Today is my 59th birthday. I can hardly fathom it. I feel like I’ve finally mastered some game that has granted me access to a warp zone where everything goes faster, where the Novembers seem to bump up right next to one another, where the summers get shorter and shorter, and even the winters don’t seem long enough anymore.
Does everyone come to feel that way?
For the past decade, I have spent nearly every birthday on a plane, flying from DC back to Oregon. I’ve taken one detour from that routine, to fulfill a speaking gig in Atlanta. After that gig (one in which I stood behind a platform in a swanky uptown Atlanta hotel and asked a crowd of 800 dark suits how many names of dead and wounded would be enough before they finally decided to put an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ) I swore I’d never miss another Veterans Day in DC.
Those Suits didn’t applaud my speech. They didn’t like what I had to say. A New York Times bestselling author whose daddy had the luxury of never having to be a causality of war told me that day that she didn’t think she would have said all that if she were me. She has said other things that have appalled me at other events, but she makes people laugh and so she is forgiven any absurdity she displays. It is hard as hell to make people laugh about war. It is even harder than that to make them laugh about the American War in Vietnam.
When I first started writing all those years ago, Mama used to tell me that I ought to write more like other people, funny people, or sappy people. “Why don’t you write more like Nicholas Sparks?” she said. “Everybody loves him.” Mama, like a lot of people, connected the success of a writer with dollar signs, big houses, and luxury cars. Sparks has all that. I don’t. And it’s very likely I never will.
Did I ever tell you that I started my first journalism job on my 40th birthday?
It was my 40th birthday.
A friend who was the editor at the local newspaper called me. He said they were short-staffed at the newspaper and he really needed some help. Would I come?
I told him I didn’t know a thing about journalism; I’d never even written for the high school newspaper.
It’s okay, he said. C’mon down and I’ll teach you.
So I did.
I entered the newsroom at the East Oregonian in Pendleton on Nov. 12, 1996. He handed me a reporter’s notebook and a pen and told me to head on over to the courthouse for the County Commissioner meeting. I’d never even been to a city council meeting prior to that, much less a county meeting of any sort.
Just listen to the fellows and write down anything that sounds important, the editor said.
I made up my own shorthand. I still have some of those old notebooks around the house today. I can’t read my own shorthand. I have no idea what most of my writing says now. But that day? I didn’t write a thing down, mostly because the officials spoke in acronyms and I had no idea what the heck they were talking about.
My first story for the newspaper was a feature story on a gal whose sister was a Charles Manson follower. I still remember the story and the lessons I learned from it.
It is odd now to think about it, but reporting in many ways did more to challenge and deepen my faith than any lesson I ever learned sitting in the pews at church.
The truth is before I turned 40, I never imagined that I would one day be published in the New York Times or write for CNN or sit on the couch across from Robin Roberts on Good Morning America. I never imagined I’d write a book, much less eight books. My friend Amy Greene knew from the time she was a little girl that she wanted to be a writer. She would walk along the creek near her Tennessee home and make up stories. Amy is an amazing writer. She just spent time in swanky uptown New York City where she was given the Willie Morris award for all her wonderful storytelling. Amy is who I think of when I think of real writers.
It still feels like I’m going to wake up one of these birthday mornings and the whole world is going to find out that I’m a fraud. I can’t be a writer, I told my professor at Eastern Oregon University when he suggested that underneath all that mom exterior was the heart of a storyteller.
I told him I’d grown up in a trailer in West Georgia. I can’t even spell, much less write.
But the poet George Venn insisted that I was indeed a writer. I simply needed to make time to write.
I read a speech the other day that author Tim O’Brien gave. O’Brien said that he writes every single day, even on Thanksgiving and Christmas. I had dinner with Tim O’Brien one night, sat directly across the table from him at a small eatery in Fairfax, Va.. We talked about writing and Vietnam and teaching. He makes me feel like a fraud. I don’t write everyday. I never have.
I didn’t grow up in a house filled with books. I grew up in a house that had one book – the Bible – and a shelf of World Book Encyclopedias. I read Dickens for the first time during the summer of 1968 and was never the same after that: “Let the tears which fell, and the broken words which were exchanged in the long close embrace between the orphans, be sacred.”
Even so, never once did it cross my mind as a child that I would grow up and write books one day.
My daughter asked her son if he knew his granny wrote books. I know that, he said, most assuredly. It’s entirely possible that he knows more at three than I knew at 33.
At 33, I was the mother of four young children. I was overwhelmed with diapers and dishes. I was too tired for dreams. Besides, being a mother was the fulfillment of my dreams, even to this day.
I never had those dreams. To be honest, when I was 17 and in high school, I never paid any attention to what was happening in New York City. I’d never read the New York Times. I didn’t know anyone who did.
In those days, Atlanta seemed like an exotic land. We never went there, except once to rescue an aunt from her abusive partner. Mostly we drove thru it whenever we headed to East Tennessee, which we usually only did for another family funeral.
And although Harper Lee lived only a couple hours in one direction and Flannery O’Connor in another direction from where I grew up, I’d never heard of either one. Nobody in my circle of family or loved ones knew anybody who was a writer. These days it seems like everybody I know is writing a book.
Life can be filled with irony.
There was a time in my life when paying 25 cents to see a five-legged cow was the highlight of my year, maybe the highlight of my entire elementary years. This coming year I’m going to return to that same town where I saw the five-legged cow to watch the stage adaptation of Mother of Rain. I’m pretty sure that’s going to be the highlight of my writing career to date.
I have two friends who are dying. They are both younger than me. One is my former boss, the one I worked alongside at that first newspaper job. The other is the fellow who welcomed me to DC on my first trip to the Vietnam Memorial Wall. He lost his daddy when he was just a boy of six. My friends are never going to meet their grandchildren. That saddens me terribly.
“We need be careful how we deal with those about us, when every death carries to some small circle of survivors, thoughts of so much omitted, and so little done- of so many things forgotten, and so many more which might have been repaired!” Dickens again.
The other day, as my students were working on an assignment, I was thinking about time and how we are either usually living in the past – thinking of the loved ones lost, the opportunities missed out on – or we are living in the future, anticipating all the things to come – new babies, new jobs, new deadlines, new celebrations, or new travel plans.
It makes it hard to be present in this life.
Like a lot of you, I miss my parents the most during the months of November and December. They both left me in December. Daddy on Dec. 19, 1965, as he headed off to Vietnam. And Mama on Dec. 26th, 2012, as she lay dying.
I was present in that moment, I’ll tell you. Nothing else was on my mind that day except my mama’s next breath, labored as it was.
All those years ago, I told Mama I would write funny things one day and I have. But first, I said, I have to write down all this sad stuff about losing Daddy.
I wrote it for my kids, Daddy’s grandchildren.
And their kids, my grandchildren.
And the kids whose names I will never know.
Mama thought I was writing about Daddy, but as most anyone who has read After the Flag knows, I was writing about her and her losses, which were so great it saddens me still. But don’t expect any apologies for that; I weep openly over those losses now: “It opens the lungs, washes the countenance, exercises the eyes, and softens down the temper,” said Mr. Bumble. “So cry away.”
All in all it’s been a grand adventure thus far. I have done more than I ever dreamed possible. And I have managed to fulfill my one childhood dream: I have avoided prison. There are days when that alone feels like more of an accomplishment than writing a dozen books.
So raise a glass, will ya? And let’s toast to another year of a life and love and laughter.
Thank you for being part of my story. You’ve helped make it magical.
Karen Spears Zacharias teaches nearly everyday at Oregon’s Umatilla High School and occasionally writes books and blogs from her home in Hermiston.