Monday, February 2, 2015

Why Celebrate This Strange Day? Working Writer Guest Post by author Julia Park Tracey

Many years ago, when I was still a practicing Catholic, if February 2 fell on a Sunday, we members of the choir and the congregation would file forward to have our throats blessed for the Feast of St. Blaise. That involved holding two candles crossed against your throat and some magic words said by the priest: “Through the intercession of Saint Blaise, bishop and martyr, may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and from every other illness.”

Julia Park Tracey
Julia Park Tracey
How strange was it to have candles pressed to my throat, in honor of the kind fellow who saved a friend from choking? How unusual to have a body part blessed? But that was church. It went without question.

When I left the Church and flirted with Wicca instead, I celebrated the full moon and the coming of Imbolc, when the Goddess changes from Crone to Maiden — when winter begins to turn to spring (depends where you live, I suppose). We ate cheese to celebrate the coming of spring milk, and wove St. Brigid’s crosses from apple twigs and twine. St. Brigid, or St. Bride, was another historical pagan adopted into the Catholic Church — a goddess and her magical well were baptized, so to speak, into the canon of the Church, and on February 2, celebrated as giving honor to the Virgin Mary.

And then we have Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog whose early awakening is supposed to foretell an early spring or longer winter. Spiritual? Pagan? Just a charming local custom? So many ways to celebrate.

I get wrapped up in the history and the origins of things because I like there to be meaning in my life, for the things I do and how I do them. I want my days to resound with a quiet holiness, to be imbued with depth and gratitude. I used to look to the Church and organized religion for that (believe this, no matter whether it makes sense), and then to disorganized religion, which is how I’d term my Wiccan experience (no leadership, believe whatever you want). But they only satisfied my questions for so long.

I’ve realized that it was as much my inner voice as any other, telling me I wasn’t doing it right, and when I stopped listening to the nagging of formal religion or inner judges, I realized I never needed them. What I find now, after years of internal and public struggle, is that I have all those things already: gratitude, a tender spirit, a feeling of living each day in blessing and abundance. I have it all, without an ordained person telling me that I’m doing it right or wrong.

February 2 is just a day like any other, as special and as ordinary in all the myriad ways, and I don’t need the hullaballoo of a special day to make me feel right or wrong.

What are you writing about today, this ordinary extraordinary day, and how are you celebrating, if at all?

Julia Park Tracey is the author of Veronika Layne Gets the Scoop (Booktrope) and the forthcoming Veronika Layne Has a Nose for News. She’s an award-winning journalist, author and blogger, and you can find her at, @juliaparktracey or Facebook/JuliaParkTraceyAuthor.
Julia Park Tracey, Veronica Layne Gets the Scoop
Add caption

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Day 10, Barbara: A Birthday Blog

Tuesday, December 3, 1957: Earlier this week, on Sunday night, Buddy Holly and the Crickets have debuted on the Ed Sullivan Show, after taking “That’ll Be the Day” to the top of the charts. The following afternoon, in suburban Atlanta, Georgia, it’s clear and chilly; Elsie goes into labor and Bill drives her downtown to Piedmont Hospital. At 4:04 the next morning, they have a baby girl. They call her Barbara Ann—not a family name (there hasn’t been a Barbara Brannon in the line since 1753, just one they happen to like (Barbara is the seventh most popular name for girls that year). It will be some years before either the Regents or the Beach Boys make it a musical hit. This Barbara even predates Mattel’s Barbie doll by a couple of years.

Grandma Brannon especially rejoices. “She’s the first girl born into the Brannon family in fifty-seven years,” she takes to bragging; not since my great-aunt Fannie Lou arrived in 1900 has there been anything but a regular crop of rambunctious boys.

So here I am fifty-seven years later, alive and well in Lubbock, Texas, where several of my family have also relocated. The ’57 Chevy is a classic. So am I, then, I suppose. In the hometown of Buddy Holly I’m grateful to begin another year on the planet. Here’s wishing for a good one! Not just “That’ll be the day”—the sardonic phrase uttered by John Wayne in The Searchers that inspired that bunch of young musicians way back when—but “Everyday,” another of those great 1957 hits.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Day 9, Barbara: A Veteran's Day

Friends ask me what I’m working on right now, other than the sequel to The Paragraph Ranch that Kay and are writing during NaNoWriMo. It’s the story of my colorful and sometimes cantankerous father—and that of his three grown daughters as his caregivers when he could no longer see, or see to his own needs. For my posting in November—the month of his birth, and the month of voting and Veterans’ Day—here’s a passage that takes place in what would be Bill Brannon’s last year of life.

* * *
William J. Brannon, Fort Fisher AFB, 1956
We try to urge Dad to get out and go with us, to the beach, or a folk music singalong, or a visiting author’s reading. But he finds the effort of getting dressed to go out in public exhausting. “I’d only slow you down,” he says, and he’s right, though that’s a concession we’re willing to make—to change things up, lighten his spirits.
         “I tell you what,” I offer, as I finish stirring the spaghetti sauce for dinner, on the island stovetop that separates his kitchen from the dining table where he sits listening to a diatribe on FoxTalk Radio. “There’s a concert on campus next Friday night that I think you’d enjoy. The Air Force Band is performing, and I can get free tickets for all of us. Don’t you think that’s enough advance notice for a shower and shave?”
         “Well, maybe . . . aren’t there a lot of stairs to navigate?” He turns the radio down a notch.
         “There’s an easy ramp for handicapped access.”
         “Parking might be a problem.”
         I cut him off. “We’ll be able to get you right up front in the faculty lot. And you’ll have plenty of help. What do you say?” I fill the pan at the sink and put it on to heat for the noodles while I wait for his answer.
         “All right,” he replies with as much enthusiasm as a petulant child, before turning up the volume again and rejoindering with Hannity and Colmes.
         The water comes to a boil, and I crack the package of noodles into it.
         “What a bunch of nonsense,” Dad carps to no one in particular. The topic of the radio show seems to be the president’s sinking approval ratings and the upcoming midterm elections. “Come on, we’re the most powerful nation on earth and we can’t seem to take down one crazy religious fanatic hiding in a cave in the desert? You can’t claim that Bush has done a damn thing to win this ‘war on terror.’ Just keeps sending more troops to Iraq, getting more body bags back. And now he’s letting those commie clowns in North Korea walk all over him.”
         I tolerate the rant for about another half a minute. And then I break. “Dad—” I light into him, marching over to shut off the squawk box, “—not that I necessarily disagree. But what good does it do to sit here day after day arguing with the radio?”
         He shuts up for a second and looks at me through those thick lenses that magnify his wide expression. All is quiet except the bubbling of the pot on the stove.
         “What I mean is, how can you just let a fine mind go to waste, doing nothing with your energy and your intellect?”
         I’ve built up quite a head of steam, and he lets me continue. “Look. All my life you have spouted off ideas about this and theories about that. Criticizing the way our government is run, armchair-quarterbacking how it could’ve been done better. Kibbitzing from the sidelines. But I have never seen you serve on a jury. Never seen you so much as volunteer for the P.T.A. Never even seen you vote.” I punch my finger on the table in front of him for emphasis.
         Silence again for a beat. And then he murmurs, “I’m not registered.”
         “What?” I ask, genuinely not sure what he’s said.
         “I’ve never registered to vote. Ever.”
         I’m astonished, really . . . but I shouldn’t be. If I think back about it, my excitement at age eighteen, coming in the door after casting my first vote in a presidential election, for our fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter—he’d never said a word about going to the polls himself. I just assumed. Fathers served in the armed forces, they married and had a family, they bought a car and a house, they voted. All essential elements of the American Dream.
         I let my anger deflate.
         “Take me to register,” he says in a measured tone. “Drive me down to wherever you go, and I’ll fill out whatever I need to do. And I’ll vote.”

* * *
         It is an arduous undertaking—first, locating a birth certificate among Mom’s old papers, then securing a new Social Security card when Dad admits his original had been lost in the surf along with the rest of his wallet years ago and his driver’s license is long expired; then getting him into the car and out again at the Board of Elections. But he emerges at the end of the day a registered North Carolina voter, just under the wire for the national election that will take place the week of his seventy-fourth birthday.
         We accompany Dad the following week to the Air Force Band concert, escorting him to a seat well forward where he can hear reasonably well and make out some of the shapes of the performers. Beverly sits on one side and I on the other, happy to see his obvious enjoyment as the evening opens with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” We all rise and sing, hands over hearts.
         There comes another patriotic favorite midway through the program. The conductor announces the Armed Forces Medley, a stirring arrangement of each service anthem, during which veterans from each branch are invited to stand and be honored. But as the music segues into Off we go, into the wild blue yonder, Bill Brannon keeps his seat.
         I lean over to him. “Are you having trouble getting up?” I whisper in his ear. “I’ll help.”
         He stage-whispers back, “But . . . I’m not a vet—I didn’t serve in combat.”
         I look over at Bev and signal for her to grab an arm. We haul him to his feet and stand alongside him, as applause for all airmen present thunders through the auditorium. We will draw him out of his self-containment, his churlish and perverse isolation, if it takes every one of us to do it.

* * *
         On November 7, 2006, William Joseph Brannon, ceaseless political spectator, from a walker in the company of his two eldest daughters, punched a ballot for the first time in his life. He did not reveal his choices to us. It didn’t matter: he’d participated in the process. And when he held forth in debate ever afterward—from that day to his last—it was not with that damned radio, but with one of us.

* * *

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Day 8, Kay: Time to Vote

How many of you remember the first time you ever voted?

We all do. The likelihood is that if you’re reading this blog you’re a voter.

My first time to vote was in 1978. My parents had never voted. They were passionate about politics and felt rescued from the ravages of the Depression by FDR, but had never voted. They had a variety of reasons not to vote, but I think they simply felt intimidated by the process.

When they were in their sixties and I was in my twenties, I helped them to register to vote, and I think they took some pride in being regular voters after that. The last vote my mother cast was in 2008 when the county clerk brought the ballot to the car, and she voted for Hillary Clinton in the primary.

But thirty years earlier I had steered my ’72 Vega across John Ben Shepperd Parkway in Odessa and entered the gymnasium of an all but empty elementary school. It had taken quite a bit of effort to register as a college student to be able to vote in a town that wasn’t my own, but I was committed.

With great pride I plunged into the prospect and cast my ballot for John Hill for governor, and the electronic ballot punched William P. Clements for governor. I could not convince the poll worker that my ballot had been cast wrong. She assured me it was right. Was it? I’ll never know. But my guy didn’t win.

On today’s Election Day I will have to make myself vote. Frankly, I’ve lost my stomach for it. Money, zealots, and cynics have hijacked a process I used to respect. One party controls Texas, and other choices and voices seldom have a chance.

However, the only way Texas will ever have two viable parties is for everyone to vote. The only path for the process to be credible is for everyone to vote. One of the reasons why extremists who talk about secession with a straight face have a platform is that off-year elections have such abysmal turnout.

Take back Texas. Vote.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Day 7, Kay: This year the squirrels are lazy as town dogs, and I love them for it

When my family moved to town from the farm, and our mother wanted to chide us for any less-than-industrious behavior, she’d say, “You’ve gotten lazy as town dogs.” Apparently country canines had more pressing responsibilities.

As a working writer, I find my inspiration often comes from—in addition to childhood nostalgia—looking out the window and seeing what is transpiring in my own backyard.

I have seen next to no squirrels this year. Let me be perfectly clear, this is not due to increased hunting stealth of our two felines who share a sense of simpatico with town dogs.

Legend has it that you can forecast how harsh the winter will be by the gathering habits of the squirrels.

Snowflake takes it easy
In 2010 squirrels started collecting pecans from the trees near me in April, as soon as small green fruit would appear on the tree. The winter of 2010 had its last snow May 1, 2011. That was the year that Snowflake, the all-white stray cat, swam in snow across the street to greet me, and ultimately took up residence here awhile.

This year we have plenty of pecans on the trees, and I haven’t even seen the telltale green husks and half-eaten nuts strewn on the deck.

The squirrels are slackers, and I am thrilled. I am no fan of the harsh, cold days of winters with slick and treacherous surfaces.

When it comes to battling winter, I am a town dog.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Day 6, Barbara: Me ’n’ Sookie and a toe-tappin’ time in Texas

Kay and I are just back from a stint at the State Fair of Texas, an extravaganza of fried foods, Ferris wheels, and my annual tour of duty at the Food & Fiber Pavilion on behalf of heritage tourism in the Lone Star State. (Did you know that travel & tourism is Texas’s second largest export product, after energy? But that’s another story.)

While we were in Dallas Big Tex debuted a sporty new shirt. Ebola made a nasty appearance. (Another story too.) The world’s largest commercial jetliner landed at DFW from Australia on the world’s longest commercial aviation route. (Yet another story.) And Sookie wouldn’t stop licking my feet.

Now, Sookie isn’t a vampire—she’s just named for one. You see, on the last night of our Dallas visit we accepted the gracious invitation of some of Kay’s kin to stay overnight in their home, which has plenty of extra bedrooms now that the kids are grown and gone. Things are pretty quiet at their house now, except when the granddogs visit.

Barnabas, the six-pounds-when-soaking-wet Silkie, yips and nips when semi-strangers show up. He takes after his namesake that way. I should’ve been mindful to bring closed-toe shoes. (Years ago, when I was a stage mom working with the ever-gallant Jonathan Frid on a college production, I don’t recall having to take any such precautions.)

But Sookie, the winsome Boston Terrier, loves everybody to death. Sookie wags. Sookie slurps. Sookie licks. No fangs in sight.

When I first made the acquaintance of puppy Sookie some years back I hadn’t yet cracked open a Charlaine Harris novel, much less watched an episode of True Blood. Sookie? I asked her pet human. He and his family clued me in.

So I had to know more about the telepath from Bon Temps. Since then I’ve followed the fortunes of Sookie Stackhouse’s prolific creator, and Kay and I will get to meet her at the Books in the Basin festival this weekend in Midland-Odessa's Wagner-Noel Performing Arts Center. We'll kick up our heels at the historic Yucca Theater and stick around for Literary Death Match. We’ll look forward to learning how a mystery writer from Mississippi made it big in the world of the undead.

And hey, Sookie the Terrier, watch your back. We've read there are Living Dead in Dallas. And we hear Ms. Harris’s first book, way back when, was published in the UK as, um, Dead Dog.

Sookie wants to make sure all her friends know there’s an entire museum devoted exclusively to Boston Terriers in Floydada, Texas

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Day 5, Kay: Happy October from West Texas

Happy October, everyone, from The Working Writer and The Paragraph Ranch.

With the calendar turning toward autumn, I can’t help but remember my earliest memories of the season. Growing up on a cotton farm brings back very different recollections of fall. Autumn meant picking cotton.

The year I turned six was a triumph for me when I was big enough to join the family in pulling those fluffy white bolls from the plants. We had just moved to town from the farm but still had to go back and harvest one last crop. One October afternoon after school, we four kids changed into working clothes and rode with our parents out to the field to pick cotton.

I was too small to haul a traditional white cotton bag, but pulled a burlap tow sack instead. By sunset I had picked 58 pounds—more than my own weight—and enjoyed the kudos from all.

When we drove back into town to our new house, children were running across the streets in costumes, and I didn’t know what that meant. My parents explained that it was Halloween, and “town kids” got dressed up and went door-to-door asking for candy.

“And they get it?” I asked in wonder.

Those days were a lot more isolated on the farm. Now with media immersion, no child escapes commercial culture. But I was the poster child for rural naivete.

My dad stopped at a store on the way to our house for milk and bread and bought one of the biggest bags of candy I had ever seen. It even had wax teeth in it. “Here, this is for y’all,” Mama said, opening and offering the bag around.

“How many pieces do we get?” my brother said, as was the norm for our frugal family.

“All of it,” Mama said. “Pass it around and share.”

Fall always brings back memories of this moment, this gentle kindness and sense of largesse. It can take so little sometimes to make a person happy.