Me, too. I am a sexual assault statistic.

I was sexually assaulted by my landlord when I was 22 years old.

He leaned in and kissed me. He touched me without my consent.

He was in his 70s.

It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t excusable. It wasn’t funny material for an Internet meme. It wasn’t gentlemanly. It wasn’t kind. It wasn’t leaderly. It wasn’t something easily forgotten.

It wasn’t something “men just do.” I know plenty of good men who don’t.

It was disgusting. It was wrong. And it was a crime.

In fact, 18 years later, I still think of it sometimes. I have thought of it a lot in the past year, starting with the tape of a Presidential candidate surfacing and now Harvey Weinstein.

The victims are millionaire celebrities and need to shut up and quit crying, they say. They are rich and famous, so who cares, they say. Apparently the harassment and assault of others is not “enough” to be considered worthy of pain.

Words matter. Actions matter. Tone matters. Empathy matters. Compassion matters.

The only response to those things should be a thoughtful “what can I do to help victims or make an impact?” If your response to another’s plight is anything but, you are not doing life right.

Perhaps putting a face to something will insert pause in how you deal with others and how you dismiss the troubles of victims — sexual or physical assault, racism, persecution, and the list goes on.

Perhaps a face, not one of an untouchable celebrity, but the face of a friend, the face of a person who can give you 1 degree of separation from vile acts.

How about my face?

I am someone you likely know. I am a victim of sexual assault. And nearly 18 years later, it still hurts. It comes flooding back when people joke about assault. I have shed tears today because people I know think being dismissive about sexual assault is OK.

Rape culture is real. It furthers the embarrassing and shameful feeling those who have been assaulted carry for life. I am a fairly confident, outgoing person, but this is not something I want to talk about. It is not something that is easy to talk about. I am an extremely private person, and I only have told this story to my mother and two boyfriends in the last 18 years. They are the only people I ever have felt safe telling.

But I figure that if, as a writer, I expect others to share their lives and thoughts with me, I should do it, too. Everything lives forever on the Internet, the voice on my shoulder keeps saying. But the memories live forever in my head, and I’d rather let them out, to buzz around like the flies on amoebas on rats that they are.

The Department of Justice defines sexual assault as this: “Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient. Falling under the definition of sexual assault are sexual activities as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy… fondling and attempted rape.”

The man who assaulted me — Mr. X — was old enough to be my grandfather. He is dead now. I looked up his obituary a few years ago. There was a lengthy description of his lifetime of accolades and heroism and how well-known he was. It also referred to him as a “gentleman,” and a person who “left a lasting impression.”

He was no gentleman, I can assure you of that. But he did leave a lasting impression on me, one I wish I could scrub from my mind.

I am electing to use “Mr. X” instead of my predator’s real name. Not to protect his memory, but to allow his surviving family the dignity he did not allow me.

I always referred to him as “Mr. [last name],” even though he begged me to call him by his first name. He told me I was too formal and we should be more casual around each other. I still felt as though it was proper to call him Mr., after all, he was older and clearly in a position of power over me. His decisions and mercies held weight on whether or not I could afford to live on his property.

He was a businessman and university donor, and I rented from him while I was a student at Oklahoma State University. He stopped by a lot because he stored things in the garage under my apartment. He often told me I was pretty, but I thought nothing of it. Nice old man, I thought.

I was having trouble making ends meet –I made $15 a day as an editor of the campus newspaper and worked three days a week as a seating hostess at Eskimo Joe’s. Mr. X told me I could clean vacant apartments for him in exchange for a discount on rent. I jumped at the chance. I scrubbed linoleum, refrigerators, bathtubs and toilets after college students were evicted or moved elsewhere. My back hurt, my feet hurt, the smells were horrible and it was disgusting work. But I needed to do it because I was the epitome of a struggling college student.

Mr. X came to pick me up and take me to the jobs, which were scattered around town. The first apartment I cleaned, he stopped in and checked on me around 11 a.m. He said he came to take me to lunch. I assumed we were going to run to Sonic or McDonalds for a quick bite. Instead, we went to his office across town. He had a couch and a bathroom and a little kitchenette area. He let me pick from a few frozen dinners he had. Then he warmed them up one by one and brought them to the couch. I even remember how he folded the napkin underneath and set it on the little TV tray.

We watched TV and ate and talked. Then he’d either take me back to a job site or take me home if I was finished for the day. This cycle continued a couple of days a week for the next few, with him chauffeuring me, microwaving my lunch and watching Matlock in his office.

Then things changed. One day, I was cleaning baseboards in an apartment next to mine. He sneaked in and was standing in the doorway watching me work on my hands and knees. I gasped. He laughed and said he didn’t mean to startle me. I said something about how difficult it was being on my knees and it scared me because they were so sore from the hard floor that I couldn’t jump up like I wanted when he surprised me.

And I’ll never forget his reply, sneer and all: “Young college girls like you are supposed to be good at being on your knees.”

Then he walked back outside.

At first I thought maybe I was the one with the dirty mind because he was an old man. I told myself he just meant I was young, so it was easier for me to crawl around than it would be for someone older.

When it was time for lunch, we got in his little truck and went to his office. After we ate our TV dinners, we sat and watched Matlock like usual. He left for a few minutes to do something, and I sat there looking around. I noticed he left out a stack of dirty magazines. I was embarrassed for him, thinking he’d never want me to know he had them.

He came back to the little couch, but this time, he sat so close to me there was no space between us. I thought that was weird, but my guard was down because he was an old man and he was essentially my boss.

He started patting my leg. I squirmed, but still naive in thinking he didn’t realize I was uncomfortable.

Then he began to run his hand up and down my leg and my arm. You know, like when the man you love does it with affection because he wants you to feel safe. Except it wasn’t like that at all. It wasn’t the same. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand out from my skin. It’s like I could feel each hair as it stood at attention.

The next few minutes passed in slow motion.

Mr. X ran his hand up and down my arm and back to my left leg. He slid his hand between my upper thighs, which I was clenching together. Then he went higher.

I sat there in shock, terrified. I had made many mistakes by that age, but I was a 22-year-old virgin who was holding my purity as my crown.

And I thought I was going to be raped right there on that couch, with no one knowing where I was or how to save me.

Mr. X tightened his grip on my thigh. It wasn’t soft, feathery rubbing anymore. It was a grip and he was asserting power over me.

And that is when the old man leaned in to kiss me.

I shifted my face to the side to avoid it, but he kept coming toward me, darting his head with mine in an effort to catch my lips anyway. He got the side of them. I never will forget the way those nasty, slimy, wet lips felt on my face.

I would love to tell you I yelled at him or punched him or did something to stand up for myself. But I didn’t. I was in such a state of terror I barely could breathe.

He had an evil look on his face, and at that moment, I had no doubt that I was going to be raped.

My heart was beating fast. I couldn’t form words. My mind was screaming them, but my panic wouldn’t allow them to come out of my mouth.

He started to rub my thigh again, so in a weak and shaky voice, I whispered, “Please stop.”

I remember I had my eyes closed when I said it, which now I know that was a symptom of the shame and disgust I felt.

As I whispered those words, “please stop,” he gripped my thigh again like before, assertively and with dominance. I opened my eyes, thinking if I could plead with him and if he would see how scared I was he would let me go.

He had an angry, demented look on his face.

As I tried to stand up, he attempted to hold me down, but I got loose. I grabbed my purse and walked out the door. He followed and told me to get in the truck and he’d drive me home.

We didn’t speak again.

I got out of his truck and quickly walked up the long staircase to my apartment and locked the door behind me. I sat in the floor right next to the front door, until I began heaving so much that I threw up right on the carpet.

I continued to cry in the floor next to my own vomit for hours until it got dark outside.

I called my mama. Then I had what was probably a panic attack. I was hyperventilating and crying so hard I couldn’t even sit upright.

I lived there a little while longer, but I wasn’t at peace. I couldn’t sleep and had a phobia that Mr. X had cameras in my apartment somewhere and I became obsessed with thinking he would use his key and let himself in whenever he wanted.

One night, I had a nightmare about him watching me sleep, and that’s when I decided I had to move.

I often have thought of that day, the day when an older man decided he could kiss me whenever he wanted and abuse his power over the down-and-out college coed who needed a job.

I think of it with disgust every time. It still haunts me.

And thanks to recent revelations and people who can’t wait to proclaim it as no big deal, I have had to think of it more than usual. I have tried to tune out the fact that a large percentage of people I love and respect don’t feel as though it is a reflection of a man’s character if he says he uses his powerful position to kiss or grope or flash women without consent.

Look at me the next time you see me. Use eye-roll emojis on Facebook because you think celebrity victims don’t matter, then look me in the eye tomorrow. Can you? I’m just a regular person. Does knowing the story of a friend matter?

It shouldn’t matter. You shouldn’t have to know someone who has had an experience like mine, or heaven forbid, much worse, in order to outright condemn the behavior or those who joke about it.

But as humans, we tend to be detached;
we often don’t understand things unless they happen to us or to someone we know. I hope those of you who know me respect me. I hope you respect me enough to want to understand what someone feels when their body, their sacred being, is jeopardized by a predator.

In fact, one in five women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime. ONE IN FIVE.

Remember the family members at your own table could be secret victims. Your best friend could have a chapter she never has told you. Your mother may have been attacked when she was young. Words matter. Words hurt. But actions heal. Decide that today you are going to change the trajectory of how you respond when someone reveals they are a victim, no matter if the alleged perpetrator is a landlord in Stillwater, Oklahoma, a powerful Hollywood executive or a politician. Imagine the victim is your wife, your daughter, your granddaughter.

Does it matter now?

One in five.

 

One hour of thoughts, one million possibilities

I’ve done a lot of random things on this blog over the years. Here’s to another!

I have decided to channel wasted time into productivity. One-hour chapters that will make up a complete story by the end.

Brain exercise for a writer.

I sit and type for one hour. No pre-conceived paths or scripts. I use one hour and let my mind take me on a journey. No idea where it will end.  No idea what will become of the characters. I don’t even know some of their names yet.

I simply continue the story where it left off each time, at a random one hour’s pace.

Wherever my thoughts lead me in that hour is where we shall go.

The destination is a surprise even to me. It’s like rebel fiction with a cause.

 

*******
ALPHA

She gasped for air like it was elusive western gold.

It’s amazing how crying seemed as easy as smiling any more, she thought.

When she was around others, her soul danced and she was full of light and joy. A carefree woman who seemed to have the answer to everyone else’s struggles.

So they thought.

Yet, there she was, in a dark room alone, thinking about all the things she has made a mess of and all the things that have made a mess of her.

She does that often; she refers to it as her abyss. It’s the place she finds between the blank spaces and the storeroom of her brain where all the thoughts that overwhelm her soul are kept.

“Hanna? You in there?” a voice made its way down the hall and toward the extra bedroom Hanna made into an office.

“Hey, where are you? Are you OK?”

Hanna turned her back to the door, slid down the back of the couch and pretended to be asleep.

Now just wasn’t the time. Actually, in Hanna’s utopia, it never would be time to talk about her brokenness.

No matter what anyone says, brokenness is better when it is contained, because it is contagious. She lived her whole life keeping that compartmentalized and she had no plans to change.

“Seriously,” Natalie said. “How can I lose you in a two-bedroom apartment?”

Natalie was her friend from college. Eighteen years ago, they became instant friends on the third day of freshmen year. Hanna was the only other girl in English Lit who wasn’t wearing a sorority sweatshirt, so Nat joked they were soul sisters. They may be heading toward 40 at 400 mph, but nothing has slowed their friendship. 

“We don’t need a candlelight ceremony and a string of pearls to be able to call each other sister,” she told Hanna back then. “All we need is mutual love for Def Leppard and a pact to have Cheetos at every study group.”

They became quick friends, mostly because they accepted each other, no questions asked. Hanna didn’t lecture Natalie for the fact that she couldn’t be alone. Natalie didn’t hound Hanna for being stubbornly independent.

Sometimes, Hanna almost talked about it. She was thinking about letting it all out tonight, but she pulled back again when she heard Natalie calling for her.

Nat only was in town for a couple of days, and Hanna couldn’t turn the visit into a means for her to dump out all her problems, even though she felt her vault cracking open slightly. They had many plans for the weekend, and it was going to be centered around happy things. Brunch was the launching pad — and just like every time they got together, they were going to gorge themselves on the fluffy champagne waffles at Della’s Diner.

Talking about life’s drama and disappointments only ruined the champagne waffle mojo. You must be in a happy place to savor Della’s grub.

Even savoring the thought of brunch taught her to breathe again. She went from gasping for air to exhaling the pain as the tear tracks trailed down her cheeks like little roads to her heart.

Champagne waffles. Waffles. Waffles. Della’s waffles.

Her lungs began to fill again, and a calmness came over her.

“I think I just invented food yoga,” she whispered to herself.

At that moment, the floor creaked and Natalie reappeared out of nowhere, it seemed.

“Did you just say food yoga?” Nat said as she swung her leg over the side of the couch, dangling her foot. “I mean, I don’t know what that is, but it definitely sounds like something we should incorporate as a warm-up before Della’s.”

Hanna let a little smile creep across her face for the first time in hours.

So many plans. So many waffles. So many ways to avoid her problems.

“Set your alarm, Nat,” Hanna said. “You know Della’s will have a line around the corner if we aren’t there by 9.”

Natalie’s foot abruptly stopped dangling.

“Just a reminder, tomorrow is Saturday,” Natalie said. “You know, the day of the week I like to refer to as ‘the day of the week when I don’t have to wake up early, or ever again, if I don’t want to.'”

She took off down the hallway.

“Saturday,” she said over her shoulder. “You know, the day that allows all the other days to rest in peace?”

Hanna was familiar. Sometimes she felt like Saturday personified, sheltering everything and everyone under the shadows of her wings. Except life had left its mark and those wings had been clipped a few times too many. There were holes and hard edges where once there were regal, soft feathers.

She set the alarm, pulled up the afghan her aunt knitted her long ago, and she let herself melt into the leather couch.

Then she went back to staring those restless, mossy green eyes into the dark.

Her abyss.

Where it is dark enough to forget him, but just enough moonlight peeking through the window to foster hope in the shape of champagne waffles.

 

*******

Until next time.

#OKlegacies: Melting pot of gold

Today for lunch I had what has become a bit of a usual for me: beans, cornbread and fried taters from Josie’s hole-in-the-wall diner.

I skipped the pick-up window and went inside to grab my grub. The place was packed like always in the noon hour. I’m not sure why, but for some reason I noticed people a little deeper on this trip.

A farmer, a carpenter, a doctor, a foster mom and a minister sitting along one wall. An American Indian, a black man and a white woman laughing over their meal in the corner. They also were *listening* to one another.

So simple but so important.

Americans of different backgrounds and education levels, religions and colors – all precious in his sight. All with their own opinions, convictions and hearts that make up a collective heartbeat.

And they were at a small-town Oklahoma diner owned by a native Filipino family. The marquee out front advertises the Monday special: Chinese Lo Mein or beans and cornbread. They have pretty great burritos, too. The whole lot is made by a sweet immigrant and served in mismatched dishes.

In her best moments, America shines.

But it takes the consideration of the whole eclectic menu to make it work.

Imagine all that.

My imagination runs wild 99 percent of the time.

Wild like the horses busting free on the plains.

Wild like the flowers scattered on the landscape.

I see everything in color, no matter what decade. It is the only way my mind works.

My great great grandpa Charlie was a horse trader. A few weeks ago, we discovered this original tintype (and another) of him stashed away in a box of family photos. They are in wonderful condition on the plate, not at all indicative of being more than a century old.

I have stared at this particular photo a thousand times since the first. Likely there will be 1,000 more. I have written what seems like an entire book in my head of the events I dreamed up to surround this scene.

I often have been told I romanticize most everything in life, as if it were a bad thing. Truth is, it is the loveliest of things. It’s what keeps blood pumping and the soul hoping.

Imagination.

When I look at this, I see a young horse trader and his side-saddled love, out for a ride across the prairie on a Sunday afternoon. I see them basking in nature, laughing and dreaming up their lives together — not in sepia, but in full color.

I’ve written chapters in my head with every glance. The hardships and the struggles, the triumphs and the joys. I see the love between them that begat generations of hard-working, honest, generous and happy people. I see a legacy.

A simple tintype photo of two people in a field.
A priceless treasure, found in a box of keepsakes long forgotten.

One photo.

A thousand romanticized thoughts.

An imagination that won’t quit, because then I would cease to feel alive.

How sweet the sound

Drip. Drip. Drip.

I watched as medicine dripped for hours to kill the poisonous cancer.

Last month, I took mama’s only sibling to her ninth chemotherapy treatment. Her prognosis is good, unlike some of the others who were visiting the cancer center.

There were rooms full of people. Hundreds of them. Some were waiting to see a doctor. Some were waiting for scans. Some were receiving treatment. Hundreds of them, and it was just Wednesday. The next day and the day after saw hundreds more. She thinks I was brave while I was sitting alongside her, but I was sad and so scared for all those people and their families. When she’d fall asleep, I’d look around and people watch. My tears would sneak out and drip, drip, drip.

Today, instead of sitting in the cancer center watching medicine enter her body, I was sitting at work, waiting to hear the news that it all was over.

My aunt Dawn rang the bell at 12:30 p.m., signifying that she is done with chemo treatment No. 12 and ready to enjoy life without being sick, without mobile chemo ports or hours in a chair while medicine falls through an IV.

Today, it was tears of joy going drip, drip, drip.

She grabbed ahold of that bell and its noise drowned out the pain and worry in so many hearts.

Ring. Ring. Ring.

Break free.

🛎 🛎 🛎

 

 

Yes, there’s something different about me now.

When I lost all of my hair six years ago, I was in the middle of jumping my life’s tallest hurdle. I gained so much since that journey began. I gained back confidence, security and love for myself.

And recently, over the last year or more, things happened to make me forget all that progress.

I want them again. I miss that proud girl.

When my hair began growing, I hid it behind a wig because it made me cry to see it coming in much darker than before. The sunshine on my head had decided to reappear a little overcast. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t recognize the person I saw. It made me sad. It represented a lot of things I had lost in life.

That muddy brown shade stood for struggle.

When it finally reached my chin, I decided I could begin going without a wig. That was a huge step, because for 18 long months, my blonde wigs were my safe place. But before I could abandon them, I had to have a stylist mix up bowls of bleach. I had to look like me. I had to feel like me.

But the old me wasn’t me anymore. You never are the same after seeing life’s battlefields firsthand.

After six years, I have decided to toss my security blanket and embrace whatever it is that is supposed to be. For the first time in my almost 40 years of life (sans one spring break in college), I am a brunette. 

You probably think it’s silly to worry or talk so much about hair. It’s only hair to you. But to me it is my soul, on display for the world to see. It became a mask for pain. And for so long, I misinterpreted the color of my own strength.

I wrote once about how a blonde wig saved me.  And it did. Funny how things are ever-evolving.

I have taken the symbolism of that muddy brown hair and changed its meaning. Instead of struggle, it now represents authenticity to myself.

I am not afraid of what lies ahead, despite all the cards dealt to me through this world of ups and downs. In the last year, those downs have been plenty in several categories. It has been more than one person should be given in such a short time, but I have handled it with as much grace as I can muster. I pray the Lord keeps supplying me with His amazing kind.

I have overcome far more than these things, and so have others, I remind myself.

I am me. I am beautiful. Blonde or brunette. Green or pink. I feel that now.

God has numbered every hair on my head and dried every tear I have shed.

Today, tomorrow and forever.

I will let my mane flow and my strength roar like a hundred lions. Even when I am smiling to hide pain. Even when I can’t control something.

Let go. Rise up. Work around the unexpected. Learn to embrace it, even if it takes six years.

Yes, there is something different about me now.

Maybe it is my hair color. Maybe it is the increased height of the wall around my shattered heart.

But maybe it is because I finally realize there is courage in not trying to rope the winds of change, but letting them swirl around me.

Like a dandelion, I will float in the breeze.

—–

Let go

((Poem by Erin Hanson))

Hold on, hold on, hold on, they said.
You’re a dandelion in the breeze.
Look at what those winds of change have done
To all these autumn leaves.

Hold on, hold on, hold on
This big wide world is not for you
Hold on for long enough
For the last gust to dance on through

So I held on, held on, held on
They said that’s how you know you’re strong
But not until I wilted

Did I notice something wrong.

I thought holding on was bravery
But when the winds of change do blow
Sometimes it’s even braver still
To let go, let go, let go

 

My sweet friend Tuesday Dickey at Gypsy Snips is the kind of hair stylist everyone should have. She doesn’t just “do hair.” She gives her heart. She listens and she is empathetic. She understands that it isn’t all about what a person looks like on the outside. She knows just what to do and say so your inside glows. She understands that it is all connected, and that even the most confident people have their valleys. Thank you, Tuesday, for always being someone I can count on to help me see beauty hidden in myself.

That time I found the greatest Stevie Nicks video ever

Today was a pretty good Monday. I mean, the only legitimate problem I had is that when I woke up, I wasn’t Stevie Nicks.

Really, though, sometimes I pretend I am her when I wear my long black kimono, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

She’s mysterious. She’s hot. She’s a legend.

She’s everything I’m not, but a girl has to have goals, right?

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Some days I might even get it in my head that I’m channeling the perfect balance of the cool edginess of Stevie and the Southern charm of Dolly Parton.

And then something usually happens to remind me I’m not even close to channeling either one, and that I’m pretty much an awkward cross between the pop singer who dresses up like a flamingo and Deb from Napoleon Dynamite.

Oh, and someone who dribbles salsa on her shirt and trips a lot.

Stevie’s voice is unmistakeable. It has rasp and sheer power, yet it is vulnerable. Raw but flawless.

I came across this video a couple of years ago and I might have watched it eleventy billion times since. The fact that this is a random backstage practice session while she’s getting her makeup done blows me away.

In my dreams, Stevie Nicks calls me up on stage to harmonize with her on Wild Heart (or anything) just like this video.

And then Lindsey Buckingham, naturally, writes a timeless song about me and how I am the perfect woman. (The salsa stains are verifiable proof.)

And usually that’s when I wake up and realize I’m still just a weirdo wannabe gypsy soul and a procratinating journalist who should be reading a 32-page earthquake study and writing five other stories before tomorrow’s deadline. 

Goals, though.

Stevie, man. Stevie.

I bet you can’t stop watching at eleventy billion.

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Because I wished to live deliberately


This morning, I walked down the sidewalk of my favorite street in America.

Home. Main Street, Cleveland, Oklahoma, USA.

I strolled down the sidewalk painted with tiger paws as I waved at friends through storefront windows. South Hill was in the distance — the cross lit up and the giant Stars and Stripes waving in the wind.

Nothing new about that scenery since I live here, except I was walking to work at the Cleveland American.

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Some things just make sense, right?

And small-town journalism always makes sense to me.

For at least the last 10 years or so, I have freelanced for my small-town weekly paper in addition to my job in the city. The newspaper’s publisher has tried for several years now to lure me away from the Tulsa World and Channel 6 to give the American a boost full-time.

I always put it off because the timing wasn’t quite right. 

Good thing timing always comes back around.

Processed with Snapseed.

When you have the choice to do anything or go anywhere you want, but you choose comfort and familiarity — that’s not a lack of courage. It’s an abundance of love.

I may be going from 400,000 people reading my words to 4,000, but that doesn’t matter a lick to me. I just want to do something that matters. I don’t say that to take away from any of the other opportunities I have been given over my career, because I truly have had the greatest platforms for amazing companies, and people I love and respect still work at those beacons of journalism.

But sometimes, something is so obvious to your own soul that you have to say a prayer and shout YES.

Working for a wonderful family I consider friends and passing lifelong acquaintances on the sidewalk every day is a huge positive. And for the first time in 20 years, I have weekends off, no swing shifts, and I won’t have to work around the clock during severe weather or while everyone else is enjoying holidays with their families. I will have a 9-5 life and get to spend more time with those I love. I now will be able to put in more time with the nonprofit I founded, blogging and making jewelry. I will get to experience life like folks with “normal” jobs get to do.

Most of all, I get to write stories I want to write, about the people and places that matter the most to me.

No morning pitch meetings in an attempt to be the one small-town story that gets reported in the evening news. No key demographics. No “hot zip codes.” No “Internet gold.” No sweeps. No story limits. No millions of other things on a checklist a day that take away from storytelling, which is what I love to do most.

Now it is just stories – long and short and happy and sad and silly and important. Community journalism is the only place you consistently can get that kind of coverage of a small town.

While they have their own strengths, TV newscasts are only 17 minutes, and big papers can’t cover every town in all 77 counties. It’s impossible.

Community papers are the backbone of the news pyramid. They are the ones documenting history in towns that don’t have stories sexy enough to draw attention from the bigger outfits. But those stories mean everything to the people who reside there and in towns like them.

I’ve freelanced for the American for a decade, stepping in to help when my schedule would allow. I’ve also done so when my schedule didn’t allow because I believed in the product and wanted to lend a hand. But now, it is my goal, as the new associate editor, to take a load off the publisher so he can focus on other areas of running the publication. As the publisher, he has many duties that go unnoticed if you aren’t in the business.

Sheila, Natasja and Caleb will continue offering instrumental support in the roles they have perfected over time. The place wouldn’t run without them. And I will do what I can to help pack the paper with more content every week.

In return, I hope you will see the added news and appreciate the effort by all of us. You can do that by renewing your subscription or picking up a copy at the store on a regular basis, or most of all, advertising your services. All those things ensure that the newspaper — the oldest business in Cleveland — will continue recording history and life as it unfolds in Pawnee County. While other outlets are important supplements that help us all be informed of the state, nation and world, no other entity except the Cleveland American will tell you about matters important to Cleveland, Oklahoma, just like a newspaper has been doing here since 1894.

Like when I worked in the city, I’ll still be writing about the kind of news that makes us cringe when we have to hear it (or when we have to report it). I’ll also keep records at city council meetings and school board meetings, watching your tax dollars at work. But I’ll be helping to make sure you know about the chili supper and the score to the big game. I’ll make sure your kid gets in the paper for making the honor roll and your grandma is mentioned for her 100th birthday. I’ll write features about the lives of people who make up our river valley – the farmers, ranchers, police officers, oil patch hands, nurses, business owners, clerks, mechanics, waitresses, moms, dads, retirees and veterans.

That means so much to me because those people comprise a town full of friends and neighbors I’ve known my entire life.

Those people are home. Those stories are home. And that feels really good.

And believe it or not, after five years in the TV world, it feels really good to have my shellac manicure stained with newspaper ink again, too.

While some might think a cityscape view is pretty unbeatable, I beg to differ. It’s beautiful in its own way, yes. But through my eyes, you can’t beat a small-town newspaper under your arm, walking down tiger paw sidewalks with a view of the cross and flag atop South Hill in Cleveland, America.

Home.

Because, like Thoreau, I wish to live deliberately.

 

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The day that angered us, changed us and gave us purpose

In my home, I have a framed fabric flag. The edges are worn and unraveling. The color is faded from its days in the sun.

I purchased it on Sept. 13, 2001.

After the 9/11 attacks, I sat on my couch, unmoved, for two days. I constantly watched the news. I called in sick to work. I was in college at Oklahoma State University then (on the seven-year plan), and I skipped classes that week because I was glued to the coverage. The death and destruction of average people just going about their lives was angering and  sickening. It still was unbelievable, even after the OKC bombing, even as I was watching live coverage as men and women were jumping from the Twin Towers to their deaths.

Beautiful souls with families and life left to live, but the cowards gave them no choice. They already had stolen their futures long before that — the second they decided and planned to use planes as weapons to kill.

Like so many other Americans, I watched in horror with an overwhelming want to pitch in, but I didn’t know how or what to do. On the 13th, I went to Walmart and purchased one of those 10-inch fabric flags on a stick. Since I lived a few blocks from campus in an apartment over a garage, I didn’t have a place to fly a big flag from a porch.

I settled for my little Walmart flag instead. I removed the stick and I stapled the corners of it to the rail of the stairs that went up to my apartment. When I moved to Chicago, it was taped up in the tiny window in my bedroom closet, which faced the courtyard of my building in Wrigleyville. When I moved to North Carolina, it had its own place in my underwear drawer. I framed it when I moved home to Oklahoma, and I am reminded of its meaning every day.

Back then, that $2 flag made me feel like I was doing something to help, or at least to recognize, those directly affected by horrific acts of terror – acts of war.

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A few years ago, I decided to take it a step further and I asked myself, “What can you do to make this world a better place?”

I recalled sitting in an upper-level history class the week after the 9/11 attack. My professor made an announcement. He said he wanted all of us to know that the young man who usually sat on the end of the third row had withdrawn from school to join the Air Force. He went to enlist on Sept. 12. We had a moment of silence to pray individually for him and then all 100 of us sat unmoved for what seemed like forever before the prof dismissed class early with these words…

“Whatever your calling is in life, do it with purpose.”

It took me a few years to establish my purpose. With family members and dear friends who have served the United States in uniform, I figured there was no better way to honor their bravery, and those still sacrificing, than to “adopt” members of the military,

I first chose a group of Texans, because a PFC who was serving as his unit’s liaison wrote a moving care package request to AnySoldier.com that said this:

“It would be nice to read not only things from the national scene, but local things as well. Things like which kid won the area spelling bee, or the 4-H competition. It doesn’t really matter which state or town the paper’s from… any city in America is home to us all.”

I sobbed instantly, and through the tears, I requested that particular unit’s address. Reading that excerpt made me realize I most definitely was doing the right thing by writing to random soldiers fighting for America’s protection. Because, like he wrote in that email, no matter who read my letter, no matter what state or town the soldier was from …any soldier serving America is a hero to us all.

After a few care packages, some correspondence and many thank yous on both ends, the military moved “my” unit to an undisclosed location where it was unable to receive mail. I was worried about those soldiers like I would have been about my own brother or sister. Every time bad news hit about Iraq, I shuddered. I almost was too scared to find out to which unit the fallen belonged. Two months later, I found out my entire unit was resting on America’s shores, safe and sound until its next mission. I was relieved, but I knew there were others out there, fighting in much worse areas of the world, some very remote and practically uncivilized.

So again, I went to AnySoldier.com and scrolled through the list, but this time I just closed my eyes and chose a name. With a click of the mouse, I was new friends with a unit from Virginia serving in Afghanistan.

And the next day I wrote, among other more lighthearted things, this message in a letter:

“…Because I don’t know what information you are able to receive about life back in the states, I feel as though it is necessary to tell you this: I suppose there always will be clashing opinions when it comes to war, but know that everyone I come in contact with and everyone I know has an enormous amount of respect and supports your mission fully. Like you, we all hope that casualties will be low and morale will remain high.

I can tell you that DAILY, I pray for peaceful resolutions and the safe return of all the men and women who are on foreign soil. I try to say a silent “thank you” often. And, in case you are wondering, I am not even close to being alone in doing so. I hear so many people talk about how proud they are of those who are showing such courage. It makes me think about how wonderful God is, in that there are so many people suited for so many different things in life, but He made the hearts of soldiers so large that they are willing to protect people they don’t even know. American people. Iraqi people. Afghans. People all over the world are on the receiving end of your courage, and they live better lives for it. I am not sure of your religious beliefs, but I do know that the Lord is protecting you, just as you protect complete strangers.”

I received a heartfelt email response from the unit’s 1SG (typos included):

“Dear Ms. Ball,
Thank you for your support of the troops. The letter you wrote made our men and women tear up and even smile. They are soldiers and trained well but the appreciation shown by civilians like you are what keeps them goin. Words cant express what it means when these soldiers receive a letter from the states. i believe that the Lord will bless you in your life because of the kindness you have in your heart.

The hunting and sports magazines and newspapers you sent are a good distraction. The women are thankful someone thought to send a Cosmo or two. They were fighting over them!!! It is nice to take a break and read things like magazines and books and pretend that there isn’t a war going on and it’s nice to remember that there are people back home who depend on us and who appreciate the sacrifices our men and women are making everyday. Please pass this along to all of your friends that we hope they will keep praying for us all!!!

Sometimes its tough but I guess the thing that gets most of us by is that we know that a few months of danger for us means lord willing many years of safety for our families and our country. Life here for me isn’t really so bad. Im proud to be here and proud to serve and i miss my wife and girls, but i belong to my country and i am proud to be here helping guide these young soldiers in their paths. Things could be worse and for some of these guys it is. One of the men here just found out that his wife back home in South Carolina has cancer. When i start to feel sorry for myself in this hell hole -I think about him and how strong he is to be here and be so far away from his loved ones and how strong his beautiful Chelsea is to be going through her illness alone right now. Soldiers like that are everywhere here and they just get up and keep going because they feel like they have a purpose.

please keep the mail coming, because they need all the morale boost they can get. mostly everyone is focused and keeps up their spirits, but this is a rough country and sometimes we spend weeks in places you would not dream about going but we’ll get through and be better people because of it. Hopefully we’ll have a better country because of it also.

Thank you from the bottom of all of our hearts. We look forward to your next package. We enjoy the things you sent and if they’re donations please extend thanks for us. You don’t have to send things but we sure do appreciate it. sometimes a nice letter is enough.

God Bless you and God Bless The USA.”

And I sobbed again. That was not my first correspondence with a soldier in battle, but it’s something you never get used to. It still is mind-boggling to think there are people out there who care so much for my freedom, my safety, my corner of the country… that they would put their lives on the line.

Sure, we hear that every day. Soldiers are heroes, yada, yada, blah, blah. People sometimes say those words with such ease that I wonder if they even understand their depth. But I urge you — the next time you say them — think about it. Really, really think about the power behind those words and try to picture, for one moment, what a day in the life of a military member in time of war would be like.

And think about “my” First Sergeant, who had the right to ask his fellow Americans for anything and everything he wanted. He, and thousands like him, gave up their own lives because they felt a calling to protect us. He could have asked for ANYTHING and he should have.

But instead, he simply said, “a nice letter is enough.”

That little worn-out flag stapled to my staircase in 2001 made me feel as though I was doing something to help. And now, I suppose this blog post is my way of helping. Please utilize the AnySoldier.com service. Do it with your children. The idea of it is decades-old, dating back to when Americans would address a handwritten envelope to “Dear Any Serviceman,” and send it abroad during World War II. Now you can use the Internet to narrow it down to hometown kids or people from your state. There also are sister organizations: AnyMarine, AnySailor, AnyAirman, AnyCoastGuard.

If America is to succeed in suffering as few casualties abroad as possible, it really does begin with support on the homefront.

I didn’t pen this post looking for a pat on the back for what I’ve done in this regard, so please, no thank yous to me are necessary.

But a simple thank you card sent to “Any Soldier” could be your little worn-out flag moment.

Like the young man at the end of the third row — whatever your calling is, do it with purpose.

 

 

Silly girl, tears don’t put out wildfires

My family always has been my refuge.

I was blessed with good examples. As a child, I was blessed with food on my plate and parents who insisted we eat a home-cooked supper together, at the kitchen table, every night.

I was blessed with a roof over my head.

I was blessed with a grandpa and daddy who built that home with their blood, sweat and tears.

Five years ago this week, however, the tears falling were mine.

I leaned against the end of the house, in the driveway where my brother learned to ride his tricycle and where my sister and I practiced our dribbling drills and cheer routines and would wave at high school boys driving past on the county road.

I leaned against the garage. And I cried hard.

Then I heard my Grandma Peggy’s loving and wise voice:“Brandi Lynn, it doesn’t do any good to cry. Now straighten up and quit it. You quit that right now.”

She handed me a box of items my mama wanted to save and told me to take it to the car.

She was right. Tears weren’t productive. The flames in the pasture across the road were nearing the neighbors’ house and moving at a rapid pace toward us.

As my brother was climbing on my parents’ roof and wetting it down, it seemed like we were up against Goliath. A little garden hose against a merciless opponent.

I felt defeated.

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As a journalist, I try to have the utmost sensitivity for the people I write about. I’ve lost sleep over other people’s struggles. I’ve taken notes as I watched people sift through soot or tornado damage as they searched for heirlooms. I’ve sneaked into a newsroom bathroom stall and wept after talking to someone about their mom’s cancer battle. I have sat shaking in my car after interviewing someone about brutal domestic abuse. I’ve sobbed alone because I don’t want to have to write about someone’s crime or bad decision.

And when interviewing a mother who lost a daughter to a tragic accident, my wall of professionalism fell. Instead of retreating to privacy, I just cried alongside her. Still, every Labor Day weekend, I remember Jen’s family.

For about 15 years or so, I’ve helped report the news. From Big 12 Championship games to school board meetings to murder trials, I have been busy scribbling shorthand, detailing life as it happens to everyone else.

But on that day of the 2011 wildfire, neighbors were praying, firefighters were against all odds, and my extended family drove from more than an hour away to help.

News helicopters circled overhead. Fellow reporters stood at the property’s edge.

I was in the story and not writing it.

As much as I pride myself on being a compassionate journalist, it’s much different when your pains are first hand instead of second hand.

It may be only a house. It may have insurance and it may be replaceable. My parents may be able to carry on just fine if a fire were to destroy it.

While material things aren’t important, the experiences are.

As the blaze danced on, I had a flashback to times I’d deliver water jugs or sandwiches out to daddy and grandpa or sat on a sawhorse and dangled my legs as I watched them work harder than I’ve ever seen any two people work.

I thought about how my parents would time our sibling leg races or watch us catch fireflies or play with us in the yard — made-up games or real ones — every night like we were a chapter in an Ozzie and Harriet biography.

It was the house that daddy and grandpa built, but it also was the house that built me.

Watching the fire rage out of control, a pit in my stomach increased as it crept toward a poor and unprepared defense. For a moment I leaned again — on a tree. I remembered when I was a kid and daddy brought home what seemed like a billion trees for our new 3-acre yard, which at the time really was an extension of our pasture and in need of a lot of TLC.

It was raining that day, but we had to plant them before they would die. Rain coats and galoshes in the mud, we planted those suckers all day, and I thought it was the most horrible experience of my short, little life. I muttered under my breath.

Torture to a preteen.

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But as the fire grew five- or six-stories tall just 200 yards away from the house full of my memories, I leaned against that tree and nearly lost my legs from under me.

I cried thinking about how I hated planting it years ago and how I didn’t want it to burn.

I thought about how I would plow over the little runt tree on the southwest side of the house every summer when I mowed the yard to earn my allowance.

“Bubba, do you ever pay attention?” daddy would ask me what seemed like every week.

On that day five years ago, ash raining from the sky and heat radiating off the prairie as the flames raced across it, I was paying attention.

The grass wasn’t in need of a lawn mower. In fact, it was so dry, brittle and brown it could have been December instead of summer. The Oklahoma drought was a monster, and the blades of dead grass were eaten alive instantaneously by growing fire, likely caused by the careless toss of a cigarette.

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And my brother, with his measly garden hose, was climbing on the back porch and wetting down the house while other relatives used the sprayer on the tractor to add a moisture barrier to the ground.

We didn’t stop. The firefighters, who were dwarfed by walls of towering flames that were engulfing cedars and bales of hay in nanoseconds, didn’t stop either.

We all kept on trying to outsmart the Goliath standing in our midst. We kept working diligently — not with tears, but with hope and lightweight garden hoses and a barren pond. We did it all while praying for heavenly reprieve. A shift in the wind, some rain, something.

We got a little of both in the knick of time.

The firefighters were able to stop the inferno mere feet from the neighbors’ house, and the house across the street, the one that built me, was saved.

As everyday struggles of all types continue to come in this life, sometimes I catch myself leaning and crying. Sometimes I feel helpless to the roller coaster. Confused. Alone. Mistreated. Outmatched. Smaller than David with a slingshot.

But then I straighten up, determined not to give up, and I go after those giant flames with my puny garden hose.

I pray.

I rise from the ashes.

Then I become the fire.

The shift in the winds of circumstance surely will follow.

 


(This column also was published on Aug. 10 in my hometown newspaper, The Cleveland American, for which I often report as a special correspondent.)