The Upside’s Downsides

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For a few seasons after that dark, tans-free summer
after the British Petroleum oil spill,
Pensacolians still found purple-black shells & tar balls
washed ashore like some Biblical plague.
They pumped gas like some people pumped iron,
pulled mullets out of their gullets
like some people pulled muscles & tendons.
Browned while smoking hash,
they luxuriated in the erupting boil
that was the sun,
pickling their organs
while drinking in
the bay’s briny scent,
puckering up,
wrinkling like worried grapes,
fermenting,
preserving,
& dehydrating their bodies
with mixers & elixirs.
Even a BLT sandwich seemed too hot to eat.

Pensacola, 2016

Pensacola Amtrak

A family drops by the Apple Market for some fried chicken
and cold salads on the way to the beach.
The sound of ice being poured into coolers,
of flip-flops flapping on the pavement,
the smell of charcoal and char,
are harbingers of fun times to come.

Families frolic on the sugar white sand,
glassy and silver in the right light—
the water like a mood ring,
hovering between blue and green.

The congregation at Olive Baptist Church
sings “Our God is an Awesome God.”
When one seeking salvation opens the door,
a heavenly blast of cold air banishes the hellish heat.

At the corner, a group of students from Pensacola Christian College—
with their white shirts and black Bibles—
call out the wages of sin, one by one,
whilst on the opposite corner,
a homeless man holds up a cardboard sign: Cracker Needs Help.

At Palafox Market, Miss Lizzy Loo sells her raw goat’s milk soap and
Miss Patty Jones, her nanner puddin’ fudge,
while Kirk Fontaine strums his dulcimer, singing sunny blues.
Wind chimes made of stained glass create patterns on the sidewalks,
the concrete cool from the tents and trees.
The subtle aroma of fresh oranges carry like music notes—
singing a song of Floridian bounty.

At the Naval Aviation Museum,
a group of enlisted wander the halls,
feeling red, white, and blue all over,
from learning of those who served before them.

Hilda Hoggshead makes it up the 177 steps
in the Pensacola Lighthouse Museum—
the sound of the Blue Angels flying overhead.
The guide talks about ghosts,
which Hilda thinks is hogwash.

Children climb the forts at Ft. Pickens,
parents admonishing them to be careful
while photographers collect shots for their newest calendar.
A hipster lays on a cannon.

The WriteOn! Pensacola group meets at Josie Norris’s house
over raspberry iced tea and corn muffins,
trying to solve the problems of the world with prose,
chatting over Rick Bragg witticisms,
and mourning Pat Conroy, who lies in repose.

At the Bodacious Olive,
a couple of girlfriends since college meet
to whip up some eggs as they think about their empty nests.
Here, they trade family night fare for budget-busting gourmet,
finding their new rhythm through the clicking of cutlery
and mounds of butter—a la Paula Deen.

At the Miracle Faith Center,
Pastor is giving an inspirational talk
on Pop Culture Jesus,
asking for “an Amen, Praise the Lord, and Hallelujah.”
From either heat or sensual, religious rapture,
women fan themselves with programs,
caught up in the charisma and magnetism
of a man after any goddess’s own heart.

A group of Bernie Sanders supporters
create graphic art on Graffiti Bridge,
while a group of “Anybody But Trump” supporters
hold up handmade signs,
the smell of Sharpie still high-inducing under their nostrils.

Poets meet for vegan cuisine at “The End of the Line Café,”
the smell of coffee and a warm invite
enticing others to listen to an alternative speech form—
truth tellers in narrative.

Friends hang out at Scenic 90 Café
for homemade pie or a black-and-white—
the taste taking one back to a place in time
to a place one has never been.

There is Joe Patti’s, where one goes for the freshest seafood in town,
like red snapper and crawfish for boils on the back patio.
A couple of drunk chickens and a few beers—
the cold bottle as wet as the humid air—
relax the flow of conversation.

Baseball fans and lovers of anything local,
file in to the Blue Wahoos stadium,
the pounding of feet rapping a tinny melody.
The breeze from the Gulf
caress the faces like the ghosts of dandelion seeds.
The stadium lights come on with the periwinkle twilight—
a wrinkle in time that separates day from night—
the sudden brightness creating an interplanetary, otherworldly effect.
An air of lassitude and happy times pervades.

Even the ghosts that haunt St. Michael’s cemetery
are shadowed by the overpass.
All are a part of the Pensacola community—
a melting pot simmering in the Emerald Coast.

When you hear some laughter and nobody near,
that is the ring of Southern belles from summers past.
I am home.

This was published in The Emerald Coast Review’s “Life in Your Time” edition (2017).

Conference and Conversation with Rheta Grimsley Johnson

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Two of the intangibles I’ve gained since becoming a college student in my thirties are confidence and perspective; I’m not sure that would’ve happened had I continued with my original plan–get my degree in Health Information Technology and be done with it.

The semester I took a Creative Writing elective, I began to seek out more opportunities to enrich my college experience, which included participating in poetry readings, writing for the student newspaper, and work-studying in the English Department.  Attending events, such as plays, art shows, and Book Talks, broadened my experience even more.

The best Book Talk I’ve attended thus far was given by columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson (http://www.timesdaily.com/life/columnists/rheta_grimsley_johnson/rheta-grimsley-johnson-make-much-of-something-small/article_ab2398fa-af14-56c5-b20c-22eeeb51902b.html).

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

PENSACOLA, FL.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a lady one might mistake for a schoolteacher, with her pearl necklace and long dress, and pleasant voice with a Southern lilt. “You can make a living as a writer,” she told an audience at Pensacola State College.

As many lovers of words are wont to do, she quoted Robert Frost, who said that writers “write about the common things in an uncommon way.”

The column that propelled her career as a newspaper columnist was about her dad losing his job. This resonated because corporate America no longer valued loyalty, but was all about hiring younger and cheaper. “My dad was a company man,” she said, and it was like being “bitten by his own dog…this one piece took on a life of its own.” Her editor loved all the letters that came in, in response to the column.

Years ago, she was told by one of her editors not to write about children or dogs. “Don’t write like a girl….don’t write about emotional stuff,” Johnson said. “There was always a dog right there next to me, no matter what was going on in my life.”

Johnson lived in Pensacola as a young child. “I knew even at seven we were trading down,” she says, of when her family relocated from Pensacola to Montgomery, Alabama. She can still remember the first time she heard wind chimes—it was a “magical time”.

In 1989, Johnson wrote a biography of Charles Schulz, the creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip. When Schulz complained about the popularity of “Doonesbury,” Johnson asked why he didn’t write a political cartoon. “I want to stick with the verities.” Like Johnson, Schulz sticks with “the human condition” which transcends time.

Being a seasoned writer, Johnson doled out some sage advice: She doesn’t like v-words, like “virtual” and “vis-à-vis”—“fancy pants little words you don’t really need.” “Very” is a common repeat offender and needs to be locked away, brevity is key.

According to Johnson, people have a nine-second attention span (while goldfish have 13), she works hard on her lead.

Like the old-school notion of the three R’s being reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, Johnson says good writing has three R’s:

The first one is rhythm. Reading it aloud is the “best way to self-edit…Good writing has rhythm, just like a song.”

“If you know how to write a short, declarative sentence, you will be sought out… Good nonfiction should read like fiction…good fiction should be as well researched as nonfiction.”

Keeping a journal to jot down things as they come to her is like “having money in the bank.” Having written four columns a week, she says, “Writers block is a luxury.”

The second R was restraint. “Just say what happened.”

The third R is routine. “Try to write in the same place…same time of day.”

Because newspaper circulation is on the decline, she said, “I’m going to completely outlive newspapers…I needed to reinvent myself a little bit.” Johnson has authored “Hank Hung the Moon:…and Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts” and “The Dogs Buried over the Bridge: A Memoir in Dog Years.”

“He sang me through a lot,” she says of Hank Williams, and dogs “teach us more than we teach them,” such as taking naps and hiding the best treats.

Johnson’s writing career hasn’t been one of a “front-porch thumb sucker,” but one of getting outside her head and finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, 550 words at a time. “You meet the most interesting people at laundromats and bus stations.” Stories are everywhere. A good writer knows it when he or she hears (or sees) it.

Tallahassee, 10 Apr 2017

Considering I just returned from a journalism field trip yesterday (explaining my delay), “travel” was a timely theme.

Sunday and Monday, our Corsair group (The Corsair is the Pensacola State College newspaper: http://ecorsair.com/movie-review-like-water-for-chocolate/) went to Tallahassee to attend the “Word of South” festival and tour the old and new capital buildings. We also got to talk to a lobbyist about guns on campus and educational funding, and visit the Tallahassee Democrat, the last of which was the best part of the trip, as we got to talk to student reporters of the FSView (the Florida State University student paper) and the editor of the Democrat. We also got to see how newspapers were made, and though I love the look and feel of a print paper, I don’t believe print (books, perhaps, but not periodicals) will be around in 100 years.

I learned that degrees matter, but majors don’t have to lock you into a field. Just because I’m majoring in health information technology doesn’t mean I must work in the healthcare field. I would still love to work at Sacred Heart Hospital (I’ve always said I’d rather work in a cold hospital rather than a hot kitchen), but if I could work for a newspaper, writing about the healthcare field (perhaps with a human-interest slant/angle) I would like that even more. People who write don’t just write—they are doctors, lawyers, politicians, pilots, business people, etc. I’m a writer who happens to be majoring in something that is more medical coding than creative writing.

A question I asked on the trip was if this editor only hired journalism majors. He basically said he would hire any person with expertise, provided they could write well about it. (One of the ladies who worked there was a theatre major.) Everyone I know believes I am an English major, and I guess you could say I had gone after what I was supposed to want, not what I really wanted, because I was afraid what I really wanted wouldn’t pay the bills, but this was something I had to find out for myself. I live my life without regrets—pursuing this medical degree has brought me to where I am now, and I love where I am now.

I had this life plan all mapped out, and even though the map is constantly being redrawn, it isn’t frustrating—it’s liberating. Life is a process, always.

hassee

She thought she had come too far to change her mind,
but the choice she had made for the good of her family,
would not limit the choices she could make;
for majors did not determine the only thing she could do—
it simply paved the way to greater things.

To ABBA

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You were a break from my childhood
of George Jones and Tammy Wynette,
from the punk rock
my brother would bang out while I tried to study,
a break from the world,
my world,
my thoughts.

You were what candy-colored dreams
were made of.
You fought for space inside my head
as I drove the Three Mile Bridge to the beach,
with the balmy gulf breeze blowing in my unhearing ear,
so that the wind was the feel,
and you,
the sound.

Katryn

For this challenge, I decided to write a poem based on the protagonist in my book.  This story has, in part, been told through the lenses of poetry and short story.  Perhaps, one day, it may even be the inspiration for a song (as long as I get a royalty deal, a la “Mr. Wonderful”).  Since Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature, music lyrics are considered as such now (according to my English Composition II professor).  Though this poem is a stand-alone work, the query letter below it will add context.

Katryn

Her face and figure were such
that they blended into the backdrop
of the Deep South like white-lily camouflage,
but when she spoke her mind,
she found her way into the crawl space
of their hearts.
Like a thorn,
she would prick those hearts,
this Queen of the least of these,
placing them in a waking sleep—
unlike that of Princess Aurora’s—
her words echoing
in their chambers.

~

My debut novel, “Because of Mindy Wiley”, begins at what Katryn Nolan refers to as the summer of her Mormon soldier. 

Katryn is a teen when she falls in love with a Mormon missionary, which leads to her joining the LDS Church—and enters an insular world of peculiar people.  It is within the Church that Katryn finally experiences belonging outside her close-knit family, and yet it will be her mother’s involvement in it that will lead to its destruction.

Born into a well-bred, artistic family, the Nolans (and the man David, with whom Katryn’s mother is attached) are considered outsiders in their small Southern town, where few move out, but fewer move in; where the heat and humidity is like another force of gravity, where the air is as thick as the azaleas that burst into bloom every spring, and where time seems to pass just a little bit slower.

Yet never does Katryn question why her mother and stepfather chose this enclave that is as foreign to them all as the Mormon Church.

Overloved by her stepfather, but underloved by her mother, Katryn never grasps why her mother won’t marry the man she has idolized ever since he came into their lives.

Neither does she question why her father was barred from being buried in the Catholic cemetery, though it seems no one in the town remembers him.  Who is the mysterious couple that Katryn and her stepfather see, that Katryn’s mother must never know of?  And why does her mother, who was a concert pianist, never touch it anymore? 

Never, does Katryn question anything, for life is idyllic in Green Haven, despite their outsider status.  It is only after her mother joins the Church that she begins to change, and long buried family secrets begin to come to light, ripping off the shimmering facade that was the Nolan family.  Blinded by years of fanciful storytelling, Katryn must sort through the mystery that surrounds her life, to know who she can trust…and who would do her harm.

My love for crafting stories on paper rather than with paper dolls began as soon as I learned to write.  Cutting up every paper in the house had served as my creative outlet before then.  I have lived in Pensacola, Florida, almost all my life, where churches outnumber bars, where the air is as thick as molasses in January, and where the summer weather is as volatile as the preachers of the Pentecostal meetinghouses–much like the town of Green Haven in my book.

Having grown up in a Southern town situated in the buckle of the Bible belt, and having been a practicing member of the Mormon Church for several years, has given me great insight, knowledge and experience of what it’s like being a convert to a religion in a region that is somewhat intolerant to that religion.  Having grown up Protestant, but with no inclination to go around declaring myself saved, one could say I was an outsider even on the inside looking out, much like Katryn Nolan.

The completed manuscript is available upon request.  Thank you for your generous time. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Cordially,
Sarah Lea Richards

The Cactus Flower Cafe

Gulf breezes,
a sangria with a slice of blood orange,
the placidity of the sound side
at low tide.
Alfresco dining
on the boardwalk,
the music from inside
contained—
as I prefer conversation with my dinner,
not noise.

Chile relleno lightly fried,
plump with rich, creamy cheese and
chicken, tender as rotisserie—
a savory molten lava cake.
Black beans, Spanish rice,
salad vegetables like from a hydroponic garden—
a cool bite from the heat and spice.
Birthday girl,
chilled, caramel flan,
enjoyed with a spoon.

Summer is on the wane
by mid-September,
tourists are gone.
We belong.

Creative Writing Prompt: Polar Bears in the Desert…

Or, in other words, write a story about someone who is at odds with their environment.  Some examples are a minister in a political race (okay, maybe not so much), a domestic goddess who switches places with a CEO (that one could really be fun), a Millennial hipster stuck in the sixties, to name a few. 

Living in the South, having to deal with Yankees who make a deal about my “yes sir” and “no ma’am-ing”, was the inspiration for this farcical piece.

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When Melissa Met the South

Melissa Caldwell blotted her temple with a handkerchief. It was so undignified to sweat, or perspire, as her aunt Addie would say.  Her aunt Addie believed every word had a gender—men sweated, women perspired, men tailored, women sewed, men were chefs, women were cooks.  She even still used the terms male nurse and lady doctor.

It had been more than twenty years since she had seen her father’s aunt. Even though she’d been five the last time she had been in Pensacola, Florida, she hadn’t remembered it being this hot.  The humidity made her feel as if she were walking through a steam room.  She stopped at a café to get a cup of coffee—iced, that is—then realized she was a couple of eggs short of hangry.

“Would you like grits with that?” the server, whose nametag read Mandy Claire, said.

“What are those?” Melissa asked, and this little pissant waitress had the nerve to look at her like she was stupid. Well, at least she wasn’t a waitress; she had gotten an education.

“Okay, never mind,” she said with a wave of her hand and a roll of her eyes. “Do you have anything gluten-free?”

“Gluten-free?” Again, the look.

Melissa blew up her imaginary bangs in exasperation. “You know what?  Just bring me an iced coffee to start.”  Mandy started to walk away, but Melissa called out.  “Oh, by the way, do you know where a good Jewish deli is around here?”

“Publix has a really good deli,” Mandy said, then scurried off before Melissa could ask what in the hell was a Publix.

Melissa took that as an opportunity to fish her cell phone out of her Prada bag and call her best friend, Marisol Fernandez.  Melissa spoke Spanish fluently, so she chose to be respectful of her friend’s culture by speaking in her language, garnering a few glares from nearby booths.  She loved the privacy of being able to speak in code, but she could’ve sworn had she been speaking English, she would’ve been ignored, so she transitioned.  Funny, how they were all about “speaking the language”, yet they couldn’t spell worth it a damn.  The funniest one she’d seen had been on a church sign that said, “Not haven Jesus in this life is hell on Earth.”

“So, how is Jennifer and Kathy’s wedding coming?” Melissa asked her friend.

The waitress gave her a funny look as she set down her coffee, topped with a copious amount of whipped cream. “Anything else, ma’am?” she asked, seeming reticent to disrupt the conversation.

“Ma’am?” Melissa said, mid-conversation. “Please, I’m not even thirty.”  Melissa dismissed her by resuming the discussion on hers and hers bath towels.

The girl looked confused, then went back to work.

~

A group of people were having some kind of Bible club behind her while she finished her coddled eggs (another thing Mandy had never heard of), and it was making her uncomfortable. She turned around, looking aggrieved.  “Would you guys try holding that praying jazz down?  It’s really offensive to those who don’t believe.  Thank you.”  That was how she always got what she wanted—assuming she would get it anyway.

“We’ll pray for you, Sister,” one of them called out, so she sucked down the rest of her coffee, leaving a ten dollar tip. As she looked back, she saw the waitress’s astonished expression.  The girl did need some dental work, after all, and Melissa’s inherited wealth was a bit embarrassing.  She was like the only one-percenter in this greasy spoon.

A young, Mormony-looking couple holding hands walked by her car, pointing and shaking their heads. “Coexist only works if the others don’t want to chop your head off or blow you up,” she heard the man say.

God, what the Christian hell is wrong with these people? They are so paranoid, Melissa thought. This part of the country bled red, so it was no wonder.  She couldn’t wait to get to Aunt Addie’s house.  She’d kept in touch with her lonely great-aunt for the past several years, and she’d always seemed like a fairly rational person, albeit old-fashioned.  She didn’t know how her aunt stood living in a place that was so damn American Gothic Horror.  It was like freaking Pleasantville.

~

When she reached her aunt’s beach house, she was in awe. The sand was as white as sugar, the gulf vacillating between emerald and sapphire.  A wrinkle in the sky divided land from sea, and the sea oats swayed like dancers in love at the end of the night.  She even though she saw a dolphin making a graceful arc.  There wasn’t anything like this in New York.  The Jersey Shore didn’t even compare.

“Melissa?” a sixtyish woman said, coming out in a tank, Bermuda shorts, and flip-flops. An ivory Virgin Mary blended in to the landscape, but the “Marriage is Between a Man and a Woman” bumper sticker did not.

Melissa had always been vocal about her beliefs and non-beliefs, but she had never quite pegged her aunt as a Christian conservative, and yet, here she was, welcoming her into the folds of her embrace like it didn’t matter. It was then that Melissa knew she was in very grave danger here—of losing her heart to this place where it was flip-flips and bikini tops all summer long, where it didn’t snow, but rained at Christmas, and where everything was fried (except peanuts, which were boiled); where there was a church on every corner, and a hobo or Bible-thumper on the other.

Yes, she was, indeed, afraid of falling in love with this lovely place.