Sunday, December 29, 2013

Murder on the First Day of Christmas Book Club

Intrigued by the cover photo of Billie Thomas' Murder on the First Day of Christmas, a photo of poor Santa lying face down in the snow with a Lucite icicle to the back, and then learning this book won a Shirley You Jest! Shirley HAH Award for fiction, I gathered my post-it notes, highlighter, and pen before turning pages.

My frenzied highlighting and belly laughter began on page four, paragraph five when Thomas describes the troublesome neighborhood chocolate lab:

Starting life as Lady Marmalade, the discovery of an un-dropped testicle had resulted in one of the few documented cases of canine sexual reassignment and his name change to Lady Chablis, as in the drag queen from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Besides bringing such life to a canine, a key player in this mystery,  my heart went pitter pat at Thomas' use of allusion above and in reference later to the movie, It's a Wonderful Life.

Further visual descriptions ensue throughout this novel:

He wasn't much taller than my five-foot-three-inches and had a body like a toothpaste tube, all his weight squeezed from the bottom to a bulging middle- not a figure that looks good in a squat.  (8)

My mother worked with guilt the way she worked with Venetian plaster, subtly and with a sure hand.  (12)

. . . a couple of aging debutants [sic], both of whom had indulged in a lethal cocktail of Botox and bronzer for the evening.  (27) 

Besides the phenomenal second-order writing, the plot, a mystery involving three murders left me clueless until the protagonist, Chloe Carstairs and her mother solved it for me.  

A well-rounded character, the reader learns all aspects of Chloe's life, not simply her looks.  On a break from her boyfriend Jacob, Chloe contemplates:

I wasn't ready to give up on Jacob.  As his workout partner, I had given him abs of steel.  As his decorator, I had glazed two rooms in his house and tiled a bathroom.  I had gotten him into his first pair of flat-front khakis, increased his sense of humor by 25% and broken him of his embarrassing habit of going "Woohoo!"  every time he saw cleavage.  A significant investment had been made in the man, and if any woman was going to reap the rewards, it was going to be me.  (44)

A personal trainer as well as a decorator, Chloe's reasoning as to placement of her exercise equipment makes perfect sense to any logical reader:  

I sat my bench in the middle of four guys, so I could watch myself in the mirror and pretend I had backup dancers.  (92)

A fan of Thomas' manipulation of language for the purposes of decription, my inner grey hair pulled taut into a bun English teacher reeled at the occasional spelling errors and repetition of lines in this piece of writing.  Revise, revise, revise . . ..  Okay, I am feeling better now that that has been discussed.

For the purposes of book club, Scotch and chocolates are out of the question for health reasons, of course.  However, readers cannot resist lobster puffs, crab cakes, wasabi-dressed asparagus, and Gruyere quiches in order to spark conversation about Saul's Christmas party, where the mystery begins. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Takedown Twenty Book Club

Greeted with Janet Evanovich's Takedown Twenty by my hub after a business trip with the inscription, "Morelli has nothin' on me!" I knew I would be occupied for the next 24-48 hours. . . reading, and I have been.  Hooked, rather,  would more accurately describe my state of being.

The story had me from page one and especially from page seven:

. . . when Ranger walked in. . . . His body is perfect . . . of Latino heritage. . . .He's sexy, smart, and sometimes scary, and frequently overprotective of me. . . . Ranger smiled ever so slightly and took a step closer to me.

Ooh la la!  Intermission break . . .

Other favorite characters make an appearance such as Grandma Mazur, Bella, Morelli, Lula, Connie (and did I mention Morelli?) while others such as Kevin the giraffe lend essential elements to the plot twists as a whole.

For the purposes of book club, one may opt for the cow tongue or whole smoked pig, but I think I would opt for Morelli's famous wings dipped in his special bleu cheese sauce.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Last Savanna Book Club

Having just finished Mike Bond's The Last Savanna, I find I now have an unquenchable thirst and am downing glass of ice water after glass of ice water as I type due to Bond's vivid descriptions of the African sun:

All this was nothing to the sun which bore down like a molten weight dropped from a great height, always, every millisecond, crushing her, flaying her shoulders through the white cotton shirt, as if the fabric were not even there, or worse, as if it magnified the heat.  Sun lacerated her neck and the inside of her throat with each intaken breath;  it was an oven from which she could not withdraw her face, her hair so hot it burned her skull.  (89)

Besides the vivid descriptions, Bond tells of elephant poaching in Africa, and the desire of protagonist MacAdam, a rancher, and his longtime friend Nehemiah to put an end to it.  While part of  a special unit, MacAdam learns of the kidnapping of a former lover, Rebecca.  Thus, a complex journey through the desert ensues with danger from both the landscape and man lurking around every corner.

In addition, Bond, true to his writing, makes political and social commentary throughout:

Too much Coca Cola and motor vehicles have slowed even the Maasai.  Every strength sows the seeds of future weakness:  material advances destroy our defenses against the primitive.  (52)

Although a gourd full of camel's blood and milk rinsed with urine (97) may be needed for survival in the desert, this may not be the ideal choice for book club.  Even cold ugali (58) probably would not tempt discussion.  Instead, a vast array of flavored waters:  cucumber, lemon, strawberry/lime, seems ideal to prompt discussion of Bond's The Last Savanna.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

I (Heart) A Chef's Life

Finally deciding to take the plunge, the hub and I decided to unsubscribe from DirecTV.  Faithful subscribers for over ten years, we grew tired of calling every six months once their "deal" expired and our monthly bill skyrocketed.  Add on the fact there was never much on the 300+ channels which held both of our interests besides Discovery Channel's Naked and Afraid, a ROKU box was in our immediate future.  The hub, our home's IT expert extraordinaire whom the girls and I constantly pester once the printer fails to print, rose to the challenge.  Not only was he able to teach all three of us how to use the remote control in one lesson, but he hooked me on an informative cooking series on PBS, A Chef's Life.

This series which premiered in September on PBS follows the life of Chef Vivian Howard as she creates dynamic menus from seasonal ingredients for her and her husband's  restaurant, The Chef and the Farmer.  Addicting, not only does the viewer learn about indigenous ingredients to Eastern North Carolina, but also connects with her on a personal level as she juggles the roles of mother and wife.  After years of FoodTV and, more recently, The Cooking Channel, which has evolved from informative viewing to cooking contests, it was encouraging to watch a television show and actually learn something more than how to incorporate a gummie skeleton head into a main course.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

McKendree Women's Wrestling Meets the Girl Scouts

Proud of the fact Women's Wrestling is in its first year at McKendree University under the leadership of Coach Sam Schmitz, I knew I wanted to introduce the two female wrestlers, Miss Leila and Miss Olivia, in my English 111 class to my two Girl Scout troops.  Exposing our Brownies and Daisies to women of empowerment is high on the priority list for my co-leader, Sarah Bohnenstiehl, and myself;  for, girls can do anything.  

Unfortunately, on the day scheduled for the two wrestlers to teach us some wrestling moves, Miss Olivia broke her arm while in practice.  So, Miss Leila was in charge of instructing roughly 20+ girls.  Of course, my two daughters were on cloud nine being able to talk with Miss Leila, "an actual wrestler," on the way to the Girl Scout meeting and pretty much monopolized her time.

Upon arriving at the meeting, the girls outfitted her in a crown (as she was guest of honor) for our Thanksgiving feast.  Come to find out, though, she was attempting to make weight, so was unable to gorge with us at the time.

Once adequate protein and carbs had been ingested by the kindergarteners and second graders, Miss Leila went to work.  The Girl Scouts learned how to engage in a proper stance, how to grab their opponents' opposite knees, and how to adjust their opponents' shoulders for proper domination.

Miss Leila had the honor of holding the flag during the Pledge of Allegiance and then joined us in Little Sally Walker and the Circle Hug for our close to the evening.  

Perhaps, a wrestling workshop or camp for young girls will be in these Girl Scouts near future.  On my honor, I will try . . . to make it happen.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Saving Paradise Book Club

Mike Bond's fictional work, Saving Paradise certainly holds true to its title.  Bond's deep-seeded love affair with Hawaii is prevalent throughout:

To tourists Hawaii is an air-conditioned tanning booth with shopping, booze, bikinis, and lots of smiling low-paid help.  The real Hawaii is something else- the greatest mariners the world has ever known, brave warriors and wise healers, a deep-hearted family connection reaching hundreds of people and across whole islands, love of the ancestors, a magical way of life.  (6) 

Having been to the Big Island once myself, I long to return and see it as Pono, the ex- U.S. Army Special Forces protagonist in Saving Paradise, views it:

It was another magnificent dawn on Oahu, the sea soft and rumpled and the sun blazing up from the horizon, an offshore breeze scattering plumeria fragrance across the frothy waves  Flying fish darting over the crests, dolphins chasing them, a mother whale and calf spouting as they rolled northwards.  A morning when you already know the waves will be good and it will be a day to remember.  (1)

Pono, a self-described hapa haole, part white and part Hawaiian, has done time in not only Afghanistan, but also the Inside as he refers to prison.  Attempting to now live the life of a writer and teacher of surfing, he becomes embroiled in a homicide investigation.  A likeable character with definitive views regarding politics, "The wrong politicians commit is pretending that they're not.  And while a whore actually gives you something for your money, a politicial just takes your money and screws you in a different way"  (10), the reader ends up rooting for his escape from one predicament after another.

From an English teacher's perspective, though, I had no choice but to highlight grammatical errors such as "1930's" (73) and "'farms'."  (47).  No apostrophe needed in the first example, and the period should be inside the quotations for the second example.  In addition, the protagonist's switch from a Hawaiian dialect in dialogue to standard English in thought caused confusion when considering these differing sentence structures were originating from the same man.  Yet, perhaps this was intentional on Bond's part considering Pono was of mixed heritage.

If a meeting on the beach in Hawaii is not in the cards for your book club, Tangueray martinis in honor of Pono and half-pound burgers similar to those served at Wipe Out, a downtown bar which Pono frequents, would serve as an adequate substitute.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Teaching with the Talk Show

Currently teaching Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle to my English 111 students, I needed a method which would not only involve the students, but also place them in the role of teacher.  After my morning class was practically mute while slumped in their chairs and hidden in their hoodies, I knew drastic measures needed to be taken.   Even after I passed out Hershey bars to instigate discussion (or a  sugar rush in the least) of Walls' mother, Rose Mary, a woman guilty of nibbling on chocolate in secret while her children were starving, silence filled the room.   So, in an attempt to tempt lively discussion, I recalled reading Ellie Kemper's "The Talk Show Circuit" lesson in Don't Forget to Write.

Kemper, who plays Erin Hannon on NBC's The Office and a contributor to The Onion and McSweeney's, writes how she was once assigned an essay to write about a topic on which she was an expert.  A self-proclaimed "agonizer" over English papers, she came up with the idea of pretending she was a guest on David Letterman.

Adapting this idea for The Glass Castle, I put the students in pairs, with one being the host asking open-ended questions and the other being a character from the memoir.  What ensued far exceeded my expectations listed below:

  1. The host must introduce his/her guest in a brief, yet accurate depiction. This includes name, profession, family, hobbies, interests, aspirations.
  2. The host must ask intriguing open-ended questions, questions which allow the audience a well-rounded view of the guest in question. Consider the entire memoir.
  3. The guest must answer questions thoroughly and accurately in full character. Consider using dialogue from the memoir.
  4. The host and guest must be able to correctly answer questions from the audience.
Engaged interviewing techniques were employed:  eye contact, listening, and spontaneity.  Case in point, a host accidentally fell from her chair (the chair was seated on a plastic mat).  The guest, an alcoholic Rex Walls proclaimed, "I thought I was the one with the drinking problem!"  In addition, students utilized props without being prompted (i.e. a water bottle disguised as a whiskey bottle and a pen disguised as a cigarette) to do so and created names for their television segments such as, "Dysfunctional Dads."  Heads were not lowered reading verbatim from lined paper;  instead, a true exemplification of critical reading flourished throughout the room.  Who knew I had two sections of thespians simply waiting to release their Krakens?  My only regret being I wish I had the video camera rolling to capture these teachable moments.  Next semester!

Monday, November 4, 2013

My friend, Sarah Kirkpatrick, introduced me to, and I absolutely fell in love.  A site devoted to making others feel better through anonymous "love letters" is right up my writing alley.
Deciding to test the waters on my writing class with this site, the results far exceeded my expectations.  My students were asked to visit the site, read through the request for love letters, and chooose to respond to the one need which spoke to him/her.
What ensued was a healthy pile of heartfelt writing;  tears flowed when I read through their letters.  Told to be creative with font, color, etc., one student thought outside the box by including humorous pictures in his letter for Brooks.

Dear Brooks,
I heard about the things that you have gone through and just wanted to say that you are one brave little guy. What you’ve gone through is definitely tougher than anything I’ve experienced. Your friends and family must be very proud of how tough you’ve been throughout your rough times.
Your determination and bravery can be a huge inspiration to everyone around you and to all of those (like myself) that hear about your story. In the future, whenever I am going through something tough, I’ll think of Brooks and how brave he was to get through what he experienced.
Anyway, I found your story really inspiring and hope you have a GREAT DAY!!!
        Here’s some pictures that make me laugh. (Hope you like dogs)


Friday, November 1, 2013

826 Seattle

While in Seattle staying at the Hyatt, there was a bookmark on our nightstand telling about 826 Seattle, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center located in the back of a store, The Greenwood Space Travel Co. 
The list of workshops offered is definitely even a reluctant writer's dream:  National Novel Writing  Month, Music Inspiration, Open Studio, to name a few.  Looking further, in-school workshops and field trips are also listed amongst the offerings.  
Drooling at all of the class choices, I was disappointed to learn the closest 826 to me is located in Chicago, a five-hour trek.  Ugh!

When I returned home, I started paging through my latest Barnes and Noble buy, Don't Forget to Write for the Secondary Grades.  Comprised of motivational ideas for writing workshops, I found the ideas could easily be translated into the college classroom.  Come to find out, this writing resource is an 826 National publication.  Kismet!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Stay Positive

Presenting her book The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls told us that she used to have a deep shame of her past life and that she tried to keep it a secret from everyone. In my honest opinion, I did not see the reason why she should have been ashamed of her past life. It was not her fault that her parents could not take better care of their children. When she said that when people would read her story she said, “I thought I’d lose everything once people found out my story.” This part made me sad because if people did not want to be her friend anymore because of the past she had, they were not the type of people she would need in her life.  

One saying I liked what she said was, “The truth is a liquid, not a solid. It takes on many shapes.” This statement is so true. The truth can be whatever you want it to be. You can form the truth, mold it, and make it your own shape. No one has to tell the whole truth, but he or she has the option of telling bits and part of the truth or all of the truth.

I loved how her favorite memory that she had as a child was when her father let her have the planet Venus as a Christmas present. Even though her father did not own Venus, the thought of letting her call it her own was so cute. She said it was a priceless treasure and that, “It is what you make of it.” Instead of being sad because her dad did not physically buy her a Christmas present, she treasured the idea that her dad was at least trying to give her something. It made me be more appreciative and have a different mindset on how I view life. It is what I make of it, and no one can say otherwise. 
Another lesson I learned from Jeannette Walls was when she said that when she was little she had a fear that some creature was hiding under her bed. She went and told her dad and instead of checking under the bed, they went to go look for the demon. She said that, “We should not run from our demons. Instead, harness your demon and use it to your advantage.” Her demon was her past and the shame she had from it. To face her demon, she wrote this book. This was inspiring because life should not be about running from your fears. I cannot learn from life’s lessons if I always run in the other direction. Facing my demons will only make me stronger as a person, and who knows, the outcome may be rewarding.

Jeannette Walls also told us that, “Everything in life is both a blessing and a curse. We get to choose which one we want to focus on.” It is true. We have the opportunity to either focus on the good or bad in our lives. If we have the decision to choose, why not choose to focus on the blessings? I loved how instead of her moping around and saying how her life sucked, she thought of her past as a blessing. She thought that she was the lucky one because her parents never made fun of their children’s dreams. Instead of focusing on the negative in her parents, she thought of the good in them and accepted them as who they were. Honestly, I am amazed that someone like her can be so accepting. Personally, I would have hated my parents and would have never wanted anything to do with them. I would have been so upset that they could not take care of me and that I could have had a better childhood. But this made me realize that we cannot change people. We cannot mold them into what we want them to be. Merely we just have to accept them for whom they are and focus on the positives in them. 
Lastly, I loved how she said that, “Secrets are like vampires. They suck the life out of you, but once you release them, poof, they are gone.” I loved this analogy because it was so vivid and so true. Secrets drain us. They bring us down. Once you tell your secrets, it is like a heavy weight has been lifted off your chest. Secrets do bring us down, and they are not healthy for us. 
All in all, I loved all her analogies, and she made me realize that someone that has had a negative childhood like her can still go far. It gave me this burst of energy to go out and do what I dream of doing. She was most definitely an inspiring speaker and writer.

By Annarose Dale
I am a freshman at McKendree University majoring in Business Administration and possibly Accounting.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Marigolds

With her short frosted blond hair wrapped in a red bandana, a bright orange bikini top holding up her double Ds, and jean shorts on her petite 5'2 frame, my mother, a Mrs. Brady look-alike, spent hours planting, digging, and shoveling outside the duplex on Harvard Street in which she, my dad, older sister, our mutt, and I lived. Watching her, always watching her, I, with my sun-bleached ponytails sailing in the wind, rode my bike up and down the alley behind our row of connected living as she hauled wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow to the cornfield bordering the stretch onto which I pedaled. A Momma's girl, my mom was, most days, never far from sight.

When I turned eight, my mother drove me eighty miles in order to meet her “special friend.” Even at this young age with not many life experiences to call my own and not a single mature bone in my body, I had a knot in my stomach. Perhaps it was due to the fact she put on makeup and styled her hair that morning or her seemingly urgent need for me to like this guy whom we were on our way to meet. In our brown Vega station wagon, we pulled into a gravel alley separating a two-story lemon yellow house, which I now know was acidic foreshadowing, from a smaller white house. Walking to the back door of the larger home instead of the front which I remember as odd, we approached a postage-sized backyard. Walking up the steep stairs onto the covered back stoop, my mom rang the doorbell. Lifting the shade hanging from the small window on the door, a man with greased hair and a wide nose peered out; to me, he looked like the dad on The Sound of Music. After what seemed like a long time to open a door (there were many locks to manipulate), he ushered us into a tiny mustard yellow kitchen with stained carpeting on the floor. The room was dark due to the blinds being pulled shut and the smell was musty mixed with an overwhelming whiff of men's cologne, Old Spice which I would come to loathe to this day.

Instead of taken to a family room with a television, we sat at a metal table pushed in front of a row of cabinets and sat. I am sure I was given a liquid to drink, but I cannot recall if it was lemonade or generic soda, not the Coca Cola kept stocked in our refrigerator at home for my dad. We sat at the table for what seemed like hours. I stared at this man wearing a button up shirt (which I would later come to know as his Sunday shirt), dark blue pants, and enormous black tie shoes. Bored with the conversation and creeped out by the smelly house, I was probably fidgeting. My mother finally said, “Why don't you go in the back and play?” Thinking to myself, “Where? With what?” I did as I was told. Ending up looking for worms hidden near a small retaining wall below a privacy fence, I anxiously awaited our departure. Finally, after much waiting, the back door opened, and my mother emerged flushed telling me to tell this man goodbye.

Anger grew into blind rage as soon as I sat down on the vinyl front seat and heard the words no child ever wants to hear, “I love this man, and I am going to move here and be with him.” Holding my pillow up as a barrier for the entirety of the trip so that I would not have to see her, hot water streamed down my cheeks as I screamed, “What about Dad?” The stretch of 55 which took us home continued with more of the same- my tearful shouted questions with her repeated answer, “I love him.” After what seemed like hours, we finally arrived home, what I knew as home- my dad, my sister, and my dog. Our parents sat us down in our family room, explained how much they loved us, and then asked us each the question, “Which parent do you want to live with?” prefaced with the fact they would both love us no matter which parent we chose. Without hesitation, I piped up with, “Mom!” even though she had just turned my world upside down. My sister chose my father.

So, with three months left of third grade, my mother pulled me out of school and moved me into this dark house with the man who smelled of too much aftershave. There was no more riding my bike since this house sat on a fairly busy street close to the road. In fact, my bike remained at my dad's house. I was not allowed to play with the kids who lived next door because there was something wrong with them according to the man and my mom, but I cannot recall what it was now. I do remember looking at those kids longingly from the front porch because they had a lot of toys outside and were always running and yelling with laughter. I spent a lot of time at the smaller white house across the alley. A woman with a shriveled arm had a small child named Jared with whom I spent many hours playing, talking, and eating tuna casserole while my mom and this man sat around the metal kitchen table smoking cigarettes and pipes respectively.

One day while the man was at work at the post office sorting mail, my mother bought a flat of marigolds and planted them in a small barren bed along the side of the yellow house. This was the first semblance of the mother I grew up knowing, not this other woman now with this stranger of a man. Her hands were dirty from digging in the dirt, and she was satisfied with her work. In my mind, she looked forward with much anticipation to the man's reaction the following day when he came home from his night shift.

Apparently after measuring the distance between each marigold with a ruler, the man dressed in his Friday shirt determined my mother had not planted the yellow flowers equidistant from each other, so he dug each and every one of them up and replanted them to his gratification and to my mother's distress. I was sent by my mother over to the white house where I spent the remainder of the day and most of the evening. While living in that yellow house, my mother never dug in the soil again, but that man planted marigolds year after year.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Jeannette Walls Visits The Hett

I had the privilege of attending a speaker series at McKendree University last week.  The speaker was Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle, Half Broke Horses and The Silver Star.  

Ms Walls gave a brief summary of her life, for the few (if any) in the audience that had not read The Glass Castle.  It had been a while since I had read the book. and she mentioned facts I had forgotten about - setting herself on fire while cooking a hot dog on the stove at age three, her father whisking her out of the hospital in the middle of the night, and while riding in a taxi in New York City realizing the homeless person digging through the trash was in fact her mother.  

Ms Walls had a difficult childhood to say the least, and her father was a huge part of the dysfunction. He drank to the point of not having food to for his children, yet Ms Walls came away from her childhood with an ability to dream and hope.  This she said came from her father.  Throughout her childhood, her father promised to build his family a glass castle, their dream house, when he finally made his fortune.  He taught his children to dream and the author felt that this shaped her and her siblings to be successful (the three oldest siblings anyway).  

She said that her fantasy when writing The Glass Castle was that a rich girl would read it and understand where the poor kids in class were coming from and then she hoped that a poor child would read it and realize there is hope, and that dreams are important to be successful.  Both fantasies have come true, as teenagers have given testimony Ms Walls changed their lives.

The audience was able to ask questions to Ms Walls.  A few things we learned:  her mother is now living with the author on her ranch, caring for the family's horses.  She is still as eccentric as ever, and no one expects that to change.  The land in Texas is still in their possession.  There may be natural gas or oil but most likely it is just dry dirt like most of west Texas.  There will be a movie made, most likely by Lion's Gate.      

Ms Walls is such an inspiring person, with an exceptionally inspiring story to tell.  She is down-to-earth and open about her past, and unashamed of it, although it has taken her years to reach that point.  Her speech and her story make me feel blessed with what I have and more aware and sympathetic to those that come from a different way of life.
By Karen MacMillan

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Rasputin's Shadow Book Club

Everything turned into a blur of claws and swings and shouts and punches until Maxim felt something warm in his hands, something he was absolutely compelled to squeeze until his hands met each other in the middle, and when clarity returned to his eyes, he saw Pyotr's eyeless, bloodied face turn a livid purple as he snapped the man's neck. (4)

If the above excerpt taken from Raymond Khoury's Rasputin's Shadow does not seduce you, I am not sure what will.  This historical fiction novel, ripe with espionage, intrigue, and vivid characterizations may turn even the most devoted admirer of memoirs (like myself) into a defector.  Having to keep this novel hidden between readings from my hub, a lover of spy fiction,  I embraced not only the complex storyline and subplots, but also the no-holds-barred descriptions:

Despite a skull that was so pulverized it looked like it had been made out of plasticine before some giant baby had squashed it out of shape, it was still clear that we were looking at a white male adult with dark, short hair, somewhere in his thirties and in good shape, at least before the fall.  (23)

The triple-XL Weyland Enterprises T-shirt stretched against the folds of his wobbling flesh as he grabbed the menu and started eating the entire thing with his eyes.  (67)

Need examples of visual imagery for a class you may be teaching?  Look no further . . .  Rasputin's Shadow definitely exemplifies the "how to" for showing versus telling in writing.

Hoping for the presence of machismo in this novel?  Well, readers, you have a plethora of agents and hostiles from which to choose.  My favorite, of course, is Reilley, point man on the investigation with a generous sprinkling of sensitivity in regards to his four-year-old son Alex.  Because of him, I may just forgo the country omelet for the garden omelet as he does at IHOP.

For the purposes of book club, though, a variety of food choices may be necessary in order to represent the different cultures in this novel.  Perhaps, a medley of Russian pastries with shots of the Sledgehammer's preferred brand of vodka as well as Korean pastries with green tea (but definitely pass on the poisonous vino) in order to encourage discussion over Rasputin's Shadow.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Reemergence of the BFF

As a child growing up in the 70s and 80s, my friends and I each maintained a running list of our friend hierarchy. No, this list was never actually written in black and white. One desired no evidence lying around to be used as ammunition in future fusses with friends. Instead, the friendship list evolved daily if not hourly in our young, immature minds depending on the shift of attitudes and perception of behaviors. The goal of each young girl, however, was the same- to attain the top position on the other girls' lists, numero uno, or simply stated the BFF, Best Friend Forever. 

In the later 'tween and teen years, the BFF title seemed to gain in significance. Now, “BFF” was used in the closing of notes passed back and forth between friends in class and in the halls during passing periods. More importantly, those three letters, BFF, were quickly searched for after a friend signed one's yearbook. The presence of these letters representing Best Friends Forever signified a sense of security, in essence an oath from the teenaged author, that would last not only for the remainder of the school year, but also encompass the summer months and endure beyond graduation.

Then, in my late 20s and early 30s, reality sunk in. . .. Best Friends Forever represented a childish ideal that did not translate well into adulthood. During this time, before the dawn of social networking and instant communication, friends still had to put forth effort to continue the BFF mentality, this effort which did not feel like effort in one's carefree youth. Yet, time constraints due to dating, marriage, employment, divorce, children, remarriage, house repairs, and the like, eliminated lengthy letters as an option, and costly phone bills were not feasible. So, the BFF, once a person of importance, became a distant memory of the past.

This is not to say that friendships were not prevalent in my adult life, but not to the degree of ease and certainty as the BFF once experienced in my younger years. Intriguing people have been met and admired through work and social encounters, but a fair share of unmentionables have crossed my path along the way, too. Initially, these unmentionables seemed to mirror the BFF of earlier years, but they, too, soon faded away, moved away, or I ultimately enlisted a getaway from the friendship.

So, to my surprise, I never thought in my late 30s, I would have a chance encounter with a woman who would renew my belief in the BFF. Perhaps, one may say that I had closed the door on the notion of a BFF and simply accepted the “fact” people enter and exit out of other people's lives. Savor and learn what I could from the lost relationship and not dwell on the heartache and loss of what I believed had been a true friendship; I had my health, my happiness, my husband, and my two daughters. Acceptance set in; I had come to terms with my BFF worldview until fortuitously a metaphorical door presented itself in the form of Bug Camp.

A stay-at-home thirty-seven-year-old mother of a two-year-old toddler and five-month-old baby, I found myself enrolled in a three-day children's camp geared towards the study of insects. Lugging my diaper bag, carrying the infant carrier, pushing the stroller, holding the registration forms, and keeping my toddler in tow, I looked over to see another woman in a similar predicament. A familiarity existed, but not simply as a result of the ages and number of her children. I had seen her before, but could not place her. We smiled politely at one another, exchanged pleasantries, and then followed the teacher's directions to quiet down and join the circle.

On day two, I could rack my brain no further and needed to know how I “knew” her. Upon approaching her, we realized that we had participated in Wiggles Gymnastics together nearly a year previous with our then only children. Laughter ensued when we realized both of us felt that Wiggles Gymnastics would be better relaunched as Parents Do the Work while Workers Watch Gymnastics, but that is a story for another day.

Day three was a joy at camp. This woman and I helped one another complete bug crafts and sing the correct words to the bug songs. Our final Bug Camp event was walking on a nature trail and observing various critters in their natural environments. We walked stroller to stroller for the duration. An uneasiness rapidly emerged, however, as we approached our cars and began loading our gear. Another year or more may pass before we crossed paths again if ever, so I needed to take action; I asked for her e-mail address.

Nearly two weeks elapsed before I sent the first e-mail. My thoughts swung from gratitude at the thought of a potential friendship to panic at the wonder of whether she was truly an unmentionable in disguise. Finally, I decided to take a risk by clicking on the send button and then anxiously awaited a response. When I saw her name in my in-box, I think I felt a flutter of excitement. The length of her response impressed me, and I hung on every typed word. Even after my appendectomy, I lumbered awkwardly downstairs to the computer in order to check for her e-mails. A birthday invitation to her daughter's third birthday soon followed, and I asked her if she would be interested in joining my book club; she accepted as did I.

Numerous birthday parties and three (failed) book clubs later, she is “Frick” to my “Frack.” Together we are solving the world's problems, reviewing the latest movies, and critiquing our husbands one day at a time. She tolerates my sloppiness, and I admire her cleanliness. I volunteer her for Vacation Bible School activities, and she recruits me for Pee-Wee Soccer duties. She observes my color-coded book collection with a smile, and I dismiss her attempts to skip kettle bell with a shake of my head. Who knew that my 40s would present the reemergence of the BFF? I suppose the old adage does hold true; if one door closes, inevitably another one will open with an unlimited threshold of possibilities.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

A Comparison of The Bluest Eye and Beloved

“I am not like James Joyce; I am not like Thomas Hardy; I am not like Faulkner. I am not like in that sense” (McKay 1). These words spoken by Toni Morrison accurately summarize the uniqueness of her writing in comparison to other authors' works of literature. A close reading of both The Bluest Eye and Beloved results in the discovery of common themes and techniques utilized by the novelist, Morrison, in order to achieve a sense of identity in the literary world. Although the themes and techniques Morrison makes use of are numerous in number, this paper is limited to the following: how families shape and constitute identity, cyclical patterns of life, and notions of community.

Looking first at The Bluest Eye, one must acknowledge that both parents of Pecola Breedlove are responsible for her eventual dysfunctional sense of identity. As a young woman, Pecola's mother, Pauline, finds solace at the movie theater. A virtual newlywed, pregnant and lonely, Pauline describes her time at the picture show as, “The onliest time I be happy” (Morrison, The Bluest Eye 123). Seeing such women as Jean Harlow on the large screen, Pauline attempts to mirror the Caucasian look, “I fixed my hair up like I'd seen hers [Jean Harlow] on a magazine. A part on the side, with one little curl on the forehead. It looked just like her. Well, almost just like” (123). In the same manner, Pauline's daughter is obsessed with the desire to have blue eyes, an Anglo characteristic.

Morrison depicts Pecola's yearning for blue eyes early in the novel. While at “Yacobowski's Fresh Veg. Meat and Sundries Store,” Pecola has three pennies with which she may purchase any candy available behind the display window (48). Pecola chooses the Mary Janes. The image on the wrapper is the face of a white girl, “Blond hair in gentle disarray, blue eyes looking at her out of a world of clean comfort” (50). Morrison establishes the motive for Pecola's selection, “To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane” (50).

Pecola's admiration for unattainable physical traits not only stems from her mother's motion picture influences, but also from Pauline's treatment of white children in comparison to her own. This is best exemplified in the scene with the berry cobbler. Pecola, out of curiosity, lightly touches the pan that houses the cobbler resulting in the “splattering [of] blackish blueberries everywhere” (108). The cobbler, fresh from the oven, burns Pecola's legs when it spills. However, Pauline virtually ignores Pecola. Instead, she rushes to the assistance of the distraught “pink-and-yellow girl” (109), the daughter of the white people for whom Pauline works. The intimacy between the white girl and Pauline is further reinforced when the reader discovers that the young girl has an informal name for Pauline, “Polly” (109). Pauline, in turn, refers to the Caucasian child as “baby” (109). On the other hand, Pauline denotes her own daughter, Pecola, as “Crazy fool” (109), whereas Pecola calls her mother by the formal name of “Mrs. Breedlove” (107). Here, the dialogue represents more than just “spilled pie.” The reader is given no option but to overhear the dysfunction in this mother/daughter relationship. Pecola infers that if she embodies the look of an Anglo with blue eyes, she, too, may possess the love of her mother.

As for Pecola's father, Cholly, the reader learns that he is abandoned by his mother at a mere four days of age. Raised by his Aunt Jimmy, she, too, abandons him in death while Cholly is still a child, thirteen-years-old. Cholly attempts to reunite with his father whom he has never met. Yet, Morrison chooses to have Cholly's father hinder the meeting with abrasive words, “ . . . get the fuck outta my face!” (156). Due to his own upbringing, it comes as no surprise that Cholly is less than adequate as a father. “Had he not been alone in the world since he was thirteen . . . he might have felt a stable connection between himself and the children. As it was, he reacted to them, and his reactions were based on what he felt at the moment” (161). Thus, one reaction Cholly chooses to engage in, the rape of Pecola, has a detrimental effect on the sanity of his daughter. Cholly fuels the familial dysfunction instead of breaking the cycle of absent or neglectful parenting. What results is Pecola's hopelessness, “she flailed her arms like a bird in an eternal, grotesquely futile effort to fly” (204). Pitied by the community, isolated from academic opportunities, and impregnated by her father, Pecola's identity has been reduced to nothing more than “searching the garbage”- a direct result of the fatalistic influences of the family (205).

In Beloved, Morrison reaffirms the notion of family shaping identity through the mother/daughter relationship of Sethe and Denver. When Sethe recalls her own past, the reader learns of her short-lived relationship with her mother, “I didn't see her but a few times out in the fields and once when she was working indigo” (Beloved 60). In a fleeting moment together, Sethe's mother reveals the brand on her body, a cross inside of a circle. Sethe questions her mother as to when she will be able to have a mark similar to her mother's not understanding the circumstances surrounding the branding. She simply loves her mother and wishes to mimic her in every way. Later, Sethe reveals her failed aspirations for being a good daughter. She explains that she “would have been [a good daughter] if my ma'am had been able to get out of the rice long enough before they hanged her and let me be one” (203). In contemplating the reasons behind her mother's hanging, Sethe reassures herself that it could not possibly be due to her attempting escape. For, “ . . . nobody's ma'am would run off and leave her daughter” (203).

Sethe's idea of motherhood leads to a literal slaying of her own daughter. She murders her first born daughter in an attempt to protect her from a life of slavery at the hands of Schoolteacher. This act, in turn, creates an unspoken distance between Sethe and Denver, her second daughter. Because of Sethe's violent conduct, Denver fears her mother and becomes a virtual recluse:

I love my mother but I know she killed one of her own daughters, and tender as she is with me, I'm scared of her because of it. . . . I'm afraid the thing that happened that made it all right for my mother to kill my sister could happen again. I don't' know what it is, I don't know who it is, but maybe there is something else terrible enough to make her do it again. . . . So I never leave this house and I watch over the yard, so it can't happen again and my mother won't have to

kill me too” (205).

Thus, Denver's paranoid behavior stems from Sethe's metaphorical smothering of her, a love that is too “thick” (164). In conversation with Paul D. regarding Denver's belligerent attitude, Sethe refuses to “hear a word against her” (45). Instead, Sethe explains the extent of her love for her daughter, “Grown don't mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. . . . I'll protect her while I'm live and I'll protect her when I ain't” (45). This protection equates into seclusion. Since her brief schooling with Miss Lady Jones', Denver has left 124 Bluestone merely twice, both times she is with her mother.

When Denver finally departs from the house alone to look for work, the walk into town is terrifying. “Under her headcloth her scalp was wet with tension” (245). She hears male voices approaching her and imagines they belong to white men. “Denver kept her eyes on the road in case . . . she was walking where they wanted to; in case they said something and she would have to answer them. Suppose they flung out at her, grabbed her, tied her” (245). This is learned behavior; Denver does not have personal knowledge of the harm inflicted by the white men. Instead, all that Denver knows and all that she fears emanates from Sethe's mothering.

The generations of abnormal familial interactions mentioned above are cyclical in nature. There appears to be no end and no beginning to the deviant behavior. Morrison supports this cyclical theme with various techniques in both Beloved and The Bluest Eye. For example, The Bluest Eye is divided into recurrent seasons versus linear chapters. “Morrison's notion of time as cyclical is based on the rhythms of nature: one season ends and another begins; the cycle repeats itself over and over in an almost invariable pattern” (Heinze 122). This leads the reader to believe that just as the seasons follow one another forever, so, too, will the dysfunction continue.

Time in Beloved is also circular. The skeletal portion of the novel is chronological: the novel begins at 124 Bluestone, time lapses, and the novel concludes at 124 Bluestone. However, the flesh of the novel consists of “rememories” (Rigney 74) and retellings. The reader learns of Paul D.'s journey from Sweet Home, Stamp Paid's past marital relationship with Vashti, and the source of Sethe's isolation while progressing further and further into the novel. Sethe struggles with “beating back the past” (Morrison, Beloved 73), and, therefore, has difficulty trusting the notion of time. For, as she explains earlier in the novel, “It's so hard for me to believe in it [time]. Some things go. Pass on. Some things stay” (35). This occurs for several characters in the novel as mentioned above. Yet, their shared stories combine to form a whole. The completeness of the circle becomes apparent when, at the conclusion of the novel, Paul D. “wants to put his story next to hers [Sethe's]” (273). Thus, when the two symmetrical circles are placed one on top of another, the two mesh and become one with no visible end and no visible beginning.

In addition, Morrison's mention of the marigolds in The Bluest Eye reiterates cyclical patterns of life forms. Marigolds are, in fact, annual flowers. They recur every year with the simple planting of seeds. Although there did not happen to be marigolds in the fall of 1941, that does not mean there never will be the presence of marigolds again. Just as Pecola's child, conceived from an incestuous relationship, “came too soon and died,” there is no assurance that future children will not be the product of such a harrowing situation (Morrison, The Bluest Eye 204).

The cyclical pattern of life continues in Beloved. Here, Morrison alludes to the twenty-eight day menstrual cycle of the female in order to reinforce the repetition of life. Sethe remembers her twenty-eight days of freedom, “ . . . twenty-eight days of having women friends, a mother-in-law, and all her children together; of being part of a neighborhood; of, in fact, having neighbors at all to call her own” (Morrison, Beloved 173). In the same manner, a woman who menstruates experiences twenty-eight days of freedom: freedom from cramps, freedom from bloating, and, most importantly, freedom from bleeding. Yet, on the twenty-eighth day, a woman sheds blood just as Sethe sheds blood. In terms of the novel, though, Sethe sheds the blood of her own children.

In remembrance of that horrific day, Morrison allows Sethe, herself, to recognize the repetition within her own life and question it:

. . . twenty-eight happy days were followed by eighteen years of disapproval and a solitary life. Then a few months of the sun-splashed life that the shadows holding hands on the road

promised her; tentative greetings from other colored people in Paul D.'s company; a bed life for herself. Except for Denver's friend, every bit of it had disappeared. Was that a pattern? . . . every eighteen or twenty years her unlivable life would be interrupted by a short-lived glory? (173).

Just as women must acknowledge the inevitability of monthly physiological changes, Sethe, too, resigns to the rhythmical patterns of her life, “Well, if that's the way it was- that's the way it is” (173).

In The Bluest Eye and Beloved, cyclical patterns of dysfunction in the family seem to dispel when there exists a close tie to the community. Pecola, in The Bluest Eye, finds shelter at the MacTeer household after her father commits arson. Not only is Pecola free from any incestuous attempts through this communal living arrangement, but also “Frieda and . . . [Claudia] stopped fighting each other and concentrated on . . . [their] guest, trying hard to keep her from feeling outdoors” (Morrison, The Bluest Eye 18-19). Furthermore, this kinship with the MacTeer girls protects Pecola from harm at the hands of her peers. While Pecola is being teased on the playground, Frieda and Claudia come to her rescue. The antagonists “buckled in confusion, not willing to beat up three girls” (67). A sound argument for the fact that there is strength in numbers.

Pecola's mother, Mrs. Breedlove, also finds comfort with the community. “She joined a church where shouting was frowned upon, served on Stewardess Board No. 3, and became a member of the Ladies Circle No. 1” (126). In Mrs. Breedlove's case, though, she utilizes the community as a means of escape: escape from Cholly, the “model of sin and failure,” and her children whom she “bore . . . like a cross” (126-127).

As for Cholly, although both his parents reject him, he is still able to find a father figure within the community, a man by the name of Blue Jack. After he quits school, Cholly meets Blue while working at Tyson's Feed and Grain Store. “Cholly loved Blue” (134). While at a picnic, Blue chooses to share the heart of a watermelon with Cholly. Blue's influences have a profound effect on Cholly, “Long after he was a man, he remembered the good times they had had” (134). Unfortunately, with the absence of community, positive childhood influences are not lasting as seen with Cholly and the rape of his daughter, Pecola.

The impact of the community is clearly defined in Morisson's Beloved. For the first twenty-eight days of her “unslaved life,” Sethe belongs to a community.

Days of company: knowing the names of forty, fifty other Negroes, their views, habits; where they had been and what done; of feeling their fun and sorrow along with her own, which made it better. One taught her the alphabet; another a stitch. All taught her how it felt to wake up at dawn and decide what to do with the day . . . . Bit by bit . . . she had claimed herself (95).

Sethe is blissful and anxious to celebrate. Yet, when ecstasy is mistaken for “uncalled-for-pride” by the community, their support falters.

Through repeated phrasing in close proximity, Morrison depicts the weakening of a once strong sense of community in the novel.

Ninety people who ate so well, and laughed so much, it made them angry.  They woke up the next morning and remembered . . . and got angry . . . . 124, rocking with laughter . . . made them angry. . . . Now to take two buckets of blueberries and make ten . . . it made them mad. . . . It made them furious (Beloved 136-137).

Even Baby Suggs, the one to whom the community refers to as “holy,” recognizes that “The scent of their disapproval lay heavy in the air” (137).

The community's revulsion towards the perceived boastful celebrations of Sethe and her family leads to absolute abandonment. When Schoolteacher and his men approach 124 Bluestone, “Six or seven Negroes [who] were walking up the road toward the house . . . stood where they were” (148-149). No one attempts to warn Sethe of the danger that is nearing or assist in her escape. Instead, the community stands by silently. The silence becomes deafening once Sethe is led away for her crimes. Morrison addresses the reader at this point:

Was her [Sethe's] head a bit too high? Her back a little too straight? Probably. Otherwise the singing would have begun at once, the moment she appeared in the doorway of the house on Bluestone Road. As it was, they waited till the cart turned about, headed west to town. And then no words. Humming. No words at all (152).

Here, Morrison demands that the reader realize the impact of the community. The implications are that their vital retreat is a direct result of Sethe's aloofness. As the novel continues, it becomes obvious that a family closed off from the community is doomed to be consumed.

Although the Colored Ladies of Delaware, Ohio, are responsible for sparing Sethe from hanging. Sethe “made no gesture toward anybody, and lived as though she were alone” (257). For eighteen years, “Nobody, but nobody visited that house” (284). Even Sethe's friend, Ella, “junked her and wouldn't give her the time of day” (256). Sethe somehow endures, but Denver is the one who suffers “serious losses since there were no children willing to circle her in a game or hang by their knees from her porch railing” (12). In conversing with her mother, the catastrophic effect on Denver is evident as a direct result of the isolation, “I can't live here. I don't know where to go or what to do, but I can't live here. Nobody speaks to us. Nobody comes by. Boys don't like me. Girls don't either” (14).

It is Denver, though, who eventually reestablishes the connection between the outside world and her family. She realizes the desperation of the situation at home with her mother and Beloved and seeks the assistance of the community. The women rally around the young woman providing food and consolation. Mrs. Jones addressing Denver as “baby' . . . inaugurated her life in the world as a woman” (248). This, in turn, insinuates that “the personal pride, the arrogant claim staked out at 124 seemed to them to have run its course” (249). When word spreads that “Sethe's dead daughter, the one whose throat she cut, had come back to fix her,” the women decide to rescue her.

Thirty neighborhood women gather outside of 124 Bluestone and break the eighteen year silence through song. Sethe, hearing the voices, exits the house and observes from her porch. While there, Sethe notices what she perceives to be Schoolteacher riding down the lane. Determined to spare the lives of her children this time around, she resolves to attack “the man without skin” with an ice pick (263). Ella, a member of the community, interjects by putting “her fist in her jaw” sparing Sethe further years of heartache (265). Thus, without the presence of the community, Sethe, first, would have never left the security of her house. Second, Sethe would have never seen the white man and imagined he was coming for her children. Third, history would never have altered for Sethe without the assistance of the community. Seeing “Schoolteacher,” Sethe is given a second chance to protect her children without harming them. Thus, her attempt on the white man's life alleviates Beloved's ghost of all power she holds over Sethe. By preventing the actual act from taking place, the community not only remedies the present predicament, but also secures Sethe's future, a future free of guilt and detachment.

A final sense of community as Rigney suggests is the color of characters, “ . . . blackness itself is a mark to symbolize their participation in a greater entity . . . The marks are hieroglyphs, clues to a culture and a history more than to individual personality” (39). Thus, in The Bluest Eye, the reader is aware of Pauline's crippled foot. This, in fact, is what attracted Cholly to her. The mangled foot is not the result of a birth deformity, but rather a rusty nail, “it punched clear through her foot during her second year of life” (Morrison, The Bluest Eye 110). A white child would have had the puncture mark cleaned and dressed. However, the poverty to which Pauline belongs prevents medical attention and is representative of the black culture as a whole. A further example is Pauline's loss of her front tooth. Morrison describes this occurrence as “The end of her lovely beginning” (110). Pauline does not have the means to maintain the health of her teeth or to even replace missing teeth with dentures or the like. There exists no options for Pauline; she must live with the symbol of her blackness.

In Beloved, the marks of blackness are more obvious, a result of enslavement. Sethe recalls the branding of her mother, “Right on her rib was a circle and a cross burnt right in the skin” (Morrison, Beloved 61). She remembers pleading with her mother, “Mark me, too . . . Mark the mark on me too” (61). Her mother replies by slapping Sethe's face. Sethe remarks how she did not understand at the time, “Not until I had a mark of my own” (61). Sethe's mark is the choke-cherry tree scars on her back, a result of a brutal whipping. As Rigney concludes, these scars “represent membership rather than separation” (39). Membership that mandates a life of subhuman existence at the hands of the white man.

As previously mentioned, Morrison's creative palette of themes and techniques is vast and colorful. Her interweaving of familial influences, cyclical patterns, and the importance of community feed off of one another in both Beloved and The Bluest Eye. The reader is left with a feeling of having experienced the two novels in question versus simply acting as a passive spectator. Although Beloved and The Bluest Eye certainly stand alone, a comparison of the two further reinforces the irrefutable craft of Toni Morrison.

Friday, October 11, 2013

That Which Does Not Kill Us, Makes Us Stronger

     Waking up to a room full of smoke is not a wakeup call that I am used to. No words can describe the panic and confusion I felt during those minutes that I was stuck inside of a burning house, my house, with every object and every person I held most dear. The fear I felt, not for myself, but for my family was life changing. I realized how much every single member of my family, my mom, dad, older sister, younger brother, and nephew, truly meant to me. After that dreadful day, it was difficult not to hold each of them closer in my heart.
      On May 13, 2013, the day after Mother’s Day, I woke up at 3:28 a.m., in my bed, truly confused as to why I could hear my mother shrieking my name and why it was so hard to breathe. After turning on my phone and shining my phone’s light around the room, the answer was clear to me. My bedroom was filled with a dreadful black smoke, and I could still hear my mom screaming my name with such a panic in her voice that it filled me with the deepest fear I had ever felt in my life before then. I struggled to make it to my door because I could not make out any object in my room. Familiarity is the only reason I was able to find my door. At last, I opened my door and walked out into the family room. Immediately, I was hit with an incredible amount of black smoke in my face, and the air became denser, harder to breath. The closest exit to me was the garage door, but as I reached for the doorknob, I vaguely remembered those fire safety classes that the firemen would give when they visited my elementary school. Luckily I remembered what I learned in the third grade, and I touched the wooden door before I touched the metal doorknob. I retracted my hand from the door so fast, I almost gave myself whiplash. The door was scorching hot. I knew not to open that door because the heat coming through it meant that was where the fire currently resided. I crawled my way across the living room to the sliding glass door because there was no closer exit than that. If something would have been wrong and I could not have made it out of the back door, I would have had to have crawled to the other side of the house to the front door, but doing that would have caused me to expose myself to the dense smoke for a prolonged period of time, and I could have easily passed out from the smoke inhalation. Thankfully, after fumbling with the lock for a few moments, I managed to pull the door open. Finally, I was able to take a long gulp of much needed fresh air.
       Little did I know that would be the last feeling of relief I had for about the next fourteen hours. I could still hear my mom screaming for me, and I heard my sister, Meaghan, yelling for my nephew, Brrayden. I ran to the front of the house asking about Brrayden because I was terrified he was still in the house. When I finally reached the rest of my family in the middle of the cul-de-sac, I tried to take in my surroundings. My dad was staring at the house looking awe-struck, my mom was looking frantic but also like she was somehow in control of the situation, my little brother, Brendon, was just looking around as if he did not know what to do, and my sister and nephew were thankfully okay and were sitting on the curb diagonal to the house. Our neighbors, who lived in the house behind where Meaghan and Brrayden were sitting, were wrapping my sister and her son in some blankets and trying to make sure they were warm on that unseasonably cold May night.
      Suddenly, Brendon jolted me from my thoughts when he screamed, with the greatest amount of despair that I had ever heard him use, “Where is Paris?!” Paris was our beloved German Shepard-Pitt Bull mix that we absolutely doted on all the time, and she was not outside with us. For the next three minutes, we all desperately yelled for her and hoped with every fiber of our beings that she would come prancing out of the front door, but we were not so lucky. The devastation that I had experienced in the previous five minutes was too much for me to handle on my own. I pulled out my phone and called my boyfriend, Zach. On the third try, he thankfully answered, and after I told him what happened, he told me he was on his way. Comforted by the thought of Zach being there soon, I sat down on the curb next to Meaghan and Brrayden and stared at the blazing home. I did not realize how lucky I was that I was not harmed. The entire garage was an inferno, and my room shared a wall with the garage. It was truly amazing that I exited the house before the fire entered through my bedroom wall and ceiling. For the next ten minutes, I watched the fire chief drive up, a fire truck drive in, and the fire continue to grow larger. I wondered where all the fire trucks were at and why they were not putting out the blaze because one fire truck was not going to be enough. Then I saw Zach’s white Nissan Altima come screeching to a halt in front of my neighbor’s house. He ran over to me, and as I hugged him, I felt immensely relieved because I knew he would be there to help cope through the next few hours.
      We went and sat next to my parents and brother who were all sitting on the curb directly across the street from our house. Our neighbors were saints that night and selflessly gave us what we needed. They retrieved drinks, shoes, blankets, contact solution, and really anything we physically needed. However, they could not do much for us emotionally. I would try to describe the way I felt for those three hours that I was forced to sit and watch my home go up in flames with my dog inside knowing there was nothing I could do, but there are no words for it. There are no adjectives or adverbs that could accurately depict the feeling of knowing every single possession I owned, loved, and had ever cherished was burning to a crisp; the feeling of knowing that every piece of evidence from every memory that was ever created in that home would no longer exist; the feeling of knowing that from that moment on the future was going to be drastically different than had been imagined. There will never be a word to describe that feeling, but I felt it for the next three hours until that fire was banished from my beloved home.  
When we were finally able to approach the house, my immediate first thought was to find Paris. Even though I knew there was no way she could still be alive because either the fire or the smoke inhalation would have reached her, I still wanted to find her. Looking through my parents’ bedroom windows, the back door, and my bedroom window and seeing all of the devastation was heartbreaking. Unbelievable that only four hours before, we were all sleeping peacefully, unaware of any danger. The firefighters were picking through the debris in my room and asking me what I wanted them to grab for me, but I did not know what there was left for them to grab. Every object that would have been on the floor, every picture hanging on the wall, every electronic device was absolutely ruined. So I turned my mind to the important mementos I held dear to me. Every object that I felt had only sentimental value from my childhood, my middle school, and my high school days, were all in plastic boxes in my closet. My closet door was shut, however, so I could not tell if the sentimental pieces were all right or if they were damaged. I asked the fireman to pull open my closet door and hand me whatever was not ruined. To my disbelief, yet utter satisfaction, every object in my closet was unharmed. After some tough few minutes of trying to squeeze the plastic boxes through my window, I finally had the only objects that were valuable to me. Then I went and stood next to my dad and helped him grab what he considered valuable from his room. The next hour or so consisted of every member of my family asking the firemen to dig out the valuables they wanted from their rooms and after that, with no distraction left to keep us occupied, we had to face the harsh reality of this grave situation. We had no cars, no food, and no house. The only reason we had access to money was because my dad grabbed his wallet on his way out. To make matters worse, we had lost a dear member of our family. Paris’ body was recovered from my brother’s room, not burned, not broken. She was just a little damp from all of the water. She could have been sleeping if it was not for the fact her eyes were not shut all of the way. After saying a tearful goodbye and burying her in the grave that Zach dug, it felt like there was no way to recover from this horrific morning. 
It was only 8:00 in the morning, and it felt like my entire world had been turned upside down, but as I turned around to leave Paris’ grave, I saw my entire family. Some crying, some still in shock at the situation, but they were all or would all be okay, and I had Zach right next to me to make sure I would be okay too. In Greek mythology, there is a story about Pandora who held a box full of all types of evils that could plague mankind. Out of curiosity, Pandora opened the box to let all of them loose, but one spirit stayed in the box, and it was called Hope. Hope vowed to never leave mankind no matter the devastation or turmoil and to always fill them with hope. Hope is what I felt as I stood there watching my loved ones mill about. I believed that no matter what, my family and I would pull through and come out on top; I believed in myself. This was something that I had not done for quite a long time. I learned to believe that I was stronger than I had thought before. I could be there for my family and make sure they were okay. I learned it was okay to tell someone how I was feeling, and it was okay to cry on a shoulder every now and then. I also learned not to take my family for granted. The previous day, on Mother’s Day, I had not given my mom any gift or card. I needed to start appreciating every single one of them for everything they did and still currently do for our family, and that was what I did. In the months following the fire and now, I talked with, joked with, and just loved my family because I appreciated the time I had to spend with them.
I would not be who I am today without going through this tragedy. I would still be selfish, I would still take life for granted, and I would still be unappreciative of my family. Slowly, but surely I realized the amount of strength that I possessed within myself. I refused to look at the fire as an obstacle that had hindered me. The fire was a learning experience and that was how I was going to look at it. I started to appreciate the little moments in life that should be cherished forever rather than the valuables that were expensive, but held no real worth. I am a different person today than I was five months ago, and I am thankful for that. After all, what does not kill someone only makes him or her stronger and that could not be a truer statement in regards to me and my family.
by Sarah Rieso
I'm a college student trying to earn an A in English.