Saturday, March 31, 2012

"Tiny Houses"

Our "Tiny House" in Leakey, Texas

          Recently, a friend brought little, itty-bitty houses to my attention through various postings on Facebook. These tiny houses, and their inhabitants, fascinate me. The first video I watched chronicled a family of three who downsized into hundreds of square feet. Since then, I’ve viewed several other videos on individuals and families making the decision to “Simplify, simplify.” I envy these people who’ve somehow pulled away from their attachments to belongings. I don’t hoard, but I do have collections. Every item carries a specific memory, and although logic tells me that the memory won’t fade if I donate the item, my heart feels otherwise. So when I see others scale down their possessions to simple necessities, I feel awe. I don’t like to think that I define myself by what I own, but I can’t imagine not having my books, teapots, or Christmas ornaments.
Inside our--dining/living/bed areas!

Some people would find these little houses confining, but I understand the womblike comfort of a small space. My enchantment with little rooms goes back to my childhood. No matter where we lived, I always selected the smallest room as my own. I’d pack it with a twin bed, bookcases and desk. I’d put shelves on the walls to take advantage of the vertical areas many people overlook. By candlelight, these rooms felt cozy and calming.

Bath, kitchen, & dining areas!
Every time we go to our cabin in Leakey, I light candles and draw the shades to make the one room cabin welcoming and warm. I daydream about living up there permanently. The one room contains every necessity—kitchen, dining, living, sleeping areas. What else, really, do we need? And if I want space, all I have to do is step outside.
Candlelight and comfort
Logic kicks in eventually, and I realize I’m not ready to walk away from everything forever. Living sparsely for a cluster of days at a time tempts me. I’m charmed by the plainness of our days when I know I can return home. Could I make the change to the degree of these other people? Could I live a home that’s several hundred square feet forever? Is a tiny house in our future?

Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman

Friday, March 30, 2012

“No Choice”

“How do you commit suicide?” my mother asked yesterday. I had perched her upon the toilet and knelt down to pull the Depends she’d worn all night off.
         I looked up at her, “What?”
         “Commit suicide?” she repeated only the last two words of her question as speech becomes more of a challenge for her.
         I eased the Depends down, tossed them into the trash, and pulled a clean pair from the drawer, buying a few moments to think before I answered. “I suppose people pick different ways. Some people take pills, others use carbon monoxide, some use guns, or poison.” I shifted back on my heels to look at her.
         “Can’t the doctors give me something? Can I call and ask?”
         “No, Mom. Not in most states. Definitely not in Texas.” I stood and helped her stand. With her hands gripping her wheelchair arms, I snugged the Depends up over her rump, trying not to notice her weight loss. “Turn.” I nudged her into motion and spotted her as she swung around and sat into her chair.
         “I think I should get to ask the doctor for pills,” she stated very matter-of-factly. “I should decide one night to go to sleep and not wake up.”
         I wheeled her chair over to her bed, perching on the corner so I could talk with her eye-to-eye. “I know you’d like to have the choice, but that’s not our reality.” I picked up her footsies and slipped them over her rigid and contorted toes. “Do you want to get dressed today? Or do you want a clean nightgown instead?”
         “Nightgown.” Mom continued her thoughts as I tugged a clean gown over her head. “There’s nothing else wrong with me, you know. The doctor’s keep saying I’m okay.”
         “That’s right. You’re heart’s perfect. You have great lungs. You’re kidneys are at 43%. You’re healthy except for the Huntington’s. It’s your muscles that just don’t want to work anymore.”

         And so our day began.

         After lunch, Mom asked to return to her room to stretch out with Willie Nelson. Music honky-tonked as I settled Mom into her bed. She now must have her pillow positioned “just so” while the corner of her bedspread has to tuck under her chin.
         “Do you need anything else?” I asked before leaving the room.
         “I’m just trying to figure it out.”
         I sat on Mom’s wheelchair to hear her over Willie’s croon. “Figure what out.”
         “Suicide,” Mom began again. “How am I going to commit suicide?”
         I shook my head. “You aren’t. You’re going to keep living each day the best you can.”
         Mom pointed her finger at me, “I should get to decide!”
         The day continued along this same path, for once my mother’s HD grabs ahold of a topic, it won’t let it go.  

I do not tell my mother that her disease will continue to progress. That today is her best day. Although frustrated by her constraints, my mother’s grown used to needing help for her daily activities. Recently, she grew tired during a meal and complained that she just couldn’t feed herself more although she was still hungry. I sat down and spooned the last few mouthfuls for her. When she finished, she stated, “This is embarrassing.”   

Mom on St. Patrick's Day
         I grieve for my mother every day and on so many different levels. For the majority of the time, she’s extremely aware of her limitations. Frustration with her immobility means she cries daily, and no amount of antidepressants will prevent this ritual. My mother’s confusion, when it happens, circles around vivid dreams that she confuses for reality. Sometimes, the obsessive-compulsive nature of Huntington’s Disease pulls her into a stubborn mindset. This rarely occurs during the day, but some evenings and nights my mother’s irritability morphs into an alien personality with cutting tongue and knife sharp words that stab and wound. Luckily, this demon surfaces rarely and vanishes almost instantly.
         I know my mother wishes to keep dignity in her life. I know she fears the times when she’s confused. I know she hates the moments when she lashes out with poison. Having so little control over the current episodes in her life, I understand why she would spend a day discussing her desire to pick an end time. One can debate the morality of end of life choices, but for a woman in her eighties having a progressively aggressive disease, my mother longs for options that don’t exist.  By the end of the day, she realized that for now she'd pick living over dying, but she wishes that she could have more choices.

Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman

Thursday, March 29, 2012

“A School Dream”

Me during my early years teaching!

         I pulled my car into the fenced enclosure, neatly sliding into the correct slot, my assigned number. Walking around to the passenger side door, I heaved out my black tote, hitching it onto my right shoulder as I leaned forward to heft out the plastic crate filled with essays and a class set of journals. My muscles screamed in protest by the time I reached the Administration building where I quickly checked my box for any important messages, so I set everything down long enough to rotate my shoulders, fill my pitcher with ice, and chat with a colleague about the day ahead.
         Cutting across the patio, I nudged open the glass doors and trudged up a short flight of stairs, turning to the left towards my classroom. Outside my door waited an impatient group of students.
         “Geeze, Miss. Can’t they do something about your schedule?”
         “You’re always late!”
         I ignored their lament as they recited the same complaints every morning. My work day didn’t start at my own classroom on my home campus. Instead, my day began on our nine-ten campus teaching a career studies class to freshmen. I “borrowed” a teacher’s room on that campus every day, and her resentment at being displaced meant I had to schlep supplies back and forth because she forbade my students from using her tape and staples. She’d taped little X marks on the floor where I had to make certain the desk legs hit. Her rows must be perfectly straight. Because I had to leave these freshmen five minutes before the end of the class period to drive to my other campus, an administrator asked this other teacher to step in so the students would have supervision. This teacher refused, though. I reasoned that my seniors were capable of waiting in the hallway a few minutes every morning. Unlike the freshmen, I doubted they’d start throwing punches or vandalizing anything. However, they did like to complain.
         My key turned quickly in the lock. One student grabbed the crate while the others filed into the room. Someone flipped on the lights while another student pulled out the bin that contained the class’s journals. The instructions written on the board before I left the afternoon before meant these seniors settled down quickly while I caught my breath.
         The windowless room with its dark-paneled walls and orange carpet constantly carried a scent of mildew. I’d tried to warm the room with overflowing pots of philodendron and scented candles. I’d stapled an old bedspread from ceiling to floor along one corner of the room and placed a small couch with pillows and a floor lamp to create a reading/writing nook. The room, too tiny for the number of desks it contained, didn’t feel cramped because I’d clustered the them into groupings of various sizes.     

            Last night, I found myself back in that old classroom. I hadn’t step foot into that space in eighteen years, yet in my dream last night I lugged my tote and crate, swept up those stairs, and greeted my students. I caught the wafting aroma of mold and cranberry candles. I scanned the instructions on the board on the unit on Abnormal Psychology. And for a moment, I relived in a vivid dream a moment that represented millions of moments from my teaching career.
            This school dream marked the first return to work from my subconscious mind. I don’t know why this particular scene surfaced, but the memory reminded me of the joy teaching brought into my life for many years. I didn’t mind teaching five preparations across two different campuses because those seniors sitting outside my door resented losing five minutes of instructional time. They longed to delve into Freud, Skinner, and Bandura. So if I drift back to work in my sleep, it’s wonderful that I slip back into one of my best memories where teaching school was a dream.

 Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


         When I taught my students writing, coming up with ideas on a topic generated by some “person” out in Test World became a challenge. Eventually, I drilled my students with timed writings. With this strategy, they had five minutes to write on a topic I randomly selected. They had to write the entire five minutes. When the timer sounded, they stopped writing, but not a second before then. At that point, the kids would count up their words and chart the number onto a personal graph they kept at the back of their journals. My goal to create a way for students to overcome the blank page quickly became a favorite activity in class.
         The springboards I used varied tremendously over the years. I spent hours culling quotations from favorite authors, psychologists, scientists, and philosophers. I saw possibilities in song lyrics, comic strips, and scripts from television or movies. Current events always opened doors to possible topics. As each class built its own private history, sometimes an inside joke or allusion fostered different spins on topics.
         I grew to view everything as a possible way to generate ideas for my students. A bag of buttons found at Hobby Lobby meant each student received a “special” button. I’d walk around the room, randomly placing a button on each desk.
         “You are this button. What is your story? How did you end up on this desk? What is your life like?”
         Another time, I’d pull laminated posters out, pair my students off, and have them spend five minutes discussing the picture or painting. Talking about the picture first helped my other language students verbalize their descriptions and always paid off once they started writing. After a short chat, the kids would write, trying to come up with something about the art that would impress their partner.
         Music lyrics (and the songs themselves) generated another avenue for writing springboards. I’d give the kids a few minutes to read through a song, and then I’d play the song in a repetitious loop while my students wrote something about the piece. Some students would focus on a specific line, or even a word. Others created writing on the lyric’s theme. Still others responded to the memory the song triggered. I never tired of the differences that surfaced with this type of assignment. Variety made grading so much easier, too!
         Every trip to Target, Wal-Mart, Hobby Lobby and Garden Ridge Pottery meant a quick search for writing springboards. Little silk butterflies, mini pompoms, jingle bells, and goo-goo eyes all became topic generators. I’d fill film canisters with different herbs and spices. Sniff, taste and write! Often, my students surprised me by their limited experiences with different things. A bag of colorful pipe cleaners led to a wonderful discussion about pipes, the smell of pipe tobacco, and my own memories of my father’s cherry blend.
         Now that I spend part of my day as an author, I find myself tapping into a well of springboards. I jot down a list of possibilities in a spiral that’s never too far from reach. So far, I haven’t run dry on topic ideas, but when that happens, I’ll peruse the aisles of my favorite craft store, find a musical group I’ve never listened to, or take a taste of something totally new.  

Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

“Adventures With the Dentist—Final Episode?”

         The last leg of my dental story took place yesterday. I actually left the house with nerves because I feared a confrontation with my dentist. When I called last week to schedule my appointment, I had a little run-in with the girl handling appointments.
         I gave her my name, told her I had visited the office a few weeks before. I explained that I had completed the root canal and needed a permanent filling.
         “I see on your chart that Dr. T specified a new crown.” Then the girl continued, “I need you to pay $800.00 for the crown right now. Are you prepared to do so?”
         “What?” I exclaimed. “No. No. I don’t need a crown. The endodontist saved my crown. He said I need a permanent filling.”
         “That’s not the notation the doctor left in your file.”
         “I’m not paying for a crown! I don’t need one!” My tone heated quickly. “Look, I just came back from the endodontist. His instructions were to call my dentist and schedule for a permanent filling. That’s all I will have done!”
         “Welllllll,” the receptionist drew out the word as she tried to figure out what to do. “I’ll tell you what I can do. I’ll schedule you for a consultation. Then Dr. T can determine if you only need a permanent filling instead of a new crown.”
         The edge in my voice cut sharply as I stated, “No. You will schedule me for one appointment, and that will be for a permanent filling. Not a consultation. Not a crown. A permanent filling. My sister has come into town specifically to care for my mother while I have this work done. I will not and cannot extend this over two more appointments!”
         Trying to placate me, the young woman offered a compromise, “I’ll schedule you for a consultation but put into the notation that you will probably need a permanent filling to be filled immediately. Will that work?”
         Like I had a choice?
         So yesterday I fretted on whether I’d enter the dental office for a final visit, or if I’d get the run around about a consultation and a second schedule for the permanent filling. I left the house ready to do battle and vowed to my sister and mother that I would return with a permanent filling—or else!
         When I arrived at the office, the receptionist pulled out my file.
         “Hmmm. . . you are here for?”
         “A permanent filling on number 19,” I offered quickly before any other option could surface. I plastered a smile on my face and hoped my confidence would convince the girl that I wasn’t there for a consultation.
         “Oh. Yes.” As she flipped through my file, I saw the report from the endodontist. Relief hit me then because I knew I wouldn’t have to do battle after all.
         Eventually, the assistant pulled me back, took another x-ray, and draped me with my paper bib. The dentist came in and explained that since the root canal “kills the tooth” she wouldn’t use any local.
         Within seventeen minutes, she’d cleared out the temporary filling and replaced it with a new, permanent filling!
         After paying my bill, I told the girl that I hoped I wouldn’t see her for six months when I return for a cleaning.

Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman

Monday, March 26, 2012

"A Journey"

I saw a feather drifting in the air.   
I reached out and watched it fall into my hand.   
It was a mossy brown from a sparrow that had been there.   
It was smooth and light and part of the land.   
I closed my eyes and became the sun.   
I walked from star to star, then returned home.   
It was as I had left it and I was one.   
My journey was one of nature’s roams.   
Now every flower, every feather from the sky—   
Every step which I now take   
Is one more step which says I and I   
From this time on I now awake.   
I saw a feather drifting in the air.   
I reached out and watched it fall into my hand.   
It was a mossy brown from a sparrow that had been there.   
It was smooth and light and from my land.   

Copyright 1973 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman

I began journaling almost thirty-eight years ago. First, I scribbled my poetry or stories onto notebook paper bradded into place in folders, or I used spiral notebooks. Eventually, I decided to keep a notebook of poetry only. I found this poem a few days ago when going through that notebook.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

“The Lost Heart”

         William Pennington’s demonic grin gave Lillian only a moment’s forewarning. Not nearly enough time to pick up her skirt and dash out of harm’s way. Willie’s Comanche yell bellowed wildly, causing everyone at the garden party to pause in their conversations to observe the brother as he hunted and captured his younger sister.
         “Oh, Willie, please don’t!” Lillian pleaded as her brother scooped her into his arms and effortlessly ran to the edge of the pond. With strength provided by temper, he flung her into the air.
         Lillian’s indignant yowl ended as she plunged into the cold water. Her breath, knocked out by the icy impact, made her inhale before she resurfaced. The layers of her new petticoats and dress dragged her to the bottom, and in stunned confusion she flailed helplessly under water.
         “She’s drowning!” Timothy Hughes, one of Willie’s comrades from boarding school warned.
         “She’s faking!” Willie countered, but not before Timothy dove into the nearly freezing water.
         In seconds, he located a stunned Lillie and pushed her head above the water. Within a couple of steps, his feet found purchase and he scooped the girl into his arms.
         “She’s faking!” Willie called from the pond’s edge, trying to hide the beginning of concern as he watched his friend struggle under the limp form of his sister.
         “Is she alright?” Mr. Pennington helped Timothy place Lillian on the grown, shifting her head to clear her throat. The girl sputtered, gasping air into her lungs with sudden force, and then she coughed uncontrollably.
         Someone brought a picnic blanket, and Timothy gently wrapped the girl in its wooly warmth. Her eyes fluttered open, but her shaking didn’t subside as he roughly rubbed the cloth against her frozen skin.
         “You’re fine,” he reassured her when he saw the panic in her eyes. “You’re fine,” he repeated as he scowled at her brother. “Can you put your arms around my neck? I’ll carry you back to the house. That’s a good girl,” he praised as he lifted Lillian, still wrapped in the blanket, from the ground.
         “I’ll dash ahead and let the servants know what’s happened,” Willie volunteered, making a hasty exit before his father and their friends decided to turn on him.
         Lillian’s breathing eased as Timothy marched across the meadow. She nestled her head against his neck, snuggling into the warmth of his skin. When they reached the back door, Timothy shrugged aside offers to let someone else carry her. Instead, he strode through the kitchen, and followed Mrs. Pennington and several maids as they escorted him up to Lillian’s room.
         The young man stood, a trail of rivulets running from his soaked clothing, as the women rushed to take care of Lillian. Mr. Pennington entered the room long enough to ascertain his daughter’s safe care, and turned to his son’s friend.
         Taking Timothy’s elbow, he nudged the young man out of the room. “We’ll leave Lillian to her mother’s care now. Why don’t I find you a change of clothes? And a drink?” The older man guided Timothy down the hallway, opening the door to a room. “Someone will pick up your wet clothes. I’ll take you back to see my daughter once you’re both dried.” He didn’t wait for an answer, but turned on his heel, entering his daughter’s room once again.
         Half-an-hour later, Lillian sat propped against pillows, a pile of down quilts pressing warmth onto her feet and legs. She sipped cautiously at the steaming tea her mother insisted she drink.
         Her mother’s creased brow eased a little as the color returned to Lillian’s cheeks. When the soft knock sounded on her bedroom door, Mrs. Pennington called, “Yes? Come on in.”
         Timothy Hughes’s damp head peeked around the door, a charmingly disarming smile spread across his usually serious face. He walked immediately to Lillian, took her free hand into his own, and bowed with honest concern. “I’m so glad that you are safe.”
         Mrs. Pennington caught the confused look in her daughter’s eyes and explained, “Dear, Timothy is the one who pulled you out of the pond. He saved your life!”
         And at that moment, fourteen-year-old Lillian Pennington fell in love.

Years later, she’d tell her friends how she knew she’d never, ever love any man but Timothy Hughes. Willie teased her mercilessly about her infatuation, and he made certain he reported every romantic encounter of his friend. But Lillian’s adolescent pining gave way to a stubborn determination that Timothy would marry no one but her. Because of the bond with her brother, Timothy often visited their home, and Lillian made certain she wore her prettiest dresses and spoke the perfect response. She managed to press herself closely to Timothy when they danced, and to sit next to him whenever possible. He enjoyed her adoration, grew to count on her as a fixture in his life. The Pennington and Hughes families regarded the marriage of Lillian and Timothy as inevitable. Everyone knew he only waited to propose because he wanted to “give her time to finish growing up.”
         The young couple elected to wed by the pond, where Timothy had saved Lillian. The Penningtons purchased a home for them that abutted their own property. Timothy happily settled into business with his own father while Lillian spent her days selectively decorating their house. She toiled over fabric swatches and paint samples. She designed beautiful gardens and sunburned her nose as she directed the planting. She threw her heart into making their life together perfect.
         Year after year, she yearned for a child. She hid her disappointment behind brilliant smiles and hoped no one sensed her disillusionment as her days stretched out in tedious repetition. Every morning, she sat in silence as Timothy submerged himself in the daily news. Her thoughts drifted aimlessly to the mind numbing visits with friends or family that she felt forced to make. The weight of her sadness pulled her down and under until she felt herself drowning in the indifference surrounding her.
         “A penny for your thoughts,” Timothy set aside his newspaper one morning in response to a heavy sigh from his wife. He watched her make certain their maid left the room before she began.
         “That’s the problem,” Lillian’s eyes welled with tears. “I’m so bored. I have no new thoughts to add to our life. I don’t want to chatter on about fabrics, paint, or plants.” She pointed an accusing finger at her husband. “Your eyes glaze over whenever I try to explain the value of velvets for the curtains.” At Timothy’s smile, she continued, “This is not the life I dreamed of having.”
         “It seldom is,” he seriously agreed.
         Lillian shook her head and continued, “I’m drowning, Timothy. Just as certainly as all those years ago, when you hauled me out of the pond. Only this time you haven’t even noticed.”
         Timothy eyed his young wife shrewdly, noticed that her delicate mouth nudged downward in a pout, not of pettiness, but of sorrow. He folded the news into a neat pile, drummed his fingers upon the table as he concentrated on his wife, probably for the first time in months.
         “Adele told me about the baby.”
         “Baby?” Timothy asked.
         Lillian leaned forward in her chair, her face serious and eyes determined. “I’ve thought of nothing else since yesterday, and I think I have the perfect plan.”
         “Plan?” Timothy took his wife’s cold hands within his own.
         “Yes. You see, we tell everyone I’m pregnant and that the doctor says I’ll need rest. I have to get away. Adele’s my maid, so it’s only natural that she’d come with me. No one would ever suspect that she’s the baby’s mother. And if we’re lucky, the child will favor you.”
         “Favor me?”
         “Of course, Adele couldn’t come back here. I’m ready to forgive an affair, but she cannot live anywhere in this region. So you see, no one will ever suspect that I’m not the mother,” she squeezed his hands tightly. “I will love the child as my own.”
         “Will you stop repeating me?” exasperation filled Lillie’s voice. “I’m telling you that I still love you. That I want this baby more than anything else in the world. Can you do this? Will you do this—for me?”
         “Have you spoken to Adele about your plan?”
         “I wanted to discuss it with you, first.”
            “I don’t want to disappoint you, dear. But Adele’s baby isn’t mine.”
            “Of course it is! I’ve watched how the two of you flirt!” Timothy shook his head. “I’ve seen you in whispering together. Getting quiet when I enter the room.” Timothy shook his head again. “You’re certain you’re not having an affair?” The irony in Lillian’s disappointment made Timothy laugh. She tugged her hands from his clasp, and irritation slapped pink on her cheeks.
            “Darling,” Timothy smiled, “I do believe you’ve given me the most loving gift today! Forgiveness for an affair I’ve never contemplated and the offer to raise my illegitimate child as your own. I’m not certain any man deserves a wife like you.”
            “Don’t look so smug!” Lillian thought a moment. “What about Adele?”
            “I think we need to talk to her.”
            “She said the baby’s father could never marry her. That she’s alone. She cannot go back to her family with a baby.”
            “Then we’ll talk to her about letting us adopt her child. Ring for her,” he shifted back into his chair and shook his head one more time in amazement at Lillian’s misinterpretation and obvious generosity.
            As Lillian rang for Adele, she quipped, “Just don’t take this admission of mine as permission to have an affair with someone.”
            “Of course, dear,” Timothy said as he picked up his newspaper.

William McGregor Paxot, The Breakfast (1911)

 Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman