Friday Friend Blog (hosted at This Writer’s Life): The First Smile at Booktrope

Years ago, I had this habit of blogging a friend a week. I believe I called this activity “The Friday Friend”. I know that’s a lame title and it sounds like they’re only friends on Fridays, but of course, this is not so. They were friends every day to everyone, always an unusually kind person who left in the wake of their everyday paths, a rule for life, a set of gifts that could just as easily go unseen as seen for all the rarity of them. These were friends who, maybe, fed the poor and cared for the sick, but more often, they just knew how to make sad people laugh or how to grow big beautiful roses and then give them all away. These are the kind of people, My Dear Readers, who bless us so profoundly we often cannot see them amid the relentless activities and the gnawing anxieties of American life. And truly, these Friends do not even realize their own value, because they give without asking for a return on their investment of spirit and light.

I have friends who write, preach, make music, clean air filters, soothe dogs, repair broken fences on the High Plains, hike whole mountain ranges, right the wrongs done to children, erase bad memories with experimental therapies, teach at Ivy League institutions, give chemotherapy to cancer patients, teach preschoolers, tutor the mathematically challenged, defend their nations (mine, there’s, yours), etc…and I will get to each of these people in time, on a certain Friday when the wind blows just right and it feels that today is their mention that matters, but this Friday Friend reflection is for someone that – if you ever meet her – you will know exactly why she came first on this list.

Last year, I sold a novel to Booktrope, or rather, I sold a whole series of book concepts and this brilliant new publisher took a risk on my words and my outlines and one finished manuscript. Today, that book released and I’m reminded of how lucky I am to have a group of people believing in my ideas and my interpretation of the world.

Through Booktrope, I have found friends whom I have not met in person, but who permeate my online experience. From the fray of new voices, a sea of genres, a constant daily introduction…one face stood out – a sweet, smiling face that seemed to hold all the happiest moments of childhood and keep them bottled in the eyes and spreading through her smile. I have lived in five states and visited four countries, but in all of them, I have never met a person who so boldly channeled kindness just through a simple smile. The pure unaltered kindness of childhood.

She must have a ton of beautiful babies, I said out loud one evening when Facebook was firing away with new welcomes and write on urgings. She was the very first person to, in fact, welcome me, and I kept a note of her kindness in the back of my mind thinking, I bet it would be cool to meet her one day, but I’m an introvert who loathes even, sometimes, visiting with my own dear lifetime friends. She brightens dark rooms, I’m sure of it. And then the thought drifted out of my mind and into the mix of repairing broken characters, filling in weak outlines, fleshing naked ideas.

But a few months pass, and the next picture I notice of her is one where she’s wrapped in a hospital gown and she’s talking about her baby, and insisting that he’s fine and so is she, but she’s asking for good thoughts. She looks Catholic, I say stupidly to myself, with the sweet round face and the sheen of dark hair. Maybe, if I say, “God bless you” and “I’m keeping you in my prayers” it won’t be offensive. With writers, you never can tell whether or not you’re going to wake the beast of God or the Antichrist. But there was a light in her soul that reached beyond the Facebook walls and said, “I’m a human and I’m living a real life with heartbreak and trials and joy” and so I said the words, “God bless you. You and your sweet baby are in my prayers.”

She “liked” my comment and took the time to personally respond to my comments, which were deeply heartfelt, but as generic as all the other endlessly rolling good wishes. Hundreds of Booktrope writers and book managers and editors and designers were wishing her the same, were sending her good vibes and prayers and hopes and hanging in there with her while she endured a medical situation that I didn’t really understand. What I did understand, was the concept of life and death, of hospitals and trauma. I’ve been hit by a car, paralyzed by a rare neurological disease while pregnant, had surgery multiple times on both kidneys, had two miscarriages and one stillbirth, had spinal taps too many to count, had a tonsillectomy to remove cancerous tonsils and to stop chronic bronchitis, had a complete hysterectomy to remove pre-cancerous ovaries, had a thymectomy to remove a precancerous thymus gland that had already begun to attack my nervous system, endured immunoglobulin treatments every few months, etc and most before age 35…Medical trauma is not my friend, but it’s too close and constant to be a stranger. I’ve been there, just like the girl with the sweet face and the big smile, and so my heart bonded to hers, even if it is wrong, or weird, to bond with a stranger through Facebook.

More weeks go by. My new Facebook Friend reports good news, and everyone rejoices with her. She makes a daily contest of challenging everyone to share the cutest puppy photos, and she makes us all laugh. A lot. Whenever she’s online, she’s spreading that smile, that joy and laughter – the rare gifts that deserve mention, because they take purposeful cultivation.

I hate cute puppy photos. I find them to be a waste of time, but she so inspired me with her pictures, that it made me love Sancho Panza, my big brown Labradoodle even more. I started posing him and putting Bed Head hair gel in his hair to give his natural perm a twisty little Mohawk, or to show off the infamous “puppy head tilt” he offers when I’m dangling a marshmallow over his face. My Facebook Friend’s challenge to laugh, got me laughing, got me away from the computer and working harder on being happy than I had worked in a long time. She offered a near-daily overabundance of free light and joy, and she encouraged all of us to see where that same joy was hiding in our own lives. And as the winter drew in and darkened all of the northeastern coast of America with white impassable drifts that had become street mountains and freezing rain pellets that sounded like Gatling Gun firings against our tired snow-sunken roofs, that kept us all indoors for days on end, Facebook Friend continued to smile and encouraged us to do the same.

And then, somewhere in that frenzy of last minute edits and book promotions and holiday gift-wrapping, there was no more baby and no more puppies and the news became as grave as the high walls of winter snow that blocked us all in and the sorrow that moved throughout our small world of tightly woven writers seemed to press against all of us. And the internet was silent. I thought of myself for a moment, but only in as much as it made my heart break for hers. I know something of this pain, I wanted to say to her, and there’s nothing I can offer but your own childlike kindness back. It grows where you have watered it.

“Daddy, why does it feel like sadness is a jail?” I asked my father once when I was three and my guinea pig had just died, and he turned to me, patted my head softly.

“Because it tells the truth at first, that something bad has happened and then it makes a lie and tells you that nothing good lives anymore.” He crouched down and looked at me, “And this is how sadness gets you down and keeps you there, by making you believe that life is over and not very beautiful. But it is, right? You still laugh when your brother does something silly? You still feel happy inside when you’re outside playing with your friends? And you have Poochai, your cat, and he’s mean and grumpy and loves peanut butter?”

And I felt my own smile begin to form, thinking of my fat cat named for Thai words of endearment that my father had picked up somewhere in Southeast Asia. I nodded slowly, listening, ever-bending more to this concept that life might, indeed, be more beautiful than ugly, and soon, some of the high snow inside my heart began to melt, slowly, but the thawing had started. This was the same kind of joy my Facebook Friend dropped in small and big pockets with every post. You think your online presence doesn’t matter, but your voice is part of you, and you leave bits of yourself wherever you go, even if you don’t believe it. Even if you’re one of those people who fancies themselves a realist who believes in a world without spirit and a universe without energies that cannot be measured.

I sent my friend a note, unsure of whether or not she might find me a little nuts – sending a personal note like this to a stranger…the only thing we’re sharing is Facebook and the same godforsaken winter, but I want you to know that my prayers belong to you…Sorrow is always easier to grow in times of great loss than joy is, but she had done it. She had built up the big reserves. I wanted to offer back to her some of that bottled up childhood joy, that pure gift of light, she had shared so freely with me from my very first unknown day on my publisher’s Facebook wall. She did not have to offer me anything more than one of the welcomes and write ons, but she did. She offered an immediate and distance-evaporating kindness.

The reason these kinds of things – like reaching out to talk of another person’s trauma – feel uncomfortable is, because it’s hard for us to believe our own value and, therefore, reflect it back, but the instructions are all around us. I believe God reflects back to us his love through nature, through the crunch of bright fall leaves, through the crystal silent surface of summer pond, through the howl of winter wind, through a stranger’s unbridled smile. These are his moments of encouraging us that we’re of consequence to him no matter how broken our lives feel at the moment – all of this you see, this is Me trying to impress you. If you doubt my version of God, you’ve never stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon or had someone visit you for hours at your sickbed. All we have to do to give someone joy is draw up, from inside ourselves (sometimes deeply, because ours stores are low, and sometimes easily, because our stores are plenty) the same kind smile a stranger shared with us online or in real life. It doesn’t much matter, because the spirit of kindness is not bound by geography or even time. This is why Mother Teresa, dead already these few years, still inspires us and warms our cold thoughts.

That’s how my Facebook Friend’s smile seemed to me, like a gift that, once given, cannot be erased. She lost so much this winter, and it’s not fair and no one understands it. Yet she continued to offer peace and a kind word to everyone who’s path she crossed in an online world where she could have vented and screamed and used words to punch back at the world that must have, surely, seemed to hate her with the bitter cold and with all the cruel falsities about life not being all that beautiful.

Today, I reopened my old blog page on Facebook and she was the first person to acknowledge it (of course), actually thanking me for inviting her in to my world of nonsensical half-Southern/some-California/mock-Russian/broken-Spanish made-up writer vernacular, failed dinner menu posts, pictures of Sancho Panza – world’s greatest Labradoodle (this is her fault, however), and book talk so repetitive it probably looks to some readers like a permanent tic. This is my story…this is my book…these are my words…This is my…But she ignored all that and went straight to the kindness.

“Thank you for adding me, darling!”

No, thank you, for being the nicest person I’ve encountered this Friday, and probably most Fridays, even though Fridays are truly great, and that’s why we should all be nice to each other on the last leg of an aging week that may have already seen too many terrible things to mention. This is my Facebook Friend’s gift, and a powerful one, that she probably doesn’t realize she possess and leaves strewn about the dry fields of the barren everyday, like a flower seed that will unexpectedly grow in the dark season.

And this is my first Friday Friend since 2003, when I lost my own baby and just stopped talking about nice people all that much. It’s interesting how long the streak lasted and who broke it first. Happy Friday, Cait!

cait_reynolds

Being Irish

"Inishmaan Gardens" by Eckhard Pecher. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Inishmaan_Gardens.jpg#/media/File:Inishmaan_Gardens.jpg

“Inishmaan Gardens” by Eckhard Pecher.

To all those who are Irish, or part of the Irish diaspora, I have a question for you: What cultivated your love for Ireland and being Irish? Or do you even posses this trait?

For me, the answer is not a simple one. My mother is a Fitzgerald, and a few other Irish families. Her father is 1/4th Irish, 3/4th Native American. Her mother a 100% Scot-Irish mixture. My father is half Scot-Irish mix and half Jewish. So, I’m not exactly a poster child for being Irish-American. In fact, never once in my life has anyone ever mistaken me for being Irish. Usually, people think I’m Russian. Sometimes, they ask me if I have “Native ancestry”, and the rest of the time they just say, “You look a little ethnic, but I can’t figure out what it is.” Well, to them, I say, don’t feel bad. It took me a long time to figure it all out, too.

I didn’t “love” being Irish when I was growing up in southern California. My mother had an estranged relationship with her father, who carried the big Irish name, and my grandmother has never been less interested in anything as much as she is genealogy, ethnicity, or tradition. She is, literally, allergic to the sun, and her last name is Beaird, but she won’t even admit to being Celtic. She only admits to being born in Oklahoma, but also, a little bit Texan.

“Daddy was born in Texas. Came over to Oklahoma in a covered wagon,” she always says. “I’m all American. That’s it. That’s all I care about.”

So, no love for Ireland found there. My mother never celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with me growing up. I taught myself to make corned beef and cabbage and soda bread. I registered us for the Irish Heritage Festival against her will. For years, I thought she was ashamed at being Irish, but later, I realized it was more of a rebellion against my stepfather’s Catholicism.

“Well, Daddy is mostly Indian,” she’d say. “Grandma Viola was a real Choctaw woman. Ran the family business. Wore the pants.” But no mention of Fitzgerald being a huge important part of her ancestry, except, that, “We’re related to JFK and F.Scott,” she insisted. Later, I found out the latter was true, at least.

My father is exactly the same way. If he cares about any of his ancestry at all (and he really doesn’t), it’s about his Jewish ancestry, because he’s close to his Jewish mother. He had very little love for his father, whose surname was Burnett, but who was also a Cairn, a Burke, a Patton, and few other clearly Irish names – some so Irish they are written in the original Gaelic and I can’t even read their census records. His Scots carry the same thickly rooted Celtic family tree, and he only cares about that because he has a friend from Scotland. If his friend was from Japan, he’d start wearing a kimono to the senior center.

“Yes, I’m a little bit Irish and a lot Scottish,” (Actually, it’s the other way around, but he never pays any attention to anything I show him about his ancestry. Not a damn thing), “And half Jewish, but you know what? None of that matters, because I’m an American…”

So, I didn’t get any Ireland love from him either. In order, these are the things that inspired my love for one of my ancestral homelands:

1) U2. During the time of “the troubles” in Northern Ireland, as a Catholic kid, with a mother named Karen Fitzgerald, in a Protestant school, I learned to stand up for the Virgin and the Saints with fists and verbal threads, and I learned early on, that U2 was something I could be proud of. The first song I learned to play all the way through on the guitar was Sunday Bloody Sunday. They’re still my favorite band, and I still remember that Bono’s birthday is May 10th, and that Rattle and Hum came out in November of 1989 (I think. I’m getting old). But their talk of Ireland, their fair skin…it all made me proud among my mostly Mexican friends and neighborhood. I was white. I was reminded of my whiteness often. It was unpopular.

“Shut up, white girl!”

“Are you lookin’ at me, white girl?”

“I’ll cut you, white girl.”

“White people holidays are fake and repressive!”

“White people are the devil!”

“White people enslaved us!”

“White people have it better!”

“White men can’t jump.”

“White people are shallow.”

“White people are wimpy.”

“White people are snobs.”

Understandably, I wanted to be anything but white, but well…you can’t really change how you’re born. Like I said in my last post, skin color is a crap shoot when you’re of mixed ancestry like I am. I’m white. I’m sorry. I really am. But…

I’m also Irish, so sometimes I fought back. You don’t want to mess with the Irish. Our luck may be highly questionable, but our fighting skills are tops. Just ask Felicia Figueroa. She knows what I’m talking about. She started in on my that one St. Patrick’s day, “White people worship St. Patrick!” “He was just some stupid dead white guy.” “No body cares about the Irish.”

Smack. Right into the pavement. End of discussion.

2) William Butler Yeats. I was first introduced to him by some old, bent up volumes of verse that my stepfather had crammed into the built in bookshelf at the end of the hall. I remember clearly that he was pressed between a copy of Auntie Mame and Are Your Under a Curse? I rediscovered him in 9th grade when my teacher, Darcy Canton, made us work on poetry and poets during English class for several weeks. I loved that unit. I found that I loved poetry. I learned that I loved Yeats, and because of Yeats, I was beginning to deepen my love for Ireland. And, and this time, my love was calmer and less angry (mostly because Felicia Figueroa’s father had sent her to boarding school somewhere in the Midwest). And I related to this one little poem of his I read. As a mixed up teenager with bad skin, a horrible perm, and multi-colored braces, I took this poem to be a version of what it felt like to be me. I knew I had important things inside me, but they felt all wrong at the time, unattractive, and unnoticeable. Yeats, it seemed, understood that and assured me that there was a connection between all people who had something important inside them that might get crushed in the wrong hands.

A Coat

by William Butler Yeats

I MADE my song a coat

Covered with embroideries

Out of old mythologies

From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world’s eyes
As though they’d wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there’s more enterprise
In walking naked.

3) I went to Ireland for 4 hours in the Shannon Airport when I was 16. I was really on my way to Russia, but I felt that God had given me a gift too big for words in this layover, so I will only say this about the real Ireland – it’s really green and the people mostly don’t like loud American teenagers. But, if you’re a Fitzgerald, they are a tad more open to acknowledging your presence when you’re speaking to them. I met Ireland up close for a fraction of a moment, and I loved her even more, the true emeraldness of her, the veil of fog rolling off the sea, the farmers on the tractors racing against the landing plane, the tiny neatly lined rock walls crisscrossing country land… but the island itself did not really feel mine the way Yeats and U2 did. I guess, because reality is always stranger than fiction. The reality of ourselves and the concrete moments when our visions meet with the cold earth and rain soaked roadway can create distance between people even when they’re sharing the same moment and space. I think that’s kind of what happened to me in Ireland. Maybe if I had been there 5 hours, things would have been different between us.

4) Far and Away. This cheesy Tom Cruise movie has a lot of the Chieftains in it, and it’s the story of my own Irish – the ones who went to Oklahoma in the Sooner race and married Indians fed up with losing their land. I met the Chieftains here and made a mixed tape of the soundtrack my nerdy senior year of high school. I played it for my mother, and she said, “Tiffani-Lynne, turn that nonsense off.” And then, “You know we’re related to JFK and F. Scott right?” From the Chieftains, I found the Clancy Brothers, and eventually, embraced my penchant for Appalachian Blue Grass, which is just the American version of Celtic music. Another invention of my Irish from the Tennessee hills.

5) By college, I had taken a much quieter version of Catholicism to my Evangelical school, and my English teacher, Mrs. Rich, made me read James Joyce out loud in class. Every day, she’d make one of us choose a devotion, but sometimes, she’d even make some of us choose a short story and we’d have to read it for its entirety. She gave me “Araby”, from The Dubliners. It’s the story about one boy’s craving for the little girl he loves. He can’t stop thinking about her. He does stupid things in front of her. He forgets himself often. In fact, he wants her affections so badly, that he is unaware of his appearance and even when he gets a bloody nose and walks around with a snotty rag shoved up his nostril, he has no concept of how unattractive he looks, because, he says, “I became bored with the ordinary things of life, and now they stood between me and my desire, they seemed to me child’s play. Ugly, monotonous child’s play.”

That’s my favorite line in all of literature. In that moment, I sat up, and I looked at Mrs. Rich with a crazed gleam in my eye and said, “That’s how I feel about everything important!” I yelled. And I really did yell. At that moment, I was thinking of a boy I liked, and whose affection I could not obtain no matter how hard I tried. I was thinking, also, of my writing and my work feeding the homeless and teaching kids to read in inner city Atlanta. Yes, they reminded me everyday (just as the Mexicans had back home in southern California – sometimes jokingly/sometimes seriously), that I was white, and that just the face of me sometimes was more offensive than if I had been an outright bigot, but I cared more about the work than my shame at being white. The Irish are good at standing their ground, at explaining themselves to the world, at articulating how they feel and why they feel it. They don’t just give you the words, they draw you a picture of emotions and offer you colors to go with it. It’s the Irish way – to stand.

“I’m bored with the ordinary things of life!” I said to Mrs. Rich.

“Then, perhaps, like our dear Joyce, you are also Irish,” she said and laughed at my weird exuberance.

And then the love for Ireland deepened. I began to make connections with it. I began to understand and love Ireland through her words. Her songs. Her poems. Her theatre. I fell in love with John M. Synge as well and memorized whole sections of Playboy of the Western World.

Playboy of the Western World

John M. Synge

ACT I.

SCENE: [Country public-house or shebeen, very rough and untidy. There is a sort of counter on the right with shelves, holding many bottles and jugs, just seen above it. Empty barrels stand near the counter. At back, a little to left of counter, there is a door into the open air, then, more to the left, there is a settle with shelves above it, with more jugs, and a table beneath a window. At the left there is a large open fire-place, with turf fire, and a small door into inner room. Pegeen, a wild looking but fine girl, of about twenty, is writing at table. She is dressed in the usual peasant dress.]

Doesn’t that sound lovely? Can’t you picture it? Well, I can. In that scene just there, I’m present. Super present. Super Irish.

The realization that I have about loving my Irishness is that I learned to love it by doing and by living. I acquired my love for being Irish, because I have a few things to choose from, because it was unpopular to be me growing up, and I had to find something to give me power. I am more comfortable being Irish than being anything else. It melted easier into my skin and grew quickly out of my heart. Accepting myself as I am seemed very Irish to me. Reading Yeats and wearing his coat seemed to encourage that in me. Discovering that my own honkey-tonk Oklahoma version of Blue Grass comes from Ireland, in large part. Scotland and Wales is part of this as well.

And Joyce. He followed me from Mrs. Rich’s English class in 1993, to Harvard in 2013 in my study of the Modernists. Most students hated him. Couldn’t stand what they saw as his blubbering nonsense. I love Joyce. When I’m having a hard day, I read Joyce. When I started reading his words, I learned to articulate myself, to understand that part of me that latches onto an ideal, a work, a desire and keeps it solidly in my grasp until my goal is met. Joyce understood it. My Irish ancestors had that sort of tenacity,or they wouldn’t have boarded a huge rickety ship for Virginia and made a life among the same English who hated them back home. They wouldn’t have fought for their land in three different American wars, and for America is three more.

Toughness. Paleness so raw it can sometimes be mistaken for beauty. Music so pure that its primitive nature is what makes it transcend far more complicated pieces. Stories that laugh on the surface and cry in the center. War drums that make you want to dance, even though you’re being threatened.

That, for me, is being Irish. For me, these things awakened in me my love for Ireland. What did it for you?

All This Time On March 27th!

All_this_time_II

It’s almost here! Release day for All This Time is March 27th. I can hardly believe it. I’ve worked so hard on this book that was conceived the night a peeping tom stole my family’s peace for three years straight. I was up in my writing room in the attic, when a weirdo thought nothing of peaking in on my 6 year old while he played in the kitchen, creating a temporary, but severe, case of agoraphobia for him. The months that followed, were the only times I ever struggled with unforgiveness. My son is much better now, the family has greater peace (thanks to God and friends) and I haven’t seen the tom in a while (at least, not since the Russians visited him. Spaceba, guys. Ya lubit tbya. Pravda), but All This Time is here, and I almost gave it up. But an old friend from long ago said, “Everything happens for a reason. You must complete what you started, or you will never know what this story was meant to be. It must have value in the universe or evil would not have tried so hard to silence it.” (Also, a Russian. Black and white. Gray is for sissies).

As the story was first written, I had a hard time agreeing with that. It didn’t seem that important – a sad girl missing her dead fiance’ and falling in love with his lame cousin. Literally, he was missing a leg. But, my brilliant editor, Ally Bishopkindly suggested, “You know this plot is shit, right?” And it was. “There are a lot of inconsistencies, but there are elements that really work, like the whole PTSD angle.”  I found the nugget of the story and made something great out of it, because of Ally’s efforts and keen eye for a great story.

And there you go. My whole family was reeling from PTSD, not just the perv, but from a series of traumatic events that year, and we all were a bit shell shocked. It was in my bones, buzzing my heart awake at night, reminding me that I had things to fear even if I didn’t know what they were, so I had a first hand knowledge and I formed it into someone else’s problem.

“It must have value…You must complete what you started…” said my friend, who has the steely eyed look of a KGB interrogator when he wants to make his point clear.

My original character, Lydia Hawthorne from Manhattan, became Lydia Fadoul, the half-Irish and half-Syrian teacher from Allentown, Pennsylvania. Her fiance’ went from Thomas the stockbroker who died on 9/11 to Thomas the Marine accused of murder after returning from serving in Iraq. While my life went from dark to light, Lydia’s went in the opposite direction. It’s funny how fiction sometimes repels reality, mirroring it only in opposites. I wonder if this is why so many romance authors who write about marriage are single and the ones who write about being single have been married for decades? Or why authors of forensic thrillers faint at the sight of real blood and think that getting an IV in your arm is actual pain? I once had a brilliant neurosurgeon tell me that he loves to read doctor romances. Why? That can’t possibly inspire his work.

Who knows? But, Lydia is here now, and I will be appearing at a coffee house near you with my book and a reading and we’ll share thoughts and ideas about war and faith and culture and what influences they have on good and bad people alike.

Blessings, My Dear Readers, and thank you – thank you sincerely and deeply – for reading :)

The Plains: The Great Train Adventure Part II

North Western Montana

North Western Montana (Burnett-Velez)

Something about the wide open space and neutral colors of Montana made me remember myself again. Amidst the joyous chaos of children and marriage, friends and publishing contracts, Facebook chatter and favorite TV shows, a heart and brain can fill up with words and faces and moments that can snatch up whole seasons of your time and you can forget yourself.

Mothers understand this reality very well. Yes, I’m sure fathers do too, and attentive pet owners and small business operators, and people who work for nonprofits, clergy and anyone at all who finds themselves consistently devoted to the care of others. But something about Montana restored my Western sense of space, my need to get lost inside the vastness of nature. Big nature. The kind only the American West can produce. This is where I was born and raised – in the Oklahoma Plains and then at the edge of the Pacific Ocean in southern California. My summers were spent in the high desert of Oregon and its warm sun-soaked Rogue Valley and the steamy outskirts of Houston and my grandmother’s big old house in Oklahoma City and my uncle’s tiny childhood home in rust red Claremore, Oklahoma.

Oklahoma Plains (Wikipedia)

Oklahoma Plains
(Wikipedia)

 

These were my places, the home places that defined me: Oklahoma, Oregon, California, and all the places frequented regularly in between – Albuquerque and Gallup, the Joshua Tree National Monument in Needles, the Painted Desert, that giant crater not too far away from it, the Grand Canyon, the Sierra Nevadas, the Cascade Mountains, Crater Lake, long drives and talks about the Oglala Aquifer and the savior it was to family that had survived the Dust Bowl of the 1930s…You simply cannot be brought up with hours of time to ponder and think and plot and decipher among some of the world’s most beautiful wonders and then, move to the East Coast and forget about it all.

But this is what happens when you go to college, and fall in love and have babies and the babies grow and need good school districts, and the Hot Latin Husband has a stable job and you’re building your writing career freelancing for local East Coast newspapers and magazines. And you sort of try to bury that Western longing for space and nature and look for their substitutes in the best places you can find nearby – the Appalachian Trail, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the Chesapeake, Hilton Head Island, the Everglades…But these places, though beautiful and soul-filling, are still compact and so much smaller than the Rockies or even the San Bernardino Mountains that rarely peak above the smog, but you still try for the reach outward anyway.

Wild Mustangs like I saw in Montana, but failed to capture, befcause they were too fast.  (Wikipedia)

Wild Mustangs like I saw in Montana, but failed to capture, because they were too fast.
(Wikipedia)

Riding through Montana on Amtrak two weeks ago, was like taking a long drink after a 20 year dry spell. “Wait until you step off the train in Portland (our final destination),” I say to the Brilliant 10 Year Old, my train companion. He was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania and has never been further west than western Maryland. “The air is different here. It’s crisp and clean, and the sky feels bigger. You’ll love it.”

Wind Power on the Plains (Burnett-Velez)

Wind Power on the Plains
(Burnett-Velez)

He was eager, and believed me, because he couldn’t stop staring at the largeness of the view outside our train window. The atmosphere in the upper half of Montana is called “Big Sky Country” and it sprawls on and on in a series of golden wheat fields, soft rolling plains and high peaked mountains carved by glaciers millions of years ago, and huge cumulus clouds that have the space and time to form into massive continents of white mist and rain and make spectacle of the varying splitting rays of the afternoon sun onto the earth, which is the color of warm caramel. At sunset, the sky, just like every other place in the great West, spreads a red-bronze-pink blanket of fire above the mountains. In Montana’s case, it’s the Rockies, and their snow-capped peaks literally glow against the burst of reds behind them. And all of this is snaked by the silvery ice-logged Missouri River, which winds and twists between hundreds of acres of grazing land for wild mustangs, big horn sheep, and bald eagles – all of which we saw during our travels. Montana reminded me of a northern version of that same Oklahoma in which I was born and spent many a childhood summer. Only, Oklahoma doesn’t have the sheep content of its northern sister, I’m pretty sure.

Scrap Metal Dump in North Western Montana. Always near a reservation. Why? (Burnett-Velez)

Scrap Metal Dump in North Western Montana. Always near a reservation. Why?
(Burnett-Velez)

But Montana was not all beauty and big tall glacier carvings. It was reservations and broken down trailer parks and BNSF railroad hubs, too. For every wild American horse, there was a huge American scrap metal dump, a 24 hour Casino with a cartoon Native on the sign, and a two hour hotel.

Bear Paw Mountains

Bear Paw Mountains (Burnett-Velez)

On either side of the Bear Paw Mountains where Chief Joseph said his famous words, “I will fight no more forever,” lay two reservations. In one of them, I saw a school with plywood doors and a 1970’s era school bus that banged and clattered as it rumbled down the dusty streets to take children to their crumbling, slanting homes. Pasty colored trailers that looked hardly stable enough to stand up against the wind storms of the high plains, what the locals call “blinders” because they can steal a man’s sight with the sharp cut of the dust and the snow.

Reservation Home in the Distance, North Western Montana (Burnett-Velez)

Reservation Home in the Distance, North Western Montana
(Burnett-Velez)

And, indeed, some of these “homes” were already half leaning into the ground, but smoke still poured out of their pencil thin chimneys. These were not even like the reservations I had seen in Oklahoma, or other parts of the U.S. These were deplorable, at least, from my trainside window. One of the big industries butting up against, or sitting directly inside, these reservations was fracking. Lots of fracking. From the Dakotas to the Washington border, you see these big cylinders sticking out of the ground and creating strange high metal sculptures that look as though they want to hide, but nothing can hide in the Plains, so they try to steal the scenery instead.

Fracking in Northwestern Montana (Wikipedia)

Fracking in Northwestern Montana
(Wikipedia)

These were sobering images for me, and made me think of my own Native heritage, but being pale enough to have nearly see-through skin, I always push that heritage aside, because I inwardly assume – no one will ever believe this. My blue eyes make me a fake, the kind of fake dark-skinned Indians talk about. The wannbees. Except, I don’t really want to be anything different. It’s just truth – that my grandfather was approximately 3/4ths Choctaw and a tad Creek and Cherokee, too, and I share a strong resemblance to his side of the family, and when I see reservations, I always think of him first, and most often, of my cousins who I actually liked. My admiration for my grandfather is questionable. He kept changing his stories. I don’t know who he really was, but now that he has passed on, I believe I have the best chance of finding out.

I know that he was born on the edge of Choctaw land, and attended reservation schools until his father sent him to a military academy, or so he said. His tales were almost as tall as he was. The one thing he couldn’t lie about was his Native American heritage. It was obvious. Even when he tried to pretend he was “black Irish,” it was obvious that that was a joke and everyone in the room was supposed to laugh. My mother seemed to have taken his cue here. After one too many jokes about her being a “blanket butt Indian” after she moved to Oregon in the 1970’s, she colored her hair red, and since her skin is also fair (not uncommon for Cherokees and Choctaws) she can get away with being “just Irish” now, but smart people always cock their heads at that notion. “And something else, too,” they say when she gets excited on St. Patrick’s Day.

The few times my mother drove my siblings and I out to Oklahoma to meet with my grandfather near his Broken Arrow home, he would always teach me a new Choctaw word and tell me something about his mother, Viola, who gave him his heritage and who supported him by running a small general store in the center of her town. I don’t remember any of these Choctaw words (and they were probably 100% fiction), but I do remember Viola. I have her tea cabinet in my dining room and her table next to it. My grandfather’s father was a Cherokee-Irish bootlegger and had the sharp angular face of a man who had spent more years hungry than satisfied, and that’s all I know about him, though I’m searching for more. But Viola, my grandfather spoke of a lot, and he often ended brief stories about her with, “She was a tough old gal. Had to be tough in that environment.”

Seeing the neglected reservations in Montana bothered me in the way the huge billboards in New Mexico always did growing up. My father (not Native at all) said that’s, because I have “white guilt”, but what I felt was something different. It was more offensive than defensive.

“Genuine Navajo Gifts at Reservation Prices!” the signs would read from the beginning to end of the Nation’s borders. After a while of complaining about it out loud to mother, she’d finally say, “Well, what do you want me to do about it? I didn’t put these reservations here. If you think these ones are rough, wait till you get to Oklahoma. Indian Territory,” she’d say, and I could tell by the way she sighed and shrugged that she was thinking of her father and her grandmother, Viola.

Once I brought the billboards up to my grandfather, when we visited with him in a Tulsa Holiday Inn. My mother never took my brother and I to his house for some reason, but my younger sister, she took there years later. She was much closer to my grandfather than I think I was. I asked my grandfather if he thought the billboards and sale of Native goods so cheaply and so openly was offensive to him in anyway, or if I was weird for feeling weird about all that.

“A man’s gotta make a living,” he said and shrugged. “And people want this stuff.”

“What kind of people?” I wanted to hear him say “white people” because I know he never wanted anyone to see him in opposition to that, but he was so dark and so Choctaw looking, and he never burned in the sun.

“People who like that kind of thing. Easterners and such.”

“Did your mother ever sell that stuff in her store?” I asked.

My grandfather laughed. “Maybe.”

“I remember the candy!” My mother spoke up from across the room. “She sold regular country store things, and she used to let me get a little candy from the store every time we visited.”

“So, no Choctaw or Cherokee things for the tourists?” I asked.

“Honey, aint no tourists going to Antlers, Oklahoma.” Laughs all around. End of discussion. “Your great grandmother was not very crafty with a needle and thread. She had other talents.” White lightnin’, I’m guessing. The family trade.

I have my grandfather’s features, almost completely, but I don’t have his coloring, so I will never have the experiences he had being raised in Oklahoma, on Choctaw land, to a mother who, he said, “Tried to hide her race as much as she could, because it was bad for business, and life in general.”

At the train station in Portland, a handsome African American gentleman struck up a conversation with my son, the Brilliant 10 Year Old, and I. About halfway into our 30 minute discussion about his moving from Tampa to Tillamook, he stopped talking and gave me a funny look.

“Greek? Is that what I see in you?” he asked.

I laughed, because this conversation comes up every now and then, but usually only on the East Coast. “No. But I’m a bit of a mix.” Here, I feel like I always need to apologize for not “being something simple”. It’s funny how a Great Train Adventure can bring all that up for you again, crossing borders and nations within nations.

He kept probing. “Not Italian…not Middle Eastern…some of kind of ethnicity though…”

“My father is Jewish.”

“No. That’s not what I’m seeing. It’s…Native. What tribe are you affiliated with?”

“You mean, you can see that in my face?” I looked around the room like someone had just tipped him off or something.

“Oh, yes. It’s in your nose and chin and cheekbones.”

“I look like my grandfather,” I said. “He was Choctaw, mostly.”

“Yeah. You’re not your average white girl,” he said.

I laughed. “Thank you.”

“And my first clue is that this is true is that you find that to be a compliment.”

“Well,” I said, “I think a lot of white people would like to just be considered people.”

“Ha! That’s amusing,” he said. “Well, you’re more than one people. That’s what I see in your face. You should be proud of that.”

Frankly, I’m thankful not to have had many of my grandfather’s or, especially, my great grandmother’s experiences, and not just because she was discriminated against for being Native and being a woman, but because she lived in some backwoods town in Oklahoma, and that has to be it’s own kind of hell, but that’s another blog post.

My grandfather, K. Fitzgerald

My grandfather, K. Fitzgerald

Me a few years ago (Burnett-Velez)

Me a few years ago
(Burnett-Velez)

Montana was beautiful. It made me thankful to be an American. I’m sure Canadians can relate to this kind of space and awe as well. There’s something about the beauty of North America that is unique to this continent, and this is the better half of what I felt while surveying the wide open West of my ancestors for the millionth time. But the darker half of my observation finally offered me the words to articulate the feelings I’d always wrestled with. I’m part of several worlds – the white and the not white. I am part of the immigrants of  this land and the Natives. But my connection to the Natives – which is substantial in blood and bone – will always be from the outside in. Skin color still divides America. Them from me. Me from them. Sure, it doesn’t have to, but it does – snaking and winding like the Missouri River through Sky Country, past the Bear Paws and the Rockies and the Great Plains that settle all questions of Intelligent creation.

Sunset at Glacier National Park (burnett-velez)

Sunset at Glacier National Park
(burnett-velez)

The Great Train Adventure Part I: How the Brilliant 10 Year Old and I Rode 7000 Miles in 7 Days From East to West and Back

Monument to WWII Vets 30th Street Station Philadelphia, PA

Monument to WWII Vets
30th Street Station
Philadelphia, PA

It’s good for anyone born west of the great Mississippi to get back home, every now and then, to the wide open world of your birth. It makes the soul sing again in places where the cold Northeast has frozen it over. Recently, I took a cross-country train ride with my youngest son and my father. My dad and I are both Westerners, but my boy is an Easterner. These two dichotomies played out in interesting and beautifully revealing ways during that week long event. I learned more, I believe, about myself, my family, my ancestors, their land, and what “home” really consists of in those few days than I ever have. This is the first part of that story.

My father is leaving his home in the high desert of Oregon for a beautiful, close-quartered Victorian neighborhood an hour north of Philadelphia. I once feared that he’d never be able to stand the claustrophobic world of Pennsylvania cities, but he’s already made himself more comfortable in this new old world than I ever expected. So, when he had a few legal matters to wrap up out in Oregon, he asked me to bring my son along and come out to the West – to the Great Plains where I was born and where my ancestors have lived and cultivated the earth since the Trail of Tears and the years just following the Civil War. Of course, I was born in the Southern Plains of Oklahoma, and not the High Plains of Montana and North Dakota where we’d be traveling, but I knew it would do my heart good to see the great vastness of my birthland once again, even if the colder/more northern version.

We began the trip in Philadelphia, a city I have come to accept as one of my own, in a train station I have come to love as much as Los Angeles’ Union Station. 30th Street Station is a mid-20th century Art Deco masterpiece. It’s wide open and muted in colors, and classical string music spills out into the comforting square-shaped center, so that passengers don’t feel herded and rushed like a load of cattle into various gates when their train departures are announced. It’s obvious that the powers that be at 30th Street value a calm clientele. I’ve been going in and out of this place since the Blizzard of 1993, and I never regret a train to and from it.

Virginia Farm

Virginia Farm

My little one and I, he’s 10, boarded one of the oldest Amtrak cars in working order today – the Cardinal. I chose it over the Capitol Limited, because it promised “a slow ride through the Mid-Atlantic states, up through the very tip of the South, and on to the Midwest until it reaches Chicago’s Union Station.” Since this was an adventure, a train vacation, for my boy and I, we both decided the Cardinal would be a good choice. And since my son, The Brilliant 10 Year Old, is homeschooled, we figured we could take our time. This would be fun.

It wasn’t.

Firstly, it was old as heck, and probably used as a hospital train during the 1861 Battle of Manassas or something. I realize I already said that I knew it was one of the oldest Amtrak trains running today, but I figured that would offer charm and not discomfort. I’m not a picky person, or one to complain. I can deal with a fair share of discomfort. After all, I live in a broken down farmhouse on the edge of a two lane highway in a town that is “new” only because it was built after the Revolution. I can handle “old”.

But the heater was broken on this thing and the temperature rested at, or above, 90 degrees for most of the 24 hours we were on the train. This caused the Brilliant 10 Year Old to become ill, and he tossed his cookies for about 15 hours straight. The porters watched him projectile vomit all over our seats a couple of times and did nothing more than shrug. I guess they’ve seen this before? I busied myself expending an entire bottle of disinfecting wipes on our dusty cloth seats and the crumb-crusted carpeted floor.

No one tended to the bathrooms, and since we were in coach because the sleepers were all full, he had to deal with his illness in bathrooms that had other people’s unflushed, overheated “business” in them, which only made him feel even worse. There’s nothing like watching poo swim in steamy urine while you’re hanging onto a greasy handicap handle in a tight, metal bathroom that’s rolling 80 miles an hour over jagged edged West Virginia coal country.

Additionally, (and this isn’t Amtrak’s fault), the drug dealer who sat catty-corner to us spent a good portion of her time f-bombing her “Granny” on the phone, because she wouldn’t tell her where “Slim was hiding out”. We heard all about Slim’s “high-ass coke” that was left on the Granny’s kitchen counter and how “You’s isn’t suppoza leave you junk out for no goddam cops to find it. Stupid ass…He’s gonna haffa climb on through the winda to get his draws. They parked out in front all days…” It went on like this for sometime, and The Brilliant 10 Year Old finally leaned over to me and said, “I know why Slim ran. He’s just looking for a way out. Poor guy.” The little Amish girl from Reading who sat in front of us cried most of the time, and nipped at some sort of hard looking bread in terrified silence. There were a lot of Amish on the trip.

The loudmouth guy from Long Island was irritating to my son in his sickness, but I liked his stories and constant complaining about snow during winter and people in public. The only issue he presented was the constant roaring snore he emitted whenever his eyes fell shut, which was often, and then he’d go right back to screaming about the price of peanuts and how cute babies look when they’re sleeping, which made the two colicky babies who sat in front of him cry a lot.

“I feel like we’re a raging torpedo of crap and hot vomit,” I said to the nice lady from Kentucky who sat across from us and gave The Brilliant 10 Year Old a box of Dramamine after he puked on her bags and shoes. “I don’t know if children can take this, but you should read it and see if it works,” she said handing the box to me. Sure enough, 2 and up can take Dramamine. I gave him two and he nodded off and stopped puking. Praise be to God.

We were already excited to see Chicago, but by the time we arrived there, The Brilliant 10 Year Old and I high-tailed it so fast out of that boiling turd cooker on rails, that we nearly kissed the frozen ground of Union Station when we were pushed by the desperate crowd onto the platform. We ran into the Metropolitan Lounge, a swank and comfortable gigantic room for first class travelers. They lavished us with porters who took care of our heavy luggage, free wifi, plush leather seats, and free snacks and coffee. The Brilliant 10 Year Old and I found a safe corner and sat there contentedly watching CNN for two hours and working away at the word search book we’d brought along with us. We had high hopes that Chicago trains were of better quality.

Tips for Riding Coach on Amtrak:

Bring disinfecting wipes and antibacterial gel.

Bring Dramamine, pain killers, and ear plugs.

Bring a neck pillow.

Bring a blanket.

Bring snacks.

Bring a few bucks for coffee or other hot drinks.

Bring water and Gatorade or something with electrolytes in it, just incase you’re really entering dehydration hell.

Bring reading material, electronics (you can plug in at your seat), bring headphones, bring games (there’s a table that folds down for each seat).

Look outside, because the inside will be hell if you’re riding the Cardinal.

Next issue of The Great Train Adventure will be Chicago – the Center of It All.

Go West with Bonnie Dodge on the Historical Novel Blog Tour Today!

 

Author, Bonnie Dodge

Author, Bonnie Dodge

Hello, my dead readers. I know that I have not written much lately, but I’m winding down with the last couple stretches of The Historical Novel Blog Tour. I will return with some of my original work later this week. This week, the wonderful author, Bonnie Dodge visits, sharing her work, her characters, and her attention to historical detail. Read more about her work here. Happy Monday!

A Return to the Caribbean with Eleanor Parker

image

This week, we return to the beautiful, tiny island of Puerto Rico with historical novelist Eleanor Parker. She is a frequent visitor on the Historical Novel Blog Tour, and I know you’ll just love her work. Her debut novel, A Decent Woman, comes out very soon! Check out her blog at http://elliesbookz.wordpress.com