Fearing Dead Snakes

I almost touched the thing, so closely its gray mottled skin resembled the weathered two-by-four strips holding the netting over my strawberries. A mad scramble followed as I dashed into the house calling, “Snake! Snake!” My husband Al stuck his feet in his shoes and grabbed the shovel, following me to the strawberries. He took one look and said, “He’s already dead.”

Al had arranged the netting and two-by-fours to keep out the varmints that stole my strawberries. The snake trapped himself [or herself] in the netting and couldn’t get out. We didn’t check cause of death, but Al had to cut the netting to remove the snake for picture opportunities. He arranged and held the snake up on the pole, and I shot the pictures. I knew the snake was dead and still could not bring myself to get too close – and certainly not to touch. However, I seized the opportunity for a blog, recalling a favorite Shakespeare quote from As You Like It.

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

Change the toad to a snake, and you can probably guess where I’m going with this. Writers find metaphors in everything. My irrational fear of a snake – a dead one at that – took me to thinking about fear that handicaps life.

Fear of public speaking, often listed as the number one fear, is one of those irrational fears. Put into logical terms, what is the worst that can happen? We’ve pretty much passed the stage of society where rotten tomatoes assail the speaker. Someone might yawn or go to sleep. Once in a while, someone may get up and walk out, but even then they usually do it quietly. The only permanent scars from public speaking are to the ego, yet the fear is very real.

Before I badmouth it altogether, let me say fear sometimes serves a useful purpose – if a hurricane is coming, if one is in rush hour traffic, or if a snake is poisonous and alive. There are times when healthy fear keeps us alert and safe.  

Other fears – of unexpected twists in life, of travel to different cultures, of assuming a new job, of sending out a manuscript – foreshadow not only things that can go wrong but opportunities not to be missed. Giving in to them doesn’t make any more sense than fear of a dead snake. Conquering fear can lead to rewarding communication with an audience, an exciting journey, or perhaps acceptance and publication of that manuscript. Now if I can just remember, when fear raises its ugly head, to check whether a hurricane is coming or if I’m just facing another dead snake.


A Change in Plans

During my senior year in high school, my life for the next few years was pretty well decided, or so it seemed. I had devoured the series of books that began with Sue Barton, Student Nurse. My favorite subject was chemistry. Daddy delighted that I had a higher grade point average than any of the boys in my class. He never held to the theory that boys were better than girls in math and science.

I had watched and helped care for my great-grandmother as she died of cancer the previous spring. With the right interests and a demonstrated ability to nurse gravely ill patients, I was headed to college to become another Florence Nightingale. I knew I would be no ordinary nurse.

And then on a crisp October afternoon, we drove to Pontotoc County, Mississippi to meet people in the new community where my father was going as pastor. He wanted to introduce us to members of his new church and help us get acquainted.

My mother, who always drove, stopped the car in front of the most modern country store I had ever seen. Plate glass windows spread across the front of the long white building that formed an obtuse angle. Men, sitting on the old nicked benches, whittled and gaped at entering customers and passers-by. Tall gas pumps with round glass tops stood guard out front. My parents, my three younger sisters, and I piled out.

The inside of the store fascinated me. Long glass cases lined the sides and stretched across the front. One held penny candy, nickel and dime candy bars, suckers, and chewing gum. Another held bolts of fabric. An assortment of things that didn't fit anywhere else filled another.

Canned foods of all kinds lined one wall. Another wall had nails, nuts and bolts, and hardware equipment. The center shelves stocked flour, meal, sugar, and other staples. The item that really caught my eye was a wooden two-drawer chest. The front bore the insignia, "J. P. Coats  Best Six Cord Thread."  Inside were wooden spools of thread in every color imaginable. Since sewing for my sisters and myself was my choice free time activity, I knew I would be returning often to the store.

The odor of feed and fertilizer drifted in from the back warehouse and mingled with the smell of bologna, hoop cheese, and liverwurst. The owner and his teen-age son were busy cutting off enough of the cheese to sell fifty cents worth of cheese and crackers along with an RC Cola to a waiting customer.

Daddy got us a Coke from the chest cooler. It had slivers of ice and tasted fresh from the Arctic. Never again have I had such a cold Coke.

Daddy approached the owner and his son as the customer left, signaling for us to join him. Bent on making a good impression on new church members, I had worn my favorite outfit for the occasion – my gold corduroy skirt that made a full circle and my black sweater set – in our school colors, of course.

The owner was bent over from the waist with rheumatoid arthritis and used a short walking stick. His son appeared to be his companion and helper.

Little did I know that the storeowner’s next words would change the direction of my life forever. Something was afoot that would make the nearby university that trained teachers much more appealing to me than the faraway nursing school. Mr. Butler reached up and put his hand on his son's shoulder. "This," he said, "is my baby boy."

A short time later, the boy showed up about two miles down the road to help the movers unload furniture into our new home. For two years, the neighbors took note that the boy regularly parked the Butler family car, a 1956 red and white hardtop Buick convertible, in our front yard. And they all turned out on the hot Sunday afternoon of June 1 when we were married in the country church – next door to the house about two miles down the road.
Afterward: The two-drawer thread chest sits on an old family trunk in our guest bedroom.

*Thema Magazine published this memory in its “About Two Miles Down the Road” Summer 2011 issue.


Not Just a Picnic

In my first memories of Uncle Charles, he’s home on leave looking sharp in his sailor uniform. Aunt Dee treasures the flag that draped his coffin and the World War II story told at his funeral.

Married for ten years and living in Florida after the war, Aunt Dee and Uncle Charles Maxson welcomed her younger sister Ruth for an extended visit. Aunt Dee had volunteered to make Aunt Ruth’s wedding dress, and fittings were necessary.

The prospective groom, soon to be my Uncle Leo, came down for a couple of days to see Aunt Ruth and meet more of his new family. At the supper table, Uncle Leo and Uncle Charles eyed each other with a wary, “Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?”

Bit by bit, they reconstructed their pasts, discovering that each had served in World War II. By the time they got to the fact that Uncle Leo’s ship had docked in the Pacific for repairs, Uncle Charles exclaimed, “You’re the guy who tracked mud across my newly waxed floor!” Uncle Charles, assigned to the unit doing ship repairs, had been proud of his floor that rivaled the spit shine of his shoes! It was a Baptist funeral so they did not repeat the words Uncle Charles used in his reprimand to the young serviceman with the muddy shoes, but they were evidently words I had never heard him say.

The two men mended their fences and became brothers-for-real as well as brothers-in-law, beginning with a bond they shared of honor and service to their country that overshadowed mud tracks on a newly cleaned floor.

I enjoyed our church’s early Memorial Day celebration that was more than a picnic as we paid honor to those who had served their country in various military branches by calling out their names.  My thoughts were on two men who were part of what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation” – men who met half a world away, married my mother’s sisters, and became my Uncle Charles and Uncle Leo.  


Mentors or Peeps?

Definitions for “peeps” as a shortcut for associates or friends cite slang and Internet use. One goes on to editorialize that she dislikes the term and hopes the word is short-lived. Real usage seems to include a layer that indicates a very close connection between members as signified in the expression “my peeps.” I have peeps who also serve another role.

For about fifteen years, I’ve been active in the monthly critique meetings of Louisiana SCBWI [Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators]. I thought of them this week when this quote turned up on A.Word.A.Day:
    "Just as mentors come in different shapes and sizes, they fill different roles. Ms. Brooks said the common denominator is that they are good and active listeners willing to offer constructive, but blunt, criticism and, at the same time, share stories about their own failures." Mark Evans; Age No Barrier; Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada); Mar 30, 2012.

Check the picture taken at a monthly meeting and you can see some of the physical differences of my mentors, but variety goes beyond what you see. My mentors come from different political and religious persuasions, different marital and family statuses, and different cultural backgrounds. Trust me, they are good and active listeners.

They play different roles in this listening. Ears on one are sensitive to overly repeated words, and she is quick to suggest good synonyms. Another spots plot inconsistencies. A third says, “Scrap your first chapter. The story starts in the second.” All pronounce the death sentence on “ly” words.

But my peeps go beyond critiquing as they share rejection letters and sad stories or rejoice over acceptance or even near-acceptance. Without fail, they reassure the writer, suggest rewrite options, and offer ideas about which editor or agent should be the next recipient of the manuscript.

My mentors may not even realize they also furnish motivation to stay on track. Lollygagging in the yard, checking Facebook, or stirring up a batch of cookies seems pretty reasonable to me until the meeting date looms on the calendar.

I know the question I will face. “What are you working on?”

“Nothing,” doesn’t seem to be an acceptable answer.

Mentors or peeps? Actually, both. Thanks, Peeps.


Candles . . . Quilts . . . Books

The candle connection metaphor began for me with friend Martha Ginn’s fiber art quilt presentation. She pointed out the proliferation of candles and quilts, both necessities in days gone by, now used in homes for beauty and atmosphere.

Coincidentally, I came home to read Roger Sutton’s editorial in the May/June 2012 Horn Book Magazine. He used a comparison, which he in turn borrowed from Eli Neiburger, of book publishing as being akin to the candle industry. He says both candles and books are utilitarian as well as glamorous; may be the center of attention or shine light on something else; may be life-saving or dangerous; and frequently one serves to light another. He points out that with candles and printed books, we can still read if the lights go out forever.

I’ve enjoyed personalizing Martha’s and Roger’s metaphor. I have a drawer that holds candles for emergencies if the power goes out and seasonal ones for decoration. A heritage of quilts, many lovingly stitched by ladies in rural churches as gifts for my parents, provide cover for a good night’s sleep or hang beautifully from my husband’s handmade quilt rack. Assorted stacks of books occupy my house, some needing to be read and others awaiting free time fun reading.

And I’m thinking if the lights go out on a cold winter’s night, it’s not going to be that bad. I can always light a candle and read a good book snuggled up in one of those quilts.