When the Refugees Came, or Why I Can’t Seem to Keep My Mouth Shut on Facebook

Memory from my childhood: I was about twelve years old, returning pop bottles for the deposits at a Safeway grocery store three blocks from my house in Kansas City. A wrinkled woman, not more than five feet tall, wearing a headscarf and a coat too heavy for the weather — probably someone’s grandmother — wheeled her cart toward the check-out lines. She had quite a bit of food.  I guessed she was shopping for the extended family.

The store was busy, lines at every register. I don’t remember what day of the week it was, but Saturday seems likely. I saw the woman stand still for a couple of minutes, scanning the scene, assessing the lines and then spotting one that was miraculously short. She rolled up to it and began unloading her cart of goods right under the sign that read “Express Lane. 12 items or less.” Continue reading

Tree Envy – Poem


Tree Envy

Instead of dreary gray strands
threading subtly widening paths
around my head,
I want blazing red
for my autumn color,
interspersed with patches of
can’t-peel-your-eyes away yellow
and clusters
of an orange so perfectly sun-toasted
it holds its own as an independent hue,
not remotely a blend of the other two.
I want the colors to burst
out all at once,
so that people I meet
will feel a catch of breath
at the splendor,
the glorious culmination of my maturity.

Playing Ball

In honor of the baseball post-season and the fact that my hometown team, the Kansas City Royals, gets the award for most improved in the last few years, here’s a post about baseball. It’s a short memoir piece I wrote a couple of years ago. It originally appeared in Ducts.org.

Kauffman Stadium

Playing Ball

I’m five years old and there’s a baseball game in progress right outside my door. We live at the junction of Thompson and Askew. Our corner serves as home plate. The pitcher stands in the middle of the intersection. Very few cars drive by during a summer day in the neighborhood that Kansas City forgot. If a family owns a car, it means the father has a job, and the car is at work with him.

I watch the action from my front yard. Trudy, a teenager from down the street, invites me into the game. She asks if I’d like to take her turn at bat. She’ll help me. I hustle to the corner and take the unwieldy wooden club. I’m big for my age, but not enough to handle an adult-sized baseball bat. Trudy puts her arms around me, providing extra hands to hold the bat steady. Her long, wavy hair falls over my left shoulder. Continue reading

A Safe Place You Can Take With You

I recently re-read Neil Gaiman’s book, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.” It’s a quick and thrilling read. The narrator, an unnamed man now in his forties, comes home for a funeral and revisits the family who lived down at the end of the lane from his childhood home. While there, he recalls events from the year he was seven. The happenings included encounters with powerful and sometimes terrifying creatures.

Avid readers will identify with the protagonist when he says, “I went away in my head, into a book. That was where I went whenever real life was too hard or too inflexible.”

Without giving too many spoilers, I’ll stick with saying his situation gets to the point where even his home and family aren’t safe for him. But he still has his books. He reads about Narnia. He reads his mother’s old books about teenage girl heroines who save their country in World War II. He takes refuge with Dick Whittington and his cat. Here’s the really brilliant part. When he’s in danger and can’t get to a book, he keeps himself together by thinking about books he’s read. They’re still with him in his head. It’s even what he says. The safe place is in his head; books get him there.

This struck me because there have been a number of times in my life where no place felt secure, or when I was in a fraught situation where I couldn’t physically leave. But I could read. Whether I was visiting with literary characters who were experiencing the same things I was and thus made me feel less alone, or going on an incredible adventure completely removed from my corporeal life, I could take mental flight through books. Like the boy in Gaiman’s book, I discovered I could create a safe space in my head. I can carry my safe space with me. It’s a pretty good coping strategy. Honestly, I don’t know how non-readers survive.

Let’s Hear a Ringy-Dingy for Emma Nutt and Lily Tomlin

Happy Emma Nutt Day! On September 1, 1878, Emma Nutt opened a whole new profession to women by becoming the first female telephone operator. She remained at her job with the Edwin Holmes Telephone Dispatch Company for more than thirty years.

September 1 also happens to be the birthday of Lily Tomlin, aka Ernestine of the telephone company. Coincidence? Or is there a cosmic order at play here?

Even those of the younger generations who didn’t experience the days of a telephone monopoly and don’t quite get the deal with long-distance calls will see that not everything has changed when it comes to phone companies.

Steps Mania

These shoes were made for walking.

These shoes were made for walking.

I’ve wanted a pedometer ever since I discovered such a thing existed. I’ve always been in love with walking. I’m not simply caught up in a current trend. For some reason I want people to know this, to know walking was my medicine for many years before theFitBit was even a glint in the eye of a product designer.

When I was a teenager with no money and no car, living in an often stressful situation, my escape was a stroll to the public library, a little over a mile from my house. The library was a haven, but the walk there was also an essential therapy element for me.

When you travel by car, you miss seeing fairy houses up close.

When you travel by car, you miss seeing fairy houses up close.

Back in my early adult years, before children, I engaged in a lot of physical activity. I bicycled every day, including a stint where I pedaled to work and back, five miles each way. I hung out with a group of footbag (hacky sack) players and had the luxury to spend a few hours every week kicking. I even competed in tournaments. Oh, the calories I burned. But given my choice of a vacation activity, I’d tend to choose some place with lots of hiking trails. Then, too, I’ve generally been more than willing to walk for transportation given the time to do so.

Once I had kids, opportunities for my own recreational activities became scarcer and exercise something I had to strategize to work into my daily life. Walking was the activity that fit most seamlessly. Put the child in a stroller — oh wait, firstborn screamed when pushed in a stroller. Reconnoiter, buy a baby sling, tuck in the infant, and take off. Much better. When the weather was bad, sometimes I’d go to the shopping mall and experience a reframing of my regard for mall walkers, as I perambulated up and down halls for twenty or thirty minutes. I liked to maintain a self-concept that included the word “tough.” This included a willingness to trek outside through any kind of weather. Mall walking didn’t fit. With the advent of motherhood, my self-concept had to lean more heavily toward adaptable.

A couple of years ago, I finally got a pedometer. And so did everyone else. I had my own personal goals, molded to my life circumstances: kids at home, job, responsibilities for my mom (though I’m happy to do it, it’s often like having a second job), an extremely needy old house. For the first while I could go cheerfully about my walking business with only a vague awareness that others were tracking their steps as well. Then people started talking about their steps. And getting competitive about their steps. And some of them got judgy about other folks’ daily totals, maintaining a haughtiness over how much higher their own test scores pedometer tallies were.

The only way to get to this spot is on foot. Elephant Rocks State Park, Missouri.

The only way to get to this spot is on foot. Elephant Rocks State Park, Missouri.

I had this lovely thing, this activity that had helped me cope in my worst times, a cherished prize that served as a beautiful centerpiece for my life and was an integral part of my identity. And everyone was RUINING it. Turning it into a tawdry game of one upsmanship. Also, some of their reported counts seemed a little out there to me. Someone who has a yard no larger than mine somehow would get 25% more steps than I did while mowing. Hmmmm.

I became suspicious about variations in devices. I admit I have a cheap-ass pedometer. It counts only steps and miles, but that’s all I need. If I take a walk around the neighborhood, it gives me a fairly accurate distance. But it doesn’t always pick up the random two or three steps here or there. If I stop at a shelf in the grocery store, for example, and then take four paces down the aisle, where I once again linger making price comparisons, it won’t record any steps. I pretty much have to take ten or more steps before it believes I’ve made enough of a commitment to movement for it to count. Eventually, one of my friends mentioned her FitBit recorded 400 steps for her while she was riding in a car. Ha! Vindication for my theory. It seemed a little like clothing sizes to me. The more expensive the brand, the more favorable the number. Pay them enough dough and they’ll stroke your ego.

I did some research and found this post from someone who had done her own comparison tests of different fitness trackers. The entire thing is worth a read. However, condensed version: The author, Lindsay Ross, wore many different pedometers at the same time and got wildly varying results. One recorded fewer than 9,000 steps for the day, while another gave her more than 16,000 for the same time period.

I suppose I could have used those couple of minutes to add more steps instead of stopping to enjoy this butterfly.

I suppose I could have used those couple of minutes to add more steps instead of stopping to enjoy this butterfly.

The money quote for me came in her conclusion:

“But at the end of the day, I don’t think it really matters as long as each individual pedometer is consistent with itself. The entire goal of wearing a pedometer is to get people to MOVE. So as long as the pedometer I choose to wear consistently tracks my movement from day-to-day, and inspires me to move more, it’s doing its job. Whether that pedometer says 8990 steps or 13566 steps, if I MOVE MORE from day-to-day, it’s technically done its job.” 

I’m pretty sure this is a metaphor for all of life, somehow. Don’t compare yourself so much with others; you’re not going to get an accurate gage on that anyway. For some people, getting out of bed is more than they did yesterday. It’s progress. Stick to keeping an eye on your own self, your own goals and achievements.

I intend to focus on enjoying the process. While waiting for the next fad to sweep the dilettantes out of my path.

Oklahoma City 20 Years Later

Where were you when…?100_0699


On the morning of April 19, 1995, I was at work at an office job when I overheard colleagues talking about a bombing somewhere. I was slightly more than 8 months pregnant with my first child. 450 miles away, my sister-in-law was at home, taking a personal day off from her job in the Murrah Federal Building.

Neither my husband nor I knew she hadn’t gone in that day. We had no cell phones. Phone lines were jammed; we couldn’t reach anyone in Oklahoma. There was email, but it was accessed through dial-up connections – same problem.

As everyone in my building listened to their different news sources and conferred back about the latest, the pit of despair began to seem bottomless. A daycare in the building? I put my hand on my belly, feeling my baby kick, willing the report to be wrong.

At OKC Memorial

At OKC Memorial

At OKC Memorial

OKC Memorial. Each chair is engraved with the name of someone who died in the bombing. The large ones represent adults; the small ones represent children.










Finally, in the afternoon, news from my husband. He’d heard from his mom. His sister had not been in the building. She was alive. But her best friend died, leaving behind two small children. Several other people she knew perished, as well. I can’t fathom losing several friends and coworkers all on the same day.

I have a confession. The Oklahoma City bombing shook me more than 9/11 did. I’m not sure that’s true for many Americans. Is there a hierarchy of terribleness? I don’t know. Both events sent shock waves through my life. But Oklahoma is in the midwest. It’s not supposed to happen here. I had never been to New York (still haven’t), but had spent considerable time in OKC. I’d seen the Murrah building with my own eyes. Worse, I’ve met people who sounded a lot like Tim McVeigh.

The images flooding the news over the following weeks prompted a river of tears. Into what kind of world was I bringing a child? And how would I ever keep my baby safe? I can still be reduced to a puddle if I think about it much, the knowledge that acts of terrorism can happen close to home. Then there’s the “evil walked among us and we didn’t even know” feeling about the perpetrators.

My family has visited OKC several times in the last two decades, but not until a couple of years ago did we visit the Oklahoma City National Memorial. The word “moving” doesn’t touch the depth of feeling it evokes.

Surviving tree

Somehow this tree survived.

So many chairs. So many lives.

So many chairs. So many lives.

At OKC Memorial

So many.






My sister-in-law pointed out that nobody will ever be able to give an accurate number of lives lost. She told us of an acquaintance who committed suicide several months later in the wake of the trauma. Yet his name isn’t included on the roll of the dead from the bombing.

Grief in spray paint


I don’t want to try to imagine what these years would have been like without my sister-in-law. I’m grateful for her always, but it’s often a low-level gratitude. Anniversaries like this bring it vividly to the forefront. My husband’s father died much too young, and his sister, as the oldest child, has worked to be the emotional, and often logistical, support for her siblings and their families. She’s one of those rare people who is so solidly there for everyone.

How about this, y’all? How about we all try to treat each other with love and compassion? How about we try to live together instead of killing each other?