I knew I liked Myra Lewis Williams 27 years ago when we went to lunch together for the first time. We were in a Mexican restaurant enjoying our meal when a cockroach crawled up the wall at her shoulder. Without breaking her stride Myra took off her shoe, smashed it, put her shoe back on, and went back to eating her enchilada.
I knew then that she was my kind of girl. We’ve been friends ever since.
We met when my husband started work for her husband’s real estate agency. She’d been doing a lot of public speaking and because I did, too, in my job as a seminar leader, we figured we’d have a lot in common. We do.
A year later Myra introduced me to Marka Palmer, who she’d met not long before at a conference. She liked Marka a lot, describing her as an all-Southern girl. Again, as soon as we met, it was apparent that the three of us would become best friends. Fast-forward many, many years and us “three amigos” are still so close that we tease that we have to remain friends forever because we all know too much about each other.
As a writer, for years I’d been saying to Myra, “You have to write another memoir! Women need to hear this story!” She’d tell Marka and me stories that made us laugh are butts off, cry like babies, and sit in sheer amazement. I knew her story of survival at the hands of an abusive husband, who she married at age 13, would be an inspiration to any woman who has ever endured abuse.
So last year when the time finally seemed right and she asked if I’d assist her in writing her memoir I was both thrilled and scared. After all, I’ve done a lot of writing and knew this was bound at times to be a grueling task. I didn’t want anything to mar our friendship.
Well, we survived and her book is amazing! The Spark that Survived is a testament to a woman’s ability to make it through life’s worst events. As Myra says, “It’s a book about how to survive life’s worst tragedies and your own dumbass decisions.”
I hope you’ll read this story and share it with others. Somewhere in your life is a woman who could benefit from this story. Maybe even you.
In appreciation for the dog days of summer and our little furry friends who remind us to relax and savor them, my guest blogger is my sister, Karene Hughes. This is part of her chapter from our anthology of stories by 30 women, What We Talk About When We’re Over 60. Karene reminds us of the simple and yet most important pleasures our dogs offer us. Enjoy. ~ Linda
By Karene Hughes
I’ve never thought of myself as a patient person. I did, after all, inherit that embarrassing family temper. Remember the dad in the movie Christmas Story, down in the basement having the “conversation” with the furnace? Yup, that was my dad. My mom used to have her own conversations with the sewing machine and I was well into adulthood before I knew sewing didn’t involve #$%X@# words. My sister once told me of the time she was putting up curtains in her bedroom, conversing with them as well, when her husband came into the room, calmly looked at her and asked “Do you need a pill or something?” And me? Well, I’m the one who has a little conversation of my own with the MicroSoft gods who have pre-determined that I can’t possibly know what I really want so they auto correct for me. Don’t even get me started on cable and all those remotes.
So, imagine my amazement in learning that I do indeed have a very patient side. All it took to discover it was 14 pounds of spunk and tenacity named Chelsie.
Although I grew up with a variety of dogs in our family, I had never adopted one as an adult. Living alone it’s quite a commitment, always having to adjust your schedule around them. So when my sister-in-law Val suggested I adopt her sister’s 11 year old Westie Chelsie, I hemmed and hawed. Val and my brother Tom had two dogs of their own, which I often dog sat for, and they knew I loved dogs. Val’s sister had remarried, had several children and had started a day care in her home, so Chelsie, being an older dog, was having trouble adjusting to all those children and their commotion. I knew Chelsie from our family get-togethers and yes, I finally adopted her, but only on a trial basis. I wasn’t at all sure how this would go. Well of course, I absolutely fell in love with her in no time at all. Loving and loyal, she was such a curious and happy dog that she was a delight. I went from worrying about adopting her to worrying about the family wanting her back or her wanting to be with them and not me. As it turned out, she was always very happy to visit them, but right by my side when I headed for home. It was a perfect match for all of us.
If you know anything about terriers, you know they come with a surplus of personality. While they may be stubborn, that stubbornness can also represent a tenacity that I came to deeply respect and admire. Little dogs don’t see themselves as little. They’re ready to take on the world. Chelsie was such a character, she always made me laugh and I never grew tired of watching her watch the world. She was very territorial. In fact, she would leap off the couch and bark at any animal that appeared on TV. I was amazed she could even recognize them, but she could. Even a horse in the background would warrant a bark. It was actually quite fascinating. One day, though, I was sure she had it wrong. A commercial came on with a man fishing from a boat. Chelsie planted herself in front of the screen, stomping her feet and barking ferociously. I laughed and told her “Sorry, Chelsie. There are no animals in this one!” Just then, the fisherman’s cell phone rang. He answered it and heard “meow meow meow” and the screen changed to a cat on a cell phone calling him. OK, either Chelsie was way too smart or had been watching way too much TV!
Chelsie and I spent almost two years together and she became an important part of my life. I never tired of her adventures and grew to love simply watching her confident, adventuresome self while in the yard or on our walks. Often I watched her in awe. How on earth could so much attitude, affection, and just pure life be encompassed in that little 14 pound body.
When Chelsie neared 13, she developed kidney disease. Hospitalized for several days, I was so in fear of her dying. Once home, on meds and a new diet, she required subcutaneous saline injections several times a week to keep her hydrated, a necessity due to her disease. During this time, as I knew her health was declining, she became slower and slower on our walks and in our activities. While I always appreciated a good steady walk, I now slowed down, letting her set the pace. The truth was, I grew to admire and respect her tenacity and attitude. Here she was, having come so close to death and now in declining health, and yet she was still curious about the world around her and anxious to get out there and be a part of things. As she became slower, stopping more often to sniff (her way of resting), I came to appreciate this slower pace myself. I noticed this interesting tree with wildly twisting branches that I’d never really noticed before. I’d stand and watch birds building a nest or see the first little crocuses making their way up through the snow. All things we’d simply marched by before. I came to appreciate this gift Chelsie was giving me.
Chelsie started to lose her interest in eating. Each meal, I sat on the floor next to her, putting morsels of food in my palm, offering them to her and encouraging her to eat. Meal time now had to be planned for and could span a half hour. Instead of just letting her run about the yard on her own, I’d stay close, keeping an eye on her in case she needed me. My whole world slowed down along with hers and more and more, I found this to be a blessing of its own. I enjoyed simple moments in a way I hadn’t in quite some time. I quit rushing so and became more patient with life itself.
When I realized Chelsea was failing and there was no more the vet or I could do, I took the day off work and spent it with her. It was a beautiful, sunny day in June. I got a blanket and we laid in the sun. I stroked her, sang to her, napped with her and even sketched a picture of her. When my brother and sister-in-law got home from work, we all went together to the vet’s. It’s hard to explain, but I know that Chelsea knew and that she really was ready. The vet put her to sleep with us all stroking and talking to her. She went very, very peacefully.
I learned a lot from Chelsie. I had worried so about it being too much of a commitment (OK, a bother) to have a dog on my own, yet quickly found that the companionship, joy and unconditional love she offered was so much more fulfilling that I ever imagined. It truly amazed me to discover that patient side of me, as well. I’ve thought about that a lot since. Part of it is that our dogs are truly so vulnerable and dependent on us. How could I be impatient with that? They have no hidden agendas, no ulterior motives. That’s the great thing about dogs. They live in the moment with absolute honestly. Somehow, that makes whatever they require from you so much easier to give. I learned a lot from Chelsie.
Oh yes, I eventually got a new dog, another rescue mutt. I knew I needed another little four legged friend to come along and teach me what I don’t even know I have yet to learn.
Here’s the beginning of the article:
When I was in my twenties in the 1970s, I signed up to take belly dancing classes, as was the craze in those days. Recently married and perpetually optimistic, I wanted to stay in shape when I got pregnant. I also knew it would be fun, especially with my friends in the class, too.
Little did I know that such an innocent decision would dramatically impact my life.
Here I am, forty years later, still reflecting upon the gifts of that experience, especially the spiritual connections that blossomed. The joi de vivre of the dance not only allowed my body freedom of movement, it opened my heart and soul, as well, allowing a rekindling of spiritual ties. It provided me with a sense of spectacularly ethereal belonging to this world and beyond, with loving ties to those who have walked – and danced – on this earth before me.
So why did I ever let it go? Why did I let something I grew to love float away on the tips of my belidi veil? Why did I let those spiritual connections, the closeness of those beyond, slip away? Likewise, have you ever felt an other-worldly bond; a tie to guardian spirits, angels, ancestors, or however you think of “them;” and do you still feel it? Or has it evaporated in the over-scheduled chaos of today’s typical daily life, like it did for me?
I find myself using that phrase often. “When I become queen of the universe, we’ll do it my way…. Until then, we have to follow these other rules….” I’ve never been very good at following somebody else’s rules, especially when I think they’re stupid, which explains the numerous visits I had to the principal’s office when I was a kid. So today I like to entertain myself by thinking of all of the dumb rules I’d change if I were in charge of everything.
Think about this. What would you change, if you became king or queen, if you had the power? Here’s part of my list:
1. No more stuffing energetic, imaginative, joyful children into square box rooms all day long every day for school. It may as well be jail. Let them roam, explore, experiment, and get dirty. I remember thinking my body was going to explode if I had to sit still for one more moment in school. I wanted to be free! That was so long ago you’d think that by now school systems would be more advanced. Some are, but too many still are not. And why on earth does school start so early? Please! Let’s be reasonable.
2. No more dull duds at work! We’ll be able to wear whatever we want. Steampunk if you’re a teller at the bank? Sure. Why not? Let’s be individuals instead of sheep. A tee shirt and shorts in the office? Okay by me. Sneakers wherever you are? That makes it easier to take a walk for exercise during break time. I remember a long-ago boss telling me he didn’t like my shoes. (They were fabulous platform wedges.) I told him that was okay because I didn’t like his, either. He wasn’t impressed. But no matter what you wear I would require cleanliness. I like things to be clean. Oh, one more change at work: Nobody has to be there before nine a.m. Ten if you want.
3. Internet access for everyone, for the sake of reading and researching. Social media, messaging, and games, etc., are okay, but everyone needs to have access to books and resources. Good books. My books, too, of course.
4. Every town will have a library that is liberally funded so that, as well as books online, we’ll have lots of free resources. Best of all, there will be no late fees when you forget that one that fell under the bed. There will be plenty of librarians to offer workshops and classes on subjects of interest, like book discussions. And exciting storytellers will come and perform our favorite tales, even for us adults. Then we’ll all join in and learn the art of enchanting storytelling. Family dinners at home will once again come alive with everyone wanting to gather to hear the latest tales of intrigue, humor, and love. (Okay, a bit yippy-skippy. But, hey, it’s my fantasy universe.)
5. The old Celtic Brehon law for marriage will be reinstated. The first year of living together will be a trial union. Then, if it doesn’t work out, February 1st is the day that the wife can stand on the top step of their doorway and announce, “I quit you.” The guy has to leave. It’s over. No divorce. No questions asked. In all fairness, the husband can do this, too. If they like each other, the husband can stay but is required by law not to be “listless” in bed. So there.
My list goes on and on including building safe communities; life imprisonment for child, spouse, animal, or any other kind of abuser; and world peace. (Imagine me waving like a pageant participant on that last one.)
What about your list? What would you change?
Go ahead. Finish this sentence: “When I become queen or king of the universe, I will….”
Let’s go out there an make a better universe.
How did it all begin? When I was 12 years old I wrote in my diary that I wanted to be a “writter” when I grew up. Well, in all honesty, I said I wanted to be an actress, but they seemed to live unhappy lives, so I’d be a writter instead. Clearly, I had a lot to learn. Spelling aside, I didn’t yet know about Petronius, Virginia Woolf, or Ernest Hemingway, and so many other writers whose lives ended in suicide. Thank goodness for my ignorance! Had I known, I might never have continued to foster my dream of being a writer. And so I am the non-self-destructive kind of writer. I haven’t given up my day job, even when coming within reach of a movie deal on one of my books. (Which never panned out, so thank goodness for that job!) I just keep on writing. That’s what real writers do. We write no matter what.
What is my writing process? Organized chaos. I like being organized, but apparently my life likes to stay in chaos. So, consequently, I must plan for the two to intertwine. For example, right now I’m working on two books, one fiction (The House on Haven Island) and one non-fiction (What We Talk About When We’re Over 60). I love them both, but often when I set aside a morning to concentrate on the novel, invariably someone from the joint project non-fiction book needs something done now. It can never wait. And truth be told, if we do wait it gets lost in the shuffle, so it’s always easier to tend to it at that moment. Then I have to try to recapture my life on the island. It’s quite schizophrenic. I know, I know. You’re thinking that I cause the chaos by working on two books at once. True. I seem to do better when under pressure. Otherwise it’s too easy to turn into a sloth. It’s even worse during the school year when I’m teaching (I’m a college professor) and that must always come first. Juggling 90 new students each semester and trying to conjure up a bunch of rowdy new fictional characters is a challenge. But sometimes it feels like the same thing, just in different settings.
What am I working on & why do I write what I do? Let me tell you a little bit about how my two latest projects came about, as an example of how writing ideas can crop up everywhere. I believe that good writers see writing opportunities in everything. A book I co-wrote last year, one that started at my kitchen table over ice tea with a group of girl friends, led to the non-fiction book I’m co-writing now. The first one was called Atlanta’s Real Women, which got started when my friends and I were laughing over the TV reality show The Real Housewives of Atlanta. Somebody said, “We outta write about real women!” So we did. Thirteen women eventually contributed. Later, thinking that had been a cool idea, I called my old college roommate (from 1966!), Sherri Daley, and asked if she’d like to co-write one about New York City, where she lived for 25 years. She said no, she wanted to write about women over 60. So we are. It’s called What We Talk About When We’re Over 60. Thirty women contributed to this one. Coordination has been at times tumultuous, at times labor intensive, and always a joy. My latest novel that I’m working on, The House on Haven Island, came about like all of my novels do: It’s been stuck in my head for a long time. I’ve given up trying to figure out why I wake up in the night with new story ideas; I just go with it. They are bursting in there! It doesn’t feel like a great feat when I get one done. It feels like a relief to get it out of my head. All of those people living in there gets awfully cramped. If you want to be spooked out, find my most recently published novel, Becoming Jessie Belle, and read about how the characters in that one came to me in past life regressions with a psychic.
How does my work differ from others in the genre? I think that if you pay attention to your own insights and inspirations, your work will always be unique. Only you can see the detailed images that are in your head; only you know the gut feelings of your characters; and only you can write them down in your own way. That’s what I try to do.
How does my writing process work? I work at it. Planning writing time into my schedule is key. If I wait to be in the mood or until inspiration strikes, it never happens. Life always gets in the way. Years ago I once heard writer Jacquie D’Alessandro give a presentation, where she gave each audience member a kitchen timer so we wouldn’t have an excuse not to write. Even fifteen minutes a day, she told us, is better than nothing. I still use that timer! I start with an idea of the protagonist, and once in a while the ending, too. When that happens, I have to figure out how to get to that end. But sometimes the story takes unforeseen turns as I write and the ending is a surprise to me. “Really, that’s who killed the queen!?” That’s always fun. As I go, I make out a storyboard. I can’t work without that kind of organization, otherwise my many interruptions get me lost. I use a big bulletin board to post 5X7 cards, one for each sequence of the story. When I pin them up and mull them over, it helps me see what needs to change places and where there are gaps that need to be filled. I also make out a card for each character and each venue. For example, I list a character’s physical characteristics as well as behaviorisms and speech patterns. Otherwise the main man might end up being six foot four in chapter 1 and have shrunk to five foot ten in chapter 19. This process is fun to me. It’s like putting together a giant puzzle where I get to make up the pieces.
Whatever your writing process might be, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. Let me know if you have any questions about writing. And thank you to my writer friend Rona Simmons for tagging me for this writers’ blog tour. Here’s to writers everywhere!
Next on the tour? Sherri Daley. Sherri Daley has established herself among editors as someone who will write about anything – from new forms of cancer treatments to the lives of Broadway stage hands, tuning up your own oil burner, that new car smell, blueberry jam, and Joshua Bell’s violin.
Later, she dug her heels in at UGA. Her journalistic degree (ABJ) produced magazine articles on Georgia history, like “UGA’s Lab Road Murder” (in Moonshine, Murder, & Mayhem, 2003). From the journalistic approach she moved to academic writing. These compositions now include the recreation of 1702 Carolina in the “The Anglican City of God”(PhD, 2010). Of late, however, she finds herself spending more and more time reflecting on her small town childhood. Her latest piece reflects her love of books and her spiritual journey. This first appeared inAtlanta’s Real Women (August, 2013) and soon in What We Talk About … When We’re Over 60(June, 2014). Currently, she is contemplating writing a historical-based novel set in a small town during post World War II. It is presently emerging from under her stack of papers dubbed “COLD WARS.” www.greywhytekat.net