Weatherford Award for Fiction: Mother of Rain


In late February, four short weeks ago now, a letter arrived in my inbox.

I was on the phone with a big city New York agent working out details for another literary event, for another author, when I clicked open the email from Jason Howard, editor of the Appalachian Heritage at Berea College in Kentucky.

Dear Karen, Jason’s note began.

I’m excited to let you know that MOTHER OF RAIN has been awarded the 2013 Weatherford Award in Fiction by the Appalachian Studies Association!

I knew about the Weatherford, of course. Knew the award had been bestowed upon authors I had long admired: Barbara Kingsolver, Lee Smith, Amy Greene, Charles Frazier, Ron Rash, Darnell Arnoult, Dr.Michael Montgomery, whose Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English was the reference book from which I crafted Mother of Rain. To name a  few of the hard-working & talented.

Writing truth always matters to me. But perhaps never more so than when I am writing about the place and the people I am from. Those seen and those unseen, those known and those only imagined through story.

It’s enough to put the dread of God in a girl, I’ll tell you. The idea of getting it wrong when writing about a place and a people you love. I spent years working on Mother of Rain. Having built a reputation as a journalist and crafter of non-fiction books didn’t seem to alleviate my fears none. It only made me worry more, worry that readers wouldn’t buy a book of fiction from a writer of memoirs, mayhem and murders.

It’s hard to explain how scary it can be, this writing thing I do. So much of it feels like failure, like not being good enough, smart enough, savvy enough, skilled enough. Books take years to write. There is no weekly paycheck to reward all that effort. No 401k, no health insurance, no two-week vacation, paid for. There is only you, the blank page, and a story needing telling.

And hope, that eternal flame the fuels the creative. Hope that perhaps, one day, you’ll stand alongside those you admire most and say something true and powerful. The way Silas House does when he says that Kudzu is our language.  Or when he says that the act of telling one’s story is holy.

Or when Darnell Arnoult, herself a Weatherford alum, reads about how a mother sees God best in the eyes of her children.

Or when Dave Tabler, recorder in the New Appalachia tradition, speaks to the gift of being raised in Appalachia by grandparents devoted to the old traditions.

The gift of Appalachia is in our memories and the remembering of them, Silas House says.

The people at the Appalachian Studies Association know best if something rings true of Appalachia or not. They have carved notable careers from the hardwoods and the mountains. They don’t tolerate fools much. They don’t like stereotypes at all.

Which explains why I did the ugly cry that morning in February and a few times since. In his congratulatory note, Jason Howard asked me if I could come to West Virginia, to the Appalachian Studies Conference in late March to receive  the Weatherford Award in person, the only truly proper way to get an award one works so hard to earn.

“Your daddy would be so proud,” wrote a Vietnam veteran who understood how much children like me long to hear those words from the parent long since dead.

Mama, too, I bet. She knew the story of Mother of Rain and had urged me to make people care about Maizee Hurd.

Daughter Shelby came with because she was the one who took the narratives I wrote and pieced them together like a patchwork quilt, cutting and pinning here, not there. And because, ultimately, it was for her generation and the ones that follow that I tell the story in the music and cadence of the language of my Appalachian ancestors.

My mama and daddy’s people.

Those judging the Weatherford understood that when I wrote about Christian Bend and the Holston River and Hawkins County, Tennessee, I was writing about a people and a place I know.

Just consider the remarks the judges made about your work, Jason Howard urged:

  • Mother of Rain blew me away. I laughed, cried, and marked beautiful passages from beginning to end. The elephant story in the beginning actually served a purpose, relating to the rest of the book as opposed to being merely a gimmick. I cared about the characters and thought there was a significant contribution to Appalachian fiction in terms of mental illness and postpartum depression. Loved that it was set in East Tennessee. Don’t know of another book set in Hawkins Co. and surrounding area. Karen Spears Zacharias is an author to watch. Oh, and she really captured the language, cadence, and music of East Tennessee.
  • [Mother of Rain] is a gem, with beautifully drawn Appalachian characters, a strong sense of time and place, and a deeply important and universal theme: the interconnection of our actions and guilt (the patchwork quilt image). Like Blake, Zacharias deals with the complexity of the “fearful symmetry,” adding a profundity to her tale that gives it a superb richness.
  • The story of Maizee [in Mother of Rain] is well developed and the imagery is both beautiful and horrific (her dead, chicken-pecked mother still resonates). The story itself is tender and tragic and portrays Appalachia in one of the truest senses that I¹ve read in a long time. In addition, the characters stay with you long after you read them.
  • Mother of Rain is a lyrical novel with characters that are fully formed and beautifully imagined. I admired how their actions and dialogue also captured the power of the setting, East Tennessee. Zacharias expertly captures complex themes—mountain guilt being but one—without ever being heavy-handed in her prose.

Appalachian, some say it in a derogatory and demeaning way.

But to me, Appalachia means home.

It’s the dirt from which I was made.

It is the reason I am a storyteller.

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Starve a Child, Save a Gay


I was in Nashville when the text message arrived: “Have you kept up with what’s going on with World Vision?”

Only barely, I replied. I’m on the road.

Prior to heading out of Seattle earlier this week I had read a story about World Vision’s decision to hire Christians in Same-Sex marriages. World Vision is a Christian organization that does good works around the world, primarily focusing on the needs of the impoverished, particularly children.  To be honest, I didn’t give the announcement by Richard Stearns much thought. Given the size of World Vision, I assumed Gays were already working for the organization. So the announcement seemed more like an afterthought to me.

But I was on a plane all day Tuesday and away from Social Media most of Wednesday, so I was completely unaware of the firestorm World Vision’s leadership came under as a result of the announcement, which is why my friend was texting me.

What do you think of all this? she wanted to know.

Before I’ve even had time to process the first announcement Stearns has made another rescinding his first one. It was all a mistake, Stearns said. Not very well thought out. He failed to seek enough input, or wise counsel. Mea Culpa.

Somewhere between the first announcement and his second one this is what happened – Jesus people threatened to withdraw their funding for hurting children worldwide.


That’s right.

Because they took offense to the notion of supporting same-sex marriages the Jesus people decided that they could no longer help hurting children.

They sought to punish World Vision, and Stearns in particular, for taking what they deemed a political stand – the acknowledgement of same sex marriages. I wonder if God is sorry he created Humanity. Surely he is utterly embarrassed by us Jesus people.

Wouldn’t you think an organization built upon the desire to perform acts of mercy and compassion for the hurting in this world would apply that same theology consistently throughout its organization – whether it is dealing with the poor in Ecuador or the depressed in Everett?

Oh, I don’t blame Stearns or World Vision for backing off their position. The threats of Jesus people are real, not imagined. Their collective fiscal power is mighty indeed. You don’t know wrath until you’ve incurred the wrath of God’s people. There is no bully greater than a bully with unlimited online access and Facebook and Twitter accounts.

And here I was naive enough to think when Fred Phelps died his convoluted approach to theology died with him.

All those who bullied World Vision into retracting their position might as well marched alongside Westboro Baptist at military funerals with placards claiming Starve a Child, Save a Gay.

Karen's Blog Post

Purple Heart Recipient Jed Zillmer: An American Tragedy



His life ended in a one-sided shoot-out.

Police said he wanted it that way.

They said Afghanistan war veteran Jed Zillmer was on a suicidal mission: Kill or be killed.

He was allegedly heavily armed and suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, although that had never been diagnosed.

Before a claim of PTSD can be confirmed it has to be reported – by the very person suffering from it. Go figure.

Zillmer had filed a claim. Said he’d lost a toe after his foot was shot during a gun battle in Afghanistan that took the life of one of his buddies. The nation awarded him a Purple Heart for the injury. The Army denied him disability benefits for that same injury. When Zillmer fought back – the way the military taught him to do – he was denied a second time, by a Federal judge. No conflict of interest there.

You might be asking yourself how come this hasn’t made national headlines. Then again, you might shrug your shoulders and walk away from Zillmer’s death, figuring, Oh, well, another crazy veteran bites the dust.

Zillmer was studying at the local community college. He had married his sweetheart Katie in a little ceremony but they were in the throes of planning a big shindig summer wedding. Instead Katie spent Valentine’s Day being comforted by family and friends, planning a funeral.

Police say they had to kill him, had to stop him before he killed somebody. They were worried he might be headed for Spokane Valley Mall, might take out his frustrations on unsuspecting civilians. Perhaps they are right. Recent history tells us though, our mass shootings haven’t been done by war veterans. Our worst mass shootings have been carried out for the most part by blood-thirsty boys who never served a day in a war zone. Recent history also tells us that law-enforcement in Spokane tend to be a trigger-happy group. Wise civilians know better than to get into a skirmish with Spokane law-enforcement. That’s a generalization, of course, but one built upon facts.

Zillmer’s friends are shocked.

It seems the people who love a person best are always the last ones to know how deep is the darkness that envelops their loved ones.

That Zillmer was frustrated over the legal wranglings of  applying for and being denied benefits is without question.

We teach our boys and girls to fight. We give them weapons with which to do that fighting. Then when they come home, we act all shocked when the only way they know how to cope is with a pointed gun.

An investigation is underway now but early reports explain Zillmer’s death this way:


Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said Zillmer was suicidal and believed to be heavily armed when they started the pursuit. Zillmer called dispatch at the start of the pursuit around 7 p.m. and told them he was suicidal, heavily armed and wanted to commit suicide by cop, even saying he would shoot civilians if it took too long for deputies to shoot him. That’s why deputies stopped him at Indiana and Sullivan before he traveled into a more populated area. When they stopped him, Zillmer got out of his vehicle and pointed a gun at himself and adjusted his bulletproof vest. “Doing that, officers opened fire because there was some kind of movement,” Knezovich said.


Zillmer never opened fire. He had the gun pointed at himself, not them. We don’t know whether he was “heavily-armed” or not. But if the facts are as alleged here, then law-enforcement knew they were dealing with a suicidal person. Why do they shoot to kill? Why do they not shoot to disable?

The irony of it all is that Zillmer will likely be given a military burial, with folded flag and 21-gun salute. Unless, of course, the military denies him that benefit, too.

Jed Zillmer was a kid.

Jed Zillmer fought for his country.

Jed Zillmer returned to a nation ill-equipped to deal with the injuries he suffered as a result of his service. And I’m not talking about his foot.

Twenty-two veterans a day commit suicide in the land of the free and the brave.

Imagine a gunman walking into an elementary school and killing dead an entire First Grade classroom every single day.

That’s what 22 veterans a day looks like. It looks like the slaughter of young boys and young girls.

As young Zillmer tragically learned, the real battlefield isn’t in Afghanistan, or even Iraq.

The highest incident of soldier bloodshed is right here on U.S. soil.

Jed & Katie Zillmer

Karen Spears Zacharias is a Gold-Star Daughter and the author of After the Flag has been Folded (Wm.Morrow).

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I dream of dead people





I dream of dead people. They speak to me.

My daughter said my gift was useless. Not much help to anyone.

I can’t deny it. It’s true.

I’m not exactly sure why I have this gift, if that is indeed what it is. To sing like Carrie Underwood would have come in so much more useful.

I’ve written about this oddity in the past, in books and in columns. I even tried to give the gift away to a fictional character I created in Mother of Rain.

Even so it remains with me.

I wake with a start, usually a word or a visual in my head.

This most recent awakening came with a name: Miriam Shepherd.

I knew two things about Miriam Shepherd: She was in trouble and needed help.

I was trying to get to her, to help her when I woke from yet another troubling dream. Seeing how it was only shortly past midnight, I woke Tim up, which was a pretty funny incident itself, seeing how he thought I was some intruder attacking him. We (meaning me) giggled for a good long while about his waking up. When I was sure he was completely awake I told him about Miriam Shepherd and how she was in some trouble and needed help.

But the thing is, I told Tim, I have no idea who Miriam Shepherd is or what kind of trouble she’s in. I don’t know anyone by that name. I’ve never heard of anyone by that name before. So I reached for my cell phone, typed in Miriam Shepherd into Google and read Tim the results:

Miriam Shepherd, 22, and Derrick Baines, 32, were found dead on a property in the 7200 block of Base Line Road in rural St. Anne at 8:47 p.m. A car was parked in the garage, and the bodies were found nearby. Police said foul play does not appear to be a factor in their deaths.

Shepherd was reported missing by her family on Jan. 29 and Baines was reported on Tuesday. The last sighting of the pair occurred on Jan. 29 when police said a friend helped Baines get his silver Plymouth sedan out of a ditch. Neither were injured. Police had a tip the pair had been staying at a hotel in Iroquois County but were unable to locate them.

They discovered the bodies at the Base Line Road address while following up on a tip.


Like I said, it doesn’t appear that this gift of knowing, if that is what it is, is useful.

Miriam Shepherd, 22, was dead before I ever learned her name.

And no. I had not read her story, had not listened to news reports of her missing and/or dead. I had to look up this place where she lived and died. I’d never heard of Pembroke Township or Kankakee County before. Turns out it’s in Illinois. I’ve since learned it’s a wide spot in the road in Northeastern Illinois. A rural community where half of the working-age population is unemployed.

I imagine unemployed people feel pretty useless a lot of the time. Perhaps they have a special gift that never gets utilized, which makes them feel all the more useless in a society whose value for people is determined primarily by money and fame and surgeon-produced beauty.

Miriam Shepherd lacked all of these. The only time Miriam Shepherd made headline news was as a missing woman turned up dead. Truth be told. she probably went missing long before January 29th.

But for some reason I may never understand or know, she came to me in my dreams, afraid and in danger.

I couldn’t do a thing for her except listen and pay attention.

Perhaps that is all we ever really need from one another.

Perhaps that is the most overlooked gift of all.

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When Grace Breaks Us



6-year-old Anna Dieter-Eckerdt and 11-year-old Abigail Robinson

Grace is terrifying. It is the cast aside bloodied bandages of grave clothes. It is a tomb sealed off, so hot and stuffy that it takes your breath away.  It is despair, the ever-present shadow of death encroaching. It is the beggar’s desire for a drink of cool water receiving a sip of bitters instead.

Grace is harsh. It is a hard fever that takes a person to the brink of delirium and then yanks them sideways to the cold concrete floor of a meat locker. It is the cries of the mothers who labored all the boys of Bethlehem to their slaughter.

Grace is the pile of leaves where a horrified father bent over the broken bodies of his two young daughters. The sisters, dead now, had been laughing and playing only moments before, posing for the camera their father focused.

He’d left them there, girls giggling, buried in that pile of gold and red parchment, while he ran into the house to put away the camera. He’d heard the hum of the engine as the driver of a car swerved into that pile of pleasure that hid his daughters from clear sight.

She, the driver, a child herself, felt the thud but did not stop, did not check to see was it a rock, a tree limb? Once home, her brother hopped on his bike and rode the block back to see what had caused the bump. There he found a father wailing, a mother, distraught, her babies a heap of broken bones and bloodied leaves.

The driver, disbelieving, was too scared to admit that she had been the careless one who had unwittingly killed precious children. She did what Adam did and tried to hide her wrongdoing. That she was an immigrant’s child, brought into her adopted country too young to have a say in the matter, only heightened her fears.

But grace is relentless, ruthless. It will find us out. We cannot hide from it. Not anywhere.  Not a one of us.

Our girls lived a love-drenched life, the family said. Then they asked the courts to not punish the driver harshly. She didn’t mean to harm our girls. We know that. She will live with this the rest of her life. We don’t want to see her life ruined, too. So, please, sir, don’t judge her harshly. We don’t. We forgive her. Truly we do. We ask that the courts do the same.

May it be as you say, the judge ruled. Three years probation and community service. Grace be to you. Go and live a life worthy of the memory of our girls, the grieving mother pleaded. We wish you no ill-will.

Then they wept, openly, all of them.

Grace binds us together in bloodied grave-clothes, teaching us that it is in our deepest brokenness that we find our greatest strength.

Karen's Blog Post

Obamacare: The Pro-Choice Hypocrisy

The pro-abortion and right-to-choose segment of our society has all but co-opted the term “Women’s Choice” to be defined as the right to terminate a pregnancy: the right to end a life. Let me say by way of full disclosure that in 1974 I had an abortion. I wrote all about that in ‘After the Flag has been Folded.’ Thus, one might assume that I align myself somewhere between the pro-abortion and right-to-choose groups; anything else would be hypocritical of me, right? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

Time, abortion clinic bombings and an onslaught of legal cases has taught us that the discussion over Women’s Choice was not decided once and for all in Roe v. Wade. And now along comes Obamacare contributing to the oftentimes vitriolic discussion.

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee caused a ruckus recently when he suggested that Democrats are holding women hostage to their libidos. And Dr. David Green, CEO of the nationwide chain Hobby Lobby has turned to the courts to determine how far-reaching the feds may be allowed when pressing private industry to comply with Obamacare, even when it means violating the company’s religious beliefs. Green explained his family’s position in a column published in 2012 in USAToday:

 A new government health care mandate says that our family business must provide what I believe are abortion-causing drugs as part of our health insurance. Being Christians, we don’t pay for drugs that might cause abortions. Which means that we don’t cover emergency contraception, the morning-after pill or the week-after pill. We believe doing so might end a life after the moment of conception, something that is contrary to our most important beliefs. It goes against the biblical principles on which we have run this company since day one. If we refuse to comply, we could face $1.3 million per day in government fines.

The pro-abortion and pro-choice contingent is rankled by Green’s position, by Huckabee’s remarks and by almost anyone or anything else challenging a woman’s right to choose.

Nobody it seems, not the pro-choice contingent, not the pro-abortion component, not even the pro-lifers have zeroed in on a glaring flaw inherent in Obamacare. Where is the right for a woman to choose to have a baby? Where is coverage for the infertile woman who wants desperately to have a child? Where do the rights of infertile women come into play?

Currently, only 15 states nationwide require insurance coverage for infertility treatment. Most insurance companies do not cover any of the procedures to determine why a couple cannot conceive, nor do they cover any of the fixes to that problem.

In other words, a woman’s right to choose is only worth fighting for when her right is to terminate a pregnancyWhen it comes to the creation of new life, few if any are willing to go to bat on behalf of the infertile couple.

Infertile couples are left out in the wild to fend for themselves, cut off from a society who fails to recognize their inability to conceive as a legitimate medical problem, even though resolutions often requires extensive medical intervention.

Expensive medical intervention.

Oh, I know what you are thinking, infertile couples should just adopt. There are plenty of kids in need out there. What you may not be aware of are both the prohibitive state regulations and expenses involved in all that, too. And, no, medical insurance does not cover an infertile couple’s attempts at adoption.

The infertile couple without financial resources is left with little choice. Infertile women all over this county lack a right to choose because of money. The very same argument the pro-choice and pro-abortion groups tout as the reason why Obamacare needs to provide for abortions and abortion-inducing drugs. Ironically, the costs for abortions or abortifacients are a fraction of the cost of most fertility diagnoses and treatment. Yet, it seems the Right-to- Choose forces are only on one side of the financial hardship hurdle: termination assistance.

The infertile couple is expected to refinance their home, jack up their credit cards, take out a baby loan, sponsor a Kick-starter campaign, get a second or third job, all in an effort to have a shot at becoming parents.

Infertility is not an inconvenience – it is a disease of the reproductive system. Just like kidney disease or diabetes. An estimated 7.3 million women and their mates suffer from the disease of infertility: about 12 percent of the reproductive-age population, according to the Center for Disease Control. And, yet, under Obamacare those millions of the voting infertile public are simply ignored. Obamacare doesn’t specifically address infertility and it doesn’t require health insurance plans to cover treatment, says Sean Tipton, director of public affairs for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. “The Affordable Care Act is completely silent on infertility,” Tipton says.

In other words, Obama, and all those vehemently defending a woman’s right to choose, do so only when that choice is about ending life, not creating it.

That’s the height of hypocrisy if you ask me.

Karen Spears Zacharias is the author of Mother of Rain (Mercer Univ. Press). For more information find her at or on Twitter @karenzach.

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Evangelical Hocus-Pocus



I was slain in the spirit once. Splayed out. Laid flat. Old-fashioned revival time all out slain and down for the count.

I know, right?

Me. A journalist. Laying there on my back at the altar of God, staring at the lights of that big citified Seattle church with people dropping all around me like flies on a day in late Fall.

And for the record, yes, it was weird as H-E- Double-Toothpicks.

Prior to the moment when I was slain, I always thought of such things as Evangelical Hocus-Pocus. A trick to get the masses worked up in a fervor so that they put more money in the offering bucket. Even now, as I sit here and type this, I suspect that still may be the case.

I can’t tell you about others – I can only speak from my own experience and it in my case, I did not fall to the ground in a fit of religious fervor. I was not pushed over by some slick-haired evangelical. I was simply at the altar praying with a girl whose name I did not know when a preacher walked by and lightly touched my forehead and buddy, I was gone quicker than a soldier on AWOL.

I have no idea how long I was down. I just remember it being a place of suspension. Aware and present but peaceful beyond consciousness.

Which has got me to thinking being Slain in the Spirit may very well be a way to solve some of our current societal problems.

When our son was a little tyke he used to purposely throw himself to the ground whenever anything  - and I do mean anything – did not go his way.

Didn’t get the cookie he wanted? He’d throw himself to the ground. Couldn’t reach the toy he wanted? He’d throw himself to the ground. Couldn’t get the nerf basketball in the three-foot hoop? He’d throw himself to the ground. He did it so often that Tim and I started saying: Uh-oh. Son is Slain in the Spirit again!

We reportedly live in the Age of Reason. A cursory glance at the daily headlines will give you all the proof you need contrary to that.

We might all be better off if we settled for a lot more Evangelical Hocus-Pocus and a lot less of what our culture is pandering as reasoning.

Imagine if instead of carrying concealed weapons and killing somebody every time they pull out their cell phones in a movie house, we just fell to the ground, Slain in the Spirit fashion. We could kick our feet. Scream. Cry. Wail. Pitch an all out conniption-fit for as long as it takes, until either exhaustion or the peace of God overtakes us. Then we could stand back up and everybody in the movie house would nod their heads in recognition: Oh. Don’t mind her – she’s just Slain in the Spirit… again.

What if we were at the drive-up and McDonald’s got our order wrong again? Instead of cursing them, we could just turn off our cars. Open the car door and fall to the ground, where we could proceed to kick and scream and carry on until peace overcomes us. Then we could get back in the car, pick up the right order, and drive on. No harm. No foul.

Imagine if the next time a ref makes a bad call in the Super Bowl that instead of booing and cursing, all of us fervent fans dropped to the ground, Slain in the Spirit, overcome with a peace that passeth all football regulations and referee foul-ups.

Imagine if the next time we found ourselves in the midst of voice-mail Hades, we put the phone on speaker while we dropped to the yoga mat and were enveloped by the urge to breathe deeply and chant: I am full of life. I am full of energy. I am at peace with the world. Namaste.

Imagine if the next time somebody on Facebook gets all up in our business, our politics or our religion, we simply place the laptop on our stomachs and watch it rise and fall, rise and fall, rise and fall. And instead of responding hotly, we simply take the position of being Slain in the Spirit. An altered state of being where we finally understand that in the bigger picture, all this bickering and carrying on that we do each day doesn’t really matter. What really matters is that we live each moment filled with the goodness of God.

A good dose of Evangelical Hocus-Pocus may very well be the cure for what ails us.

 “The steadfast of mind You will keep in perfect peace, Because he trusts in You.” Isaiah 26:3 







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Cold Tips for Survival


There are reasons why people choose to live in the South. Sunshine and warmth being the primary ones. My Southern friends simply are not prepared for temperatures that dip below 50. Most of them don’t own long pants or a coat.

Their shoe closet is filled with multi-colored flip-flops. When they sing Toby Keith’s “I”m going to put a boot up your arse..” they are singing about Texans, who are the only people on earth who would wear boots in the South in the summer.

My friends in the South are in total shock this winter. It’s the kind of shock induced by freezing-to-death temperatures, which in Georgia means it’s 32 degrees.

I feel bad for them. Really, I do. The first time I lived through a cold winter was in 1983. We had moved to a remote area of Oregon where temperatures plunged to 40 below (I am not making that up) for a two-week period.

How cold is that, you wonder?

So cold that the car wouldn’t start.

So cold that Tim came home on his lunch break to restock the wood stove, our only source of heat. I didn’t know the least little thing about how to keep a fire going. The only wood stove I was familiar with was Aunt Cil’s, and she only used it for cooking. Once the biscuits were baked the fire died out. There was no reason to keep it going.

My mother came down from Anchorage for a visit and complained that it was colder where I lived.

It was.

So for all my Southern friends, here’s some tips for getting through the Brrrrr:

- Don’t go outside unless you have to. One thing I’ve learned since moving off up North is that people around here keep to themselves a lot more than people down South do. They don’t go out of their houses much. I used to think it was because they were inhospitable. Now I know they are just trying to stay warm.

- There is no reason to run to the grocery store. Nobody eats milk and bread anyway. It’s bad for you. How do you think we ended up with hummus? Oregonians who ran out of bread and milk ground up the chick-peas and added a little fire-roasted peppers to it.  Oregonians will eat pretty much anything that doesn’t come in a box. Some even prefer the box to what’s inside it. These people call themselves “Raw Vegans.” Beware of them. They are always looking for people they can convert. They are worse than those Hare Kirishnas the Beatles sang about.

- Speaking of music, for this kind of cold you need to put on Gregorian Chants. Nothing will make you more miserable during freezing temperatures than a Jimmy Buffett tune. Gregorian Chants lends themselves to frozen people. You can wrap up in your Snuggle Blanket and chant along. It requires very little movement and thus you conserve what energy you have for staying warm. Nothing like freezing temperatures to bring out the dirge in Southerners.

- Bring in the animals. Gather up the chickens, the rabbits, the squirrels, the pigs and go ahead, bring them all inside via Ellie Mae Clampett fashion. Listen, there’s a reason people in Germany built their houses over the barns. All that methane gas rises and keeps everybody warmer. Besides, there is nothing more pitiful in the whole world than finding a pig frozen to their own slop. If George Clooney can keep a pig indoors, certainly you can do it for a few days.

- Dig those socks out of the back of the drawer and put them on your feet before you slip those flip-flops on.

- If you must leave the house, put your shorts on over your long johns. This is hard-fast rule. Do not under any circumstances go outside wearing shorts and a t-shirt.  When temperature fall below freezing the hair on your legs will turn brittle and break off. My  husband has the baldest legs known to man for this very reason.

-Speaking of which, wear a hat, leastwise the same cold temperatures will render you bald.

- Chicken-and-dumplings. Need I say more about that?

- If you already bought tickets to run the rapids on the Chattahoochee this week, you might want to go ahead and burn them. It will provide you with a brief moment of warmth. Stay clear of all rivers and pools, lakes and bathtubs. Don’t worry about hygiene. Compacted dirt  is like an extra layer of fat. It will help you retain your body heat.

- Check on the elderly. Seriously. The cold is a real threat to them, the way heat is in the summer. Make sure they are staying warm and have plenty of milk and bread. They are the only ones who actually eat milk and bread. Usually cornbread dipped in buttermilk.

- Invite your friends over to visit by the fireplace. It is true that misery loves company. Company is a great distraction from one’s misery. What’s that? You don’t have a fireplace? Well, turn the burner in the oven on and gather around the stove. Something about watching that black electrical wire turn a bright ember red will warm you all. Warning: Do not do this with a gas stove.

- Drink plenty of fluids. Preferable laced with your whiskey of choice. It won’t necessarily keep you warm but if you freeze-to-death you won’t care as much.

Feel free to add your own Cold Tips for Survival.

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Martin Luther King & Sudan’s Human Rights Disaster



“Our Father who art in Heaven,” I prayed, even as a little boy in Sudan, “hallowed be thy name.”  I was baptized as a child and learned about God and his will and his Kingdom in Catholic schools.  I have always believed that He gives us our daily bread and that He forgives us when we’ve done wrong. I have always been comforted by these words and I have always believed God is the Supreme Being who will deliver us from evil.  I have believed that even when suffering horrific beatings and torture.  I have believed it even when logic would dictate that all hope is lost.  I believe in a God who answers my prayers. Even in the worst of times, when I could barely muster the strength to kneel before God, I prayed to Him for guidance and help.  And He has responded.  My survival is living proof of that.



These words were penned by a friend of mine. I can’t tell you his name because he currently serves as with the U.S. Armed forces.

He is one of the Lost Boys of the Sudan who has become a U.S. soldier.

A child of war waging war.

It is jarring to consider.

He fled the Sudan as a young boy to keep from being forced into the servitude of rebel fighting. So how is it he came to be an American soldier, fighting in Iraq & Afghanistan?

He’s working on a memoir about all of that. I’ve been advising him on the writing part. He’s looking for a publisher who will honor the circuitous journey that brought him to this country to escape war and then led him back to war.

Every decision he makes is weighed in the darkest shadows of faith.

Asked to name who is heroes are, he always replies Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.

He won’t be taking a holiday weekend with his family to celebrate MLK day.

He’s not even with his family this holiday weekend. He’s holed up, studying military strategy and leadership, preparing to protect his men for the next time he’s called up. Most likely Afghanistan, soon as he completes his current courses, he told me.

Meanwhile, he’s distracted by the slaughter taking place in Juba.  A place and people he knows intimately.

His mother is there, in the middle of yet another “ethnic cleansing”.  Isn’t it troubling the way we journalists and talking heads reduce the machete slaughters and the execution of children to a term like “ethnic cleansing”?

He’s a soldier who has honorably and admirably protected the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan, yet, he cannot intercede on behalf of his own mother and siblings.

Do you have any idea the guilt he feels over that?

Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to be a student of the best military strategy in the world, and yet lack the power to protect one’s own mother?

There is no question about how dire the situation in the Sudan is right now:

South Sudan’s conflict has turned into a “horrifying humanitarian and human rights disaster” with evidence of mass atrocities, child soldiers and human rights violations by both sides during a month of ethnic fighting, the United Nations said yesterday.


Ten thousand dead, news agencies and humanitarian communities are reporting.

Imagine if a terrorist group stormed the campuses of Harvard and Princeton wielding machetes and machine-guns and managed to kill every undergraduate student.

That’s what ten thousand dead looks like.

Imagine if that terrorist group stormed into every elementary, middle and high school in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and killed every student.

That’s what ten thousand dead looks like.

Faces of babies blown off.

Eight-year olds raped then murdered.

Breasts of young girls cut from their chests.

Heads of mothers screaming sliced off as the blood of their already dead husbands seep into the dirt.

That’s what we mean by the sanitized term “ethnic cleansing.”

We will likely hear more self-congratulatory news reports over the next few days about all the gains we’ve made in the fight for Civil Rights than we will hear about what’s going on in the Sudan. We will take the long weekend to see a movie, see a family member, read a book. Perhaps even a book about our own troubled history of ethnic fighting.

Many will take to their blogs to praise MLK and all that we have learned from him.  Many will host dinner parties and talk in reverent voices of MLK. Schools in Nevada and Nebraska, in Alabama and Alaska have hung photos of MLK and taught a brief history of the victories he won. Sermons have been prepared in anticipation of Sunday’s remembrances in D.C. and Atlanta, in L.A. and Seattle. Oprah, and thousands like her, will quote MLK on Twitter and Facebook.

All the while, my soldier friend will be working feverishly from a military base in the U.S. trying to get his mother and his siblings into Uganda before they become part of the head count of one of the worst genocides of our time.

I can’t help but think if he were around today, MLK would be storming the gates of the White House trying to put a stop to the killing in the Sudan.

And I can’t help but wonder, why is it we aren’t?

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Lone Survivor: Thoughts from a Gold Star Daughter

Do you know what the right thing is? No disrespect but you don’t have any idea what the right thing is. How do you weigh human life? It’s war. There is no right or wrong answer in combat. Those people who aren’t out there carrying the rifle have no business dictating what in the hell we are doing. If you want to make those command decisions then grab a rifle and come help us. Otherwise, enjoy the freedoms the American military provides for you.

- Marcus Luttrell, Lone Survivor, with

Tina Brown, editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast


The fellow with the trash can full of discarded popcorn boxes and coke cups stepped in the darkness towards me as the credits to Lone Survivor rolled behind him on the big screen.  I always stay and read the credits. It’s the writer in me. I need to know who did the behind the scenes jobs. If it’s a good movie, worthy of praise, I silently thank the key grips and hairstylists and set designers and the assistant gophers for a job well-done, because like books, movies are a collaborative effort.

“Did you enjoy that?” the kid asked.

I paused before answering. Some movies, like some books, are not meant to be enjoyed. They are meant to make us think. Lone Survivor is such a movie/book. Problem is we no longer live in a culture that values thinking. People rarely ask: What did you think of that? They most always ask: How did you feel about that? One of the basic tenets I teach young journalists is that if they cannot ask a better question than, how did you feel when that _____ (tsunami, plane crash, gun battle, school shooting, tornado etc.) killed your loved ones? they don’t have the chops to be a journalist.

“I don’t enjoy anything about war,” I finally replied to the young man.

It made him think. He may have gone away thinking I was a cranky woman but for a very brief second he entertained the thought of Oh. Yeah. Right. We aren’t supposed to enjoy war.

As I exited the very busy movie theater, I passed a crowd lingering and discussing Lone Survivor. “The one thing I didn’t like about the movie was all that blood,” declared one woman.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or weep over her remark. Imagine. Blood. In a movie about a real-life gun battle in Afghanistan in which nineteen real life American soldiers died, and dozens more Afghans.

Peter Berg, the producer of Lone Survivor, apparently failed to consider that we Americans like our wars sterilized. The less blood the better.

I got in my car and drove to the river to pray. I wept all the way there.

Before going to the movie, alone – Tim didn’t want to see such a sad movie – I asked my husband a question that has been bothering me for some time now. What if we are wrong? I said. What if there are some things from which we cannot heal? Some things that so totally break us that no amount of praying, no amount of living rightly can heal us? Is there a brokenness that goes beyond the power of positive thinking and genuine gratitude? I have seen such brokenness in veterans and military families I have loved. I have felt such a brokenness. Feel it still some days.

Nobody ever wants to talk about football or hunting, Luttrell told journalist Tina Brown. They only want to talk to me about the worst week of my life. 

Marcus Luttrell, the lone survivor of the June 28, 2005 Operation Red Wings that went terribly awry, considers himself a coward. He says he put down his gun and covered his ears while his friend Mike Murphy was calling to him to help.

Why did he survive and his buddies die is a question that veterans have faced throughout history. Whatever the answer may be remains hidden in the heart of God. And, honestly, if God himself answered the question, would it make war any less horrific?

Hollywood took liberties with Luttrell’s memoir.  Some have been critical of the movie for that. Why dramatize war? But the movie is art, not a literal interpretation, and as such isn’t accountable to sticking to the facts. If you want to know the real facts, as best as can be documented, read Luttrell’s book, and click here.

Luttrell denies any lingering PTSD. One of the biggest issues with PTSD has been the responsibility of the person suffering from it to self-report. Asking Luttrell if he suffers from PTSD is a futile question. If he suffers from it, it is a matter of personal health, private and privileged information. What good does it do any of us to know that anyway? What are we going to do about it? If we are really so all-fired concerned about it, we should help those who suffer from it in our own neighborhoods.

Luttrell has been criticized for not getting all the facts straight in his own memoir. Memory can be an unreliable gift, but Luttrell lived to tell. He has borne witness in a mighty and powerful and troubling way. A prophet among a deaf generation. Bearing witness to tragedy is  not a gift. It is a burden. Unless you have lived with such a burden yourself, you cannot begin to understand the weight of it. Moving on is a difficult thing for lone survivors, especially in a culture that clings to wrong-headed mythology. Mythology that manages to glorify war while at the same time denouncing it.

We love the Marcus Luttrells of the world – the Lone Survivors – because they make us believe in our own mucked-up mythology: That what saves us, what makes us the lone survivor is that we have somehow dug deeper, tried harder, had more strength of character, more faith in God, and that is why we are still standing.


Lewis Puller lived in that place of juxtapositions. America’s most notable Fortunate Son, Puller stepped on a booby-trap round in October 1968 in Vietnam. He lost both legs, most of his fingers and sustained other life-threatening injuries. Hospitalized, Puller wasted away to 55 pounds, yet, some say through sheer strength of will and character, Puller survived his wounds. His father, Lt. General Chesty Puller,  the most decorated Marine in Marine history, set the example his son followed.

Puller recovered, admirably, married, had children, moved on with his life. Puller gave inspiring speeches, he ran for political office. He wrote a book, Fortunate Son, which then won the Pulitzer Prize.  Puller was the American brand: A true survivor.

He took his life on May 11, 1994.

What you won’t learn about Luttrell from the movie is that he re-deployed, went on to fight in other battles, equally as intensive. Of the movie, Luttrell says, as bad as you may think it is, it in no way depicts the reality of how bad it really was to be in that three-and-half-hour gun battle, to lose his best friends, to be taken to a nearby village where local insurgents then found him and beat him, and wanted to kill him.

Remember when you are sitting in that movie house, you get to go home. Nineteen men made their final trip home in caskets. Their families wake up each day, all these years later, missing them, their laughter, their joy, their stories, their hugs, their annoying ticks. They are missed. Every single day.

One of the things I walked away thinking about was my daughter Shelby, my nieces Taylor and Jessica. Women of integrity and faith and beauty. Women with important jobs that they do well. Women who lead intentional, purposed lives, serving others, caring for the world. And, yet, they each long for the opportunity to share their lives with that special someone. Disciplined and good-hearted and God-fearing men. Where are such men? they ask each other at family gatherings. If you know of such a man, send him my way.

Perhaps, the reason these women have been unable to find their soul mates is because we sent those soul mates off to war and brought them home in caskets.  I can list you the names of dozens of women I know who were married to men who did not come back alive from the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan. Women who have never remarried. Who may never remarry. Women whose lives are caught up in the time warp of war. And what of the widowed and orphaned in those countries? Entire villages have lost generations in Iraq and Afghanistan. When you watch Lone Survivor, you ought to consider that when soldiers die, the sacrifices go far beyond the battlefield.

You won’t learn it from the movie but Luttrell was given a therapy dog, a yellow lab puppy, to help him heal. He named the dog, DASY, an acronym from the names of the buddies he lost on June 28, 2005. He loved that dog and she loved him. But early one morning in 2009, Luttrell woke at his Texas ranch to the sound of gunfire.

A group of hoodlums came onto his property, beat his dog with a baseball bat and shot and killed DASY. Luttrell chased the four men – they were all 18 and older – through three counties at high speed while calling 911. He held them at gunpoint until police arrived. When asked why he didn’t hurt them, Luttrell said that’s not how things are done in this country. In this country, even the most hateful people get their day in court.

Lone Survivor is not a movie designed for enjoyment. It is a movie that ought to make you flinch. It should make you squirm. Its graphic violence is unsuitable for children under 12, or any who suffer from mental disorders. Do not take small children to this film.

But if you know nothing about the war, if you have never served, have never known anyone who served, if you have never been to the Vietnam Wall or stood at the hills at Arlington, then you should definitely see this movie, and read the book.

If you are a politician or someone who longs to be, this movie ought to be required viewing. It ought to be required viewing for every member of Congress, every staff worker in the current presidential administration. Every pastor, every journalist ought to see it. You won’t enjoy it. But it will definitely make you think.

And it will likely make you want to go the river to pray, too.


Karen Spears Zacharias is a Gold Star Daughter & author of After the Flag has been Folded, HarperCollins.

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