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.

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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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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.)

 

 

#OKlegacies: The Hag is gone, but I think he’ll stay

Merle Haggard’s baritone. I mean, c’monnnnn.

It’s smooth. It’s strong. It’s unmistakeable.

Yes, I’m talking about his voice in present tense even though he died today.

That’s the beauty of artists, of people who create. Their physical presence is missed by their family, those who love them most. But because they are artists, writers, musicians who have living, breathing documentation of their life — their talents and connection to people are preserved for all time.

Artists are timeless beyond the grave.

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Sundays in my city: Donna was our head cheerleader

I am a firm believer in “encouragers.” They make our world softer and kinder and lovelier.

Encouragers are people who always are finding someone else to support and cheer on to success. They are a breath of fresh air in a polluted “it’s-all-about-me” world.

Competition is everywhere; trust me, I work in one of the most competitive industries on the planet, so I know it all too well.

Sometimes it’s tough to find the encouragers because everyone is so focused on their own victories. But those bright lights are out there, shining sweetly, waiting on a chance to uplift someone else.

Donna Alburty Davis was one of the beacons that lit the paths of my hometown. The lights flickered last week when word came of her sudden death at a very youthful 69 years old.

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Oklahoma Legacies: ‘Cash only. Closed Sundays, Hon’

When you walk past the rockin’ chairs out front and perch yourself on a barstool at the Dot’s Cafe counter, you go back in time.

It’s unavoidable.

Just a smidge off Route 66, it’s a little hole-in-the-wall slice of Americana. You’ll pay for your patty melt the same way your grandaddy did, because cash is still king at Dot’s place.

And no matter what the modern cafes do, Dot’s stays closed on the Lord’s day — because as good as those made-from-scratch pies and chicken noodles are, Dot’s leaves Sunday brunch to the ladies in the church fellowship halls. A refreshing taste of yesteryear, with a spunky tone.

When it comes to interesting cities, Claremore is one of Oklahoma’s headliners. With it being the backdrop for one of the most famous musicals of all time and frontage to America’s Main Street as it ushers cross-country travelers through, the home of Will Rogers isn’t too shabby of a spot.

Dot’s has about as much character as the city itself — and it’s had a lot of characters sitting in its booths over the years, too.

Order up some fried taters and homemade biscuits, and get a wink and a smile from the best waitress in town, who happens to be Dot’s granddaughter. Dot may be gone, but her family carries on that decades-long legacy.

Whether you stop in for the atmosphere or for the eats, you’ll leave this diner feeling a little like your soul is whistling Dixie, with a chorus of The Andy Griffith Show theme song.

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My “Oklahoma Legacies” series is dedicated to chronicling life in my great home state, because ol’ No. 46 makes my heart beat pretty steady and strong. Every person and every place has a story — past and present. These are Oklahoma’s.

Click here to see all the posts in my #OKlegacies series.


Today, I want to live here: Granny’s kitchen

Even if you grew up in the city, there’s probably something familiar about a farmhouse kitchen.

I grew up in rural Oklahoma, and still, every time I see a farmhouse-style kitchen, I am reminded of my Granny’s haven. I was only 5 years old when she died, but I still remember her kitchen.

It wasn’t fancy. In fact, it was the opposite of fancy. It had an old ’50s-style table, and in my memory, there is a pie in the center of it, covered with a muslin tea-towel.
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Because their future *is* my future.

I don’t have children of my own. I am not a mother. I haven’t had contractions, been in labor or signed legal papers.

I do, however, spend a lot of my time choosing to volunteer with and mentor to the children in my community of Cleveland, Okla. Those children aren’t mine by birth, but I invest in them because I believe it is part of my repayment to society for what it has done for me. It’s what humans should do for each other, right?

It takes a village, and our village is a collective asset — the people, the places, the things, the triumphs and the problems.

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