Thoughts on Three Billboards (Spoilers Abound)

I saw Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri more than a month ago and I’m still processing. In case you missed this in the big print up top, I’m not avoiding spoilers at all.  I specifically plan to discuss the ending. If you want to see the movie, but haven’t yet, this is your chance to stop reading.

Some meta observations first. I have lived nearly my entire life in Missouri. Before I saw the movie, I read a couple of reviews that focused heavily on how things are “in the south.” Cough, cough. I suppose the southern part of the state, bordering on Arkansas and Tennessee, is edging toward being in the south. But if you look at a map or talk to Missouri natives, you will discover that we are, by and large, mid-westerners, in geography and self-identity.

I also read a review by a New Yorker who went on at some length about why there had to be some specific allegory or needed justification for setting a movie in Missouri. What does it mean that it’s set in Missouri? he wondered. Oh hey, maybe it means that Missouri is a place where people live and have stories that involve something other than longing to be in New York. Maybe coastal cities aren’t the default or the norm. Maybe Missouri is as valid a place to set a story as anywhere else. Maybe that’s what it means. Also, to the same critic who thought it seemed artificial for Missourians to quote from literature, I can attest that some of us have read a book or two.

Though not filmed in Missouri, I felt the movie captured the look and feel of the Ozarks area fairly well. I was relieved that none of the actors used a fake, over-the-top drawl. I will nitpick with a line of dialogue when one character, who is supposed to be a Missouri native, says “here in the south.” I guess that might be where the reviewers got the idea.

I found it interesting how the movie is set in the state that is the home of Hallmark Cards, but the story is the antithesis of a typical Hallmark movie. We start with the knowledge that Frances McDormand’s character, Mildred Pierce, is awash in grief-fueled rage over the unsolved rape and murder of her daughter. Though we see a few soft, gentle moments, by the end of the movie she’s still struggling over what to do with the feelings that threaten to pull her under and drown her. She doesn’t come to a full and peaceful resolution of any kind. As a mother, I got the feeling she was never going to stop trying to find something — anything — she could do that would feel like a fierce care-taking of the daughter she could no longer truly help.

This is what made her a real and true and large character, a character with shoulders broad enough to carry such a heavy story. The viewer comes into the story in Mildred’s point of view. It’s easy to identify with her, even as her behavior becomes more and more extreme and violent. Because the first thing we see is the depth of her pain and the depth of her love.

Chief of police William Willoughby is the target of Mildred’s billboard messages. He’s portrayed in a largely sympathetic manner, as someone who looks deep and sees nuance. There’s a genuine warmth and humanity to him. It’s obvious he’s pained by the failure to catch the murderer of Mildred’s daughter. I’ve seen a lot written about him as the most unambiguously good character in the movie. BUT. Not to me. I’ve been so surprised by something that goes unmentioned over and over again that I’m starting to wonder if I imagined it. I don’t think I did.

There’s a scene with a conversation between Mildred and Willoughby, after she tussles with the dentist, where it’s revealed her ex-husband had formerly been a member of the local police force, presumably under Willoughby’s supervision. And her husband beat her. And Willoughby did not much about it, “reasonably” explaining it was a he said/she said situation, with no proof of anything. Mildred’s billboards and the pain and the grudge against the police chief go back beyond his failure to solve her daughter’s murder. There are layers here, and I’m consistently befuddled that nobody seems to mention this. If Mildred believes he didn’t try hard enough, she has some justification, considering the two of them have a history where he’s failed to help her before. On the other hand, the implication is there that Willoughby wants to make this up to her, too.

Meanwhile there’s Officer Dixon, and the first things we know about him are violent actions he’s taken, or at least everyone believes so. Everyone talks about him inflicting violence on a black citizen. However, he denies it. It’s easy to dislike him immediately. As the movie progresses, we see he does have a penchant for lashing out. But we see all of that before we know much about him as a person. Throughout the story, other characters tease him about being a mama’s boy. It’s not until much later we learn he’s hurting over the loss of his father and has made sacrifices to take care of a dependent mother.

Mildred and Dixon face off throughout the movie, but in the end, when they drive off together as allies on the same quest of vengeance, they don’t seem so different from each other. Two sides of the same coin, more like. I felt as if the film’s writer, Martin McDonagh, created a character arc for me, as a viewer. Both Mildred and Dixon engage in behavior that is just plain wrong. I questioned why I cheered, or at least sympathized with Mildred’s actions, while despising Dixon for his. I believe it was the whole context thing. With Mildred we see the suffering first, but with Dixon not much other than how he has hurt other people. The context of his life fills in later.

If there’s anything I identified as a central message of this movie, it’s this: hurt people hurt people. But not always. When a man who was savagely attacked by Dixon has a chance for revenge, he shows mercy instead. If there’s a glimmer of hope this dark movie offers us, it’s this: hurt people can sometimes rise above hurting other people.




My Year: Twelve Ways of Looking at 2017

My year in review, in terms of moods and emotions.

January: Anxiety, shock. Impending doom. Grasping at straws of hope, picking up pieces of shattered wishes. The coldest January 20th ever, the world upended. A plunging of the stomach. Fury. Sick fear. Solidarity.

February: Calls and calls and calls. Emails and emails and emails. Postcards and postcards and postcards. Small personal triumphs. Small personal resignations. Heels dug in. Grappling.

March: Nurturing others and myself. Sitting with. Starting seeds: literal physical plants and new beginnings for myself. Trying to allow myself to bloom. Focusing close to home.

April: A few sprouts, a few false starts. A little cutting loose. Seeking of wisdom and camaraderie.

May: Nostalgia. Celebration. Family. Care-taking.

June: Opening. Doing. Self care. Moments of peace and fulfillment.

July: A dreaded ordeal. Survival. Defiance. Resistance. Resilience.

August: Doing. Accomplishing. Revelry. Thoughtfulness.

September: Improving what I can. Projects. Sorting. Aesthetics.

October: Planning and researching. New goals.

November: Setbacks. Doggedness, determination. Grindstone. Head down.

December: Repeatedly dragging myself back from the brink of despair. Grim realizations. Surviving. Teetering. Holding close. Looking for the light, making the light, being the light. 

The Worst Poem I Ever Heard

Poetry Books

Credit: brewbooks. I’m sure their poetry reading was fabulous, unlike the one I’m describing.

I wish I’d said something, after the reading. I wish I’d approached the esteemed professor, though I was a young nobody, not even one of his students. I wish I’d had the nerve to tell him You’re not so enlightened. I wish I’d said to the those heaping praise on him That was some messed up crap. Sometimes I wish I’d shouted out in the middle, while he was still at the mic. I wish I’d booed while others were politely clapping.

The poetry reading was memorable, I’ll give him that. It was the late 80s or early 90s. My blood still boils decades later.

He read a serial killer poem, but not really a serial killer poem. It was about Ted Bundy, in particular, but not really about Ted Bundy. It was about a woman who had a conversation with Ted Bundy without being abducted, but it wasn’t about that, either.

The poet spun a verse about a fat girl who later discovers her girth made her an unattractive target. But think about it. How would she find that out? The poet thought he could get in the head of this young woman he called a girl, whom he referred to as a fat girl. He related her thoughts to us as he divined them — how being a fat girl (and by extrapolation unattractive, joyless, unfulfilled in life because nobody would date her) had only been a curse until that fateful day. But upon realizing her hideous visage (not his words as I remember, but the meaning behind his words as I remember) of fat had saved her, she becomes happy with her looks, for the very first time in her miserable existence. Again, I’m pretty sure miserable existence was not his exact phrase, but was his exact meaning.

At the end, some of us sat stony-faced, unclapping. At least there was that. I hope someone said something to him, showed him the many layers of wrong upon wrong in his poem. A colleague, a nephew, a daughter — someone who could make him listen. I hope he came to know. I hope he never published that poem. I hope he never again read it aloud. I hope he burned that poem. I hope he now carries around ashes of regret for having ever written it.

My Laura Ingalls Wilder Pilgrimage

Home is the sweetest word there is. – Laura Ingalls Wilder


The home on Rocky Ridge Farm where Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote the “Little House” books. Mansfield, Missouri.

Reading the Little House series as a child, I was enthralled by the many adventures, big and small, of the Ingalls family: fording the river with a horse and wagon, fights with Nellie Oleson, twisting switch grass into kindling. I identified with tom-boy Laura, climbing trees and failing to keep her dress clean. Her detailed descriptions of home life also mesmerized me, as I read about Pa making his own bullets for hunting and Ma churning butter. Re-reading the books as an adult left me with an impression of a family always searching for home and never really finding it. (Of course, we now know Charles Ingalls, Laura’s father, brought on some of his own trouble by attempting to stake claim to land that belonged to Native Americans, and a couple of similar questionable actions.)

After such a nomadic upbringing, Laura finally found her forever home when she and husband Almanzo moved to Rocky Ridge Farm near Mansfield, Missouri. She settled in as a young wife and mother in her twenties and lived there for more than sixty years, until her death in 1957, at age ninety. In the late 1920s, the Wilders’ daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, had a more modern house built for her parents half a mile down the road, and they stayed in it for a few years before homesickness brought them back to finish out their years in the house they’d built themselves.


The Rock House that Rose Wilder Lane had built for her parents, Laura and Almanzo.


I live only a three-hour drive from the Wilder homes. After decades of talking about it, I finally made the pilgrimage last week. My husband was a good sport and went along with me. There may have been mentions of a fishing pond near our rental cabin to lure him into the adventure.

Both Rocky Ridge houses have tours on a regular schedule, and there’s also a separate museum building on the grounds. In case you’re planning a trip, the museum is where you buy the tickets for the tours. I wish they allowed photography inside any of the facilities, but since they don’t, you’ll have to take my word for what we saw.


Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, Mansfield, MO

Pa’s fiddle! The museum has Pa’s fiddle in a display case. It’s in remarkable shape, and looking at it brought to mind many scenes from the books, from Pa playing the children to sleep with lullabies to big dances at the grandparents’. They also have Laura’s blue china cow creamer. I don’t remember which book has the description of it; but I do remember it being mentioned.

The homes themselves have been restored and preserved with as many original furnishings as possible, much of it hand-crafted by Almanzo. There’s some incredibly durable linoleum in the frame house that is not reproduction, or so we were informed. The Christmas Clock Almanzo gifted to Laura still hangs on the wall, ticking away. Laura’s writing desk is there. The original house is well-designed, but the ceilings are low. Our tour guide reminded us the Wilders were not big people. Laura topped out at 4’11” and Almanzo stood 5’4″. Keep that in mind when you think of him hauling bushels of wheat through a blizzard to save the town in The Long Winter.

I have a hard time on tours like this. It means so much to me to get to be in Laura’s home and see the actual objects described in her books, lending immediacy to the stories. But you can’t touch anything and you have to move on through when they tell you to. No standing and studying the details of any one thing until you’re satiated. I understand why and agree with it on principle. Gee willikers, though (sorry for the wooden swearing, Ma Ingalls), I wanted to soooo much. I experienced an intense desire to stay for hours, to sit it in her chairs and run my hand over her desk. Don’t worry, I kept control. Barely.

The final step of our literary mission took us to the Wilder resting place.


Gone, yet still here in so many important ways.

What’s With My Brain in the Middle of the Night?

That feeling when you wake up at 2 a.m. with the urgent need to remember the name of the Greek god of the forge, and you’re panicked because you can’t conjure it up. You remember the Romans called him Vulcan but to save your life you can’t latch your mind onto the Greek designation. Then, as you wake up enough to realize there can’t possibly be an emergency in your life involving Greek mythology and wonder why you would wake up wanting to know, you segue from panic to irritation. Irritation at having interrupted your own sleep somehow and also because you still can’t remember the name and you really should know, with all the time you spent reading those myths in your teen years. But you need to go back to sleep so you can function at work tomorrow, so you don’t want to try looking it up. But you can’t go back to sleep until you remember it. Does it start with an H maybe? So you get up and open your laptop and discovered you were right about that much – Hephaestus. Then you feel satisfied and lie back down, close your eyes and…wait, wasn’t there something weird about his feet? What was that about?

I can’t be the only one this happens to. Right?


Poem for Kathrine Switzer

For National Poetry Month, I’ve been writing a poem a day and keeping them hidden on my computer. But I finally feel like sharing one.

Yesterday, Kathrine Switzer ran the Boston Marathon again, fifty years after becoming the first woman to finish it officially. Bobbi Gibb had run it unofficially the year before. This inspired my poetic efforts yesterday.

Poem for Kathrine Switzer, April 17, 2017

What did they think would happen,
fifty years ago, if a woman ran?
Would we all be deprived of the cake
she should have been baking instead?
Would the race be sullied,
the stain forever ringing its collar?
Or worst of all –
the boys would have to share,
not only that day but all the days to come?
Well, worse came to worst
and she ran again in Boston today
with thousands of women on the course
while somewhere, surely,
some man baked a cake,
the downfall of civilization complete.

— Someone asked, so I’m adding this. You can share this. Feel free to copy and paste, even, but I would like a credit. Ida Bettis Fogle, author. Thanks.


Credit: Kinchan1

The Right Princess at the Right Time

Here’s one more among the thousands of tributes being paid to Carrie Fisher. It is possible that there can’t be too many.

I know there was much more to her and her career than the role of Leia Organa. But it’s the character of Leia, first princess and then general, that spoke most to me. She entered my life as I hit adolescence and needed role models. I was raised in a church that wanted females silent and submissive, attributes that were not in my nature. I chafed.Whenever I heard that wives should obey their husbands in all things, my go to thought was “I guess marriage is not for me.”

As a child, my fantasy play never involved being rescued. In my daydreams of adventure, I had agency; I was the rescuer, the hero. And I was just starting to notice women didn’t get those roles in movies or TV. Disney princesses were a whole different breed  from what they are today, let me tell you. But then. Then. I found myself climbing into a car full of siblings to go see Star Wars at the drive-in.

Princess Leia appeared, beseeching Obi-Wan Kenobi for help. But it wasn’t simply “Please rescue me and keep me safe.” No, it was more like “Help me break out of this joint; I’ve got an empire to overthrow.” She had smarts, courage and swagger. Carry Fisher gave her swagger. I liked it. I needed it. WWLD? What would Leia do? Not a bad question to ask as you’re trying to figure out how to grow up. She was there for me throughout my teens, in one Star Wars movie after another.

Which sustained me right up to the brink of menopause, at which time General Leia showed up for me when I needed her most. There she was, leading things, smart, tough, still swaggering. Heartbroken, but confident in herself and her cause. Not disappearing, as society (and especially Hollywood) often expects women to do once they have a laugh line and a gray hair or two.

Thank you Carrie Fisher. Nobody else could have done it the way you did.

“Into the garbage chute, fly boy.”