Writing Challenge: The Story of John


John had been here before, a long time ago. I watch as his eyes follow the train tracks into a copse of trees. His chocolate brown pupils have turned milky with age and look almost purple against the bloodshot whites.

“That was almost sixty years ago,” he says dreamily.

Then he straightens his shoulders, hitches up his belted black dress pants shiny with wear, and looks directly at me. “That’s when God put his hand on me and called me back,” he says with a vigorous nod.

John knows the moment he left God. He was fourteen, living in a small town in North Carolina not far from where his family had been enslaved a few generations before. One Sunday after church, John opined to his mama that he didn’t think he believed in the God that Granny’s pastor talked about, “the one who sends people to Hell and tells us we are despicable creatures. No sir, I didn’t know that God.”

“Mama whipped me good that time,” he said. But he was used to it. His mother often disappeared, going on drinking binges and leaving him alone for days at a time, only to beat him when she returned.

A few days later, still sore from the thrashing, John stepped out of a movie theater into the bright afternoon sunlight. His guilt-ridden mama had treated him to the show. “All the white folks were on the ground floor and all us blacks were up above. I decided it should not be like that. Things were wrong. That’s when I decided to go where the train goes.”

Going where the train goes...

Going where the train goes…

That’s also when John told his first lie. He asked a man outside the theater to give him a lift to the depot, and told him he had permission from his mother.

Then John hopped a train.

“Just like that,” he said. “My mama kept disappearing, so I disappeared.”

Enslavement and Liberation

By the time I noticed we were walking, we were some distance down the tracks. John was striding from tie to tie as if his feet had rediscovered an old familiar pathway, like fingers recalling a musical instrument after a lifetime away. I trailed behind.

“I had to lie again when I got to Raleigh,” John said over his shoulder. “I told the man at the depot I was sixteen and that my parents had died.” The man helped John find a job on one condition: that he go back to school. “Yes sir, God had his hand on me all along.” John shakes his head in wonder.

He stayed in school and worked afternoons at a hot dog stand. On Sundays, he would make good money selling wine and whiskey from behind his stand. “Soon enough I couldn’t do without the stuff; I was an alcoholic just like Mama.”

John slows his gait and looks up and down the tracks and over at the copse of trees. “Right about here,” he says, stopping,”right here.”

“One night I was sitting by the tracks — here — with another wino, wondering where we were going to find the money for more booze. All of a sudden, I see he’s crying. I asked him, ‘What’s the matter, Pokey? Don’t worry, we’ll find a way to get more wine before we go to sleep.’

‘It’s not that,’ Pokey answered. ‘It’s you I’m worried about — you’re not going to make it.'”

John is silent for a while, as if reliving that conversation.

“That was my low point, yes it was,” he says finally. He toes the dust with his black lace-up shoe. “I thought about it all night. After that I went to an AA meeting and had a miracle. God took away my desire for alcohol. It’s more than drinking, it’s liberation . . . that’s where I found the true God.”

Pokey went to a few meetings with John, but he’s the one who didn’t make it. “He died of alcoholism in his forties,” John says, “but he saved my life.”

* * * * * *

Based on a true story (John’s name has been changed) and in response to the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge, which this week offered a selection of photographs and introductory lines to kick off a story. I chose the train tracks and a variation of “I had been here before, a long time ago.” Photo credit: Cheri Lucas Rowlands/The Daily Post.


Why Not Get Your Hopes Up?


“Don’t get your hopes up.” The inner voice pounced immediately, barely a heartbeat after my actual voice had said, “Wow, this could work out.”

Negativity is not my natural inclination, yet this mind-battle of the voices has been waging as long as I can remember. I wasn’t conscious of it for most of my life, but now I recognize it, and I can call it out and say, “Hey, wait a minute, voice — who are you? And WHY shouldn’t I get my hopes up?”

The answer comes easily. It’s Mom’s voice, and the reason I shouldn’t get my hopes up is that I “might be disappointed.” Mom’s cautionary remark and its corollary “Don’t get your heart set on it” were meant to protect me, but really — what an awful mindset to convey to a kid!

Give up, Kiddo.

Give up, Kiddo.

Sins of the Past Visited Upon the Present

How disappointing my mother’s life must have been to cause her to consistently quell passion in herself and her children. She gave up her dream of being a soprano (a singer, not a mobster) and instead married an alcoholic and struggled emotionally and financially for the rest of her life. I’m not saying she was miserable, she wasn’t. Just disappointed.

Once I asked her why she didn’t leave Daddy when the drinking got bad, and she said how much she loved him and then added, “Where would I have gone? I had no skills, I hadn’t worked since World War II, and I had you three children.”

Good answer.

I suspect that her mother — my grandmother — had a similar experience in her marriage, and on top of that, she lost her first child as a toddler. Then her husband died in a horrific fire at sea when her four kids were teenagers. So I imagine that she also frequently advised her children not to get their hopes up. Mom inherited the inner voice, just as I did.

My mother always said I was much braver than she was, going out into the world and going after the education and the career I wanted. But I wasn’t really. I was just as fearful as she was.

I believe in God, though, and Mom didn’t. I believe in some sort of divine plan, and I sense that I’m a part of it. That makes a huge difference to how you feel when you’re stepping out into the fog of the unknown.

winter 2012-13 continued 009

Nothing Good Ever Happens to Me

Having hope seems like a risky thing. It’s easier to expect the worst. Then you’re not disappointed. Also, if you have no hope, you don’t have to take responsibility for your life. You don’t have to try: you are a victim. See? Easy.

But is it really easier?

The belief that underlies “not getting your hopes up” is that nothing good is going to happen. There’s probably an element of “I’m not worthy, not good enough” involved, and perhaps a touch of depression or acedia. That certainly runs in my family.

So is it true that nothing good ever happens in life? Of course not. It usually comes down to our attitudes. I’ve heard it said that difference between an ordeal and an adventure is your attitude. Trite, but often true.

Over time, doesn’t the hopeless approach — the fatalistic attitude, the worry and dread, the boredom of not taking risks — wear you down as much as a whole boatload of disappointments might?

You Have to Dive In to Catch a Good Wave

Why not run into the ocean and try to catch the Big Wave? Sure, you might get knocked down and get a pile of sand in your bathing suit — but you might get an exihilirating ride! Either way, you are fully participating in life.

Jump in!

Jump in!

Jesus said that he came so that we could have life, and have it to the full. I believe that. We’re not meant to shrink from our passions. The Bible says that if we align ourselves with God’s plan, God will give us the desires of our hearts. I try to believe that, too.

Part of me knows that my  dreams and passions come from God — they are unique gifts that She means for me to share with others. When I view challenges and transitions as part of God’s plan for me to use and expand those gifts, my struggles often result in “immeasurably more than all I could ask or imagine,” as the Bible describes it. 

And yet I still have trouble trusting that God wants the best for me. It’s these dang voices.

No Regrets

When I get to the end of my life, I don’t think I’m going to regret the things at which I didn’t excel, or even those things that I totally messed up. I think I will regret the things I didn’t pursue, the times when fear conquered hope.

They say that courage is just fear that has said its prayers. So, God, please help me out here, OK? You deal with the hopeless voices of my mother and my grandmother. You can have them; I don’t need them anymore. I’m ready to get my hopes up and catch a good ride.

Speaking of good rides, happy two-year anniversary to my little blog!! Thanks for coming along for the ride.

The Time I Stole Swisher Sweets and Didn’t Get Shot

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I’ve been thinking about the time I stole a package of Swisher Sweet cigarillos. Despite the encouragement of my friends who liked to stick it to “the system” as often as possible, I did not shoplift much as a kid — just a yo-yo, a lipstick, and the Swisher Sweets. That’s why I remember the event clearly.


It was a small package, maybe four or five cigarillos, and I stole them from Packett’s Pharmacy in Chevy Chase, Maryland. I was with Frank D., who stole a smoking pipe and a Mars Bar.

It was Autumn, and the leaves rustled under our feet as we walked up the street with our loot to hang out on the benches outside the public library. Every Friday night, a dozen or more long-haired high school kids would congregate there to act cool. Our parents told themselves that we were studying. Sometimes we were, mostly we weren’t. Nobody questioned us or told us to move along. Incidentally, we were all white.

I was fifteen. I did not get caught stealing from Packett’s. There were no security cameras back in those days.

Odds are good that there was marijuana in my blood — there often was back then. The odds were also good that I was not going to be shot for stealing those Swisher Sweets, even if I had gotten caught, walked down the middle of the street, and been aggressive with “the pigs,” as we respectfully called officers of the law in the early seventies.

What Matters

I’m not saying that the cop who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 9th did so because he thought Michael had stolen Swisher Sweets. I’m not wading into that controversy — it doesn’t matter from where I stand, except that I think the police ought to be honest about it.

I’m not saying Michael was smoking pot, either. That doesn’t matter to me. Yes, it matters that “anonymous officials” are flinging around “facts” about the case and the autopsy in an unprofessional manner, which — surprise! — makes some people suspect an intentional smear campaign against Michael Brown.

But in the end what does matter, and matters very much, is that there’s another African American boy dead in our streets, shot by bullets from a police officer’s gun. I suppose that somebody somewhere might think that stealing cigarillos and smoking pot is punishable by gunshots to the head, but I don’t know them.

Maybe Michael did get aggressive, maybe he didn’t. No doubt both he and the officer were scared out of their wits. Who knows what happened on that street?

Nobody’s perfect, not cops, not teenagers. Everybody makes mistakes. I’ve made a lot worse ones than stealing Swisher Sweets.

But people who make the mistake of pulling a trigger six times and shooting a kid dead should not be police officers.

I’m not judge and jury, but perhaps if at least some of these trigger happy cops went to jail, our streets would be safer for everyone.

The Work of Rest


My neighbor stood at my back door in his usual state: bare torso sweaty, blue jeans dirty, and straw hat terminally tattered. Despite his appearance, a sweet, fresh aroma entered with him when I opened the screen door, as if he had just been rolling around in his herb garden.

Van held out a carton of eggs and a paper bag spilling over with yellow squash, cucumbers, parsley, and basil. Before I could thank him, he proudly announced what he knew would be an even more welcome gift. “I just bought a brush hog!” he said with a grin.

“Oh my gosh!” I squealed. I knew he was looking for an effusive response, but I was also sincerely  thrilled because my hay fields are going to be forest very soon if I can’t find someone to mow them.

“I’m going to start on my fields tomorrow, and then we can see about yours,” he said. “And you gotta come down and see the solar shower I just rigged up from the rain barrels. Don’t worry, it has a curtain.”


The Industrious Nature

Like a lot of folks up here in New Hampshire, my neighbor Van rarely sits still. He’s up before his rooster crows, feeding chickens, weeding the garden, or transplanting bee balm and lilies around his Rest Easy Pet Cemetery down the lane from my place. He hammers a lot, building fences and sheds and such. I think this industrious nature may be in the blood — many generations of chopping mountains of wood to fend off the severe winters and farming dawn to dusk during the short growing season.

It’s not that citizens of the Granite State are frenetic like the people in D.C. where I live most of the year. They know how to relax. People in rural New Hampshire work hard five or six days a week, but they don’t work much past five o’clock. On the weekends they go to ice cream socials and sidewalk sales, and they actually stroll in the park (without phones glued to their heads). The bars and businesses in town close early, and then everyone goes to bed at nine or nine-thirty so they can be up at dawn.

So it was with a tone of confession that I answered Van’s query of what I’d been up to: “I’ve really done nothing since I’ve been here.” I smiled apologetically.

“Well, isn’t nothing what you’re supposed to be doing?” I love Van.

“Well, I better get a move on; got to get the chickens in,” he said as he headed for the door.

Re-Imagining Work

What exactly am I supposed to be doing? Is this it? Then why do I feel guilty and ashamed? This was my plan for the summer: a month of cleaning out my family’s house in D.C., then a month resting and writing up here — back and forth each month and catching the fall colors both places.

Yet somehow I feel I should be “working.” I haven’t even been writing much, except for some bad poetry I wrote while sitting by the beaver pond.

Perhaps what I’m doing can be re-imagined as work?

Inspiration for some bad poetry

Inspiration for some bad poetry

The Writer at Work

I feel slovenly when I spend an afternoon reading fiction, but they say that writers should read incessantly — it is part of our work. I’ve finished almost three books in the short time I’ve been here — Keri Hulme’s The Bone People; Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings (awesome); and an Agatha Christie mystery, Cards on the Table.

I say I’ve hardly written, but I’ve actually filled more than twenty-five pages in my journal and covered ten pages of a spiral notebook with random bits of blogs, essays, and poems.

Spiritual Work

Much of my writing has also been spiritual work. I came up here with a specific goal for myself: to examine and pray about some of the character flaws I’d like to have God remove — anxiety, contempt, a need for recognition, and envy. (The latter is an insidious little bugger — I’ve only recently realized I have it!) If you’re interested in my navel gazing about some of these flaws, scroll down to my last post.

I am making an effort to get back to my favorite form of meditation, Centering Prayer, which is seriously hard work because it entails trying to surrender everything in your brain to God, becoming nothing but a vessel for love.

My walks in the woods can be considered spiritual work since most of my wandering is spent in reflection, and they are also a workout for my body. So is my occasional thrashing around on the floor in front of a Rodney Yee yoga video.

A Working Chef

Cooking! Surely that counts as work, although it’s fun and something I usually take significant time for only when I’m on vacation. Summer is abundant here, and I never miss the farmer’s market.

Summer Abundance

Summer Abundance

I’ve made gazpacho, fresh corn salad, potato and lentil stew, cabbage and pasta with garlic, tomatoes stuffed with eggplant curry (dreadful), and nearly daily caprese salads with perfect local tomatoes and basil from my backyard.

Does building up the compost pile count as work?

Shucking corn is hard work!

Shucking corn is hard work!

Working Dreams

While we’re pushing the boundaries here, how about dreaming? I’ve heard of “dream work.” I decided to stop setting the alarm because I’ve been waking up anxious, something that happened after my mother passed away and which returned after my brother’s death. I don’t think I understood the psychic cost of keeping the phone by my bed every night for seven years in case my mother or my brother had a crisis or was dying. No wonder I wake up anxious!

After I nixed the alarm, I slept eleven hours several nights straight and had intense and involved dreams of my mother and my brother. The subconscious at work . . .

What I’m Supposed to Be Doing

The work of rest. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing.

Partners in my work - Mayasika and Eliza Bean

Partners in my work — Mayasika and Eliza Bean

Rest is essential to health and creativity.

After my mother died, I went on a retreat about calling and vocation — I thought I had to get busy since my caregiving role had ended. (Little did I know I would become my brother’s caregiver for the next six years.) On that retreat, I learned that restful healing is a calling in itself. I just forget sometimes.

I will not talk about the work of grieving, that goes without saying. It is what I do these days. Except to say that part of grief work is learning to have fun again. Saturday I went to a party and met a bunch of interesting folks and laughed a lot. On the way home, I stopped at the fairgrounds and watched the town’s end-of-summer fireworks.

I am where I’m supposed to be.



Contempt, Compassion, and Confession


I met a girl this week, a charming spirit at the dawn of womanhood.


She was self-possessed for her thirteen years, bubbling over with enthusiasm, enthusiasm for the past — my family took a train up Mount Washington, and it was the coolest; the present — this Cookies and Cream ice cream is the best; and the future — I can’t decide whether to be a photographer or a writer or a meteorologist; I can’t wait to get to high school!

I met Emma in New Hampshire, at an ice cream social at the tiny library in the tiny town where I come to write and escape my life in D.C.

At the same event was a woman exuding an energy just as big and bold as Emma’s, but with an entirely different and all-too-familiar feel. We’ll call her Darlene.

Meet Darlene — A Very Important Woman

Emma’s grandmother had agreed to move the social’s starting time back thirty minutes so that Darlene could spend an hour of her *terribly* busy day with us. Nevertheless, Darlene arrived thirty minutes late, breathless and clearly annoyed that we had started eating our rapidly melting ice cream before her entrance.

Not five minutes later, her smartphone began clanging some tinny jazz number, letting us all know that she had to leave in thirty minutes to get to her job at a chain store where she had just been promoted and now had to carry the keys. Darlene was apparently heavily burdened by this responsibility (“I carry these at all times”), and she showed us said keys — three of them — chained to her belt. “Did you know that our sister store doesn’t even have a loading dock? They only have TWO keys!”

“Oh wow,” said Emma’s grandmother, which might have meant any number of things or nothing at all. I was also thinking oh wow, wondering if I could survive thirty minutes with Darlene.

It seemed I had little choice. Darlene left no opening for a graceful exit, talking non-stop, never even pausing to introduce herself or to ask anyone their names. She had really just come, it was clear, to announce that she had won the friendly library competition and to pick up her trophy.

Her other job, for which she also presumably carried keys, is at the neighboring town’s library. Her readers had devoured 300 pounds of books in the past six weeks, putting to shame our little town’s 275 pounds of summer reading. Darlene had plastered signs all over her library, reminding patrons that they had lost the competition last year and needed their trophy back.

Darlene collected her trophy, a plastic ice cream sundae with a cherry on top, and made her way to the door, her phone jangling another reminder of her importance.

Emma shrugged and smiled after the door closed, and we went back to our conversation as if Darlene had never blown through. “I’m reading A Wrinkle in Time, what books do you like?”

Abundance Versus Scarcity

What’s the difference between Emma and Darlene?  Both are high-energy and highly loquacious, both are focused on themselves and their experiences — so why did I find Emma compelling and Darlene off-putting?

Being around Darlene made me feel drained and vaguely sad. There seemed to be a desperation about her, a manic grasping energy trying to fill some dreadful emptiness, trying to find meaning and importance.

Our shadow selves

Our colorless, shadow selves

Whereas Emma’s aura was expansive, not draining. She was bubbling over from a place of abundance, not sucking in from a place of scarcity. Emma’s kind of energy welcomes you in, wants to know who you are and what you think, wants to celebrate with you because isn’t life so amazing??

Abundance -- the real thing!

Abundance — the real thing!

With Emma, there’s more than enough to go around. With Darlene, her ascent up the ladder of life somehow necessitates that others stay on lower rungs. I’m not kidding, she paid no attention to anyone — not so much as a glance — except to make sure that Emma’s grandmother fully understood that she had *lost* the plastic sundae. We were simply her audience, there to marvel at her keys. Three of them, mind you.

An Over-Abundance of Ego

I guess I’m over-reacting. I’m not sure why Darlene bugged me so much. Certainly in juxtaposition to Emma, her manner was doubly annoying. Or maybe it’s because Darlene’s persona is all-too-familiar to someone who worked on Capitol Hill for several decades. D.C. seems to attract the egotistical sort who come to the marble halls of power to prove their importance to themselves and the world. “I get the trophy, I get the trophy!” shout 535 members of congress and their thousands of young staffers.

Turning Contempt to Compassion

I hate to admit it, but I think the real reason I can’t stop thinking about Darlene is because she personifies a part of myself that I have worked hard to eradicate. A need to prove myself, a need for recognition and esteem.

They say that the things that drive you nuts about another person are the things you find distasteful in yourself.

I will confess: all during Darlene’s deluge, I wanted to casually convey to her, as if it was no big deal, that I had been a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., that I had met presidents, that I had been on TV. That my set of keys was really much bigger than hers.

I patted that childish part of myself on the head and hushed her up. I would have felt really silly — mortified, in fact — had I said any of that. I like to think I’ve outgrown the need to feel as if I’m higher up the ladder. Still, part of me wanted to squash her; but what I really wanted to squash was that trait in myself.

I recognize this desire for esteem as just my needy inner child reaching for the love and acceptance my imperfect parents weren’t able to provide. And I hope that I can see Darlene that way, too; instead of feeling contempt for her, I want to learn compassion.

Because contempt is really just self-hatred turned outward.

So here’s a prayer, because I’m unable to do this personal transformation stuff on my own: God, please help us all to love and forgive ourselves and each other well, to interact from a place of abundance, and to be more like Emma — wide open to the world and to your boundless spirit of love.

Escape from the Past

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Tomorrow I head north again, up to my writing retreat in New Hampshire. In June, the place was overrun with house painters, carpenters, and roofers. Not so this trip — just four weeks of solitude and freedom with my two felines.

Expect a change in tone here. At least that’s what I’m hoping for: a departure from the darkness, anger, and cycling grief.

It’s been a long and difficult July as I began the task of cleaning out my deceased brother’s house, which is also the house I grew up in. My personal upheaval has been exacerbated by the evil and violence going on in the world. (See recent rant at God.)

I knew cleaning out the house that we’ve owned since 1958 would be not be easy, so I hired someone to do the bulk of it. I thought it would be a relatively simple matter to pack up what I want and leave the rest for the folks who have no emotional involvement. I thought I’d get used to it, and it would become mindless sorting: keep, trash, give away, auction.

Not so much. Every box, cabinet, and drawer contains treasure beyond measure. So many memories, so much life lived!

Well, you can't just throw away Davy Crockett!

Well, you can’t just throw away Davy Crockett!

You don't expect me to toss my very first 45, do you??

You don’t expect me to toss my very first 45, do you??



Sadly, there have been enough wars in my lifetime to fill a whole box with protest paraphernalia.

Sadly, there have been enough wars in my lifetime to fill a whole box with protest paraphernalia.

Drama in the Basement

I started in the basement, going through boxes of old toys and books while seated on the grey-painted stairs that used to be my stage coach as I rode into dusty western towns and was greeted by that handsome cowboy who bore a striking resemblance to my brother.

“Howdy Miss,” Biff would say, his spurs clinking as he swaggered towards me and tipped his cowboy hat. “You must be Brenda Starr, that new reporter.” I’d giggle and gather my skirts around my ankles as he extended his leather-fringed arm to help me down off the stairs. “I’m Texas John Slaughter,” he’d say. I’d giggle again. That’s pretty much all I did. You have to remember, I was about five or six to his eleven or twelve.

After I had sifted through six boxes of my personal souvenirs — girl scout paraphernalia, notes from fifth-grade boyfriends, matchbooks from long-defunct bars, school band pictures and report cards — I  picked my way down narrow aisles of teetering boxes of books to the other side of the basement to look for my dad’s workbench that I thought I might want to keep.

Fifty-something years ago, that workbench served as my throne where I sat draped in moth-eaten blankets and played Queen Anne to my brother’s three musketeers. Throwing one blanket or another over his shoulders and switching swords, he would quickly morph from the dashing D’Artagnan discussing palace intrigue, to the humble Porthos begging a few coins to fund his exploits, to Aramis thrashing about with his fencing sword and repeatedly stabbing himself, which made me — giggle.

Survival Tactics

Behind the workbench on some rickety pine shelves, I found a few rusty cans of food (Spam, believe it or not, and corned beef hash) that my mother used to keep in the event of nuclear attack.

nuke fallout

Like many American families, we stockpiled food and water in the ridiculous belief that we could survive a nuclear attack. We used to say that if we had enough warning, maybe we could jump into the car and head north to the house in New Hampshire.

It may not have been a nuclear attack, but there’s still plenty of fall-out from Biff’s death, and I’m grateful to have a safe shelter up north where I can hide out for a month before tackling the rest of that house and its attendant memories. 

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