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IT WAS THE MOST UNBELIEVABLE THING I’D EVER SEEN. I was twelve years old, the year was 1964. Every morning in school we stood, faced the American flag, put our hand over our heart and recited The Pledge of Allegiance.

But one morning, halfway through the pledge, my buddy nudged me and motioned with his head for me to look behind us. Sure, that would be the wrong thing to do and risked raising the ire of my teacher, a former Marine who was pretty insistent on things being done his way, but hey, I was twelve years old. So I glanced backward and saw the new kid sitting in his chair looking down at his hands in his lap. To say that I was stunned would be a gross understatement.

I thought that perhaps he just didn’t know what the drill was in Mr. Traylor class, so I tried to get his attention so I could motion for him to at least stand up. I’m sure I looked like a gecko with one eye focused on the flag and Mr. Traylor and the other focused on the new kid.

For an unknown reason to me, Mr. Traylor looked over his shoulder in my direction. (Maybe it’s true that teachers have eyes in the back of their heads.) He gave me a look that made my blood freeze. Not knowing what else to do, I leaned a bit to the left to give him a line of sight to the boy behind me. (Yes, I gave up the usurper for the sake of saving my own hide.)

As soon as the pledge ended, we all sat down and stared as Mr. Traylor marched toward the boy behind me. I heard the three words that no student EVER wanted to hear, “Come with me.”

The “prisoner of war” was escorted by Mr. Traylor to the cloak room, a small room in the back where we all hung our jackets and coats AND where Mr. Traylor kept his paddle (a cruel looking piece of wood with holes drilled in the middle so that he could swing it faster). I cringed at the thought of what was going to happen next.

Everyone in class strained to hear what was being said behind the closed door or at least hear the “whack” off the paddle. Several moments passed without a sound of any kind passing through the thin walls. Then suddenly, Mr. Traylor and the student exited the room. The new kid resumed his seat behind me as Mr. Traylor proceeded to the front of the room.

All of us had our eyes glued on the most feared teacher in the school as he turned to face us.

“Students,” he said, “the newest member of our class, Master Jennings, chose not to recite the pledge because the religion that his family practices forbids it. While I might disagree with that position, I fought for his right to practice it.”

That was it. That’s all he said or ever said about it. It made an impression on me and a memory that I’ve never forgotten.

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Chapter One

Struggling to catch her breath and with her face glistening with sweat, Mary finally made it to the top of the hill that formed one side of the hollow that she and William’s cabin lay nestled in. The top of the hill was no peak, rather it looked as if the top had been sliced off with a large knife, leaving a small, flat, half-acre area. In the valley to her right she saw an autumn fog lying over the flowing waters of Chickamauga Creek as it wound its way toward Chattanooga where it emptied into the Tennessee River. She watched in silence for a few minutes, then turned to face her final destination – a large, spreading American chestnut tree standing in the center of the clearing, with low-hanging limbs that seemed to bid her to enter their embrace.

The leaves crunched underneath her knees as she knelt underneath the tree and stared at four small, wooden boards sticking out of the ground. From a pocket on the front of her dress she withdrew a small book: In Memorium, A.H.H. by Alfred Tennyson. The book had become her constant companion ever since she purchased it a month ago. She’d never read anything that grasped the depth to which grief can take a person like Tennyson did.

She flipped through pages until she found the passage she was looking for and read it aloud:

Old Yew, which graspest at the stones
That name the under-lying dead,
Thy fibres net the dreamless head,
Thy roots are wrapt about the bones.

After returning the book to her pocket, she placed a goldenrod bloom at the base of each of the boards, then, slowly, she read the engraving on each of them, starting with the one to her left:

Elizabeth Thomson

Born January 23, 1854

Died January 27, 1854

 

Alexander Thomson

Born April 30 , 1857

Died April 30, 1857

 

Naomi Thomson

Born May 28, 1860

Died August 20, 1860

 

X Thomson

Born July 3, 1862

Died July 3, 1862

After reading the last one, she said, “You are the one I feel the most pity for because we didn’t even give you a name. I should have insisted, but your father, William, had decided that maybe it was bad luck for us to name a child before it was born and that was why none of your siblings survived. But I know the truth. The truth is that I am cursed by God. For reasons that I don’t understand, he has decided that grief will be my constant companion and that loss will follow me everywhere I go.”

She laid down on her back so that some part of her body was on top of each of the tiny graves of her children. Her long, thick, flaxen hair, tucked inside her cap, provided a pillow for the back of her head and framed her smooth-skinned face as she looked up through the branches of the chestnut tree. A single tear, a small reminder of the untold number of tears she had shed under this tree, slipped from one of her blue eyes and dampened the hair on her temple.

At least I’ll never suffer the pain of losing another child, if what the doctor said is true. And I’m glad of it! I’m soul weary of getting my hopes up and having them repeatedly smashed.

She knew that her barrenness was a bitter disappointment to William, and while she appreciated his efforts to hide it, there were times when he said things that made it clear he still wished for children.

There was a time she had longed for the joy of seeing her and William’s children grow and thrive and work alongside them on the farm, but when she learned that that opportunity had ended, she became determined to fill the void in her and his life by being the perfect helpmeet, working the farm side by side with him and having him teach her how to make the chairs, baskets, and tables that he sold during the winter months. And she would be his partner in cutting and selling firewood to people who lived in the nearby city of Chattanooga.

After a few more minutes, she arose, said goodbye to her children, and headed back down the hill. Halfway down, she paused to catch her breath and sat down on a large limestone rock that jutted out from the hillside. From her vantage point she could look down and see the cabin and barn. There was no sign of William, but she knew he was busy, probably still feeding the livestock or out hunting for meat for their table. A thin trail of smoke from the chimney of their house snaked upward toward the top of the ridges on either side of their hollow. As she followed its journey she took note of the rust-colored leaves of the sycamore trees, the hickory trees’ deep gold color, the bright reds of the red maples (her favorite), dashes of crimson from poison sumac, and the earth tones of the oaks.

Suddenly she heard the sharp snap of a twig close by, and jumped, every nerve alert and heart pounding. She turned her head this way and that until she spotted the intruder coming through the thick foliage. She frowned. “You startled me.”

William strode toward her, his rifle hanging comfortably in one hand. The cheeks of his ruddy face glowed bright red. “You don’t need to walk off by yourself without letting me know where you’re going. You gave me a fright. I’ve told you you need to be more careful. There is war all around us. What if I had been a Yankee soldier or a Rebel deserter? What would you have done?” With concern etched on his face, he sat down beside her.

It was a familiar chastisement, one that rankled her. “If you’re really worried what might happen to me, then teach me to use a gun like you promised to!”

“Yes, yes, I know. I just never think of it at the right time.” His dark eyes slipped from her gaze, and he looked up the hill. “Why do you go up there so often?” he asked. “It always makes you melancholy.”

She pulled her knees to her chest. “I’m fully aware of my melancholia. I live with it every day and don’t need you to remind me of it. I try hard to fight against it, and sometimes I win, but other times it is too overpowering. What I don’t understand is why you don’t go up there at all.”

“I just try to keep it pushed out of my mind and focus on what’s going on today.”

“I wish I could do that,” she replied. “I can’t help feeling like they are lonely. I don’t know if they knew they were loved. So I go up there to tell them about you and about me and how much they meant to us.” Suddenly, sadness, pity, regret, anger, frustration all fill her chest, and she feels if it is about to burst. I thought I was past all this. Perhaps the grief of losing a child never completely leaves a mother’s heart.

William laid his hand against her cheek. “You know,” he began, “the doctor could be wrong. Perhaps we can still have a child.”

Mary slapped his hand away. “I’m still not enough for you, am I? Why must women always be measured by their ability to give birth, not just by men, but by other women, too? It’s always the first question I’m asked when I meet a women for the first time – ‘How many children do you have?’ they ask. What I’d like to tell them is that I have four children, and then I’d like to take them up this hill and show them the markers and see what they have to say. And if they gave even a hint that my four babies don’t count, or if they looked at me like they pitied me, I would – ” her hands ball into fists. “I don’t know what I would do, but they would for sure never do it again.”

She sees the hurt on William’s face and knows she should apologize for speaking so harshly, but at the same time didn’t mind that he felt some pain. She always loved him, but sometimes, like right now, she hated him – hated him for not feeling like she did, for being able to push the pain so far away from him that he seemed unaffected by it, and there were times she hated him for continuing to insist they try to have a child, even after they had lost the first two.

She took a deep breath and let it out, in an effort to let go of her hatred and to grab hold of love. Finally, she said, “I’m sorry for how I speak to you sometimes and how I treat you. In Tennyson’s poem that I am always talking about, he says, ‘I sometimes hold it half a sin To put in words the grief I feel; For words, like Nature, half reveal And half conceal the Soul within.’ That is exactly how I feel. I don’t even know how to talk about how I feel.

“But this I know, you will never know how sorry I am that I can’t give you children. I know you wanted a son more than anything on – ”

William reached over and covered her mouth with his hand. “Shush, Mary Elizabeth. Don’t say another word. I know you don’t always mean what you say, because I know you love me. Losing your babies has changed you, but I know that the woman I married is still in you and will live and breathe again some day. I should be apologizing to you. I shouldn’t have said what I said to you. It was thoughtless of me. To be blessed to have a wife like you, the most beautiful woman in the land, is more than I could have ever dreamed of. If it is God’s will that we have no more children, then it is my place to accept that and be content with it. And I promise you, I will.”

It was hard for Mary to appreciate William’s attempts at easing her burden, because all that she could hear him say was that he would accept her barrenness, not that he had accepted it.

(To order your copy of this heart stopping historical romance by best selling author David Johnson, click on this link  )

[Official release date is July 4.]

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“Just because I finished writing the story doesn’t mean the book was finished.”

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Did you know that some cultures in East Asia consider their newborns as being one year old the instant they are born? I think that is a marvelous concept and actually a more accurate measure of how old a person is. Though unseen to the outside world (except by means of ultrasound), the infant is unbelievably busy, eating, growing, and becoming. The speed of brain development during this period is almost unimaginable, as 50,000 neurons are produced EVERY SECOND.

Much emphasis is placed on how a mother’s actions affect the child she is carrying, especially regarding the harmful effects of alcohol, smoking, and other drugs. But not enough attention is paid to the mother’s emotional/mental health.

In a study of over 4,000 mothers and their children, who were followed for over eighteen years, mothers with negative, pessimistic, depressive thinking patterns when pregnant increased the risk of their child being depressed eighteen years later. And women who were under significant stress while pregnant produced children who were more stress prone, irritable, and moody.

If you are pregnant and recognize any of those symptoms in yourself,

  • Find you a good counselor who can help you overcome your negative attitude and help alleviate the symptoms of depression
  • Talk with your OB provider and ask if they can help (with either medication or a referral to a counselor)
  • Force yourself to do some physical exercise, even (or especially) if you don’t feel like it, and even if it’s just going for a walk
  • Talk with an empathetic friend or family member
  • Start a daily Grateful Journal, listing three things per day that you are thankful for
  • Be sure you are paying attention to your spiritual life by means of prayer, meditation, Bible reading, and worshiping with a community of believers

If you know someone who is pregnant, don’t assume you know anything about what’s going on with her mental health. People are very adept at covering and hiding their true self from others. Go ahead and assume that she has days when she really struggles to maintain her equilibrium. Then you need to:

  • Send her a handwritten note or letter, letting her know you were thinking of her and offering to be a lifeline, if she needs one
  • Ask her out for coffee, or a meal, or a walk in the park
  • Go visit her and keep the conversation light
  • Or let her cry on your shoulder, if that’s what she seems to need
  • Fix a meal and take it to her
  • Show up unannounced and tell her you are going to take her laundry home and do it for her
  • If she has other children, take them to spend the night with you for a night
  • Or offer to watch her kids while she goes out to a movie

An unborn child is unable to make any choices or control any part of its environment. What it deserves is having a network of people that will do whatever they can to help the baby’s mother be as healthy as she can be – physical and mentally.

 

Attraction, not Promotion

December 7, 2016 — 5 Comments

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One of the most frustrating experiences you can have is when you try to get someone you care about to change their lifestyle and the direction of their life.

My first bitter taste of this was as a school teacher in my early twenties when I unsuccessfully tried to convince a student they were traveling the destructive path of using drugs. No matter what means I tried, nothing made a difference.

Perhaps you’ve been there (or are there now), too, in trying to get a loved one to:

  • change their eating habits
  • quit smoking
  • stop abusing alcohol and other drugs
  • surrender their life to God
  • start exercising regularly

Or you may have experienced this frustration during our most recent Presidential election when you tried to convince someone that either Trump or Clinton represented the coming of the Apocalypse. No matter what evidence you used to persuade them, it didn’t change their mind.

So, if threats of lung cancer and emphysema, diabetes, knees, hips, and ankles wearing out, death from an overdose, the Apocalypse, and hell fire and damnation won’t produce lasting change in people, what will?

Dr. David Mee-Lee, one of the foremost voices in addiction treatment today, and who I’ve had the opportunity to meet and learn from, says, “You cannot push, pressure, persuade, prescribe and pester someone into real and lasting change. Only as you inspire and attract people to think and act differently will you initiate a process of change.”

Notice he emphasizes two things: one is “lasting change.” You might be able to scare and/or guilt someone into making a change, but that kind of change rarely lasts. It’s not that fear and guilt don’t have a role in change, but those emotions must come from within the person. For example, the man who has a heart attack as a result of his unhealthy lifestyle might be motivated by fear to make changes. But beating people over the head with a “guilt stick” or using scare tactics won’t produce the lasting change you are hoping for in them.

The second thing Dr. Mee-Lee emphasizes is your behavior – not the behavior of the one you are trying to get to change.

“My behavior?” you say. “I’m eating healthy, I exercise regularly, I don’t smoke or use drugs, and I live my life for God.”

If that is true, then the question to ask is, “Is the way you go about living your life one that inspires others and that others find attractive, or do you appear to be miserable, joyless, cynical, and pessimistic?” If you are the latter, why would anyone want to join you in living the way you do?

Think about that, and let it sink in.

What all this means is, we should be most focused on changing ourselves, not on changing others.

Ultimately, the only thing we have the power to change is ourselves, and trust me, that is a FULL TIME and never ending job.

I recently visited my neighbor, Chester, who has plenty of common sense but is short on the other kind, and learned MUCH more than I expected or cared to know and some things I still don’t understand.

I began by asking, “How’s your wife, Punkin’, doing?”

He replied, “They performed a mammy-o-gram and told her they were going to have to take her odories out because of her enthomesiosos.”

Chester does have a way with words.

“She’s also got that degeneres disc disease.”

Perhaps this is a new disease that was named after Ellen DeGeneres.

“Tell how your health is, Chester.”

His face drooped, and he said, “I’ve got that ‘sleep acne’ and am supposed to start sleeping with a machine.”

I have to say that I saw no evidence of facial blemishes on Chester’s face. Well, actually, there is very little of Chester’s face that you can see underneath his full beard, so I can’t be certain.

He launched into a rather graphic, R-rated, description of the doctor examining his “prostrate” gland and said he was going to go to the liberry to read if the doctor was making it all up or if that’s truly where his “prostrate” is. “And then, the other night,” he said, “I got up in the middle of the night and broke my little toe on the chester drawers in our bedroom. It hurt worse than when I tripped over the rot iron table in the living room last month!”

I’m not saying that Chester stumbles a lot; it’s only when he’s been drinking. Okay, so he does stumble a lot.

I tried to shift the conversation away from the medical field by asking, “How’s your grandmother doing?”

“Not too good,” he replied. “She was in tensive care and bleeding eternally the other night, but she didn’t know it because she’s got that “All-timers” disease.”

Then suddenly he turned the tables on me by asking, “Do you ever get flustrated with your wife?”

I started to tell him, “not so much as people who use malapropisms,” but knew all he would do with that is give me a blank stare. It really didn’t matter that I didn’t reply, because he had something on his mind.

“Punkin’ got mad at me because I forgot her birfday. So I drove to the Wal-Marts, nearly running off in the medium of the highway because I was driving so fast, and bought her an African that she could lay across her lap while watching TV. But that made her madder. She said the only thing that would make her happy would be if I’d buy her one of them Datsun puppies she’s so fond of.”

Between picturing an African American lying across Punkin’s lap and an old Datsun pickup sitting in their living room, I was having trouble keeping focused on Chester’s conversation. I tried again to give some direction, and asked, “How’s your kids?” (I should have asked a question that could not have been turned back toward the medical arena.)

“Supposably the boy’s got strap throat and chicken pops, which Punkin’ said was sort of simular. I don’t have any ideal if he does or not.”

“Lord, please deliver me,” was my only thought at that point. One more question came to mind. “How’s your job, Chester?”

“I don’t know the pacifics of everything, but my foreman says it all depends on what the budget looks like in this next physical year. Irregardless, I’m going to have to be off for a while helping take care of Punkin’. She told me to axe you if you could help us out with the rent money this month. We’ve got to replace our chimley.”

 

I’m often asked where I get the ideas for my books. I don’t know about other writers’ methods, but my method is to create memorable characters FIRST, then let them tell their story.

Tucker’s Way began with the creation of Tucker (who turned out to be a character people can’t forget). Then I asked myself why a person would become the way she was, in other words, what was HER story? Next, I asked myself what she would do if she ever had to interact with someone who was her polar opposite? That was how the character of Ella came to life.  But, again, what was HER story? Revealing to readers their individual stories, plus their joint story, became easy to write.  The other characters in the book sprang up as I began writing Tucker and Ella’s story.

In Toby the story was to be about two characters: Symphony and her dog, Toby. But suddenly, as I began writing their story, these other characters began appearing. Caleb, the dark character, was no where in my mind when I began writing the book. I “accidently” found him.

This last aspect of writing is one of the most enjoyable, when characters appear that I’d not thought about or planned on.  Or sometimes a character does or says something that I had not planned on. (No, I’m not spirit possessed when I write.)  I simply have the characters interacting with each other, doing and saying things that are true to their character.

It doesn’t make any difference how well you use metaphors and similes in your writing or how complex your plot might be. If you don’t have characters that are memorable, that always act in ways that are true to them, people won’t be interested in reading your books.

My motto is: let the story serve the characters, not vice versa.

For the Sake of a Song

July 12, 2016 — 1 Comment

What is there that can make people from all walks of life – unemployed, wealthy, married, divorced, staunch Democrats, hardcore Republicans, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Church of Christ, Pentecostals, agnostics, saints and sinners, politicians, apolitical, black and white, PhD’s and high school graduates, professional and amateur musicians – lay aside their differences and join together in harmony?  If is for the sake of a song.

For the past 18 years it has been my privilege to direct a community chorus made up of 30-40 singers whose backgrounds are described above. For 18 years these people have met once a week and for two hours laid their differences at the entrance to our rehearsal hall and focused on make harmony with each other.  Then they go on the road together, traveling on a bus for days, in order to share their song with others.  The result is nothing short of magical.

Surely to goodness if a small group people can lay aside their differences for the sake of a song, we can all lay aside our differences for things even greater. 

We don’t have to agree on every point

in order to get along

                                                                                               for the good of humanity.

Greg Gilpin wrote a powerful song about how we must “rise above the wall” of our differences.  Click on the link below and listen to my chorus performing this wonderful song at the Dixie Carter Performing Arts Center.  And instead of looking for ways you can disagree with others, look for things you can agree on.

Rise Above the Walls