Category Archives: memoir

Little Boxes, Filled with … what?

A couple of months ago, my husband R. was diagnosed with Metastatic Carcinoma of Unknown Primary. At first we are numb. Walking around staring at each other, trying not to get teary-eyed, but doing it anyway. Now, a few weeks down the road on this new journey, we’ve moved into another phase. Not acceptance. It’s something else for me. R. has an “attitude of gratitude”, and I’m into some other twilight zone of feeling I have not quite owned up to. I’m dealing with this new circumstance as I deal with most others.

I’m making things, keeping my hands moving. Yes, I’m escaping in a sense. Sometimes escape and denial is necessary to get you through. I’m making tiny houses. What is a house but a place where a soul resides. Little doorways. When I’m stitching, I do not have to think so much about the fact that my husband will gradually disappear from this life. But all these thoughts jump back into my stitches. I pray for him to not have pain. I try not to think about how lonely I will be in the future in this house.
I try not to think a whole lot about what I’m doing and my mind can wander off down the endless avenues of my brain. Every stitch a prayer. Going down one way I think of the beauty of the fall season here in New Orleans, which is the cooler temps. Then my thoughts take off another way and wonder about that hurricane that is forming and heading our way.
But with each stitch, each pull of this deep purple thread tightening that little doorway, I am thinking of what these cancer cells are doing to my husband day by day. And that I can do nothing to stop them, nothing to stitch those cancer cells up in a little box and burn them – and my scissors cannot cut off their threads of multiplication. It’s going to be a long journey.  Over time, about twenty minutes into my little house, my brain settles into the rhythm of my stitching, and I am once again in a meditation zone. I’m not in charge. And every stitch is a prayer.

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A New Year Begins

Like many women of a certain age, I’ve had a few past lives. When we lived in Memphis I organized a non-profit literacy program focusing on creative writing. It was called WriteMemphis. We had 27 volunteers working with inner-city teen girls in several Memphis locations. These young writers created awesome poetry and prose about their lives in Memphis – from the strong women in their lives to gunshots through the front door to becoming teen mothers. When I left Memphis in 2014 I gave the program to Literacy Mid-South, which was a natural fit for the life-changing work they do.

Fast forward to where I am today. New Orleans. New business. New home. New life.

I miss writing. I really do. Even though I love the work I do every day in our shop I miss the creative energy of word to page. I have resolved to make more time for writing in 2017. And in celebration of that promise to myself, I want to share exciting news! One of my essays is included in a new anthology (slated for March publication) edited by my friend Susan Cushman,  A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We are Meant to Be.

A Second Blooming includes work by fabulous writers – Mary Karr, Anne Lamott, Beth Ann Fennelly, and my friends Ellen Prewitt, Susan Marquez and Nancy-Kay Wessman – twenty-one in all! I am in awe of these fabulous women and I am honored to be among them. Readings and signings are scheduled in Memphis TN,  Jackson MS and soon in my home city of New Orleans.  I’m so excited I’ll let the world know when that will be! Here’s the catalog page from Mercer Press:asb-mup-catalog-page

Culture Induced Panic and Anxiety

Emma, Abbey and Sophie
on the Mississippi

In Memphis, we’ve been having severe thunderstorms the past several days. Our dog, Abbey, an Irish Setter, suffers from severe anxiety attacks whenever she hears a rumble. It can be a train, a truck passing by, or a jet overhead. But when she hears thunder and sees lightning, she goes into full-blown panic mode. Her heart races, her breathing speeds, her eyes dart back and forth and she paces the floor looking for somewhere to hide. She cannot even bark. Her emotions are almost frozen with fear. Last night as loud thunderclaps roared, this beautiful red-haired 60 lb. dog jumped up on the bed and landed on my head. Nothing like waking at 3:00am to a mouthful of dog fur. No amount of soothing will calm her down. The bathroom is her “safe place” – she puts her head behind the toilet and stays there until the storm is over or when she can see sunlight.

I cannot imagine what happened to her in her past that causes this reaction. We got Abbey when she was four years old, a rescue dog. She had been kept in a cage for four years. That would be enough to cause panic in me.

With people, sometimes it’s the same reaction (well, maybe not to the extent of hiding behind the toilet) to a circumstance or environment. We are compelled to protect ourselves. Fear and anxiety are basic instincts, and without fear we would do even more of the foolish things we humans do. Statistics report that one out of every 75 people will experience anxiety or panic attacks at some point in their life. There was a point in my own life, a period of about three or four years, when I experienced panic attacks. Now it’s the sweaty palms reaction. Happens every time I am scheduled to preach, or speak before a group.

I am a writer of fiction and non-fiction. I’ve submitted several novel manuscripts to countless agents and small presses, and one of the novels even made the first cut of 1000 in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest this year. Several of my essays have been published, and a story has been a finalist in a contest.  I have no problem reading my work in my writing critique group, but the truth is, I would need serious courage to read before an audience if asked.

I remember the first time one of my stories was read aloud to the entire class. It was in the ninth grade in a very warm Hawkins Junior High classroom that smelled of sweat, chalk dust and old books. The English teacher read my story, out loud, putting in little check marks with her red pencil as she went along. To the snickers of my classmates, I sank down lower and lower in my desk with each tic of that red pencil. I vowed never to write anything again. I continued to write in my journals, but that was for myself only – I let no other eyes read my words.

Ten years later, with three children and an abusive husband, writing in my journals was how I survived. I wrote poetry, short stories and brief descriptions of events. My husband at the time thought I was writing about him, and after I filed for divorce he snatched up all 30 journals and dumped them in the Barnett Reservoir. He never read them. I know this because the writings were not about him. They were about survival. We do what we have to do.

In the liturgy of the Easter Vigil, it is the role of the Deacon to sing the Exultet. I was expected to learn this and sing it at the Easter Vigil three years ago. Now, those of you who know what this is, and if you’re a musician, you know that this is a difficult piece for anyone, even those who can read music. It is especially so for a novice who cannot read a note of music and has a voice like a frog. With sweaty palms and a quickened heart, I did it. And I’ve done it three times since.  With gratitude to Geoff Ward, the organist and choirmaster at St. John’s, who has extreme patience with this non-musician, my fear was calmed.


What is it about our culture that instills fear in us, and causes so much anxiety? People can be mean-spirited, and one criticism can shut off a voice that could change the world. There is  much criticism of certain writers, celebrities, our president, of congress, of religious leaders, and of folks who are just trying to make a difference in the world. Politicians are the worst about trying to hurt each other with calculated and timed attacks on character. What would happen if we really thought about what we are saying before we say it? Who are we really trying to hurt by saying hurtful things? We are the ones who are hurt most – the ‘sayers’. There is a line that we should not cross.  But we do come close.

If we searched down into our soul, we should all be asking some questions of ourselves. Are we trying to right a wrong? Or pull the other person down? Or is our ego merely trying to elevate ourselves? And how important is it that this supposed criticism get out into the world? Will it change public opinion? Will it make the world better? I know, there are folks who will say they are just telling the truth, and are compelled to do it no matter if someone gets hurt.  I do not disagree with that goal. I believe certain behaviors need to be criticized.  But that is my truth, and my truth is not everyone’s truth. Added to that, each person sees a person or event from their own perspective, interpreted through their own past experiences. One person’s truth can be another person’s skewed and unproven innuendo.  Something seen on a website somewhere. Or in a news report, or magazine, or in horror or horrors – an email message. 

A story about Aunt Neill in 1938 
Family Circle magazine.

I’ve been reading lately about the world of creative non-fiction, when memoir-writers create fictionalized accounts of their life experiences. Two examples are Alice Munro‘s The View From Castle Rock, and Jeannette Walls’s Half-Broke Horses. The authors have the command of language and detail that makes these stories almost mythological. Walls writes that she considers her book less of a novel and more of an “oral history, a retelling of stories handed down by my family through the years.” 


I have a project that I’ve been working on for years involving my great aunt, Neill James.  I began to write about her life, but at some point a voice took over and began to write about the effect of her life upon my own – about how her courage gave me courage, and about how her experiences opened a world of travel to me.  When I realized that this project was moving towards a memoir-type work, I let a family member know.  That family member’s reaction was, “I didn’t think this was going to be about you, I thought it was going to be about Neill. I don’t think people want to read about you.”  

Aunt Neill in her
Reindeer Herder costume.



With a little anxiety, I will persevere, but I won’t be hiding behind the toilet – I’ll tell my truths out in the open.  It’s a story worth telling – even if it’s for my own reading.  It is a story of transformation.  And it will be my truth, sweaty palms and all. 

What a Character!

In her post, Memoir: Turning Yourself into a Character, author Nanci Panuccio says, “Memoir is character-based non-fiction. As obvious as this might sound, what’s often missing in an early draft of memoir is the narrator’s engagement with his or her own story. Observers by nature, writers sometimes tell their story as witness rather than participant.”

In my fiction writing, my characters are composites of real people as well as people that I imagine in my head. I can lay on anyone certain hand gestures, the way they may smoke a cigarette, or sip their coffee. The way someone speaks to another, how they inflect their voice, can tell the reader a lot about that character. The clothes they wear, internal thoughts. But how do we create ourselves as characters? Is it much the same process?

In thinking about this, I realize that my own self-perception is different than others’ perception of me, and I am in a sense a ‘witness’ to my own life. How observant, how involved am I really in being conscious of the minute details of my own mannerisms, my own voice tone, my own way of walking? Perhaps I should ask others about their memories and interpretations of my hand gestures, my speaking voice, or what my movements might infer. How do you create yourself as a character, and how real can “you” be?