On the First Day of Summer Vacation

A week ago last Thursday, I awoke not to the sound of an alarm, though I am quite alarmed. I awoke to the sound of a person with intestinal issues in the bathroom down the hall, not a new sound, instead a very familiar sound that has persisted months too long unchecked. How does one insist that another adult sees a doctor when that adult is averse to seeing doctors? I suppose one could wait for another health issue to arise, like blindness.

And so that is how I finally insisted that my thirty-two-year-old son see a doctor, or at least let the doctor see him. After having chicken pox last summer and refusing medical attention then, my son has experienced hearing loss, chronic bowel issues, a fungal infection, and eyesight loss. Last Monday, I accompanied him to an appointment with a general practitioner, who referred us to five more doctors, including a psychiatrist. I was able to schedule appointments with the ophthalmologist and the dermatologist within the month of June, the gastroenterologist for July, the ENT for August, but for a psychiatrist, we are currently on a twelve-month waiting list. I literally laughed out loud on the phone when the scheduling assistant disclosed the timeline. This is just one of many problems in the US for seeking mental health help.

So, on the first day of my summer vacation, I headed to the island for fish tacos and fresh air, the sun and the sand and the sea. The waves rolled in and retreated, rolled in and retreated. And that is life. Situations come and go. We inhale and exhale. We live and die. Everything is a cycle. In four hours, I drove there and home, and I promised myself another trip tomorrow, four hours, there and home.   

On the Last Day of School

I had one last duty—lunch duty on the patio, probably my most favorite duty in twenty-one years of teaching. Outside, in the shade, with a breeze, I guarded the gate from student escapes prior to the state-mandated dismissal time. Even though the students had taken their last exams, they had to stick around for lunch by law, so I took my chicken sandwich outside and sat alone at a long table—to monitor the gate with my eyes and presence.

Students trickled through the glass doors from the building at 12:05. Two boys sat three tables over and behind me and played video games on hand-held devices. A girl sat one table over to my right and waited for her friends. We made eye contact. I didn’t know her, but I knew she would be my student one day, so I said, “You did it. How do you feel?”  

“It’s bittersweet,” she said.

I nodded my head in a knowing way. My students graduated the week before. Their finals and last classes the week before that. So, speaking of bittersweet, I had been doing a whole lot of nothing. Thumb twiddling. Some planning. Some online trainings. Not to mention those days I had COVID. School without students is not necessarily fun. I would rather teach any day, and now my students are off to do amazing things at amazing places. Next year will be another fresh start. New students. Some different literature. Another chance to do things better. Truth—year after year.

Friends joined the girl. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. They posed for selfies and cussed a bit and cracked each other up and hugged one another hard. Some ate lunch. No one tried to escape. They were happy for the upcoming summer and to be among friends. Aren’t we all?

This year has been wild, not as in hiking the Pacific Crest Trail wild, but as in surviving my first-year teaching seniors at a performing arts high school wild. Today it’s over for now, my last day of year twenty-one, reading a book and taking selfies, a bittersweet but happy start to summer.

The Unfortunate Tale of Pico the Peacock

I didn’t really know him.

“The peacock does most of his serious strutting in the spring and summer when he has a full tail to do it with. Usually he begins shortly after breakfast, struts for several hours, desists in the heat of the day, and begins again in the late afternoon.”

Flannery O’Connor, “The King of the Birds”

I spotted Pico back in March. He was one magnificent bird dressed in emerald green and royal blue, turquoise and purple. All alone in the world.

I knew nothing about him, but I wanted to. Was he a pet? Did he escape? Did he have a name? I’ll never know. Months before that first encounter, my friend and neighbor Stan had mentioned peacocks in the neighborhood. Then sure enough, I spotted him outside my bedroom window, scrambled for my shoes, and grabbed my phone for documentation.

Pico, March 12, 2022, 8:26 AM

Later at school, I told my students about our neighborhood peacock. They said Houston was known for peacock populations. Who knew? I Googled their claim, and it’s true. This one seemed to be a loner. I spotted him a second time. And a third. And a fourth. I snapped more photos, shot some videos, and admired him from afar. I was smitten. Only once did he speak. Was it a cry? I backed away.  

Pico, March 23, 2022, 6:23 PM
Pico, March 26, 2022, 8:43 AM
Pico, March 27, 2022, 8:30 AM

“At night these calls take on a minor key and the air for miles around is charged with them.”

Flannery O’Connor, “The King of the Birds”

Once you hear a peacock’s voice, you’ll recognize it whether you see him or not. But the calls stopped.

He was gorgeous. No reason to die.

Stan told my husband that someone ran the peacock down in cold blood. Vehicular homicide. I don’t know how Stan knew. I want to believe it’s not true. How could anyone be so cruel? So sadistic? I’ll never know.

My heart reeled at the news. He deserved better. At least, a name. So, I named him Pico. In my mind, he flew in from Puerto Rico. RIP, you handsome King of the Birds.

Embrace Your Squeak

Random weekday.
School.
7:30 am.

To my classroom
from the elevator
in an otherwise
quiet corridor,
my most
comfy
shoes
squeak.

Squeak. Squeak.
Squeak. Squeak.
Each
irksome
footfall
makes me feel
meek.

How many times
have I met
a student's eyes?
Felt compelled
to apologize?

Something like:
“Good morning.
(insert name),
I’m wearing
my squeaky shoes
today.”

Finally, one,
her name is Emma,
said, “Mrs. B.,
that was me
yesterday.
Just embrace it.”

My smile
spread wide
from cheek
to cheek.

And when
my most
comfy
shoes
inevitably
squeak,
I stand
a little taller,
embrace it,
and squeak on
and on and on...

Embracing!

Happy Birthday, Grandma!

Not long ago I caught up with my cousin Patti by phone, an overdue catch-up. We talked for over an hour, and somewhere in the conversation I said, “I know I’m sensitive.” I’m not even sure why I said it or what we were talking about.

A day or two later, she texted me. “Love talking to you. Grandma felt that she was too sensitive. Think about that. She was loved unconditionally by all because she allowed herself to be sensitive, she understood. Be kind to you. Love you, Dear Crystal.”

And so I have been thinking about that. I didn’t realize this about my grandma. In my own fifty plus years, I have come to see my sensitivity as a strength, even if it’s sometimes painful.

April 30 is Grandma’s birthday. She would’ve been 103. Hard to believe she’s been gone for thirty years and funny how I feel closer to her now than ever before. When I talk to my cousins, I feel her presence, like glue, holding her family together. Of her five children, only one remains. I’m quite sure Grandma prayed for her grandchildren to carry on the importance of family—and loving each other unconditionally.  

I grew up in small town Oklahoma, a five-hour drive from where my parents grew up and my grandparents remained. Our visits were limited to weekends mostly. My family would spend Friday night with Granny and Gramps and part of Saturday, then Saturday night with Grandma and Grandpa. On Sunday after church, my grandparents’ house would fill with my aunts and uncles and cousins and buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Then Mom and Dad, my sister and brother would hop back in the car and drive the five hours home. I didn’t have much one-on-one time with my grandma, not like my cousins who lived nearby, and so I treasure my connections with those who really knew her. And the words Grandma left behind. Golden, priceless, handwritten words about being raised by her grandmother. And these about her birthday:

“There is no doubt that Grandma spoiled her “stubborn-as-a-mule” granddaughter. She would make a party of my birthday—a three-layer cake on my third birthday, four-layer cake on the fourth, five-layer cake on my fifth and that was the year Grandpa died. We would go, with the birthday cake, egg salad sandwiches with fresh lettuce out of the garden, and find the picnic spot, a natural rock table with rock chairs set just right where the best party I ever attended would be. We had such good times.”

Catherine Savage

My grandmother never had a mean thing to say. Her laugh twinkled like the brightest stars. She was the epitome of good. And today I believe she’s celebrating on high with her grandma, my grandpa and my mom, Aunt Carol, Uncle Jimmy, Uncle Joed, my much too young cousin Logan, a cake stacked 103 layers tall, and the best party ever. Love You, all of you, and Happy Birthday, Grandma!

A classy lady, my grandmother.

Free Writing Conference

I’m not a naturally gifted writer. I like words. I’m an English teacher, so my grammar is decent. But artistry? Can that be taught?

The year was 2013. I landed an opportunity to launch Creative Writing as an elective at my high school. I adopted a philosophy. Writers must be readers. And. Writers must write. Every. Day. I felt like a hypocrite. So, I practiced. I read more. I wrote more. I studied good writing. I learned some tricks. I attended the occasional writing workshop and conference. I learned more tricks.

Speaking of writing conferences, the year was 2019. I opened an e-mail at school for a local writing conference at Houston Baptist University, just down the street from my house. They were offering continuing education credits for teachers on my favorite topic—writing. So, I signed up. There I learned about a new Creative Writing MFA program. Intrigued, I applied. In the year 2020, I found myself back in school. This time as a student.

Flash forward, post-graduation to the year 2022. I opened a text message from one of my professors. “Would you want to do a talk at this year’s writing conference? On Zoom?”

Would I?

That’s how I landed an opportunity to teach at the 2022 HBU Virtual Writers Conference. My session centers on “Modeling the Masters” subtitled “Finding Your Voice.” The conference is free and seriously not too good to be true. April 30. And, besides me, the lineup of guest speakers is impressive. For more information, click here. May I suggest a session with Bret Lott, author of Oprah’s Book Club pick Jewel? I’ve taken classes with him, and the guy can teach writing.

I would love to see you there.

Writing Better

I sat down at my computer to write with nothing particular on my mind. Just an exercise in making the words appear. There was an open Word document, my unpublished memoir titled Help in the Time of Schizophrenia, 248-pages needing revision and a publishing house. Honestly, I’m not sure how to go about that—the publishing. I know about developmental editors. I have a couple of contacts. Have I reached out? No. Publication remains a mystery. Maybe I’ll crack the code on my upcoming summer vacation.

When I finished my MFA last spring, one of my professors advised me to put my manuscript in a drawer and step away and read more and write more. That’s exactly what I’ve done until now. So instead of writing something meaningless today, I sat and reread and tweaked my words for what seems like the millionth time. I stopped on page twelve. 236 pages to go.

But, after twelve pages and a year, I felt better, much better. Through this break, I’m finding my authentic voice. I’m asking myself, “Would I say that?” I’m tightening the language. I’m adding details.

As for blogging, it’s more about writing practice—making myself do it vs. perfection. As for writing better, it’s more about the revision—root word vision—prefix again. Now I’m literally seeing the words and the story in a new light, letting go of what I once thought grand, finding holes in my storytelling. And maybe, just maybe, I’m inching my way to the goal.

The Unspoken Promise vs. The Spoken One

Back in January, as other people made resolutions, I told myself I would write one blog post per week, an unspoken promise of sorts. I never told anyone until now or recorded that thought anywhere. It was just one of the many conversations I have with myself.

Instead, I issued myself a proclamation in a single word—GRACE. Sometimes life comes at you in heavy ways. Not everything must be written or even discussed. Some problems take time. The intensity of other difficulties interferes with the inevitable daily good. And while I’ve shed some recent tears, I remind myself that flowers don’t bloom every day. I remind myself of the ancient wisdom: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). Good, right?

Somehow, I’ve pulled off that weekly post. Sometimes, it’s about sitting at your computer and just doing it. Sometimes, it’s about having enough GRACE for yourself to move forward differently than planned.

Chagall’s The Ukrainian Family, circa WWII, Prayers for Ukraine and Peace.