Category Archives: Reading Room

A Reason for Seven

Editor’s Note: This article is being reprinted with permission from the author. The original post was deployed on her personal Facebook page around midnight this morning.

***

By Faith Phillips

“Then she told us how times were tough and about how she was thinking about

Bumming a ride back to from where she started

But ya know, she changed the subject every time money came up

She said, ‘Welcome to the land of the living dead’

You could tell she was so broken hearted

She said, ‘Even the swap meets around here are getting pretty corrupt.’ ”

~Brownsville Girl, Bob Dylan

Water Protectors.

A family of four, soon to be five, runs in and out of a flimsy tent on a grassy North Dakota plain. The eldest daughter, Josephine, age 4, wears a pink tutu and wraps herself in a sleeping bag decorated with characters from Frozen, the popular Disney movie franchise. The youngest girl, Charlie, is two. She is a determined force. The entire family remains vigilant to safely contain Charlie’s energy. Their quiet mother manages the camp with an air of humble authority. She wears her waist-length hair tied back at her neck. The father enjoys discussion with relatives when they happen by. He is interrupted here and there to change a diaper and to occasionally yell, “CHARLIE!” when his youngest seizes an opportunity to bolt. The family gathers around a small fire in the evening when Charlie’s energy diminishes at last. Josephine sits on her father’s lap, satisfied to have earned his sole attention. She tosses her head back and laughs, delighted with each joke he tells.

This family’s camping experience differs somewhat from the typical American one. They are surrounded on all sides by a thousand others, gathered together in a field bordering the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. They speak an ancient language with each other, but politely switch to English in the presence of a non-speaker. Perhaps the most telling detail of this story is that the family can’t say exactly how long they’ve been camped here. Neither do they know how long they will stay, for they have no expectation to leave. This Lakota family of the Sioux tribe, along with thousands more Native Americans, constitute an unprecedented gathering determined to protect the main source of water for their tribe and for millions of other Americans downstream.

Continue reading A Reason for Seven

Soulful Books of 2011

BOOKS

I actually thought about something “devotional” and / or inspirational for the New Year. But I was not devoted and / or inspired to write it.

So, I give you books! Books make great companions. What a great way to hang out with make believe people, or past presidents for that matter. I ran into a few people I didn’t like being around, but overall, books were my 2011 passion.  Each book brought a particular passage of Scripture to my soul and I share the verses herein.

Three Novels (or close to) that Touched My Soul

3. The Brothers K by David James Duncan

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else,

for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself,

because you who pass judgment do the same things. Romans 2:1  

 Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this…Romans 14:13

This is a huge novel about family, and families can be complex; it’s a book is about life, all of it. I found the magic of The Brothers K in watching six children of Hugh and Laura Chance grow, and I fell in love with the family, not because I could relate to them, but because Duncan made me care about them.  Parts of the story made me smile and parts were agonizing.  Papa Hugh Chance, a ‘coulda-been’ baseball all-star and his devout Adventist wife, Laura raise six kids that couldn’t be more different. More than once I found myself becoming extremely emotional as I fought alongside members of the Chance family trying to resolve conflict. It was life, existential and moving. I found myself empathizing with each character especially when they were at odds with one another.

This story struck me as authentic, no kooky plot twists or author’s indulgent inventions.   We see the four Chance boys grow up before our very eyes, watch as their characters age and become…  it’s a life experience and death experience — and we see the birth of hopes and dreams, and we see death, or worse.  This book is a big`ole juicy steak. Cut it up and savor each bite. This is not “book-lite” — This is book weighs in at nearly 700 pages. Who has time for that? I’m thankful that I made the time and highly recommend The Brothers K. (I’ll throw in a PG rating because I did  find that many novels ought to have some kind of classification — e.g. I read Water for Elephants and enjoyed the book, but um…R!) Continue reading Soulful Books of 2011

Cracked and Yellowed vs. Freshley Pressed

Teddy Roosevelt

Please take my hand. I’d like to lead you to the literary place I’ve just now found. We will be traveling to Chapter 1, page 4 of “Theodore Roosevelt and His Time,” from the Yale Chronicles of America series, published in 1912.

Young master Roosevelt has just described being bullied by two boys his age on a stagecoach, writing that he was a “foreordained and predestined victim” for their rough teasing, and they “industriously proceeded to make his life miserable.”

After sharing that he could stand it no longer and engaged in the fight, he recounted feeling completely humiliated that either boy alone could handle him easily. He nary made a mark or any gain toward doing a lick of damage in return for what they were dishing out to him. It was after that incident he decided he must learn to defend himself.

Flash forward to his college days. The scene is now the still-primitive history of the Dakotas, but settlement is evident everywhere. Roosevelt wrote that the land of the West had “gone, gone with Atlantis to the isle of ghosts and of strange dead memories.” He further wrote, “A man needed to be able to take care of himself in that Wild West then.”

The action gets really juicy when the pages detail a story of Roosevelt entering a bar only to be called “Four Eyes” by a “grown-up bully” who taunts him. Further, the man announced to the room that “Four Eyes” was buying everyone in the place a round of drinks. Having trained in boxing ever since the incident of his youth, Roosevelt hit the man square in the jaw, and then again a cross punch to the face. His “1-2 punch” knocked the bully out cold and as the man fell to the ground, his head knocked against the bar for good measure.

Once the man came to he stood up, picked up his things, and checked on to the first train leaving town that evening. And that, my friends, is an account of only two pages of the book.

Cracked and yellowed, the pages of antique books invite me to their pages almost weekly. If you ride in my car and we stop suddenly, an antique book might slide out from under the seat and tap your shoe. If you dig around in my purse or briefcase, you’ll probably find another.

I am on a continuous journey in thrift or antique stores to find good priced books over topics that interest me and are in good enough shape to read. I hardly ever spend more than fifty cents for a book, but I can tell you that I get a priceless adventure almost every time.

While I love the feeling of opening a freshly pressed volume, I will always have a book from ages gone by to review, to help me reflect, and perhaps…to inspire me to learn boxing!

How about you? Any antique literary treasures you are reading?

Love,

[kelly]

 

The Gift of A Narrator: Faulk’s Christmas Story; Timeless and Perfect

 

Faulk - Image from NPR via Getty Images.

Dear Red Dirt Chronicles Friends ~

I’m a real sucker for stories, and a friend introduced me this one last year. Told by gifted narrator, John Henry Faulk, NPR plays the story every year.  Recently I’ve been contacted by quite a few people looking for the same Christmas Story Book I wrote about a few weeks back, so I know you can’t re-tell Christmas Stories too many times.

Red Dirt folks are story tellers, and so I knew you would appreciate this one.  Below is the National Public Radio Transcript in full.  However, if you’d rather hear the enchanting voice of Faulk himself, simply click this audio link, sit back, and enjoy.

John Henry Faulk’s Christmas Story

Happy Christmas Week to you,

[kelly]

***

The gifted storyteller and former radio broadcaster John Henry Faulk recorded his Christmas story in 1974 for the program Voices in the Wind.

Faulk was born to Methodist parents on August 21, 1913. The fourth of five children, he attended the University of Texas. For his master’s thesis, he researched ten sermons in African-American churches and gained insight into the inequity of civil rights for people of color. He later taught English at the University and served as a medic in the Marines during World War II.

Before the John Henry Faulk Show debuted in 1951 on WCBS Radio, Faulk hosted numerous radio programs in New York and New Jersey.

He was blacklisted in 1957, but with support from Edward R. Murrow, won a libel suit against the corporation that branded him a Communist. Faulk’s book, Fear on Trial, published in 1963, chronicles this experience.

Continue reading The Gift of A Narrator: Faulk’s Christmas Story; Timeless and Perfect

Deconstructing My Christianized Self, Part 1 (republish: “Best Of”)

Editor’s Note: This was one of our top 20 most read essays in 2010. We’re republishing it as we continue through our “revisiting 2010 the ‘best of’ series of 2010.” Thanks.

Like so many others born and raised in the buckle of the Oklahoma “Bible belt,” I was Christianized from an early age. My father was a pastor, and as a PK (Pastor’s Kid), I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. Flannel boards, K-Love, VBS, purity rings, Precept Bible Studies, DC Talk, and potluck lunches – all of this just came with the territory.

Somewhere early on, I absorbed the basic Calvinistic idea that the material world, like the material body, was colonized with eeeeviil. Most importantly, I was hard wired for eeeeviill. Every thought, impulse, feeling, and desire contained latent Dionysian energies roiling within them.

I distinctly remember attending a youth bible conference where the speaker confronted us on masturbation. Gulp. Blanch. Awkward. Stare at the floor. Crickets.

Continue reading Deconstructing My Christianized Self, Part 1 (republish: “Best Of”)

Chicken Soup for the Blogaholic’s Soul

In casual conversation, I am likely to mention treatment options for Kate, Bowen, or Jessie, or how the Stone family is doing these days.  What you won’t know, however, is that I don’t actually KNOW these people, at least in the traditional sense.  You see, I follow blogs…lots of them.

Most of my favorite blogs were created in times of tragedy or in response to a medical crisis. I often have to steel myself to click the links, as these posts certainly aren’t mindless reads.  My heart seizes at the news of an agonizing decision to be made and I regularly shed tears over the unfathomable experiences of these families.  They are desperately reaching out for help and support, and I find myself magnetically drawn to them.

Some find my hobby a bit morbid and wonder why I torture myself by actively taking on the pain and grief of strangers.  While the subject matter is indeed difficult, the rewards are many.  First, however, I have to get past being a selfish human.  Just like many children create imaginary friends who have problems – fear of the dark, aggression, etc. – as a safe way to talk about newfound issues, I think reading about the sad and tragic side of life helps me process emotions about my own worst fears.  However, in acknowledging the really hard realities of life, I sometimes develop the “I’m glad it’s them and not me” syndrome.  I have to squelch those thoughts so that I can focus on the people and their needs, and not just the fears their stories evoke.

As a result, I can attest to the tremendous beauty and inspiration that often rises from the ashes of tragedy and helplessness.  I am refreshed by the way in which I can touch and be touched by people’s hearts across so much distance.  The written word is incredibly honest, heartfelt, and the authors are completely transparent.  In a world where the truth is often buried beneath layers of you know what, reading something so raw and heartfelt is meaningful.

When I stop the whirlwind of life to catch up on these families, I feel a renewed sense of faith in humanity.  I admire the strength that resonates from their words and I deeply hope that I would have equal fortitude in their shoes.  As strong as they are, they are also at their most vulnerable, and this allows them to put on paper the thoughts that most people could never speak.  I think this is a strong connection point for me personally given that I’ve always been better at expressing myself in writing than in face-to-face conversations.

Part of that ability is simply dissociating from what the world expects me to be or say, and simply writing what I feel without the risk of immediate and sometimes awkward reactions.  I love real, but being entirely real is usually the exception and not the rule.

Finally, in addition to the gift of inspiration I receive from these blogs, they also provide me the opportunity to give back in a profound way.  I’m not a doctor, so I can’t heal the sick.  I’m not a millionaire, so I can’t offer riches to fund medical treatments.  However, as a woman of faith, I can add my voice to those interceding on behalf of precious families who need guidance, hope, and strength beyond what they can muster on their own.  I believe firmly in the power of prayer and that giving away my heart and prayers, whether to close friends or virtual strangers, simply expands my capacity to do so over and over again.

It’s only fitting that I include information on a few of my favorite blogs, and I encourage you to post a comment with additional links.  There’s nothing like a shared bowl of chicken soup to warm us all up!

http://renziandleeannestone.blogspot.com/ – Oklahoma City couple Lee Anne and Renzi Stone lost their almost one year old son to a sudden epileptic seizure.  They honor little Isaiah by sharing their daily challenges and joys.

http://www.audreycaroline.blogspot.com/ – Angie is the wife of Selah singer Todd Smith.  While expecting, Todd and Angie were told their daughter had many life threatening conditions and would not survive outside the womb.  Her book, “I Will Carry You,” details their experience and utter reliance on God to make it through to the other side.

http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/mcraekate – Kate McRae is a six-year-old Arizona girl living with a very rare form of brain cancer.  Her mother writes regularly about treatment options, highs and lows, and specific prayer requests.

http://www.carepages.com/carepages/JessicaBoone – Oklahoma teenager Jessie Boone suffered massive head trauma during a ski accident last year.  Her mother chronicles the numerous touch-and-go moments, months in hospitals and Jessie’s current journey.

http://www.kellyskornerblog.com/ – Kelly is an Arkansas gal who began writing when doctors said her newborn wasn’t expected to live.  After a difficult beginning, she now has a healthy and happy daughter and another on the way.  Having also suffered infertility for many years, she is an inspiration to those women desperately hoping for a baby.

http://bowensheart.com/ – Matt Hammett is the lead singer of the Christian band Sanctus Real.  Their son, Bowen, has a severely underdeveloped heart.  They are journaling their experience and sharing the love of God through their words and stories.

Stories Written in Blood

by Josh Bottomly

Not long ago my wife, Amy, posted a picture of my night stand on her blog.

It was a picture of the books propped up on my stand.

From left to right.

Tim Keller’s The Reason for God.

Abraham Heschel’s God in Search of Man.

C.S. Lewis’s Quotables.

Eugene Petersons translation of the Bible, The Message.

And, N.T. Wright’s Matthew for Everyone.

An anonymous blogger saw this picture and posed this question directly to me (and indirectly to all Christians):

Why do so many Christians just read Christian books?

My first mental response was of course immature, arrogant, condescending, and reactionary:

How dare you try and pigeonhole!  I peruse the Fiction and Literature section at Barnes and Noble more frequently than I do the Spiritual Devotion section.

I have a undergraduate and graduate degree in English literature.

You name a classic or contemporary author, and I’ll bet I have studied him or her.  Shakespeare.  Check.  O’ Connor.  Check.  Camus.  Check.  Kerouac.  Check.

But later, after I had calmed down, I sat down to think a bit about that anonymous person’s question.  It’s an appropriate question, really.  And it was probably not meant to stir up conflict. But conversation.

So after some reflection, this is how I responded to this blogger.

Simply put: I’m interested in reading any story that is written in blood.

Take East of Eden by John Steinbeck, for example. Now that’s a book written in blood. Who of us hasn’t felt an acute sense of displacement? It’s not that we are living in the wrong place; just the wrong way. Or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  I’ve got a son now and the thought of dying for Silas – not a iota of fear. But the thought of Silas having to live beyond my dying love – nothing but fear.

Any story then that struggles with what it means to be human, what it means to walk upright in a bent world, what it means to live within tensions and questions and doubts – that’s a story I want to read and participate in because it is written in the author’s blood. Whether it is written by a Christian. Or agnostic. Or atheist. Or Buddhist. Or Muslim.  Because all truth is God’s truth.  And part of the theology of common grace includes the animating belief that when we tell the truth about our experience of being human, regardless of our “worldview” or religious belief system, somehow, in some mysterious way, a “gleam of the evengelium”, as J.R.R. Tolkien argued, shines through.

J.R.R. Tolkein, smoking his famous pipe.

So I pose this contagion of questions for you to ponder – Christian or not:

What books have you read that are written in blood?

What stories have spoken and resonated with your deepest humanity?

What narratives have shaped the way you understand the narrative we live in?

No doubt, I’m always looking for a good read. And by good, I mean a story where the author simply has the courage as Fredrick Buechner puts it,  to “open a vein.”

NaNoWriMo: A Primer

~by Joey Rodman

For the uninformed November is National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo. Every November across the nation and around the world there are thousands of people who sit down and write an entire novel. It’s a competition against yourself. If you write 50K words in 30 days you win.  If you don’t… well, you tried to win. When you think about it, there’s never a loser. I’ve been participating since 2005 and look forward to it every year.

Click photo to visit Sara Gonzales' webstie from where the graphic was derived.

Before you start thinking the things I know you already are, stop and breathe. It’s not as hard as it sounds. It’s almost as crazy as it sounds, but we’ll leave that part aside for now. Deep breath, open mind, positive thoughts…..and GO.

If you’re like most people I know, you want to write a book. I hear this from people often when they find out I write. They say “I’ve always wanted to write a novel but I never have the time.” Well, I’m here to tell you, it’s time. I know some of you are thinking: “Is 50K words really a novel?” Yes.  40K words is a novella, and 50K is a novel. While there are many novels that are much longer, many novels have about fifty thousand words. One of my favorite books of all time, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is about fifty thousand words long. (Also included: Brave New World and The Great Gatsby.)

National novel writing month started in 1999 with a group of 21; last year there were just under 170, 000 participants. In the Oklahoma City area alone we have almost 1000 participants according to the NaNoWriMo website. When you choose to write a novel in November you’re not alone. Writing a novel with the support of others makes it much easier than writing a novel alone. The accountability alone is empowering, but the social aspect really helps to move things along.

Now, down to the nitty gritty. If you’re really considering this, here are 10 things you should know:

  1. It doesn’t have to be good. The point of NaNoWriMo is to come out of November with a first draft, or if you’re a perfectionist like myself, a “pre-first draft” because first draft connotes some level of completeness that I feel I can’t be expected to do in a month.
  2. It’s okay to fail. Nobody really can say anything to you if you don’t finish. They can try but your retort should be “Oh yeah?! Well, how many books did YOU write this month?!”
  3. It’s only 1667 words a day. That sounds like a lot, but it’s really not much. Right now, at the end of this sentence I have over 600 words….that’s about 35% of your daily word count.
  4. When you come to meet-ups it’s not a competition, unless you want it to be. We have all won and lost before, and the ones who haven’t are in their first year too… it’s all about succeeding together. Every once in a while a “word war” will break out which is a short burst of writing frenzy where the timer starts and you write as much as you can before it goes off. Whoever gets the most wins, and who ever doesn’t win got a LOT of new words typed.
  5. You don’t need a plot, characters, outline or plan. Write whatever you want, you can fix it later.
  6. You can’t/shouldn’t edit in November. You’ll never win if you edit while you write. Leave the mistakes in (it’s hard!) and go back later (after November!) and fix them. Be sure to let us know about the really funny ones, we call them NaNoisms. NaNoism: a typo the detonates and takes out the entire sentence around it. See: “the dragon escaped by flapping its enormous wigs,” or “he bowed to thundering applesauce.”
  7. Write now. Since the “rules” say from November 1st to the 30th and it’s already November, start now. Don’t worry about missing a day or two. Head over to the NaNoWriMo website, sign up and start writing. Open up a word processing document, type “Chapter 1” , save it, close it. Go to the NaNoWriMo website and update your wordcount, 2 words. You have officially done better than many people who sign up. Now close your browser and go write your novel.
  8. Come to meet-ups. Jasmine Brothers (our municipal liasion) says: The meet ups happen during November primarily so people can socialize, get away from writing for a bit…or brag, or complain, or run over plot details to try to make them make sense. Some folks chose to write in good company, and word wars have broken out. Someone behind the scenes with NaNo actually ran the numbers once, and it turns out that more than half of all the people who sign up each year never enter a word count. Among the half who do, those who participate in the forums are more likely to make it to 50,000 words than those who don’t…and those who go to meet ups are even more likely than those who only hang out on the forums. I personally think that has to do with the support and companionship you receive…hitting that 50,000 isn’t a solo effort anymore.
  9. Write anywhere. Whether you have a laptop, a spiral notebook, or an old Smith Corona you can write anywhere you are. I take a notebook with me to sort out my plot bunnies and write down ideas when away from home. Plot bunny: a random idea that comes hopping up and demands your attention. These are known to go on to spawn lots of cute little sub-plots, and so can be said to ‘breed like bunnies.’
  10. Whatever you do, have fun. Life is too short to have regrets. If you get stuck come to a meetup and we’ll help you.

Final word count for this entry? Nearly 1000 words. See? I told you it was easy.

 

Macabre Encounters: The Truth About Children’s Literature and Farm Life, Chapter 3

Editors Note – It seemed fitting that I publish this particular post late on All Hallow’s Eve.  I might also mention that this essay is about dealing with death on the farm, and is probably too graphic for the queasy-stomached. (PG-13 rating.)  Please pass on this one if you’d rather think happy thoughts…RDK

I get a little overwhelmed when I think about all the animal death passages I endured during my children’s literature stage of life.  Old Yeller got shot by his owner. Old Dan and Little Ann died protecting their owner in “Where the Red Fern Grows.”  Laura Ingalls ran to the cabin and stuck her fingers in her ears so she wouldn’t hear the pig squeal on butchering day.  Even Walt Disney children’s films don’t spare the gore; indeed, the 101 Dalmations were going to be skinned for their fur.  And don’t even get me started on fairy tales – they are chock full of swords, axes, poison and all sorts of deathly possibilities for both the animal and human characters filling the pages.

The problem with these stories, however, is that generally the fairy tales (at least those originating from England and the US) have happy endings.  Laura Ingalls got to have fun with her sister roasting the pig’s tale and making a kick ball out of the bladder.  There was something tragically sweet about the great lengths the owners of Old Yeller, Old Dan and Little Ann went to in order to try to save their beloved pets.  And of course, the Dalmations got the best of Cruella DeVille and the family adopted every last one of the orphaned pups.

There is a gap, however, between a literary youth tragedy, a cartoon or a “gently told” story of a little girl in the Big Woods on butchering day…and real life.  These stories were written for youthful audiences and therefore didn’t include the harsh realities of what death looks like up close and personal.  Those experiences came suddenly or unexpectedly in all sorts of ways while growing up on the farm.  Animal death scenes and farm life seem to go together like Alfred Hitchcock and scary movies.  There really isn’t a way to separate the two in my mind.

The stories are many so I’ll only share four short vignettes.  The first one begins at my grandparent’s farm on a day where I was innocently sent to gather eggs from the hen house.  The task is managed by opening the wooden lid of each setting box, taking the eggs left by the hen, or if she’s still there, gently lifting her up and removing the eggs from underneath her.  Sometimes hens peck at the hands entering their box and leave little tiny bleeding marks on those with more tender skin.  I never saw my grandpa’s hands bleed, but my little girl hands did quite a bit.

One day I reached into the box and felt not feathers, not eggs, and not wood.  It felt like – wait, what was that? I opened the lid further and stared at a dark mass of coils for a bit longer than I should have; the sight sunk in slowly, registering through a foggy brain clearly not expecting anything other than chickens.  It was a huge black snake and the coils filled the entire box.

I slammed the lid down and ran as fast as I could to tell Grandpa.  I don’t know how I expected him to react, but he immediately headed to the hen-house and grabbed a hoe on the way.  I followed him wondering what was in store for the snake.  He threw up the lids of the boxes until he found the snake, stuck the hoe handle in through the middle of the coils and lifted the snake up and out of the box like he had done that sort of thing before.  I backed away as he headed out of the hen-house and out to the gravel driveway.  He shook the hoe and the snake fell off.  Uncurling quickly, the snake began to slither away but Grandpa began hacking with the blade end of the hoe, chopping at the snake with a vengeance.

I watched the whole scene with horror, and then let out a scream when the visual went into overdrive.  Evidently, the snake had swallowed five or six eggs whole, and when Grandpa’s hoe hit those large lumps in the snake’s throat, its head raised about two feet off the ground, the mouth involuntarily opened up and spewed yellow yolk everywhere.  I couldn’t look anymore – I turned around and ran in the house.  The image of Grandpa hacking the snake to bits while it spewed yellow goo was burned into my brain, and played over and over in my mind over the next few weeks.

Vignette number two involved a fight with my cat.  I was up in a mulberry tree one summer, my face and fingers covered in purple juice from my harvest, when I heard a horrible screech from my cat.  I looked down to see that it wasn’t my cat making the noise, but a rabbit that my cat had caught.  The poor thing was bleeding and fur had started scattering.  The cat was eating the little bunny!  I dropped out of the tree and began chasing my cat who felt threatened that I was taking her meal.  The cat was fast, but every once in a while it had to stop and adjust the weight of the bunny she was dragging…her prey was half-dead.

I slapped at my cat.  “Leave the bunny alone!  Let it go! Let IT GO!!”  I love my cat, but I wasn’t going to let it have that bunny.  I finally caught the cat in such a hold that I could pry the bunny out of its claws and teeth.  The bunny was stunned and didn’t move.  I was wrestling with the cat, trying to hold it while nudging the bunny along with my foot.  “Run!” I told the bunny… “Run!”  The bunny finally hopped away, the cat scratched me deep enough that I couldn’t hold on any longer, she ran after the bunny…and killed it.

I remember running across that bunny tail a few days later.  I picked it up, let it dry and kept it for a while.  “Animal body parts” were fairly common on the farm.  I once found a squirrel tail (probably left after the cat ate it), I found a few rabbit feet over the years, and I would frequently find carcasses of one sort or another in our pasture.  I know there is a food chain, and I know animals do what they do.  What I didn’t know is that some animal parts look like others.

Vignette number three was especially gruesome and I couldn’t get it out of my head for a very long time.  I was skipping along one day, spied a white tail from a rabbit, picked it up and began to inspect it.  When I turned it over, I saw two tiny closed eyes and a baby mouth.  I uttered some kind of creeped-out yell, threw it down, and realized it was the leftovers of one of our new baby kittens, probably eaten by a tom cat who had come back to visit.  I had always heard that tom cats ate kittens, but had never seen tangible evidence until that day.  I felt like throwing up.  Seeing “the food chain” up close and personal, especially when it involved tiny baby kittens, was too much.  I think I probably stayed indoors for a few days.

And finally, vignette number four has to do with cows.  When you lived on a farm, it was common to have people come to your house, ask about hay,  or drive out on your property for one thing or another.  One day I looked out my bedroom window to see a white truck driving around in our front pasture.  The cows were running around and I began to wonder what was going on because there was a man in the back of the truck.  Startled, I realized he had a gun.  Just about that time he raised it, aimed at a cow and pulled the trigger.  A rifle-shot rang out and I saw the running cow stumble, then eventually fall.  I was gripping the window sill…I had just witnessed one of my cows dying!  We named our cows, for crying out loud, and we usually only kept about thirty at a time.  My stomach tightened and I sat down.  I always knew we butchered a cow or two, but I had never witnessed a death like that.  I felt like I had seen a person killed and couldn’t shake that scene in my head for another week or two.

I was recently corresponding with Becky Winsor, a childhood neighbor of mine, and we were talking about the “cow death” experience.  She was one of four sisters and wrote me her “death on the farm” story:

Growing up on a farm was, in hindsight, a very good experience. Over the years, I have put to use many of the life skills that I learned. I won’t lie, it was hard work. We raised cattle, sheep, chickens, pigs, and had a couple of horses. We also got to chop and pick cotton, bale and put up hay, and plant numerous crops.

My memories are however, for the most part, good. One of the hardest lessons I learned came when I was about 10 years old.  My father gave baby calves to my sisters and I. We were allowed to name them, bottle feed them, pet them, and visit them as much as we wanted. This went on for about 7 or 8 months. One day, we came home from school to find that the calves were gone. We were understandably upset.

When my father was questioned about this disappearance, he stated that they had been sold. He explained that we couldn’t keep the calves forever, that this was a natural consequence of raising farm animals. He had to deal with 4 teary-eyed girls for several days. He never allowed us to have our “own” farm animals again. Of course, he never again really complained about the 10-12 cats we had running around either.

What I realized when I read her story was that my experiences were not isolated.  There were (and are) children everywhere learning about death first hand on farms every day of the year.  However, I would venture to say that those lessons are never cartoons, they rarely have happy endings, and they aren’t written by a children’s author with gentle phrasing and puppy grave sites that grow red ferns.

In fact, the doggie grave sites MIGHT just end up like mine.  One day when I was running toward the creek to go play with my brother and my foot dropped about two feet down into a hole.  As I pulled my leg out I saw rib bones lying around the hole, and when I moved my shoe I saw more bones.  THEN I realized that was where we had buried our dog, Peppy, a few weeks before.  Evidently, an animal had dug her up and had her for dinner.  ARGH!  It was so creepy!!

If there is any redeeming value in animal death stories on the farm, it is that the most recent trauma usually replaces the creepiness of the former traumas.  Honestly, that’s the only good thing I can say about the subject.  Well…and, the fact that my clients can tell me just about anything in my therapy office and I’m hardly ever shocked.

Hmm…can it be that there was actually some redeeming value in all those creepy death experiences?  Naw…then it wouldn’t be a Halloween story, right?

Heidi, Haystacks and Headaches: The Truth About Children’s Literature and Farm Life, Chapter 2

As a child, I used to fantasize about being Heidi of the Alps.  I used to draw pictures on my wide-ruled notebook paper of hovels on top of mountains with thatched roofs, the landscape dotted with fluffy yellow haystacks, goats, pine trees and snow.  I used to pretend my bedroom was her attic bedroom where she could see the stars at night.  And also, I used to have a literary crush on Peter, the goat-herder.

Heidi got me so hooked on “orphan” books that I couldn’t really get interested in much else for a while.  There was Heidi, Anne of Green Gables, Mandy, The Secret Garden…all orphans, and all “me” in my head as I read through the pages over and over again. Oh, and I also had literary crushes on Dicken in the Secret Garden,  AND on Gilbert in Anne of Green Gables.

Since the parents of  Harriet the Spy weren’t around much in her books, I turned her into an orphan as well.  Need you even ask if I had a crush on her friend Sport?  And, since Wonaplei in the Island of the Blue Dolphins was stranded for eighteen years…yes, orphan.  Every one of these female characters were “explorers” who pushed the boundaries of social acceptability with their adventures in one way or another.  All of them were zealous, passionate about life, and most all of them had an emotional melt-down at some point.  That’s where my story will begin today.

I think I was pretty awesome at having emotional melt-downs as a child.  I know I was strong-willed.  Had my parents only known to tell me to turn left when they wanted me to go right, jump if they wanted me to stand still, or scream bloody murder when they wanted me to be quiet…they might have thought their skills were magically blessed by the Early Childhood Fairy.  I know that from time to time I would dig in with an idea, a rant, or some sort of decision that would turn in to quite the horn-locking situation.  And, since we’re using “horn-locking” as a metaphor, I could probably take that even further and say that I was bull-headed.  Strong willed, bull-headed, stubborn…pick one.  They all fit.

In order for you to fully understand this little tale, it’s also important for you to know that I was a cartoon-lovin’ kid as well.  Looney Tunes ruled.  “Boy, I say BOY!…”  I loved to imitate Foghorn Leghorn.  And Ralph E. Wolfe and Sam Sheepdog: “Mornin’, Ralph.”  “Mornin’, Sam.”  And, I loved cartoon paraphernalia.  For example, that cool anvil that always showed up to give the character’s heads a few knots? Nice!  Or “ACME” everything. And, I used to love the fact that cartoon haystacks were so versatile.  Looney Tunes did a great job with their cartoon haystacks.  For instance, Wile E. Coyote could pick up an entire haystack within which he was hiding, run with his fingers across a road (cue the upper register piano keys sound effects), and then set the haystack back down again…over and over until he reached his destination.  Haystacks were also good for breaking falls.  Usually, the “good” cartoon would fall out of an airplane or off a cliff and land on a nice fluffy haystack, while the “bad” character would land on the dirt right beside them.  And then, of course, dynamite would blow up in case the fall didn’t kill them.

One summer day my penchant for fantasizing about orphan protagonists, my bull-headedness and images of cartoon haystacks all came together into one knock-down, drag-out argument with my mother.  I’m sure I was highly invested in defending my position to the death, and I’m sure she was thinking that perhaps she had spawned a freak of nature who needed a calf-tranquilizer.  The verbal tennis-match we were having was Wimbledon worthy.  So, I decided to one-up the situation, not by pleading my case with different words or more emphatic body language, but by ending the argument.  I decided I would “run emotionally away from the scene of this persecution,” therefore garnering sympathy and attention.  I was a literary orphan and this was my moment.

I turned around, ran out of the kitchen and through the garage, pushed the back door open and took off across the back yard toward (um…stop for a second, look around, pick a target…) The BARN!  Caught up in my “persecution” leading role I thought quickly, “I’ll go throw myself on a haystack and cry violently!”  My pace picked up, and before I knew it I was in the barn, climbing the stack of baled prairie grass, mixed with a few bales of alfalfa.  The first level of the haystack wasn’t enough for dramatic effect.  I was going all the way to the top. I grabbed a hay hook, used it for an anchor as I threw myself over the second and third layer of hay, and then finally pulled myself up and over the top row.

Adrenaline is a funny thing.  Had I not been so worked up, I would have realized that as I was crawling across the highest layer of hay bales, my knees were receiving pain messages.  The hay was tough and scratchy, more like crawling on cedar chips than the bright yellow cartoon hay image I had in my head.  I quickly sighted the center, perfect for my dramatic “throw down and cry” scene, heaved my body forward and slammed my head down with a wail.  The impact of my face onto the tightly baled hay might as well have been that of me slamming into a pine tree on Heidi’s mountain; it was solid as a rock.  “Ouch!” I yelled, the shock and awe reverberating through my entire head.

Previously I had planned on forcing myself to fake-cry really loudly in order to punctuate the scene with the proper je ne sais quoi.  Mustering fake blubber was no longer needed, however, as tears flowed easily from the very real physical stinging of my face.  Wow, this haystack wasn’t yellow, it wasn’t fluffy and it sure as heck wasn’t something I could cry myself to sleep into; I wasn’t even sleepy.  However, the bull-headedness didn’t get suddenly knocked out of me just because I had given myself a hay-concussion.  I decided to TRY and cry myself to sleep just to make whatever point I was trying to make.  I suppose on some level I succeeded because I ended up taking a short nap, but it took a lot longer to fall asleep than in the movies.

I woke up a little while later and was immediately reminded of two things: a) I had actually run out of the house away from one of my parents and could be facing very real consequences for said action; and, b) my head hurt like the dickens.  Not Dicken, my literary crush from the Secret Garden, but “The Dickens” – the voluminous, overwhelming adjective used for special occasions to emphasize a great amount of “whatever.”  At that point, it was my headache.  Head throbbing, ego-bruised and curiosity peaked as to what my punishment might be for running out of the house, I made my way down that wretched haystack.

When I opened the door back into the house, however, my mother’s face showed genuine concern.  “Kelly, are you okay?” she asked. “What happened to your face?”  I could hear the worry in her voice.  Okay, I HAD been gone for probably 45 minutes to an hour.  There was no mention of the family court-hearing that would be taking place in our living room to hand down my sentence for leaving home.  The “judge” just looked worried; perhaps my face looked quite a mess and she thought I had already paid some sort of price for my actions.

Maybe being an orphan wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be.  I closed the door and came on into the house, sat down and began to eat a pretty good meal that was waiting on me.  As I worked through my sandwich, my right cheek throbbed.  The first genuine tear of emotion trickled down my cheek.  “Haystacks are not soft,” I thought.  “Goat cheese probably isn’t as good as this sandwich,” I continued to talk myself down off the Alps and back to my farm in Tuttle, Oklahoma.  It didn’t take long.  The comfortable sounds of the kitchen soothed me as I finished my meal and headed back to my room.  I glanced at my bookshelf and spied the Heidi book.  I hesitated, turned back around and went to help my mom clean the dishes.

Day 37: Reckoning Day, and the Brasenose Library Book Kitty

Critically discuss that the European Union (EU) has evolved into a “U.S. of Europe.”  Critically discuss the free movement of people, goods, services and capital.  Are human rights adequately protected under EU Law? There is a democratic deficit in Europe: affirmative or negative?  Critically discuss the EU Parliament, the EU High Courts, the EU Commission…

Points, sub-points, counterpoints, caveats. Write, write, shake my hand from to relieve the pain of an ergonomically incorrect pen grip, and begin again.

For two days I had been preparing responses to these questions and now it was just a matter of cramming in every word possible within the allotted time.  For a brief moment while I was rubbing the joints in my hand I said a short prayer of thanks for the Brasenose library.  The venue exudes an air of getting down to business and prepping for exams.  My mind then flashed to the stuffed cat I saw curled on top of a stack of ancient volumes, and I diverted that thought as quickly as possible.

While I understand that stuffing a dearly beloved cat might be a positive thing, in remembrance of the feline soul and all that it gave the library over the years, all I could think was, “Icky!” (See 19th Century stuffed pets.)

Back to the exam.  I haven’t used a “blue book” since my undergraduate years.  I filled mine full save one page, stopped writing, leaned back in my chair and breathed in slowly.  Then out.  Done.  One down, one to go.

And in case you are now bandying about the answers to the questions in the first paragraph to entertain yourself, just let me know when I get home.  I’ll meet you at the pub and we’ll have ourselves a robust dialogue.

I’d love too, in fact.  Just let me know.