I Lost a Friend

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My friend Neil O. Jones lost his long battle with lung cancer the last day of January 2017. The Roundtable Writers Group, of which he was a member, spoke at his funeral service on his behalf, doing readings by his favorite authors, as well as original works.

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I am honored to have written and read a poem with my friend Susie Dunham. I’m sharing it below in honor of Neil, a fine man who had friends all over the country who came to pay respects. He was blessed to have his writer friends, his “brothers” from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, fellow college professors, the Muletown Hog Chapter of motorcycle friends (a 20-bike tribute! Thanks to Jerry Knox who organized this!), Gerald (T-Bone, childhood friend from Dallas), local friends, children, and grandchildren to gather to celebrate his life.

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January 31, 2017

We Lost a Friend

Susie Dunham and Kathy Rhodes

Susie Dunham

We lost a friend today.
We’ve lost other friends and family to cancer,
but we’ve never lived it so close.
Close enough to see week to week
month to month
year to year.

We saw how it took pieces of you.
Teasing and testing you to
fight harder than you did in the
jungles of Vietnam, to
fight harder to stay alive.

Fifty years ago in that January,
your worst battle of that war,
Operation Junction City,
you fought to keep your brothers safe.

Now in this January,
your worst fight of this war,
you battled with bravery and honor
to stay with the people who
will miss you
now
that the battle is lost.

This ain’t Nam.
But Nam
followed
you
home.

*

From Neil’s book Brothers, All

It was then I knew,” you said. “Nothing would ever change. I would get out of this life whatever I could and think of Vietnam only when it attacked me [whenever] it … chose. It was the ghosts of my brothers … It was Agent Orange. There was no escape,” you said. “The mark of the Beast would keep coming back.”

“It is the cancer coming back and building in me that I can’t get away from,” you said.

 “Now there is a new way to fight it—a new drug … approved … twenty days before my cancer in progression receives it.

 Another battle ahead.

Five decades of war, college, love, children, grandchildren, work, teaching American literature in college, now this—more war,” you said. “I am trying desperately to save myself from the enemy, firing with every weapon I’ve got. I face the deep, unfathomable abysm.

 And so it begins.”

*

Kathy Rhodes

And so it ends.
We lost a friend today.

You fought the war back then,
and now near’ four years of battles,
one after the other:
surgeries, chemo rounds, radiation—
new wonder drug!

Battle scarred,
you left this world
fifty years after you left that old war.

You got out of life what you could.
“Half scholar, half rube,” you said.
Renaissance man, country boy.
You taught the classes.
You rode the mules.
You rode the scoot.
You told the stories.
You wrote the book.

You fought the battles. You did your part.

It’s that, sometimes, in life, what’s supposed to save you does not.
The beast, it turns on you.

Many battles won, but the war rages on.
Maybe you, first in that new cancer treatment,
can help those who come behind.

For in life, what matters most is doing for others, all brothers, and
you
did
much.

*

Susie Dunham

You won before you lost.

*

Kathy Rhodes

You won before you lost.

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Resolutions. Now?

I’m thinking about resolutions. It’s January 12, you say. Too late to be thinking about resolutions.

Resolution: a firm decision to do or not to do something.

Before New Year’s, I did make a few resolutions. Even wrote them down. Two of them, I’ve kept.

Walk every day, or at least five days a week. The second part took the heat off.

Keep better financial records. “Better” is the word that saves me here. Because I can’t keep worse records than I did in 2013.

But there’s no goal on my list. Nothing I plan to accomplish in 2014. I don’t know how to live without a goal. I can tell I don’t have anything pressing on my slate when I wake up in the morning. Instead of popping straight up out of bed, I lie there and ask myself what it is I need to do, or want to do today. In years past, I’d know and jump up and get right on it.

That makes me think that people who don’t believe in resolutions will achieve nothing.

You know what you want to do. But are you committed to doing it? You didn’t resolve to do something toward achieving that goal on a regular basis? You don’t have weekly goals or monthly goals? Mark my words: come December 31, you won’t have anything done to reach what you think you want to reach. You might as well pack it up and forget it.

I don’t want to be in this bunch. I’ve got to sit down right now before the Ides of January and figure out some exacts, some reasons to get up at five in the morning and get going, some goals to better my life and position.

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I need resolutions. With them, I know I am making progress. If in the end, I don’t reach the top of the ladder, it’s okay. I’m at least halfway or three-fourths of the way up. And that is good.

What about you? Do you have them? Are you keeping or breaking them? Are you at least making progress?


Tabula Rasa

Blank slate.

Remember the Etch A Sketch? The drawing toy that came out about 1960, with a gray screen in a red plastic frame? It had two white knobs at the bottom left and right of the frame which you could turn to move a stylus that left a solid black line on the screen. Then when you’ve drawn a hundred line segments, made efforts in all directions, drawn all kinds of erratic lines, and messed up your screen with a bunch of jumble, you can shake the whole thing up and clear it all off. A clean slate. Then you can start over.

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That’s tabula rasa.

New Year’s feels sort of like that. Of course, there are things you can never wipe away, but there are things you can change to be a better you. If you made a bad decision last year, shake it all up and let it go — leave it behind.  What can you do to improve on what you did last year? What can you accomplish that you’ve desperately wanted to do?

New year. New start.

The days before we cross that line into a new year are for evaluating, planning, setting achievable, specific, and concrete goals, and even developing a dream list. I find it helpful to:

1. Pick specific and realistic goals. Instead of Exercise more, pick Walk five days a week.

2. Define the goals. If you want to finish writing your book (wow, that’s way too broad!), what incremental steps can you take to get there? Assess where you are. What will it take to finish the rough draft? How many chapters? How many chapters can you write in a week, or month? Can you even finish it in 2014? Is that realistic with your life and work schedule?

3. Set a schedule for carrying out your goals. Write it down.

I like to consider a few fun things just to dream about. Maybe buying a pink sapphire ring? An iPad? Taking a trip to that Oregon town and the hotel right on the coast to just stare at the waves coming in? It might not be practical to do any of these, but it is my choice, and I can break these resolutions easily and not feel badly about it.

That lets me focus on the other goals and have a better chance of achieving them.


Next New Things and Next Big Things

March is a hopscotch grid away, and there’s a push going on. Everything in the yard is ready to break out. New buds on the trees, new yellow flowers on the forsythia and Carolina jasmine, even though it’s twenty-two. Perennials are ready to push out of the ground. It’s the new time of year. And it’s exciting to see things take shape and come to their own.

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This spring I will finish my book. And it’s a book about being new, as a person. After loss, you go through a process of letting go of all the things that are old, and gone, and you mourn each one. Some things don’t come back after a season, like the maples and tulip poplars do. And the herbs that come back new-green and with a fresh scent.

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As my book testifies, with each new thing that comes about, I take hold and claim it as part of a new, rebuilt me. I’m ready for new things and new books and new life. I can’t wait for March.

In the local writing world, there are new things and new next big things — the focus of a Blog Hop that has been going on. The Blog Hop is for writers who are working on a new project AND maintaining a blog. Do you know how hard it is for a writer who is also a business person to keep up with his/her personal writing, professional responsibilities, community work, and personal life? Well, it’s hard. But we love doing it; we’re driven to do it!

I was tagged last Friday by Leisa Hammett to share about my new book [previous post], and now I’m tagging three writer friends to share about their Next Big Thing.

First of all, Susie Dunham. I’ve known Susie Dunham for about ten years, since she moved to Franklin from way up north—New York, Michigan, Indiana. We’ve been in a writers group together since 2003. She’s funny, has a clever humor about her, and is creative in so many ways I couldn’t list them all in this post. She has been a columnist, published creative nonfiction in anthologies, and now she is on a big adventure of attempting a novel! Please follow the link to Susie’s blog and read what she’s working on.

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Susie Dunham reading at Barnes and Noble

Next, Judy DeLuca. I’ve known Judy for a couple of years. What a talented, delightful person! Judy wanted to be a hairdresser since she was a little girl and lined up her dolls to wash and style their hair. She came to Nashville from Boston for her husband’s songwriting career. He writes country music, and she does hair. And now another creative side of her has surfaced. She’s an author, now working on her second book! About what? A hairdresser, of course. Her first book is a fun read, but also deals with serious subjects that happen in the lives of clients of the main character’s hair salon. Visit Judy’s blog and tell her I sent you! And you’ll want to read her first ebook, Towel Dry and a Good Cry.

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Judy DeLuca, author of Towel Dry and a Good Cry

And Bill Peach. Bill has written five books and is working on another one! Besides that, he heads up an Authors Circle which meets twice a month at Merridees on Fourth Avenue in Franklin, as well as a Socrates philosophy group.

In my opinion Bill Peach is the top Literary Person in Williamson County. He has a heart for education, he has a heart for writing, he has a heart for the community of Franklin and this county—for keeping a record of all the writers who live here and for providing opportunities and events for these writers to come together to network and to sign and sell their books. I wrote the Introduction to the 2009 anthology Gathering: Writers of Williamson County. I defined the county, as below, and Bill Peach was a part of that definition:

“—its narrow backroads that slide through tunnels of saplings and ancient trees, blooming honeysuckle vines, and wildflowers like buttercups and clover and Queen Anne’s Lace; centuries-old low stone fences that follow the roadways and lines of sweet yellow daffodils that mark off homesites long gone; Main Street’s charm in old establishments like Batey’s, Gray’s Drugs, the old theater that brought popcorn and Coke to your seat; and local writer Bill Peach standing against a signpost on the corner of Fourth and Main in front of Pigg & Peach, selling suits, selling his books.”

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Bill Peach at the Southern Festival of Books

Visit Bill’s blog, and read about his new project — stories about Main Street Franklin — and take a look at his previously published books.

By the way, there’s that Boston connection between Bill [his book, The South Side of Boston] and Judy, except her Boston is in Massachusetts and his is in Tennessee.

A lot of NEW going on! Come back and visit us all and keep up with us! Watch for us with our books at local festivals and various venues for signings!

MARCH — TIME FOR NEW THINGS AND NEXT BIG THINGS!


Authors Circle

Tonight I will be talking about STORIES at the Middle Tennessee Authors Circle at Merridee’s in downtown Franklin, 6 o’clock. Bill Peach started this group over a year ago, and there are sixty plus members now, last I heard! I will be sharing from both sides of the desk — the BLACK PEN side and the RED PEN side — my story and your story.

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My story is a memoir about loss, grief, and healing. I’ll talk about plot “nugget” and read mine. I’ll talk about what a story is. I’ll talk about what makes an agent or editor say “yes” to a manuscript. Then I’ll [try to] answer any questions.

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Then I might buy a citrus pound cake or a chocolate pound cake.

Join us if you can! Eat dinner, or just drink coffee, and network with other area writers. Merridee’s is noisy, but cozy and friendly, and the people who come are serious about their writing.

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Bird by Bird, Word by Word

Once I went through a really hard time, when I couldn’t write. I’ve been through short spells of writers block, but nothing like this. I thought, well, that’s done. I’ll never write another word. I can’t. My mind is choked up. I can’t think clearly. I don’t know what to write about. I don’t have anything to say. Nothing. I’m empty.

Then a simple image impressed me. And I thought I’d sit down at the computer. And try to write something about it. I didn’t care what. It didn’t have to be good. It didn’t have to be planned out. It could just be one paragraph. And so I sat down in front of the computer, and I began typing. Whatever came to my mind. Freewriting. I was free to say what I wanted to say and to go where the words led me.

It took off in a direction I didn’t expect. I was onto something. The words came, the typing got faster. I was writing to discovery. I did have something to say. The page filled up, and it was much better writing than if I’d sat down and tried to plan it all out.

In freewriting you write nonstop for a set period of time, you do not make corrections, you write whatever comes to mind, you bypass your inner critic who tells you you can’t write, you release your raw feelings and inner tensions. You write to discovery.

And it’s … fun! And you’re back in.


As we step toward a new year, consider…

“Make new mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life. Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.” ~ Neil Gaiman (via Dinty Moore on Facebook)