On Father’s Day, I Celebrate the Miracle of Survival

My dad’s parenting style can best be described as “No Lifeguard on Duty.”

He was and is an inventor who holds several patents, including a timing mechanism for military-issued explosives and another patent for children’s toys. That pretty much gives you an idea of what I was dealing with growing up.

(And for the record, he is my absolute all-time hero, although I believe one of my therapists once referred to that as Stockholm Syndrome, which was
clearly wrong because I grew up in Texas, not Sweden.)

Now, I had one burning desire as a kid: I wanted a dog, just like my friend Heather’s. She had a Cocker Spaniel named Toby. His fur was the color of butterscotch and his ears were like cool velvet. He had expressive brown eyes and followed us everywhere, always wagging his tail.

I thought all dogs were like Toby. I begged my dad for years to get me a dog like Toby.

Then when I was seven and my brother Steve was nine, my dad gave us our very first ever dog.

The male dog had been found abandoned and starving. His breed was already notorious back then for being used in fighting rings. He wasn’t in the best of humors. Dad left us in the backyard with the dog and returned to his workroom. We were not permitted in the workroom.

I bounced toward my new Best Friend Ever and he bared his teeth, the fur standing up on his back.

My brother Steve was the first to realize I was in trouble. He held the door and yelled at me to slowly back up into the house.

We knocked on the door to my dad’s workroom. “Dad, the dog you gave us just tried to kill us!”

“Go tell your mother.”

The problem was, Mom was not currently in the mood to let us live.

You see, the day before, she had returned home after an afternoon of serious dental work. Her cheeks were swollen, packed with cotton and she was unsteady from the meds. Steve and I quickly discovered she was verbally helpless, so when a plumber arrived a short while later to replace a pipe, we carpe diemed. Hard. Steve got to the door first.

“Hi there, son. I’m looking for your mother, Mrs. Garrett?”

Steve stepped outside while I held the door, nodding with a mournful expression.

“No one told you?” Steve asked. “You cannot call her that. EVER. It sets her off really bad, sir.”

“Really bad,” I echoed.

“Uh…what should I call her?”

“Snuffy,” Steve replied with a somber expression. “She only answers to Snuffy.”

So all afternoon, the plumber yelled things like, “Hey, Snuffy, can you bring me a towel?” Or, “Snuffy, come in here, I think I found your problem!”

My mom would brace herself against a wall, garbling furious but unintelligible rants while Steve and I looked at the plumber in sad desperation. Our eyes downcast, we’d sigh heavily and nod, as if to say, “Yes, this really is our mother.”

So now Mom wasn’t going to save us from our new dog.

However, when the entertainment value of the plumber and my mom wore off, Steve and I snuck outside and found (found being a loose term for seeing nice things left unguarded) a stash of long thin metal tubes.

Our eyes met and we both knew…

We ran around back and slipped the tubes over our arms, then slowly approached the dog. His eyes glowed with hellfire as he bared his teeth. We approached cautiously. When his body went completely still, every muscle frozen, we braced for impact.

Sure enough, the dog lunged for us, attacking me first, those jaws of death clamping down like vices on my arm as he shook me side to side like a ragdoll. He crushed the tube from every angle but he just couldn’t get to the juicy filling inside.

I was screaming.

In delight.

“That was so awesome!” I yelled to Steve. “You try!”

So he did. And it became a thing. If we wanted to play with our dog, first we’d cobble together makeshift body armor. That dog mauled us for countless summer hours. Talk about family fun!

Soon I wondered what I had ever seen in Toby; what good is a family pet without that rush of adrenaline, or the delayed-onset muscle soreness from fighting a mighty battle the day before?

We loved that dog. He was and is, to this day, one of the best memories from childhood that I still carry.

However… I would NEVER let my kids get anywhere near an animal like that. I’m pretty sure in this modern age my dad would have been arrested. But things in the day were different. There was no lifeguard on duty. Anywhere.

In fact, I don’t think lifeguards had been invented yet. But danger? Well, that’s the universal language of childhood and we were fluent.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. It’s a miracle we all survived.

What the Campers Saw

While we’re on the subject of body positivity and big bottoms, I’d like to share a cautionary tale.

One year I was scheduled to lead a group of little girls on a camping trip in the North Georgia mountains. The evenings would be chilly.

While shopping for a fleece pullover, I spotted the cutest pair of jeans on the clearance rack. Miraculously, the jeans were my size. Then I read the fine print on the hang tag: Ultra Low Rise.

Hmmm.

Worth a try, I thought, as I yanked them on. My waist was like bread dough. Fluffy white mounds kept rising out of the waistband. I kept mushing them back down, to no avail. Clearly, in your late thirties you retain more than water.

Then I turned around. Plumbers Crack doesn’t adequately describe the sight. Think: Swedish fjord.

However, I loved everything else about the jeans: the whisper-soft denim, the magical spandex blend, the heavy stitching that acted as a discreet guardrail for my thighs.

But the waistband was too low. Ultra low.

Suddenly, I had an epiphany.

(I always regret epiphanies.)

I could buy the fleece pullover and only wear the jeans while wearing that top. The fleece hung well past my bottom line. I could be both comfortable and modest. Ultra Low Rise would be my secret.

Fast forward to the second night at camp. I had run out of ideas to entertain the girls. I had already taught them how to ding-dong ditch, although ding-dong-ditching a tent requires more creativity and we may have been mistaken for a bear once or twice. But oh, the memories! If you’ve never seen a troop of nine-year-olds racing down a mountain path carrying flashlights and running for their lives, well, you should have been my co-leader.

Except for the moment this next thing happened.

We decided to build a fire and roast marshmallows.

My co-leader and I selected a site near a Park Ranger’s station and the public restrooms. She got the fire started as I hauled our supplies to the site.

The girls wiggled and danced with anticipation of an actual marshmallow roast. Their first ever!

At the edge of the seating area near the fire, I dropped the last load of supplies, then bent over to rummage through the pile looking for the marshmallows.

As I bent over, my fleece top fell forward and up, exposing the fluffy white muffins.

AT THAT EXACT MOMENT, a wasp flew down my pants. Into the fjord.

I jerked straight up, sealing it in between my cheeks.

It stung me. I screamed and swatted my rear end.

It stung again.

I screamed, swatted my rear end, and added a hop.

The wasp stung me repeatedly as I danced around the fire, swatting myself in the rear and screaming.

The girls all stood slack-jawed, watching.

“What’s wrong with your mom?” one of them asked my daughter. “Is this a thing she does?”

No one moved or offered assistance. I was in unbearable pain and completely panicked.

I bolted for the public restroom, still screaming. The other leader screamed my name, asking me what was wrong. I was unable to speak. My girl ran behind me yelling, “Why are you doing that? I don’t like this game!”

I yanked opened the door to the Women’s Restroom at the same moment a Park Ranger opened the door to his office, stepping out into the melee.

Once inside, I fumbled with my button and zipper before wrenching my pants off. “A wasp got stuck in between my cheeks,” I managed to gasp to my daughter. “It keeps stinging me!”

“Ma’am, this is the Park Ranger,” the poor guy yelled through the closed door. “Are you all right? Do you require assistance?”

“Stay back!” I screamed like a savage. “Don’t come in!”

Next, my hands went for my underwear.

Terrified the wasp was going to fly out from my bottom and sting her, too, my daughter turned and flung the door open to run away.

The wasp fell to the ground, dead. Flat as a pancake. Perhaps he died happy. I don’t really know.

What I do know is that a Park Ranger got a lesson in first aid that will chill him for years to come. He may have made the sign of the cross, or been reaching for the walkie-talkie on his shoulder. I don’t really know that, either.

“I see your mom’s butt!” someone yelled.

My daughter slunk away from the crowd, the night stars reflecting the hostile glare in her eyes. I had ruined her life. Or at least the part that involved outdoor activities with other people.

The Park Ranger grabbed the door and shoved it closed.

“Sh…sh…should I bring you some ice?” he stammered.

“And plenty of it!” I snapped.

My cheeks were swelling up. I would never be able to get those jeans back on. Plus I had to pack my cheeks with so much ice that even the crew of the Titanic couldn’t miss me.

“And can you ask my daughter to find me some pants I can wear?” I called out, wiping the sweat from my forehead. I stared at the underwear and jeans crumpled on the floor at my feet, together with the flattest wasp I had ever seen.

Turns out, glute muscles are also an incredibly powerful flower-press.

Not that I was going to suggest that to the campers.

I wouldn’t want to see that badge.

Not incidentally, that was my last time leading a camping trip. And I have never, ever bought or worn ultra low anything since that day.

And so, while I lecture my daughters on modesty, I always break out in a cold sweat, remembering that fateful evening.

The modesty test in our household is simply this: would you want to get stung on that part of the body?

If not, keep it covered.

And please, friends, for your own safety, beware the Ultra Low Rise. Mother Nature always gets the last laugh.

My Butt Joins a Pantheon of Minor Gods

My 11-year old daughter flopped down on the couch, frowning, eyes downcast. I was reading (see also: how to avoid household chores) so I nudged her with my elbow.

“What’s up, shorty?”

She was wearing running shorts, having just completed a 3-mile run with her older brother. My girl was a born athlete, lean and lithe. Still, she jabbed her lean little thigh and groaned.

“I’m fat. Look at my fat move!” She jabbed her thigh again.

“Of course it moves,” I said. “It’s flesh, not bark.”

She was visibly distraught, however, and young girls—or perhaps all girls—are incapable of distinguishing the nuances of the word “fat.” Fat is what our brains are made of. Fat keeps us alive and gives us that bewitching wiggle when we walk. Fat even makes salads worth eating. But I understand that fat can leave some of us distraught. The good news is that as we get older, it shifts in the dead of night to places we can’t see, like the back of our arms.

However, I needed to put an immediate stop to this ridiculous cycle of declaring your body to be your mortal enemy. It was time for a truth bomb. Or a story.

Frankly, I’m better at stories.

“Have I ever told the story of the time my butt joined the pantheon of minor gods in a faraway country?”

She wiped her nose, dabbed her eyes and sat up a little straighter. “What?”

Nestling my book against my built-in bookshelf, also known as a tummy roll, because who needs Ikea once Mother Nature realizes you’re over forty?, I began the absolutely true tale.

“Long, long ago, your mother traveled to a distant land to teach English in a small village in the furthest reaches of Thailand. 26 hours by plane, two hours by jeep, and a long walk through rice fields and roadside temples. The people there had rarely seen a white woman, let alone one with flaming red hair and a Dallas Cowboys jersey. Their religion was unknown to me and we barely shared two words in a common language.

Nonetheless, I was led to a tiny hut where a class of kindergarten-aged children sat cross-legged, anxiously awaiting their new teacher’s arrival. The windows of the class were holes cut into the walls, and the teacher’s lounge consisted of a closet with a sink, a toilet and a giant lizard who made his home in the bowl.

I began the lesson plan, working on counting and a few simple words. If these kids learned English as a second language, they’d have a chance to escape poverty by finding work at one of the many resort hotels along the beaches of the area. English lessons were a big deal.

And, apparently, so was my rump.

When it was time to line up and walk to another hut for lunch, the children whispered to each other behind cupped hands, their little eyes casting furtive glances between their friends and me. Something was amiss.

Suddenly one boy was pushed to the head of the line. I’m not sure if he won or lost the argument.

I turned to lead them and felt a finger push in at the center of my rump-cheek. Whipping around, I caught this boy, index finger extended, obviously having just poked me in the rear.

His eyes were wide as he looked at his finger in disbelief.

The entire class was silent, spellbound by the experiment.

Surely it was a prank. I scowled at the boy and turned back around…and then he used his finger to push in at dead center of that cheek, again.

I turned back around, angry now to be the object of the joke, and then I realized: They weren’t making fun of my rump.

They were in awe of it.

They’d never seen a rump so…plentiful, we’ll say, a cornucopia of Western abundance, as if the gods were sending a message to the people of the humble village: Nothing was impossible for the dreamers among them.

In fact, I believe my rear end came close to being deified while there. The children would dance in their seats as they drew pictures of it. Their little faces lit up whenever one of them had a chance to stand next to me, or it, I should say.

In that culture, they knew the truth: fat is not a four-letter word. Sometimes it is an impressive achievement. And truly, to them, my rump was an omen of good fortune, like the birth of a white bull.

After I left, I wondered what the teachers in the future would think, seeing drawings of enormous fluffy rumps and rays of light streaming from all sides. Future generations would hear the legend of the American Rump of Splendor, the White Moon of the West that eclipsed the sun.

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing, I told my daughter. Maybe the one thing we’d change about ourselves becomes the set piece in a really good story, the one thing that makes us beloved to someone else.

Or a whole village.

So, don’t write the narrative for your body, not just yet. Someone else will enter the story who has a completely different version.

“And you know what?” I asked my daughter. “I like their story so much better.”

One More Day

NOTE: Since this past week has brought so much heartache and uncertainty, and because this is Memorial Day weekend, when we celebrate those who have sacrificed for our freedom, I wanted to re-post an article I wrote that first appeared in In Touch magazine. As a mom, I found it very hard to explain the concept of eternity and heaven to my kids. But God found a way, as He always does, although in my case He is often forced to take the scenic route. Here’s a little glimpse into what I believe heaven will be like. May you find comfort in it.

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“He’s not there anymore, kids. That’s just his body. One day we’ll see him again, and he’ll be healthy and strong.”

My children stared at the frail frame lying in the coffin. Their grandfather, Papa Craig, had died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease. James, my 9 year old son, looked at me and nodded. He believed my words, and so did his sisters, seven-year-old Elise and five-year-old Lauren—but did they understand them? Could children this young really grasp the idea of heaven, the hope that one day Papa Craig would run to them, whole and healthy, and there would be no more sorrow? How could I help little children to understand heaven when I still had questions about it? Although I make my living as a writer, words completely failed me at that moment. I felt I had failed my children, too.

We returned home from the funeral and life resumed, as it always does, frantic and furious, one season racing into the next, my days a blur of deadlines and carpools. Only sometimes, when I slept with my windows open and my bed was lit by a thousand stars beyond my reach, only then would I contemplate heaven and its mysteries. Only then would I return to the heartache of believing in a heaven I could not fully describe to my children.

“What’s wrong with Grendel, mommy?” little Lauren asked. I glanced up from my computer to see our fifteen year old Bearded Collie stagger and fall as he tried to get to the back door. He had never done this before. My stomach tightened and I bit my lip. I always knew Grendel would not be with us forever but I had dreaded this moment. I had adopted Grendel when he was a puppy and I was still single. It was Grendel who had picked out a husband for me at a party: Grendel had spied Mitch and jumped into his lap, refusing all evening to budge. I knew Mitch had to be special if my dog was so crazy over him.

After Mitch and I married and began our family, my son would dress Grendel up as a Darth Vader and grab a Light Saber, both of them playing for hours before coming inside to steal cookies while I typed. When my girls came along, Grendel was often invited to tea parties, although my girls claimed he had no manners, eating too quickly and belching after cucumber sandwiches.

We weren’t ready to lose Grendel yet, not so soon after Papa Craig’s death. “I’m sorry,” our vet Dr. Jan said over the phone. I had called, trying not to cry, detailing Grendel’s symptoms. “Because of his age, and the symptoms you describe, the news isn’t good. It sounds like Grendel has had a spinal embolism. It’s an event he will not be able to recover from.” Before I hung up, I made an appointment for that afternoon to bring Grendel in for euthanasia.

Once again, I found myself explaining heaven to my children, and explaining that death was not the real end for any of us, including God’s creatures. “Please, God,” I prayed silently, “I don’t have the words they need. Please show them what heaven is. Help my children to understand.”

We drove to the vet’s, Grendel in my lap to feel the breeze on last time on his face. When we arrived at the clinic, Mitch lifted Grendel out of the van and onto the ground. Sobbing, we all held hands and thanked God for giving us so many years with this incredible, and incredibly silly dog that we loved so much. Then as my husband carried Grendel up the stairs into the clinic, my children began wailing.

“Just one more day, Daddy! Please! Give us one more day with Grendel!” I could barely breathe I was crying so hard. The children grew so distraught that after Mitch carried Grendel inside, he turned and took the kids home.

“We started this adventure together, buddy,” I whispered to Grendel, “and now it’s just us again. Wait for me on the other side, ok?”

Dr. Jan, had the room ready for us: dim lights, a quilt on the floor so I could lie down with Grendel as they gave him the injection, his “deceased pet” paperwork already printed. Dr. Jan came in and knelt down to look at Grendel, ruffling his furry head, and then she gasped. Apparently I had missed a symptom–the irises of his eyes seemed to shake side to side just the littlest bit as she studied them.

“We’re not putting him down today! This isn’t an embolism, Ginger—it’s an ear infection!”

A severe middle ear infection had caused Grendel to become dizzy and lose his coordination. Dr. Jan gave him a huge injection of steroids and antibiotics as I called my husband, choking out the news. Grendel began an immediate, dramatic recovery. I will never forget seeing my husband drive up the hill to the clinic, and seeing my kids throw open the van doors, screaming and cheering as they raced toward the clinic—and Grendel bounding out to meet them, grinning ear to ear under all that hair.

God did what I could not: He spoke in language that my children understood, the language of love between a child and a dog.

God made heaven real to them, to us all, in that moment. Earth is when we weep for the pain of death, barely able to stand our hearts breaking, and heaven is that moment when the doors are thrown open and we run, whole and healthy, screaming and laughing, wild with joy, racing straight for each other’s arms.

This weekend, and every morning that God gives you, too, one more day, remember that the best is yet to come.

“Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14, EST translation)

An Actual Miracle Occurs…

The most glorious mothering-moments always seem to go terribly wrong for me.

My fifth grade daughter invited a friend, Grace, for a sleepover. Grace’s father is a church leader, a detail which will be important later, and one which my daughter will refer back to in therapy years from now.

My daughter (nicknamed Lolo) and Grace were happily cavorting when their time was rudely interrupted by my teenage son returning home with a few of his friends. Elementary school girls love to antagonize teenage guys, and teenage guys will frequently escalate the return-fire, in order to put an early end to hostilities. (I am frequently reminded of President Truman at these moments.)

I had been working in my home office for about an hour, trying to escape the conflict, when Lolo and Grace came storming into my office, hands on hips.

“Tell the boys to stop scaring us!” my daughter snapped.

I raised my eyebrow, words being too much of an effort by this point.

“They put a big rubber snake in the kitchen to scare us!” Grace said.

“We can’t get to the freezer for popsicles,” Lolo added.

I yelled at the guys but they didn’t reply from upstairs. They had music blaring. So, with a groan which was more a precursor to arthritis than actual aggravation, I walked from the office to the kitchen. There it was, a giant rubber snake, thrown across the kitchen floor.

Shaking my head, I bent to pick it up.

It lifted its head and hissed at me.

The girls screamed bloody murder.

Stumbling backwards, shrieking, I did several things simultaneously. (Incidentally, this is where my heroic part in the tale ends.) I grabbed a phone off the kitchen counter and threw it over my shoulder to the girls. My son and his friends turned off their music, so I knew they had heard my screams. Which was timely because I had two commands.

“Everyone, jump on a dog!” We had two Pyrenees, one weighing 90 pounds and one weighing 160. If they came into the kitchen, the fur would hit the fan.

And… “If this thing bites me, call 911!”

The girls began sniffling and breathing in ragged gasps, so I knew they were starting to bawl. I had to work quickly.

Looking wildly about, I spied a lacrosse stick propped next to the back door that leads to our backyard. With a deep breath for courage, I stepped closer to the snake—which coiled and lowered its head menacingly—and slowly opened the door before grabbing the stick.

The snake was light brown with darker brown markings, but I didn’t know whether it was venomous. A little known fact is that even nonvenomous snakes can flatten their heads into a triangle shape to scare off bigger predators.

Gently attempting to scoop the snake into the lacrosse stick’s net, I only succeeded in angering it. It struck at the net, and I briefly lost bladder control as it rapidly slid toward me. I screamed and jumped back as it slid right under the couch by the backdoor.

My heart was thundering in my ears. If the snake crawled out of the other side of the couch, it would be in my den. We would have to sell the house. I bent down, racking my brain to remember the patron saint of snakes, which I realized was probably Satan. I didn’t know where the snake was under the couch, if it was venomous, or if dust bunnies were any protection. My only real hope was that all the socks and wrappers my kids threw under the couch would form a protective barrier.

I wrapped my fingers around the edge of the sofa and lifted. The snake was coiled on the far end, nearest the door. It opened it mouth and reminded me why I had been screaming moments earlier. The girls shrieked on cue.

Then, thank the Lord, I had a spiritual epiphany. God can talk to animals! He called them in pairs to the ark, didn’t He? Passing along a message to a lone snake would be no problem for Him. Plus, imagine my reputation at church when the leader’s daughter told her father of how Ms. Ginger prayed to the Lord and He answered her prayer and all our lives were spared.

Clearing my throat, I steadied my trembling hands and lifted one to the heavens. “Lord,” I began, with a backwards glance to be sure the girls were paying close attention, “you can talk to animals. You can do anything! Would you please tell this snake he has to leave my house right now? I’ve left the door open for his convenience.”

I AM NOT MAKING THIS NEXT PART UP.

Instantly, the snake uncoiled and slid out the back door.

My jaw dropped in disbelief. Slamming the door shut behind the creature, I turned triumphantly to face the girls. We had just witnessed an actual miracle.

The girls were pale. Grace stood slack-jawed, her eyes wide. “Ms. Ginger, you sure know some bad words.”

Turns out…

The whole time I had been dealing with the snake, just prior to my grand act of faith, I had treated the girls to a stream-of-conscious-swim-through-the-dark-river-of profanity. I had been so terrified, so blind with panic, that I had been completely unaware of what I was muttering the whole time.

I looked at Lolo. “I cussed? Like, the really bad words?”

Lolo nodded, her chin quivering.

Grace was a little more helpful. “You didn’t just use them. You conjugated them.”

Well, then.

A call was made to her father to explain why Grace had learned certain words at my house that day. I found it ironic that I was a woman blaming a serpent for my sin. Maybe it would make a pithy sermon illustration, I suggested. He was quiet for a moment. Apparently, this was not the first time Grace had heard those words, but at least I had used them in the context of abject terror. Which, technically, gave me the moral edge . I decided to give him a pass, though. God had certainly given me one that afternoon.

I do hope that one day in the future, a therapist will put down her pen and say, “Wait…go back to that part about the snake. It actually left?” Because it did. Immediately. And my daughter knows now that when we pray, God listens more to our hearts than our words.

And that’s probably the real miracle for me that day.

That Time A Horse Wore My Pashmina

When I woke up that morning, I didn’t know that a horse would rob me of my most prized possession, or that I wouldn’t have the nerve to report the crime.

For months, I’d been eyeing a outrageously beautiful scarf made by a Parisian fashion house. Outrageously expensive, too, of course. The pashmina scarf in the window of a boutique for weeks. One month, the price dropped. I watched as the price continued to drop over the next several weeks. Then I pounced. Armed with dollar bills from the household emergency fund and pocket change found during laundry.

And suddenly, there I was, wearing a new blue and silver pashmina shawl, one I was absolutely in love with.

Not being terribly fashion-forward, (actually, my sense of fashion has no direction) I had pinned quite a few diagrams on Pinterest on how to tie and wear a pashmina. Finally, I thought, I’ll really fit in with the swanky mom set. I’ll look like I know what I’m doing.

Ahem. Turns out…

Now, spring and summer here in north Georgia often bring intense storms. My little town sits on top of a huge run of granite, which attracts lightning strikes. The firefighters here stay busy during storm season. Add to that our enormous number of pine trees, which have shallow root systems and easily fall over in strong winds, and you have a recipe for frequent damage and blocked roads.

So I wasn’t entirely surprised when barreling down a busy road in my gold minivan (will that van ever stop sending me straight into the arms of danger?) I came up several horses wandering in the road. Two of them were normal horses, as defined by the horses I’d seen in The Magnificent Seven. But one, I knew immediately, was a Percheron. Charleston uses Percherons for carriage rides, so I’ve seen quite a few. Mainly from the rump. This other end, though, was magnificent.

Another horse was on the side of the road munching grass, one was halfway in the road, and the Percheron was sauntering across.

No one was stopping. Cars just dodged around them. To my right, I spotted a pasture fence that had been destroyed in the storm. A pine tree had fallen and smashed several posts, creating a horse-sized hole which the horses were clearly taking advantage of.

I whipped the van to the side of the road and leaped out. Scanning the house on the top of the hill at the top of the pasture, I couldn’t see any sign of cars or people.

No one was home.

I had to get these horses back inside their pasture before some idiot hit them. I had just come from the grocery store, so I grabbed a box of Cinnamon Chex, ripped it open, and ran toward the nearest horse, the beautiful Percheron. He was gorgeous beyond belief.

I offered the Chex to him like a supplicant at the feet of a Greek god. Yes, he really was that beautiful.

Turns out, horses don’t care much for Cinnamon Chex. I ran back to the hole in the fence and pantomimed climbing back into the pasture. I yelled at the horses like they were errant toddlers.

“You get in this pasture right now!”

“So help me, if you are not over here by the time I count to three….”

Turns out, horses don’t really care about being scolded by strangers. The van probably gave me an air of domesticity. They were not afraid.

Desperate now, I couldn’t believe my blessed fortune when a truck pulled off the road behind my van. A rough-looking fellow popped out, and by rough-looking, I mean a man who clearly understand the reality of the situation. He probably had never even been on Pinterest.

Scanning the road, he immediately sized up the problem. “I’ll go after them,” he called, pointing to the others that had wandered further down the road. “You get that one back in the pasture.” He was pointing to the Percheron.

“I can’t! I’ve tried!” I yelled back. What did I look like, an idiot? (Turns out…)

He glared at me, frowning. “Use your scarf.”

My pashmina! Of course! Why hadn’t I thought of that? Oh, that’s right, I’m an idiot.

I untied it, raised my hands, then paused. I started to call out to the man again but now he was out of earshot. What exactly was I supposed to do with a pashmina and a Percheron?

Thank goodness I had Pinterest pinned so many knot variations. Determined to redeem myself, I threw the pashmina over the horse’s neck, tying it off in a jaunty French bow at the side of his neck, letting the both ends of the scarf hang loose.

Suddenly the horse charged past me, off at a gallop down the road.

“Come back!” I yelled, but only half-heartedly, because the sight of his glorious black mane and that blue and silver pashmina blowing together in the wind as he ran…I was practically breathless with admiration.

“I have to say,” I murmured, “you wear it better.”

The horse galloped past the man, who turned to stare at it incredulously, then back at me.

Embarrassed by the triumph, I was about to tell him where I had learned how to tie a knot like that when he yelled at me. I mean, yelled. I will edit his words for the sake of clarity, and in case any children read this.

“What are you doing? I told you to use your scarf!”

“I did!” I protested.

“I meant, use it like a lead! A harness. A rope! Use it to guide the horse!”

Oh. Well, he might have said that in the beginning.

Moments later, two more people stopped, both of whom were horse lovers and owned nearby stables. Someone said the owners had traveled south to pick up a new horse. They’d be due back in the morning.

Together, the other folks rounded up the horses and got them safely back into the pasture. The angry man put me in charge of “supervising” from a distance, which I took to be a subtle apology and an admission that the scarf really did look that good.

They put the fence back together and checked it to make sure it would hold. The owners might not even notice the damage.

But the next morning, what would they think when their prized horse trotted out of the barn wearing an expensive designer pashmina, artfully tied at the neck?

I’ll never know.

I slipped back to my minivan, quiet as a mouse, and slid the van back onto the narrow country road. And I never saw my beloved scarf again…

That Time My Minivan was an Instrument of Swift and Certain Vengeance

In the long and noble history of mothering, the worst Sunday morning ever recorded came on a lovely spring morning.

My husband had volunteer duty at our church so he was already gone. I loaded our three kids into our gold-colored minivan and headed up Georgia 400, a fast-moving highway that offered a lovely view of towering pine trees on either side. The kids were sleepy and perhaps a bit cranky—my memory does tend to flicker when I recount the events just prior to the horror—so I turned on 104.7 The Fish, my favorite radio station here in Atlanta. With praise music pumping through our speakers and the sun shining, we buzzed down the highway. I sang to the tunes and expounded to my kids the glory of praising the Lord on a day like this, how your soul just rises up and you have to sing.

Up ahead, on the left side of the highway next to the guardrail, some poor creature had met its demise. A turkey vulture stood over the carcass, claiming it. I wasn’t terribly close, but in Atlanta that is a common enough sight. I hate turkey vultures, those debased creatures who feed off the misfortunes of the innocent and indecisive.

As the van barreled on, getting closer, the vulture decided to take his breakfast to-go. Grabbing the carcass in his talons, he lifted up, spread his enormous dark wings, and began to cross the highway in front of us, taking the carcass to the pine trees.

Our eyes met for a horrible brief second.

We knew at the same moment.

He had miscalculated my rate of speed, and his. The minivan now appeared to be an instrument of God’s swift judgement. But at the moment we should have collided, killing him instantly, the vulture lifted straight up—and dropped the carcass.

The carcass hit my windshield and exploded, a balloon of death that no child should ever see. My daughter, sitting in the passenger seat, opened her mouth in a silent scream, reminiscent of a Munch painting, but with pigtails. Panicking (did you know blood is completely opaque?), knowing I was in fast-moving traffic and had zero visibility, I did what any driver would do. I turned on my windshield wipers and blasted the windshield with washer fluid.

“Don’t look!” I screamed. The praise music was still going strong. Perhaps God was oblivious to the drama unfolding below.

The blades struggled to clear the carcass, sweeping it back and forth across the glass. I’m pretty sure it was a possum, judging by the nose.

Finally the carcass was thrown off the windshield. More windshield washer fluid cleared most of the blood. That’s when we saw it.

The wiper blade had trapped a long strip of intestine. Merrily, it waved back and forth, back and forth, as we drove. Frantically, I kept blasting the windshield with fluid to clear the rest of the blood.

After another upbeat praise song, the intestine finally broke free and flew across the highway like a party streamer in hell.

We rolled into the church parking lot seconds later. I’m not sure why the parking attendant didn’t call security, since a deranged mom with a gold minivan dripping in blood surely is not a common sight, not even for Baptists. I guess he thought we really needed to be there, for reasons entirely all our own.

The kids stumbled out of the van, pale and close to vomiting, legs wobbly, glassy-eyed from witnessing such carnage, especially carnage set to praise music.

And me? I confess, I was angry. These things should never happen on Sunday morning when you’re singing praise music! I stormed into church (the parking attendant had a walkie-talkie, and he was speaking into it rather urgently), found my husband, and blamed him for the whole thing.

I certainly can’t blame Jesus, can I? That would be wrong.

It was Sunday morning, after all.

My favorite line from The Last Monster is….

“The world around us is filled with monsters and freaks and mysteries.
And me?
I am the Guardian, who will watch over them all.”

“Uniquely imaginative….An appealing tale for readers dealing with their own insecurities.”
Booklist

“While the fantastical elements are compelling, it’s the real-world situations that make this book stand out. A perfect recommendation for introspective kids who feel like outsiders.”
School Library Journal

Happy New Year!

Forget resolutions. They leave us cranky and preoccupied.

That’s my current philosophy, at least. I’m a goal-oriented person, though, so I naturally lean into the future. This year, however, as I made my list of goals, the goals sounded flat to my ears. They’re all good goals. Achievable, too.

Maybe that is why I am discontent. (and it’s winter…que Shakespeare on that line…)

Goals are about what we want to achieve. But does that leave room for wonder? If I am so busy looking at the work of my hands, will I remember to look up and see the stars?

This year, I choose wonder. I choose mystery. I choose to let go of the reins and let another heart, another set of eyes guide me.

Make Your Library A Haven for Teens

I recently had the privilege of speaking to Forsyth County library employees on making the library a “safe place” for teens. We run a teen author workshop that is consistently well-attended and filled with the most wonderful teens on the planet.

(Yep, I am biased. But I’m also right.)

While the teens have led the way to creating a library experience like none other, I’ve been making notes and studying what works and why. I will be posting here what I’ve learned, and hope you take every last bit to use at your own library.

Here’s the first lesson I learned:
They need us to listen. So…don’t try to make a perfect list of talking points, or a lecture, or even a plan. You won’t know what they need until the meeting is already underway.

Scary, but usually true.

Teens need to be heard. I call it Vitamin H. Vitamin H is the most life-giving, life-sustaining, and life-affirming vitamin known to humanity.

In fact, teens may not be able to tell the difference between the feeling of being loved and the feeling of being listened to. Being loved = being listened to. Being listened to= being loved.

(for more fascinating insights like that one, check out this interview: Ellin Galinsky, Inside the Teenage Brain, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/teenbrain/interviews/galinsky.html)

Second, be patient.

I understand that it’s awkward when a group first begins meeting together. I’ve led groups for twenty years, and I can tell you that the first six months may be wonderful and meaningful…but the gold comes later.

When a teen reads her work to the group, and you know you have heard her heart, a hush falls over the room. It’s a sacred moment. And sacred moments become much more common after the first few months. So jump in and let the group grow.

(And bring snacks.)

And remember, don’t put pressure on yourself to have a master plan for creating the perfect evening. I always scout a few YouTube pieces to show the teens, in case we want to branch out and talk about the mechanics of writing. I look for interviews with their favorite artists and writers, and we have had some great discussions around those.

Most of the evening, however, is devoted to listening. I listen to them, they listen to each other.

I have a list of insights I’ve gleaned from running these groups which I will be posting here in the coming weeks. Why am I passionate about this topic?

Aristotle said, “To educate the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

As a nation, we’re neglecting the heart. And fixing that oversight begins with the simplest of steps.

Teens need a safe space where they can be heard. Your library is that space. It’s not as daunting as you might think, and you don’t need to be a writer or a speaker to do it.

You just need to listen.
Because what you hear will change your life.
More on that next time!