Meet the Horizon

It’s just after 7AM and I’m driving due east into a pink sunrise. On the passenger seat next to me is a black and red briefcase which I had to dust off last night having not used it since my corporate days. Within my briefcase are two notepads, three pens, freshly printed business cards, my laptop and a granola bar.

I love that briefcase. My grandfather gave it to me as a graduation gift when I earned my degree in English from the University of Houston years ago and just remembering him and how much he believed in me briefly calms my firing-wire nerves this morning. I’m headed towards the waking sun that will lead me to a small town north of Dallas to attend my first ever Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference.

It’s a long, sprawling drive across north Texas and I’m having twelve conversations in my head about how nervous I am to be attending a conference with professionals in the industry all on my own. I’ve not met one person who is attending this conference and as one of my favorite bands, Mandolin Orange, plays through the stereo of my car, I can’t help but feel like that lonesome whistle calling from down the railroad tracks. [that track here. I can listen to this song forty times in a row.]

“Be brave,” I tell myself over and over again. “Be brave. Don’t ramble nervously like you always do. Don’t drink too much coffee. Check your teeth after you eat lunch. But just be brave. Be brave.”

“…I should’ve gotten a haircut.”

“…Why did I decide to wear purple and black. I look like a bruise.”

Sweaty palms, racing heart.

I’ve attended many conferences in my life but never a writer’s conference. I’ve attended oil and gas conferences, yoga conferences, international trade conferences, small business conferences and, wow, just thinking about how many others, I’m losing track. Never, ever have I attended a writer’s conference and I’m terrified. I am not a writer by profession, I am a writer by hobby. I love to write. It’s one of my favorite things up there with donkeys and yoga and King Ranch and Little Foot. It’s so important to me and when time goes by that I can’t or don’t write, I end up like an A/C filter that’s not been changed for too long: mucky, dusty, annoying, and useless.

Several times on this drive, I think about turning around. Maybe I’ll try again next year. I’ll say I got sick or something.

But on I drive, on towards the rising sun because I think I’m finally ready to try and do something more with my writing than leaving my stories closed up in dark folders. I just have no idea what “do something” looks like and maybe I can start to gain a semblance of an understanding by connecting with and learning from others who do and who have “done something” successfully. And I’m nervous about it—the idea of putting my writing out there terrifies me. It feels like carving out a chunk of my heart and putting it out on display to be examined, critiqued, poked and prodded.

It’s now three days later and I’m still digesting the events and feeling the warm, buzzing effects of the NTX SCBWI conference. I’ve pulled out stories that have been sitting in the dark for ages, blown the dust off the top of them, and am actually seeing them as new, tiny works of art. I want to edit absolutely everything I’ve ever written—give each story a good bath and haircut and maybe manicure while I’m at it. I want to do these things because as nervous as I was going into the conference last Saturday, I left feeling freaking pumped.

I’ll not go into detail of what I learned or who I met that day. Instead, I’ll say how grateful I am for the opportunity to have met so many eager, kind, and talented people. I’m grateful for the admins, faculty, and volunteers that made the conference possible and brought us all together—for getting me out of my own head and allowing me to realize that in my nerves, my passion, my fears and my curiosity, I’m not alone. I’m grateful for the inspiration I drove away with that day that’s still burning like red-hot embers in the belly of a fire pit. Turns out that when you’re surrounded by others whose craft means just as much to them as yours means to you, there’s no brutal carving of heart pieces…instead, there’s gentle and kind examination and encouragement to be better.

I’m excited for what’s to come. Indeed, there is change rising on the horizon like that neon-glowing sun that guided me on Saturday morning. There are always surprises and treasures waiting to be discovered beyond our comfort zones. There is strength in community and much to gain by being kind, open, and a little bit brave. And no one cares if you needed a haircut—in fact, you might just bond with someone over big hair…I did.

For more information on SCBWI, check them out here: https://www.scbwi.org/

In many ways, I still feel like that lonesome whistle and I suspect I always will. But I’m travelling. I’m trying. I’m calling.

“So hear that lonesome whistle blowing, hear that engine call from line.
See those black sails meet horizon, that old black bird knows its time.”

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An Exhale

It’s just after lunch and I’ve turned my rickety-red pickup truck into my small town of Nowhere, Texas. The days have begun where in the sun, the Texas heat continues to beat down in her typical fashion—the kind of beaming that makes you feel like you’re a lizard under a heat-lamp trying to digest after a long meal. But as the sun lingers on with her usual strength, there are now moments of hope hiding in the shade—tiny hints of fall air are beginning to collect in the shadows, even at a high-noon sun. I love this time of year: warm in the light, cool in the dark.

Little Foot is singing the ABCs from his car seat for the five-thousandth time and I’m still not tired of hearing his little voice articulate the letters. In the slow drawl of his “I”s and “y”s, I can hear that he’s adopting a bit of my southern twang. I drive on, the creaking of ole’ rickety-red increasing as the roads become gravel.

I follow the long, curved road that cuts through town under heavily blooming pecan trees when suddenly, I slam on the brake and pop the truck’s shifter into neutral. Gravel crunches beneath us and dust quickly rises like a gray blanket in front of me. As it settles, I see a woman about twenty feet or so in front of me kneeling in the gravel, her hands reaching behind her head like she’s pulling her own hair and she’s sobbing. Beneath her is a golden-brown dog laying on its side, a small pool of blood drying in the dirt and rocks around its belly.

A man comes running out after her and he kneels next to the woman who turns and buries herself in his chest. Even with my windows rolled up, the A/C running, and at least twenty feet of road between us, I can hear the woman wailing in heartache. The man holds her and I see him lift a hand up to swipe a tear from his own eye, too.

“What happened?” Little Foot asks with a small voice from the back seat, his ABCs having stopped.

“I don’t know, bud,” I say, fully knowing what’s happened.

He’s quiet and so am I. The man turns to see my truck sitting there and I see his immediate inclination to get this scene out of our way. I don’t want him to feel rushed, so I back up and pull the truck to the side of the road. Do I say something?

“What you doing, mommy?” Little Foot says as I swerve the truck in reverse and into the grass.

“I’m backing up the truck, bud,” I say.

The man is saying something to the woman now and she nods, slowly stands up, and walks back toward a house to the right. Her arms are wrapped around herself and she’s still crying. The man adjusts himself over the dog that looks to be some kind of golden labrador. I decide then to open my truck door and step out.

From now twenty-five feet or so away, I call to the man, “Do you need help?”

He turns his wrinkled face to me and says, “Oh…no thank you ma’am. I’ve got it.” He smiles a sad smile and then looks back down at the dog. From the right, the woman is standing on the covered porch of a small, brown house. She’s got her hands balled up in front of lips like she’s saying a prayer.

The man slips his hands beneath the dog’s neck and behind his back legs. I hear the woman whimper from her porch as the man stands, the dog limp in his arms. A small tinkle of a collar clangs as he turns and walks toward the house.

I climb back into rickety-red and Little Foot says, “Hi mommy!”

I say, “Hi honey.”

I press the clutch, shift the truck and drive forward, swerving around the small, dark spot of bloodied rocks, and then onward toward my house.

In the driveway outside of my house, I pull Little Foot from his car seat and grab the stack of five new library books we’ve just checked out from the library in the next town over. As I shut the truck’s door, Bunny begins to bray from the pasture, then Tink, then Tee.

Inside, Little Foot takes two of his new books into his bedroom and begins to sing his ABCs again. I stand at the back window where I can see that Bunny, Tee, and Tink are all up wandering around and I’m so relieved because last week, I thought we were going to lose Bunny.

The day after I came back up north from Houston where I was helping my folks out in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, I noticed Bunny acting strangely—not eating, laying down a lot, walking very slowly when she was up—and I know enough about donkeys to know that if they’re acting like anything is wrong, there’s likely something very wrong. They’re quite stoic and show pain only when it’s gotten really bad.

I’d called the emergency vet and they arrived, examined her, and determined she was likely experiencing colic which can be deadly in equines. They had to pump her stomach right then and there and then we had to keep her off of food for a while. It took her several days to recover and for those several days which are crucial after a stomach pump, I thought my sweet donkey was going to die.

I stand at the window now, watching her nip at the other donkeys, graze, and walk without issue and I’m so grateful for her health that it hurts. From this distance, I can see the little swirl of fur that’s between her eyes—the spot that I’ll rest my head on when she’s got her nose in my chest and I realize how much Bunny and my other donkeys mean to me. Thoughts begin to poke in my mind…the “what if she’d died? What if she colicks again? What if…” and I stop, and I breathe.

And then Houston appears in my mind. The flooded streets of my childhood rushing like rivers as babies cry on small boats that have pulled them from their homes. Blank faces of residents who can’t comprehend what’s happening to them. Military trucks in my town transporting families with wide eyes and wet hair. Scared and shaking dogs, cold hands, brows beaded with sweat and rain.

I stop, I exhale heavily and suddenly, I’m bawling.

I sit down on the ground and I cry. I cry into my hands, tears and snot pooling in my palms. I cry for my hometown, for the people who are still struggling. I cry for the people pushing air mattresses carrying children and pets down river-roads while the rain continues to pour. For the people who are still in shelters unsure of what comes next—the people who can’t answer their children when they ask, “what’s happening?” I cry for the fat tube that was run up Bunny’s nose to pump her stomach and for the way Tee and Tink stared at her through the fence, breathing heavily and terrified.  I cry for the woman who couldn’t find her husband and for the man that I saw coming off of a military truck only two days after I ran into him at the creek not yet swelled taking pictures with his cell phone just like me. He lost everything. I didn’t. I cry for the realization that Bunny will die one day. So will Tee and Tink. I cry for the dog in the road and how much its owners must ache right now—seeing the insides of their companion on the road because someone wasn’t driving cautiously enough or at least wasn’t kind of enough to stick around. I can hear the woman’s heartbroken cries and can see the hurt on the man’s face. 

I cry and I cry and I cry until nothing but heaving remains and when I lower my hands, my own dog, Tucker, is sitting in front of me with his ears laying back. His brown eyes look right into mine and he lowers his head. I pull Tucker into my lap and stroke his back over and over again.

A minute or two later, Little Foot comes running in and says, “Mommy, let’s sing ABCs.”

I wipe my face as Tucker steps out of my lap and as I stand, turning to my curly haired boy, I say, “Okay, bud.”

He grabs my hand and leads me toward his room and as we walk, Tucker following behind us, we sing the ABCs together. I squeeze his soft, little hand in mine.  

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Bunny: my donkey, my friend.

Houston, My Heart

I’ve just opened up my laptop for the first time in a week. I click on the open document I left unfinished from last Thursday: a drafted blog post telling a story about how I’d managed to lose a chunk of my left pinky finger while attempting to fix the mower on the same day that a thunderstorm pushed through that knocked a tree into a fence by the donkey’s shelter, forcing me to scramble in the rain to get them herded to safety. I was describing how some weeks are just “off” and how it’s important not to lose our cool even when we lose parts of our fingers, but I never finished that post because Thursday evening is when the forecasters were beginning to realize the potential damage that would be coming to my hometown in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

My parents and much of my extended family live in Houston as do many of my dearest friends and the majority of my heart, and so as we woke up Friday morning to a much more certain fate, I decided to pack some of my tools (tree trimmer, buckets, rubber boots etc) and drive down in my rickety red pickup truck to Houston to be with my parents in the event damage would occur at their home.

There weren’t many people going southbound on Friday afternoon—even the road signs were advising drivers to avoid the area—so the drive back home to Houston was an eerie one. I shared the road with fleets of tree trimmers and 18-wheelers and when I finally made it to my parent’s house, we all embraced knowing that we were in for something big.

I was raised in the gulf coast region. We know hurricanes. We know what it means to hunker down and how to respect the tropics because they certainly demand it, so as Harvey pushed ashore Friday night, we stayed up watching the live radar and sending our love to Port Lavaca, Corpus Christi, Rockport, and so many of the coastal towns that were hit with the hurricane’s most intense force. As Friday night turned Saturday, we in northwest Houston only saw rain and an increasing number of tornado warnings, so we spent our time trimming branches and moving/tying down outside objects that could fly in tornadic winds. We kept the best contact we could with our friends and family all over the gulf coast area and as Saturday turned to Sunday, we started to see Harvey’s rainfall effects pretty dramatically in our area.

The water from the nearby creek began to rush and swell out over its banks, threatening the neighborhood where my parents live and by Sunday evening, the roads were impassable, even by trucks. We moved the valuables from the first floor of my parent’s house to the second floor as we saw the water rise up over the curb and into the yard. As the evening turned to night, we just watched and waited.

To our surprise and gratitude, my parent’s house managed to stay dry on the inside that night and so as the sun came up on a rainy Monday, my dad and I took our respective pickup trucks out into the neighborhood to see if there was anything we could do to help those whose homes were now and quickly becoming underwater. I’ll not go into too much detail, but I ended up spending Monday and Tuesday out, mostly at and around the nearby volunteer fire department, doing anything and everything I could to lend a hand along side dozens of others to an area becoming increasingly more inundated with rising water.

It’s Thursday now and I’ve come back to north Texas…to King Ranch, Little Foot, and my donkeys, and I just keep staring out the front window at the grass that needs to be cut by the mower that’s still broken. My thoughts are swirly and blurry and so sad for my hometown where I grew up and became an adult; where I graduated from college (go coogs!), had relationships, adventures, late nights, long walks, and even longer talks. I think about the freeways where I’d drive too fast to work downtown or to memorial park for a jog on the trails, or to the yoga studio where I taught my very first yoga class and how I now know what all of that looks like under water.

And it’s still unfolding down there, y’all. There are areas where the water is still rising. I just…I just can’t wrap my head around the past week and my family and me didn’t even have it bad like so many thousands of people.

Here’s what I’m desperately trying to hold onto and what I hope emerges from all of this: we are one. The two days that I spent out giving a hand, I encountered hundreds—literally hundreds—of people who left the safety of their own homes to come out in the pouring rain and uncertain circumstances to help…to do anything they could for complete strangers. People came out with hot food, supplies, tools, energy, high water vehicles, boats, canoes, kayaks, air mattresses and anything they could because that’s just who Houston is: a city of givers. I got to meet some of the Cajun Navy and I’ll tell you that none of them were afraid to risk it all to save someone in need.

By the time we were wrapping things up on Tuesday, shelters were turning away volunteers and donations because within only a couple of days there was that much of an outpouring of love for our community.

As person after person climbed down or was lifted down from those military trucks in the cold rain flying in sideways, there were no politics. There was no religion. There was no division. There wasn’t anyone trying to have the most intellectual comment or most profound opinion or any sort of snobbery. There were only hands that held each other tightly, infants passed delicately and met with dry blankets to be wrapped in, kisses on cheeks and wet pets on leashes eager to be held and told it was going to be okay. There were people searching for their loved ones and even more people trying to help them reunite. There were children, wide-eyed and brave: one child, I remember, with her pet hedgehog quivering in a plastic pitcher who still took the time to say “thank you” when someone offered her family a ride. There was no room anything but preserving life. There was safety and love and support and a coming together that proves that as humans, we are one: we are made of love.

We were all human out there and we all…I mean we ALL…had each other.

I can’t imagine what so many families have in their future as a result of this storm but I am so hopeful that this strength in community continues as strongly as it did this week—that people will continue to volunteer their time and effort and resources to help those in need because the need is enormous. I hope, so badly, that we continue to come together to lift each other up in this. To embrace each other, to clothe and feed one another, to not pass judgement and to be kind simply because we’re all human experiencing something that I’m not sure we’re equipped to truly understand and in that, at least we know we’re not alone.

If you have been turned away from a shelter in the last couple of days because they’re at capacity with volunteers and/or supplies, please go back next week and then the next because for so many, this is long term. This won’t be yesterday’s news for thousands of people for a very long time and they need all the help they can get.

Texas, and more specifically Houston, I love you. You’ll always be my home. I love the people that are still living in you—the people who are working around the clock to make you better. I love that you’ve brought out the best in people in the worst of times. I love your diversity, your creativity, your art, your music, your complexity and your heart.

If you have the means to do so, please consider donating to help rebuild our gulf coast—there are many ways to do so. Here’s a place to start: Here’s How You Can Help People Affected By Harvey – via NPR.

And on a personal note, I want to thank the Cypress Creek Volunteer Fire Department for everything that they did for northwest Houston. I got to see first hand how hard and diligently they worked to save over 2,000 people from rising waters and I am in awe of every one of them. And to the team that I had the honor of working with: Andy, Michael, Reed, Michelle, Debbie, Erica, Ken, Robin, Otto, Tim, Jaime, Dean, Jack, Bree, Bill, Kristen, Ryan and gosh, if I forgot anyone, please know I remember your faces and your vehicles and I’m so grateful for all of you. 

There’s nowhere else out in the world like Houston. We are Houston Strong.

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