2017 Call for Submissions

C A L L  for Submissions:

The Thing Itself, a literary journal of Our Lady of the Lake University, is open for submissions. We are accepting short fiction and nonfiction (up to 5,000 words), and poetry (up to three poems). Please submit the poems on one document. Send in your best work that promotes compassion, encourages equality, or addresses other social justice themes.

There is a $3.00 reading fee for each submission. When submitting, please include your name, email address, and short bio on your cover letter only. Each piece will be appraised through blind review process. The deadline for submissions is 7 March 2017**. Submissions will be accepted through Submittable at: https://thething itself. Submittable.com/submit

**Only unpublished works are accepted.** 

Civil Disobedience by Celia Coyne

The polystyrene makes a sizzling sound as it sinks into the petrol. Harry hates polystyrene, hates the dry feel of it in his hands and the high-pitched “clink” as it breaks. It sets his teeth on edge. But he carries on breaking it up into small white chunks and poking them into the open can, his mouth set with grim determination. The polystyrene is from the packaging that came with a flat screen TV.

           You’re never going to understand about protesting, Dad. You just want to stay in your nice warm home with your flat screen TV.

Harry grunts. What does Mark know? Hasn’t ever held down a job. Wait until he has to pay rent. Then he’ll learn the value of money. The fumes are making Harry queasy, so he works quickly and before long a gel begins to form that’s close to napalm.

Harry’s not a terrorist; he’s a civil engineer. That’s how he knows about polystyrene dissolving in petrol. Construction companies use large, moulded sections of polystyrene in road embankments because it’s relatively strong and light. But they have to coat it in concrete or cement just in case a petrol tanker spills its load. One spark and there’d be an inferno.

Earlier he made sure to pour some of the petrol out first and now the can is almost full of the jelly-like fluid. He screws the lid back on. It’s a handheld incendiary device, and as long as it’s kept away from a naked flame, it’s pretty stable. He places it in a bin bag and ties the ends to contain the fumes. Then he puts the package in the bottom of his golf trolley, placing a turkey baster in beside it and his usual collection of golf clubs.

 

It’s almost dusk as Harry approaches the golf course. It’s an easy walk from his house through tree-lined suburbs. He’s wearing a deep maroon Le Croc jumper and charcoal grey trousers with a subtle check pattern. The trousers are bespoke, bought on a business trip to Hong Kong. It’s a uniform of sorts that whispers success. Most of the houses he passes have three cars parked outside: a Range Rover, a little Nissan runaround for the wife and usually a sporty Subaru for the grown up kid who’s still living at home. Harry refuses to buy his son a car. The lad can do what Harry had to do – get a job and buy one himself.

The gardens are large and well kept, some of them fenced with tall brick walls and black iron gates. The folks in number 45 have had a security camera installed since they were burgled. It stands vigil, peering down the long street and recording hours and hours of empty footage. Harry makes a point of turning down a side road to avoid it. In Park Mews he really is in the posh part of town. This is “bankers’ row,” where city brokers and lawyers live. They are not the best sorts of neighbours, with their noisy parties, but Harry feels like he has earned his place among them. He wouldn’t share a pint with them, but it’s a decent neighbourhood. The schools are good, as are the local gastro-pubs. It’s comfortable.

          You’re just too comfortable to know what a protest means. You toe the line, sucking it up with your golf club pals, as long as you get the tax breaks. Face it, Dad. You’re too comfortable, too middle aged and too middle class.

That had hurt. But at least the boy had something to say. Chip off the old block. Wait until he has to raise a family. He’ll learn about compromise then. When Harry reaches the clubhouse, he checks for a cctv camera on the entrance porch, but there isn’t one. Inside he changes into his patent leather golf shoes, pulls on a flat cap over his thinning hair, wraps a scarf round his neck and steps outside.

Crossing the green, he sees two men. They are chatting easily, and though he doesn’t know them, he assumes they are father and son. He sees the similarity in their looks, one dark-haired the other with flecks of grey. They are both broad and solid, more like rugby players than golfers. How relaxed they look, the father patting the son on the back.

Harry’s son would never pick up a golf club; “bourgeois” is what Mark would say. Shame, because maybe in a round of golf he’d get to chat to his son instead of argue.

That morning the two of them had got locked in a discussion about human rights and civil liberties.

“China has the worst human rights record in the world,” says Mark.

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” says Harry. “All governments have means and ways of controlling us. Some are just more subtle than others. Take this demo you’re going to…”

“It’s not a demo. It’s a peaceful protest. We’re going to lie down in the street outside the Chinese embassy.”

“Ok a protest. They monitor these events, you know – they’ll be taking your picture. Probably start a file on you.”

“Who’s ‘they’?”

“Government agencies.”

“Dad, didn’t anyone tell you that The X-Files was all made up?” says his son smirking. He pulls out his iphone and starts tapping at the screen.

“I suppose the event was organised via Facebook, that utterly private communication network?” says Harry.

But Mark is distracted, moving his fingers across the screen, selecting and tapping.

“Are you listening to me?”

“Er, yeah, course,” says Mark absently.

Harry sighs. When did he get so old?

“Look, son. Just be careful Ok?”

Mark shrugs. “You just don’t get it do you. We’re taking action. Civil disobedience – it’s the only way to get attention.”

“Actually,” Harry says, then he stops himself. He looks at his son still engrossed in his hand-held gadget. How fast the world seems to change but really it just stays the same. Mark will have to work it out for himself. The way Harry had done.

 

On the golf course Harry breathes in the cool evening air, catching a whiff of gunpowder that tickles his nose. It’s a week before Bonfire night and already people are letting off fireworks. In the distance there is the “crackle-bang-crackle” of firecrackers. Still, Harry supposes, flouting the law is at least in keeping with the flavour of the festival – Guy Fawkes, the thwarted terrorist. These days most people don’t really think about the gunpowder plot, it’s just another excuse for a party.

Harry does a few squats, shrugs his shoulders and swings his arms. He’s pretty warmed up from the stroll anyway, so he pulls out his favourite driver from the trolley. The large rolling green that stretches out before him gives him an expansive feeling of privilege. The green is perfectly smooth – a captured patch of countryside, tamed, primped and manicured. Along the edges of the fairway, there are raggedy trees and brambles –the rough, as golfers call it­– impossible to eradicate entirely, and in Harry’s opinion all the better for it. He takes his first shot.

The ball is nicely placed just a short hop from the putting green. When he reaches it he gives it a swipe, deliberately sending it into the rough. Then he follows it in, pulling the golf trolley behind him. It’s getting dark and he can hear the occasional car passing by on the main road beside the golf course. He leans his trolley behind a large tree.

When he opens the bin bag, the petrol fumes hit him in the face so that he gasps. He moves his scarf up over his nose and pulls his flat cap down to hide his face. He finds the speed camera easily and looks for the service hatch. Then he uses the turkey baster to suck up fluid from the petrol can and squirt it into the gaps in the hatch.

Locals hate this ugly box with its one ever-watchful eye; it lies in wait at the bottom of the hill where fast-moving traffic from the main highway must pass to reach suburbia beyond. It’s a speed trap. A flash of light in the distance signals a car approaching and Harry steps back into the shadows. As soon as it’s passed, he slops on more home-made napalm, emptying the can. He stands back, feeling for the lighter in his pocket.

The fire is instant and intense. The post of the speed camera acts like a chimney, and the flame soon grows into a big orange plume like a giant Olympic torch. Harry savours the heat of it on his face. He knows what next week’s local paper will say: Speed camera arsonist strikes again – seventh time in as many months.

He doesn’t do it for the headlines.

Placing the can and baster back into his trolley, Harry strides through the rough, up the golf course and back to his peaceful neighbourhood.

 

 

Home is My Culture by David Rice

A few years ago after presenting at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, I took questions from students. One of them made a comment. He said I was changing the names of the characters in my stories into Spanish, and passing them off as Mexican American stories.  The professor was a bit worried, knowing I speak my mind and often with too much color.  The class was a literature of the Southwest class, and the students had read Mexican American writers so they had some knowledge of Chicano/a stories, and yet this insulting comment was made.

After class the professor Dr. Cory Lock, a good friend of mine, apologized for the student. I brushed it off because I know when we tell our stories, we honor the names of our hometowns and families, but I have met my share of folks who don’t want to learn about our culture. My Spanish is terrible, but I don’t run or hide from my Mexican heritage.  Soy Chicano, Mexicano, and Mexican American, but I will never be Hispanic. It’s a great feeling to belong to the Rio Grande Valley.  I think a sense of place and culture is important, but I didn’t grow up reading about Mexican Americans in Texas, much less the Rio Grande Valley.  Mexican culture was around me with family stories going back over a hundred years, but we weren’t in the books.  The only story I knew with Mexicans was the story about The Alamo in San Antonio, how the brave Texans were surrounded by the evil Mexican army, and the Texans died for Texas, but the textbooks didn’t say anything about how the Texans wanted slaves and Mexicans were against slavery.

Mexicans were the good guys, and now Texas hides its shameful past in school textbooks under the issue of state’s rights.  March 2, 1836, known as Texas Independence Day, is also the day 5000 African Americans were chained to fields across Texas, and by 1860 there were 58,161 slaves in Texas.[1] But imagine if Mexican American students knew Mexico was against slavery? If Mexican American students knew we were on the right side of history, we’d have a stronger self-esteem.  I think it takes a dose of healthy self-esteem to write about your culture, but living in your culture is not enough. You have to reflect on your personal experiences and study your culture.  Talk to your family and ask them about the elders.  Learn your past, embrace the present, and clear a path for others.

In 1980 my family left Edcouch for Austin, Texas. I was 16 and didn’t know anything about Austin. The farthest I had been was San Antonio, and it felt like the Valley, but Austin had bigger buildings and it was, and still is, very white.  I couldn’t get my bearings in Austin, and though my school was good mix of students, due to mandatory busing, I was missing home. I didn’t know I was Mexican until I left the Valley and I didn’t understand what a Mexican American was until I joined the Chicano Culture Committee at U.T. Austin in 1985.  Several friends from the Valley moved to Austin, and we became active in the Chicano Committee: Francisco Guajardo, Miguel Guajardo, Jaime Vela, Yvonne Cardenas, and others from across Texas.  We had help from faculty: Dr. Rolando Smith Hinojosa and Dr. Ricardo Romo. The committee organized conferences and symposiums on Mexican American topics and invited guest speakers, and in the process we were building our own education. Speakers challenged our roles as Mexican Americans in American society and pushed for us to speak up for others and, more importantly, create a space for Mexican American voices and stories.

In December 1989 my brother Roger was killed in a car accident, and his death was the beginning of my writing journey. Before his death my plan was to be a politician or maybe go to law school.  I was happily married, and my wife was supportive of my career choices. I was a Mexican American with a white last name. I was practically raised by my grandfather David Hume Rice, so I was comfortable around white people and knew their ways of thinking and talking.  I could go far in politics or law, but my passion was writing. My grandfather David and some teachers said I should become a writer, but it was almost an impossible task. After Roger died, I thought every day about how death comes too quickly even if you live to be a 101. A day not doing what you love is a wasted day.  A few months after my brother’s death, I told my wife I wanted to be a writer. She said what we both knew.

“A writer? How are you going to do that? You don’t like to read, you can’t spell and you can’t sit still for five minutes.”  She was right, and to top it off, I have dyslexia and ADHD. My brother and I weren’t allowed to drink coffee or sodas as kids, and I still don’t drink coffee or sodas.  Writing was going to be a challenge, but my wife didn’t stop with my lack of skills. What was my subject going to be? I told her I was going to write short stories about being Mexican American and growing up in the Valley. My wife, who was born and raised in Arkansas and had been to the Valley several times, was quick.

“Mexicans don’t read and don’t buy books. If you write about being Mexican no one is going to read your stories or buy your books. You’ll be broke all you life.”  In 1987, I was a reporter for The University Star at Southwest Texas State University, and I had some experience with writing and meeting deadlines, but those were news stories; I wanted to write fiction. I did my best to persuade my wife and explained how I thought there was a market for Mexican American stories, not because I wanted her support, but because I loved her and didn’t want to lose her, but honestly, I didn’t know any Mexican American writers.  I had met Rolando Smith Hinojosa in 1986, but I didn’t know he was a writer. I had never read a book by a Mexican American writer, and by 1990 there were plenty: Rolando Smith Hinojosa, Tomas Rivera, Sandra Cisneros, Dagoberto Gilb, Américo Paredes, Gloria Anzaldúa and many others. But I didn’t read any of their works in school or college.  My wife and I went through a painful separation, and I decided to focus on reading.

I was not in college at the time and drove a UT shuttle, going round and round all day.  Before I drove a bus, I used to work for the Austin Public Library and shelved hundreds of books a day. I knew there were lots of books on how to write, and I used to thumb through the pages, wondering if I could be a writer.  I had a copy of Fiction 100: An Anthology of Short Stories, fourth edition, by James H. Pickering.  I began to read the stories in the collection very slowly, as I read anyway, because I have dyslexia.

I’d go to the public library and looked up dissertation abstracts on the stories. I’d sit at a table and read the bio of the author and essays about the story. I wanted to learn how to deconstruct a story and put it back together again.  I needed to learn how stories worked:  paragraphs, transitions, foreshadowing, metaphors, double entendre, etc. My grandfather David, who died in 1984, told me a self-educated man can do anything.

In the spring of 1991, I took a creative writing class at Southwest Texas State University and my professor, Dr. Karen Brennan, didn’t like my story too much, “Guilt-Shaped Cookies.” I later changed the title to “Heart-Shaped Cookies.” She said she didn’t understand it, and I told her I didn’t write it for her. I was an older student, 27, and had a sense of urgency to my writing. Brennan said she didn’t think she could help me, but she did what a good teacher should do. Find the right mentor for a student in need. She introduced me to Jaime Mejía who was from Donna, Texas. Brennan and I became good friends.  Dr. Mejía at the time was the only Mexican American faculty member in the English department. I showed him my story, and he read it in front of me, and when he finished, asked what Mexican American writers I had read. My answer? A disappointing none.

Mejía, an avid reader, loaned me some books and said he wouldn’t help until I read the books. Fair enough. I read books by Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, Tomás Rivera, and Sandra Cisneros. The books by Hinojosa and Rivera were great because they had a Valley feel to them and I could relate. When I was reading Rolando Hinojosa- Smith’s books, I think it was Dear Rafe, I felt as though I knew his writing style, and it came to me. It was the mid ‘80s, and I was flying from RGV to Austin on Southwest Airlines and in the flight magazine had one of his short stories, “The Gulf Oil Can Tin Santa Claus.”  It was a great story about home, and I wanted to keep the magazine, but thought it best to leave it for someone else to read.

I returned the books to Mejía. He had a lot of questions regarding the stories, and we talked for over an hour.  Mejía wrote his dissertation on Hinojosa-Smith, and just being with the man who studied one of my heroes, made Mejía my hero too. It was the beginning of a good friendship but also one of high expectations.  Mejía asked what my plans were for writing. I told him I wanted to write a collection of short stories and have it published by the time I was 30. I thought if I could write a book by 30, my wife might take me back. I could show her how serious I was about my found passion. Three years to write and publish a book seemed possible.

Mejía has an expressive face and gave me a good dose of reality. He said I was arrogant to think I could write enough stories for a book and he was right. I didn’t have an MFA and not even a college degree.  But I was determined to write and said I’d follow his advice and commit myself to the discipline required to write my book. Mejía nodded and said we’ll see. A month later, one Friday night, Mejía and I were at the Showdown bar in San Marcos having a drink. It was a good night and I had a few friends there. Halfway into the night, Mejía leaned over to me and said, “You know what Hinojosa is doing right now?” I didn’t know and thought maybe Hinojosa was giving a big talk at a conference. I said I didn’t know.

“He’s writing and you’re here drinking,” Mejía said with a disapproving shake of his head. His line stung deep, and to this day, when I’m goofing off, I think, Hinojosa-Smith is writing right now and I need to get to writing.

Over the summer I took a short story class with Dr. Robert Randolph. It was a short summer session class, and I didn’t miss a day.  Randolph, like Mejía, was good at deconstructing stories; something I enjoyed because I knew the key to writing stories was studying how they worked.  Between Mejía and Randolph, I began to re-work “Guilt Shaped Cookies.” It took weeks of re-writes. Writing what you know is a great place to start, but you still have to write it well, and re-writes are the best part of writing.

My parents were not too keen on my being a writer. I think for most Mexican American parents, having a child who wants to be an artist is a bad idea. College is meant for getting a degree so you can get a job. Parents want their children to get a degree in business, science, law or become a teacher. Something practical because we don’t have the luxury of being artists.  I’d show my parents my work so they could see I was doing my best, but three magic beans don’t mean much to most people.  I didn’t think of writing as a way to make money, but maybe I should? One day I was in the computer lab of Flowers Hall at Southwest Texas.  I spent many hours there working on my stories since I didn’t own a typewriter or computer. The lab director Beverly Braud was super cool and let me print as much as I needed.  She even read my drafts and encouraged me to keep writing. The lab assistant, an M.A. graduate student named Mark, was a nice guy too, and one day he had a damn good line. I was working on my stories, and this girl came in and started flirting with me.  After a couple of minutes of giggling, Mark came over and kicked her out.  I was dumbfounded.

“Why did you do that?”

“You come here to write, right?” Mark asked.

“Yeah.”

“When you’re here writing, you’re not really writing. What you’re really doing is making money.  Get back to work,” Mark said with a jab of his index finger.

In the Spring of 1992, I submitted my story to the college literary magazine, Persona.  In 1987 when I was a reporter, I’d read Persona and thought, there’s no way I could ever be in this fancy literary journal and I had never seen a Spanish surname name in it, but Mejía liked the story and so did my parents, and I did too. If the journal passed on the story, it’d be okay because my audience was The Rio Grande Valley, not central Texas, but of course, I wanted to see the story in Persona.

In the fall of 1992, Persona published “Guilt-Shaped Cookies,” and though I wrote the story, I didn’t write it alone. My parents, Mejía, Jeff Trejo, Eddie Ray Bills, David Robledo, and Frank Guajardo read my drafts, and to this day, they still encourage me to write as if I’m writing my first story.  Frank Guajardo was teaching high school at Edcouch-Elsa, and he began to use my stories in his class. These were drafts mind you, but Frank thought they were good enough to share with the students. He even invited me to speak to his students. At the time, I thought it was good practice, and I had been practicing reading my stories at a coffee shop in San Marcos called the Blue Pearl.

A friend of mine, Courtney Dever, said I should read my stories in front of a live audience. Every Thursday they had open mic at the Blue Pearl and a lot of graduate students read their material, so I might as well too, right?  By the time I got to Edcouch-Elsa, I had plenty of practice reading out loud, and I knew the audience in my hometown might like the stories.  I thought if you were Mexican American and liked reading, you might like the stories. But people like stories they can relate to, regardless of cultural background or level of education. You don’t have to be a bunch of graduate students hanging out in a coffee shop.  The best stories are often told at quinceñeras, weddings, funerals, around the breakfast table and bar-b-que pits.  People like stories about themselves, and better yet, if we are the heroes in our own story, and don’t forget, Mexicans were against slavery.

What I didn’t know was the impact of what I was doing. I think Frank knew because he was a teacher and believed Mexican Americans needed to celebrate their stories. A student in one of my presentations at Edcouch-Elsa was Juan Ozuna. He went on to become a school teacher. A few years later I visited his students. He said, when he saw me read my stories, he thought, he can write his own stories too.  My first collection was all about me and about proving something to myself. I didn’t think too much of how they could help in the classroom or help others find their own story. I was a selfish writer, and maybe most are?

On June 22, 1994, fourteen stories I wrote were accepted for publication by Bilingual Press. Give the Pig a Chance and Other Stories (1996), was the title, though I thought of maybe calling it Heart Shaped Cookies and Other Stories, but Give the Pig a Chance and Other Stories was a better fit, given that I did need a chance.  I think Mejía and Hinojosa had something to do with the book getting published.  Mejía and Hinojosa knew Gary Keller, and I’m sure they asked him to give me a chance. Hinojosa gave my book blurb something I didn’t ask for, but much appreciated. Mejía helped edit every story along with Frank Guajardo and my parents.  The stories had been tested in front of audiences thanks to Frank and my visits to the Blue Pearl, but Mejía suggested I remove the story, “The Circumstance Surrounding my Penis” and to take out the profanity. But I said I wouldn’t censor my stories.

“High schools won’t be able to buy them and it’ll hurt your book sales,” Mejía said.

I think what Mejía meant was the need for the book, not about book sales, and looking back, I wish I could change the book, but I can be pretty terco.  Mejía did give me some stern advice, though. He gave me a big lecture on how I didn’t deserve to have a book published. How the stories weren’t bad and there were better writers out there. I just got lucky.

“You’re young and you can play up the book, but you have a choice. You can be famous or you can be a writer. Let go of the book. Don’t hold its hand.” I wasn’t about fame or money. I wanted to be a better writer.  I wanted my stories to be judged, not on who wrote them or who can read them the best out loud, but for the content.  In a time when fame is important and that’s every time, and recognition from their peers brings validation, well, I get it, but it’s not me. Writers die, stories live on.

Mejía was right about the book sales. Schools couldn’t buy it, and it didn’t bother me, at first.  I got invited to quite a few schools to talk to students, and I wasn’t good at it. There’s a lot that goes in to it: part performance and throw as much you can on teaching how stories work. As I visited schools I noticed a lack of Mexican American books on library shelves and classrooms.  In 1996 there were quite a few Mexican American writers, but not enough in the classroom. I visited a school, I think it was Edinburg, and a teacher let me have it.  He asked why I put stories in my book he couldn’t use in the classroom. I said I was a writer and wasn’t going to censor my stories. He gave me an almost angry look.

“Oh, this is all about you, huh? I need books I can use in my class and all you can think about is what you want.”

His comment echoed in my head for months, and he was right. Schools needed books Mexican American students could relate to and use to spring-board to other stories.

In 1996, a couple of months after “Give the Pig a Chance” was published, I received a letter from Harry Mazer.  Mazer found the galley for “Give the Pig a Chance” at the Strand Bookstore in New York City and read the galley. He contacted Bilingual Press for my address and asked me for a story for his new collection, “Twelve Shots: Outstanding Short Stories about Kids and Guns.” I couldn’t believe he wanted a short story based on the galley, and I knew I had to write a good story if I was to build a working relationship with Mr. Mazer. I wrote, God’s Plan for Wolfie and X-Ray, and his editor at Random House, Lauri Hornik, read the story and emailed me for a meeting. I was spending a lot time in New York in the ‘90’s and met her at Random House to talk about the story. She asked me to consider writing a novel. I didn’t think I was ready for a novel, and I didn’t like reading long stories. I’d read a long big book, and when I was done reading it, I’d say why didn’t you just say so in the first chapter?

In 1996 I was flying from New York, and in the hop from Dallas to Austin, I met Dr. Rob Johnson.  Johnson was a professor at U.T. Pan American and he liked teaching local stories. We managed to sit together and started a friendship still going strong. He wanted a story for his Collection, “Fantasmas: Supernatural Stories by Mexican American Writers,” Bilingual Press 2001. The anthology sounded great. I submitted The Devil in the Valley.  The story first appeared in The Llano Grande Journal in 1998. In the spring of 2015, I was Johnson’s student in the MFA program at UTRGV and it was a delight to watch him teach.

In 1997, when I began to write the stories for “Crazy Loco,” I was surrounded by students. At the time I was working at Edcouch Elsa High School for the Llano Grande Center for Research and Development. How I wrote the stories with students walking in and out of the office is beyond me, but I think their hope for the future and their constant talk of home life were inspirational.  Writers are told to write at a desk in solitude, but I wrote my first collection in a computer lab at Southwest Texas State University surrounded by college students. I like to write with people around me. I’m not sure what it means, but if I am going to write about people, best to be around people.

In 1999 I gave Lauri Hornik the short stories, and to my amazement, she accepted the collection, but again these stories had been tested by students, friends, and family. Edcouch Elsa students and staff of the Llano Grande Center had read my drafts. The editors for each story was Frank Guajardo, Yvonne Guajardo, Jaime Mejía, Samantha Smith, Natasha Sinutko, Lisa Bell, Laura Rodriguez, my parents and anyone else who took the time to read my stories.

Sometime I’d step out of the office at Llano Grande and come back to find a student reading one of my stories I left lying around. It’s a great feeling. Beats me how many folks have drafts of my stories, but each one had a valuable comment. And each reader made the story better. I don’t write alone. Given all the support on Crazy Loco, Lauri and I still had long conversations on each story. She had lots of questions, and I was able to answer them, not because I grew up in the Valley, but because I was working for The Llano Grande Center and our interest was pedagogy of place or what some call, place-based education; to study one’s self in depth and express it in print, audio and video.

Dr. Frank Guajardo is the director of The Llano Grande Center and to watch him go from The Chicano Culture Committee in 1985 to The Llano Grande Center in 1996 is something I always expected. And to watch him go from high school classroom teacher in 1992 to college professor, my professor in the fall 2013, represents a complete circle.  Frank is never without insight into learning. A good friend to the last.

Crazy Loco was released in 2001 and was well received. It won Best Books for Young Adults 2002, was a finalist for the Pura Belpre Award, Notable Books for a Global Society, finalist for The Pen USA children’s literature award, and a finalist for the Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award. But best of all, we got a play out of it. The story “She Flies” was adapted for stage by Mike D. Garcia and we titled the play She Flies. Mike is from McAllen and one of the founders of Nushank Theater Collective in Austin. Mike pulled together the cast for the 40-minute play: Marita De La Torre, Gavino Barrera, Anika Trevino, and Ellen Stader and music by Brian Ramos. U.T. Gear UP funded the play to travel across the Rio Grande Valley, and over 9,000 students saw the play.  I’m happy to say the play, She Flies, is in my last book, Heart Shaped Cookies and Other Stories and schools can read and perform the play whenever they want.

Reading is supposed to engage students and moreover get them excited about literature and the possibilities.  Mike D. Garcia has an essay in the book to show the power of a writer and playwright working together. Lots of stories can be adapted for stage and screen, and students in our region can bring stories to life.

Though Crazy Loco did well with critics and sales, I felt the stories were maybe too long?  I thought about what the teacher said years before. Write stories teachers can use in the classroom. I believe literature can lower the dropout rate, but we can’t wait till students are in high school to read Mexican American stories. We have to get 4th and 5th grade students hooked on reading. I thought about writing flash fiction, one page stories with them in mind.

I think stories are written on three levels. First is the plot of the story. Second is made of devices used in stories, such as metaphors, symbolism, double meanings, and foreshadowing. The third level is high concept. What does the story mean and get the students to discuss the characters and their motives, the upside and consequences of the characters’ actions? Stories can teach life lessons and hopefully keep students from making the mistakes they read in a story.

The idea of flash fiction was a hard sell. Dial Books wasn’t too keen on the idea and neither was Bilingual Press. René Saldaña knew I was working on a book of flash fiction. I thought it would be fun to write 100 flash fiction stories, and I shared some with René. He was contacted by Jon Scieszka who was putting together an anthology of flash fiction titled Guys Write for Guys Read: Boy’s favorite Authors Write About Being Boys, 2008.  I submitted “Death of a Writer” and it was accepted. René too has a story in the collection. Two Valley writers, two Valley friends in one collection again. Our first collection was Rob Johnson’s anthology and now Jon Sciezska and in the future, it got better. Juventud! Growing up on the Border, VAO Publishing, edited By René Saldaña Jr and Erika Graza-Johnson, 2013. Arriba Baseball! A Collection of Latino/a Baseball Fiction, VAO Publishing, edited by Robert Paul Moreira, 2013. And while it’s great to be in a collection with René, it’s also an honor to be with so many other Valley writers, and best of all, we get to meet them at schools and literary festivals. And all the writing going on in Middle schools and high schools across the Valley.  Teachers are encouraging students to create books of poetry and stories and others, like David Bowles, have started publishing houses, VAO (Valley Artist Outreach) Press.  No one writes alone in the valley.

In 1996 I got a call from Anne Mazer, the daughter of Harry Mazer. She wanted a story for collection she was editing, Working Days: Short Stories about Teenagers at Work, 1997. I wrote a story about my brother’s death, “The Crash Room.” It wasn’t an easy to write. In 2004 “Tied to Zelda” was published in Tripping Over the Lunch Lady and Other School Stories, edited by Nancy Mercado, Puffin Books. Nancy worked for Lauri at Dial Books. I’m happy to say Nancy and Lauri are still in my life. Nancy asked for another story for Baseball Crazy: Ten Stories That Cover All the Bases, Puffin Books, 2008.  I wrote “Tomboy Forgiveness.” Three months went by, and Nancy had not contacted me, so I called to ask what’s what.

“David, I’ve read all your stories, and this one is the best you’ve written,” Nancy said.

A nice thing to say, but that’s one reader in the world and that’s what’s great about stories.  You share your stories with your parents, family, friends, and colleagues, and stories are measured by the reader, not a literary critic or an editor in New York City. The best judge is someone who reads, and a forgotten door in their mind opens to the possibilities of their own story.

In 2011 Heart Shaped Cookies and Other Stories, Bilingual Press was released. The book is what the teacher asked for all those years ago; write a book we can use.  Heart Shaped Cookies and Other Stories took stories from Give the Pig a Chance and Other Stories and other stories published in anthologies, flash fiction and She Flies, the play adapted by Mike D. Garcia. Karen Van Hooft at Bilingual Press wasn’t sure about the collection idea.  But I knew the book could do well in schools, or at least I hoped it would. Not for books sales, but for the simple need. Heart Shaped Cookies and Other Stories had tested stories. Most of the stories and the play had been tested with students and live audiences.  I knew the book was unconventional and most likely wouldn’t get a book review from the critics who give out awards, whoever they are.  I knew the best argument for publishing Heart Shaped Cookies was based on the book sales of Crazy Loco.  Every six months I get a sales statement of  Crazy Loco. At the time, over 50,000 copies of Crazy Loco had been sold, and I told Karen Van Hooft Heart Shaped Cookies could maybe sell as many.

Publishing houses like Bilingual Press, VAO Publishing, Arte Público, Cinco Puntos Press, and Wings Press have to sell books to survive. We have to support publishing houses who print regional stories.  When I watch a Mexican American writer present, I buy his or her book, and sometimes I can’t finish the book because I don’t like it, but we still need to support the home team.

I’ve been working on a novel and it has lots of Spanish names, takes place in Edcouch Texas, and it’s not for everybody. I hope my parents like it and my friends won’t mind. I hope students like it too, but wouldn’t it be great if students in middle school and high school had read lots of Mexican American stories before they read my novel, and looked me in the face and say, “Your book is terrible.”


 [1] Texas Historical State Association

Sugared Eggs by Sonya Groves

“My eggs taste sweet,” my daughter, Rylie, said.

I smiled at her and shook my head. My eggs came from the same chafing dish and tasted fine. We were eating breakfast at a hotel in Minneapolis before we had to catch our flight back to San Antonio.

We sat in a fourth floor lobby area with half a dozen elderly people. Most of the old folks drank coffee and ate toast. All of us were listening or watching the news.

CNN blared on the television – another speech by Donald Trump. This one had Trump ranting about refugees from Syria being given sanctuary in the United States. The Don’s hair swayed with his hand movements as he became more impassioned about terrorism and American safety. I looked around the room and watched all the heads bob up and down in agreement.

“They agree with him,” Rylie said nodding in their direction, “Why?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore,” I replied.

A blonde CNN correspondent introduced some footage of a previous Trump speech where white fans punched and kicked repeatedly an African-American anti-Trump protestor. “Look that’s the Alabama speech,” I said. We both stopped eating and watched the chaos. I shook my head. I wondered what was happening in this country that so many people sing the praises of a man who espouses such antagonist rhetoric like banning immigrants.

An old man on a brown couch blurted out loudly, “It’s about damn time.”

“Time for what?” Rylie said while she pushed her eggs around on her plate.

“I don’t know. People like what he says,” I said. I wanted to tell her what I really thought about Trump and his speeches, but I didn’t think we’d make it out of the lobby unscathed if the pro-Trump audience overheard my comments.

Worse, was the guilt I began feeling for not telling the old man to shut-up. I could feel the acid rising in my throat as it dawned on me that I have become a coward who just wants the rhetoric to go away but does nothing about it. If I can see the difference, why can’t anyone else?

The Birmingham speech laid out Trump’s plan to have all Muslims register with the government. The correspondent’s reporting and the mini-riot footage instantly reminded me of Nazi Germany. I thought back on older black and white footage of Jews standing in lines to register their Jewishness and of other photographs where Jews were being beaten. I had to be wrong for making these connections. Surely, 80 years after Hitler came to power, we had moved beyond registering people for their religious preferences. Surely, we had moved beyond attacking people for speaking out about what is wrong?

“Seriously, taste these eggs, Mom. I swear they taste sweet.”

“Ok, ok,” I said. I pronged a few scrambled eggs on my fork and tasted them. “Weird, these do taste sweet.”

I watched my daughter pick up a pack of opened sugar and sprinkle it on to her eggs.

“Well duh, that’s why your eggs are sweet, you’re putting sugar on them,” I said while I pointed to the small blue and white sugar packet.

“What? I’m not, this is salt.” Rylie said.

I picked up the packet and pointed to the tiny label, “Sugar.”

“Crap. I thought it was salt,” she said.

Why couldn’t she tell the difference? The label was small but plain to see. She just wasn’t paying attention. I guess anybody could mistake sugar for salt.

Rylie got up and got a fresh plate with unsweetened eggs. CNN went to commercial, and I finished my toast and coffee.


 

Your Healing is Killing Me (an excerpt) by Virginia Grise

Your Healing is Killing Me is a performance manifesto that seeks to replace individual self-care with collective self-defense. One artist’s reflections on living with post-traumatic stress disorder, ansia, and eczema in the new age of trigger warnings, the master cleanse, and Kickstarter-funded self-care.

 

Based on lessons learned in San Antonio free health clinics and New York acupuncture schools; from the treatments and consejos of curanderas, abortion doctors, Marxist artists, community health workers, and bourgie dermatologists. Part performance, part lecture, part therapy (cuz my insurance doesn’t cover it).

 

This performance is unprocessed, gluten, and guilt free because capitalism is toxic and The Revolution is not in your body butter.

 

27 steps from my apartment to the front stoop

2 flights of stairs

5 steps down to the sidewalk

7 blocks to the Nostrand stop

2 flights down

Take the A to Jay Street

Transfer trains across the platform

The F to Herald Square

5 blocks to the Chinese Acupuncture School

5th floor

 

There is an elevator.

Most days it does not work.

 

My knee hurts. My qui is blocked. I am too hot inside.

An hour session used to be $20. Now it’s 25.

 

A DO NOT SPEAK CHINESE IN THE CLINIC sign hangs on the door. I always ask my acupuncturist in training lots of questions. Today I ask Why did you put the needles in my back? You don’t normally do that. Eh, new moon, Eastern medicine, he scoffs. I’m not sure if my acupuncturist in training actually believes in acupuncture or Eastern medicine even. Maybe going to acupuncture school is something his parents made him do. I don’t even know if I believe in acupuncture but I do like it when the he sticks the needle in my forehead, right there between my eyes. Point #20 of 28.

 

For stress, he says.

 

I knock out cold every time. He turns out the lights. It’s one of the few moments I sleep peacefully. One whole hour. Sometimes it’s the most uninterrupted sleep I will get in weeks. He comes back to check in on me:

 

Your job is very stressful, no?

Yes; I admit.

 

Do you like your job?

Yes, I have to admit.

 

Remember that the next time you sit down to write.

 

365 acupuncture points.

14 major meridian lines.

 

I go to the acupuncturist because I have eczema. On face value this doesn’t seem like such a big deal right? But my eczema is extreme. Nobody can really tell you what exactly causes eczema but they think maybe it is a combination of factors that include: genetics, abnormal function of the immune system, environment.

 

Before I had health insurance as a working artist, before Obama Care, before I knew what I had was eczema, I had a black market doctor back in Texas. A physician who happened to be an incredible actor. That’s how we met. I would call her every time I had a flare up, send her pictures of me, swollen eyes shut close. That’s how bad it was – I couldn’t even open my eyes some days and she would write me a prescription, of what? I didn’t even care – but it would relieve the itching, the open, bleeding sores on my face, in between my fingers, in the folds of my arms. The creams were $100 a tube and they were the only thing that would stop the itching. I later found out she was prescribing me medication that also had testosterone in it. I was transitioning and didn’t even know it but all of a sudden, everything made sense – the rapid weight loss (over 50lbs), the mood swings and violent outbursts, including the time I banged on the hood of some man’s car in the hood cuz I had the right away god damnit! “I know you see me muthafucker.” I later found that the medication that had testosterone in it was also highly addictive. I quickly became dependent on it. If I stopped using it, my flare ups would be even worse than before, so even though the directions on the tube clearly stated discontinue after two weeks if you do not see improvement, I just kept lathering the creams on my eyes, around my mouth, in the folds of my arms and in between my fingers because the way I felt off the cream was far worse than the way I felt on it, until she finally cut me off, saying that she was treating the flare ups, the reaction, but not the cause.

 

I don’t know what’s wrong with you. You could have an auto-immune disorder.

An auto-immune disorder?

Like lupus.

Lupus?

I think you need to see a doctor.

 

I think I’ve had eczema since my twenties but it always went undetected or misdiagnosed. My mother’s response was your skins too dry. You should use ponds. Mexican mothers think they can cure everything with ponds and/or vicks vapor rub. So I would excessively scoop ponds cold cream by the handful until I found out that ponds also flares up my eczema.

 

While it is not an allergic reaction, certain factors, including foods, can trigger eczema. Heat triggers my eczema. I can’t live in New York in the summer. Dirt triggers my eczema. I can’t take certain subway lines cuz they are too dirty. And of course stress, stress triggers my eczema. I am a working artist in the United States of America.  I live in one the most expensive cities in the nation. I have a lot of stress but I do like my job. I try to remember that when I sit down to write.

 

I once did the master cleanse, for an entire month, because someone told me it would help with my skin. This was before I was diagnosed with eczema. You’ve heard of this right, the master cleanse? According to one website the master cleanse is “a liquid diet that provides a healthy amount of calories and nutrients specifically suited for weight loss and cleansing, all the while resting the digestive system and allowing the body to heal naturally and has been tested and approved since 1940 by millions of people all around the world.” I didn’t care much about the weight loss. I wanted to increase my focus, my energy and heal my skin. Millions of people, all over the world, since 1940 said this was great – what could possibly go wrong? So for an entire month I lived off of lemon juice, mixed with cayenne pepper and maple syrup. Flushed out my system with warm salt water before going to sleep and completely fucked up my digestive system. My digestive system was supposed to be resting! Now I can’t eat foods high in acidity and citrus including lemon & lime, orange, grapefruit, papaya, mango, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, all berries really. Nightshades such as tomatoes and eggplant, most chiles especially red chiles, chile japones, chile flakes, chile powder, paprika, and of course, especially cayenne pepper. Essentially I can’t eat most things Chinese and most things Mexican. I am the daughter of a Chinese Mexican immigrant. Do you see the irony? I often have to be reminded again and again that I am allergic to these things because I am a habitual self-poisoner and I really like grapefruit.

 

I don’t know what’s wrong with you.

You could have an auto-immune disorder, like lupus.

 

So I started looking up lupus on the internet. The worse thing you can do when you are sick and do not know what is wrong with you is look things up on the internet. A friend of mine intervened, pulling me out of the rabbit hole of health hysteria.

 

Why won’t you just go see a doctor, girl?

I don’t have health insurance. That was far easier to say than admitting that I am actually scared of doctors and sometimes science even.

Go see my case worker. He’ll see you for free. Free honey. You just have to tell him you think you have AIDS.

Wait, what? AIDS?

Well, you don’t know what’s wrong with you.

Yeah but AIDS?

Smash the stigma, honey. The doctor said you might have an auto-immune disorder. AIDS is an autoimmune disorder. The consultation is free and he’s nice, really nice. Go see my case worker.

 

So I take a train uptown to a free clinic in Harlem, wearing huge sunglasses to cover my swollen eyes and the open sores on my face.

 

Seated between an addict and a prostitute the two women look at me and say:

What happened to you mami? You look awful.

 

You know it’s bad when the addicts and the prostitutes think you look awful.

 

What’s wrong with you?

I don’t know I respond and start to cry underneath my huge sunglasses.

I don’t know. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

 

After doing a full STD work up, the case worker, who was really nice, takes me to his cubicle and says:

I don’t know what’s wrong with you.

Nobody seems to.

But I’m going to get you in to see a doctor today.

 

He makes several phone calls. Tells whoever is on the other end of the line, You have to see her today. Hangs up the phone. Click. And then the nice case worker tries to help me apply for Medicaid. Apparently my income was slightly above the level to qualify but the nice case worker was determined to help me out. He was going to find the loophole, the condition, the possibility that would help me get insurance.

 

By Any Means Necessary.

 

He pulls out a long form and after too many questions, he asks:

Do you have any mental illnesses?

No I respond quickly.

 

Does anyone in your family have a history of mental illness?

No I respond just as fast.

 

He asks the question again:

Does anyone in your family have a history of mental illness?

Uh, no I say.

 

I’m going to ask you again, this time he says it slowly:

Does any one in your family have any history of mental illness? Anybody. Anything. Depression, even. Everybody gets depressed. Depression counts.

 

I feel like I am not answering the question the way I’m suppose to.

What’s the right answer? I ask him.

I feel like I am answering this question all wrong.

 

I can’t answer that, the nice case worker says. I can just ask the question again:

Do you or anyone in your family have a history of mental illness?

I said no.

Medicaid denied.

I have never known how to play the system.

 

But the nice case worker did get me in to see a doctor that day. The doctor lady, who was also very nice, says to me, Normally I’d get in trouble for this but they are transferring me in two weeks so I’m going to run every test I possibly can on you.

 

I was tested for lupus, mercury poison, diabetes, high blood pressure, low blood pressure, cholesterol…I even got a pap smear…which I hadn’t done in over 5 years.

 

The next week I went back for the results and the doctor lady said:

I told you. My boss wanted to know why I ran so many tests. I told him I didn’t know what was wrong with you.

What’s wrong with me? I ask.

According to the tests, nothing. But clearly there’s something wrong with you. We can both see that.

So what do I do?

I don’t know. Maybe you should see a dermatologist.

 

Another doctor? I thought on the subway train back home, defeated, sunk into my body, still wearing my big sunglasses to hide the open sores on my face, when a stranger comes up to me and says, You have eczema. It’s pretty bad, huh? You itchy? My friend Julio on 42nd can get you some cream for that. You don’t even need insurance. Just call him. She hands me his number on the back of a sales receipt.

 

Julio on 42nd street deals black market eczema cream. Did I even have eczema? I use to think maybe I was just having allergic reactions. I was convinced I was allergic to New York, its one-hundred year-old buildings, their dirty door knobs, the heat of the radiator in the winter and the air conditioner in the summer.

 

I saw an allergist in Brooklyn once. Apparently you can’t get food allergies and environmental allergies tested in the same visit and each series of tests cost $500 on top of the cost of the visit. I took the environmental test first. Paid $500 to find out that I was allergic to cats but you see, the thing is, I already knew I was allergic to cats before going to see the allergist. This was not new information to me. I never got the food allergy test. I already know I can’t eat lemons and red pepper though sometimes I do it anyway. I was hysterical, the testosterone was probably still running through my body. I paid you $500 to find out what I already knew. I ‘ve been allergic to cats all my fucking life. I’m an artist I don’t just have $500 laying around.  The doctor felt so bad he waived his consultation fee.

 

You need help he said.

 

That I knew. Maybe I should just call Julio but did I really want to get into another black market underground cream racket? Maybe I should just go see a dermatologist. This was out of hand already.

 

So I went to the best dermatologist in all of Manhattan, a fancy clinic in Soho that treats acne, administers botox and does face lifts for the rich.

 

Eczema.

 

She said as soon as I walked in the door barely lifting her head from her clipboard. Before I had even sat down, You have eczema. It’s extreme. Then she prescribed me a cream. The whole visit was less than 15minutes. Painless. Why am I so scared of doctors? Doctors are not scary.

 

Do you have health insurance?

 

But doctors operate inside a system that ultimately doesn’t really care about your health. This cream is pretty expensive but it will do the trick. I went to the pharmacy right away, filled the prescription, opened the box and found out the cream she prescribed was the same cream my black market doctor prescribed in Texas, the one with testosterone. Yeah that one.

 

I shoulda just called Julio.

 

Alienated by Melinda Zepeda

I knew the vulnerable feelings I’d been having about my ability to keep my family safe and secure were the direct result from one of the following:

  1. The recent break-in of our home;
  2. The increase in my annual property taxes;
  3. The conversation I had with my son about the term “illegal alien.”

 

This is how that conversation went down.

 

One peaceful and calm evening not too far in the distant past, my daughter danced her heart out in her room, while my son and I lounged in the living room. He was plugged into media, full Skullcandy headphones on. I was watching CNN, listening to the latest comments about the necessity of building walls between people living on either side of the United States/Mexico border.

 

I thought only one of us was tuned into the news pundit, but as the commentary morphed into recent statements made by presidential hopefuls about “illegal aliens,” my son tore off his headphones and listened attentively to the news commentator.

 

I wondered what had gotten his attention so quickly. He answered my unspoken question when he asked, “Why are they calling people ‘aliens?’”

 

TIME OUT.

 

It’s important to note here that the reference by the presidential candidates to “illegal aliens” didn’t shock me, unfortunately. My familiarity with the term stemmed from growing up in the ‘80s, during Reaganomics, and the “Decade of the Hispanic”—a time when the term “illegal alien” was the term of choice to refer to any and all undocumented people living in the United States. Hearing that population of people referenced as “illegal aliens” wasn’t new to me, even though I am still not sensitized to it and never will accept it.  However, I was caught off guard by my son’s astonishment. Had he really lived in South Texas for 12 years and missed hearing the reference to undocumented people as “illegal aliens” all that time?

 

My 12-year-old son is obviously coming from a different time period and from a really different educational experience than I had. He’s a kid whose primary education was spent in a public school, Spanish immersion program. In that classroom, all but four peers were English-as-a-second-language speakers. His daily interactions were with children, whose parents may or may not have been documented citizens of this country. My son spent the first six years of his primary education solely with this cohort of students, so much so that they became like primos to each other.

TIME IN.

 

I knew that he was about to get a crack in his world. What could I do but talk honestly with him?

 

“It’s a name used to refer to undocumented people in our country. Usually it’s about Mexicans and Latinos,” I said.

 

“Why? That doesn’t make any sense.”

 

“Why doesn’t it make any sense?” I asked. I wanted him to share his conclusions, make sense of his feelings, find his own explanations.

 

“People aren’t aliens like they’re from another planet. That’s dumb.”

 

What happens when humans are referred to as “aliens”?  In my mind, I was thinking it’s the first step in the dehumanization of people—to present people as objects or things. Language that dehumanizes can lead to the next step of dehumanizing practices, through changes that affect social services, policies, legalities. It’s what helps perpetuate the subconscious idea that some bodies matter more than others.

 

As a parent, that evening, I considered the fact that there are certain memories parents will always remember about their children growing up. The cliché ones include  those firsts or milestones—the first tooth, the first step, the first day of school.

 

What about the first time one’s child realizes the discriminatory practice of language? What about the first time one’s child wonders why his friends are viewed so differently because their parents came to this country as immigrants in 2016 rather than in 1916? What about the first time one’s child identifies with the minority group, the group considered alien, because his skin is brown and his name is untranslatable in English?

 

On many levels, it was a first for my son that night.

 

What I said was, “It is dumb. Down-right stupid.” That summed it up for me, too.

 

Back When I Was a Person by Caryn Wideman

I think we have to own the fears that we have of each other, and then, in some practical way, some daily way, figure out how to see people differently than the way we were brought up to.

-Alice Walker

The Emergency Center for the Homeless on Commerce Street was in an old building with rattling pipes, peeling paint, rats, roaches, drugs and knives. Its residents were cast-offs of society, but as my husband and I volunteered there and got to know them, we found many who met hopelessness with humor, tragedy with kindness, and despair with philosophical musings. We discovered amazing people who, in spite of their hardships, tried to make life better for everyone around them.

Often residents had lost everything because medical conditions had depleted their resources or strength or both. Quentin had been the victim of a violent shooting that left him missing a hand and an eye. He also had Parkinson’s Disease and skin cancer, and was eventually moved to a hospital before being transferred to a nursing home. In spite of everything, he had a great sense of humor and brought laughter to many situations that would make most people cry.

He had severe hallucinations, making him think, for example, that ten people were in the bed with him. So because there was no room, he would roll onto the floor, then call for someone to pick him up. He would think several women wanted to marry him—not an unpleasant fantasy! But when he thought an old enemy was coming after him with an AK-47, he pulled the hospital’s fire alarm. Panic ensued.

My husband and I had a hard time convincing Quentin that what he was seeing wasn’t there. His reaction was to get stubborn and very anxious about needs he felt he had. His roommates began to be fed up with his demands, saying things like, “He’s losing it,” “He’s acting like a jerk.”

When he was admitted to a nursing home, the staff understood his disease. One caregiver explained to Quentin that his brain cells weren’t communicating with each other properly, placing the blame on the sickness rather than on Quentin himself.

To learn more about helping people experiencing homelessness, my husband and I attended a conference on mental health. There we were taught not to say of someone, “He’s a schizophrenic,” but “He has schizophrenia.” In the same way, I have multiple health issues, but I don’t want to be defined by them. I don’t want to be referred to as “the sick woman.”

This perspective changes not only our words but our attitude. Can we separate the person from whatever condition afflicts them, whether it’s mental illness, drug addiction, poverty or disease? Can we find who’s inside and treat that person with respect? If we can look beyond appearances or assumptions, there is a chance of uncovering something good, even beautiful, under a rough or unattractive exterior.

Author and publisher Chelle Thompson writes in InspirationLine,Human beings seldom step outside of themselves to really grasp the needs and fears of others. We often project our own thoughts and beliefs upon strangers, and make judgments based upon how we think they ‘should’ be living their lives.”

Looking past appearances can be hard to do. Often our world is all we know–where we have been, who we have known, what we have done, what we wish to do. This world contains our habits and standards and dreams.  When we see a man sleeping in a doorway or a woman asking for help in a slurred voice, we compare their condition with our world. We may assume there is something wrong with them.

In truth, poverty puts people in different world. The homeless person sleeping in the doorway may not have been able to rest the night before because he was guarding his few possessions. The woman may have an untreated medical condition that affects her speech.

People have suggested that to be tolerant of others, we should walk a mile in their shoes. But can I walk in the shoes of a single mother who is homeless, sick, battling a drug addiction she acquired in the hospital, who has had her children taken from her by Child Protective Services? How can I ever know how she feels?

My shoes are different from hers. And who’s to say mine are better? How would I handle such hardships? In her coping, she may be doing much better than I would.

When my husband and I began volunteering at the shelter, my own preconceptions melted away as I learned the reason this single mother or older man was there. Often the confluence of unfortunate happenings had left them with no place to live and no one to take them in–events that could happen to anybody.

When I asked one man what he had done previously, he said, “I was an auditor, back when I was a person.” He had actually been the overseer of a department of auditors in the military before depression caused him to lose his job and everything he had. He received treatment at the shelter, found a job, and now has his own home again.

I noticed the staff politely addressed those staying there as Mr. or Ms. So-and-so, Sir, Miss, or Ma’am. If we can offer respect, we are bestowing dignity. Dignity helps someone see himself more positively, and that yields hope. Hope gives the will to try and keep trying. In this way, our respect can help someone find a new life.

Quentin’s continuing story shows what can happen when someone is handled with respect.  The severe hallucinations were found to be the result of his medications; when the dosage was decreased, he didn’t see as many strange events unfolding around him. He still behaves oddly at times, but he is accepted at the nursing home. More importantly, he’s happy.

A Plate of Love by Joan M. Cheever

       

          The Chow Train is a San Antonio-based nonprofit food truck dedicated to the homeless, working poor and the “newly homeless” as the result of natural disasters.

A man in his mid-40s stood in the line tonight at one of the four stops and asked Jimmy and Diane what church was serving the meal.

“No church,” Jimmy said. “It’s The Chow Train.”

He looked confused. “I don’t understand. How can you not be a church?”

We served “Tom” a cup of hot soup and  I told him after soup it would be a full restaurant quality meal. Tonight, we got lucky. Someone else did the cooking. A donation from a friend of The Smoke Shack. A full plate of barbeque.

Tom began eating but then he stopped. He walked over to where I was standing and asked if we could talk. “I don’t understand how you are not from a church. Can you explain that?”

“Yes. We are a nonprofit. Just a group of friends who believe that serving a hot meal is the same thing as praying. This is how we pray.”

Silence.

“We believe that everyone deserves a hot, delicious” and I stopped and smiled when pointing at the plate that had just been served to one of our guests. “Well most of the time a hot, healthy plate of food. That’s it. Its pretty simple.”

He didn’t respond immediately. His shoulders drooped and I could tell his heart was heavy. And then he spoke. Barely above a whisper.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been on the street. I’m in a bad way. I don’t want to be in this situation, but I am.”

I began to tell him that I understood. That I was glad he found The Chow Train and we found him.

But there was an awkward silence. I knew I needed to stop talking. That Tom had something he wanted, he needed, to say.

And then he spoke.

“I have to tell you something. Tonight I was planning on committing suicide. I mean I want to, I really do. But now I’m not so sure. I have two teenagers and an ex-wife and, I’m just in a bad way. I don’t want to be like this but I want to end this pain. It’s too hard…”

And that’s when I just stopped breathing. For a second.

I grabbed Tom by the shoulders and looked straight at him and said: “We deliver more than a hot meal. We give hugs, too. Can I hug you?”

And without waiting for an answer, I reached up and on my tiptoes I gave Tom a hug. A bear hug. I hugged him tightly and a bit longer than I’d usually hug someone I don’t know well. I was buying some time. I was trying to figure out what to say.

Then I found my voice but it and I were shaking. “Please, please don’t do it. Think of your kids and how hard it will be for them. Just take it one day at a time. One hour at a time. Can I give you a great dinner? Can you sit down and have dinner with us?”

And without waiting for an answer, I put my hand on his back and turned him around. I asked him to look up at the moon.  It was beautiful. Large and bright. It was a harvest moon. How many of those moons would he miss? And, most importantly, how much would he miss his children?  And how would they grow up without him?

I then brought him over to the truck and handed him a plate of food. I moved him towards my friend, Preacher Robert. I asked Robert if he could talk to Tom. And he did and I could tell that Robert was able to bring him comfort.

Before I left, I hugged Tom again and said: “I will see you again. Next week. You will be here. Yes?”

And with tears running down his face, Tom said: “Yeah. I think so.”

I got back into the pickup truck, shaking. “Let’s get to Maverick Park,” I said to my husband. I remained silent. Uncharacteristically silent.

Diane tapped me with her elbow. “Hey, are you okay? What’s going on? Who was that guy you were talking to? I’ve never seen him before. Have you?”

“No. But I really hope I see him next week. He told me he’ll be back. I really hope so.”

In the years that I’ve served on the street, I am always reminded that one never knows what’s going on in another person’s life. Sometimes they are so far down, they can’t see up. And that’s when you’re there to give them a great hot meal. Comfort food. A hug.

That night was the first night I really understood that we serve more than a plate of food.

It’s a plate of love.

Maybe it won’t make a difference but I’m hoping that it will. I’m praying hard that it will.

We have a variety of guests at The Chow Train.  Some are homeless—chronically or like “Tom” temporarily. But they are in despair. Many more are working poor.  There are those who suffer from mental illness or another physical disability.

We ask two questions: “How are you doing this evening?” And, “Are you hungry?”

We listen and we serve. Our prayer is the hot plate of food we serve. We let our guests know of services that are available only when they ask.

          Our mission is to treat everyone we meet with the dignity they deserve.

          To provide a hot, healthy and restaurant quality meal to those in need.  To those who are chronically homeless or situationally homeless because of the loss of a job, illness,  unexpected and/or mounting medical bills, addiction issues and those who are “newly homeless” because of tornadoes, hurricanes, fires or floods. To those who are members of the working poor community – those men, women and children in our city who do not have enough food to feed their families or themselves. The food insecure.

 

They are all hungry.

 

Consider these facts:

  • More than 260,000 people in Bexar County struggle to get adequate nutrition, according to a 2011 study.
  • One in six Bexar County residents struggle to afford food.
  • One out of four children in Bexar County are food insecure – most probably those children go to bed hungry.
  • Texas is the second most food insecure state in the nation.

 

Our motto at The Chow Train is: “Fighting Hunger. One Plate At A Time.”

 

A Plate of Love.