Thursday, December 31, 2009

Writing with the Wizard

There were not many books with Kansas settings or heroes when I was growing up. One of the first books I remember my mother reading to me was Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. I found the story thrilling as Mother read a chapter or two a day before naptime; I could hardly wait for the next installment. When the Judy Garland version of the book was first shown on television years ago, my mother made watching the movie a special treat. We stayed up late, had saltines and milk for a snack, and curled up on the couch watching the movie together. I remember the flying monkeys scared the dickens out of me!

It turned out that The Wizard of Oz was a good lesson and preparation for the writing life. Any writer needs courage to take on such an endeavor as writing. A writer throws herself into the piece, producing the best product possible and then has to have courage to face editors who fail to see its value. She must have a heart to keep trying when it seems everyone gets into see the Wizard (read Editor) but her. That same heart makes her try again and again with more and more markets. When an editor rejects her wonderful, heartfelt efforts, the writer must not allow rust to set in from her tears of disappointment; she must keep herself well oiled and working.

Yesterday, to end this year, I got two rejections. Two in one day makes it harder to deal with at the time. It makes the stretch since the last acceptance seem extra long. It makes the near misses not count for much either. I went to my writing journal and counted the sales, the maybes, and the rejections. My numbers clearly said I was not getting in to see the Wizard as many times as I was traveling down the Yellow Brick Road!

But I heard Dorothy’s chipper voice and Toto’s little enthusiastic bark urging me on. I melted the Wicked Witch of Doubt with belief and I vowed I will write again in 2010. Now if those darn Flying Monkeys will just stop battering my confidence and leave me alone!

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Winter Solstice

Winter Solstice, 2009

The hushed house is festive but serene.
No tree, house eves aren’t strung with dazzling lights.
But the house is not drab and gray,
Like the thinning hair at my temples.
While no longer a place of clutter and chatter,of children,
Yet memories of their voices do ring in my heart.
Fragrant kitchen, warm oven bakes cookies still,
While steaming up frosty window panes.
Pots of radiant poinsettias adorn room corners
And fence in the antiquated Nativity scene
That quietly heralds the approaching season.
Although with slower steps, friends still tread
Across the boards of a greenery laced porch,
Arms no longer filled with gifts and gizmos but
Still stretched wide for hearty hugs,
Seeking the warm comfort of friendship.
Later, I gaze across the cold night sky,
Gleaming crystal bright with star candles,
And soak up the quiet stillness while opening
The ribbon-tied memories of my life.
I celebrate the passing and changing seasons,
Treasure the tranquility of another winter.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Doing Up Christmas

Recently, I was in my children's old grade school. At the front door, a female teacher and four little girls were decorating the Christmas tree for the front hall. Short arms reaching around the tree, one girl was helping the teacher stretch lights while others were hanging ornaments. Where were the little boys?

What is it about men that they don’t like to be bothered with decorations, lights, and carols during the Christmas season? They like eating the fudge, having a large dinner served, and opening the packages, but sometime after Thanksgiving they begin the duck and cover routine when they hear the gals rooting in the storage closets and looking at red and green ribbon. A friend gave me a nice seasonal refrigerator magnet that says, “Three wise men, are you kidding?” because I had a household of one husband and two sons. She was right on target because not a one of them enjoyed putting up a tree, hanging lights on the house, or heaven forbid, taking anything down in January.

When I was growing up, we used a live tree bought at the local grocery store. I can smell the pine and balsam still, but we had to put it up late in the season due to drying out and fire dangers. Once we had a tree bought, it leaned outside on the porch anchored in sand or a tree stand soaking up water. We had to wait until Dad was ready to “deal with” the tree. He would put us off night after night until finally, grumbling all the way, he would string the lights out, check the bulbs, and begin to wrap the tree with strings of lights evenly from top to bottom. He put the star on top and then he was done. Mother and the girls hung the ornaments and placed the tinsel.

Once married, I found the scenario was much the same. After the children came along, we did try to go to the tree farm for several years. We took babies and dogs, tramped across the fields in frost and snow trying to find just the right tree. Our best choosing still would yield field grown trees that were sometimes sparse on one side, dry on the tips, or sporting crooked tree trunks. Once home it was a trick to set the tree up right. One year, a huge tree was whittled down as DH tried to find a good fit for the room and to solve the problem of a bad trunk. After several attempts at sawing and then watching the tree fall over repeatedly, he lost his temper. He hoisted the offending tree up, carried it through the sliding glass door, and thrust the tree into the back yard. That year was our first artificial tree, and we have not had fresh trees since.

Our boys are grown now, and they inherited the "bah humbug" gene from their ancestors. They seemed to enjoy coming home from college to a tree up, especially if there were lots of packages underneath wearing their own names, but moaned when asked to deal with lights or help take a tree down. Putting Christmas away was always a lonely time on New Year’s Day unless the enthusiastic blather of commentators from a televised football game in the family room was meant to be company.

No one ever like the tinkling carols of Christmas cheer or the solemn songs of the season either. Right after Thanksgiving this year, I heard one son grunt and growl under his breath when he heard the early music of Christmas playing. I decided that maybe I shouldn’t do so much Christmas if I were the only one who cared. I remember as a child going to a grandmother’s house where there was no tree except a pink net job on top of the television. I always felt sorry for my Gran because she was missing out on the green trees. Maybe she had just given up years earlier. When I took children home and both their grandmothers had no trees at Christmas, I felt sad there were no Christmas trees, a seasonal thrill, to share. Maybe those mothers just wore out too from doing all the planning, decorating, cleaning up afterwards—from doing all the caring.

So this year I am going to forego the lights all over the house and won’t drag out the tree. I won’t move all the furniture, stuff lamps and end tables in closets, drag down a multitude of glass balls, Santas, reindeer, bows, snowmen, glitter, and lights from storage. I did get some poinsettias, arranged a few candles, put out the Nativity, threw a red tablecloth on the dining table, and brought out the Christmas cups for our morning breakfast tea. I bought an Andrea Bocelli Christmas CD to listen to in my office. What I am finding is that less is more really.

I am going to minimize the cooking too. No one needs sugar, some can not have nuts, and everyone is watching the cholesterol. Gifts of food are nice, but no one I know is truly hungry or needs more food. I am going to invite my friends to have soup and homemade bread some evening instead of a feast. I will ask them to stop by the house after their own frantic shopping sprees. On their way home, they can come up the walk by windows steamed from a hot oven and a brewing tea pot. I will invite them to kick off their shoes for a few minutes, sip cinnamon tea and sink teeth into homemade bread slathered in yellow butter. Those few minutes of warm home and simple whole grain bread will be their gift.

In an essay titled Redeeming All Brokenness, Madeleine L’Engle writes: As we are called into Advent, we are called to listen, something we seldom take time to do in the frenetic world of over–activity. I think that is truer this year, now more than ever. It has been a year of job loss, economic ruin, moral corruption, foreign wars, and generalized disappointment in our society. Now more than ever we need to stop and look again at what is important, to realize the commercial glitz of Christmas is not bringing satisfaction or meaning to our lives. I find that less bustle at decorating and buying is making for a soothing atmosphere. I will take time for Advent church services, think positive and constructive thoughts, try to find reason and meaning in my life, find a way to show gratitude for the past year. Maybe next year I will return to the flurry and commotion, to the tree and lights, and then again, maybe this calmer, simpler manner might become my new tradition for Christmas.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Red Means Doris

With great respect and affection we call Doris by the moniker Giggling Gertie. She laughs often and long and easily; when she laughs, the sound is like a boisterous wind chime, and you can’t help but feel happy around her. Having her own shop was a dream she made happen for herself when Grand Interiors opened eight years ago. Business has grown with each year, and so has Doris’s reputation for producing a quality product. She does curtains, drapes, upholstery and interior design consultations. And her favorite color is red!

Rosy red cheeks are for everyday and season. In the spring it is red geraniums and red wagons. Once falls rusts and red oranges give way to December, it is the season for Christmas reds. Since polka dots are one of the “in” features of décor right now, Doris capitalized on polka dots in red for Christmas. Choosing to limit her mantle to white and red, she decorated her shop traditionally with flocked greenery but threw in the most delightful red polka dots to spruce up her Christmas wall this year.

A Trash Bag Kite In November

I don’t know how DH and I ever made a marriage. We are so totally opposite! There might be a few things we agreed on, but over all, if I said white, he said black. If I said go, he said stop. I guess the early years were like Camelot’s Lusty Month of May. So yesterday was no exception when he went to build a kite for his class on alternative energy and study of wind turbines.

I expected to see a flat triangular shaped piece made of a paper. But DH had other ideas. He made a box kite and used trash bags for both the body and the tail. It was no beauty, but it was original, this trash bag kite. The wind was too strong during the day because he was afraid the strong winds would destroy the kite before getting it airborne.

So we waited until late afternoon with softer winds, and the first few tries seemed to indicate the kite might not fly. Then with a burst, the box kite caught the current, rose quickly, and reached for the clouds. It was fun to see the trash bag kite glide and dip, dancing against the sky at sunset!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Main Street and Sinclair Lewis

I grew up in rural Kansas, where I lived most days at the local library experiencing the world in pages of books. By the time I was fifteen, I had worked through children’s, horse novels, mythology, and arrived at the classics shelf. There I met Carol and Will Kennicott living in Gopher Prairie through the pen of Sinclair Lewis and his novel Main Street. An ingénue at reality, I missed a lot of the meaning in that first read of the novel, but I fell in love with Lewis’s descriptions, and I did recognize a small town life I knew.

Like Carol Kennicott, I wanted to lasso the world, pull it in and tame it. When I fell in love with my future husband, a farm boy who wanted to study engineering, I thought I could broaden his interests. One of our first dates, we planned a picnic at a county lake. I donned a wide brimmed Scarlett O’Hara-inspired hat, packed a gourmet basket lunch, bundled a kite for flying and poems for sharing. The hat flopped in the wind; my hungry boyfriend longed for simple fried chicken and was oblivious to the beauty of iambic pentameter. When we assembled the kite, it took one swoosh across the sky before diving to the lake bottom along with my hopes of a perfectly picturesque outing. Carol Kennicott would have understood my disappointment!
A marriage, a stint in St. Louis, a settling in a small Missouri town brought me back to living more of Carol’s life. I felt strangled with the lack of change, the ordinariness of my life. I had my causes, served on the library board, the museum board, worked church and civic groups, and taught school. I tried to motivate friends, to no avail, to study ballroom dancing, attend poetry readings, and see avant-garde movies. Eventually, I changed my pace and just fell into step with the community.

This autumn, one of my book club’s selections was Main Street, and I fell in love with Lewis, his characters, and the prairie all over again. It was the third reading for me, and the novel was just as fresh and contemporary as it was the first time I read it. I felt the texture of the fabrics, smelled the wood smoke, chilled in my bones from the snowy cold; I experienced the frustration and angst of characters, all thanks to Lewis’s finely honed details. Now age made me see the characters with a different slant, more understanding and tolerance for small town life.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Joy of Letters

The sky is as steel colored as a gun barrel, the air is chilly, and my November is looking more like a harbinger of winter than the colorful leaf quilt of autumn I so love. It is a legal holiday and there will be no mail delivery which adds to the feeling of gray isolation. However, I don’t get much real mail these days because people have changed to emails rather than use the pen these days.

Not only do I miss face to face contact by replacing conversations with emails, the joy of reading letters is eliminated. In letters folks take the time both in the writing and the reading. Writing used to mean choosing the right stationary, color and paper weight, picking a fine pointed pen, maybe even selecting a shade of ink. Then the thoughts were chosen with equal care, mulling over words and expressions, taking the time to capture our lives for sharing with another in just the right way.

Ah, and to receive a letter! Carrying it in from the mailbox, I hold an envelope with expectation, one I can identify by penmanship as a greeting from a friend carrying news or simple chat! It means pouring steaming water from a kettle for a cup of tea, a sit down in the kitchen, a few quiet moments for reading and re-reading the letter. Still the letter can be saved for yet another read, maybe kept in a ribbon tied box. Emails don’t urge me to save them in anything other than maybe a stiff manila folder.

I have two letters my Dad wrote his mother from Ft. Knox right after World War Two had ended and I was not even a thought in his head yet. But I can glimpse what he sounded like as a young man, his loneliness for home and family. I have other handwritten letters from people who no longer walk the earth. Yet, when I miss these people the most I can pull out the letters and “hear” their voices tell a story or share some news. I can see the way they looped their letters and curled their signatures.

Now I think I will turn off my You Have Mail button and dig my letter box out from the bottom desk drawer. I will go light a candle fragrant with cinnamon and apples, pull my sweater tighter across my chest, and put the kettle on for tea. I can come back to the cyber world later, but for now, I want to read a real letter even if the mailman doesn’t come today.

Flat Rock Creek

Springs are plentiful in Missouri, both large and small. Sometimes the earth is like a sponge and a gentle squeeze will yield a squish of water. But in Kansas you are more likely to find a creek or a crick as some say it. After the fast and furious spring rains, rivulets of water meander across soaked fields; small streams bulge and race through pastures. Then in the scorching heat of a Midwestern heat, the pathways dry up or turn to stagnant puddles of dark mud.

At the edge of my in-laws farm, Flat Rock Creek putters by stands of oaks and cottonwoods. In this wetter than normal autumn, the water is unusually clear and abundant. The stream glides purposefully out of the Kansas meadows and dashes across farms to reach the Neosho River which in turns joins Spring River down at the Kansas and Oklahoma borders to flow into Grand Lake.

During the 1950’s and 1960’s this area of Flat Rock was a playground for local folks. They swam and cooled off there after haying or plowing. Occasional beer busts were held by slightly rowdy teens. When my husband was growing up, he meandered along the banks of Flat Rock with any spare time he could find to slip away from chores. One of his favorite pastimes was building balsa wood or even paper boats to float in Flat Rock; he pushed his creations with an oak or walnut branch to the center to catch a strong, spirited current and watched his boat creations float away into unknown lands downstream. He says he longed to have a boat of his own on this water, but that never happened. Now he still harbors a love of water, fishing, boating, and building his own boats when he can.

Meanwhile I grew up not far away but fearful of water despite swimming lessons, trips to lakes and streams, fishing and boating. I spent time with grandparents on Grand Lake and Lake Tenkiller in Oklahoma. My grandfather loved boats too, fast ones, big ones. His boating days were over by the time my husband and I married, but they would have made a good pair dabbling in their love of water and boats had they had the chance.

Small farms still rest at the edges of Flat Rock, but daily traffic over the low water bridge is not as heavy as it once was. Folks have air conditioning, city water, and other interests than swimming in a creek. Farming itself has changed, but the little stream of Flat Rock flows onward, alternating with spring surges and autumn riffles, draining the bottom land of Neosho County like it has done for eons of time.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Amelia Earhart from Kansas

Other than Dorothy and Toto, there were not a lot of famous Kansas women serving as role models when I was growing up. Even as a child I loved to read biographies, stories about real people doing real things, books that took me far out of my Midwestern corner of the world. My town was small, about 2000, and the library was a modest, one room building shaped like a shoe box. Children’s books were near the floor. When you grew a bit, chapter books were mid-range, and a collection of great works and encyclopedias were on the top shelf. Around the corner were nurse romances, horse novels, and science fiction which all gave way to “serious” adult fiction.

I was about fourth grade when I was tall enough to reach the row of turquoise covered copies of biographies for children that I read over and over. It was there that I met Amelia Earhart, girl flyer from Kansas. I had no idea where Atchison, Kansas was, but if it was in Kansas that was enough for me. I read and reread Amelia’s story. I remember a chapter where her adventures caused her to get a spanking and than made her even more human to me; a girl who was less than perfect but went on to be famous gave me hope I might amount to something someday too!

I recently saw the new movie Amelia where Hilary Swank portrayed the aviatrix. It seems appropriate that I got to see the film in a city once known as Air Capital of the World--Wichita, Kansas. Swank was such an accurate look alike for Earhart that one could easily forget she was an actor and not the flyer herself. The flying scenes were gorgeous and awe inspiring, especially when seen on the huge, concave screen at the Warren Theater. I am not sure how accurate the film was on details, but the story seemed well told. I will certainly be pursuing some of the latest reading material on this 70 year old story.

My young niece has an interest in flying planes. Maybe someday she will fly those same skies as Earhart; maybe she will set records or just earn a good living. Then again, maybe her dreams will change and her life will take another course. But without Amelia Earhart’s breaking way for women, without her adventurous spirit for tackling new things and breaking new ground, even at the cost of her own life, my niece and girls like her might not have had the opportunity to choose. Thanks, Amelia, for giving us all an easier path to the clouds!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Toilet Tea and a Kitchen Build

Toilet Tea is what I called our morning brew while on a kitchen build...not a nice or inviting name, I know! The kitchen remodeling was for our son. Hubby made the oak cabinets at home, and we drove the wooden cabinets four hours to the bungalow where son had stripped walls down to the studs. Insulation, sheet rocking, no water, no sink—well, you can imagine.

But I had an electric hot pot for boiling water, some Red Rose tea bags along with some Charleston Plantation Peach tea bags, and some hot cups that all sufficed for our morning tea. I had to get water from the bathroom and then plug it in there or the bedroom...thus our Toilet Tea. Son does not understand our need for this morning ritual, but it is better than nothing at all right now. Once I slipped away to Chelmsford Teas where I bought a Caramel Rooibos loose tea, some peach apricot tea bags, and a new Brown Betty tea pot. I waited until we returned home to savor them both, but I continued for a few days more brewing our daily Toilet Tea!

Watching my son work with his dad reminded me of many things. It was bittersweet how he did so many things like my own dad did years ago. Son never worked with his grandfather so it was not a learned behavior, more of a gene he inherited. When he stripped his old kitchen out, he was neat as a pin. He cleaned up and sorted boards to size, bagged up sheetrock, piled old cabinet drawers neatly. His tools were tidy and organized and he was frenzied by his own dad’s random tossing of screw drivers, nails, and levels and such. My son could eye a eighth of an inch discrepancy in straightness, and when it was time to cut the vinyl flooring, his own dad was nervous he might make a mistake in front of his own son! My dad has been gone for nine years and on this kitchen build, the missing him was freshly renewed watching his grandson radiate his mannerisms.

Son’s house is a yellow brick bungalow of early 1950’s vintage. While it shows some wear in the corners, this post WWII house is solid as a rock. The kitchen was dated and worn. Son chose dark colors, pewter accents, and modern granite sink. It is an inviting place now or soon will be when he finished the tiny details that will make the room his own. I wonder if he would consider a new black tea pot for the counter???

Friday, October 23, 2009

Love of Poetry

I learned the joys of poems when I was in Phyllis Wells’s fourth grade class. Every month we had a day for writing in our poetry notebooks. She would write a title and the first two lines of a seasonal poem that we had composed together as a class on the blackboard. Then she allowed us time to finish the poem on our own and even compose more poems if we were inspired. She also encouraged us to decorate our poems with drawings and crayons, further encouraging us to realize that poetry was related to both art and color. Our October lines were something about black cats and pumpkins; we moved on through turkeys, Christmas trees and Easter bunnies, writing towards spring that year.

Mrs. Wells lived down the street from me in our small town. I rode my bike by her house when I pedaled down to the drugstore, and often on an autumn evening or a summer’s early morning, I could catch her on her front porch reading the local paper. I would stop, she would invite me to sit in the wicker chair next to her, and we would talk about a book report, a poem, or the latest Cartwright adventure on the Bonanza saga. I know now what a sacrifice it was for her to spend her precious non-classroom time chatting with a child. However, at the time, she made me feel like she longed to hear my every word, that what I had to say was important. Thus, she made me feel important too.

While I never learned to scan a poetic line correctly or to hear iambic pentameter perfectly, I did learn to love the cadence of a rhythmic sentence, to relish a delightful metaphor, to appreciate a well-turned phrase. Those first fourth grade rhymes were just the beginning of a love for poetry and literature. Now when I want rest from the world, I wrap myself in a comforting story and use a poem for a pillow.

October on the Plains
Early autumn, days of gathered corn shocks,
Fat orange pumpkins and ginger-colored mums;
But air and sky are harbingers of winter.
A nip of winter sneaks in prematurely,
And strong wind rattles the leaves on limbs,
Knocking some to the ground even before
They blush with reds and oranges.
Blue sky fades to the gray of steel grain silos and
Becomes a barricade of clouds bearing chilling rains,
Hiding the once radiant sun, veiling a harvest moon.
Flint Hills cottonwoods flutter yellow leaves on autumn winds;
Pasture grasses quiver in shades of tobacco stain and molasses.
Prairie animals, men too, burrow deep down under earth and cloth,
Readying for coming of cold and winter’s wet snows.

The Future of Newspapers

*Originally printed in the Joplin Globe on the Op-Ed page

The Future of Newspapers

The recent announcement that the Christian Science Monitor, along with other newspapers and magazines, will cease publication deeply saddens me. It reinforced the opinion of a recent speaker at a writing conference in Whitefish, Montana who said newspapers would be a thing of the past in another fifteen years. I acknowledge that computers, the internet, web sites, and blogs have altered our ways of getting information and news, but my heart aches at the thought of no newspapers. Reading was only one of the ways newspapers influenced my life.

My dad was not much of a reader, but the evening paper along with one pipeful of tobacco was his evening reward at the end of a hard day doing manual labor. It was understood that the living room should be silent after supper when Dad turned on local weatherman Earl Ludlum and unfolded the newspaper. Sometimes I would peer over his shoulders to see what he was looking at, smell his Old Spice aftershave and be very still so I could stay. At the end of the paper, he would read me Beetle Bailey and Blondie. On occasional cold winter nights if I had a Big Chief tablet handy, he then might fold the paper for my small hands to hold while he drew his own renditions of Dagwood for me.

The newspaper was a source of income for me when my maternal grandpa paid me a quarter to fetch it for him. He said I was cheaper than feeding and less work than training a dog. Once I learned to read, my maternal grandpa let me have his copies of the Grit and Capper’s Weekly, newsprint I looked forward to having. Our own town newspaper was a weekly and was only about six pages. Even with the neighboring towns’ daily papers, I needed more newspapers to read.

Newspapers had a second life of course. Once read, they were saved to cover the kitchen table for finger painting on rainy days. They lined drawers and stuffed snow boot toes during the off season. Grandma used a newspaper spread over her ample lap when she stemmed garden green beans to catch the strings and stems. Then she used those same pages to line her garden patch to keep the weeds down. Everyone had a trash barrel in those days too. Well used newspapers helped start many barrels burning.
Some copies of newspapers were too precious to toss, at least for a while. Grandma kept old newspapers with pictures of her sons coming home from various wars. When the assassination of JFK was announced in bold black two inch letters, the family kept all the issues as if to prove to future generations this unbelievable atrocity did occur—after all it was in the newspapers.

When I got married and moved to St. Louis, Sunday mornings were newspaper heaven. No alarm clock or chase to work, but easy risings for a good newspaper. The St. Louis Post Dispatch was thrown on the apartment porch while it was still dark outside. I could hear it hit with a heavy thud announcing time was approaching to put the tea kettle on. My husband and I divided the paper and sipped steaming mugs of tea. He took the business and hard news while I delved into the arts and travel sections.

One hasn’t lived until they have been in the newspaper business. I never delivered papers as a kid, but I was the mother of a newspaper boy. This mom thought it would be good work training for her son to have a job, learn a strong work ethic, feel the satisfaction of responsibility met. He did but our whole family learned the lessons too. Days were planned around the stack of papers to be rolled, banded or bagged, delivered, monthly money collected, oh and missed papers taken back out late at night. It was fun to get the news first each day, to read the headlines before the neighborhood, but the cost was newsprint on every door frame in the house for a couple of years.

Recently, I got into a box of my grandmother’s things searching for a certain bowl. I found it wrapped up in newspaper that she had used long before her death. I found more than just the bowl as I unwrapped and smoothed out the pages of the newspaper. There were names of people I recognized, some now gone like she was, a picture of a grade school soon to be demolished, prices in groceries ads that are now history. It was hard not to shed a tear at what that newspaper held for me besides the pink Fiesta Ware bowl.

A pink bowl can not be wrapped in a blog; a computer can’t be folded up and used to smack an irritating fly. A website is nice, but it does not have the earthy smell of newsprint nor leave the tell tale sign of printer’s ink on your fingers. Will newspapers go the way of the butter churn, typewriter, a party line telephone with three rings on the wall? Maybe, but I hope it takes a long while before we all loose the comforting sound of a rustling newspaper early in the morning or the joy of time spent with a evening paper at the end of a well spent day.

Friday, October 16, 2009

October 15, I Become a Sexagenarian

Okay, so it is official now: I am old. Hard to believe that I made it to this age and so fast! I have accepted the decades gracefully until now, but I have had a real aversion to this number 60. It was a turning point year for many I know with age. Last month my mother turned 80 and next month my mother-in-law will turn 90. For me, it was a quiet day which is maybe as it should be for my age. J Even the weather seemed subdued as the chilly dampness continued making an autumn day look more like winter.

Cards and phone calls started the day with loving care from friends and family. I chose Mythos, a Greek restaurant for my birthday lunch. It is a lovely place, quiet, cloth covered tables, cheerful Greek music playing in the background. While Greek is not my very favorite food, it is a treat and what I truly wanted for my birthday. I chose a sampler plate with various things like Spanakopita, dolmades (a rice and meat stuffed grape leaf), and olive tapenade among other things. The very best was the first course of soup, lemon chicken with spinach and mushrooms. So yummy! We finished with tiramisu served in a chocolate cup.

Then we drove out to Wildcat Nature Center where it was too wet and chilly for the walk. While the area might be gorgeous in the sunshine, the darkness contributed to a dull looking growing area. However, there some perky flowers handing in there. We talked to the naturalist about a tree leaf we wanted identified, but we stumped them all there. Then to a movie…not much choice. We saw Inglorious Bastards. Not a favorite but entertaining in its own way. A little too violent but it was a Quentin Tarantino film and so we new off the wall is the expected routine for him!

A supper of leftovers from the Greek lunch ended the day quietly and pleasantly.
Tomorrow is the annual Maple Leaf Parade here in town. Temps are to start at 34! Not inviting for me to stand outside. The last truly happy event I shared with my dad was the parade one beautiful autumn day so seeing the celebration roll around always is a little bittersweet for me. The parade and my birthday, two wonderful autumn events and the town decorates for it in lovely ways.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Solomon Valley Highway 24 Writing Contest

Writing Deadline is November 1

Oh golly, I am going to miss The Solomon Valley Call for Voices Writing Contest this year. This has been one crazy year, and somehow the deadline of November 1 has crept up on me! I have entered for three or four years now, winning a few categories here and there. Last year I won first place in Adult Fiction category while my Montana sister-in-law won third place in Adult Autobiography. Both pieces can be read on the winner’s page at

I don’t remember how I first learned of this writing contest. Although born and reared in Kansas, I was not sure someone living in Missouri could enter. But yes, the contest was open to anyone who wanted to try. The price was right: free! The Solomon Valley Highway 24 Alliance is using the writing contest to stir up interest in their area of Kansas and hoping for some increased tourism. Times are hard everywhere, and small bergs of Kansas could use a few tourist dollars. I have only been through the area once when I passed through returning from Montana. It is simple and beautiful farmland. I particularly enjoyed Nicodemus, a village where Blacks settled after the Civil War. I was devastated that the small museum was not open the day I passed through and hope to return for a visit some day.

Remember, anyone can enter the contest and there is no fee. There are no cash prizes, but winners will be printed in an upcoming anthology of pieces. Rules and entry forms for the contest can be found at .

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Enjoying My Own Company

This summer was cooler than usual and seemed short. Autumn started early and the air has been chilly on given days. The trees seem slow to color and are coloring sporadically in clumps rather than whole trees. The colors seem muted as well. Then this week gully washing rains came. It started with a slow steady rain and then continued to pour down three or four inches of water a day. The days were dark, and when the rain stopped yesterday, the temps fell to middle thirties making it seem like December instead of mid-October.

We started the day slowly here, feeling like the cold and dark morning air was a harbinger of winter we did not want to see yet. The Saturday morning tea was Snickerdoddle Cookie, a nice green tea but sweet. I feel it is too much a dessert to use everyday, as I like to start my day with a brisk and hearty black tea. However, this is one of DH’s favorites, and it was a good choice for a slow Saturday. I set out things for lunch, planned supper, and hunkered down for a reading in a new book. I started the novel Olive Kitteridge, and it was a good choice for a lazy morning read.
So today when the sun came out and the afternoon turned a bright 50, I took myself on an outing. A bean pot supper was cooking in the crock; DH was hunkering down with his wind class books. Everyone else probably was at family events on Saturday or out doing fall festivals, so I spent time with myself. I can be a great deal of fun and enjoy my own company!

I dropped some things by a friend’s house, and she was not home so I left the bag on her porch, and headed for the flea market. There were several new booths, and I saw lots of Blue Willow today. The pieces were all ones I had, but it was interesting to see the Willow appear. Sometimes you don’t see a piece, other times it pops up in several booths. What I did find was another wood duck for son’s new kitchen and two brown and white cups that were exactly the same pattern of two odd saucers I had picked up in a flea markets a few weeks ago! My find made me feel lucky!

So I went by the post office to drop in a poetry submission and send it on its way a hopeful future. Then I went to Sonic Happy Hour for a cheap drink. I was enthralled by the brilliant sunshine and the leaves that had turned here and there. Several leaves have fallen and the rain knocked off more so I feel we need to appreciate whatever we see right now. Then I drove around the town square and noticed the antique mall had a lovely Halloween window. While I did not need a thing, I pulled in to kill some time and see if I had more “shopping luck”.

Indeed I did. Found the loveliest book booth that caught my eye with a sign that said: Books You Should Read $2.00. I gave the shelf a gander and found great tittles that I appreciated and some I had not read. The titles were great and the owner had put the books in great groupings so shoppers could find their interest easily. I brought home Lowry’s Silent Boy, Lee Smith’s Family Linen, some Chevalier titles, and a wonderful children’s book with a CD called Old Turtle.

In this market I also found a 1950’s tablecloth in pinks and blues. I hate the thoughts of ironing it and tending a table with this kind of fabric, but every now and then the using of lovely old textiles is worth the trouble. DH has no idea how lucky he is to have homemade food set on table with lovely old dishes and atmosphere of days gone by!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Fall Festival Day

It is early in October, but already the nights are getting down to a chilly 40 degrees. The sumac sports a scarlet hue and cottonwoods are a burnished golden shade; the oak and maple are only fingered by color in spots waiting, hopefully, to burst into shimmering color. However, the sun does shine making the afternoons warm and perfect for all the fall festivals in the area.

This afternoon we decided to drive to Neosho for their festive fall activities on the square. We had no idea what was going on, but we decided that a short drive and walk outside would not be wasted no matter what we found. The square was dotted with the usual wood crafts, crocheted toys, baked goods, and promotional booths, but it was a lovely walk about the square just mingling with the people.

There were a few farmers’ market type booths where we found a nice stone ground, stone oven baked bread. The crust is chewy but inside is pillow soft. It was quite tasty for an organic type bread made with no sugar or salt. We choose an olive loaf to bring home.
I also picked up some dried heirloom tomatoes that are to be reconstituted in olive oil and garlic. The farmer said they made a wonderful sandwich among other uses. I am anxious to see how they work. He also had some potato beans and some Christmas beans, but I left those for another time.

One street off the square was marked History Alley. The street led to the county museum where an old Ozark cabin and one room school both exist on the property. Here the historical groups, Friends of the Library and National Park Service had booths. But the real draw was artists and craftsmen in period costume practicing their interests. A blacksmith, candle maker, broom maker, butter churner worked along side a man hewing logs by hand and another doing cast iron cooking. Gary Hansford, a weaving teacher at Crowder College, was also showing his spinning skills.

Being outside on a lovely autumn day was a treat. We returned home to apple cinnamon oatmeal cooking in the crock pot. I warmed milk and some of the olive bread, and we ended the day with the autumn scents of cinnamon, brown sugar and apples lingering in the house, our cheeks red from October sun.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

National Reading Group Month

October is National Reading Group Month

October is National Reading Group Month, and the organization’s annual Signature Event will be held in Nashville this year. How I wish I could attend to hear well known authors speak and to see Nina Cardona from NPR’s All Things Considered as emcee. Books have always been a cornerstone in my life, and any reason to celebrate reading, even group reading, is fine with me.
While teaching in the Hazelwood School District years ago, I was lucky enough to have the St. Louis County Library system nearby. This included a bookmobile that came almost to my front doorstep. However, I was busy and did not know many people in the area so my group reading never developed.

Once I moved to Jasper County, group reading was not popular, and it took a while to find people interested in sharing reading. However, a tiny group of retired teachers and friends now make up my reading group. We agreed at the beginning to forego the lunch and house cleaning preparations necessary for a social gathering. We were totally interested in the books and decided to meet at a private and neutral site where books are the entire focus of a two-hour discussion. The group is of made of women in the same age group, of similar vocations, but members are of varied religious practices, divergent political allegiances, and the only true common denominator is the love of reading. Occasionally, we spring for a luncheon out during our summer recess or at Christmas. Our reading tastes are varied, but all have introduced the others to a new author or genre, forced the rest to broaden their reading tastes.

A St. Louis friend had a book club of five women who had been friends for over twenty years when they decided to read together. They were a very diverse group in disposition, education, and incomes. However, when they came together for a reading group, they did more than just read and discuss the book. Somehow they managed to add some other dimension to each month’s choice. When they read the Oprah book Choice, Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz, they went for an overnight trip on the Current River where they canoed and ate picnic lunches on the riverbanks. When the book choice was Bread Alone by Judith Hendricks, they met in one member’s kitchen, made a batch of bread and baked it while they discussed the novel, treating themselves to warm, homemade bread and butter after the meeting.

These were generous women and knowing a monthly trip to St. Louis was too much for me and another friend reader in Branson, they planned at least one meeting a year closer to our side of the state. The year we read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, we met in Rolla for antiquing and a wonderful trip to The Reader’s Corner, a used bookstore in downtown Rolla. Another year we met in Lebanon for a tearoom luncheon and outlet shopping. The book that trip was The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson, a novel about family relationships. The women were a lot of solace for me that year as my mother’s home at just been destroyed by fire.

While I won’t be attending the annual meeting of National Reading Group Organization nor any of their chapter events across the United States, I will be reading with my own local reading group for the winter. The joy of shared reading can be anyone’s pleasure. Find a friend or two and start a group, making up your own rules and directions, or get a church group to add a book list to its agenda. Visit your local library. If dressing and going out is not your thing, join a shared reading group online at home, such as sites like

For information on National Reading Groups or this years events, go to

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Outer Banks and Smokey Mountains

The Outer Banks are extraordinary landscapes, and they deserve a trip all of their own to be enjoyed thoroughly. However, we were just too close not to push on and grab a little of their flavor. The surf was loud and waves high. The area had received eight inches of rain a couple of days before we arrived, but while we were there the weather was lovely. The worse part is getting there on the slow ferry.

I am not a fish eater, but I thought I should eat local cuisine at least once during our trip to the East Coast. So the first night right after traveling through Ocracoke, we ate at place called the Quarterdeck. It was recommended by a local and was obviously a place the locals favored as the crowd intensified as the evening passed. Folks seemed to be regulars, to one another. I chose a platter that was a medley of fish. The waitress warned me the fish of the night was an oily, very fishy mackerel so I substituted extra shrimp in its place. The shrimp was good, and the scallops, crab cake, hush puppies were okay. However, I left most of the oysters. I tried two but they are just too “slick” for me. That was enough fish to last me ten years or so!

The next day we visited a couple of lighthouses with the Hatteras being the most interesting in that it was the oldest. However, the setting of the Bodie was extremely pretty. It was also interesting the see the beach homes, tall on stilt legs like a heron. The house in Rodanthe where Richard Gere and Diane Lane made the movie Nights in Rodanthe was fun to pass. We tried to walk out to a bird watching glade, but again the mosquitoes were so bad. We fought our way back to the parking area only to find the car filled with the critters too!

One final stop was at a National Historic Site of Roanoke, the early settlement where the first English child Virginia Dare was born. It was a pretty setting; the visitor’s center was interesting, but not much outside to see but old earthworks. Nearby was a reconstructed Elizabethan Gardens. DH was not paying to see them but would wait on me to do so. I was so tired I passed on it myself, and we headed west for the trek home.

The drive home was on fast interstates where ribbons of concrete pass over one another like laces in an athletic shoe. We got off at the Smokies to drive through the park. Before entering, we stopped at a local produce stand. I bought some Honey Crisp apples that are hard to find in our area. Sometimes you can find them at the supermarkets for a super price. These were locally grown and delicious. I also bought a few Cherokee Purple tomatoes, an heirloom variety that they are trying to bring back locally. The tomatoes were dark, almost a purple and less acidic than other varieties.

While we had been through the Smokies long ago, it was pleasant to see them again. We entered at Cherokee, North Carolina. We stopped at Mingus Mill and short walk back into the forest put you near this old gristmill. While DH walked back to the water source, I went inside the mill. A woman was buying some stone ground corn meal in bulk. The miller was such a sweet man and proud of his fine quality of meal. While you could buy small bags of wheat and corn, he was glad to bag up the freshest meal as it came out the shoot. He put it in huge feed sacks and sold it cheaply. He thought I wanted a bag too and was preparing one before I could say otherwise. When DH walked in, he was startled and amazed at the industrial amount of corn meal he had to drag to the car and asked what I was going to do with it! My friends are going to get Mingus Mill corn meal for Christmas.

Driving through Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge was a nightmare. Traffic backed up for miles and you crept along like an inchworm. It was miles of commercial junk, fudge, jellies, tee shirts, touristy trap. Once through that area, it was deadheading for home. It was 3100 miles from home and back again. It was tiring but worth it for all we saw.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Savannah to Charleston

We headed towards Charleston and arrived in a fit of traffic. It was a busy and fast town with a taste for the expensive. In many areas, evidence of economic hard times showed, but in Charleston, people admitted the downturn was hard. What was once a heavy shipping area now had only occasional ships coming in to dock. People were very aware of the slow economic times.

Again, we stayed close to waterfront and walked many places. Some shopping areas but mostly the storefronts were places to eat and drink. In the early evening, we walked a long way down to a pier. The sun began to sink while we watched a few sailboats and a couple of ships come in to unload. The South Battery was gorgeous from here.

We wanted to eat on the way back to the hotel, but choose not to eat fish, the most popular type of food available. We settled on a small Italian eatery where the food was delicious. I had chicken picata, always a favorite for me. This picata had southern twist as it was served over rice.

The next morning we started early because we caught the first boat out to Fort Sumter. It turned out to be a lovely ride and the fort was more interesting than most. The National Park Ranger was a young gal who knew her stuff and added drama to her presentation. She was fascinating! The time went so fast that it was time to board the boat again before I was truly finished. On the ride back, we saw several pods of dolphins romping in the ocean waters near the boat.

With only a little time before we were to board a tall ship for sailing, we went to the city market. It was full of lots of items. Some were cheesy and commercial, but some were true artisans. There were many stands selling the famous sea grass baskets of the area. The African American women who did the weaving explained to me that one learned the craft only from mothers and grandmothers. The baskets were gorgeous, full of handmade details, and very expensive. I brought home one small woven medallion.

In the afternoon, we went out on a sailboat, known as The Pride, an 84-foot tall ship. It was a pleasant ride, and once again we saw dolphins. We also saw beautiful pelicans gliding in and landing on the water. I had no idea a pelican was so graceful in flight. We tolerated the sun well because I remembered sun block, but several other people burned to crisp. However, we were tired from sun and wind. We took a few minutes to check out the shrimp boats on the other side of Ravenal Bridge. I think the fishermen were teasing us because we were tourists, but they answered our questions and showed us their catch of large white shrimp. Then we treated ourselves to the rare occasion of hamburgers and crashed into bed early.

The next morning we were up and out of town. Heading across the Ravenal Bridge once again, we headed towards North Carolina. DH saw a sign for Hampton Plantation he wanted to check out so we head down a lane lined by oak and pine. The Spanish moss draped over the limbs like a lace mantilla. Then a narrow path headed down to the plantation home that had once belonged to rice planters. We were too early to get inside, but we walked the grounds. It was no long before massive hoards of mosquitoes attacked us. I cannot imagine how those rice planters and families lived in this area years ago. The tree in front of the house was once saved by George Washington in 1791 on his visit to the area.

Back on the road again, we passed up Myrtle Beach to go to Surfside Beach, one recommended by one of the sailors on The Pride. He was right; it was a gorgeous beach with pristine sand. Being the off-season, there were few people, and we walked the beach, waded the ocean, and picked up seashells.

Finally, we headed back to the car and moved north, stopping at Georgetown, a small village of modern shops and wide, clean streets. We stopped in front of the Upper Crust bakery where we bought the most delicious apple caramel bars. We made one other quick stop at a flea market to check out the local merchandise. Crammed full, it sported more of the same that we have here. However, I did find two English Blue Willow mugs like nothing I had seen before and a lovely knife rest.

Seeing Savannah

We arrived in Savannah early enough to see much of the town on the way in to a motel. Found lodging right at river’s edge in the Hilton Gardens, which was very nice and reasonably priced too. WE unloaded and hit the sidewalks even though we were tired and grungy. The town is old and the buildings interesting. The main interest seemed to be shopping and eating, neither of which interested us. However, we fell into step with the crowd and peeked in a few shops. We found Paula Deen’s restaurant, but the wait was two and half-hours for a table. No food was worth that to us. We did go in and look around the restaurant and the attached shop as well. We learned that Paula was opening another place in Charleston soon.

After a few hours of walking, we sat down to listen to some music, poor in my humble estimation. So, I wandered around the area while DH sat. I found a shop run by a nice, chatty man whose family had been there for 200 years. He had been an ocean miner, had traveled extensively but missed family. He returned to the family place where he says he now had Christmas and Easter dinner for over a hundred relatives each year. He was fascinating conversationalist, and I urged him to write the book he longs to pen.

Back on the street, I found one of the carriage drivers taking a break. She was a sweetheart from Norman Oklahoma, just like finding someone from home. I wanted to ride, was hot and sweaty. She said she would wait for me to get a beer, a tea or whatever and join her next ride. I knew DH would think the expense unnecessary so I returned to him and said I was going one way or another. He beat me to the buggy!

Oh, and what a ride! It was cooling and relaxing; I loved it and will do it again if I get the chance. We took out with Hank and Rowdy, two beautiful Belgian horses with feet the side of streetcars, pulling the carriage. I sat next to the driver and never missed a word of her history lesson about Savannah. She was informative, honest and witty. She had stories about almost every house or statue. We passed the home that was setting for Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and the home of Mrs. Wilkes who is featured in John T. Edge’s book titled Mrs. Wilkes Boardinghouse Cookbook. I heard the comment that her food was better than Paula Deen’s! The book is a delightful read with lots of Savannah stories included.

Charleston Tea Plantation

One of the most impressive sights on this trip was a visit to the Charleston Tea Plantation. This is a working farm and the ONLY tea grown in North America. The sandy soil for good drainage, plenty of humid heat and rain made growing conditions perfect for tea. It took forever it seemed to find the place out on a tip of land. I was so excited and not disappointed for one minute. Small by farm measures, it is less than 200 acres. Originally, the land was used for watermelons and potato crops until 1960. Now the tea bushes are all trimmed and look more like a garden hedge than a farm crop. We were lucky enough to be there on a day when they were harvesting.

So we took the trolley ride out into the fields. The trolley had been a streetcar in Philadelphia at one time. The guide said that snakes are common there such as diamond backed, cottonmouths, and copperheads. No one had to tell me to stay seated and on that trolley! The harvesting equipment is a unique as the crop. Elsewhere tea is handpicked, but here parts of a tobacco harvester and a cotton harvester were put together to create a new machine for harvesting tea. This harvester is fondly called the Green Giant.
Once we had taken the outside tour, we went inside to view how the picked tea was handled. Again, machinery was interesting. One could linger as long as they liked watching tea being dried, cut, and bundled. This tea is sold under the label of American Classic and available right now only in South Carolina. Although affiliated with Bigelow tea, it is never mixed with Bigelow in anyway. They are always sold separately, as Bigelow tea is imported from elsewhere.

There is a small gift shop and tasting area. I was thirsty so the iced peach flavor was a hit with me. I carted a bag of it back to Missouri! The setting was lovely that day with perfect temperatures for sitting in the rocking chairs on the front porch. I did not want to leave, but after a picnic lunch and wonderful visit to this tea plantation, we moved on into Charleston.

Road Trip to Georgia

I never considered myself much of a Southern sympathizer. I grew up in the border area of Kansas and was a Jayhawk all the way. However, over the years I came to appreciate some Southern history. I learned my mother was born in Arkansas, I married into a family with some roots in Georgia, and I found that a Frenchman in North Carolina started one leg of my family. When I reread Gone with the Wind as an adult followed by a read of Margaret Mitchell and John Marsh: The Love Story Behind Gone with the Wind, I had a real hankering to drive across some of the South. It took me two years but recently made the trip.

Georgia was a pretty state, but I found much of the terrain similar to the rolling hills of Missouri. The abundance of Southern crepe myrtle started here and was lovely. Kudzu was in evidence of course. There were not the lovely roadside wildflowers of Missouri though. Two famous battlegrounds were on the route, Shiloh and Chickamauga. Both were beautiful settings, and it was hard to imagine the carnage that took place there. Visitors were quiet and respectful in both battlegrounds; the trees were tall and stately, silent to the horrors they had seen well over a hundred years ago.

Although I saw what was left of the home of John Ross along the way, I was severely disappointed to find New Echota closed when I got there. This was the last capital of the Cherokee Nation before the Trail of Tears. Although I cannot trace my own line back far enough to see where they started on the Trail, ALL Cherokee came from somewhere near these Southern points. Oklahoma is not the native land for any Cherokee.

I was also disappointed that Flannary O’Conner’s home, Andalusia, was not open on Labor Day when we passed through. However, we did visit Milledgeville, and I could picture the writer visiting the quaint stores and homes there during her lifetime. (I was to learn later in the trip that Milledge was a name that meant “grits cutter” or miller.) We saw the Episcopal Church where Sherman lodged his horses during the Civil War. He had his soldiers pour molasses down the pipes of the church’s organ so that signals could be not sent to Confederates.

While that day’s agenda seemed to be a failure, all was not lost. By moving on down the road, we made Social Circle, Georgia in time to have a lovely supper at the famous Blue Willow Inn. It is a lovely old home serving meals on Willow plates and decorating the walls with Blue Willow dishes. The grounds are lovely, landscaped with flowers and shrubs, including a small koi pond. The menu is served buffet style and all the foods are Southern favorites. It was my first sampling of fried green tomatoes, although I remember hearing that my grandmother made them years ago. I sampled turnip greens, not a favorite. I liked my first piece of peanut butter pie, although I was so full by then that the pie did not get its due! Other foods like crooked neck squash, macaroni and cheese, apple salad, corn muffins, sweet potatoes were side dishes I make often. I might be more of a down-home Southern cook than I thought!