Friday, December 13, 2013

Life is Not a Spectator Sport

Years ago I wrote a short story entitled "Spectator Sport" that was published in a small magazine whose name I have long since forgotten.  The story was about a young family struggling to make ends meet, who had finally scraped together enough to do some Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve.  It was snowing heavily when they stopped in at a small cafe to warm themselves.

Sitting at the counter nursing a cold cup of coffee was an old man, a regular at the cafe.  He had a long white beard and wore faded coveralls over a flannel shirt. A baseball cap covered his bald head and it was apparent that he had not washed in several days.  He liked to sit at the far end of the counter where he had a clear view of everyone who entered, but close enough that he could eavesdrop on their conversations without having to engage himself.

The cafe was crowded on this night and the little family could only find space at the counter near the old man.  The youngest of the children was a small girl of about five years old with big brown eyes that took in everything with a sense of awe and wonder.  This was her first real recollection of Christmas and she was fascinated by the all the lights, sounds and colors of the season.

She stared in wonder at the old man seated next to them and finally he smiled back at her.  In youthful innocence, she turned to her mother and asked, "Is that Santa Clause's brother? "Well, if it is," she said quietly, "we mustn't disturb him."  She gave the old man an apologetic look, but the little girl continued to stare.

The old man seldom interacted with anyone at the cafe.  He preferred to live on the edges of other people's lives by listening and watching their interactions with each other. But this time he couldn't resist the temptation to participate in the wonder of the season with a small girl.

"I really am Santa's brother, you know," he said to her conspiratorially.  "But this is such a busy time for him, that I seldom get to see him!"

"That must be really lonely for you," the girl answered.

The old man reflected on this for a few moments, "You're only lonely if you allow yourself to be," he said finally. "Santa's family is made up of all the children in the world, so since we're brothers, they are my family too!"

The old man and the little girl chatted together for several moments while the older child and her parents nodded and smiled in encouragement.  She wanted to know about his house and his pets and if he knew any of the elves personally.  The old man soon warmed to the story and answered her questions with sincerity and authority.

When the family gathered their things to leave, he reached in his pocket and found a shiny half dollar he didn't know he had.  He handed the coin to the little girl, "Santa told me you would be stopping by," he said. "And he asked me to give this to you."

The little girl's eyes widened in wonder," He knew I was coming?" she asked taking the coin in her mittened hand. She paused for a moment and then gave the old man a big hug.  "I don't have a present for him, but can you give him this hug for me?"

The old man smiled, "Of course! And I'll tell him it comes especially from you."

The little girl waved gaily as she left with her parents.  When the old man turned back to the counter, he found that his coffee cup had been filled and there was a warm cinnamon roll next to his cup.  He looked up in surprise, but there was no one else around. The cafe had emptied out and the wait staff had retreated to the kitchen to clean up for closing time.  The silence in the cafe was broken only by the sound of carols coming from the radio and the soft tinkle of bells.

During this holiday season, let us never forget the magic of Christmas and the wonder of the season!

Best Wishes for a Joyous New Year! -Wanda DeHaven Pyle

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Thanksgiving Prayer

As Chaplain of the United States Senate in 1947, Peter Marshall had an extraordinary talent for prayer. To him the morning prayer was not just the opening part of the services, but the most precious moments an individual spends with the Lord. When he clasped his hands together, the prayers seemed to flow from the depths of his soul. Dr. Marshall did not write down his prayers, but there were those in his congregation who did. In 1954, his daughter, Catherine Marshall, published the edited prayers in a volume entitled simply, The Prayers of Peter Marshall.

These prayers have sustained and lifted me through difficult times in my life. They have humbled me and reminded me to be more patient, more understanding, and forgiving to one another. In one of his last prayers before his death, he uttered the words, "We are standing on the threshold of time."  These words are as true today as they were in 1948.

As the searing tongues of misunderstanding and hatred leap out at us from the far corners of the world, it is far to easy to put our own self-interest and pride before all else and become complacent. Dr. Marshall's great concern was for the plain homespun virtues of honesty, integrity, and goodness of the individual. He saw clearly that we can never achieve nationally what we are unwilling to accede to individually.  Over and over he kept calling us back to these basic realities.

As we approach this holiday season, let us look forward with a true sense of gratitude for all the mercy and blessings in our lives. May we get on with the job of creating not only a nation but a world in which all men shall have the right to seek happiness. Let's make this season a time of rededication, when we shall think not of how much we can eat or what gifts we want, but of how thankful we are for what we have.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Seesaw Relationships

In a previous blog ("Dreamers vs. Realists: Magic or Toxic", 5/24/13) I reflected on the magnetic draw between dreamers and realists. Since completing my novel I have come to believe that that we are all seeking a balance in our relationships.  We are initially attracted to those who fill a void in our personalities so that our lives can achieve equilibrium that we believe will bring us happiness.

Relationships can be likened to a child’s seesaw in that they are balanced as long as the weight at both ends is equally distributed. Sometimes one end might be up, sometimes the opposite end might be up, but in order for it to work at all, there has to be equal weight on each end.  In relationships we are magnetized to each other because we see in the other person something that we need to achieve the balance. We strive to meet someone’s need and fulfill our own need at the same time.  This is true of friendships, work situations, and partnerships of all kinds.

In our attempt at balance, we often attract others that are on the same continuum as we are.  If someone is aggressive, he may attract someone who is meek.  In fact the meekness may bring out the aggression in that person.  To achieve balance, one needs to learn to set boundaries and the other to respect boundaries. Holding on to resentments only causes them to build until, finally, the relationship breaks.

In the case of dreamers and realists, the balance is often achieved when both parties move toward the center or the extreme together. However, if one party begins to move toward the center and the other does not, the balance is thrown off and the relationship begins to tilt to one side resulting in disharmony and disillusionment.

When relationships are in full bloom, there is energy about it.  There is enthusiasm and communication as each party learns what the relationship has to teach them. Then sometimes, for no apparent reason, all the energy goes out of the relationship.  There is no enthusiasm for the job, the people at the job, a particular friend, or partner.  This seems to indicate that we may have learned all we can from that relationship, and it may be time to move on to another one of life’s lessons.

In Windborne, the three women who are the central focus of the novel are also seeking this balance in their relationships. When the relationships end, they must reflect on what really makes them happy and what doesn’t.  They must learn to apply the lessons they learned from their relationships and pay attention to any red flags that come up in the future.

They must learn not to be afraid to be alone for a while if that’s what life has in store.  In spending time alone, they are actually giving themselves the opportunity to get to know themselves as individuals and to incorporate and integrate the experiences they have had into their new sense of self. They must learn that one of the most important relationships they will ever have is the one they have with themselves.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Legend of the Stone House

The house was once part of an early settlement called Neosho City, founded by a group of religious zealots from the East who bought the land on speculation and offered the lots to anyone willing to follow the charter rules they set out.  The settlement was to be a "city of no sin" and the inhabitants were to follow a strictly vegetarian diet.  They were to eat nothing they couldn't grow themselves and they were not to use any medications to cure or prevent illnesses.  Death was simply God's will and they were not to interfere.  The women were to tend the fields while the men attended religious meetings and prayed for God's blessings upon the community. This, they believed, would ensure their prosperity. But Mother Nature didn't get the message.  A few summers into the settlement a severe drought ruined the crops and left the settlement to suffer through one of the hardest winters on record with no food.  Starvation and sickness descended upon them and the aged and the children were the first to feel the effects. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Spit and Whittle Benches

"Spit and Whittle" benches were a time-honored forum for old-timers to pass the idle hours of the day and exchange gossip.  The topics ranged from the appropriate length of women's hemlines to heated discussions on the politics of the day. The "Spit and Whittle" bench in my hometown was situated in front of the only pool hall and beer joint in town.  Local farmers would come into town on Saturday night and play dominoes in the pool hall while their wives shopped and visited with other farm wives. But during the late afternoon hours the bench in front of the pool hall was frequented by old men with time on their hands and an abundance of opinions for anyone who had the time to listen.

Along with the "party line" phone,  the "Spit and Whittle" bench was the social media of the day. People did not hesitate to voice their opinions and engage in heated discussions with anyone within earshot. Nothing was ever settled here, but there was a satisfaction in being heard.  No judgement was passed down and your opinions and views were often forgotten as soon as your spot on the bench was vacated.

Your spot on the bench was often determined by age and prestige in the community.  Newcomers to the bench often stood or leaned against a post to engage in the conversation.  If they were lucky enough to get a spot on the bench, they were also the first to give it up if a more senior member of the group arrived.

To ignore the group on the bench was to invite their criticism.  It left you ripe for their gossip and labeled you as an outsider. These were the elders of the community and they demanded your respect! If you didn't stop to speak, you must at least nod in acknowledgement of their presence.

Unlike the anonymity provided through today's social media, everyone knew the source of the gossip and it was usually easy to separate the fact from the fiction. As small towns disappear and the old-timers pass away, the bench in front of the pool hall is often empty.  It remains as a sad reminder of the times when conversations were open and honest and no one really cared who eavesdropped.

Friday, October 18, 2013

New Release from Wanda DeHaven Pyle

Author Reveals the Hidden Power of Women in Support of the American Dream

Wanda DeHaven Pyle’s new novel chronicles three generations who must overcome unexpected obstacles in pursuit of the Dream.

Kansas’ tallgrass prairie provides a vivid setting for Windborne, a new novel by Wanda DeHaven Pyle. The author draws heavily on her childhood experiences growing up in the Flint Hills to chronicle a story of three generations of women who triumph over heartache, poverty, and abuse to pursue the dream of a better life. Skillfully creating compassionate characters with a range of emotions, Windborne is a novel unique in style and scope.  Set against a historical backdrop of major economic and cultural changes of the past century, it is an elegantly timeless tale about the nature of love, loss and awakening.

Pioneer women followed their men into the rolling Flint Hills of Kansas in search of the dream, but when Virginia Findlay gives up her career as a one-room school teacher in rural Kansas to marry her sweetheart, she is unaware of the chain of events she sets in motion for the three generations of women who follow in her footsteps. The Flint Hills promised bountiful wildlife and fertile valleys, but for Virginia, Helen and Leah it was an empty promise. Dreams often withered and died from starvation or the harshness and unpredictability of the climate.   Like the pioneer women who came before them, they are independent and courageous women who set aside their own dreams to nurture and support others. Eventually, each woman must recognize her hidden strength and power and find the courage to be true to herself. Through their example, these women guide each succeeding generation through life and provide a blueprint for making the important decisions that help them find happiness in life.

“Once I began this work, it took on a life of its own and I found myself completely captivated by relationships and the motivations of the characters. I believe there are lessons to be learned here that will be of great interest to other mothers and daughters!”- Wanda DeHaven Pyle

Wanda DeHaven Pyle grew up in the Flint Hills of Kansas and her recollections of life on the tallgrass prairie have influenced her writing. She retired from the field of education in 2012 with over thirty-seven years as both a teacher and administrator. Throughout her career she mentored and inspired women in educational leadership and she continues to motivate and encourage women to reach their full potential.

The book is currently available at and Kindle. You may also register for the free book give away on  Be sure to rate the book and post your reviews.  I would love to hear your thoughts!

Amazon  Goodreads

Monday, October 7, 2013

Roots and Wings

All across the country the landscape is dotted with abandoned farmsteads and buildings whose walls are filled with stories of heartache and happiness.  On a recent trip back through the Kansas Flint Hills to take photographs for the cover of my book, I was once again transported through time as we captured images of the past.  We photographed abandoned hotels and schools with their roofs open and gaping toward the sky and trees poking through the windows seeking the world outside. We peeked through the windows of abandoned schoolhouses to see blackboards still lining the front wall and a pot-bellied stove still standing guard in the center of the room. It seemed that at any moment the teacher would appear in the doorway to call the children in from recess.  One could almost hear the children’s laughter from the swing set that creaked sadly in the Kansas wind.  The cattle grazing on the hills and the tall prairie grass bent low against the wind lent a timeless quality to the surroundings.  There had been wind and cattle grazing here for centuries.

We were enveloped in a silence so vast that one dared not speak above a whisper. Only the sound of the wind through the prairie grass and the gentle lowing of the cattle prevailed. Clusters of trees followed the creeks and rivers as they meandered through the lowlands. They were protected from the wind here and the comforting sound of rustling leaves softened the harshness of the surroundings.  But on the open range a lone tree struggled to stay upright against the constant wind.

Stacked stone fences lined the roadways, laid by hand over a century ago to mark the boundaries of one’s land against encroachment. Ancient barbed wire fences strung between stone fence posts built when the railroad age ended the era of the open range, kept the herds separate.  It was as if the ghosts of the past were still there...watching and protecting what they had devoted their lives to creating.

Most of the early pioneers to the area used whatever materials were available to them to create their dwellings.  The most basic structure was the dugout.  It was usually dug into a dirt bank with a sod roof. Sod houses required little expenditure because they were built from native grasses and their roots held the dirt together to form building blocks for the house. Very few of these dwellings exist today, because they were subject to water damage and infestation by vermin and were only used as temporary housing.

When settlers to Kansas found that the area was destitute of timber, they turned to a layer of limestone rock close to the surface that they soon found could be used for fencing as well as building. Besides being durable and fire resistant, limestone had several other advantages.  It could be obtained easily with the proper tools and techniques and it was uniform in thickness.  When freshly quarried, it was soft enough to shape with simple tools and hardened after being exposed to air.

Since the lowlands were prone to flooding, many schools and homes were built on the crest of a hill where the endless horizon provided a clear view of approaching storms and marauders. Although this location provided little protection from the wind and weather, it provided an unobstructed view of the Kansas sunset.  As the sun sank below the horizon, it set the entire sky ablaze in shades of bright orange and red against the golden backdrop of the prairie grass.

Gazing out at the abandoned farmhouses, one feels a sense of melancholy co-mingled with joy.  If the building had a voice, it would say, “Don’t mourn for me.  I have had a good life.   While it’s true that I have seen sadness and withered hopes, I have also watched children grow to adulthood and seen dreams realized.  I am here now only as a reminder of the sacrifices made to create this life for you. Embrace me and move on, but don’t forget me. I am the roots; you are the wings."

Stone Schoolhouse: Flint Hills National Preserve

District 22 Schoolhouse, c.1890

Stone Farmhouse: Flint Hills National Preserve
Snokomo Schoolhouse c. 1882
Bushong School, c. 1918

Volland Hotel

Sunday, September 8, 2013


A little over a year ago, I started this blog to record my inspirations, insights and reflections as I researched and wrote the novel which has become Windborne. It has been a labor of love dedicated to my family whose lives and stories inspired the work. I am happy to announce that the book is complete with an anticipated release date in time for the holidays. The following is a synopsis of the novel.  The book will be available from Amazon in paperback and also as an ebook on Kindle.  Watch this site for more information about the release!
Thank you!
Wanda DeHaven Pyle

 Windborne Synopsis

Three generations of women overcome heartache, poverty, and abuse before each woman finally recognizes her hidden strength and power and finds the courage to be true to herself.
When Virginia Findlay gives up her career as a one-room school teacher in rural Kansas to marry her sweetheart, she is unaware of the chain of events she sets in motion for the three generations of women who follow in her footsteps. Virginia leaves behind her home and family in the Kansas Flint Hills at the turn of the last century to venture out on her own and attend the Kansas Normal School to become a teacher. She relishes her new-found independence and is passionate about her belief that education is the key to a better life for rural America. She begins the journey toward bringing her vision to reality when she accepts a position teaching in a one-room school not far from her home in the Flint Hills.  During the course of her short career she not only triumphs over school bullies, uninformed school board members and natural disasters, she falls in love.
Bowing to the culture of the times, Virginia gives up her teaching career to marry Will Caulder, a young cowboy who has big dreams of owning his own ranch and making a name for himself among the large cattle ranchers of the day.  However, the death of their first child followed by the devastating effects of the Great Depression changes everything and Will and Virginia are forced to sell out and struggle for survival along with millions of others caught in the economic collapse.
Will and Virginia’s family comes of age with the onset of World War II. Their oldest son is drafted into the Army and their two older daughters marry servicemen, leaving only Helen, their youngest, still in school.  Helen is shy and withdrawn, but Will and Helen still believe that education is the key to a better life and insist that she attend college.
Once out from under the shadow of her older siblings, Helen discovers her own identity and independence.  She passes the war years in a whirlwind of activity with only a vague understanding of what the war is all about.  When the war ends, returning servicemen are eager to marry and return to a life of normalcy and Helen is caught up in the frenzy.  She is swept off her feet by Jack DeWitt, a young sailor who promises her the life she has always dreamed of. But like many returning veterans, he suffers from the stress and depression brought on by direct combat with the enemy.
Jack’s dream is also to own a large cattle ranch in the Flint Hills, but having grown up in the city and suffered a childhood filled with emotional abuse from his alcoholic father, he is ill-prepared for what lies in store. He is unable to overcome the demons that still haunt him from the war and turns to alcohol for relief.  He comes physically abusive to Helen and their daughters and one night in a drunken rage, he ends it all leaving Helen and her daughters to survive on their own.
When Will’s failing health leads to a fatal heart attack, Virginia is faced with her own unfulfilled hopes and dreams until an opportunity presents itself that brings her life full circle. In the twilight of her years she is finally able to recapture the passion and purpose she had felt all those years ago as the schoolmarm.
After Jack’s death, Helen rediscovers her inner strength and independence and assumes the role of head of the family, but during the difficult years, she had relied on her older daughter, Leah, to feed her emotional needs and provide her with the strength to carry on.  Now, Leah is set adrift in the culture of the 1960’s not knowing exactly what her role in life should be.  She is torn between her need for the safety and security of a traditional relationship and her desire for an independent life and an exciting career. Her choice sends her careening down a path of emotional destruction until she is forced to stand on her own again and rediscover the essence of her own identity.
Through their example, these women guide each succeeding generation through life and provide a blueprint for making the important decisions that help them find happiness in life.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Emotional Starvation: a mother's legacy

The other day I caught a glimpse of myself in a store window and I thought I was looking at my mother!  When did that happen?  For several years now I have heard her voice coming out of my mouth, but I’ve also heard my voice coming from my daughter’s mouth as she interacts with her own daughters!  What is it about mothers and daughters that causes them to perpetuate and repeat the patterns and behaviors of the past?

As I continue my work on the final chapters of my book, I have begun to ask myself, “What’s the point?” By that I mean what would encourage a reader to say, “That’s interesting.  I’d like to know more.” What I hope the reader will take away as a result of all my reading, thinking, research and writing is that the mother-daughter relationship is a mirror reflection of the culture of the times and the emotional condition women and girls are living in.

I began the book with a question, a puzzle that I didn’t understand but wanted to, and a vague sense of what an answer might look like. Why is it that although the women in my family were bright and highly educated, they chose partners in life who were needy and led them into a life of poverty and/or abuse? Why was this pattern repeated over so many generations? I hoped that out of my early research there would emerge a solution-- an idea that seemed promising. So I started writing to see whether I could build a story that would illustrate and shed light on the puzzle.

One of the strongly held themes I discovered was that selflessness by the women in my family was treated as a badge-of-honor that they had learned to wear proudly. Each woman had experienced a change in their understanding of their roles in life.  As each one chose a life partner, they silenced themselves from being strong, independent women to women who accepted invisibility and a belief that caring for others and not herself was “a woman’s lot in life”.  And each had passed this sense of invisibility on their daughters.

As I wrote, I saw in front of me, as if projected on the wall, a time-line of all the abusive experiences, events and emotional neglect my grandmother and mother had experienced.  I say and even felt how each of them had suffered life-stripping emotional neglect because no one had asked them what they needed or felt.  I also felt how each of them had survived this silence and invisibility by learning to believe that it was a normal state for women.

Our emotional needs are the bedrock of our ability to know ourselves, take care of ourselves, know what is right, set boundaries, be authentic and visible in our relationships, and importantly, protect ourselves from abusive people. Silencing women’s and girls’ emotional needs is the same as sentencing women and girls to lives of emotional starvation, invisibility, inequality, and being set-up for abusive relationships.

I began to see how the emotional neglect and invisibility had shaped not just their relationship with themselves, but how it had shaped their relationship with each other. I saw how their shared experience of emotional deprivation had created an emotional hunger in the mothers that they then passed on to their daughters. They didn’t know the words to say or how to feel entitled to claim ownership for their needs or their right to feel heard, visible, and nurtured. This understanding was as foreign to these women as a language they did not understand or had even heard of. Not having anywhere to be emotionally fed, and not knowing how to feed themselves or that they could ask to be responded to, each mother had passed their feelings of emotional starvation on to their daughters.

This left their daughters feeling the same invisibility and emotional neglect that their mothers had felt. It left the next generation of daughters spending their childhood and adult years learning about what others needed rather than learning about what they needed. The mothers had passed on to their daughters their own complete oblivion that something essential was missing. In their flurry to care for others, the daughters did not realize that their own emotional needs were missing and that they didn’t know the language or own the sense of entitlement to claim their needs. Just like their mothers, they did not recognize how emotionally starved they were and that they had learned to accept emotional starvation as normal. In this starved state, they also did not recognize how dangerous it is to be disconnected from your emotional needs. They did not understand that not feeling entitled to ourselves leaves women (and men) vulnerable to being and accepting abusive behavior from others.

Emotional starvation occurs when our basic need to feel important to others is not met. We all need emotional support.  It helps us to feel that our life has meaning beyond our jobs and tangible accomplishments. We are most satisfied when we feel that our hopes, dreams, feelings and desires are loved and appreciated. Emotional starvation occurs when people allow circumstances to bind them so tightly into responsibility roles that no time is available for intimate communication. Focused intimate conversation looks more like taking a quiet walk while you talk privately and listen intently to each other away from the hassles and responsibilities of daily life. It takes place at a slower pace than other forms of communication and it is not outcome driven. There is no final goal to achieve.  The sole purpose derives from the process itself.  For those involved, it is enough to feel symbolically connected via the sharing of their experiences. 

When there is almost no time spent in intimate communication, a bonded relationship will start to dysfunction because emotional needs are not being met.  Most women like to view themselves as more autonomous than they really are. As a consequence, they underestimate or even completely eclipse their own emotional needs from their awareness. It’s as if a person is starving but has no hunger! When this is happening, most people will turn the hurt into feelings of resentment and anger. They become hypersensitive and anger is provoked by even small issues.

In my book this phenomenon is illustrated in the lives of the three predominant women in the story. They act as though they do not have emotional needs.  They act stronger than they really feel underneath, and thus, reinforce the deprivation.  Because they do not expect emotional support, they do not ask for it, consequently, they do not get it. They also choose significant others who cannot or do not want not give emotionally.  They often choose partners who are cold, aloof, self-centered, or needy, and therefore likely to continue to deprive them emotionally.

Because their emotional needs were never met, the women in my story are not even aware that they are emotionally deprived. They suffer from depression, loneliness and other physical symptoms, but never make the connection with the absence of nurturing, empathy and protection. As a result, they deny that their needs are important or worthwhile and believe that strong people do not have needs.  They consider it a sign of weakness to ask others to meet their needs and have trouble accepting that there is a “lonely child” inside them who wants and needs love and connection from others in their lives. I hope my characters can learn to find the balance between strength and vulnerability in life.  To only have one side--to only be strong--is not to be fully human and denies a core part of who they are as people.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Importance of Grandparents

“A people without a history is like wind on the buffalo grass.”
—Sioux Proverb.

The American Family is in transition! The nuclear family of a mother, father and children no longer seems adequate to cover the wide diversity of household arrangements we see today. Over the century, there have been significant changes in the family’s structure and functions.  Prominent among them has been the extension of family bonds, of affection and affirmation, of help and support, across several generations whether these be biological ties or the creation of kin-like relationships.  But as families have changed, they have not necessarily declined in importance.  The increasing prevalence and importance of multigenerational bonds represents a valuable new resource for families in the 21st century.

Urbanization, increased individualism and secularism and the emancipation of women have transformed the family from a social institution based on law and custom to one based on companionship and love. In the last few decades, with the shift to a postindustrial domestic economy within a globalized capitalist system and with the advent of new reproductive technologies, the modern family system has been replaced by what has been called “the postmodern family”.
Each child born is granted the gift of life by their parents. This gift is a link to their ancestors who lived before them. From the beginning of time people have sensed a need to belong. Without this connection to our ancestors we would have little knowledge of our culture or how we fit in. Through discovering our roots we become aware of who we are as people. We also come to understand more about our purpose in life.
Valuable lessons can be acquired by learning about the ethics of our ancestors. The way an individual behaves and their ideals are often passed from generation to generation. People are referred to as being a descendant of so and so. In reality, it does not matter if our ancestors were heroes or scoundrels. We cannot take credit for their achievements nor should we be blamed for their faults. It is important to realize that as individuals we are accountable for our own actions.
In recent years the age structure of most American families has changed with more family generations alive but fewer members alive in each generation. Family relationships across several generations are becoming increasingly important in American society.  They are also increasingly diverse in structure and functions. As the demographics of the country changes with the older generation living longer more active lives, the result is longer years of “shared lives” between generations.  As family dynamics change there is an increasing importance for grandparents and other extended family members in fulfilling traditional family functions.
Grandparents have become important role models in the socialization of their grandchildren. They provide economic resources to younger generation family members, contribute to cross-generational solidarity and family continuity over time.  They also represent a bedrock of stability for teenage moms raising infants. In the context of marital instability, the breakup of nuclear families, and the remarriage of parents, it is clear that grandparents and step-grandparents are becoming increasingly important family connections.
An unfortunate stereotype of the older generation today is of “greedy geezers” who are spending their children’s inheritance on their own retirement pleasures. In reality, most grandparents are providing some form of help and assistance to their children and grandchildren. They have been described as a sort of “Family National Guard”: Although remaining silent and unobserved for the most part, grandparents (and great-grandparents) muster up and march out when an emergency arises regarding younger generation members’ well-being.
Multigenerational bonds are more important today than ever before, particularly with regard to the network of family support across generations. These multigenerational relationships are increasingly diverse in structure and functions within American society.  Because the increase in marital instability and divorce have weakened so many nuclear families, these multigenerational bonds will not only enhance but in some cases replace some of the nuclear family functions that have been the focus of so much recent debate.
So let’s hear it for grandparents! A family is not a set of unconnected individuals doing their own thing; it’s a cluster of related generations. A loving grandparent has so much to give to the grandchildren but they can learn from them as well, and this adds to the general health of a society.  Much research, over the past few years has provided evidence that grandparents can be vital in providing family stability. With both parents working, family stress and all the confusions of modern life, grandparents give children unconditional love, support and valuable life lessons. They are family historians with unique experiences who are contributing to the future by passing on important values and also learning about what matters to younger generations.  
In my exploration of changing family dynamics over three generations, I have discovered that while it is also true that grandparents can rule with an iron rod, undermine the daughters-in-law that come into the family, interfere between parents and children, prevent or make very difficult the introduction of change and create factions within the wider family, grandparents have always had a role in passing on the culture of their society. A study of past generations can shed light on recurring patterns of behavior that if repeated or misunderstood can create further disfunction in the family. This communication and understanding can help to bridge what can be a significant gap between generations and improve the harmony of the family as a whole.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Real Life as Fiction

One of the problems of using real-life experiences as a basis of fiction is the difficulty of divorcing oneself from the events in the story to be able to focus on a plot that will appeal to a broader audience. Oscar Wilde’s famous quote that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” is the conundrum facing most writers who attempt to create fiction based on real life events. Just because “it really happened” doesn’t mean it’s good fiction.

Real life is messy and complicated and doesn’t follow the rules of fiction.  It’s also boring at times, even mundane. In my attempt to turn three generations of real life into a work of fiction, I find that knowing the “real” people and events has turned out to be both a blessing and a hurdle. Sometimes real life can become too unbelievable for good fiction.  A smooth well-crafted story must have characters that are more exciting, more interesting, and more disturbing than real life to make them worthy of being read. To make the story broad enough for readers to relate to I need to give my characters room to roam and behave in different surroundings and situations. I must take the raw clay of factual material and shape it into something that is my own creation. 

To expand the scope of my story and create a more substantial framework for the plot, I must distance myself from the real characters and make them my own. I must structure the formlessness, confusion, and indecision of everyday life into the demands of a novel with believable characters and a dramatic plot. The challenge is to lift the characters, events tragedies and triumphs from the pages of real life and create a new existence for them.

By looking at the family through the lens of several generations I hope to present it realistically as part of a larger social predicament. The historical evidence reveals that families have always been in flux and often in crisis, and that families have been most successful wherever they have built meaningful networks beyond their own boundaries. Every family, even though it is made up of individual members, results in a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.  According to Bowen’s theory of family systems, it is the nature of a family that its members are intensely connected emotionally. Family members so profoundly affect each other's thoughts, feelings, and actions that it often seems as if people are living under the same "emotional skin." People solicit each other's attention, approval, and support and react to each other's needs, expectations, and distress. The connectedness and reactivity make the functioning of family members interdependent. A change in one person's functioning is predictably followed by reciprocal changes in the functioning of others.

This emotional interdependence presumably evolved to promote the cohesiveness and cooperation families require to protect, shelter, and feed their members. Heightened tension, however, can intensify the processes that promote unity and teamwork within the family, and this can lead to problems. When family members get anxious, the anxiety can escalate by spreading infectiously among them. As anxiety goes up, the emotional connectedness of family members becomes more stressful than comforting. Eventually, one or more members feel overwhelmed, isolated, or out of control. The ones who accommodate the most to reduce the tension in others are often most vulnerable to problems such as depression, alcoholism, affairs, or physical illness.

Family dynamics are shaped by the social, economic and political issues of the times as well as by the personalities involved.  Because humans are capable of change, and family members take part in different experiences, the dynamics within a family never remain the same. Therefore, I have chosen to focus on the changing dynamics of the family from a multigenerational perspective as it copes with the stress of transitions and role changes during times of massive economic and social changes.

 Sounds ambitious! I just hope I’m up to treating it in an entertaining and story-appropriate way!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Dreamers vs. Realists: Magic or Toxic?

Many of the most exciting people are also the most dangerous. Reckless people can be detrimental to our health.  To what lows will they go to attain new heights? Because they've got the emotional range of a roller coaster, when they go down, they go down hard. Anyone in their path will be dragged along with them. When they're experiencing one of their highs, they can be nearly irresistible.

We are often drawn into relationships that perpetuate a pattern we are familiar with. We all pick our partners in life in hopes of getting the love we longed for and may not have gotten from our parents. Unfortunately, in our cleverness, we often pick partners who are reasonable facsimiles of our parents. Since we still need love and approval, we continue to try to get it from our partners just as we tried with our parents.

As I explore the sometimes toxic relationship between “Schoolmarms and Cowboys” It seems that what I’m actually looking at is the contrast between dreamers and realists. The realist and the dreamer are often to be the most unlikely of friends, polar opposites in fact, often standing in direct opposition from one another. Dreamers love to indulge in the land of “Imagine if…” They are “big picture” people with ambitious ideas and high hopes for radical outcomes and experiences in life. They live with their head in the clouds imagining and wishing for a better tomorrow. Unfortunately dreams don’t become a reality based on enthusiasm alone.

When it comes to relationships, dreamers are romantics. They are inspiring and encouraging people to be around and their “Land of Oz” mentality makes them contagious leaders. The difference between dreamers and realists is that dreamers recognize the change necessary for their desired outcome. Instead of wallowing in thoughts that reassert the limitations and tribulations that they’re experiencing they indulge on their dreams and desires and focus all their energies on what they passionately crave.

The realist, on the other hand, is much more concerned with the practical details. They pride themselves on having their feet firmly planted on the floor and their head in the real world.  They are practical thinkers and problem solvers, high achievers and highly productive. The realists have good intentions to bring constructive ideas and feedback to see forward movement, but they are often accused of being dream destroyers because of their profound ability to instantly identify potential obstacles and issues that can bring down a dream and smash it into a thousand pieces with one word!

Opposites attract, or so the saying goes, but at first glance this relationship seems doomed. The dreamer is constantly frustrated because he feels as though the realist is always negative. The realist is driven crazy by the unrealistic fantasy-like ideas of the dreamer. However, when the best aspects of these two characters are meshed together magic happens! When the dreamer can encourage the realist to lift her head a little higher and dream a little bigger and when the realist can encourage the dreamer to come back down to earth long enough to put some form and structure in place, the sky is the limit!  The result could be one very dynamic and successful partnership.  The best chance of seeming a dream fully realized is to get both aspects of these characters on board. And it is the hope of creating this magic that draws the two together like moths to a flame.

Unfortunately, the relationship can just as easily turn toxic. Dreamers are often narcissistic in that everything centers on their needs and wants. If you have been trained to put the needs of others above your own, you spend your time in service to your partner. The relationship begins to alter who you are and you lose control of your life. You become more invested in the relationship because you are serving your partner. Yet they grow less vested in the relationship and show less respect for your efforts. Each day you surrender a part of yourself in order to keep your toxic partner from jumping on the roller coasters and taking you on another emotional, toxic ride.  You begin to feel devalued. You get weaker and weaker until you don’t like who you have become.

 So why would anyone get caught up in this terrible situation in the first place?  Why wouldn’t they get out at the first sign that the relationship has turned toxic?  The easiest choice is to continue the relationship and hope that the other person changes. This is rarely successful, but the one most socially acceptable to previous generations of men and women caught in toxic relationships. It’s what perpetuates the myth of “Ozzie and Harriet” that we all lead lives of perfect harmony. The second is to attempt to minimize the damage that the relationship is causing by limiting contact, also known as “The Silent Treatment”, and trust that the other person will get the message. Neither of these methods of dealing with the situation has ever proven very successful.  The third, and definitely the most challenging, is to confront the issue and end the relationship in all forms.  This is also the most painful choice if ending the relationship involves children, uncertain finances and social pressure.

Dreamers and realists will continue to be attracted to one another as long as there is a chance that we can create the magic. But if the relationship turns toxic, we must be willing to cut our losses and move on.  Once we know why we make the choices we do, we can begin to constructively change our way of thinking about relationships and choose the healthiest option, rather than the most comfortable one.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Cleaning Closets

According to Psychology Today, everyone procrastinates sometimes, but 20 percent of people chronically avoid difficult tasks and deliberately look for distractions—which, unfortunately, are increasingly available. Procrastination in large part reflects our perennial struggle with self-control as well as our inability to accurately predict how we'll feel tomorrow, or the next day. Procrastinators may say they perform better under pressure, but more often than not that's their way of justifying putting things off.

I’ve never considered myself a procrastinator, but I have suddenly awakened to the fact that I’m actually quite good at it!  While I was working, it was easy to put off things around the house while I focused on meeting the deadlines at work.  Now, in this first year of retirement, I find that old habits are hard to break.  I should, for example, clean out closets and get rid of unwanted and unnecessary items, but every time I open the closet door, I can think of a dozen reasons to put it off.

The same demons have plagued my resolution to exercise more and lose weight.  Perhaps the two are related since my closet is filled with clothing of various sizes waiting for me to get back to a size where they will fit again.  The closet is filled with the ghosts of the person I used to be and it is a metaphor for my current battle with procrastination.

After spending last week doing research for a chapter of my book, I realized that I actually needed to do a complete rewrite of several chapters to tie up loose ends and present the time and events with accuracy. Instead of getting right to it while the information is fresh in my mind, I find myself looking for reasons to put it off. The book and the research have caused me to open the closet door to my past and examine skeletons I thought I had buried long ago. I have reflected deeply on the people and events that led me to the point where I am today and realized that I wasn’t always fair in my evaluation of the situation. The writing has forced me to change perspectives on my view of the past and look at things through the eyes of my characters.  In so doing, I have gained new insight and respect for their motivations, but it is often a painful revelation…much like looking at a closet full of clothes that I most likely will never wear again.

The reality is that even if I were able to fit into my old clothes, I would feel uncomfortable and out of touch.  I’m not that person anymore and bell bottoms will hopefully never come back in style! I must remember this as I write.  That girl doesn’t exist anymore, but she is responsible for making me the woman I am today.  For that I thank her and forgive her silliness and misconceptions, but it is time to focus on the person I am today. It’s time to clean out that closet!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Life's Speed Bumps

Some people seem to be more able to shrug negative experiences and interactions off.  They are affected by them, but they remain intact and grounded in who they are and their sense of worth.  Others find themselves deeply affected by difficult people and situations, and they may find their sense of self and confidence suffers as a result. I must admit to falling more often into the second category.

Self-doubt and fear of making mistakes begins from other people’s expectations of us and sometimes even their criticism of us when we’ve made mistakes. The information that was not encouraging and supportive in our learning is the root of our self-doubt.  Many of us, in part because of the external responses we have received throughout our lives, may feel self-doubt or insecurity.  This type of negative self-perception that we are not good enough makes it more and more difficult to feel confident or roll with the punches of everyday life without allowing them to tear down our sense of self.

I grew up thinking that family life should follow a “Leave it to Beaver” or “Ozzie and Harriet” model. Father should work at some ambiguous job that allowed him to be home most of the time smoking a pipe and reading the newspaper. He should offer wisdom and sage advice to his children when their actions required redirection, but never raise his voice or his hand in anger. Mother should spend her time in the kitchen smiling and looking like she had just come from a church social, and families should live harmoniously in a beautiful home with all the modern amenities of the time. 

It seemed to my young mind that everyone in the world lived like this except my family! My mother worked teaching school from the time I can remember and was the primary bread-winner for the family. She never had time to bake cookies or create the fabulous meals that June Cleaver prepared! There was no money for summer camp, or movies and we seemed to work at the farm all the time without ever getting ahead. We had none of the modern amenities I saw on television. Most of the time, we didn’t even have a telephone! Our toilet was a lilac bush at the side of the house! Running water was provided by a well that often ran dry during the summer and water had to be trucked in from town.

When I became a teenager, I longed for the whirlwind of parties and fun that Gidget experienced, but my life seemed both frightening and dull by comparison. This was about this time that my father’s alcoholism became public knowledge and I felt outcast as an undesirable because of it. Our family was focused on survival rather than fun, and I began to feel as if I didn’t deserve success.
A negative self-image can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  In other words, self-doubt is a mindset that sets us up to fail.  This type of negative self-perception tends to feed upon itself. We begin to see the world in terms of experiences that solidify that perception that we are not good enough. The core emotion beneath self-doubt is fear. Even the most self-confident among us will experience doubt from time to time. This dark shadow of insecurity can lead to hesitation and indecision.  If left unchecked, it can cause us to abandon our course or radically compromise our expectations. Like termites chewing away at the foundation of a strong building, doubt can undermine our strongest beliefs.  Oftentimes it is the only thing that stands between where we are and where we want to be.
In my case, I had always wanted to be a writer, but this endeavor was frowned upon in my small community and I was afraid of the criticism I would receive.  Women should be wives and mothers first, but if they chose to work there were only three occupations that were considered suitable for women:  teacher, secretary, or nurse. Since teaching was the closest thing to writing, I chose to major in English and teach others to become writers!

If we give into the temptation to ignore or deny self-doubt, it will impose limits on our ability to act. Self-doubt can be a stealthy problem. The more I studied and read the great works of other writers; I began to doubt my ability to produce anything of quality and thus, became paralyzed to act on my ambitions. It seemed that anything I wrote sounded trite and forced rather than real and natural. So I gave up.

So now, in the autumn of my life, I have decided to face my fears and meet my feelings of doubt head on. Normally, feelings override logic, but questioning the validity of feelings brings them within the reach of reason. For nearly forty years I have forced myself to approach life from the viewpoint of logic and reason.  In the process, I lost contact with my creative side and yet this is where my natural inclination lies. Rediscovering my creativity and imagination has been difficult to say the least!

For most people, self-doubt is just a temporary condition. Successful people think of it as a speed bump on the road to success. I believe that if I can take the bump in stride, then I can put the pedal to the metal, and go for it! Success will be within my grasp!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Surviving the Wrath of Nature

Surviving a natural disaster has to do with much more than getting through the environmental, physical, and financial aspects of the disaster. The increased vulnerability that most people experience when they have faced extreme danger, death and physical injury, and the loss of their regular ways of life cannot be ignored. Such feelings of vulnerability almost always lead to immense levels of stress. And the effects—the emotional toll--of that stress can vary from person to person.

The recent heavy winter storms throughout the Midwest remind us of how vulnerable we humans are in the face of Mother Nature’s fury.  Weather extremes are not uncommon in the Great Plains and yet no matter how well-prepared we think we are, we continue to be surprised by how helpless we are in the face of nature’s sudden fury.

The extremes of Kansas weather are often exacerbated by heavy winds that only increase the storm’s fury. Heavy winter snows accompanied by high winds create drifts of six feet or more and the temperature can drop suddenly to 30 degrees below zero with a wind chill making it even colder.  The wind and snow are often so fierce that people can become lost within a few yards of their front doors.

But winter is not the only time the wind is vicious.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the settlement of the Great Plains provided the growing nation with agricultural riches and a bustling farm economy, but the rapid development of previously arid lands into massive wheat fields had a detrimental effect upon the land itself. Where buffalo grass had previously provided nutrients and kept the soil anchored to the ground, the newly plowed wheat fields left the soil exposed to the elements.  In the summer of 1934, with conditions worsened by a long drought, winds began to whip the sunbaked soil into thick, dark, low-riding clouds of dust. The dust clouds assaulted everything, destroying crops, killing livestock and suffocating farmers and their families.

Of course the most infamous of the killer winds is the tornado.  A tornado appears as a rotating, funnel-shaped cloud that extends from a thunderstorm to the ground with whirling winds that can reach 300 miles per hour.  Damage paths can be in excess of one mile wide and 50 miles long.  Some tornadoes are clearly visible, while rain or nearby low-hanging clouds obscure others.  Occasionally, tornadoes develop so rapidly that little, if any advance warning is possible. The most destructive tornado in Kansas history smashed through Topeka on June 8, 1966. The storm cut a swath of ruin though the capital city, destroying hundreds of homes, causing millions of dollars in damage, and killing 16 residents.  It remains one of the costliest tornadoes on record.

A firestorm is a conflagration which attains such intensity that it creates and sustains its own wind system. It is most commonly a natural phenomenon, created during some of the largest wildfires. Typically the state experiences most of its wildfires in March and April when ranchers are conducting controlled burns on the prairie.  Drought conditions and high winds make wild fires especially dangerous. When conditions green up in the summer and the humidity is higher, it lowers the chances.  Kansas Forest Service officials estimated that more than 41,000 acres were burned across the state in 2012 making it one of the worst years on record.

But killer winds are not the only way Mother Nature dispenses her fury.  Measured in terms of human suffering, tremendous losses in property, and extensive disruption of business activities, the July 1951 flood ranks as the greatest natural catastrophe in the history of the region.  The floods inn Kansas were caused by above-normal precipitation during May and June that caused some major flooding and established high streamflows, high ground-water levels and a minimum capacity for the soil to absorb any additional rainfall.

The heavy spring rains were followed by the great storm of July 9-13, 1951 that was centered near the common divide of the Kansas and Neosho River Basins.  Precipitation began during the afternoon of July 9 and continued through the morning of July 10.  Following a brief respite, the precipitation began again the evening of July 10 and continued through July 12.  Each day was characterized by excessive rainfall during the late afternoon and night with little or no rainfall during the early and mid-afternoon hours.  By midnight July 13, unprecedented total amounts of rain had fallen since the beginning of the storm.

Total damage from the flood was unparalleled. From the headwaters of the Kansas River to the mouth of the Missouri River at St. Louis, about 2 million acres were flooded. 45,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, and 17 major bridges, some of them weighted with locomotives in an attempt to hold them, were washed away. Transportation was disrupted as highways and railroads were closed from days to weeks.  One of the more unusual damage reports came from LeRoy, Kansas where the Neosho River had washed caskets from graves at the cemetery.

It is quite normal for people to experience mild stress reactions to natural disasters like these for several days or weeks afterward. Often, initially, people will experience shock and denial in the first couple hours or days after the disaster. When shock occurs, people feel stunned or dazed. Denial means that they cannot acknowledge that a stressful situation has occurred or that they cannot experience the full intensity of what has happened. Both shock and denial are normal protective responses to the trauma of the disaster, which can be too much to absorb all at once.

After those initial reactions subside, people’s reactions can vary to a large extent. Often they may feel intense and unpredictable feelings, though sometimes feelings of anger and fear may be triggered by specific reminders of the natural disaster. Some people will have reactions immediately following the event and some will have delayed reactions. Some will recover quickly and some will have adverse effects for a long time. Though most people’s reactions will dissipate within a few weeks, as many as one in three survivors of natural disasters will experience more severe stress responses. Those responses can last for multiple weeks, months, or even years.

At some period, my family has weathered all of these natural disasters and they have left a lasting effect on each one of us.  It is a testament to the strength of the human spirit that we are able to pick up the pieces of our shattered lives and do whatever it takes to move on, rebuild, or start over.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Grieving the Death of a Child

The death of a child is particularly difficult because it’s not supposed to happen.  It is out of the natural order of things.  Young lives are full of promise and possibilities and should never be cut short before they have a chance to be realized.  Every parent I know would gladly exchange his or her own life for the lives of their children. But sometimes that choice is not ours to make.

When Ken and I got married he had three grown sons and I had eight year old twins. I don’t know what possessed him to take on a second family just as his was leaving the nest, but I am forever thankful for the wit and wisdom he provided in the raising of mine.  I have often said that God brought us together for a reason.  It seemed an uncanny coincidence that he should be grieving the loss of his wife of 22 years just as I was experiencing a painful divorce.

I was concerned that his boys would not accept their father entering a new relationship so soon after the death of their mother, but they welcomed me in and made me feel comfortable.  I made no attempt to “mother” these adult children, but I tried to be supportive and I loved playing “grandma” to their children.
Greg was the oldest of the boys at age 27.  He was married and had a three-year old daughter. They were struggling as a couple and having financial difficulty. Less than two years separated Randy from his older brother, Greg and his younger brother, Lowell.   As the middle child,   Randy was a gentle, loving young man with a giving nature. He was enjoying the party life and was living on his own in Denver when Ken and I were married.  Ken’s youngest son, Lowell enjoyed being the clown of the family. He worked nights at a local nightclub and dreamed of becoming a top chef.

As parents we are not responsible for the life decisions our adult children make.  We can only celebrate their successes and stand ready to help pick up the pieces when things go wrong. Randy’s lifestyle led him to contract HIV/AIDS in 1987 shortly after Ken and I moved to California to begin our new life together.  We could only watch helplessly as his health declined and his smile disappeared.  His death two years later at the age of 27 was extremely hard on Ken. I could not begin to imagine the pain of losing a child. But just as he had handled the death of his wife, he picked up the pieces of his life and moved forward.  I’m not sure I could have done the same.  From time to time, a memory or special day will trigger a return of the grieving, but he doesn’t let it consume him.

Last year, after leading a very troubled life, Greg finally found his peace by committing suicide. I feared that the pain of losing two children would be impossible to bear, but once again, Ken grieved and moved on. His greatest remorse was that his children had suffered in their final days on earth and he had not been there to comfort them. His emotional strength in dealing with this loss has consistently amazed me.

My grandmother lost a child at the young age of 5 months and the loss affected her for her entire life. She became paranoid and bitter. She mistrusted everyone and had difficulty expressing her emotions. To us she seemed cold and unfeeling. She seldom laughed or caressed us and seemed overly critical of everything.
I was curious to know whether these two very different responses  to the death of a child were typical of the different grieving processes experienced by men and women.  

Several research articles pointed to the fact that mothers often have more difficulty overcoming the death of a child than fathers do.  This can be traced partly to social norms that place the mother in the more nurturing role in the family.  She tends to take on the responsibility for the care and protection of her young so when something goes wrong, she takes it as a personal failure and the guilt can be unbearable.  Because of the nursing experience, mothers often bond more quickly to their infant child than fathers. Therefore, losing an infant when it is most dependent on the nurturing care of the parent may be particularly difficult for the mother. As today’s fathers take a more active parenting role, this may be truer in my grandmothers’ case that it is today. 

The research also indicates that it is not uncommon for women who experience the death of a child to experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) similar to that experienced by combat veterans. They often suffer from psychological disorders like paranoia and substance dependency which can last throughout their lives. Treatment for PTSD has only recently come under scrutiny with the return of combat veterans from Vietnam. In my grandmother’s time, there was no diagnosis or treatment for the disorder.  Like combat veterans, grieving parents were simply told to get on with their lives and have more children.  What is misunderstood in this pronouncement is that one can never replace a child no matter how many children come afterward.  There is always a void and an empty place at the table.  There is always a life unfulfilled and the dreams of what might have been.

Pretending that the child never existed is not an option for the grieving parent.  There are still memories to be shared and smiles to be remembered. Just because their lives were cut short does not mean that they had never lived or that their lives did not touch others in the short time they were with us. When asked how many children he has, Ken always answers, “I had three sons.”