Thursday, July 14, 2016

Making Memories

It is the natural order of things for us to be born, to grow, to foster a new generation and then to die, but the process is never smooth or easy. There are always bumps along the road either for us personally, or for those we love. As parents, we want to smooth the way for our children, to save them from some of the rough spots that we encountered. As children, we dread that time that must inevitably come in which we must say goodbye to our parents.

I said goodbye to my mother this week. Perhaps that’s not solely true, for I think we had been saying our farewells for some time now. When I visited, she would always have something that she wished to give me either because I was the only daughter and she felt it was something that should be passed on to a daughter—like the beautiful wooden jewelry box my father gave her that played Lara’s theme from Dr. Zhivago, or the college notebooks from an uncle who liked to write short stories apparently more than he wanted to take notes on botany while he was at university—or it might have been something I gave her that she wanted to give back to me. Those things do hold memories, and they make me smile when I look at them, but the greater gift was in being able to sit down and share those memories with Mom while we looked at them and talked about them.

Memories are what we make every day with the people we care about, so let me tell you about some of mine.

I remember my mother taking my baby crib and converting it into a canopy bed. Why does this matter? It shows an essential part of her character. She could take almost anything and find a way to repurpose it to use a catchphrase of today. This was nothing new or admirably resource saving. It was simply the way that she was raised. Nothing was wasted. That crib saw new life for me as a toddler bed, and it also holds the memory of her climbing into it with me when I was small and had a nightmare, or getting me out of it during the thunderstorm I was afraid of to hold my hand while we stood at the window and she helped me overcome that fear.

 Speaking of fear—probably not the right word—was the knowledge that she took her role as a parent seriously. When we had done something wrong, there was never any comment of “wait til your father gets home.” Punishment was meted out quickly and fairly. With four kids to raise, she managed to wear one leather belt completely out and had to get a new one. We had either learned enough she didn’t need to wear out a second, or she decided we’d all gotten too big to spank.

She wanted us to learn to make our own decisions, and then live with them—right or wrong. “Pick out what you want to wear today.” I can remember standing at my closet and agonizing over that choice when I couldn’t have been more than four or five. Mom swears I always picked my fanciest dress. From teenage and adult years spent in jeans and barn boots, I find that hard to believe.

Mom wanted to make sure we had the skills to live on our own…or she might have been just a master of delegation. We knew enough about cooking to feed ourselves, enough about sewing to hem and sew buttons on. She might have tried to teach me more, but that sewing thing didn’t take. We learned how to read maps, set up household bill paying accounts and filing systems. She taught me the basics of gardening and so many things I could never possibly write them all down.

One of the things she taught me was that building a strong marriage takes work. Love alone is not enough, though it is the foundation. It takes commitment, acceptance, and a willingness to truly forgive. I think that probably applies to any lasting relationships in our lives.

If I had to summarize my mother in just a few words, I would say “boundless energy.” She ran our house in such a way that I have no doubt she could have been a corporate CEO in this day and age. But that wasn’t the role she was raised to expect in her generation. Instead, she turned that drive, focus, and energy on her family—providing an anchor and stability for our dad as well as us. She also channeled that energy into volunteer work. I can remember “helping” with Heart Fund campaigns and political ones as well. Many times, I went with her to help deliver for Meals on Wheels. She was always active in something.

She used to wear us out on vacations with going places and doing things. In fact, it was when she looked at me and said, “I can’t do that anymore” that I realized we had entered another phase where the time we shared when I visited would be more about reflecting on what we had done than creating new memories. Yet, even this was another layer of making memories. If living in the South for the past quarter century plus has taught me nothing else, it’s that taking time to just sit a spell and talk has immeasurable value. You can learn a lot when you close your mouth and listen.

We talked about death too. It is a part of life that none of us can avoid. Mom was 90, and she would be the first to tell you that was about twenty-five years more than she expected to have because her parents passed away in their sixties. Every time she would say she didn’t expect to still be alive, I would remind her of one of her cousins who was well over a hundred before she passed away. At first, it was a joke, then maybe a wish, and finally I think it was a fear.

Age takes its toll on all of us, and Mom was tired. People have described her as a fighter, a scrapper, a firecracker, and she was all of those things, but ultimately, she was simply ready to say goodbye to all of us still travelling our own journey so that she could go on to the next phase of hers.

Of all my many precious memories of my mother, being able to be with her as she said goodbye to this earthly life will be one of them. She wanted to die at home, so we granted that wish to her. We surrounded her with family and love, held her hands, and let her know that we loved her, and that it was okay to give up that fight and say goodbye because her job was done here. She had raised us to become adults who had found our own paths to walk, had learned to live with our own mistakes, and to forgive ourselves and others for those blunders that inevitably occur.

We opened the door to her patio during those last few minutes, so she could hear the birds singing, but more importantly so that her spirit could depart and have a pathway to Heaven. I have no doubt that my dad, my brother John, Mom’s parents and her sister were all there to take her hand and welcome her in.
I will miss her presence, her guidance, and that boundless energy drawing me out of my shell and daring me to do more than I thought I could, but I am so glad I had these years with her to build the memories I can carry on with me now. I would encourage all of you to look at your own parents, children, grandparents, and grandchildren and take advantage of that time. Make those memories so you can look back with a smile, sit a spell, and say, “I remember when…”

I love you, Mom. Thanks.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

From Writing to Gardening: The "Blessings" of Abundance

In my spare time, when I’m not working or writing (which lately seems to be work), my family and I are growing a garden. Like many projects around our place, the garden has gotten much, much larger than I ever envisioned. In fact, I believe we could probably feed our entire neighborhood. If you’ve ever grown a garden, then you know that vegetables have a bad habit of ripening all at once. (Next year I plan to plant one seed per day to avoid this thoughtlessness on the part of my plants.) The net effect is that I’ve eaten and frozen broccoli to the point I don’t think I can look at another stalk anytime soon. Kale is my new best friend because it keeps doing its thing for weeks and weeks without bolting. Bonus: it’s good for you too. The problem now is cucumbers.
Over the past two days, Harvey and I have canned 24 quarts of dill pickles. We’ve had sliced cucumbers for lunch and dinner. And… We haven’t even made a dent in what’s coming in the door. Don’t get me wrong. I like pickles. However, our household can only consume so many pickles in a year. Now we face the inevitable question: what can we do with all these cucumbers? You see, our two rows (80 foot long rows!) of cucumbers have just gotten cranked. So I decided to find out if there were any non-food related things for which cucumbers could be used. Turns out, there’s quite a lot. Here’s some of the things I plan on trying: 1. Ant control – I checked three different web sites that recommend spreading cucumber peelings, the bitterer the better, around the places where you believe ants might be entering your home. I’m going to assume for cucumber usage purposes that the little pests are entering via the entire circumference of my house. With generously peeled peelings, I believe I can use about 352 cucumbers for this project. 2. Reduce swelling – we all know the cucumber slices on the eyes trick from all those spa scenes in chick flicks. I like this idea, but there are two problems: my son and husband aren’t keen on a spa day, and this isn’t going to use nearly enough cucumber. However, curing eye swelling is just one trick. Apparently cucumbers are good at dealing with another “swelling”: cellulite. Again, my expert web sites recommend rubbing slices of cucumber on cellulite to help tighten skin. If rubbing works…why not a bath? That should use bushels of cucumbers, and I might be able to fit back into my skinny swimsuit. 3. Cucumber will clean stainless steel sinks and faucets. What do you know, I have a stainless steel kitchen sink…and dishwasher…and cookware. Yep, mass cucumber usage here. 4. Squeak eliminator – toss out the WD40 and rub a cucumber slice on that noisy hinge. I wonder if it works on knee joints? 5. Shoe polish – I don’t see much mileage in this one. I think I’m down to about two pairs of shoes that actually need polishing. 6. Sunburn relief – if you don’t have aloe, use cucumber. Now, I might be able to use this since I’m fair-complexioned, but hubby and the kid have that olive insta-tan skin…damn them.
There are several more uses along with plenty of reasons to consume cucumber. It boosts your energy, cures a hangover, gets rid of bad breath, and lowers blood pressure. I think it might be able to bring about world peace too, but I haven’t seen that use…yet. There is one thing that gardening does add, whether it's cucumbers or the other vegetables we have coming on: it's a wonderful stress reliever and a great way to take a break from spending so much time in front of the computer either writing or promoting my books. Check out my website at I've got a series out that I'm sure you'll enjoy.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Where is the Moral Compass of Today’s Young People?

I will say right up front that I teach in an alternative high school, so I am dealing with students who may not have the most stellar of pasts or come from the best of homes. Today, however, I listened in on a conversation taking place while students were getting work done in my class. The entire discussion centered around the best ways in which to steal items from Walmart without getting caught, and an open discussion of people they knew who had stolen everything from cell phones to TVs. Am I dangerously na├»ve? Just how the devil does one walk out of a store with a freaking television set? More importantly than that—never, anywhere in this conversation, was any thought or comment given to the fact that stealing is wrong. To take someone’s goods or belongings without permission or payment is fundamentally, unequivocally wrong. One of the students involved in this discussion regularly attends church. Are the Ten Commandments not taught there anymore? I may be a bit rusty, but I do believe one of them is “Thou shalt not steal.” I’m a parent, not always as attentive as I should have been over the years, but I have to ask… Your kid suddenly shows up with a brand new cell phone…don’t you ASK where they got it? If they walk in the door with a new television, don’t you ASK how they bought it? What the hell? What is our country coming to when people think that they should have anything they want just because they want it, without paying any price for it?
More frightening even than that, what is the destiny of a nation in which many, many people no longer seem to have any functioning moral compass whatsoever? This is the same group of students who asked me if I would “help” them during their state writing tests. I told them no in no uncertain terms. One of the students said, “She could get in trouble and lose her job.” To which, I replied, “You’re right, I could, but more importantly than that, I wouldn’t do it because it’s wrong, and at the end of the day, I want to be able to lay my head down to sleep at night with a clear conscience.” How alarming that that concept seemed something entirely new to them.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Here's your chance to win a copy of my newest book!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Lost & Found Love by Laura Browning

Lost & Found Love

by Laura Browning

Giveaway ends March 11, 2016.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Paper or Virtual? How I Make the Choice Between Print and Digital Formats

I've read a couple of articles this year discussing the leveling off of e-reader sales, and I've heard plenty of people say they just have to feel a book in their hand, be able to turn the pages. It always seems to me in the articles sounding the slump in sales of digital readers that there's a certain amount of an I-told-you-so attitude to it, as if digital and print formats cannot peacefully co-exist. So, here's my personal take on it as a writer whose books appear in both digital and print formats, and as a voracious reader of fiction and nonfiction.

There's room for both. However, I have my personal preferences when it comes to my own reading. When it comes to reading for my own enjoyment, give me my Nook or my phone any day of the week. I can carry around a whole freaking library in my purse. Do you know how amazing that is to me? Not only can I carry around a whole freaking library, but I don't have to listen to reading snobs comment on what I choose to read. So you want to read the latest critically acclaimed piece of literary fiction? That's fantastic. I want to read hot sex scenes and stories that I know are going to have a happy ending.

I spend all day teaching writing and literature. Before I began teaching, I spent all day writing television news stories, most of which were heart-wrenchingly depressing. When I'm done working, I don't want to read more serious writing. I want dessert. I want candy. I want cake. So give me a fun, sexy, fast read that is pure entertainment.

And give it to me on my tablet, please.

When it comes to serious reading, such as literature that I am going to have to discuss, or textbooks, I would prefer to have them in print. Now, if you're a book purist, please skip the next few sentences. The reason I like them in print is because I write, highlight, and add sticky notes all over the pages. I have attempted to do this with digital books, but it's just not the same. For the latter half of my masters degree studies, I participated in a Nook program in which all  my books were downloaded to my tablet. Don't get me wrong. It saved me a TON of money, but I just couldn't get comfortable with electronically highlighting and writing notes. It just didn't feel right. I like my reference books in print as well. I think it's easier to use my Chicago Manual of Style or my APA manual when I can flip through the contents and the index and quickly turn to the page I need.

What got me thinking about this is that my publisher, Kensington, is putting the digital version of Special Delivery on sale for just 99 cents from December 27, 2015 through the end of January. This is a great deal--more than 75% off retail price. What makes it even better is it's the first book in my series, Mountain Meadow Homecomings. Although the book is not specifically tied to the Christmas season, it does take place around this time of year, so now is a great time to get it, if you haven't already.
The sale ends just in time for the release of book two in the series, Lost & Found Love, on February 2, 2016. This story is so much more than a romance. It's also about finding family and the redeeming qualities of love. I am really excited about this second book in the Mountain Meadow Homecomings series. I hope you will be too.

The best thing of all is that whether you enjoy digital or print... this series is available in both formats. Sorry, though, it's only the digital version of Special Delivery that you'll be able to pick up for 99 cents. However you choose to read, I hope you'll enjoy Mountain Meadow and all the folks who live there.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Finding Home for Christmas

I’m going to be spending Christmas away from my husband for the first time in twenty-four years this year. My mother is ill, so my son and I will be visiting and helping her over the holidays. Work and home responsibilities (animals…did I mention animals?) mean my husband will have to stay on our farm. Plus, I know he will want to see the new grandson and his very first Christmas. I’ll miss that, but I’m making a trade-off.
We have never been one of those families that fill a quarter of the room with presents, and as my husband reminded me, we can celebrate Christmas anytime we choose. Still, we become attached to that idea of being home for this particular holiday.
Thinking about that reminded me of the one other Christmas where I really felt I wasn’t home.
Sixteen years old, I was living with a family in Switzerland, thousands of miles from everything that was familiar to me. Their traditions weren’t my traditions. To top it all off, I had just recently had my cast removed after tearing ligaments in my ankle. I had had to undergo surgery within a week of arriving in my new temporary country. Homesickness had also arrived in a big way.
There are things I remember, like how fascinated and somewhat frightened I was by the fact my Swiss family actually burned candles on their tree. Nevertheless, it was beautiful. They also opened presents on Christmas Eve. While it was pretty cool to be able to open gifts early, it was a bit of a letdown Christmas morning. Santa was nowhere to be seen. Instead, there’d been St. Nicholas, but he’d come and gone weeks earlier on December 6th.
All in all, it was a culture shock, and—Swiss or American—we were supposed to be celebrating the same holiday. The real comfort was in going to church. Despite the fact that it was darn cold inside that big sanctuary, the tunes were the same ones I had grown up with.

I remind myself of that now. Christmas will be different this year, but there is always something to be pulled out of it that can help give us a feeling of home, even when we are far away from the ones we love the most.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Do They Still Teach That?

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Do they still teach that? A fellow teacher posed that question to me the other day when she discovered that I would be guiding my students through Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. It took me aback. At first, I had to ask myself if the question was tied to the “quality” of my students—I teach in an alternative high school setting with students that are predominantly lower income and African-American—or if it simply had to do with these writers being old-fashioned and out of date.
I dismissed the first. After all, I don’t think it matters one whit what color my students’ skins are, nor what their socio-economic level might be. Pandering to that is what holds people back and allows them to become victims of society. Quite frankly, I don’t think it matters that some might perceive the text as being too difficult or too advanced for students reading three to four years below grade level. After all, I am here to teach these students to extend themselves not continue to feed them pablum that allows them to fall even more below grade level while I sit and draw my paycheck.
If my students cannot read a text independently because of the difficulty of that passage, then I can assist them by walking them through that material, discussing it, and helping them to form their own observations and opinions. They will stretch their ability to look more deeply into difficult text, to use strategies like pausing to evaluate what they have just read, but most importantly they will be exposed to ideas. Of course, my hope is that they will pause to actually think about those ideas because I find that to be the biggest challenge to today’s students, no matter their education level or background: they too complacently accept what they read, see, or hear without questioning its accuracy or validity.
So, that takes us to the second thought—that Emerson and Thoreau are old-fashioned and out of date. I would argue that also is a fallacy. Rather than viewing them as old-fashioned and out of date, I see them as the foundation for many of our modern philosophers and activists. Emerson pushes forth the idea that, above all else, we must be true to what we know is right within our own being. Thoreau takes that concept of self-reliance to another level when he urges people to “break the law” when they know a law is unjust.
These two men are the inspiration for so many modern day activists: Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. being two examples. However, let me put forth some others, whether you agree with their ideas or not. The Occupy Wall Street movement, which sought social and economic change—more than just a bunch of whiny generation X,Y and Z’ers—they at least followed this idea of protesting what they perceived as unjust. The Rowan County Kentucky clerk of court, Kim Davis, held to her religious beliefs and refused to obey the law with regard to issuing marriage licenses. On one hand, staying true to her own belief system falls right in line with what Emerson and Thoreau preach. Of course, she doesn’t exactly align with Thoreau because he also says that the highest duty of a government official who disagrees with what the government is doing is for that official to resign office. That hasn’t happened so far.
Thomas Paine
The point is that if part of my responsibility is to teach students American Literature, then I must do so based on a foundation of understanding, a historical precedence, if you will. If they are truly to understand the writings of people like Dr. King and Malcolm X, then they must understand Emerson and Thoreau. If they are to understand Emerson and Thoreau, then they must also understand the writings of men like Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson, who helped open the door to the idea of standing up for what is right even if it means opposing government. Writers do not pull ideas out of nothingness, so writing does not occur in a vacuum. It is the result of what has happened in the past, what is of current concern, and what might be of concern in the future. For students to predict future concerns, they must have some knowledge of the past. In order to have some idea where they are headed then, we must give students some idea of how our society arrived at its current state. We do that by showing students where we have been.

Men like Voltaire, Jefferson, Paine, Emerson, and Thoreau lay down the continuation of thought and action that brought us through Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement to present day interpretations of activism. It is only with that grounding that students can make valid judgments and find their own core belief system when they must decide whether actions such as Kim Davis’s or the actions of protesters in Ferguson and Baltimore are right or just. To do any less is to do my students a disservice, so while I cannot answer whether they still teach Emerson and Thoreau, I can answer why I do.