The Ides of August

Ugh!  Thank goodness August is nearly over.  What an awful month.  What an awful summer.  Summers are usually unpleasant for my family (none of us enjoy the Texas heat) but for some reason, August has become an annual trip through bad times for us, especially my sister and I, who live together.

We don’t know what’s going on.  It’s very puzzling, but reliable as triple digit temperatures and as unpleasant as being trapped at a political rally.  What usually happens is a nosedive in our finances, no matter how much we’ve prepared for the month during the year.  We know August is coming.  Unlike Congress, which likes to pretend there is no such thing as an annual budget to pass, we acknowledge that August will show up with some emergency financial drain, and we save up as much as we can.  But it’s never enough.  Ever.  No matter what amount we save, the expense is usually double.

Family health always takes a nosedive too.  If it’s not me or my sister, it’s a family member who depends on us for transportation and help.  This year, it’s apparently all of the above.  I won’t bore you with details, and my family would kill me anyway for talking about their business.  But wow, what a summer.  I provide most of the transportation to medical appointments, and I have been very busy.  Since my car’s air conditioning is broken right now in a very expensive manner, travel adds to the unpleasantness.

My sister and I often shake our heads in amazement at everything that happens during the summer and mostly in August every year.  Don’t dwell on the bad stuff, some people tell me.  You’ll draw it to yourself.  Hah!  If thinking about something drew it to me, I’d be living the life of a huge lottery winner…

My fellow Christians remind me we are not to be afraid or anxious, to rely on God’s grace and help to get us through.  Thanks, but that’s not the problem.  We’re not anxious or afraid.  We’re exasperated!

But we endure.  It happens every year, and we’re used to it.  We know it ends.  Health improves, finances recover, and the heat breaks.  The seasons in nature change, and so do the seasons in human lives.  Sometimes the season seems to linger too long, but relief finally comes.  I’ve had times when August lasted for years, but I held on, and the calendar of my life finally changed.

Bad times come to everybody’s lives, and some will last a very long time.  Don’t give up.  I’ve spoken to many teens who felt they couldn’t last another day, and reminded them that school does not last forever.  Often the only thing you can do is keep your head down and endure in silence, but it will end, and you won’t have to go back any more.

Some jobs are miserable and make you hate to get dressed and go in, but despite what many believe, they don’t last forever.  I’ve had them.  I used to moan about them, too, until one day I met a young man with very old eyes, and complained to him how I was stuck in a dead end situation.  He told me to think of one good thing about my job.  Just one, not a list, just one, and concentrate on it.  Remind myself of it over and over and over whenever I felt overwhelmed.  Just one month after taking his advice, I was promoted into a job I’d forgotten I’d applied for and enjoyed myself thoroughly at it.

When doctors told me I had some health problem, I didn’t waste time crying or moaning or complaining about it.  I just asked what I could do about it and got it done.  It usually amounted to removing some part of my body or taking medicine that did unpleasant things to me.  But I survived by reminding myself it could be worse, and endured.

I developed the habit of looking for some lesson I could learn from the situation, no matter how dire it was.  Every August of my life is exhausting, expensive, and very exasperating.  But I have found there is always something I can learn, too, and I love to learn.  Life lessons are rarely cheap, and never easy, but once they are learned, the rest of the classes are often simpler and the tests easy to take.  May the seasons of your life pass not quickly, but as pleasantly as possible, and may you not have a difficult time learning whatever lesson is there for you.

Dangerous Minds

I love my imagination.  It keeps me from being bored, it helped me survive an impoverished childhood devoid of books and televisions, saved me from shyness, and has shaped my life into something better than a boring rut.  But sometimes, just sometimes, it drives me nuts.

Case in point: We had to get our air conditioning system fixed in our house.  All that was needed was to reattach the ventilation ducts under the house where they separated.  It was fixed, no problem, the house cooled off, we were happy.  The air conditioning unit is next to my bathroom door.  My bedroom is across the hall.  I ALWAYS hear the air conditioner when it is blowing air.

Ever since the repair job, I hear voices coming from the air conditioner.  Sometimes they play music, that really irritating recorder music.  It is just coherent enough to make me originally think I was listening to the television in the living room, but not enough to really tell what is being said.  But it always sounds like several people having a conversation, or perhaps a news show.

The first time it happened I thought my sister was saying something while I was in the bathroom.  As it continued, I realized it was the air conditioner, and I have yet to figure out the cause.  The problem is listening to it at night.  In the dark.  All alone in my bedroom…

I don’t read horror novels (anymore) or watch horror movies (after a few deeply regretted ones).  Normally, I have very few nightmares.  I generally only dream of being overwhelmed when my calendar gets full.  But if I have a hard time falling asleep and start hearing that murmuring coming through my door in the dark…uhhhh.  Bad night ahead.  I’m trying to see if I’ll get used to them.  If I can’t, I’ll have to do something about some white noise or something.  Maybe ear plugs?  I’ll try something out.

Imagination can be a dangerous thing.  When I was a child, my sisters and I would spend many happy hours with our youngest aunt at our grandparents’ rural home.  We entertained ourselves during many summer days taking turns telling stories, or acting out various roles in an imaginary world. But one day our group imagination took a dark turn.

That was the summer of the Boston Strangler.  We rarely saw the television stories, but we listened to the radio and read the newspapers and listened to our parents talk about it.  The story was ripe fodder for our minds.  One hot day, the air was still, our grandfather, the only one left at home to watch over us, fast asleep in the shade.  The house was too cramped and hot to stay inside.  We wandered about from garden to sheds, to barn, trying to decide how to occupy ourselves.

The story began as a slow, sporadic commentary on how quiet it was, progressed to an uneasy awareness of how creepy the silence was, and began to speed along on an uncomfortable awareness of how many hiding places there were and how close they were to us.  We armed ourselves with sticks.  We fed each others’ imaginations like a mob feeds on itself.  In no time at all, we were clutching each other, darting eyes at one building after another, peering at shadows and straining our ears to hear any break in the silence.

The break came, of course, very loudly and suddenly.  A loose shed door banged, whether from a solitary breeze, a passing chicken, or a cat rubbing itself on it.  Who knows?  Who cares?  But suddenly we were several young girls screaming in sudden terror and running as fast as possible to our grandfather, the only available adult.

His natural and very normal irate commentary on being awakened from a comfortable nap by a bunch of silly noisy females calmed us down quickly.  We realized how we had frightened ourselves and laughed weakly, determining to never do that again.  But we stayed around Grandpa for the rest of the day.

That experience taught me a lot about letting my imagination control me.  It taught me a lot about mob psychology.  I don’t want to think what might have happened if we had access to weapons more dangerous than some big sticks.  Fear can turn to the flight or fight syndrome and not everybody runs, not every time.  This has become even more true the older I get.

I channel my imagination as much as possible nowadays into my writing.  I don’t want to dwell on something until paranoia begins to build, becoming dangerous to people around me.  Writing my imaginings helps to understand cause and effect, and the work of adrenaline on the mind.  Working out reactions to fear, anxiety, paranoia, and rage in fictional stories help me deal with tense situations in real life.  For someone who never goes looking for trouble, I’ve had to deal with a good bit.

Using my imagination in reading and writing has definitely helped me deal with real life.  I think that is why teaching a child to read and providing a large library is one of the most important things we can do for our children.  Television and movies can only do so much.  We should always talk to our children as well, discussing the characters’ actions and reactions and deciding whether they were appropriate or not.

Helping a child imagine how they would react in a scary situation helps them avoid panic when they come up against one in real life.  It also helps them avoid making bad decisions in less scary situations, like being pressured into sex, accepting a dare, or facing major changes in their lives.

God gave us our imaginations.  Imagination fuels creativity and comes from the Master Creator Himself.  But like every gift He gives us, it can be misused and twisted.  Read.  Write.  Create.  Work with your children. Don’t let them fall prey to a dangerous mind.

Be Nice or Else…

Have you ever seen that tee shirt for writers?  “Be nice or I’ll put you in my next book”?  I always laughed at that, because I knew exactly what they meant.  Some people annoy you so much you fantasize about killing them off slowly and painfully.  Wonder if any of George R. R. Martin’s associates wound up in his death scenes…

But people don’t need to be annoying to wind up in one of my stories.  I find people endlessly fascinating and often bring different people to mind when I’m writing.  I’ve had two criticisms of my work that just make me shake my head and shrug.  One was an online review of one of my short stories, where the reviewer remarked that the whole story was unbelievable because “people just don’t act like that”.  I told them I was sorry they had never met the sweet caring people in that story, because I had.

Another criticism I received was on the beginning chapters of a novel I am working on.  During a writers’ circle review where we all reviewed each others’ work, the professional writer in charge seemed to be disgusted as he flung my manuscript to the desk and announced “Nobody talks like that!”.  My characters were American teens.  I was astonished, because I know several teens who talk like that.  But he was from a large city and had a teen who had interests far from the hobbies and interests of the teens I knew.  It was interesting to see that the one person in the group who would be the real target market for the book was thrilled with the story and wanted to see more. Hope he sees it when I get it published.

Everybody looks at the world through eyes filtered by their own experiences, upbringing, and opinions.  Readers tend to have broader points of view, and tend to be more open to differences in characters, but occasionally you see a distinctly narrow field of vision in reviews.  If you decide to write a review of any author’s work, try to keep your own point of view in mind.  Try to remember you don’t have personal knowledge of everything in the world.

I’ve met lots and lots of people, and I can see where all of them would fit into stories I’ve got in mind.  I once stood behind several scientists/physicists/professors/engineers (I have no idea which they were, but the conversation was fascinating as they discussed something using words of more than five syllables.)

My aunt Marty was one of my favorite people to listen to, since she had a very interesting life.  “I collect men as a hobby,” she said, explaining her multiple marriages and boyfriends.  She told us her best birthday moment happened when, depressed over being alone on her 30th birthday, she wandered into a bar to drown her sorrows.  When the bartender demanded her identification to prove she was old enough to drink, she was so delighted she grabbed him across the bar and kissed him.

I have a friend who has gone to a local Renaissance Fair for thirty years and became one of the characters there (a wench, often bawdy and outrageous) in a costume she made herself.  She also likes to attend motorcycle rallies and paint fairy land murals on children’s nursery walls for her friends.  She has a vivid personality and a sharp tongue and a loving heart.

I know several cowboys who are the strong silent type who are always willing to help and are devoted to their wives.  I have met the rich, the poor, the famous, and the unknown.  I know people who should be locked away in a dark room so they can finally stop hurting the people around them, and saints who make total strangers want to hug them.  I have met truly eccentric folk who made me laugh, gasp, and watch them closely.  I have known the depressed, the desperate, the broken, and the healed.  I have laughed with and at children and dried their tears.

I love meeting people.  I never know how the meeting will turn out, but I always find it interesting, whether I roll my eyes later or make a note to contact them again.  Even when their opinions don’t agree with mine, they are interesting.  Sometimes I get the chance to shock them out of their comfort zone, and seeing how they deal with that is intriguing.  We are all characters in the Book of Life, and we are all individuals.  God did a good job on us.  We are interesting.

Did you  ever feel a character in a story was based on you?

God’s Goofy Gifts

I felt bad for my mom.  She’d had it rough for the past few years.  At a few weeks shy of 78 years old, she has lost the use of her legs and most of her vision.  She lives on a small pension from her late husband.  She doesn’t get out much.  She doesn’t have much, and she’s losing more.

She’s outlived her parents, which is normal.  But she’s also outlived her two youngest brothers, her husband and son in law, two nephews, and a great niece.  She worried through four of her five daughters’ bouts with cancer.  Now she was facing the funeral of her middle sister.

She rarely got to talk to her family.  They aren’t much for phone conversations, don’t like writing letters, and live pretty spread out.  Lately the only time she saw them was at funerals.  This funeral was hard because we had to go from the suffocating humid heat of South Texas to the blistering dry heat of North Texas.  For some reason, all the hotels we usually stayed at were booked solid and we wound up in a local motel currently undergoing renovations.  The only rooms we could get were not handicap accessible, and by the time we met her youngest sister at the funeral home, we were all hot, tired, and miserable.  Mom kept apologizing for being such a bother, which made me feel worse.  She was seriously depressed.

When we got to the funeral home, the director told us that at my aunt’s request, they had asked a local preacher if he could do the burial service for us since my late aunt did not have a home church at that time.  We were fine with that.  Then the guy arrived, and everything changed.

We all get blessings from God, even if we don’t always recognize them.  We receive grace and mercy, and even occasionally miracles.  But every once in a while, God will give us a goofy gift.  My mom got one that day.

The preacher wasn’t goofy.  He’s intelligent, charming, witty, and a good Christian man.  He does radio shows at the local station there and preaches at a local church.  No, what made it goofy was that he was one of Mom’s favorite radio personalities from her local radio station back home who had moved away a few years ago.  Almost unable to see him, she recognized his voice as soon as he spoke and her face expressed her surprise and wonder.

He had seen Mom’s town of residence on my aunt’s obituary and was curious to see who we are.  We all spent the next two hours talking about what he’d been doing and people we all knew and what they were doing now.  He was relieved to find we were willing and able to talk about our aunt because it’s hard to do a funeral service for someone you don’t know.

My mom wasn’t depressed after that.   She still grieved for her sister, but the depression had lifted.  When God gives you a goofy gift, you smile and chuckle and shake your head at the unexpected.  My mom is still exclaiming over the amazing coincidence (read God’s handiwork). Instead of sitting in the dark and grieving quietly, she remembers meeting someone who had always seemed like a friend to her during the years she listened to him on the radio, and who became a friend in person exactly when she needed one the most.

God’s goofy gifts lift you up.  They cheer you when you’re down, amaze you when you’re jaded, make you laugh, make you sit up and pay attention and realize God still cares.  Have you ever given someone a goofy gift just to make them feel better?  Did it make you feel better to see them perk up?  The more I think about it the more I am amazed.  God placed that preacher where he could most help my mom years before they met.

The preacher even told us he had received a serious disappointment that led him to his present location.  His prayers were answered with a solid “No” because God knew he would be needed, years later, in a different location.  I have no doubt others have needed him in his new location, but God in His omniscience knew my mother would need him and made sure he would be available that day.  It’s so nice to have an all powerful God who takes a moment out of running the universe to make a grieving old lady feel better just when she needed it most.

Setting the Mood

What a morning.  Last night I had insomnia and was wide awake till 1 AM.  May not be impressive for many of you, but I had been very sleepy earlier and was thinking about going to bed at a normal hour and suddenly,  Boom!  I’m awake.  Really awake.  That kind of 5 shots of espresso in 20 minutes awake.  Why?  Beats me, unless it had something to do with the weather changing.

Oh, yes.  Rain again.  I was finally deep in dreamland when the weather alarm I have by my bed went off.  Very loud and piercing, being an alarm, you know.  Why keep it by my bed, if it’s so annoying?  Because if you live in Tornado Alley, you want to know if something is going on out there.  And it keeps going off if you don’t shut it off.  So I keep it by my bed so I can hit the little button that shuts off the godawful alarm and lets the information be heard.

Flood warning again.  When it started listing all the towns and counties, I just winced.  Two inches in nothing flat dumped on flood ravaged areas while they are still trying to clean up and repair.  Thunderstorms training through my area, dumping more and more and more rain.  Wondering what training is?  Picture being under a railroad, with a long train loaded with cars full of water passing overhead, each one dumping its load on top of you as it goes by.

I looked blearily at the clock and sighed.  Barely 5 AM.  Gah.  No going back to sleep, either.  Decades of waking up well before dawn to be at work on an early shift has left my body incapable of falling back asleep once I’m awake.  Groan and creak my way out of bed.  Stagger to the bathroom and after a quick glance in the mirror, avoid my reflection.  Eccchhh!  Mumble and stumble my way afterward to the kitchen and try to get the coffee water poured into the correct opening on the coffeemaker.  Listen to the rain.

At first, my brain was humming, “Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain…”, making me feel rather mellow, then for some reason, Johnny Cash’s “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down” began rolling through.  Probably lack of sleep and looking at the forecasts about a disturbance in the Gulf maybe about to dump yet more water on us next week.

Maybe I need more coffee.  Maybe I need some bacon and eggs.  Maybe I need to look at more cat and dog funny photos.  (I looked at my bank balance before coffee this morning, too.  Probably a big influence on my mood.)  I suppose I just need more sleep, but I won’t get that unless I can grab a nap this afternoon after church.  Won’t be so bad if it’s still raining then, which they say it might be.  Napping during a rain is terrific.

Until then, I’ll just try to ignore the mood setting sound effects coming from the roof.  I loathe feeling melancholy.  If we were still in drought status, it would probably be the happiest sound in the world.  But after a month or so of flooding, I just sigh and stare out the window, waiting for the sun to come out again.  Hope that coffee kicks in soon.

Excuses, Excuses

Whoa!  I didn’t realize it had been so long since I blogged!  Talk about being too busy for words!  Hah!  I have three calendars I use to TRY to keep track of appointments and errands.  April and May are pretty much blacked out with all the places and times I’ve had to be somewhere besides my keyboard.  I don’t have a smartphone (yet) and only my desktop to do my writing on.  I’m also sure many of you busy parents out there understand when I say I couldn’t have thought of anything to say anyway.  The brain is often engaged in actions, not words, when you are busy traveling, transporting, and DEALING WITH WEATHER!

I live in South Central Texas. I capitalize because, hey, I’m a Texan.  Besides, the area is big enough to be its own state.  (There’s information available about how Texas was already arranged to be five different states if they wanted to be before it agreed to join the United States.) We’ve been dealing with lots and lots and lots and lots – well, let’s just say too much for all at once – of rain and high winds and tornadoes.  Luckily our house sits far away from any body of water big enough to be a threat when it floods, but many of our friends, neighbors, and family do not.  There are a lot of creeks, rivers, ponds, and lakes around here.

Counties have declared states of emergency and cities set up curfews to keep people off the streets after dark since the water doesn’t care about city limits.  Interstate highways have gone underwater.  Bridges are gone, roads are washed out (and due to the rural nature of most of the surrounding countryside, many are dirt and gravel, so it’s a real mess) and one small town that primarily exists on tourism has been pretty much washed away.  People have died, been injured, gone missing, and are burning up cell phones trying to find their friends and family. Many are homeless, or facing a filthy cleanup.

My area went through a 500 year flood twice already in the past 25 years.  That’s what it is called when flood levels reach the highest levels in the past 500 years.  In 1998, we got soaked.  Then in 2002 when we were just drying out, boom!  Here we go again.  Could be this will be the third and they’ll have to draw the floodplain maps again.  It was a surprise to many newer residents, who moved here while the area was in drought status.  Lakes that were nearly dry holes have bounced by 40 feet overnight.  Who needs hurricanes!

Of course, every population has its idiots.  Video was taken of some morons tubing in rushing waters uncaring of the debris in the water.  In a nearby town, some were even swimming!  Then they had the nerve to give first responders lip about being forced out of the water – until the cops showed up and made it clear nobody appreciated being forced to risk their lives to save those who were trying for a Darwin Award.  I’ve been caught in a flash flood twice and I don’t want to go anywhere near fast flowing or high water now.  These jerks don’t appear to know or care what is in the water besides debris.  The bacteria found in floodwater is extremely dangerous.

It’s not over yet.  More rain is coming, with lightning and wind, and people who have been able to get back to the homes they had to evacuate are huddled around their radios, televisions, smartphones, and emergency weather alert radios.  Many are trying to get what they can salvage out before they have to rush away again.  My sister is three hours from home after a holiday weekend with her grandchild and all the routes back to her home are either under water, damaged, or about to be as the storms move in again.

Life is strange.  Just when you think all you have to complain about is being too busy with errands, you wind up with something that teaches you how easy you have it.  I was thanking God I didn’t have to live in a land tortured by the wars of man, but there are other situations that leave you in battle status.

I am grateful I and my loved ones are safe, and I will do what I can to help those not so fortunate.  Hopefully we will gain some respite soon.  Hey, California could use some of this, couldn’t they?  Be safe, and grateful you can read this.  I’m certainly grateful I can write it.

Cleaning the Windows

I’ve been reading a lot this week about various people and how they cope with their lives.  I live with a younger sister.  We’re both in our fifties now, and our health isn’t too good, so we’re trying to work on it.  She has  a particularly nasty condition that leaves her looking normal on the outside, so people don’t really understand when she says she feels awful.  Having lived with her for over thirty years, I know just how bad it can get.  This week the oak pollen around south Texas has reached near historic levels, according to the weatherman.  Her condition makes her immune system hyper vigilant, so her allergies can wreck her.  Literally.

Her condition manifests with an inflammation of her inner ears.  Her ENT specialist who diagnosed it said everytime it did, more brain cells were cooked in the heat and more of her memory and comprehension would be lost.  She’s more concerned by extreme pain and the dizziness that leaves her staggering around and unable to drive.  She is given a steroid to deal with it, in the hopes that her immune system can be suppressed and the inflammation decreased.  The side effects of that are sleep, swelling, and bad temper.  Since she is trying to lose weight, it is not a good season for her.

I have insulin resistant diabetes and a slowly degenerating back.  This makes it interesting when it becomes dangerous for her to walk and I have to cook and take her meals.  She also is sensitive to light due to migraines during these episodes so she tries to sit in the dark and quiet.  I can’t stand the dark and like music playing most of the time.  It’s a challenge to make her as comfortable as possible while not giving up my life.  Luckily I enjoy challenges.  I consider them brain exercises.  It’s how I got through breast cancer.

Some people, when faced with an obstacle, sit and stare at it and complain to everybody around them about how it is blocking them.  I always wonder what it’s blocking, and become so curious I try to find a way around it to find out.  Zoos frequently try to “enrich” the animals lives by giving them problems they have to work at.  I figure maybe that’s what I’m getting.

This week a Facebook friend of mine remarked on how she was feeling overwhelmed by all the bad things she was seeing and experiencing.  Like many do, she wondered why God was allowing it to happen.  I gave her an excerpt from one of the stories in my next book, just as God gave it to me.

“Why does God allow such evil to exist? How can He allow them to suffer like this?” “Because if you were never allowed to try to stop it, if you were never given the chance to care about others, you would not be His children. You would be potted plants. Maybe, at the most, domesticated pets. Would you prefer that?”

I also cope by reminding myself how much worse it could be.  I am so much better off than many people I know personally.  I thank God every day I don’t have my sister’s problems.  I thank Him for letting me have a pension sufficient to live on, a nice home to live in, insurance to pay for most of my medical bills, and transportation not only for myself but for family that need to go somewhere.  I have lived in much worse circumstances.

I can dream of winning the lottery, writing a best-seller, inheriting a fortune, or even marrying somebody rich.  But they are just dreams.  My day to day life is interesting, rewarding, and creative, which is pretty darned good.  This Easter weekend when the world celebrates the coming of spring, or the renewal of the Hope of the world thanks to an empty cave, or just enjoys a nice festive weekend holiday, try to look at your life in a better light.  Don’t sit around in the gloom, grab some cleaner and polish the windows!  It may at least distract you!