I try with words to heal myself,
I try with words to find myself,
I try with words to save myself,
Becoming Brenda Starr (#1671)
Brenda Starr and I go way back. I knew just enough about her by December, 1961, to know I wanted to be her when I grew up. I wanted the career in writing, the fabulous clothes, the glamorous bedroom, the amazing long, red, flowing hair, and the cleavage.
Sure, she had a wacky dysfunctional relationship with a guy named Basil, but I hoped they had some semblance of a true spiritual connection, since his last name was St. John. A name like that should be able to cover a lot of sins, don’t you think?
As it turned out, he often disappeared for years at a time into some distant jungle, where he was forced to develop a rare serum from an exotic breed of orchid in order to prolong his own otherwise useless life.
Then he’d ingest or inject the serum, and use the cubits that had been added to his miserable existence to trek back to the big city, where Brenda would forgive him in an implied session of passionate lovemaking.
In December of 1961, Basil was away. I was eight years old, and anxious for his return. Wouldn’t it be better if Brenda and Basil lived out his few remaining days together, making happy memories? What good was it if he hung on another ten years separated from his one-and-only love, in exchange for a couple measly episodes of making-out?
Even at eight, I had lost patience with Basil St. John.
And if it weren’t for what happened on that fateful morning in December, 1961, I might have given up hope for Brenda, too.
I was spending the weekend with my grandparents, and by five o’clock Sunday morning, my grandpa let Grandma and me know he was having a terrible heart attack. She told him it was just heartburn, and to go back to bed. She was snoring within seconds, but I knew the truth.
My grandpa, just like Basil St. John, wouldn’t be coming home anytime soon.
The doctor made a house call, and an ambulance took Grandma and Grandpa into the city, where Grandpa lived in Intensive Care for the next five weeks. I was hustled to the next-door neighbors, people I did not know, but who had an enormous white Family Bible on the coffee table.
I took great comfort in the physical presence of the Bible—although I had never opened one and didn’t that day, either—but I instinctively reached for the Sunday funnies.
What I found there disturbed me almost as much as witnessing my first heart attack.
Evidently, Brenda Starr had been drugged by very bad people who, as the ultimate insult, had shorn her hair. Really shorn. Brenda Starr with a pixie cut.
“You can get through this, Brenda. Things aren’t as horrible as they seem right now. It will be all right, you’ll see. Hair grows back, really it does. Basil will still love you, no matter what. You are not alone.”
Okay, I admit it. That morning, I played Brenda Starr’s shrink, her counselor, her pastor. And in helping her, I pulled my terrified little self through a very scary time.
Brenda’s hair grew back so fast, I couldn’t believe it. Within a few short weeks—before my grandpa was even in a private room—her auburn tresses were as long and voluptuous as ever.
Boy, did I ever want to be Brenda Starr.
The next Halloween, in 1962, I got my chance. My mother bought me a wonderful Brenda Starr mask, and I had a costume to die for. (No cleavage, but still. Heck, I was a kid. There was plenty of time for that.) It was my favorite costume ever.
I must have had Brenda and Halloween on my mind in my sleep last night. Toward morning, I dreamed of having her gorgeous coif, which was growing exponentially like one of those dolls with a little crank that makes her hair cover her rear end in seconds flat.
I awakened with a huge smile and ran to the mirror to see if my hair would turn redder and grow big before my very eyes, but no such luck.
Still no cleavage, either.
Off Beat (#1670)
Two clocks like electric shocks
Two plans for a given day
My mother wore loose powder with her lipstick
The box is round, of course, by Maybelline,
I keep the leopard-printed box atop my dresser now
That’s It (#1668)
It would be lovely, wouldn’t it, if we could truly know everything we’ve seen, if nuances whispered their meanings to us in the light where we could at least read their lips, rather than in the darkness where we must also depend on interpreting their touch. It would be lovely, but too easy. I am more impressed with a deep knowledge than a broad one, even if that which is fully known by me is not unlike what is known by any other person living in this world. I would rather read one phrase which aptly captures love, and about which anyone might say “that’s it!” than a library full of poetry which almost touches my soul. The one beautiful thing about the “almosts,” though, is the way they challenge me to try the thing myself. To try myself to fashion the one apt phrase which, after it’s written, I might read again, and sigh and say, that’s it.
So I’ve Finally Signed With An Agent. Now What? (#1667)
When I signed on the undotted line to become a client of WordServe Literary, dozens of people began asking me the very questions that were reverberating through my own mind, and contributing their commentary to my interior monologue. As it turned out, thinking through these questions and comments helped me understand some of what might—or might not—happen next.
“Was your book all the way finished before you got an agent?” My novel was completely written, along with a proposal, before my author friend volunteered to forward it to my agent. For a first-time novelist, this is generally required. With a non-fiction book, the agent typically wants to see a proposal and the first three chapters, along with an outline for the remainder of the book.
“Now that you’ve got an agent, when is your book coming out?” Unfortunately, signing with an agent is no guarantee that your book will sell. But it does remarkably improve your chances. Agents study the markets for a living and know what the various publishers are looking for at any given time. My understanding is that agents sell approximately 50% of the books they attempt to place. For me, that math is fantastic, especially when I’ve read that the chances of an author selling a book to a traditional publisher without an agent are about 1%. So, when will my book come out? I have no idea, but I believe the chances it will be published at all are higher now than before I had an agent.
What happens after you sign with an agent? Plenty! Not the least of which is that you get asked a lot of questions and soon enough, you learn a few of the answers.
You may need to keep track of all those questions and correspond with your questioners. A randomly (after this post has been up for 2 days) chosen commenter will win a Mary Engelbreit journal and a set of Mary Engelbreit notecards. Good luck and Happy Answering!
The Spoon (#1666)
It’s just a slotted spoon, of course,
Vintage 1950, when housewives
She scraped potatoes from a
Scooped Irish stew into steaming
Alone at last, she scrambled
The spoon went with her to the
I touch it now, and feel her palm
It’s just a slotted spoon, of course,
O, horrible capacious cries,
I was seven when I first heard
Miss Evans passed out bars of naked
I wrapped the oval bar in golden rick-rack,
I punctured my fingertip and it bled
She treasured that gift more than life,
I emptied my mother’s house one day
I thought of the little girl with
Soul Train (#1655)
One hundred years ago tonight, King Pattengale sat down at his makeshift desk and by coach lamp penned a penny postcard to his six-year-old son, Carl.
Carl had a collection of these postcards from his daddy, who worked on the railroad and had to be away from home more than Carl liked. He kept them in a wooden box, tied together with a piece of twine, and took them out whenever he missed his pa. But the one that was written on this date was his favorite for his whole life long.
“Do you see the date on this card?” read the cursive script. “11/11/11. Carl, that date won’t happen again for one hundred years! Imagine that…”
Carl did imagine. And he showed me the postcard only once, more than forty years ago. He was no young man by then, and his father, of course, was long dead. He read the card aloud to me and his eyes twinkled like they must have when he was a lad, mesmerized again by the magical thought of the one hundred years—slow moving in his youth but speeding by in old age—between 1911 and 2011.
“I won’t be alive when that date comes around the next time,” he said. “But you will.”
Years still moved slowly for me back then, but now I know, from personal experience, that it couldn’t have been true for him. What seemed like an eternity to me seemed to him like nothing more than the blink of an eye—and yet he knew he wouldn’t see the day that was so quickly approaching.
So I smiled an I-believe-in-magic smile and took the postcard from his open hand. I held it to my face and inhaled the lingering fragrance of the sleeper train and the rail yard and even, I think, my great-grandfather himself. And the scent of the little boy who became the man sitting next to me, my grandfather.
And I promised myself right then that on some distant 11/11/11 that I couldn’t imagine ever actually arriving, I would gather my grandfather’s people around me and celebrate his good life, his kind love, and the magic of passing it on.
I still have his postcard. Now that the long-imagined day has arrived, I will sit down and pen cards, perhaps to my own sweet grandchildren. I’ll tell them this date won’t come again for a hundred years, but I won’t have to tell them to believe in magic.
They’ll see it twinkling in my eyes.
Live Out Your Dream And Discard The Box (#1654)
This morning, I questioned myself thoroughly about why (besides purely sentimental reasons) I cling to stuff like I do. I came up with three main reasons. Most of the junk I’m holding onto represents the person I used to be (but likely won’t be again…), the person I wish I was (but likely won’t become), or the person I am now (but really shouldn’t be).
Decluttering is about more than pitching stuff. It’s about choosing my purpose again today.
So I immersed myself in my closet, grasping first at straws and then at substance. I quickly found at least a dozen items of clothing, three pairs of scuzzy (as opposed to fuzzy) houseslippers, a computer bag that would only work if I wore a suit (which won’t happen in this lifetime), and some ragged underwear to feed the lust of the trash bin.
And then I spotted it, there on the shelf behind my questionable purses: The sweet wooden box I inherited from Grandma forty years ago. I reached for it, thinking I’d stored inside the beautiful beaded gloves, circa 1945, given to me by a lady who lived to be one hundred years old.
Instead, a single sheet of torn and yellowed newsprint and beyond that, only emptiness. No other treasures to compete for my attention. I unfolded the sheet and gasped when I read the title, for I now remembered stashing it here, a younger me hoping a future me would still cherish the message. This article originally appeared in the Kansas City Star on February 27, 1986. Here are Erma’s words to me all that time ago, and yes, again today:
“Live Out Your Dream And Discard The Box”
When I slit open the envelope, a photocopy of a check for $5 fell out. The note with it was simple and direct: “I made this from my poem titled ‘Youth.’ Thanks for encouraging me.”
Five bucks! What can you buy with $5 these days? A pint of designer ice cream? One rose? A home-furnishings magazine? A pair of pantyhose? Four gallons of gas? If you’re Sarah, who lives in Louisiana, it can buy euphoria, with side orders of pride, hope, self-esteem and the discovery that someone was willing to put a price on your talent.
There are a lot of Sarahs out there—women who keep their dreams in a private little box hidden from the rest of the world. Occasionally they take the lid off and look at it just to know it’s still there and then get on with the business of living.
It takes a lot of courage to show your dream to others. They might laugh. They might not understand. Worse, they might take it out of the box and drop it, and where would you get another one? Dreams are fragile.
Some people, in desperation, give up on dreams. The clean house one day and decide: “This is ridiculous! I’m acting like a small child who refuses to give up a favorite toy.” So they toss out the contents of the box—the short story, the idea for a business, the college degree, the job they would love to have, the child they want, the trip they would like to take.
Then there are a few, such as Sarah, who are willing to take a risk. They take the dream out of the box, put it on and start living it. They lay bare their ego to discover whether they are equal to the dream.
Dreams have only one owner at a time. That’s why dreamers are lonely. No one can help them with the struggle. No one can ease the pain of failure. There are some things they have to do themselves.
Winning is not what they’re all about. What is special about them is that they are dreamers who put it on the line. They had the courage to admit that what they wanted was just beyond their reach, but if they wanted it badly enough, anything was possible.
They gambled. And for the risk, they were all rewarded with a legacy for others to follow. For some it was a trail that was blazed, an attitude that was changed, a place in history, a thought, a life that was touched.
That’s the difference between them and those who never take their dreams out of the box. They leave nothing.
Tears In A Bottle (#1653)
I’ve always treasured the Bible verse about God collecting our tears in a bottle, but it never meant as much to me as when I lost my first baby boy to miscarriage in 1978. That long ago but still remembered night, I held my son—perfectly formed at 14 weeks—in the palm of my hand and my husband and I baptized him with our tears.
In the days afterward, as I lay in bed recovering, I wrote down my thoughts about all the things God counts, including the drops that fall from our eyes. Doug set the poem to music, and he’s even sung it at a couple of funerals, but today, I’m offering the words to you, as a small comfort over your own lost loves.
God has counted each of these:
But most of all, I think He counts
There He’ll give us each a crown,
From The Young Mom I Once Was, To You (#1652)
Twenty-five years ago, I had three darling little kids. Scott at age seven, Carrie age four, and Kevin only eighteen months old. One day, as serendipity would have it, all of the kids dissolved into a crying and wailing fit at the same time—-gathered around and clinging to my legs. In that moment, I didn’t know if I would survive raising children to adulthood. I was so overwhelmed with the enormity of the task that I did the only thing I could. I wrote a poem. If you find yourself surrounded by little ones today, this is for you.
Places that I’m dreaming of
One tugs gently at my skirt
For once a King upon a throne
So may I bring them one by one
I Can’t Help Falling (#483)
“We need to sing,” said Garrison Keillor, and no one in the audience could argue with his logic.
It was less than one week after September 11, 2001, and Keillor was in Kansas City for a book signing and excerpt-reading event at the Uptown Theater. Many of the hundreds of people gathered to hear him had likely not ventured far from home in the past few days, but for Garrison Keillor, exceptions were made.
There was a sadness hovering over the crowd, though. A reticence. We wanted to laugh at his Wobegon tales, forget the present and reminisce over an innocent past, but we couldn’t remember how. There was even, I felt, a mild distrust of each other in that theater, as if we feared the stranger right next to us—yes, the mild-mannered Lutheran woman in the jean jumper—might be a likely threat.
“We need to sing,” he said, and led us to stand to our feet and hold our neighbors’ hands.
“Oh beautiful, for spacious skies,” he began, in a singing voice as rich and mellow and believable as the one he used to speak. One by one, members of the audience joined in, until the room was filled with a unity of heart and sound. There were no power-point slides to cue the more obscure verses, and as we moved past the second verse, soon only Keillor was left singing once again. He knew every word, and sang every verse strong and unencumbered.
It was the second song that surprised us, since it was neither patriotic nor religious.
It was romantic.
“Wise men say, only fools rush in.
Utter fools have rushed in, killing people we can’t help being in love with…
“Shall I stay? Would it be a sin?
But we’re still here. Not going anywhere. Can’t help it that we’re in this thing together…
“Take my hand. Take my whole life, too.
We—each of us, all of us—looked into strangers’ faces in that theater, scanned eyes for signs of love, and found them. And we couldn’t help ourselves.
Never mind what we were facing, we just couldn’t help falling in love.
What A Difference Ten Years Makes (#1651)
I’ve been blogging since way before most people had heard of blogging, and sometimes I like to look at what was happening in my life during this month one, five, or ten years ago.
Wow! I found a fallible entry from ten years ago this month that blew me away. Little did I know that literally within days of me writing this, my mother’s health would begin its steady and precipitous decline. Little did I know that Doug and I would not get to enjoy any time between raising our kids to adulthood and becoming caregivers for both our moms.
I had high hopes, though, didn’t I? And I still do, though the past decade bore absolutely no resemblance to what I’d foreseen. Here’s what I wrote back then:
“I’m starting to think that the Final Exam in Successful Marriage isn’t really about finances, or in-laws, or hormone replacement therapy, like they tell us. Shrinking retirement accounts and itty-bitty-bladder syndrome, we can get through. Male-patterned baldness won’t kill us, even if it’s mine. I’m starting to think the test is in the nest. Being members of the sandwich generation used to frighten me. You know, the period in a middle-aged couple’s life when their kids and their parents are all needy at the same time. But guess what happened while our independent moms neglected to need us? The kids moved out! The big stuff really has made us strong over the course of these past 25 years, but it’s the little stuff—-the little people—-who’ve made us fun. We’ve got a few years left with our youngest son, and we won’t be hurrying him from the nest before it’s time. But we won’t try to stop him when he’s fit to fly, either. In the meantime, we’ve become returning students of each other, Doug and I. We’re facing pop quizzes daily, examining the teacher’s text for insight into the coming chapters, and worrying just a little about the unavoidable essay questions. The semester may be just beginning, but we’re determined to pass the Empty Nest Test with flying colors.”
Have you ever imagined that a period of your life was going to go a certain direction, and then gotten blind-sided by the hard, cold facts? Or is it just me?
And tell me, am I the absolute worse prognosticator you’ve ever heard of, or what? :)