New Poetry: A Different Seed

texas-bluebonnets-081

 Photo by Texas Parks & Wildlife

So … I’m knee-deep in poetry right now, still.  And I feel almost guilty. I have so many people waiting on my next novel, but I’ve set it aside (again). I’m drawn to poetry and I’m gonna ride this pony til she stops.

Here’s one of my latest that I worked on in a recent Lighthouse Writers workshop. I can’t seem to get the line spacing right on this blog, but it’s close.

Let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!

 

A Different Seed

I was born in fields of bluebonnets,

ink-well-sapphire             dense petals spiked in sun-blind white

short-lived in the Texas spring —

each dew-soaked stem

flattened just yesterday

by the sharp nose of the coyote

the hoof-step of the Hereford

hiding the hiss and slither of the rattler —

always bouncing back

seemingly singular,

good for early-morning picking

before the heat sets in.

 

Yet by high noon

it’s never easy

to detach a wilted loner

from the rest      held together by a nest of roots

entrenched in the holy dirt

of Saint Sam Houston

el malvado Santa Anna

battle-blood of the Alamo

sweet bread of the German siedler

rusted barbed-wire of fences

oily cotton boll of the farmer

weather-worn skull of a fire-ant-stricken calf

my grandfather would’ve tried to save.

 

And even though Lady Bird’s highways are lined with them —

musky-sweet flowers,

family ties,

good intentions —

 

not every seed will grow

where planted.

 

Is it easily spread on the wind?

Can it tolerate full sun?

 

And what happens

when

the parched and crisp soil

becomes suddenly drenched,

clay-like —

unable to breathe?

One of the Lucky Ones

sleetintexasI wrote this for my mom’s birthday and am a day late in posting. I have a kick-ass Texas mom. What’s yours like?

100-Percent Chance of … Mom

The clouds were already gathering that morning, hanging low and moody in the South Texas sky. As we sat around the breakfast table before school, we listened to the weather forecaster out of San Antonio, broadcasting on our rural, small-town radio station. He was predicting sleet overnight — a rare thing in our part of the state, even for January.

A possibility of sleet or a bona fide ice storm was exciting, I had to admit. But even more so was the fact that the first game of our junior high girls’ basketball tournament was set to begin that evening in a town about 50 miles from ours.

The tournament was a big deal. We were dominating this season, and if we could win this first game against our toughest competitor, we’d likely win the whole tournament. We’d solidify our rank as the best in the region. There was even a pep rally planned for us that afternoon. (A pep rally for any type of girls’ sport in Texas in the 1980s was a reason to check to make sure you hadn’t been abducted by aliens and placed in an alternate universe.)

Basketball, though, hadn’t always been important to me. In fact, this was only the first year I’d played.

Let’s just say I wasn’t known for my athleticism. I was not lean and mean. I fell more in the chubby and uncoordinated camp. I was a full-on, straight-A, teacher’s-pet nerd. Spelling bee champ, science competition winner. Trying out for the basketball team had been my way of trying to break out of that mold. I wanted to fit in with the cool kids for once. I wanted to wear those sweet uniforms and high-top sneakers.

And it was working. I not only made the team, I was a starter on defense. (Turns out, you really only need height and brains to play some positions in life.) The cheerleaders even knew my nickname: “Special K.” (The positive connotation of special, not the other one. I think.)

I was living the dream, as much as you can when you’re 13.

And then came that game day.

The predicted cold front slipped right through the county, dropping temperatures into the mid-30s by noon. It was raining buckets when I reported to the gym after school to meet up with the rest of the team. As we waited for the school bus that would take us to the game, we huddled together, giggling like even cool, athletic girls do, excited about the game, jumping up and down to stay warm in our official team sweatshirts.

That’s when I saw her. She was marching toward us, small red umbrella overhead. Dark, thick hair to her shoulders. Sunglasses on, even in the gray. Her camel-colored long coat pulled tightly around her curves and whipping around her knees. Her car keys still in one hand. Her lips pressed into a painted-on, don’t-mess-with-me smile. She looked like a force even a 50 mile-per-hour northern wind couldn’t reckon with.

My stomach dropped. I knew that look well. She was determined to do battle of some kind, and I understood by then it had everything to do with me.

She walked up to our coach, who was looking down, checking things off on a clipboard. Poor innocent soul.

My mother began to explain, politely at first, that under no condition would her daughter — the one trying desperately to shrink into the shadows — go anywhere on a run-down, hick-town, bald-tired, rat-trap of a school bus when the back country roads we’d be traveling would most certainly be a sheet of ice within an hour or two.

We heard the coach attempt to reassure her that all would be well. That the school district and the tournament managers agreed there was no reason to cancel the game. That she was, perhaps, overreacting.

She took that coach down with just a few quick, choice words. Then she walked over and pointed me in the direction of her faded maroon Lincoln town car, parked right where the aforementioned bus would soon be.

The unfairness of it all was incomprehensible to me. Everyone else was getting to go!

As we drove away, I saw my teammates nudging each other. I was sure they now considered me an overprotected baby, not cut out for the tough life of an athlete. With a mother who was quite possibly a hair shy of crazy.

That evening, I ate Mom’s warm grilled cheese sandwiches and beef stew in silence. And then I watched the sleet begin to come down. I watched the county road in front of our house turn into a skating rink. Conditions got treacherous in a hurry.

Luckily, my team made it home safely, although it had taken three hours to go those 50 miles home after the game. We’d won, and we would end up advancing and winning the tournament. I played in the rest of the tournament, but not as a starter. The coach made me run additional laps in practice on Monday for letting down my team, as if I’d had a choice in the matter. My teammates made fun of me often and for the rest of the season.

Back then, I’d wished she could just be like all the other moms, who didn’t seem to mind that their kids were heading out onto slick roads. I’d wished that she hadn’t made a scene. But now, I’m a mama myself.

Now I see I was the lucky one.

Some parents might have simply taken the school district’s word for it all, bowed down to authorities who are perceived to know more than we as parents do. But my mother has never been one to let others make decisions for her or to automatically assume people in positions of power can’t be challenged. She’d done her own research that day. She knew she was right, and nothing was going to stand in her way when it came to keeping me safe.

That day and so many times since, she has taught me that sometimes it takes courage to be a parent in ways no one tells you about. That it’s not okay for someone else to put my son in danger, and that I have every right to step in and protect him. It’s something one particular school administrator has already learned about me after seeing no reason to keep the back door to the after-school care classroom locked in the evenings before parent pickup.

Even though I’m at the age she was when I was in junior high, I remain so thankful that I still have my mom on my side. Because I know, even though she’s in her early 70s now, she’ll fight for me, always willing to hand out another dose of her take-charge-now, ask-for-forgiveness-later attitude if I need it.

And besides, I’m pretty sure there may still be some icy roads in my forecast.

How Do You Define Home?

photoWe’ve settled back into mountain life now after about two months. The weather has been a beautiful summer mix of cloudless blue skies and 75 degrees, and cool mountain rain that rolls in from the West in the afternoons.

It’s been an especially good wildflower season. Even as September approaches, there are still carpets of white, yellow and lavender mountain daises and large swaths of bright purple fireweed. The sweet scent of pink and violet clover fills the air on our walks.

The monsoon moisture has also kept the forest floors thick with green, and the meadows are thigh-high in bunchgrasses and cattails. Trout are jumping out of the crystal-clear mountain lakes, daring us to try to reel them in.

And in just our short time back, we’ve already seen an abundance of wildlife, including moose, black bears, foxes, coyotes, a mountain lion, rabbits, and beavers — not to mention the plethora of birds and chipmunks and squirrels who keep the forest humming.

It’s a bit like living in a nature photographer’s dream. And, honestly, it’s where I feel the most alive.

But is it home?

Obviously, I haven’t always lived in the mountains. I grew up in the flatlands of South Texas. And I love those flatlands.

I love the people, the stories, the food, the history, the music, the Texas sky. The smell of mesquite-smoked barbecue. The feel of crisp, dried grass under your bare feet on a hot summer day. The mixing of Mexican, German, Czech and other cultures. The homemade tamales. The kolaches. The sound of polka music on the local radio station. The click-click-buzz-pop of grasshoppers flicking about and attaching themselves to the porch screen door.

I love all the little idiosyncrasies that make that place special. The small-town courthouses and main streets. The Lone Star beer, the dancehalls, the oil wells, the old churches, the Stetsons and belt buckles and boots, the cattle and horses lazing under hundred-year-old oak trees.

Did I mention the food?

And of course, most importantly, all of my family members, including my Mom and Dad — whom I cherish — still live there. In the house I grew up in.

But is that home?

I’ve always thought of “home” as a place where you feel most comfortable. Where you can wrap yourself in familiarity and know that someone always has your back. A place you know like the back of your hand.

And in those terms, South Texas is all that and more.

Yet.

Here feels right for me, and it has for a long time. Like in a good novel, this particular cabin and mountain have become the physical place where the narrative arc of my life moves forward. It’s as much a part of my story as my friends, my job, my writing, my dogs, and even my son and husband. I think that’s why I felt so lost when we moved away for a couple of years.

If you don’t count those years we spent in the foothills, we’ve lived on this mountain now for 11 years or so. That’s long enough to feel that sense of familiarity and comfort, right? Instead, here, I find myself wrapped in something much different.

A kind of wildness maybe? A feeling that there are systems in place in this world that are much larger than myself? A feeling of wanting to uncover all the things I don’t know yet?

Yes, all of those things.

Some people say home is wherever their spouse or children are, that just being with them is all it takes. But I’ve learned from experience that even though you are in the presence of people you love more than anything in the world, there can still be a hole … a missing piece of the puzzle.

So what does define home?

Is it the place that warms your threadbare soul, like my mama’s chili on a rare cool day in South Texas? A place that knows who’ve you’ve always been?

Or is it a place that pushes you, like a rippling and rushing mountain creek full to its banks from spring runoff? A place that knows who you’re still becoming?

I don’t have the answer. But I’d love to hear your thoughts, too. Meanwhile, I have firewood to chop. Snow’s in the forecast.

 

PS: This is one of the themes explored in my novel, Blue Straggler. I keep hoping that, through writing, I’ll figure some of this stuff out.

colorado moose

River Days and Swamp Coolers

This is my new best friend, the portable swamp cooler I call, “Al.”

I haven’t been updating this blog as much as I’d like (and not near as much as my publisher would like I’m sure!) Life has been exceptionally crazy of late, though, so I have a good excuse. Let’s see … we moved from the mountaintop to the foothills of Denver, and I’m slowly emerging from grief mode. I have purchased a portable swamp cooler and drag it around me like some folks drag around their oxygen tanks. I also left the job I’ve been at for six years (the longest time I’ve ever been in one job) and started a new job that I’m loving. My son started first grade at a new school, and my husband lost his job. Yeehaw! But things are settling down now. Or will soon.

So until I have the ability to write more than a paragraph, I thought I’d go through some of my old stuff and post a short piece of my previous work.

Following is one of my favorite little mini-essays that I wrote about my childhood, growing up on the banks of the Guadalupe River. Much of my third novel I’m working on right now takes place along the river. Thanks for reading! (And my apologies if you’ve read this before.)

RIVER DAYS

The South Texas Guadalupe River in all its muddy loveliness.

Patterns exist in every childhood. Eating warm oatmeal for breakfast. Going to church at 9 a.m. on Sundays. Catching the bus after school.

Well, I rarely ate anything as healthy as oatmeal, only went to church on Easter and Christmas, and rode the bus just once, to see where it went. But the one pattern that stands out most in my years of growing up in South Texas is this: for about 10 years, every other Sunday, my two sisters and I piled into the back of my father’s 1979 green Ford truck with the camper on the back, sat on cattle feed sacks so hard we could feel every cube inside, and sang Tammy Wynette songs until my parents had driven the 20 or so miles to our bi-weekly destination.

My parents owned a camphouse on the banks of the Guadalupe River in South Texas. The cabin sat high on a grassy hill, just a stone’s throw from the river, and looked like it was put together with wood glue and a roll of aluminum foil.

Early on, my father had tiled the concrete floors with free, leftover linoleum squares from the lumberyard, so each one was a different pattern. Rusting iron beds lined the front room like an army’s hospital ward, the mattresses thin as slices of Wonder bread and holding fast to the mildew that only river air can provide. The bathroom’s toilet and sink showed only hints of ever being white; the well water’s sulfur had painted them brown and yellow and red, making them look like something fit for a horror movie. The kitchen was an old school bus, attached to the back of the camphouse by a welder’s hand. The kitchen-bus ran the length of the back of the house, the floors slanted down so much you could lose your balance bending down to pick up a dropped potato chip.

Our first chores when we arrived on Sunday mornings were the following: open the wood shutters that covered the screened windows in the front and back, securing them with baling wire. Check the bathroom and kitchen for water moccasins. Help Mom unload the brown grocery bags and stay out of Daddy’s way as he lit the barbecue pit.

After that, we were free.

Unlike at home, where my mother kept a tight handle on cleanliness, we could come and go as we pleased, river mud and all.

We could eat greasy burgers on buttery Texas Toast.

When a rain shower would develop, we could spend time inside, jumping from one iron bed to the next—a highly developed form of chase.

We could play on the tires that hung from century-old pecan trees as swings, and land on our knees, not worrying a bit about the grass stains.

We could build mud castles next to the swift currents of the Guadalupe and walk around all day with streaks of dried, clay-like dirt on our feet, arms and legs.

My sisters and cousins and I swang on a rope swing like this one out into the river. I wish I had photos of ours, though, because it was way better.

We could dangle from a thick, rough rope tied to a sturdy oak branch and let ourselves fly like birds out over the river, then fall from the sky with our stomachs in our throats, into the deep water, then float on our backs, feet first, down to the boat dock.

And we could run back to the camphouse, hair dripping wet, swimsuits filled with river silt, and walk straight into the kitchen to grab a cold Dr. Pepper, leaving footprints while hopping from a green paisley tile to one with sunbursts of orange.

Something about those days on the river has stayed with me through the years, as have the raised white scars on my knees—from landing on rocks in the river or cracked pecan shells near the tire swing.

I was at my best then, I think, when there were few rules and even fewer moments of doubt. I, along with my sisters, didn’t just live out the hours on those Sundays, we attacked them, like something fleeting. Like chasing dragonflies in waist-high weeds.

Risks seemed inevitable, even expected. We were wild. We were tomboys. We were fearless. We were laughter and dirty cheeks and sunburned noses.

We were our truest selves.