint. When you rode, holding on to one L-shaped bar in each hand, and leaned back, the G-force pinned you in place and it felt like you were blasting off into space. It was speed, freedom, immersion in adrenalin.

Was I going to miss this just because of some thing called an election? Was I going to spend another recess on the weedy, anthill-infested, gravelly, lonely edge of the school yard, tapping the little puffball fungi to watch their clouds of brown smoke?

By Jimmy, no. And so, for the first time in my young life, I broke rank.

Not only did I lie through my baby teeth and declare that of course my parents had voted Reagan, only dummies voted for Carter. I clinched my betrayal by then declaring, loud as my runt voice would carry, that, like the big cool scary kids, I wouldn’t share the merry-go-round with kids with loser parents, either. The kids who’d shown me pity, those poor among them whose parents were now determined to be “losers,” looked at me like I’d just sprouted blue hair. I turned from them with such snobbery I’m pretty sure my nose could have caught any rain.

As the equipment spun and my hair flew and my pulse raced with the thrill of the ride, even as I laughed at the wind and daredevil speed, my little heart was shrinking in shame.

I knew I didn’t even know Jack about that election. I knew I was siding with the mean kids. I knew, oh, how I knew I was lying, and I was just sure it was written all over my shamed face. I adored my mother and had unwavering respect for my father; to me, they still knew everything about right and wrong and were to be utterly trusted in their judgments. I had no reason to doubt them.

And yet I’d just denied the truth. I half-expected to hear a rooster crow from the edge of the school yard.

I spun like a wild child, but the moment had no shine.

I’ve given in to the suction of peer pressure since, and I’ve stood wavering against it, and I’ve stood firm against it. I’ve voted for poor candidates, and I’ve voted for some good ones; doubtless I’ll do both again. Either way I owned my choice, maybe even a little bit learned from it.

But I will never forget the shame I felt that day, spinning around with the wrong crowd, at my own cowardice and disloyalty. Better to scuff my secondhand shoes on the gravel at the edge of the school yard, alone but true. Better to hang out with the puffball mushroom clouds than be untrue or unkind.

Talk about spin.


Published in: on November 8, 2016 at 2:37 am  Leave a Comment  

Bird by Bird

A review

Only Anne Lamott can unveil the sacredness of walking, writing, eating, and dying with such irreverence. Time and again, it’s unclear whether you’re catching your breath because it’s so freaking funny – or because it’s so creatively insightful. Because she does both in the same paragraph, on just about every page.


Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life gives some excellent guidance on writing, but so much more, and does so in a riveting, creative, encouraging – and marvelously irreverent – manner.

She’s realistic without being harsh, telling us over and over how hard this writing life is. And she’s unfailingly kind, constantly reassuring us we’re not alone and the creative endeavor is worthwhile.

A few dog-eared passages (there are SO MANY!):

“I spent as much time as I could outdoors while I waited for my unconscious to open a door and beckon. It finally did. I did not have some beautiful Hallmark moment when I threw back my shoulders with a big smile, dusted off my old hands, and got back to work. Rather, it was like catching amoebic dysentery. I was just sitting there minding my business, and then the next minute I rushed to my desk with an urgency I had not believed possible.” – p. 180

This happened to me just last night. Scrolling that ultimate time waster, Facebook, and saw a video that got me thinking, and I just had to immediately sit down and write. Three single-spaced pages and one hour later, I have something to work on that I think could really be something.

Of course this doesn’t happen often. Mostly, I sit with this laptop burning my thighs and wonder if I will fill up even one page of dribble in the next 30 minutes. But I carry on. What else am I gonna do? Binge on Downton again? (Maybe.)

“There is an ecstasy in paying attention. You can get into a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness, a sign that God is implicit in all of creation.” – p. 100

Yes and yes.

“You write a shitty first draft of it and you sound it out, and you leave in those lines that ring true and take out the rest. I wish there were an easier, softer way, a shortcut, but this is the nature of most good writing: that you find out things as you go along. Then you go back and rewrite. Remember: no one is reading your first drafts.” – p. 71

This also is true. I often get to page 2 before I get to what I really want to get to. Only I didn’t know that when I started. Hm.

“In any case, the bottom line is that if you want to write, you get to, but you probably won’t be able to get very far if you don’t start trying to get over your perfectionism. You set out to tell a story of some sort, to tell the truth as you feel it, because something is calling you to do so. It calls you like the beckoning finger of smoke in cartoons that rises off the pie cooling on the windowsill, slides under doors and into mouse holes or into the nostrils of the sleeping man or woman in the easy chair. Then the aromatic smoke crooks its finger, and the mouse or the man or woman rises and follows, nose in the air. But some days the smoke is faint and you just have to follow it as best you can, sniffing away. Still, even on those days, you might notice how great perseverance feels. And the next day the scent may seem stronger – or it may just be that you are developing a quiet doggedness. This is priceless. Perfectionism, on the other hand, will only drive you mad.” – p. 31

It’s possible I’m developing a quiet doggedness in this writing project.

This. Is. Priceless.

Thanks, Anne, again.

Published in: on October 22, 2016 at 1:34 am  Leave a Comment  

Air conducting


It’s a Sunday night in the spring, about 8 p.m. My two younger brothers are off who-knows-where. (This was a rural town in the mid 1980s, back when 12- and 9-year-old boys could wander freely about town on their bikes like real Goonies, and nobody thought twice about it so long as they were home by dark.) Mom is still at church, across the street, talking to the choir members who are still there.

I’ve left the church – I sang in the choir, too, though not as well as the kindly adults assured me I did and certainly not nearly as well as I thought I did, but that’s neither here nor there for this vignette.

I take the covered walkway in four strides, up the five brick steps onto the screen porch, careful not to let the screen door bang behind me, and walk through the open back door into the den.

And there’s my Dad. He’s sitting on the couch against the wall of windows that look out onto the screen porch, so he’s on my immediate right as I cross the threshold.

But he doesn’t notice me, because he’s air conducting Beethoven, and his eyes are closed.

He’s put a Beethoven Sonata CD in the CD player, turned up the speakers almost full volume, and is blissfully counting four-four time with his hands, cuing the strings, the drum, the piano, the woodwinds. He has major conductor face going on – concentrated, scowling, eyebrows raised then furrowed, head nods and expansive arms, shoulders hunched and then squared.

I would just as soon have expected to see him licking the carpet, this was so out of character.

My Dad wore pants and long-sleeves year-round, even when it was 98 degrees outside and he was working in his un-air-conditioned woodshop.

My Dad rarely showed amusement beyond a smile or a chuckle, though he wasn’t at all morose or unpleasant. Just not the guffawing type.

My Dad didn’t hurry. He didn’t yell. He didn’t leave his bedroom without being fully dressed (no lounging around the house in an undershirt). He didn’t get flustered. He was dignified but not stodgy. He wasn’t a snuggler or a hugger or a ruffle-your-head-squeeze-your-cheeks kind of guy.

He wasn’t a playmate to me or my brothers. We may or may not be welcome to tag along with whatever task he was attending at any given moment, but he was not the dad to play cards or board games, ride bikes, jump on the trampoline.

And he certainly was never silly.

This “air conducting” scenario was one of only a half dozen or so silly episodes I recall with 18 years of childhood under Gary Mullinax. (It’s probably why they stand out in such relief in my memory.)

At any rate, I get about 10 seconds of this completely unexpected amusement before I make some kind of noise that interrupts his performance. He catches me watching him in baffled delight, pauses in mid-measure, and grins like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie dish. Holding a baton, no less.

I’m so pleasantly shocked I grin back, shake my head in a careful “tsk-tsk” sort of way, and continue through the den, into the hallway, both of us silently acknowledging this little secret, the sound of his slightly-but-not-really-embarrassed chuckle – and Beethoven – following me.

People tell me I seem comfortable in my own skin.

What they don’t know is this is yet another gift from my father.

Sometimes, however undignified it looks, you just gotta do what strikes your fancy, though you may willingly tow the proper line every other minute of the day. And if you get caught in your harmless silliness? Grin, and keep going.

Be yourself. The cliché rang true in my Dad.

One of these days, if I am fortunate enough to grow up to be like him, it will ring as true in me.


Published in: on October 18, 2016 at 2:33 am  Leave a Comment  

Way Down Dead in Dixie

a book review

I don’t know how three women successfully collaborate on one novel, much less three. This has baffled and impressed me ever since Caroline Cousins (which is actually three women, one of whom is a dear family friend) came out with their first S.C. island contemporary whodunit.

And all three novels are absolutely and delightfully entertaining. Sherlock Holmes was never so genteel; Hercule Poirot was never so adroit; heck, neither the Hardy Boys nor Nancy Drew was ever so innocently persistent. How could they be? Only Southerners understand Southerners. And not even all of them, all the time. I mean seriously. Not even we can fully explain ourselves.

But Mrs. Meg (as I have always referred to said family friend), her sister, and her cousin have written three mysteries that are a perfect blend of sweet, snappy, and South Carolina island Southern.

There’s a little romance with the local sheriff….a plantation-turned-tourist-attraction that is, after all, still home to Miss Augusta…three cousins who have a penchant for finding dead bodies and a bulldog perseverance at their own methods of amateur sleuthing…eccentric characters the likes of which you simply cannot find outside of the South…a past that is never truly past (thanks for that line, Faulkner)…and intricacies of acceptable social behavior that could never be explained to outsiders. One (much better) reviewer called it “a sprightly saga of skullduggery and Southern manners.” Perfect.

To read Mrs. Meg’s books (as I can’t help but think of them) is to sit on the bow of the boat next to her, cruising the marshes of the North Edisto. It’s to lounge on the couch of their old house in Ehrhardt and exchange exaggerated stories of driving slowly down the supposedly haunted Cry Baby Lane. To read her books is to sit around a table picking out crab meat, or assembling pb&js on white sandwich bread for a picnic later.

In this South Carolina island community, Coke is for breakfast, white shoes are for the summer, everybody knows their family tree, and sometimes people have “more money than taste.”

And to me…It just feels like home. Thank you, Mrs. Meg.

A couple of choice passages:

Lindsey and Margaret Ann talking about their cousin, all three of them middle-aged:

“‘She just wants some male attention, and he’s giving it, and he is a looker.’

‘He’s twenty years older than she is!’

‘Age doesn’t seem to matter. She thinks Stephen is hot, and he’s in college. Hormones. Could be she’s going coastal.’


‘Coastal! It happens all the time in Key West. People come there to escape, and the freedom goes to their heads, and they do crazy things. Bonnie’s not working this summer, she’s down here without Tim, and now even the parents are gone. She’s feeling flighty. Gone coastal.’” (p. 75) (rofl)

“We found the plantation owner sitting in her favorite recliner ‘resting her eyes,’ as she put it. The Miss Augustas of the world do not nap. Her best friend, Miss Maudie, who was snoozing in another recliner, made no apologies for ‘dropping off’ in the afternoon, but Miss Augusta seemed to regard a need for extra shuteye as a moral weakness.” (p. 84) I’m looking at you, Mom!

Note: the first two books in this series are no less delightful: Fiddle Dee Death, and Marsh Madness. Way Down Dead in Dixie on Amazon


Published in: on October 13, 2016 at 2:36 am  Leave a Comment