The Stories that Stayed with Me

Because of COVID concerns, the college where I teach English compressed our semester and eliminated breaks so that the students don’t have to return to campus after Thanksgiving. (We had face-to-face instruction, which was wonderful. I hate virtual classes, and my students do, too. We made it through this semester just fine; no need for a shutdown. No WANT for a shutdown.) Our spring semester got pushed back for the same reason, so we don’t start classes again until February.

February, y’all! What in the world shall I do with all that extra time?

Write, is the obvious answer, as I wait for a publishing date for my current book. I have two different ideas stewing in the hopper. One is to revise a memoir I wrote about growing up in boarding school in Kenya in the 1980s, which has been in a finished but rough state for years. The other, a novel, is outlined and just waiting for flesh on the bones. The protagonist has already become a close friend of mine, and she sometimes shows up in my dreams, beckoning me to bring her to life. So yeah, I have time and the will to write.

The other thing I plan on doing during my break is read. A lot. And since the world is a scary, ugly place these days, dark and full of shadows, I’ve been leaning towards doing some comfort rereading of the books that charmed and formed me in childhood.

I have always had a love affair with books. Before I started boarding school in 6th grade, my best friends growing up were Jo March and Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Every time I read Little Women, I convinced myself that this time, this time, Jo would not be so stupid and she would agree to marry Laurie. She still always makes the wrong choice.) Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books were a fascination for me, rich with adventure, history, and my favorite: food descriptions. Reading how the starving settlers in The Long Winter were reduced to eating brown bread and butter sent me scurrying to the kitchen to make myself a pile of Blue Band and bread sandwiches, after which I plonked down on the red rug in my room, munching on the salty, coarse snack and tsking over the Wilders struggling to stay warm.

blue band

Wilder’s Farmer Boy was decadent; the Christmas meal had me wiping saliva from my chin as I read:

”He looked at the crisp, crackling little pig lying on the blue platter with an apple in its mouth. He looked at the fat roast goose, the drumsticks sticking up, and the edges of dressing curling out. The sound of Father’s knife sharpening on the whetstone made him even hungrier. He looked at the big bowl of cranberry jelly, and at the fluffy mountain of mashed potatoes with melting butter trickling down it. He looked at the heap of mashed turnips, and the golden baked squash, and the pale fried parsnips.

He swallowed hard and tried not to look anymore. He couldn’t help seeing the fried apples ’n’ onions, and the candied carrots. He couldn’t help gazing at the triangles of pie, waiting by his plate; the spicy pumpkin pie, the melting cream pie, the rich, dark mince oozing from between the mince pie’s flaky crusts. He squeezed his hands together between his knees. He had to sit silent and wait, but he felt aching and hollow inside.”

Same, Almanzo. Same.  

Many of my days were spent at the top of the loquat tree next to our house. Drowsily, I’d gorge on the honeyed fruit and The Chronicles of Narnia, ignoring the bossy sharp cries of the ibis in our yard. A lonely, imaginative child, I became firmly convinced that Aslan was real, and I diligently searched the hedges and holes of our two and a half acre yard for a door to that magic kingdom. I decided I was Christian after reading Little Pilgrim’s Progress, a kid-friendly version of John Bunyan’s great allegory, and I spent long hours destroying my mother’s purple African lilies with a stick I’d deemed a sword. The lilies, which had become in my child eyes the Giant of Pride, eventually succumbed to my triumphant sword, their sad purple-bunched heads lying in piles on the ground. I kicked off my wellington boots and paddled in the huge tea-colored puddles in our driveway, and called for help from the angels because I’d fallen into the Slough of Despair.african lilieslittle pilgrim

Have I mentioned that my childhood was magical?

I was a quick and voracious reader, gobbling up Black Beauty, Charlotte’s Web, Island of the Blue Dolphin, The Secret Garden, Lorna Doone, and A Little Princess, coming up for air just long enough to get my bearings before reading the same books all over again. While my sister, five years younger and the exact opposite of me, kept a busy social schedule with neighboring missionary kids, I shifted from the loquat tree to one of the enormous avocado trees in our yard, carrying a spoon and Hans Brinker under my arm, settling myself on a huge branch. In the warm African sun, I scooped buttery green avocado into my mouth and shivered at the idea of a Dutch winter. (I’d never seen snow, at least not that I could remember. Now that I have seen it and felt it, I can safely say I HATE IT AND WINTER.)

In the used bookstore we frequented on our monthly journeys to the capital city of Nairobi, I loaded up on my very favorite series of all: Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and The Naughtiest Girl in the School. (Because Kenya was a British colony until 1963, the books in English there were, by and large, British ones, and yes, often fifty years old or more.) In The Famous Five, I discovered adventure and mystery, a fondness that would eventually lead me to Nancy Drew, which became another obsession of mine. (Nancy’s independence, fancy car, and tidy wristwatch fascinated me more than her exciting scrapes.) As for The Naughtiest Girl series . . . well. A girl never wanted to go to boarding school more than me after reading those books—until I actually had to go to boarding school. But that’s a story for another day.

During our trips to Nairobi, we mainly stayed at the Mennonite Guest House, a quiet, comfortable, less-than-luxurious cottage-style B-n-B that had the very best tea time, climbing trees, and library for the guests. It was there that I discovered Bilbo Baggins, Frodo, and arguably my favorite character of all times, the loyal Samwise Gamgee. Samwise’s unwavering loyalty spoke to me deep in my young bones, perhaps because I too was (am) loyal to a fault, and like calls to like. I remember nestling deep into the top bed of the bunk in my family’s shared room, ignoring my mom and sister’s request to play “Sorry” with them, moving through a world of chaos and courage, emboldened by the good that emphatically conquered evil.

the hobbit

Last weekend, my Molly and I stopped at a flea market, and I found a book called The King’s Thane by Charles A. Brady. Thumbing through it, charmed by the illustrations, I felt that old familiar longing to lose myself in a good yarn of old, so I bought the book, claiming I’d save it for a future grandchild someday. I was lying; I totally bought it for me. Because in this horrific time, filled with almost unbearable anger and fear and what seems like very little hope, I’ve decided one necessary use of my long break will be to reopen some long-shut wardrobes, jump in a sporty little convertible in search of a secret in a clock, and squat next to a little sour-faced orphan as she pretends to plant hibiscus flowers in heaps of dirt. Perhaps I’ll prepare a “tuck box” and some bread-and-butter sandwiches before I set out, and when the angel shows up to rescue me from the sticky, awful slough I’ve been stuck in for far too long, I’ll offer to share. Above all, I’ll try to remind myself, over and over, what Samwise told Frodo in The Two Towers:

“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something. That there is some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.”

What to Watch, Halloween Edition 2020

Yesterday I offered up my opinion on scary books worth reading. Today I’ll share my favorite Halloween movie picks. Some are scary, some are hilarious, some are scary AND hilarious. So here we go: Becky’s Top Ten Movies to Watch on Halloween.

MOVIE PICK ONE (SCARY): The Others.

Holy crap, this movie scared me to death, and it’s the kind of scary I adore. Not too many jump-scares, no blood and gore, just quiet dread the entire way through. Great acting, perfect pace, and oooh, there’s a twist. I do so love me a good twist.

MOVIE PICK TWO (SCARY): I Am Legend.

This is one of those rare, rare cases where the movie was actually much better than the book. Richard Matheson’s novel of the same name was a mess–really aggravating and a little stupid. But the MOVIE? Fantastic. It’s terrifying, and Will Smith is amazing in his role as a man surviving the apocalypse alone. (Well, not entirely alone, and therein lies the rub.)

MOVIE PICK THREE (SCARY): A Quiet Place.

If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t seen this movie yet, then climb out, dust yourself off, and WATCH THIS MOVIE. It’s incredible–scary, yes, but heartbreaking and awesome to experience. The acting is superb; who knew Jim from The Office had such range? And to watch him act with his real-life wife, Emily Blunt, was a treat–you feel the tenderness between them in the movie, and that’s not acting! What I love the most is the careful plotting; Krasinski and his fellow screenwriters didn’t cheat, and every “little” detail mattered. I hate when movies gloss over things and you’re left thinking, “Wait–when did that happen? How’d they do that?” There’s none of that in this movie. It’s a masterpiece of careful plotting, suspense, and storytelling.

MOVIE PICK FOUR (FINAL SCARY): The Woman in Black.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for funny zombie movies (more on that in a moment) and gothic horror. This is gothic horror at its finest. Really, really, REALLY scary.

MOVIE PICK FIVE (FUNNY): Zombieland.

Believe it or not, this is my “desert island” movie (As in, if I was stuck on a desert island and could only take one movie to watch, this would be it.) I love this movie! It’s sly and hilarious and quote-worthy and just a pile of delicious codswallop. I have never gotten tired of it, and I watch it every year. The ten-year-anniversary movie, Zombieland: Double Tap was pretty good, but really, this is the one for me. Perfection.

MOVIE PICKS SIX AND SEVEN (FUNNY): Shaun of the Dead and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

I’m lumping these two together because, well, more zombies. Worth it though–hilarious and gross and just a good ol’ romp. I personally like to believe that Jane Austen would’ve enjoyed the updated version of her novel. It’s really well done and bloody good fun.

MOVIE PICK EIGHT (FUNNY): Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.

I stumbled across this gem quite by accident a few years ago when trolling Netflix for something to watch. What a surprise it turned out to be–absolute satire at its finest. This movie takes tired slasher-movie clichés and turns them into something new. Having two backwoods, redneck guys as the heroes who are bewildered by the rich college kids who keep dying in true slasher fashion was just genius. This is a funny, smart movie.

MOVIE PICK NINE (FUNNY): Tremors.

Okay, I’ll ‘fess up–I only really love this movie because it happens to be my 72-year-old mother’s favorite movie.

It’s early 90s shtick, and it IS funny, but honestly? It’s 10x more funny watching it with my mom because she cackles all the way through it. Still and all, it’s a blast–a silly scary movie, with or without my mom along for the ride.

And last but not least, MOVIE PICK TEN (FAMILY): The Nightmare before Christmas.

I mean, obviously this is a yearly Halloween must-see. (I sometimes watch it both at Halloween and Christmas.) The music, the story, the Tim-Burton-perfection of it all–if Halloween had a national movie, this would have to be it.

So there you have it: My top picks for things to watch on Halloween. My personal plans for the big day itself consist of me stress-eating way too many chocolate bars and noshing on a big bag of Sonic corn dogs (Halloween is 50-cent corndog day, at least where I live), whilst I jump and scream and watch the too-gross or too-scary bits of my movie-of-choice through my tiny telescope. (Right eye closed, left eye looking through the small hole I’ve left in my clenched fist to block the awful images).

What a great time of the year.

What to Read: The Halloween Edition, 2020

It’s almost time for that most deliciously dark night of the year, though I’ve personally been celebrating since September. (As in, that’s when the decorations went up).

My mantle, of which I’m sorta proud.

To commemorate this terrible, wonderful time, I thought I’d share my picks for things to read and things to watch for Halloween. Today is the “what to read” post, so here we go with six of my favorite scary books:

BOOK PICK ONE: World War Z, by Max Brooks. (Fun fact, apropos to nothing: He’s the son of Mel Brooks and the late, great Ann Bancroft. So he’s extra cool.)

I know, I know–a zombie book? Really. I swear, it’s amazing. Not only is it gripping in subject and detail, but the narrative structure is fantastic–unconventional, to be sure, but man, it WORKS. I’ve read this book three times now, and every time I’m blown away by how good it is. (By the way, if you saw the movie version, PLEASE don’t let it sully your reading of the book. Because of the narrative structure I mentioned, this book should never have been made into a film. NEVER. It doesn’t work! I’ll let the folks at “Honest Trailers” shift you away from the movie, but do read the book.)

“Brad Pitt Zombie Movie”


BOOK PICK TWO: The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson.

Shirley Jackson is my spirit animal, let’s just get that out of the way right now. I adore her writing–she can shift from hilarious (her memoirs Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, which featured her sardonic views on motherhood, had me crying with laughter) to chilly terror in nothing to ninety flat.

This book was SCARY, boys and girls. At first, I kept thinking, “It’s just a creepy old house where things aren’t set right. Is that it?” I didn’t know at first how to feel about the characters–while Jackson has a charming way of including sparkling, clever dialogue in her books, I felt that it was sometimes forced and false, especially when dealing with the protagonist, Eleanor. She went from a suppressed, downtrodden, fearful 32-year-old woman to someone who talked and capered like a young teenage girl once she was in the house. The instant camaraderie between Theodora and herself seemed weird and unrealistic to me–they were all SO jolly–but that is the slyness of Shirley Jackson. She creeps up and slips a hook in you while you’re not looking, just a jab really, a tiny pin-prick while you’re distracted–and then she goes to work, tying you into her web. Suddenly the story was genuinely spooky and I was constantly on edge, trying to figure out what was real and what was not–and praying that no one would ever, EVER be foolish enough to open the door.

Pay attention: Jackson starts and ends the novel with the same words about the house, and those words are fantastic: “Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Stunning and perfect.

(Side note: The Netflix version of the book, while taking huge liberties with the material, was not too bad.)

If you decide you need more Shirley in your life and in more manageable, bite-sized pieces, Dark Tales is a great collection of her short stories that will blow your mind. I use “The Possibility of Evil” in my English II class, and my students really dig it.

BOOK PICK THREE: The Stand, by Stephen King.

I’ve had a longstanding relationship with Stephen King, starting when I was in around 7th grade in boarding school in Kenya. A friend lent me Salem’s Lot (my mother would never allow such “trash” in the house), and I spent the next year wearing a cross around my neck, terrified of the vampires I just knew would come to get me. I’ve read many, many of King’s books since–some great, some pretty awful–but The Stand is the one I return to over and over. It never ceases to amaze me with its depth, its almost prophetic vision of the world we live in now. (I’ve been calling COVID “Captain Trips” since March, though thankfully it turned out not to be a captain at all. Really, not even a first-mate. Possibly a tourist?)

I first read the original, edited version, then the uncut, and then the edited again, and I can confidently say that there was a reason the editor got rid of so much the first time. The first run of the book reads far better than the unedited version, so if you can get your hands on that one, do it. I think you can find it on ebay–I got mine at a used bookstore.

(And skip the made-for-tv version of the movie with Molly Ringwald, Rob Lowe, and Gary Sinise–pee-yew. What a stinker!)


BOOK PICK FOUR: The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey.

Yes, another zombie book, and still well-written and engaging. It’s fun and scary, just like Halloween.

The movie for it was meh. Not anything to write home about, but not bad. Read the book first, though. Always.

BOOK PICK FIVE: Something Wicked this Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury.

Fantastic book–scary as heck, and Bradbury’s way with words knocks me at the knees and makes me tumble right over. I had to stop and read several lines aloud just because they tasted so delicious in my mouth. In the book, Dad’s great truths about human nature was less interesting to me, but still he was a great character, and Mr. Dark was fabulous in his evil. By the pricking of my thumb . . .

And finally, BOOK SIX OF BECKY’S SPOOKY READS, 2020: Swan Song, by Robert R. McCammon.

I begin by echoing the reviewers who compare this book with The Stand. The subject is obviously similar–an apocalyptic event that leaves the few humans who survive scrambling to figure out how to go on, two factions of good vs. evil marching towards each other in an inevitable show-down, a spiritual undercurrent that drives everything. HOWEVER: The story was different enough that it still felt like an original story. McCammon is gifted in character and plot development (important considering the massive size of this book). I preferred his less crass style (swearing was a minimum, as was descriptions of sex) to King’s, and as others have noted, his ending is much more developed and just BETTER than the ending in The Stand. Margaret Atwood noted once that most stories come from ancient tales, and I think rather than a knock-off of King’s tale, McCammon just drank from the same story well. I’m glad he did.

So there you have it–books to make your blood cold and your breath catch. Tomorrow I’ll share my favorite Halloween picks. Until then, stay spooky.



How Does One Acquire a Deadly Vice?

I’ve finally figured out the root of my current writer’s block: I need to start smoking! I recently watched a movie about one of my writing heroes, Shirley Jackson, and that ol’ gal smoked like a chimney. As a matter of fact, it seems like any movie I’ve ever watched about writers (barring Beatrix Potter) shows the literary types puffing away as their brows furrow in the pain of tortured genius and angst of brilliant creation. So that must be it; I need to start smoking! Then I too will be great!

Oh, and I guess I need to start drinking, too. So many of the literary giants appeared to be constant guests on the slick liquor train–Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Edgar Allen Poe–the list goes on and on. I can almost see myself tottering around in a filmy gown and marabou-lined slippers, a cigarette smoldering in one of those long black cigarette holders clenched between my teeth, a squat glass filled with amber scotch and ice sloshing around in my hand as I slur, in a golden-whiskey-throated growl, “Gimme a pen–I’ve just had a great idea for the next chapter.”

(Actually, now that I think about it, maybe that image is a little more Sunset Boulevard and less authorial. “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. Demille . . . .”)

Hold on a tic, though–all those writers I mentioned had miserable personal lives. Some of them committed suicide (a la Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Hemingway); some of them just drank themselves to death, and Shirley–well, unsurprisingly, a heart problem blamed on her weight and cigarette use got her in the end. 

Hmm . . . as Fagan sang in the movie Oliver: “I think I’d better think it out again.”

Because here’s some flies in the ointment. One: I’ve never smoked. I tried ONCE and ended up coughing and gasping for ten minutes, then using the cigarette like a sparkler to draw shapes in the dark sky with the glowing tip. I just don’t get it. (It burns us, Master!)

Fly number two: I’m not a big drinker either–I like a rum-n-Coke now and again, but mainly it’s the Coke I like. And I could n.e.v.e.r ingest scotch on a regular basis. Or even on a non-regular basis. Okay, not even one sip. (Again with the burning issue).

And buzzing, poop-dwelling vermin number three: Neither do I really fancy wandering into a rushing river with my pockets filled with stones or sticking my head in an oven. It’s a hard old world, to be sure, but I’m still curious enough to see what’s going to happen next. I’m not quite ready to check out just yet.

Dear me, my options have suddenly shrunk. Perhaps if I begin drinking Coca-Cola by the gallons and chewing gum, I may be able to at least achieve mediocrity in my writing. I might never get to “great,” but at least I’ll get to stick around and see my kids grow up to become geniuses. That seems better to me right now. But oh, what will all that Co-Cola do to my ever-expanding girth? And do I really want massive jaw muscles?

Patron Saint of Mediocrity

Writing is such a tricky business . . .

Shimmering Silence

I was watching my daughter (now a fourth-year med student—almost done, thank the LORD) write something for class, and I marveled, not for the first time, at how she listens to music while she writes. I just cannot do that—when I’m writing, it has to be absolutely, entirely silent. Not only can I not listen to music, I also cannot have the television on in the same room or be near any conversation at all. I become hypersensitive to sound—ticking, thumping, the silent buzz of the phone when a text comes in—all of it becomes as loud as a train whistle near the tracks. (Ironically, we live quite close to a train track and I rarely notice the whistle. But you get my point.)

This is not true of when I read. A bomb could go off in the room where I’m reading and I won’t notice until shrapnel hits me in the eye. My kids have, more than once, shaken me to get my attention after they’ve said, “Mom. Mom. MOM!” repeatedly and I haven’t responded because I honestly didn’t hear them. This has been the case since I was a child—I clearly remember being dragged back into the real world by my bemused parents or aggravated sister, who apparently had been trying to get my attention for awhile to no avail. When I am in a book, I am IN a book.

It’s the opposite when I write, though. John Gardner, in his fantastic book The Art of Fiction, speaks of the “fictional dream” a writer should create for the reader, and it’s a perfect explanation of where I go when I am reading a great story. When I am writing the story myself, though, I fall into a fictional hole rather than a dream. Once all distractions are eliminated (emails read/responded to, laundry folded or ignored, snacks eaten, phone off and away from my writing space) and I’m in “the zone,” it’s like slipping into a dark chasm. The chasm becomes a cave where I have to navigate around pits and slippery spots with my characters, and I only have a sentence at a time to light my way. If there is any sound in the outside world, my characters melt into the darkness and I’m yanked out of the hole, blinking against the harsh light of reality, sputtering with irritation at whoever or whatever pulled me out. It’s so hard to find my way back when I’ve been pulled out this way; if I come to a natural pause or am really stuck, then leaving the cave of my own accord is fine, but being disturbed when I’m in the groove—hoooo.

Not good for me; not good for the cause of the disturbance.

I tell my composition students to set themselves up for success when they write, to find the environment that works best for them. Many admit that writing propped up in their beds is a bad idea because they often fall asleep. So some need a busy coffee shop. Some listen to music on headphones; others, like me, need perfect quiet, and they retreat to the second floor of our university library. I try to take my own advice. If anyone is home, I announce, “I’m going to write, so don’t bug me unless it’s an emergency” before heading upstairs for writing time. I take my Westie, Jock, out so his bathroom needs won’t interrupt my cave time. I leave my phone downstairs so it won’t bother me. I settle myself in my favorite writing spot , sit on the edge of the hole for a minute, then drop into the cave. It takes a bit to find my character friends, but not too long—they’ve been waiting for me, after all, and I’m the only one who can unearth them. I shine the light of that next sentence in front of me, and together, we start moving again. If all goes well, the world outside is silent while the world inside is a mass of noise, and I plunge on like a dwarf in a fairy-tale, trying to pick gems out of the cavern walls.

The Best Critique

100_3397My best friend, Lori, died ten years ago today, and I still miss her. Maybe not every day, like I did at first, but a lot. Especially when something excellent or awful is happening—I want to call her and mourn or call her and celebrate. Weddings, graduations, births (her grandsons are the cutest kids in the world and I HATE that they don’t get the awesome experience of having her as their grandma)—all are sweetness laced with sorrow. In those moments, I catch the eyes of those who loved her too and can almost see, like cartoon speech bubbles above all our heads, “I wish Lori were here . . .”

On her birthday this year, I was shelving at the library, and as I put a book away, I realized the title was Lonesome Dove. Memories of watching the television version of the book with Lori and her husband Chris flooded over me—I remembered Lori’s giggle at Robert Duvall’s line, “I’m down to one leg and fading fast.” I heard Chris drawling, “Lori, darlin” at her like Duvall did to the good-natured whore in the movie, and grief made me physically weak. I had to find a quiet corner to compose myself.

It never goes away, and I don’t want it to—those memories are worth the pain.

lonesome dove

When I was offered the publishing contract for my book, I told my husband the good news, and he rejoiced with me, hugging me in the kitchen and repeating, “That’s awesome, honey!” I then called my daughter and parents, squealed for awhile with them, and then started composing a “hurrah” message to my other BFFS—Jenna, Shannon, Trish, and my sister, Sara. As I scrolled through my contacts, I saw it: Lori’s name and number (I can’t seem to let myself delete it, though I know the number is no longer hers), and here it came—that dry-aspirin sorrow that curled around the edges of my tongue. More than anything in the world at that moment, I wanted to call my lovely friend, who was always my biggest writing cheerleader. I stepped outside, onto the porch, and cried familiar, angry tears.

I visited her grave that evening to tell her all about it; her site is on my regular walking route, and I stop by often to give her updates. I tell her how her kids and husband and parents are doing; I mutter about what is going on in my own life; I fuss about irritations or chuckle about something and wish I could hear the wind-chime tinkle of her gorgeous laugh. I kiss my palm and lay it on her tombstone and tell her, “I love you and miss you, pal. I’ll talk to  you soon,” before trudging on. Though I know she’s not there, that she’s in heaven having a great time, talking to her at her grave is a comfort to me.

When I wrote my story “Mitigation”I sent it, in its rough form, to Lori to read. I saved the Facebook conversation Lori and I had about it because it was just the best critique of anything I’d ever written; I had no idea that she would be gone six months later. It was precious for the words; it’s even more precious because it was the last critique I’d ever have from her.

Here’s part of our conversation:

    • January 14, 2010

9:06pm

Lori Kauffman

Becky,

GREAT story! What a compelling glimpse into how every woman feels at some point! I liked how you created the weight of all 24 years within just a few short paragraphs, and how when Linda STEALS the truck and gorges herself on the elderly’s food, I completely understood and sympathized with her insanity! I think we as women often identify ourselves too much through who we are to someone else. I know I have felt that sense of emptiness that comes from not being “seen” any longer. You summed up that feeling so well in Linda’s line …“I love him,” she said, “if only because he once knew me when I was someone else. If he doesn’t see me that way anymore, then I am afraid I am lost forever.” How Linda finds herself filling up this emptiness is just genius … Meals on Wheels for Christ’s sake is PERFECT, Becky!

I also liked you developed the theme of the emptiness of material possessions. These people had spent a lifetime accumulating things that only made them feel all the more empty inside because that’s all they had invested in. “And with that guttural noise, one more piece of the carefully arranged mosaic of their marriage fell away.” That line was so good I had to stop and read it several times over! In fact, that paragraph was so well-written I could almost taste it! I love short stories, Becky, and this story is EXCELLENT. It made me feel like a Peeping Tom stealing a glimpse through the curtain into Linda’s life!

Regarding your concern about the ending, I felt Linda’s response to Harold rang very true. In fact I found the ending quite hopeful. Linda is a woman who, after 24 years of being someone’s wife and accumulating the “stuff” of life, has realized that is ALL she has. It was empowering for her to write that check for her freedom, and through their exchange in his Corvette, I feel we further understand this sense of empowerment she is feeling. How she has no sense of concern for the aftershocks to their social standing but rather can’t wait to bake for those poor Meals on Wheels folks truly communicates the metamorphosis she’s undergone. I love how you describe her chuckling to herself in the jailhouse mirror!

So now I have to ask a question – I hope I don’t offend you if I should have known this – but where does the title come from —– Seventh Stage? Thank you so much for sharing! You are an incredibly talented writer, my friend!

Love,
Lori

PS: The Tea Room sounds great!

9:22pm

Becky Lewis Marietta

Oh, heavens! You are the one I will be sending all my stuff to from here on out–THANK YOU, my friend! Not only did you say nice things about the story (kindred spirit of mine), but you gave a real professional review–and you got all the nuances! You should review books–you’re really good at summing up the main points. I’m humbled and DELIGHTED that you liked it so much.

The title WAS a little cryptic (I have trouble writing titles sometimes because they are so important and I love other people’s clever titles,). I got it from the seven stages of grief–the seventh stage, which is the last one, is acceptance and hope.

Interesting note: I got the idea from listening to the news on the radio–someone actually did steal a Meals-On-Wheels, and I thought at the time, “What kind of person would steal a Meals-On-Wheels? What would MAKE a person steal a Meals-On-Wheels?” That was the germ that turned into the story.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for reading it and thank you, thank you, thank you for your kind words. Really, that’s why I write–that connection with someone else in the world who “gets” it. That’s it–you’re my official favorite reader!

So, how does Monday lunch at the Tea Room work for you?
Love ya,
Becky

9:38pm

Lori Kauffman

I love the “cryptic-ness” of the title … acceptance and hope … indeed, that is the icing on Linda’s cake! I graciously accept the “official favorite reader” title if it means you will share more with me!

The story is really great, Becky, and I think what makes it great is how it rings true to our humanity (we’ve all felt like Linda at one point or another), and how your writing style is so descriptive and poetic. It’s not just me that “gets” it, Becky — I think it’s the kind of story a LOT of people will feel a connection with.

Monday Lunch at the Tea Room sounds great! How about we meet there at 12?

9:42pm

Becky Lewis Marietta

Love, love, love to you!
Yep, 12:00 on Monday–it’s a date!

Lori Kauffman

9:44pm

Lori Kauffman

LOVE to you! Can’t wait ’till Monday!

After Lori died, I changed the main character’s name in the aforementioned story in honor of my friend who helped me believe in myself as a writer. When I wrote my novel, I gave one of my favorite characters Lori’s maiden name because though she is not here with me physically, her fingerprints are all over the place, in my writing and on my heart.

I love you and miss you, pal. I’ll talk to you soon.

lori becky (2)

 

Holding Pattern (Or, My Wah-Wah-Wah Post)

As are many of us struggling with the COVID blues (actually, for me it’s more like the mean reds), I’ve been in a holding pattern in most areas in my life. Yesterday, frustrated by yet another plan gone awry, I wailed at my husband, “2020 was supposed to be the year of Becky!” There were/are two big milestones for me this year—I turned 50, and my husband and I will celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary soon. I was going to go on a grand zip line adventure for my 50th because one of my greatest childhood memories was riding the rickety (and, now that I think about it, pretty dangerous) zip line in the playground at Titchie Swot at RVA.

zipline trolley

I remember climbing up the planks nailed into the tree and stepping onto the wooden platform, my knees shaking a little, my hands sweaty. Titchie Swot zip line protocol demanded that the last person to have zipped would wait and hold the trolley wheel until the next person was ready to go. I accepted the handle, watched the other person disappear back down the tree, and turned to face the line. Gripping the handles on either side of the wheel that was balanced on the cable, I took a little hop up and jumped out. As I zoomed over the playground towards the big tree on the other side of the line, I whooped and hollered, giddy with the freedom of flight.

rva20039
Me during the oh-so exciting Titchie Field Day at RVA, circa 1981

Thirty-nine years later, I still remember the danger, the excitement, the exhilaration vividly. So when I started planning a daring do for my 50th, all I could think of was that zip line. I found a place that had several zip lines interconnected, a three-hour “tour” of the tree-tops, and booked two tickets for me and my husband, along with a nice bed-and-breakfast stay. Then COVID struck, the zip line shut down for a couple of months, and I ended up having a very nice, but not very exciting, supper with my family for my birthday.

 

wah wah

For our 30th anniversary, Casey and I were in the thick of planning a two-week trip to Croatia. (Yes, Croatia. It’s gorgeous. Don’t you judge me.) We’d planned the itinerary and were almost ready to finalize booking with our travel agent, and then COVID hit. So no trip overseas for us this year—maybe, if the city and state don’t shut down again, we can do what I planned for my 50th on our 30th. Or we may just have a nice supper.

debby downer

And then there’s the effect of COVID on my writing. After a bit of a dry spell, I finally had an idea for my next novel that excited me. I started researching and planning, even going so far as to learn how to tell fortunes with some gypsy cards from the 1940s. I muttered possible dialogues as I watered the garden or went for a walk around town. (If you’ve seen me doing that, friends in Siloam, relax. I’m only a little bit mad.) I wrote three beginnings, trying to figure out which way I’d like to go, and then the mandates from the university where I adjunct started appearing in my inbox, like so many goat-head burrs on my socks.

Exhortations to be ready to teach face-to-face while staying far, far away from my students poured over me and made my head and my heart hurt—one of my classes is a writing class for students who aren’t quite ready for English I. They generally need a LOT of interactive coaching (read: me looking over their shoulders and asking questions or making suggestions) and cheerleading, as I try to convince them that they are NOT terrible at English; they simply need to learn the tricks, and I’m just the old gal who can teach them. Standing in a duct-tape-on-the-carpet “box” at the front of class, a mask over my face as I try to teach, unable to show my smile of encouragement, is frankly a nightmare. So is making sure all the assignments in and out of class are online accessible—no longer can I, on the spur-of-the-moment, say, “Get out a piece of paper and let’s create some sentences.” No, I have to plan ahead and create a discussion board post for every interaction. Normally I spend an extraordinary amount of time trying to convince my students NOT to look at their laptops or phones in class and instead engage face to face, because research has shown empathy has gone down with the advent of screens and the technology that runs them. Now I’m supposed to instead encourage my students to stare at a screen all day, every day. So much for building empathy by looking at and responding to a human being’s expression. I’m telling you—the effects of social distancing and mask wearing are going to be catastrophic psychologically in the long run, especially for our young people. Humans aren’t meant to live this way.

In short, we’re doomed.

So, hello hours spent on Blackboard, goodbye, great new idea for a novel. It’s sitting on the shelf dimming as I work to create folders, links to assignments, narrations for PowerPoints. I do hope it will brighten when I pick it up again, but I’m afraid that like so many of my dreams this year, it’s already slipping away from me.

Getting a contract of publication for my current novel has been the only thing that’s been really splendid this year. My novel is now in the hands of my editor, who says it should be ready for me by the end of August. I am looking forward to seeing her suggestions and spending some time on the rewrites, but I gotta be honest—I’m a little afraid to hope. 2020 has taught me not to make plans.

Five more months until 2021. Until then, I’ll be circling the runway (or the drain) with the rest of the world.

34556-lie-down-try-not-to-wah-wah-a-lot

Walking Away from the COVID and Into the Wild West

elizabeth bennet walker

            Like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, I have nothing, in short to recommend me but being an excellent walker. I can walk for miles and miles as long as I have a good book in my ears and it’s not too cold. (Heat I’m fine with, but cold? No thanks. When I get cold, it takes forever for me to warm back up, and it physically hurts me to be chilly. I’ve been known to cry angry tears when I’m freezing.)

Since the COVID madness, I’ve ramped things up, walking four miles a day on average, and the more stressed or mad I get, the longer my walks become. In fact, I rage-walked 6.83 miles one day last week because I was OVER IT ALL.7 miles

I’m not ill-informed, stupid, selfish, or stubborn; I just don’t believe in a piece of cloth’s ability to solve a natural pandemic, and based on all the flip-flopping and conflicting statements, I don’t believe the “experts” really do either. I do believe completely in Ronald Reagan’s quip that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” As someone who grew up in a foreign country that was sort-of free (there were elections, but the outcome was predetermined; you had to be very careful not to criticize the government; I lived through a failed military coup when I was 12 and remember the countless police checkpoints after the coup was put down), I was raised to believe in the Constitution of the United States and its purpose: to protect her citizens FROM the government by limiting its powers. This idea that we are now beholden TO the government instead hurts me deep in my soul.

But I digress; back to books and walking. My go-to audiobooks these days have weirdly been of the Wild West variety (not my typical). I listened to a book about Doc Holliday that I LOVED (called Doc, by Mary Doria Russell), which made me want to load up the car immediately and head to Dodge City and then on to Tombstone. (Hey! A new bucket list item!) A couple of days ago, I finished a book by Larry McMurtry (of the Lonesome Dove fame) called Zeke and Ned.

What an unexpected joy! The story was great, the characters fantastic, and the setting a pleasant surprise; because Zeke and Ned are part Cherokee, they live in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, a town very familiar to me as that is where I received both my Bachelor’s and Master’s degree and started my college teaching career (at the former Cherokee Female Seminary, now known as Northeastern State University).nsu

An even more unexpected delight was the reference to Siloam Spring, Arkansas, the town just over the border where I teach, shop, and yes, walk. I’d never heard any book before mention Siloam Springs, and though it was only briefly discussed as a place where the men went to gamble, it was still very cool to imagine a writer of McMurtry’s status noticing the town enough to put it in the book.

I’m not sure why I’m so attracted to Wild West stories these days. Maybe it’s because I relate to and long for the fierce independence of the characters of old, be they sheriff, outlaw, prostitute, or farmer. I imagine the bemused expressions on the faces of these scarlet fever, smallpox, and dysentery survivors as they are told to stay home for an illness that has claimed less than .26% of the population. Then they’re informed that if they do go out, they must cover their faces “to protect others.” Their response would likely be to laugh uproariously before reminding the mask mandate-giver that only bank and train robbers cover their faces.

I am also drawn to the old-fashioned style of writing in westerns, regardless of the author. For example, in Zeke and Ned, a character is raped, but instead of every gory detail that television, movies, and many contemporary books in other genres love to provide, the terrible event is relayed simply by the observation that the woman “was outraged” and scoundrels “treated her rough.” My horror and sorrow for the character was not lessened by the lack of voyeuristic explanation.

I love all the “-some” words in westerns—“bothersome,” “troublesome,” “tiresome,” “worrisome,” “winsome”—and that usually the most swearsome words are “hell” (usually preceded by “aw”) and “damnation.” Other non-swear swears abound—“tarnation,” “I’ll be blasted” (or “hornswoggled”), “darn-tootin,” “by ginger,” and “jumped up Jehoshaphat.” I’ve always believed that excessive swearing shows a limited vocabulary and lack of creativity; saying, “Now git—you’re as ugly as homemade sin, and that mug of yourn is curdling my milk” is so much more interesting than “eff you.”

I appreciate, too, the manners and codes of honor in these books. Everyone knows his or her place and someone is always on hand to gently (or not-so-gently) remind those who forget. People in western novels talk, but they also listen, and if they disagree, they at least offer courtesy in the disagreement. Nobody is screeching to get his or her way—opinions are presented, and then that’s the end of it. Conversation is just that–a “talk between two or more people, in which news and ideas are exchanged” (Merriam-Webster). It’s not a must-win-at-all-cost argument, which these days seems to be all conversation is anymore, at least on the internet.

Finally, though everything doesn’t always end “happily ever after,” justice is always served. The bad guy gets his comeuppance; you can bet he’s going to end up shot or hung for the outrages and rough treatments he indulged in. Order is restored. The brothel madam with the heart of gold marries a man who treats her right, and if the cowboy hero dies, it is with his boots on and his reputation grown as big as a Texas sky. The hero’s faithful horse and even more faithful dog remain alive and unscathed, either to ride the hero off into the sunset or to sit quietly by his grave, mourning his loss forever. When the last page is turned (or read, as in an audiobook), I can sigh with satisfaction and trudge back to the chaos of this world, my feet sore, the heel pads almost worn to bone, my heart hoping for a return to stability and justice and freedom.

calamity jane

Where Stories Come from 2: I Heard It on the Radio

While driving my kids to school one hurried morning, the radio blaring as usual (this was before iPods and downloads, and unless I wanted to dig out a CD to pop in the player, the radio was my go-to for vehicular entertainment), a news report pulled me from half-attention to sharp interest.

“Local police report that a Meals-on-Wheels van was stolen from the corner of Ash and Walnut . . .”

meals on wheels

From the back seat, my daughter piped up, “What kind of person steals a Meals-on-Wheels van?”

What kind of person, indeed? As I delivered the kids to their respective drop-off points, hollered, “Love you; have a good day!” and headed back home, the story and question continued to clang in my head—seriously, who would steal a vehicle from a charity that ministered to elderly shut-ins? Wasn’t that just punching a ticket straight to hell? I began to list, in my mind, all the people who would definitely steal a Meals-on-Wheels truck: Hitler, obviously. Stalin. Mao. Karl Marx. Timothy McVeigh. The Clintons. That neighbor who kept abducting our trashcan and using it to burn trash

I pulled into the carport, my mind swirling as I continued with my list. Saddam Hussein. Jared from Subway. The Black-Eyed Peas, for writing and producing that song, “My Humps.”

camel humps
For the ear-worm, I apologize.

I entered the house, poured myself a cup of coffee, and sat down at my computer, my brain itching. A new question began to form—what did the person who stole the van do with the food in it? Suddenly I saw in my mind’s eye a well-to-do woman sitting cross-legged in the back of a van, leaning against one of the metal racks, surrounded by emptied aluminum-foiled containers, stuffing food into her mouth with her bare hands, her eyes vacant. A new question, now: Why was she so hungry? I began to write, following the woman from a safe distance and yet as close as my own heart, and when I was through, I sat back and read what I’d written. I’d like to say it was perfect, but it wasn’t. There were plot holes, some clichés, repetition that needed to be fixed, but the bare bones were standing on their own, and I knew how to affix the flesh. I spent the next week rewriting, re-polishing, revising, then emailed the story to my darling friend, Lori, to read. She sent back the best review I’ve received to date, a review so splendid, I saved it and referenced it in the blog I kept at the time, not knowing that she would soon be dead of the cancer that would kill her in a span of three months, from diagnosis to death, a short summer of pain that left me a decade (so far) of grief. In honor of my beloved friend, I changed the protagonist’s name to “Lori,” sent the story to several literary journals, was rejected several times, and then Fabula Argentea asked to publish it. If you’re interested, you can read it here.

I teach academic writing, but I have also, in the past, mentored students who are interested in the creative fiction realm. When those students ask me for advice on writing fiction, I provide the following obvious mandates:

Read a lot. Read for pleasure, yes, but also while paying attention to technique. Read different genres than you’re used to. Take note of what you like and don’t like and why. If you come to a phrase or sentence that is amazing, stop and read it aloud so you can savor the taste of good writing on your tongue. Take note, too, of vocabulary that you’re unfamiliar with—introduce yourself to the words. Discard some as unnecessary to your life, but keep more than you throw away. Learn the meaning of sesquipedalianism and use the word in conversation to impress your friends, but avoid the practice in your own writing. `

Pay attention. Be awake and aware of the world around you—it’s full of wonderful stories waiting to be hatched. Take notes of things you hear or see that causes your daily stride to pause. Write everything down, on scraps of paper, backs of envelopes, your phone (my “notes” app on my phone is filled with bibs and bobs of observances). Keep a notepad next to your bed, and if you wake up from a dream that lingers, catch it in your net of words. Be willing to accept that not everything you jot down will become a story, but understand that every once in a while, something will, and that something may just be the inspiration you were hoping for.

When that story comes to you, start writing as soon as possible. Don’t wait until tomorrow because inspiration, like a sparkler on a July night, fades quickly. Once you start, get it down. Don’t worry about whether or not it’s “good”—it probably won’t be right out of the gate, but that’s okay. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your story shouldn’t be either. Allow for some clumsy junk that you will take out later, but when you write a phrase or sentence that sings to your soul, take a minute to read that aloud, too, and enjoy the thrill of that coveted moment. Revise. Revise some more. Take a nap, go for a walk, then revise again.

And get off the dang internet. When you overhear a curiosity, don’t google “person who stole Meals-on-Wheels truck” because I promise you, the real story won’t be near as fun.

 

Love in Cowboy Boots

I was sitting in my seventh-grade math class, bored and confused as usual (sorry, Mr. Wilson, but sums and I just never got along), when suddenly I felt a terrible itching on my scalp. I reached up to scratch and felt a bump, which immediately burst when I touched it. I pulled my fingers back and looked at them in horror—they were wet with some sort of clear liquid. I touched another spot on my scalp and experienced the same thing. I looked around at my classmates, panic beginning to fill my chest—was I dying of some exotic African disease? Would I have time to say good-bye to those I loved, or was I now melting, like the wicked witch of the East? (“What a world! What a world!”)

My friend looked over at me, and I watched her eyes widen. “You have red bumps all over your face,” she said. She raised her hand and caught our teacher’s attention. “Sir,” she said, interrupting an important part of the lesson whereby a person divides the bottom of a fraction to the top, “Becky is sick—she needs to go to the infirmary.”

Mr. Wilson stopped speaking, chalk in hand. He glanced over at me, frowned for a moment, then said, “Go.” As I gathered up my books, he said. “Leave that stuff—your classmate will take it to your dorm for you. Don’t touch anything on your way out.”

Now I was really alarmed—not only was I probably dying, I was so infectious I could kill the entire population of RVA (the boarding school I attended) with my bare, virus-ridden hands! I stumbled up the rocky path to the infirmary. I hated going up there; the building was at the top of a hill, isolated from the rest of the campus, and it seemed like miles, especially if you were sick or in pain. I lamented, as I itched and fretted, why the architects decided to build the infirmary so far away and up a hill. Sick people don’t LIKE to walk. I decided that maybe they did it to discourage “fakers”—a body had to be really sick to want to go all that way for help.

I staggered up to the door and was greeted by Mrs. S, the school’s nurse, a thin, pale woman who wore her black hair straight and parted down the middle like a perfectly straight knife scar. She took one look at me and pronounced, “Chicken-pox. It’s bed for you, Lewis. I’ll call down to your dorm and have someone bring your clothes.” She took my temperature, tucked me into bed, instructed me severely not to scratch, and left me to my own devices.

At first, I didn’t mind being in the infirmary. I was, strangely enough, the only patient there, so Mrs. S brought me cinnamon toast and hot cocoa whenever I asked for it. “Don’t scratch” was still the only directive I had to obey. I soon discovered the infirmary had the entire “Wizard of Oz” series in its limited library of donated books, and I gorged myself, reading until my eyes crossed. It didn’t take long, however, until I started getting plain old BORED. I was used to being with my friends 24-7, and the quiet of the infirmary started to get to me. It was creepy, all alone in that sterile white room. Having been a student at boarding school for two years now, I wasn’t used to being in a room by myself. Thursday passed, and then Friday. I started to feel very sorry for myself—my friends would be going up to Downing Hall that night to watch a movie, while I was just stuck in bed, counting the ceiling tiles. I sighed miserably. Suddenly, I heard a sharp rapping on the window. I rolled over and looked out through the anti-theft bars that adorned many of the houses in Kenya. I squealed with delight and pushed the window pane open, waving my hands wildly. Outside were my six best friends, grinning up at me.

“Hey, we thought you might be a little lonely,” one pal said. “We’re on our way up to Downing and thought we’d stop by and say hi.”

Before I could reply, Mrs. S rushed into my room. “What are you girls doing?” she called out to them. “Becky is quarantined—I don’t need a giant outbreak of chicken-pox. Now scram.”

“Miss you!” my friends cried as they left me, and I watched them until they disappeared down the path, their voices musical as they chattered away, then I settled back into bed glumly. Mrs. S shook her head at me. “Try and rest,” she said. “And DON’T SCRATCH.”

I laid my head on the pillow and closed my eyes. A vision of my mother and father suddenly filled the darkness behind my lids. “I want to go home,” I whispered to myself. A tear found its way past my eyelid and burned a trail down my cheek. I felt ridiculously child-like—I was way too old to be crying for my mommy and daddy—but there it was. Babyish or not, I wanted to go home. I knew sometimes parents came up to Rift and collected their kids when they were sick, but I also knew that mine wouldn’t—my home was six hours away on a pot-holed, Kenyan road, and mid-term break was only a week away. I would have to just gut it out until then, all alone. Feeling itchy, miserable, and not a little sorry for myself, I cried until I fell asleep.

Early the next morning, I woke to the echoing, clomping sounds of somebody walking down the long hallway. I sat up and rubbed my eyes. “That sort of sounds like my dad’s boots,” I thought, wistfully. My father, who’d been from Arkansas before we’d relocated to Kenya in 1976, had worn cowboy boots for as long as I could remember. The leather boots were worn down on the outside of the heels because of the way he walked, and as result, the sound was distinct and familiar. I sighed and rolled over, resting my elbows on the windowsill next to my bed, looking out and thinking about my father. I noticed that the clomping sound was getting louder and louder. Suddenly the noise stopped outside my room. The door to my room opened, and my dad walked in, grinning through his beard. “Hi, sweetie,” he said, “You’re not feeling so hot, huh?”

I stared at him in disbelief for a moment, then propelled myself out of bed and into his arms. “You’re here!” I said.

He kissed the top of my itchy head. “Of course I’m here. I was up in Turkana when the school called and told your mom about you being sick. She told me as soon as I got home, and I got right back in the truck to come and get you.”

I was awestruck. Turkana, the bush country where my father had a church, was a twelve hour drive from our home. My school was six hours away in the other direction; that meant my dad had been driving for eighteen hours straight. (Wow. I guess I did learn some math.) I looked at his tired face and hugged him again tightly. “Thanks, Daddy,” I said, another tear working its way onto the slope of my cheek.

He hugged me back. “You’re welcome,” he said. “I couldn’t just leave my girl in here, sick and all alone, could I?”

It’s funny that chicken-pox would become one of my favorite memories, isn’t it?

Happy Father’s Day, Baba. I love you.

me dad sara menonite gh (2)
Me, on the left, my dad and his boots, center, and my sister, Sara, on the right. Mennonite Guest House, Nairobi, Kenya, circa 1980 something.