Since we’re nearing Mother’s Day 2022, here’s an old post from back in 2012 about the power of motherhood. Both my parents have since passed away.
“Mama.” Perhaps no other word in our language evokes such tender and loving feelings.
My mom turned 85 on May 2. Here she is with my dad (88). They have been married for 65 years!
If I had to answer the question, “Neal, what’s the greatest lesson your mother has taught you in life?” I would have NO problem at all answering. I learned the lesson so, so early: the power and authority of humor and laughter. Some of my greatest memories growing up consist of roaring with giggles and laughter at some of the silliest things. My mother is a master at seeing the lightness in situations.
The Christmas when I was about six, I asked for a real juke box, and FOUND IT it my parents’ bedroom closet on Christmas Eve. Mama thought it was hilarious when I started yelling in confusion, “WHY is my juke box in your closet??!!” She said, through fits of unrestrained laughs, “Santa wanted your dad and me to try it out first.” (That Christmas began my distrust of Santa.)
Or the time when I asked for (and finally got) a rocking chair for my sixteenth birthday (don’t judge me), and she (like you probably) laughed and said, “WHO wants a rocking chair on their birthday?!” I still get teased about that very practical and emotionally calming gift.
Or her ongoing confusion with the words “veterinarian” and “vegetarian.”
Or the Christmas when I was about eight and had this obsession with making sure the ornaments were placed perfectly (in my opinion) on the live tree branches. I had gone to bed, but thought that maybe I should check the tree one more time for spatial accuracy of the bulbs and tinsel. A big round glass ornament on a limb just out of my reach needed attention. Reaching up, I grabbed the branch, too hard, and pulled the ENTIRE tree on top of me, electric lights and all. Screaming in holiday terror, I flailed at the evergreen monster till my mom and dad ran into the living room. I distinctly remember my dear mother hooting with laughter and saying to my dad (far too loudly), “Just look at what Neal’s done now!”
Or her ongoing advice throughout the decades: “It’s really not that important, Neal. You’ll laugh about it soon.” And I usually did. (Except for early Christmas memories.)
What an incredible privilege and joy to have a mother who taught me when I was younger and who continues to teach me to this day that happiness is a choice. That laughter is an answer, a solution, a medicine. That humor is a gift to get and to give.
My advice on this glorious Mother’s Day: Don’t wait till your mom and dad walk out of your lives forever to tell them, show them, how very much they mean to you and how much you love them.
HAPPY, HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY 2012!
I dedicate this beautiful version of the song “Mama” by Il Divo to my mom and to yours. And remember to tell her now!
Here’s a post from back when I was still teaching at Georgia Southern University. It’s about the appreciation of … a life.
It never fails. And I’m glad it doesn’t. Whenever I see yellow gladioli, I think of Peter. I saw some today.
Peter Christopher taught creative writing in the Department of Writing and Linguistics up at Georgia Southern University (where I taught for twenty-four years). He was a colleague and a friend and the fiction person on my dissertation committee when I got my doctorate.
And Peter died far too early in 2008 of liver cancer.
After his passing, I reminisced about Peter’s impact on my life. Here’s that remembrance:
Peter, “Something Blooming, Something Found” and the Glorious Gladioli
Somehow, yin-yangishly I suppose, Peter’s smile carries both playful humor and serious authority as he says to me, “Here’s what I want you to do, Neal.”
“Take all that,” Peter points at the pages and pages of text I have been rather proudly producing for weeks before asking/begging him to be the fiction person on my dissertation committee, “and put it aside–or throw it away.”
My dissertation is going to be an examination of how fiction can be used as a type of educational research, as a way of knowing. And as part of my work, I want to write a novella which illustrates, through the characters and plot, various educational stances I have studied and enjoyed. But I’m not a fiction writer, and I don’t really know how to get there. I want Peter to sort of help quickly guide me through the process, tell me I can do it, be a cheerleader of sorts.
“Uh, well, you mean I’m not going to be able to use this?”
“Maybe. We’ll see. But for now I want you to forget everything you’ve written and have planned so far. Here’s your homework.” Again the smile–the smile that is beginning to get on my nerves just a little. “For two weeks and for about an hour or so a day, I want you to freewrite.”
“You mean, just write about this novella idea I have?”
“No, Neal, freewrite about you. About your life, what’s going on, what’s been, what’s to come. About your inside life. Your outside life. Your family. Work. Friends. Faith. Anything that comes to mind. Don’t stop for an hour–just write.”
My thoughts at this moment: “Peter, are you CRAZY? I am teaching full time. I am on a deadline. I do not have the time or interest to play your little freewriting game. I just want to get this thing finished. So no, I CAN’T and I WON’T do that. And by the way, you’re supposed to just ENCOURAGE me, be my CHEERLEADER.”
My words at this moment: “Oh, okay.”
After the frustratingly productive freewriting, which ends up changing in wonderful ways the entire story I will tell, Peter and I begin three months of tortuous joy. I learn from a master. Our weekly schedule goes something like this:
1. Neal spends hours and hours and hours writing for a week. Usually trying to get one scene done. 2. Neal puts his folder of work (pretty good work in Neal’s mind) into Peter’s mailbox at the end of the day. 3. The next afternoon Neal gets up from his desk and walks halfway across the hall towards Peter’s office, changes his mind and walks back to his own office and sits down. 4. Neal feels silly at this childish behavior, gets up again and walks three-forths the way to Peter’s office, then returns to his own office once again. 5. Neal calls himself all sorts of shaming names and finally walks all the way into Peter’s office, often simply because Peter has seen him walking back and forth, and tells him to COME IN. 6. Peter smiles. 7. Peter speaks: “I can tell you put a lot of work into this, Neal. But….” 8. Neal revises. And revises. And revises. 9. Neal realizes Peter is gifted beyond measure.
When we approach the end of the novella work, and I am fretting over a title for it, Peter tells me with a laugh, “Don’t worry about that. I’m good with titles. I’ll come up with one. My gift.”
One of the young characters in my story, Kellie, LOVES flowers, grows them everywhere she can. Her favorite is the yellow gladiolus. (“It stands up in a garden. It’s not afraid to be seen.”) And since my tale shows a small group of high school students who come to realize that they have viable voices which are important and should/must be heard, Peter names my novella, “Something Blooming, Something Found.”
I am nervous as the dissertation defense begins. I have foolishly invited folks from across campus to attend and quite a few are here. Days before, when I asked Peter his advice about defending, he said that I should forget the negative concept of defense and just let my novella’s characters speak. So that’s what I do.
I look at all those gathered in the Dean’s Conference Room in the College of Ed, take a deep breath, and begin my defenseless defense. As I start, I see and sense Peter (“rock” in Greek) confer upon me three things: his trademark encouraging smile; a subtle and hidden to all but me “you-can-do-it!” thumbs up; and the realization, as my characters begin to breathe and speak, that something is blooming in me, and I am finding something, something I have not really grasped or undertsood until this moment in this room: I am a writer, not just a teacher of writing.
The next day, I walk into Peter’s office (without the ridiculous false starts) and present him with a bouquet of proud yellow gladioli. He hoots in delight. Hours later I hear a tap on my door, look up, and there he stands.
“Neal, I have been sitting at my desk looking at your flowers. Really looking at them. Seeing them. They’re lovely. They are so intricate, the way they turn and twist,” he says as he makes a circular gesture with one hand.
“And there’s really only one word to describe them: GLORIOUS. They are glorious. Thank You.”
We chat and laugh a while. Then Peter leaves.
But that’s okay. He’s just across the hall.
[I write this in present tense for two reasons: One, Peter has me write my novella in present tense. And two, in ways that are important, perhaps most important, transcendent, eternal, Peter is with us. Ever will be. His smile that you and I came to appreciate so so much. His always gentle spirit. His instruction he gave to so many. His embodiment of encouragement. His model of living. And His beautiful closing for each email and note he penned–“All thrive!”]
Here we are after I defended my dissertation:
On a whim, right before I published this post a few moments ago, I typed “GSU + Peter Christopher” in a search engine. A Rate My Professor link from 2008 popped up. One student wrote:
PC was my mentor. I took every writing class he taught. Writing was only a minor when I went to GSU… I would have majored if I could have. He was a dear friend. He taught me more than just how to be a good writer, he taught me how to love life — to have a passion for life. He is gone from this earth, but never from my heart.
Rest peacefully, Peter. We remember you with appreciation and love.
A post from the past about … magic and family. Heads-up: our family text groups have gotten MUCH more complicated since this old post. We now have what I named “Just Family” (ex-wife Donna, daughters Amy and Emily, and me. Then there’s “New Family Plus” consisting of all the above plus the spouses.
To throw a bunch of wrenches into the textual road, there’s also now just “Neal and Donna,” “Neal and Emily,” “Neal and Amy,” and every other two- or three- or four-person family configuration you can come up with. I have gotten into trouble too many times to count by getting the text groups confused and texting something I shouldn’t have.
Magic Dream Spray
Do other folks out there do what my family does? All get iPhones and set up a little Family Group Messaging System? Well, my two daughters Amy and Emily, along with Donna (even though divorced now, we remain the best-est of friends) have done just that. And it’s such an incredibly efficient strategy for staying in touch, bothering each other constantly and having SO MUCH FUN!
The other night, daughter Amy (and mother of grandsons Daniel, 7 and Gabriel, 4) sent us this text:
I LOVE faith-stretching strategies such as that! My response:
A bit more of Amy’s explanation:
End of discussion until a couple of days later when we received this text from Amy as she, Orte and the boys were driving down to Florida for the weekend:
I can still remember so very vividly this difficult but meaningful chance encounter one evening in downtown Savannah years ago.
Savannah’s Broughton Street bustles with activity this past Friday night, even for a warm and gorgeous early spring evening. I suppose Broughton is as close as my quirky, Midnight City gets to having a normal Main Street, as the historic district snakes around twenty-two breathtakingly beautiful squares. (Savannah’s downtown area is unique and hard to describe–come visit us to see what I mean.)
My friend Robert and I venture to the Crystal Beer Parlor, share joyful banter with lovely Hostess Fifi, meet good buddies, consume delicious and perfectly prepared ribeye steak. Friday night joy. Next, Broughton Street Market and dream-laden lottery tickets. Walking toward my car. Traverse past hip young couples pushing into dance clubs; midde-agers brandishing bags with Paula Deen leftovers; older folks leaving Savannah Music Festival venues; SCAD kids with blue hair waving in the breeze. Packed, noisy sidewalks. All well. Very well. Blessed.
Then fate interrupts–as she often does.
They sit on the sidewalk. No sprawl. As if dumped there. Three young men, in their early twenties. Two dogs. Man and pet, dirty, smelly, retched. Outcasts from society. A block from McDonald’s.
I live downtown and have grown immune to the homeless, the beggars, the street people. They merge and melt into the old bricks, the azaleas, the wooden benches. So what if there is an occasional grocery cart on its side in the shadows? No big deal. It happens.
But then the soiled speak.
“Can you guys help us out? We’re hungry.” Honesty makes me tell you my reaction: No Reaction. Walking on. Past the dirty ones.
Then Robert turns, and says, “I can’t give you money, but I can buy you some food.”
Why do I hang out with people like Robert? It’s so much easier to keep walking. Walking past. Walking toward. Past what I don’t want to see, acknowledge. Walking toward the known, the comfortable.
“What are you doing?” I quietly ask Robert, a bit frustrated.
“Getting them something to eat,” he says matter-of-factly.
I try but can’t think of a real reason to stop this interruption of my previously perfect night.
Too late, already inside McDonald’s, I remember a possible reason to have kept walking, a religious reason even: didn’t Jesus say that we would always have the poor with us?
But Robert, reasonless, places the order.
Five minutes later, with a bag of burgers and a tray of dollar menu sweet teas, we walk back toward the vagabonds. One young guy, with his mouth inexplicably sucking on the side of a smoking soda can, with pierced nose tattooed in triplicate black dots along the bridge, stands up in dryrotted pants that touch bony, bare knees. Drunk. Or high. Or both.
I hold out the bag of burgers. Away from my body, and toward his. Embarrassed. He reaches towards the food and plops back down.
Another, apparently the leader and spokesperson, looks up at me and says, “Man, you guys are beautiful. I gotta stand up and thank you. That’s a cool jacket.”
I want to be anywhere, anywhere but here.
He starts to stand, and then reaches out to hug me, drunkenly. But pauses, perhaps sensing my hesitancy.
I then see his eyes.
And my safe Savannah world shatters.
For his eyes are the eyes of a real boy. A boy with a mama and a daddy somewhere. A boy who used to be a baby.
“Where are you guys from?” I ask, shakily, terrified but now connected. Joined. Level.
“San Francisco, long way from home,” he replies.
And then my knowing comes: his eyes could be the eyes of my daughters. The eyes of my grandchildren.
Without thinking, I reach out and touch his scraggly face and hold it for a moment. I see him. Time freezes. I really see him. He sees me, I think.
“If this was reversed, I’d do this for you, man,” he says haltingly, taking his place back down on the sidewalk, back down to his low place.
Robert and I walk away.
Less than two blocks later, I feel tears on my face.
Here’s a rather messily photographed past post from back in 2014. I may still have had a flip phone. I’m loath to change.
Yes I admit it, I’m an optimist. Pollyanna’s a very good buddy. We take tap dancing together.
What I actually mean is I’m USUALLY a somewhat cheery person. But not always. A while back, I underwent a fairly unpleasant medical procedure. (I’m a big baby when it comes to anything that hurts at a .5 or higher on a 1-10 pain level.)
Here I am in the waiting room, reading about blogging:
Finally I was called back to the eerily quiet and humanly empty procedure room where I had to wait in nervous solitude for quite a while. The doctor was running way behind.
I got bored pretty quickly and started playing with the IPhone’s … reverse camera capability. Doesn’t that sound better than saying I took a bunch of selfies?
I looked at these terrible pictures, grimaced at their muted and otherworldly haziness, realized I wasn’t smiling–and started to delete them.
Then it hit me.
“Get real, Neal. It’s okay not to smile. It’s okay to be muted and hazy … and to be by yourself for a while. Being out of focus doesn’t mean being out of life.”
Fall is most definitely my favorite season of the year. Even with its touch of “summer’s over” melancholy, autumn slowly paints the world with warmly joyful colors, smells and scenes. The season makes me feel energized and ready to start anew (maybe partly because I’m a retired educator and still connect fall to the new school year).
Autumn wants to make us pause and smile.
Here’s a terrific poem, by late 19th century poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, which shows fall’s happy face. Read it out loud to feel, as well as see and hear, the words.
It’s all a farce,—these tales they tell About the breezes sighing, And moans astir o’er field and dell, Because the year is dying.
Such principles are most absurd,— I care not who first taught ‘em; There’s nothing known to beast or bird To make a solemn autumn.
In solemn times, when grief holds sway With countenance distressing, You’ll note the more of black and gray Will then be used in dressing.
Now purple tints are all around; The sky is blue and mellow; And e’en the grasses turn the ground From modest green to yellow.
The seed burs all with laughter crack On featherweed and jimson; And leaves that should be dressed in black Are all decked out in crimson.
A butterfly goes winging by; A singing bird comes after; And Nature, all from earth to sky, Is bubbling o’er with laughter.
The ripples wimple on the rills, Like sparkling little lasses; The sunlight runs along the hills, And laughs among the grasses.
The earth is just so full of fun It really can’t contain it; And streams of mirth so freely run The heavens seem to rain it.
Don’t talk to me of solemn days In autumn’s time of splendor, Because the sun shows fewer rays, And these grow slant and slender.
Why, it’s the climax of the year,— The highest time of living!— Till naturally its bursting cheer Just melts into thanksgiving.