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Honoring First Responders


It was a glorious autumn day and I almost cancelled the trip.
It was time for one of those tri-annual, $250, “wellness” trips to the veterinarian. Mr Science was going to be a vet for a while, and he worked at the animal hospital all during high school, so I know everyone in there on a first name basis. (I make wellness trips there three times a year: once for Pip, once for Dot, and once for Lily Cat.) It was Mr. Pip’s turn.

For those of you who don’t know this yet, Pip is running for President on Facebook. His platform is “A Return to Kindness.” He has 74 likes, so technically he is a write-in candidate.

Pip is a funny little dog.
He is a part-Besenji, part-Jack Russell who looks like a brown and white tator-tot with legs. He’s adorable and he knows it. He’s very sweet, not very smart, loves his people, and is terrified of just about everything, including the vet; especially the vet.

He’s terrified of the vet.
When we arrived for his 3:30 appointment the waiting room was packed and Pip was shaking. The vet techs and front desk gal greeted us (I told you we know them all, we’re practically family) and I took a socially-distanced seat near the front door. Pip was trying his best to look brave and remain calm while shaking when in walked a sheriff: Tightly buzzed white hair, brown uniform, badge, gun, the works.

He’s more terrified of police.
The only thing Pip is more afraid of than the vet is a sheriff, BECAUSE he was once arrested in South Carolina and taken to the animal shelter as “material evidence” in an animal hoarder case. (If you want to hear the story of how Pip ended up with me and Mr Science, click here.)

Anyway, the sheriff muttered something dark and lo to the vet tech who nodded, and said “We’ll use Room 5,” and spun around into the surgery to fetch the doctor.

When the sheriff turned in our direction to head out, it happened. It happened so fast I couldn’t stop it. Pip jumped up and began licking the sheriff’s hand. When I tried to stop Pip, he said, “It’s okay Miss. I guess he knows what I need.”

Their eyes met.
When the sheriff leaned down to look at Pip, both of them sank to the floor, like synchronized swimmers. Pip climbed into the sheriff’s lap, snuggled against him, and pushed his sweet little face into the man’s chest. It wasn’t a long encounter; 3 minutes, maybe less. When the vet tech reappeared, the sheriff gave Pip a squeeze and said, “I have to go now little buddy.”

Pip seemed to know exactly what to do next. He hopped down from the sheriff’s lap and sat at attention. And when I say he sat at attention, I mean he sat upright like a tiny soldier; ears erect, shoulders back, eyes following the sheriff’s every move.

Pip became the honor guard for a hero.
As the vet tech held the door, the sheriff walked outside to his SUV, lifted an enormous old German Shepherd out of the back seat and carried him into Room 5. This wasn’t a pet. This was a partner.

When the vet tech closed the door to the room, she shook her head and whispered, “Cancer.”

As the door closed, Pip lifted his head even higher, his eyes and ears pinned on that room like laser beams.

He sat erect for what seemed like an eternity and then suddenly he collapsed to the floor, held his head between his paws, and sighed the saddest sigh I think I’ve ever heard. He knew, the minute it was over, he knew. Above the din of cats cursing and dogs whining, Pip somehow heard life leave Room 5.

He knew the dog was dead, he knew.

They were still in there when they ushered us to the room next door. Pip insisted on pausing at the door of Room 5. He lowered his head in respect, before being pulled by the vet tech into the next room and submitting to the indignities of his annual examination.

By the time they were done with his exam, the SUV was gone. As I drove in silence, Pip had his head out the window, a distant stare in his eyes.

Now I am swirling in the mystery called “how?”
How did my dog hear what that sheriff could not bear to say? How did he know this gruff officer would welcome his kisses, how did he know to offer him the support that would mean the most to that particular man, at that particular moment? How did a dog who usually quivers at the vet, manage to sit at full military attention with every muscle, every nerve honoring that first responder’s loss in exactly the way that officer would have honored a colleague?

Fear not mortal, the mystery says.
When hearts speak,
God listens,
and oft times the angels wear fur.

Time to Rest?

What is the winter for, anyway?
Click here to listen to this devotional.

It’s winter and all of nature is resting because all living things need rest.

We humans are the only creatures that don’t take the winter off. When the days grow short and darkness comes early, the wild things burrow in and take a nap. But we turn on the lights and watch TV or surf the net or catch up on work. While we drive ourselves to keep producing, nature takes a four month vacation. I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time I took a four-month vacation

So I invite you to take a moment now to rest and relax into the world of story for a breath or two.

When I was 7 we lived in a big Victorian house with a little tiny yard in Parkersburg West Virginia back in the day when everyone grew a garden. It was just what you did.

A lot of people grew vegetables but my preacher Daddy only grew flowers, especially roses. He had all the popular ones: the shimmering white, fragrant JFK, the pink Queen Elizabeth grandaflora, and the everything a great rose should be velvety red Mister Lincoln with its 6 inch blooms.

The roses ringed our yard in carefully cultivated organic beds. When the Japanese beetles got on his roses, no pesticide would touch their flesh. Daddy would fill a small glass jar with gasoline and borrow the tweezers from Mother’s vanity. He’d get up before dawn, crouch between the roses like a ninja warrior, wait for the sun to rise and illuminate the beetle’s iridescent shells, and then one by one tweeze them off, drop them into the gasoline, and watch them fight for their lives all the way to the bottom of the jar in some weird return to WW Two.

But then my mother’s mother, a 100 pound, 94-year-old mountain matriarch came to live with us and she had no use for roses: “too many thorns, too much trouble.” When she came at Thanksgiving she decreed that we would have a vegetable garden that spring, which was a problem because the small amount of yard that was not taken up by my swing set was already planted with Daddy’s flowers and roses. But Grandma couldn’t see that because the flowerbeds had died back, so she didn’t know a problem was brewing.

In January the Burpee seed catalog came and as Grandma washed the dishes after supper she debated the virtues of corn: Silver Queens vs Country Gentlemen and tomatoes: Mr Stripeys vs Beefstakes, while Daddy sat in his armchair by the fire, crouched behind the Jackson and Perkins rose catalog, eyeing the latest All American tea roses and floribundas.

I made paste Valentines in February while Grandma ordered enough seeds to plant a small farm and Daddy closed the door to his study and ordered two new All American tea roses and a flashy floribunda.

The snow melted.

Daddy dug up the ground around our swings for his new tea roses and grandma snuck in and planted peas around the feet of the swing-set before staking out a row of tomatoes next to his dahlias.

Daddy built a new trellis and planted his hot pink floribunda. Grandma planted silver queen and runner beans on the other side. Every square inch of our back yard that was not taken up by our swing set that year held roses and turnips, dahlias and runner beans.

By the time the family reunion came in July, my sister and I had no place to play because Grandma’s peas had climbed the swing-set and were spilling down the slide. It doesn’t take long for life to crowd you out, does it?

So as these last few days of winter coat the world in frost take a cue from Mother nature: send your roots deep into the quiet and rest.

Life is born in the dark

Click the audio link above to listen to this post.

Have you ever been afraid of the dark?
When I was a young child I had night terrors that involved alien beings. Once or twice a year, I would awake in the wee hours of the early morning to find them moving about my bedroom, looking at me with their luminous, tear-shaped eyes. They were hairless and wore draped clothing that reminded me of my father’s clerical robes, minus the velvet doctoral stripes on the sleeves. They spoke in voices that were more murmurs than sound, like the static on my grandmother’s old console radio when she forgot to turn it off after the baseball game. The aliens were tall, with swollen bellies, long arms, and fingers oddly shaped like suction cups that felt like the rubber gloves my mother wore to wash the dishes. They were creepy to say the least but what was really frightening was that I was unable to speak or move in their presence. My mind would not obey me. If I tried to get up or scream nothing happened. And, I couldn’t see through their eyes into their souls like I could with real people. Instead, their eyes reflected my room back to me like the warped antique silvered mirror in the hall. It was scary, even now I get chills thinking about it. I don’t remember being hurt by them but I was terrified of my own helplessness.
I’m still am. I haven’t had alien dreams since I was twelve or thirteen but I often fear my own helplessness. It infuriates me when I find myself unable to speak or move when I most need to. (I’m working on that.) Working on freeing my voice to speak out when someone says something unthinkingly mean. (I’ve discovered that usually when people say unthinkably, untruthful mean things it’s because they’re threatened and that’s how they make themselves feel safe, and while I get that, it doesn’t make it hurt any less.)
But the worst part is, when you’re afraid of the dark, you can’t see all beautiful things that are being born in the safety of that darkness.
Like babies for instance. I can still remember the astonishment I felt with every inch of growth my son made inside my womb. I remember how, as he expanded into his 25-inch, 9-pounds, 6-ounce breech-baby self, my hips had to shift apart and my organs had to find new places to be. I was (and still am) amazed that my body could do that.
Or bulbs! Think of those! The ugly-ducklings of the flower world! Two amaryllis grace my home now, their flower heads rising taller each day from what appears to be a long-dead onion. Around Valentine’s Day they’ll burst into enormous white and red blooms and fill my home with their stately beauty.
And even now, inside of me, new things are being born. On these soft, cloudy days of winter, a book is taking shape, words are spilling onto the page, stories are surfacing, illustrating the movement I experienced as I moved from new widow to recovered woman.
If I can hold on just long enough to not be afraid of the dark, very often miracles happen. (Statistically speaking, all life is a miracle, but that’s a topic for another day.) As winter wraps herself around you like a heavy velvet cape get ready for something special because in the safety of darkness, something beautiful is being born inside you.

Get some sleep in 2020!

Listen to me tell this devotional!
Baby New Year Says “Get some sleep!”

Sleep: the fountain of youth, restorer of dreams, maker of magic, the ultimate healer of the exhausted soul.

After the Christmas madness ended I slept. For 10 hours. I curled up inside, stretched myself out against it, allowed it to snuggle my sore and fragile places. Sleep balmed them and restored them as only she can.

I call sleep a she for who but a mother could see the weariness of her child and gently lead them to bed, tucking the warmth of the covers under their chin, stroking their face and smoothing their head with her soft hand, singing a lullaby to woo them into dreamland. Of course sleep is a woman.

I slept in my sixteenth birthday present: the cherry-wood canopy bed made by my Godfather Russ as the rain began in the mountains of NC. A gentle yet steady, slow into the night, watering the earth one drop at a time. My husband Perrin always called this kind of rain a mountain rain. He held fond memories of it from youthful days cavorting in the woods of my next-door neighbor, Montreat, the Presbyterian holy of holy lands. This kind of rain is soft and steady with a comforting, yet uneven, rhythm. It gets the job done and sometimes stays for days at a time until the streams begin to dance against their moss-covered banks and sing as they rush over large, smooth stones. Stones that often appear curiously placed, like the melting turrets of a child’s sand castle in the surf.

When sleep and rain came together this time, I found the restoration I so desperately needed. I had been on the road for months and then faced the hasty scurrying for the holiday. Before I gave into it, I felt like an anxious squirrel gathering nuts before the earth freezes over and the snow begins or perhaps a vintage Ferrari that barely made it to the garage before finally running out of gas, whichever metaphor works for you is fine. The important thing to understand is that I was tired.

Traveling in and out of cities this fall from Minnesota to Pennsylvania to Ohio to Illinois and back to the beaches of North Carolina, I swapped stories with the honestly aching souls of humanity, holding the pain they felt safe enough to share, seeing the frenzy of modern living in all the eyes that gazed back at mine. And you know what? I felt so honored to do the work I do as a storyteller with people I love and respect because I’ve discovered we’re all wounded and in need of understanding and restoration. It’s no wonder Mother Sleep keeps trying to put us to bed.

So as we enter a new decade of life, instead of making unrealistic “resolutions,” Perhaps we should make ourselves a sacred promise or two instead. Make a promise to spend more time comforting our soft inner selves and spending a few more hours in the arms of Mother Sleep, who just wants her children to be rested and happy. Dear friend, here’s wishing you all the best in this new decade of life!

Now who is going to fix THAT?




My world was falling apart. I had to fix it. As a widow, you quickly learn life has a never-ending question: “Now who is going to fix THAT?”

I found my solution this time with two brothers who know how to do just about anything and everything which is a good thing because just about anything and everything needed doing at my place.

My gutters were filled with debris (a yearly gift from my towering oaks and sugar maple) SO I asked them to clean those out and then install gutter guard so I wouldn’t have to convince my son (who is afraid of heights) to climb up on the roof and repeatedly hit me in the head with a garden hose while trying to wash them out. (And off to Home Depot I went, to buy 92 sections of gutter guard.) My deck was in desperate need of waterproofing, the exterior window and door frames needed painting, two of my ceilings and one tile floor needed repairs, and my son’s room needed a new ceiling fan. Oh, and the exterior was growing mold from all the rain we’ve had so the oldest brother said, “Annhh, we’re gonna have to power warsh it first.”

Under the watery pressure of a power washer, the mold slipped off the house and flew right onto my window-panes. (Another job that now needs doing. It’s just like dental work, one job always leads to the next.) The first day with the brothers went fine. They started early and finished by noon because, “It gets too danged hot after lunchtime. We’ll see you tomorrow!”

Which brings us to day 2, or was it 3? No. No, it was 4. Four days went by before they showed back up again. Now I don’t know how it is where you are, but here in the mountains, contractors work with their own time-frame—one that exists somewhere outside of your reality.

As they waited for the exterior to dry, because it rained on the days they didn’t show up, they started on the interior. They moved things into the center of the room, pulled up the loose tile in my office, and uncovered an interesting problem.

It seems the contractor who built my office just stuffed the crevice in between the foundation and the floor with sand paper when he ran out of plywood. And of course the sandpaper couldn’t hold the weight of the tile, which happened to be in the entry way to the office where it was continually stepped on. I asked if I needed to go buy wood but the younger one said, “Naw, we got a piece back at the house, we got you covered.” When they showed up 3 days later, they built a tiny new piece of sub-floor, which had to go around the HVAC vent, which may be why the other guy didn’t do it. Because did you know… “You got to use a jigsaw for that, see? I got one but don’t look like he did. Not everybody does quality.” Yes, I see that.

So while the one brother worked on the subfloor issue, the other one moved furniture from my living room and hallway up against the walls so he could begin to repair the plaster ceilings using a drop cloth, of course, because they DO do quality. I was pleased to see that.

But I’ve not been that pleased to see all the rooms stay that way for what is now three, no four, no five weeks. But, I readily admit that not all of the delays are their fault.

Because you see, in between when the brothers did and didn’t show up to work, a whistle pig (That’s mountain vernacular for a ground hog.) took up residence in my backyard. That whistle pig drove my hunting hound nearly insane for over two weeks. (Don’t tell the game warden but Dot’s a serial killer—she’s killed 32 squirrels.) She stalked that thing day and night, while Mr. Pip, my part-Jack Russell, part-Besenji that looks like a Tater Tot with legs, dug so many tunnels to connect to that pig’s tunnels that all his white places turned brown. And in their dogged pursuit of that whistle pig they managed to completely destroy the latticework that girds my deck, the deck that was being waterproofed. Yes, my dogs meticulously tore apart almost fifty feet of lattice until that whistle pig finally encountered its date with destiny near the goldfish pond. The pig was so busy gorging itself on an enormous mushroom that mysteriously appeared overnight that it never saw death coming.

Anyway, when the brothers showed back up, that was the first thing they saw. “Oh Lord, look at that! I think the big-in kilt it! She’s pullin’ the guts out its hole.” Stop! Too much information! “Yeah, well that ain’t all she done! Look at that lattice. It’s all tore up, we cain’t stain that now. You’re gonna have to replace it.”

So off to Home Depot I went to get 50 feet of 6×9 lattice and another 5 gallons of deck stain.

Now, with the whistle pig gone and, on the occasions when they have shown up, they’ve done an amazing job restoring my property and yard. Even if they did clipper my blueberry bushes almost down to the ground, saying as they got in the truck, “We took care of them shrubs in the backyard for you while we was at it.” Shrubs? What shrubs in the back yard? Oh no…

So like I was saying in the beginning, a widow quickly learns two things. One, when your own man isn’t there to fix it you just have to call someone and two, there’s no problem several thousand dollars won’t cure. I’ll give you a heads up when they’re done. When will that be? “Oh, should be about middle of next week.” Should be, but you’ll notice I’m not holding my breath. “Aww. Don’t you worry about it. We got you covered.”

One Night Away from Death

As I write this, I am furiously drinking a lemon water in a panicked attempt to flush cortisol from my bloodstream so I can exit that hyper-alert state that comes upon you when you don’t feel safe or when you feel terrified. (Like when you realize you could have died, for instance.)

But let me calm down and start at the beginning. My week began innocently enough. I drove to the International Festival Gathering of Biblical Storytelling, which just happened to be happening in Dayton, Ohio. I told A Widows Tale for opening worship and it was a beautiful experience to share that story with my fellow storytellers from across the country and the world.

We spent three more days immersed in story and by Friday night we were just about glazed over from the joy of story.

That’s when someone mentioned having dinner in a lovely, vibrant, eclectic area of Dayton with fabulous restaurants. The foodies among us couldn’t resist, so we carpooled to said district and were not disappointed. We found gorgeous Thai food with an atmosphere to match, right down to the oriental letters tattooed on our well-coifed waiter’s wrist. (You can’t have fabulous food without atmosphere, right?) Then as evening fell, we wandered the district and enjoyed the ambience. We passed bars and restaurants filled with laughter and intriguing aromas, listened to street musicians and djembe drummers, visited a hat shop (this was Ohio, not NYC, so it was a hat shop, not a haberdashery), walked around a few drugged and drunk people huddled in front of a tattoo parlor, and hurried past a peep-show palace to get back to our car. (I said the district was eclectic. The peep-show and patrolling police let us know the district was clearly a heady work-in-progress.)

Saturday we had planned to return to try out the Italian place that looked promising but we were just t o o  t i r e d  so we went to a brew pub around the corner instead.

Which is how I remained one night away from death. Because you see, that district, the work-in-progress with the patrolling police? That’s where a crazy opened fire with an automatic weapon and a hundred rounds of ammunition on Saturday night, August 3. Before the police shot him in the street like a rabid animal he managed to kill 9 people and wound 26.

We heard the sirens, enough sirens to signal the end of the world. We watched the replays again and again on TV. The politicians owned by the gun lobby again assured us that more people die in car crashes each year than in armed massacres by insane people who clearly should never have access to a weapon. I’ve seen it and heard it so many times I’d become numb to it. Let’s be real, there were 3 other massacres just like it that weekend and like many of you, until then, I tuned it all out.

But I’d never been one night away from death before. I walked that street. I stood on that corner. That bullet-ridden body in Dayton could have been me or my storyteller friends or all of us. The shooter didn’t discriminate and was clearly a person whose story had not been kind to him.

Death missed me by that much. And I’m forever changed. I’m forever changed and I’m ready to do what it takes to get our gun laws changed. As one of the Australian storytellers noted, “You’re not safe anymore are you? When it happened to us, we passed a law. Don’t you think it’s time you passed a law?” Yes. I do. And I’m going to get busy and stay busy until we pass that law. Maybe you should too, because guess what? We’re all just one night away from death.





Lessons from My Mothers

I don’t reflect as often as I should on the lessons I’ve learned from other women but today the lessons from the “mothers” I’ve loved unfolded like a highway; complete with roadside restaurants, exit signs, and rest stops. True Confession One: I was too focused on the Big Boy restaurants and icebox pies to see the exits and rest stops I really needed to take. Confession Two: I still am.

My maternal grandmother’s teachings arrived first. She was a Victorian era bride who birthed 6 babies in the Roaring Twenties, lost one in childbirth, one to the Big Red Measles, and reared the other four in the Great Depression. Despite only having a 6th-grade education (Why waste education dollars on women? They’re just going to have babies and cook…) she had the best vocabulary of almost anyone I’ve known because she read the dictionary cover-to-cover and could whip your butt at Scrabble.

My grandfather ran a successful life insurance business and she kept his books – in her head. When the stock market crashed and they lost “all their savings” she kept their money in the mattress and saved the stubs of our pencils in a can on the stove. She put up beans all summer long and ate them on bread, often with a wilted salad made from wild greens, dressed with bacon fat, a pinch of sugar, and homemade vinegar. Grandma was soft on the outside – cast iron on the inside. She was harder on herself than anyone, ruled her family with an iron fist, did not trust others or “the system,” and lived to be almost a hundred. The last 20 years of that as a widow. From her I learned to be strong, resilient, self-supporting, frugal and wary of “systems” that make the rich richer and deny women an education, and take long naps. But I also learned to be mistrustful of others and isolated.
Five Icebox Pies. Two Exit Signs. One Rest Stop.

Then there was my first mother-in-law: A high-ranking Navy doctor’s wife who drank Bloody Marys for breakfast and chain-smoked Camels. She was world-traveled, politically astute, very loving and tragically lonely. She taught me how to survive in high society, give cocktail parties an admiral would enjoy, and be ridiculously generous. (She gave me a Wedgewood jewelry box, antique brass pitchers I still display, fur coats I almost never wear, a collection of tortoise shell combs from pre-war England, and a red vintage BMW.) She tolerated her husband’s dalliances and openly encouraged me to do the same. When he was gone at night she never asked where, she just poured another whiskey and once a month had a massage. (“Don’t be naïve, it’s just what men do. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you.”) When I finally stopped looking the other way and spending my nights alone with a drink, I divorced her baby boy.
Three Icebox Pies. Two HUGE Exit Signs. One Rest Stop.

My second mother-in-law was a truly elegant, plantation-bred beauty with charming manners, deep faith, and love of family. She was playful, impeccably dressed, and amazingly fit. (She showed me how to do a split at 70 and encouraged me to exercise.) Her five children were the light of her life. She made a mean G&T and also cultivated the habit of looking the other way. A wickedly smart woman, she unfortunately bought into the myth that men always know best and only made decisions when she had to. I became the wife of her Rhett Butler-esque #1 Son and gave birth to the first-born son of the first-born son of the first-born son of the first-born son. From her I learned pride of lineage, the importance of daily exercise, the art of being Presbyterian, a love of tartans, and prayerfulness in the face of betrayal.
Five Icebox Pies. Two Exit Signs. Daily Rest Stops.

And this leads me to my own dear mother. She was an exquisite pianist and organist whose innate relationship to music is embedded in my mitochondria. (I guess that’s what happens when you lie as a baby on the console of an organ and the lid of a grand piano.)

She centered herself in the morning and at night with the power of prayer and was the wind beneath my pastor father’s wings; a wind that entertained constantly to secure and advance his career, a wind that kept its own power a family secret, and also allowed him to define whether or not she was still beautiful after she endured a 43-year fight with breast cancer. A true survivor, my mother wore carefully tailored outfits that hid the maiming she’d endured. She modeled positivity in the face of tragedy, fearlessness in claiming God’s healing and mercy, insisted I use my intelligence and gifts boldly, and was always affectionate and loving.
Eight Icebox Pies. Two Exit Signs. Two Rest Stops.

So as I reflect on my own life as a wife and mother I’m happy that I’ve learned to be truly loving, generous and affectionate. I’ve encouraged my son to be a kind gentleman, to use his deep intelligence, to live boldly, dream big, and be a man of prayerful intention. Like the women who taught me, I am resilient in the face of tragedy and betrayal and have become a fierce encourager for others facing the same. (This still rather surprises me!) I’m pretty bold about sharing the stories that have surprised me, wounded me, informed me, and made me (for better or for worse) who I am.

And, I’m working on taking the EXITS and REST STOPS along the highways of life. Like many women, I’ve spent too many years either trying to “hold it” or “hold it together.” And way too many years doing both at the same time!