On Sisters, Words, and Writing

Last Friday, my big sister flew to see me. From the airport, we drove thirty-eight miles to the beach, checked into a historic hotel, exchanged our street clothes for swimsuits, dashed out to the pool, and lingered, cool beverages in hand. Freedom persisted. Our feet hit the sand. The tides rolled in with the ocean breeze. Seashells appeared to be found. Fish tacos beckoned, and we answered the call. It was a weekend of sisterhood, a salve for my soul, a respite by the sea, one last hoorah before the inevitable back-to-school.

As I unloaded my deepest, darkest secrets, I heard my speech sprinkled with words like—actually, honestly, literally, ironically, hopefully…. When had I picked up this nasty adverb habit? An overuse of basically unnecessary words? (I meant to do that). When I say honestly, does that mean I’m not being honest the rest of the time? And if something is literally happening, isn’t it happening either way? And who knows if whatever seemed to me ironic was actually ironic? Even my computer (as I typed the last sentence) says: More concise language would be clearer for your reader.

Even at the beach, Steven King’s words echoed across time and place:

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Stephen King

By the way, King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is a worthwhile read. Apparently, it didn’t break me of my verbal adverb compulsion. But you know what they say—the first step is admitting you have a problem. Obviously, I have teaching on my mind.

A summer ago in my last Creative Writing class, my professor said words that resonate still. I wrote them down:

“Stories are made from words. Your story is only as good as you have command of the language.”

Dr. James Boyleston

I love words, and I love the beach. Where better place to study? These words I found online:

“When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are far apart.”

Mark Twain

“Poetry is all nouns and verbs.”

Marianne Moore

Now, I can’t read without seeing how the author uses adjectives. I hope my students will see the same. This year when we read poetry in class, we’ll test Marianne Moore’s theory about the nouns and verbs. Mark Twain, I see your adverb, and I think anything in moderation works fine.

These words I found in a book about writing called, Sin and Syntax:

“A dependence on is and its family screams ‘rough draft.'”

Constance Hale

The key word is dependence. My past students have counted be verbs “am, is, are, was, were, be, been being” in their writing and reduced the number through revisions. Constance Hale suggests an 8:1 ratio of action verbs to be verbs. I think I’ll have my students test this idea with the stories we read.

And these words I found in my all-time favorite book about writing, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer:

With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.

Francine Prose

The word-studying English teacher in me notices a few adverbs above, but also the parallelism of the adverb/adjective pairs: “seemingly obvious” and “oddly underappreciated.” I also see a number of those “be” verbs, “is” and its family, and that’s okay. Sometimes an “is” makes our clearest points. Other times our writing advances with action.

And these words I found in a comment on my blog:

We wouldn’t teach piano without having the student listen to Chopin or teach painting without looking at great art. Too often, English teachers give assignments without enough models of the form first.

Evelyn Krieger

I’m betting Evelyn Krieger has read Francine Prose, but as I head back to school, I appreciate her reminder.

My big sister headed home Sunday. Goodbyes are hard. I can’t help thinking my mother conspired from on high to make the trip possible and see her girls together, beachside.

As the days of summer dwindle, part of me is grateful for a new school year beginning, and part of me is sad for the vacation ending. Such is life. For everything there is a season. The waves come and go, the moments come and go, the feelings come and go. Everything is temporary.

No Feeling Is Final

June has been my least fruitful writing month in years. With bigger priorities, I didn’t care to write about bleh and couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for fluff.

Then, a week ago, I attended an online workshop led by my former student Monique Mitchell.

Monique was my student in sophomore English back in 2007. I’m not sure I realized at the time that she had moved from California to Texas to live with her aunt, but I remember her as a gifted writer. We just connected and stayed connected. I never suspected she almost failed her freshman year.  

Three years ago, Monique was living in LA, working for a literary organization, freelancing, and teaching writing workshops. She invited me to lunch at the airport Marriott in Houston, where she was guest speaking at a conference. In the hotel lobby, she oozed good vibes and embraced me with love. In the hotel restaurant, she told me how a job opportunity had presented itself in Ghana. She planned on moving soon. We spoke about our wildest dreams, the power of words, and self-limiting beliefs.

As we parted ways that day, she said, “The world needs your voice,” and she told me she loved me. I said it back. Speaking of powerful words and wildest dreams, I suddenly found myself pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing.  

While scrolling Instagram not long ago, I saw that Monique has returned to LA. She had created an online workshop called “Into Existence,” a beginner’s course to speaking your dream life into being. Needing inspiration for my dream life, I signed up.

Within the first six minutes of the course, Monique said so much that resonated. I wrote down these words:

“Life is a reflection of my beliefs. It’s a reflection of my language, and it’s a reflection of my choices.”

Monique Mitchell

This idea isn’t new to me. My dad always said, “Crystal, you can choose your attitude.” And sometime along the way I discovered Dr. Wayne Dyer’s teaching.

For years, I’ve said, “You can choose hope or choose despair, and who would choose despair?” Then that time after a hurricane flooded my home, I settled on a formula for life:

Faith + Gratitude = Peace + Hope.

But for the last year or so, after watching several of my loved ones suffer, I’ve felt justified in my anger toward God. Yes, things have gone my way, but I had chosen to wallow in worry and fear and anger and sadness. At the end of the workshop, I realized the need to uproot my toxic thoughts and plant some healthy ones—like a renewed faith and gratitude and peace and hope.  

A week passed and so did my father-in-law. He was the best dad and grandpa, kind and generous, an amazing golfer and a gifted joke-teller. Tommy fought the good fight and finished the race. Cancer sucks, and of course, I’m sad, especially for my family. Still, I’m thankful he no longer suffers. That feeling in my heart, the one that catches in my throat, means I loved him. And love is life, life is love, if we’re lucky.

Anyway, God, I’m sorry about being so angry for so long. Please forgive me and help me with that. And thanks for welcoming Tommy home. ❤️ P. S. Thanks also for your words in Jeremiah 29:11. “‘I have plans to prosper you…plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” I’m open to receiving miracles beyond my wildest imagination.

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.

Olden Times

My grandmother had a gift, and she left it behind.

“Each generation asks Grandparents about Olden Times and I’m sure we all think—My Olden Times weren’t so long ago—but to them it has been ages. Mine were the twenties—roaring they were called—To me they were very quiet—learning years—the old songs, to play casino, dominoes, and solitaire. The common man just was beginning to have a car or a Tin Lizzie. Everyone took part in the driving. Once when I was asked, ‘Is there a car coming?’ I replied—’No only a Ford,’ which seemed to be a joke worth repeating. Short dresses seemed a scandal. I had not seen anything else. The first short hair cuts were being worn. I remember Grandmother saying, ‘How can those women stand those short sleeves in this weather?’ Fashion was stealing in on practicality.”

my Grandmother Catherine Savage
My Grandmother’s Words. Priceless.

My Olden Times were the seventies. Dad loved cars, still does. The one I remember most (before the Silver Anniversary Corvette) was his Volkswagen bug, green, I think. Mom had a series of Cadillacs, and the family would road trip in style. Dad at the wheel. My mother riding shotgun. Johnny Cash and Creedence Clearwater Revival on eight-track. Liz, Scott, and me in the backseat. So many miles to pester each other, especially me and my brother. Eventually we would see the entire lower forty-eight, even if we just hopped out at the state line for the photo opp. And, the big wheel would keep on turnin’.

The Power of Suggestion

After the holidays, I caught up with my cousin Angie. Across the state line, she was on my mind, and I texted her out of the blue. Come to find out, I was on her mind, too, so I dialed her number.

“I don’t know where to start,” she said. “Guess what I’m doing?”

I asked what.

“The purge,” she said with a laugh that sounded like Grandma and warmed my heart.

The last time I talked to Angie, sometime last February, I was on a decluttering challenge—donating, recycling, throwing things away—and I told her about it. On February 1st, I got rid of one thing. On the 2nd, two things. On the 3rd, three, and so on for thirty days. I stuck the donations in bags in the closet and dropped them off on weekends. If my math was right, week one’s purge added up to 28 items, and the grand total was 465 fewer things at my house. Angie joined me.

There’s something about the power of suggestion. After our recent conversation, I texted her: “I think I’ll start the decluttering Feb. 1.” I needed time to wrap my brain around the task, and February worked for me last year.

This past week was the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, and I was home from school. A text from my best friend Denise popped up. “I’m going to go all Marie Kondo around my house,” she said. I noted the suggestion and sat on my couch feeling like I should be doing something. I flipped to Netflix and watched Gilmore Girls instead.

The next day, I found myself with an extra day off, something about COVID spiking. I started on my closet and my unworn clothes, counting the things and dragging the bags to the entryway. Kody was working from home and watched me. The next thing I knew, he joined me. I didn’t even ask. He purged his closet and drawers. It was January 18, a fourteen-day head start.

It felt good to silently count those numbers: “101, 102, 103.” Then, I loaded the bags into my car and drove down the street to Goodwill.

Photo by Max Rottersman on Pexels.com

And last night’s message from Angie said, “I just found $300 decluttering.”

Bonus!

My Beautiful Miracle Baby

Once a child bride, I married a man child. During the first year or so of holy matrimony, we partied like it was 1999. But it was 1989. Then suddenly, we had a toddler. Somebody had to grow up. With the help of my mother, I packed my things, loaded Drew into his car seat, and left the Rocky Mountains and my husband in my rearview mirror.

During the 700-mile, cross-country trek from Denver to Tulsa, I prayed to God. I wanted to do the right thing, and I said, “Send me a sign. Amen.”

In the weeks that followed, I found an apartment and a church. I enrolled in community college and started summer classes. Meanwhile, Kody called. He missed me and Drew. He asked if he could visit.

I said, “Yes.”

All it took was one visit, watching Bambi as a family, a failed spermicidal sponge, and I had my sign. I called Kody long distance when I missed my period. “I’m pregnant,” I said.

From there, we committed to a new beginning. Kody moved in and found a job. Together we enrolled in eighteen hours each that fall. In December, we moved back to Norman to continue school at the university. By then I was almost seven months pregnant. I had just turned twenty-two.

I suppose I lifted one box too many. Mother’s guilt.

I was taking a bath one day in our new home. 134 1/2 S. Reed. A bungalow with a dirt driveway on the half acre behind another bungalow. As I toweled off, water continued to drip down the insides of my thighs.

My water. Broken. Seven-and-a-half weeks early. At the hospital, I learned my baby was breach. They transported me by ambulance to the university hospital in Oklahoma City with the neo-natal unit. The surgeon performing the emergency C-section was Dr. Payne.

And that’s how Lauren Elizabeth entered the world. January 11, 1992, at 12:22 am, 4 lbs. 11 ½ oz. Too little to cry. It’s not a pretty story, but she was a gorgeous tiny bundle of love despite the tubes in her nose. She had ten perfect fingers and ten perfect toes. And she fought for life from her first breath. She was destined to be just fine and come home just one week later.  

And today my beautiful miracle baby celebrates 30 years and other miracles along the way, God’s presence and new beginnings of her own. Destined for her best decade yet.

Writing about Writing

Right now, I should be grading. Or writing up my lesson plans, which are due by midnight tonight. I’m reading two books as well for school.  Teachers work after hours. Today is Sunday. These are the things that keep me from doing the things I want—like writing—for pleasure—or reading a book I’ve never read.

I have 180ish students, 140 or so in AP Literature and Composition, about 40 in English IV. Since a week ago Saturday, I’ve graded approximately 92 essays. Not that I’m counting. Okay, I’m counting. And I have approximately 49 to go, give or take. I try to grade 10 a day and complete the task over the course of 2 weeks. Yesterday, I graded none. I brought 27 home for the weekend. This morning I graded 3. Sometimes I obsess over the numbers. I count and recount.

I even took those same 3 essays with me to the coffee shop yesterday for my monthly meetup with my grad school cohort. I met my friends to catch-up and write, but I was at a loss for ideas, so I thought I might grade. If you’ve been reading for a while, you might have noticed my posts shrinking in length since I returned to teaching. I even featured an essay from my grandmother in a guest post recently. I wrote the introduction. 79 words.   

My grandmother has been quite popular on the blog. Her words resonate across years, and people around the globe have embraced her. Grandma would be so incredibly humbled to know. An idea dawned. What if I used the memoirs my grandmother left behind as inspiration for poetry or fiction? I bounced the idea off my friends. They liked it. However, I didn’t have the copies with me, so that idea would wait.

I opened my laptop and the Submittable page that tracks my literary magazine submissions. Last attempt. September 25th. Declined. Eleven submissions since June. Six declined. One in progress. The rest received yet unopened. It was time to try again. On my favorites bar, I clicked the link to Poets & Writers. If I had stayed at home, I would have graded some essays, but now I was on a mission to write.

Poets & Writers has a database of over 1200 alphabetized literary magazines and journals. From June to November, I searched for suitable publication matches, working my way from A to D. Yesterday, I landed on Dead Housekeeping. They accept essays of 250 words or less, “each focused on a task or series of related tasks as executed by people we’ve lost to death but still clearly see living.” I thought of my mother and her love of gardening and the tips she left behind. I said to myself, I can write 250 words.

My Grandmother’s Legacy

Grandma had a ninth or tenth grade education. Even so, she had a gift for words. Sometime in her mid-fifties, she wrote out her memoirs, long hand. Somewhere along the way, my mother made copies of those pages that mean more to me than anything else Grandma left behind. She has been gone for thirty years this December. The 11th. 1991. One month later, I would give birth to a baby girl. My grandmother’s legacy and love would live.

My Legacy by Catherine Savage

“I’ve never really enjoyed anything written in the first person—a primary rule about writing, and one of the few I know. Even in a letter is the abhorrence of the word or letter I. But just how do you begin or end or even put anything in the middle of this title without its use.

Money is such a transient thing, even more than life, that I haven’t considered it of great value. Possibly because I never had much money, I have just had a sour grapes attitude about it.

Love is the greatest commodity, and the giving of it always begets it. The thing I have to leave my children are their own lives. James Edward, Carol Rose, Sharon Sue, Joed Cleve, John Paul, each a lovely and loving person—all made possible by Edward Tony Savage.”

From l-r, my mother Sharon, aunt Carol, grandmother Catherine, uncles, Johnny, Joed, and Jimmy. Photo taken for a Wonder Bread campaign and missing my grandfather Ed, whom I’m sure was hard at work on an Oklahoma oil rig that day.

Native American Heritage Day

Native American Heritage Day (better known as Black Friday) is a not-so-highly publicized civil holiday observed on the day after Thanksgiving in the United States. That’s a shame considering the role of the Wampanoag people in the first Thanksgiving. They “shared their land, food, and knowledge of the environment with the English. Without help from the Wampanoag, the English would not have had the successful harvest that led to the First Thanksgiving. However, cooperation was short lived, as the English continued to attack and encroach upon Wampanoag lands in spite of their agreements” (Native Perspectives on Thanksgiving). How many of us even recognize the Wampanoag name?

Each year, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma sends me a Christmas tree ornament and a story from my ancestors. In recognition of the Native American role in Thanksgiving, in sadness of subsequent forced removal of natives from tribal lands, in memory of my proud Choctaw Granny who faced systemic injustice in her own life, as a reminder of the Choctaw blood that flows through my veins and blessings large and small, I share with you:

“The Gift of Corn”

“Long ago, two Choctaw men were camping along the Alabama River when they heard a beautiful but sad sound. They followed the sound until they came upon Ohoyo Osh Chishba, Unknown Woman, standing on an earthen mound. The men asked how they could help her, and she answered, ‘I’m hungry.’ The men gave her all their food, but the lady ate only a little and thanked them with a promise.

“‘Tell no one you saw me. I will ask the Great Spirit to give you a gift. Return here at the new moon,’ she said. The Choctaw men went home and said nothing.

“At the new moon, they returned to the river as instructed, but Ohoyo Osh Chishba was not there. In the place where they had seen her, though, stood a tall green plant. That plant is corn, and it is a great gift, indeed!”

Tanchi is the Choctaw word for corn.

The Black Cat

To the tune of “Copacabana” by Barry Manilow

Her name is Nora. She is a small cat. 
With a coat of raven black and sharp claws meant for attack.
She would meow loud, stumped by her cat door.
And while she ran the neighborhood,
We would always put out food
Outside of our front door. Then she’d come back for more.
She’d lost her family and now had us
Who could ask for more?

*****

A few short weeks ago, my neighbor Susan told me they were moving into a townhome near downtown. She had three or four indoor cats (including Leonard Bernstein and Victoria) and another outdoor cat, born to a feral mother. Susan had fed the cat since she was a kitten, morning and night for the past five years. Her name was Nora.

Susan was looking for a home for Nora. She asked if I knew of anyone who might be interested. I might be interested. I should discuss this with my husband. Nora didn’t socialize well with the indoor cats, especially not with Vicky. Besides, Nora was accustomed to her freedom.

I told my husband Kody about the situation. With eyebrow raised he said, “So we’re getting a cat?”

“She’ll be an outdoor cat,” I said hopefully.

And so we adopted Nora one week ago, on the Saturday before Halloween. No papers required.

Susan researched the rehoming of an outdoor cat. The suggestion was to keep the cat in one room for a few days until she realized we were her food source. Susan carried Nora to our home across the street in a cat carrier. She brought food and catnip and a cat box and litter and food bowls and flea medicine and a cat tree and toys. Everything Nora might need to be comfortable and everything we might need to care for her.

Nora had a mighty meow. She was mostly content beneath the bed in our guest room. At night, she was restless. She wanted the outdoors. This I knew. We let her check out our home instead and shut her back into her room when we went back to bed that Saturday night and Sunday, Monday, Tuesday.

By Wednesday, Nora’s meowing escalated to a guttural howl. We unlocked our cat door, formerly used by our seven-year-old cat Sally (RIP August 2017) and our fourteen-year-old chihuahua-terrier Rain (RIP January 2021). We pushed Nora through the door, now meant for her and into our back yard. Our fence has a few places for a small cat to escape, and so Nora was free once more.

In the morning, we set food out for her near the front door. Some one ate it, hopefully Nora, and that evening we set out more. Sweet Nora returned. By choice, she walked through the door all nonchalant and sauntered back to her room. Each evening into the dark hours of the night, she becomes restless. Nora still doesn’t quite comprehend the concept of the cat door. It has only been a few days now. And so we keep pushing her through to the back at night, and she keeps returning to the front on her own time.

Nora is on the prowl this morning. I hoped to keep her indoors for Halloween. But something tells me she can take care of herself. Maybe it’s the claw marks on my arms. I just wanted to hold her. But she’s a wild little minx. We’re still becoming acquainted.