The Beginning of a New Book, Sugar Free

I’ve been working on an idea for a book for a while now.  The book would be called, Sugar Free, and would be about a band that is created to protest current politics. Kind of an up-to-date CSNY.  But then Daisy Jones and the Six came out and I sort of put the book away. There was already a book out there about a band.

Well, I didn’t pay much attention to Daisy Jones and the Six and I should have. First of all, it’s not set in present day. Second, it’s written in multiple voices.  So, now I wish I had continued with my book, because it is nothing like the other book on a band that just came out. My book is current. My book is in first person. My book is told in one voice.

The point is, though, it’s so easy when you’re working on a book to get discouraged. You say to yourself, “Someone’s already done this,” or “That idea will never fly.” There’s always a reason for not working on your own work. It’s so easy to come up with reasons to stop. So hard to keep going.  I’m going to stop stalling now, and start working on my latest new book.

The thing is, I have two other books in progress and both are almost finished. One is the second book in a series, called Bear Trapped.  This one is Bear Trapped: Blowback and I will self-publish it.  It was fun to write and I hope the series will be entertaining.

Then, I am also finished with the first draft of a semi-autobiographical novel called “Triad” which I want to get an agent for.  That one needs a lot of work, but at least it is complete.

So why would I turn around and start working on a brand new book?  Because the new material is always the most important.  You can rewrite old stuff anytime. But the new books, the new poems, the new stories, in my humble opinion, come out of nowhere.  They appear like little bursts of sunlight through the trees, and if you don’t catch them while you can, they’ll be gone. You can spend your life editing material you’ve already captured, but don’t let those new sparkles escape!


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Publishing Poetry

Sometimes it seems like publishing poetry is one of the hardest things an author can try to do. Let’s face it – there are a million great poets out there. The competition is fierce.

But then, every once in a while, you hit the jackpot. I sent out four poems to Raven’s Perch literary magazine last year, and they ALL got published. ( . I was so excited about this.  Today I’ve been sending out multiple poems to multiple genres, an annual tradition.  It’s worth it – you never know when someone may decide they want ALL your poems at once, right?

And then, once you’ve published them, they become your babies again and you can repost ’em. So, here we go. (Courtesy of Raven’s Perch)

Grandfather the Mason

What did grandfather find in the freemasons?
A shaft of sunlight illuminating a manuscript,
direct line to God, hidden in the Scottish Lowlands,
the secrets of Rosslyn safe from some silly book.
Would Solomon’s temple rise in his mind?
He would have known the exact dimensions
of the secret society, the points of convergence
the wealth of allegory. He would have learned

Did this man, once the town drunk, rise to the realm
of the Knights Templar, wishing to obscure his past?
Did his wealthy Catholic family object, just as the old ones did?
And what did his Lutheran wife think
of this old knight challenging history?
Was she scornful of the challenge or grateful
for the result? Surely it freed him

He told me once he and a friend poured Sterno
through loaves of bread to strain it so they could drink
on cold nights, as they rode through the country
in an open roadster, repainting billboards.
Frustrated, traveling the empty roads of the Depression,
painting over the art of another. His depression
lasted for years, bound to the bonds of addiction

Freemasonry freed him from poverty,
distinguished him from the men of Sicily
who had come to build their own new world.
He believed in the tradition of revolution,
welcomed as an ambassador of the old and the new,
builder of his own blue temples, creator of fountains,
determined to be his own man with his own business,
in debt to no one, beholden to none, just free

He moved south. Took the legends with him,
established contact with his brothers
who came in the end, dropped petals on his grave.
Intoned, Oh woe dear brother. Grandmother scoffed
but she was comforted by their presence,
assisted by their connection to this new place.
Hard to dismiss their willing grace.


The Sound of my Soul

The fire/rescue unit calls me out of the surf.
Too dangerous, waves too high. Hurricanes pound
the coast from stern to aft, dissecting the sand,
intersecting each other with gale force winds,
and rip tides that make you gasp.
Even pelicans won’t land in this mess

But I confess, this is it, where I want to be,
in the midst of wild white foam, dangerous chemistry
Can’t go home – just one more wave
fly through the ages like fiberglass,
as if I could simultaneously touch the sky
and the grit beneath my fingers if I don’t break first

The thirst for the ride is nothing compared to the sound
of wind in my ears, waves thrashing the living daylights,
noise of surf and breeze blowing content from my brain.
If I had to die suddenly, this is how it should be,
floating out to sea on a rip current, no resistance.
I resist instructions to leave this whirling mass,
volunteer to be their practice drowning victim
but the fire/rescue guys don’t laugh.


I Won’t Miss You

I won’t miss you when you’re gone.
I’ll be way too busy. Lots of lots of things to do.
I’ll be too too busy to remember you, your soft smile, voice,
your choice. I’m busy drowning in the nearby river

Fish jump into my canoe, birds fly
across the horizon and I –
hands on their tails, eyes on glass eyes –
rarely have time to barely miss you

Everywhere I go, I am feted and fed
as if just returned from the Day of the Dead
cosseted as a fetus escaped from abortion.
I am adored. I have found the sword,
discovered the potion. Despite intention
I inspire devotion with a single word – come

But this separation has struck me dumb.
Tonight, I’ll search for a new art hangout.
For now, I’m just seeking new shoes
to float above feelings as if walking on air.
Not that this indicates I, in any way, care
as long as I don’t come down. While you’re gone.


Cognitive Flame-Out

“I’m terribly sorry,” he says in a voice so refined
you are surprised at politeness from this man
who has lately been known for his snarky humor,
his irate comments, his irrational needs,
“But I’ve forgotten who you are”

Who you are is a firefly in a jar flashing,
your face so familiar in the sudden light but extinguished
before his sad cells can really see the name
of the girl child, his first born,
the unspoken pain of lost memories
like reeds floating in darkness
on the edge of a pond where insects fly
unseen except for the edges of wings
flashing briefly in moonlight.


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Affairs of Dragons

I have been working on so many different things lately – two novels, a screenplay, a new book of poetry, two new short stories… and I haven’t had time to send anything out. I’m also teaching a class on Publishing at Santa Fe College.  So every once in a while, it’s nice to come across something that is published, just to remind me that they’re out there.  This was a story I wrote a few years ago after a run-in with a neighbor (which is something that hardly ever happens – we live in a very stable neighborhood and love our neighbors). I hope she and her children are doing well.

Hippocampus Magazine – Memorable Creative Nonfiction

Affairs of Dragons by Wendy Thornton

porch light bulb on, otherwise dark









“Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and good with ketchup.” – Variation of a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien


Summer is winding down. This is the time of year when people move in and out of our neighborhoods in this college town. Overnight, we go from sleepy little community where everyone basically knows everyone else to crazy party town: football and fantasy and drunken young people. Mostly, I pay little attention. I’ve lived here forever—I’m used to the overnight change. (I was a student here. My children were born here. This is my home.)

There are a few rental houses on the street where I live. Sometimes they end up rented to students who attend the university, who cram unknown numbers into their three-bedroom homes and throw crazy parties on Friday and Saturday nights. (I married my ex-husband here. My ex-husband threw the best parties—our home was Party Central, the place people came after the bars closed.) So when the house across the street becomes available, I’m happy that an older couple moves in. No doubt, they will be quiet and respectful. I wave to the couple as they unpack, a plump blonde woman, and her dark-haired, dark-eyed partner. They do not wave back. They have two teenage girls. The girls are pretty and young and I worry that they might be a little wild. (I was a little wild—came here to go to college, and went a little crazy, away from home for the first time in my life, away from the responsibilities of being the eldest in a house full of kids.)

The older of the two girls comes to visit one day when I’m playing with my toddler grandson, Jackson. (My daughter, Jessica, Jackson’s mother, has begun to ask me about the father she never knew.) The new neighbor is very friendly, says her name is Starla. She picks up Jackson and talks to him, and he laughs. She is delighted. We talk for a while and I tell her I’m a writer and work from home. She asks if I’ll take a look at her poetry, and I say I’d be honored. As a published poet myself, I like to encourage young people to write. Most of them seem to consider poetry a dogged duty they must survive. (Wrote a million poems when I first came to this town. Wrote a million to/about my ex, the wild man. Burned them when we separated. I love fire.)

Starla’s poems are difficult and shocking but impressively written. She’s a kid, but it’s clear that she knows things a 14 year old should not know. She writes about cutting and being trapped in a mental health facility and loneliness so deep it seems like bone loss. She writes about the suicide of a cousin, but I’m concerned that maybe she is projecting feelings she herself has. I try to question her about whether she’s depressed, but she laughs off my concerns. Everything is fine. Except for her mom’s boyfriend. They fight a lot, she says.

When she leaves, she asks me if I’ll read her full notebook and tell her what I think. She’s an excellent writer, even though the poems are powerful and frightening. How can someone so cheerful write such deadly sad poems?

A few days later I meet her younger sister, Katy. She tells me that her mom and the boyfriend are fighting again. He broke the television with his fist. (My ex-husband once threw a brick in our living room at a male friend who was being too nice to me.) Like her sister, Katy has this amazing sunny demeanor, a blonde smiling happiness, even as she’s telling me how he punched the TV. In between her conversation with me, she texts her own boyfriend. Sometimes, she stops in the middle of what she’s saying to me to tap into the phone. When it buzzes in reply, she looks at it and laughs hysterically. “My boyfriend is so funny,” she says. (My ex could always make me laugh. For one so serious as I was back then, this was fearsome seduction)

“Did you say you were 12?” I ask, surprised. I didn’t have a real boyfriend till I was 17. But then, I was a slow starter. Katy nods, holds up a finger to silence me, types in something to the boyfriend.

“I’ve got to go,” she says suddenly. Her mother’s car has pulled into the driveway across the street. Katy rushes out to meet her. They appear to be arguing, their hands waving as they go into the house. I shouldn’t be watching. I turn away.

Later, the older sister, Starla, drops by and tells me she’s having a birthday party the following day and that she’d like me to come by and bring my grandson. “’Cause he’s so cute.”

The next day, I carry Jackson across the street to join the party. The house is nicely decorated, and everything is clean. But there are boys and girls who range in age from 12 to 16 and no adults are around. I see cars in the driveway, so I assume the mother is home. (On my daughter’s first birthday, my ex-husband went out to get firewood and didn’t come home for days). I present my gift, a small decorated journal where Starla can write her poems and keep them in her backpack. School is starting in two weeks, so I give both girls a big package of colored pens to split. I hang around a while, waiting to see if the mother will come out and introduce herself, but she doesn’t.

I don’t see the girls for a couple of days. Then late one night, they knock on the door in a panic. They claim heard someone is trying to break into their house. Their mother is working the night shift as a nurse at a local hospital and they are alone. (When you have children, you must develop protective instincts. If need be, you must transform from a squawky little bird to a dragon.) Mom’s boyfriend has moved out. They fear he may be trying to break in. “He cheated on my mom,” says Starla. “And she threw him out. But his stuff is all still there.” Frustrated that the girls have been left alone with so much drama in their lives, my anger rises. I’ll go check out the darkness that surrounds their house.

My husband is a big man. I enlist his aid, tell the girls to wait in our house, and we skulk across the street to look for the potential intruder. We both agree that the girls are probably imagining things. They probably don’t know how safe this neighborhood is. But there are fifty thousand new students in this town—who knows, someone might be trying to break in.

Behind their house, we thrash around in the bushes, check the storage shed, look along the fence, examine all the windows and check the porch. (I once spent the night alone with my newborn baby daughter, huddled in a bathroom, shaking as a tornado passed within a block of my home, knocking down trees and houses. Never did find out where my ex-husband was that night.) A neighbor’s cat rushes out of the yard and dashes away from us. We figure it must be the cat they heard.

We go back and tell the girls there is nothing to fear. “You’re welcome to stay here,” I say, but no, they have to go home. I tell them they can come over anytime, that we’re always available if they need help. I walk them over to their house, look around to be sure no one is inside. This time, the house is a mess, dirty dishes in the sink, clothes thrown everywhere. And they are alone, which is scary in a new town.

The next day, I tell the girls that even if I’m not home, they should feel comfortable about coming over. My husband was a high school teacher for 15 years and he is an eminently trustworthy person. I tell him that they may have reason to be afraid, that the boyfriend and the mother seemed to fight a lot, that there are uncomfortable secrets in that notebook, things a young girl shouldn’t be writing about. He reluctantly agrees to be their supporter if they need one. “I hope you’re not getting me into a big mess,” he says.

I laugh. “You can handle the boyfriend. You’re bigger than he is.”

He grins. “Not if he has a gun,” he answers. He’s a good sport. He’s used to my projects. If the girls need him, he’ll be there. He’s used to following me into the middle of swamps. He’s good in the murky waters of relationships, steady, calm.

A couple of days later, Katy comes over crying. Her boyfriend broke up with her. She tells me her mother is mad at her because she worked all night and Katy’s crying woke her up. Which made Katy cry all the more. I wonder what kind of person can’t take a few minutes to comfort a child who has just lost her first boyfriend?

I talk to Katy about the lost boy. (Lost boys. That’s what I called my ex and his careless, fun-loving friends—The Lost Boys. Like the ones in Peter Pan, who never grew up.) I tell her that she’s young and pretty, that there will be lots of boyfriends, that school is starting soon and she won’t know what to do with all the boyfriends she’ll meet. We talk about ways to forget the lowlife who dumped her. She has a new kitten that she loves very much. She’s going to go home and play with him and forget about the stupid boyfriend. She seems to be happy when she leaves. At least she’s no longer crying.

Both girls come over every once in a while to talk. They tell me about school shopping plans and last minute end-of-summer trips. I begin to hope these things will happen even as I begin to see that they probably won’t. School is getting closer and they are still talking about trips and clothes as if to reassure themselves that at any moment the plans might occur. (Our biggest fights were about what we would do for our child. “I will do anything for her,” I said. “I want to give her everything.” “Like what?” “Like what? You know, music lessons, gymnastics, bicycles, whatever she wants.” “Kids shouldn’t be given all that crap. If they want it, they should get it for themselves.”)

The mother’s boyfriend is back. I see him sitting shirtless, smoking a cigarette on their front porch. I glare at him. Can’t help myself. How could you, I think. Then I am embarrassed. What right have I to make such judgments? Who knows who is at fault in the relationship of others?

A few days later, Starla comes over late. She says she’s sick, that her stomach is so upset she can’t keep anything down and she’s having terrible pains. Do I have anything that could help her? No, I say, I don’t keep anything on hand that would help with stomach pains. I volunteer to take her to the emergency room.

She thinks about this for a moment, then says, “Okay.” I ask her to call her mother at work and tell her what’s going on. Where should I take her? Should I bring her to the hospital where her mother works? Does she have insurance? Starla starts talking to Mom, and then takes the call outside on the porch. I hear her shouting into the phone, “I didn’t tell her anything.”

Frustrated, I go out and pick up the phone. “Your daughter’s in a lot of pain,” I say. “I’ll take her to the emergency room if you’d like.”

The mother surprises me. She doesn’t want me to take Starla to the emergency room. She says, “I know my daughter.” She says this a number of times.

I say, “I’m sure you do. Your daughter says she’s in a lot of pain. Do you want me to take her to the emergency room or not?”

She snaps, “If I thought she needed to go, I’d come home and take her myself. I’ll have Sam do it when he gets off work.”

“Sam? Sam?” I say. The name of the boyfriend. The one who supposedly left, but who has now come back. I know my voice sounds shocked, but that’s because I am shocked. Is this woman seriously going to send her teenage daughter off with a man who has somehow managed to traumatize her?

Starla goes home to wait for Sam to get off work. When he’s sitting outside the next morning, smoking, my husband asks if she’s okay and he says “Fine.” She doesn’t come to my house anymore after that. I’m sure her mother told her not to visit me anymore. I interfere too much. (Before my daughter was born, I left my ex over and over but he always talked me into returning. After she was born, after he disappeared on her first birthday, I packed up and never came back.)

Two days after the stomach pain incident, I am awakened at 3 AM by hysterical screaming. My bedroom is at the back of the house and my windows are closed, but still I can hear the neighbors shrieking. From my living room, closer to the dramatic scene, I hear Katy begging her mother to come inside. Outside in the light of the street lamp, I see the mother sitting in the middle of her driveway, both legs extended at right angles to her body, shrieking and crying hysterically. Katy stands nearby, cell phone in hand. “Please mom,” she cries, “please come inside.”

Mom says, “Katy, get the fuck in the house right now.” She doesn’t stop screaming. She doesn’t stop crying. She thinks she is the dragon and that she will breathe fire and everyone will run away from her. But looking at that 12 year old’s tearful face, I’m the one breathing fire.

Nevertheless, I try to be polite. I walk up to where she sits and bend down. “What’s wrong?” I say. “Can I help you?” I don’t know this woman. I have never met her. I tried to meet her but she has gone out of her way to avoid me. Now she’s too drunk to get away.

“My boyfriend left me,” she wails. “He cheated on me, and now he’s left me.” (One day my ex left me alone with our baby and the daughter of a female friend. He didn’t come home all night and claimed he got stuck on a river in a boat. He claimed he was alone. I didn’t believe him.) “I’m all alone,” shrieks the mother of Katy and Starla.

“Mom,” Katy says, but she is looking at me as she speaks, “please, please come in the house.”

Mom stops crying long enough to shriek, “You heard me. Katy, do as I say, get the fuck in the house right now!”

“Listen,” I say, “you really should go inside. I’m afraid someone’s going to call the police.” I’m hoping that this will bring the woman to her senses, but she’s too far gone for this to matter. Drunks are like that. (My ex had three DWI’s in the last year we were together. For the third one, he spent six days in jail while I waited at home, eight months pregnant.)

She says, “He left me. He cheated on me. And I’m in my own driveway. I can do whatever the fuck I want.” She moans and rocks back and forth. She doesn’t look at me as she cries, “You don’t get it. You don’t understand anything. I’m a single parent. I’m all alone. You don’t know what I’m going through.”

“I get it,” I say. “I’m just afraid you’ll hurt yourself or hurt your daughter.”

“You don’t know me,” she shrieks. “I’d never hurt her.”

I don’t mean to say it, but it’s 3 AM and I’m tired and grouchy. “You already are,” I retort.

“You don’t know anything about this,” she shrieks at me. “Call the police if you want.”

Katy gives me a look of absolute pleading. (My ex used to come staggering home at 3 or 4 a.m., drunk out of his mind. If I was lucky, he would be alone and go to sleep soon. If I was unlucky, the Lost Boys would be with him and party all night, making it impossible for me to sleep.) “Let me help you inside,” I coax, walking towards her. I put out my hand.

She shrieks, “Just go away, you fucking bitch.”

I give Katy a sad glance and back off. I’m not afraid of crazy mom. I’ve been around more than my share of mean drunks and they do not intimidate me. And there’s no way I’m leaving until I know her daughters are safe. There’s nothing I can do here, though, so I cross the street to my own porch. But I don’t go away. I’m not going to allow her to do anything to her 12-year-old child, anything worse than she is doing already by lying in the middle of her yard screaming hysterically at 3 o’clock in the morning. (Once I got drunk and told my ex, “Now I see why you love this. I feel nothing—nothing!”) In the dark, I watch the mother argue with her young daughter. Katy knows I’m there. As she continues to try to get her mother in the house, she glances in my direction, where I sit in the dark cursing and breathing fire, waiting for this crazy woman to step out of line.

Eventually Katy gives up and goes inside and Mom sits there, legs wide, body slumped, still sobbing. Finally, she manages to get to her feet. She staggers to the house, opens the front door and starts to go in. As she does, Katy’s cat slips out and runs into the darkness. There are two old cars in the driveway and the cat disappears under one of them. The mother comes out staggering and cursing, looking for the cat.

I think about what I will say to her if we have another confrontation this evening. I want to tell her that her kids are already so messed up they desperately need help. I want to shriek back at her the way she was shrieking at me. But what’s the point?

The mother staggers from place to place. She can’t stand up straight. She’s close to passing out. She’s cursing the cat and cursing the dark and cursing the boyfriend by name. I know if she finds the cat, she will hurt it. I know that Katy has given up, and is crying in bed. She doesn’t know the cat is lost or she would be outside looking for it.

Sometimes connections seem so random. Who knows why people get involved in each other’s lives? Maybe it’s as simple as asking someone to read your poems. The mother keeps looking over at me, sitting in the dark on my front porch. I know why I am sitting here. I know why I’m interfering. I know why I want her to straighten up—I am looking at what I could have become if I hadn’t left my ex-husband.

Eventually, the mother gives up on the cat. Crying, she staggers back into the house, slams the door behind her. (I knew if I stayed, my child would live a horrible life, a life of drunken battles and useless dreams. The day after her first birthday, I packed our meager possessions and left my ex-husband forever. Dragons can be born at any time.)

I sit in the dark on my porch and listen to see if the mother is inside screaming at her kids, but there is only silence. (If I hadn’t left, my children would have been like these poor, damaged teens across the street, shining with their attempts to be bright and carefree and not get sucked into the morass of tragedy that surrounds their lives.)

I look towards the cars where the cat ran. There the cat sits, just under the bumper of the car, staring back at me in the darkness like a ghost. I can almost read the expression on his face. See, this is how you avoid conflict. Stay out of the way. He glows like the ghost of my past in the light from the streetlamp, reveling in the silence. I know I should go inside my own peaceful, quiet home. But instead, I turn on my front porch light and sit there waiting, just in case I’m needed later.


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Where Does the Time Go?

It’s hard to believe that my last post here was in February. It is now mid-August, and I’m stunned that it’s been so long between posts. But I’m not surprised. I edit dissertations, books, and academic papers for a living. And last year, I worked for a publishing company that kept me slammed with extra work. Unfortunately, it appears they have gone out of business, and I’m now limited in the work I have. I don’t necessarily want to look for more freelance work because as soon as I do, I’m afraid that all my students will come in with multiple jobs and I’ll be slammed with too much work again.

But it’s hard to imagine ignoring your own work for so long. I have two books that I have finished writing. One is the second book in a series, Bear-Trapped, about a semi-flawed detective who has decided to be a private eye. The second is a semi-autobiographical novel about a girl growing up in the sixties and seventies. I’d like to send that one out to an agent, but of course, it needs a lot of work. And it appears that I haven’t worked on either of those since February, either. How does time get away from me so easily?

On the other hand, I have put together two books of poetry in the last few months for the Alachua County Poet Laureate application. (It’s very competitive so I doubt I will get it, but was very happy about the wonderful letters of reference some local writers wrote for me.) Both books of poetry have been submitted to multiple contests and many of the poems have already been published so I was happy to finally see them put together as a little chapbook, even though I’d prefer the whole thing get published. And I have written two short stories, one about a college grad student who gets raped by a colleague, and another about a grandmother who kidnaps her grandkids from her son-in-law. Both of those will be submitted to contests soon. And the college student story is turning into a screenplay, slowly but surely. Even when writers don’t seem to be writing, somehow they are.

Once I decided I was going to quit writing forever. It didn’t get me anywhere. I made no money at it. It took away from time with family and friends. There was just no point to it. I vowed that I would just stop. For good. And I did.

Except that I couldn’t. I started writing little notes on napkins in restaurants. I wrote story ideas on my daugher’s disposable bibs when she was a baby. I wrote poetry on receipts from the grocery store. And finally I realized – I can’t stop. So I just kept going. What the heck – if you love what you do, you’ll never feel like it’s work.

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I Won’t Miss You

Often I forget that things have been published, and then I come across them accidentally and am surprised.  This poem, published in Raven’s Perch, was one I wrote really quickly after a disagreement with a friend. I completely forgot about it and am happy to see it out there…  🙂

I won’t miss you when you’re gone.
I’ll be way too busy. Lots of lots of things to do.
I’ll be too too busy to remember you, your soft smile, voice,
your choice. I’m busy drowning in the nearby river

Fish jump into my canoe, birds fly
across the horizon and I –
hands on their tails, eyes on glass eyes –
rarely have time to barely miss you

Everywhere I go, I am feted and fed
as if just returned from the Day of the Dead
cosseted as a fetus escaped from abortion.
I am adored. I have found the sword,
discovered the potion. Despite intention
I inspire devotion with a single word – come

But this separation has struck me dumb.
Tonight, I’ll search for a new art hangout.
For now, I’m just seeking new shoes
to float above feelings as if walking on air.
Not that this indicates I, in any way, care
as long as I don’t come down. While you’re gone.

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Physics as a Cure for Grief

Published in Concho River Review, Department of English and Modern Languages at Angelo State University, November, 2017 edition.Physics as a Cure for Grief

I come from a long line of atheists. My grandparents were atheists; my parents were atheists. My siblings and I were always encouraged to think for ourselves but along with this freedom was the assumption that we would evaluate facts in a scientific manner to prove or disprove conjecture. Just before my grandmother, Helen, died I went to visit her. She gave me her car and a box of books and papers. I was really busy so I didn’t look at the materials in that box until later.

Two weeks after my visit, the phone rang. The weird thing is, I picked up the phone before it started to ring. My father, who was on the other end, was startled. “Oh, you’re there,” he said with surprise. Then he told me that my grandmother had passed away. My children were small and I didn’t want them to hear me cry so I ran outside into our wooded yard and stood there in the dark looking up at the trees, sobbing hysterically. The moon came over the horizon and shone down on the backyard so it looked like snow, which I thought appropriate considering that my grandmother was from New Jersey.

I stood out there in the beautiful moonlight and wept, recalling how much she meant to me. She was the one who encouraged me to read, widely and often. She was the one who believed I could do anything, even when I was a shy, skinny kid. She encouraged my wicked sense of humor and told me it was good to think for myself, not wait for some man to “rescue” me.

When I went to visit her the last time, she told me about being in the hospital with terminal lung cancer and having a visit from a local minister. She told him she wasn’t religious and wasn’t interested in talking about God. He said, “Now, Helen, where do you think you’re going to go when you die?” Grandmother said, “Same place you are, fella, six feet under.” I laughed when she told the story.

Now, two weeks later the reality of her death set in. I would never see her again. I would never hear her laugh, never listen to her sarcastic comments, never be able to ask for advice. Devastated, I tried to muffle my cries. And then, I heard a voice. Cue the trumpets. Her voice. A voice that said, “It’s going to be all right.” And the strange thing is, I believed that. Because, one of the last things that my grandmother said to me before she died was, “If there’s anything out there, I’ll let you know.”

Okay, I know, I know. I’m not stupid. That was probably my subconscious comforting me. I understand that your brain can act as a shill for real experience. As researcher Warren S. Brown states in his article, Neuroscience and Religious Faith, it’s very possible that there is a specific molecule that allows for such a feeling of transcendence as I experienced that night. “A similar correlation has been found between measures of self-transcendence and a genetic marker for the dopamine transport molecule” (Brown, n.d., It could all be scientific.

A few months later, I finally got around to going through all the papers she gave me. There were dozens of pages of a family tree that showed the relatives on her side of the family, the Roth family, going back to the Revolutionary War. In almost every generation, there was a Lutheran minister. Yes, my atheist grandmother came from a long line of Lutheran ministers.

As a matter of fact, some of her relatives were responsible for the development of Theil College, in Greenville, Pennsylvania. The college has an affiliation with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. According to their website, “Institutional stability and development of Thiel College during its first decades in Greenville were achieved under the leadership of the brothers Henry and Theophilus Roth, Lutheran pastors who served respectively as Thiel president from 1870 to 1887 and 1893 to 1902, all but six of the first 32 years of the College!” ( I was stunned. After all those years of listening to my grandmother rant about how the churches should take their money and give it to the poor instead of hoarding it as gold crosses and expensive stained-glass windows, here I was looking at my family in a totally different light.

Somehow, knowledge of this longstanding affiliation with the church gave me the courage to begin attending church myself. I began going to the Episcopal Church in my hometown of Gainesville, Florida. My son, Bryan, became an enthusiastic attendee and eventually he and I were both baptized into the Episcopal Church. My daughter chose not to go and that was fine with me. As my parents had done for us, I gave my children a choice about whether to attend church or not.

My mother and I never talked much about religion. I knew she agreed with her mother that the church was an institution that hoarded wealth and fooled their parishioners into donating money they didn’t have. As a child, I wanted our family to go to church but she and my father refused to go and they never talked about religion. She let me attend with friends and relatives. When I grew older, we had some interesting discussions on the subject. Like her mother, she felt that religion was the last bastion of hypocrisy. People could excuse their behavior by saying, “Well, God forgives me.”

In my own life, I began to see religion in a different way. I saw it as a comfort. Religion could explain things that were not explainable. I had a dear friend, Jodi, who was at work one morning when she literally fell out of her chair and slipped into a coma. To this day, no one knows what happened. It’s possible she was taking drugs or drinking too much. No one has ever been able to confirm that. When she fell to the floor at work, a coworker tried to revive her, and finally, after a considerable amount of time, called 9-1-1.

At the time, Jodi and I both worked at the University of Florida. She was revived by campus police but was in what the doctors told me was a permanent vegetative state. According to the police she had been clinically dead for over 10 minutes by the time they arrived. I was told she would never survive. As she had no close relatives, it was my job to find someone related to her so we could issue a do not resuscitate (DNR) order.

I spent weeks in Jodi’s ICU hospital room, so many hours that eventually the nurses stopped telling me when visiting hours were and just let me stay. A distant cousin came to visit and issued the DNR. She also gave me permission to be Jodi’s guardian, in case any further decisions needed to be made. For weeks, we waited for her to pass on. She always seemed to move randomly, strange movements that the nurses referred to as “posturing.” I know a little more about this now – according to an article in the journal Critical Care, “Different types of abnormal movements may be seen in the comatose state and may represent motor paroxysms in the setting of cerebral herniation, such as flexor or extensor posturing secondary to severe brain injury and subsequent cerebral edema” (Hannawi, Abers, Geocadin, &  Mirski, 2016). These movements were frightening to watch, as if she were possessed. And though she was often alone, her room was never quiet. The machines performed all necessary functions. She was forced to breathe, fed by tubes, evacuated by tubes. The fact that she was still alive weeks after the initial incident was a scientific miracle.

One day, I went downstairs to get a cup of coffee. There was a kiosk in the hospital lobby that offered strong coffee, and I stopped to get a cup. The woman behind the coffee cart asked me who I was there to visit and I told her I was visiting my friend Jodi, who was in a coma and dying. The woman, who had a decided Caribbean accent, asked me if it would be okay if she said a prayer for my friend. I thought that was sweet. She took my hand, and in a loud voice, so loud that others in the lobby turned to stare, she began to pray, “Father God, please help this woman’s friend. Father God, please bring this woman’s friend back to this world. Or if it is your decision, Father God, allow her to pass on and join you in your beautiful kingdom.” Not used to this type of public display, I was rather embarrassed. My prayers were silent. My prayers didn’t involve a lobby full of people staring. The prayer was very long, and when it was over, I thanked the coffee lady and went back to Jodi’s room.

The next day my daughter, who worked at the hospital as a respiratory therapy aide, said, “Mom, you’re not gonna believe this – my supervisor says Jodi is breathing on her own. They want to remove the breathing tube.”

“There’s no way,” I answered. But the respiratory therapist chose to remove the tubes and surprisingly enough, Jodi did breathe on her own. Now I know there are these myths about people sitting up after months in a coma and saying, “Where am I?” Believe me, it’s not like that. It took months for Jodi to come back to the world. And because she had gone so long without oxygen, she had a severe anoxic brain injury. As her guardian, I was able to move her into an assisted living facility and she and I spent every holiday together.

Do I think that prayer brought her back to the land of the living? Of course not. Those wonderful medical people who never gave up even when her prognosis was “not a chance in hell” were the ones who brought her back. But why did it happen the day after the coffee lady prayed for her? One of the nurses told me that one night when Jodi was still recovering from the coma, she heard her talking to her grandmother. I pointed out that both Jodi’s grandmothers had been dead for over thirty years. Oh, by the way, Jodi was an atheist – she didn’t believe in life after death.

So okay, I want to find the scientific means to defer to the experts. I want them to locate proof that my grandmother told me it was going to be okay that night because she was the energy that existed in my back yard in the moonlight, and that the voice I heard was not my voice but her voice, her spiritual being, staying for a moment in her travels to comfort me. Why comfort me when she had so many children and grandchildren? I don’t know – maybe because I was the one who always argued with her, the one who wanted to find a way to unite religion and science. After all, why did she give me the family tree with all those Lutheran ministers in there? She knew I would keep them, preserve them, promote their legacy.

Out of respect for her feelings, I attempted to understand and find a solution to the dichotomy between science and religion that would work for me. I wanted to put my beliefs into some form that would not be insulting to my grandmother’s memory, that would not be at odds with my mother’s philosophy. As I began to explore, I started reading about physics. Why physics? Because the phrase, “Nothing created, nothing destroyed,” resonated. Because, according to an article in the Atlantic, “And now, equipped with the predictive power of quantum physics, theoretical physicists are beginning to push even further, into new universes and new physics, into controversies once thought to be squarely within the domain of theology or philosophy” (Anderson, 2012,

Of course, physics is so much more complicated than I can comprehend. Still, I found it reassuring, something I could tell my mother I believe in and she wouldn’t lecture me about the uselessness of religion. The First Law of Thermodynamics became my touchstone. As the All About Science Website explains, “In its simplest form, the First Law of Thermodynamics states that neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed. The amount of energy in the universe is constant – energy can be changed, moved, controlled, stored, or dissipated.” ( And what was more energetic that the spirits of my mother and my grandmother?

If nothing could be destroyed, no one could really die. A person’s spirit would become a different form of energy and continue in the universe. I know this is a very simplistic reading of the laws – I’m an English major, not a scientist. But this theory can be expanded. Or should I say, it did expand in my befuddled brain.

My mother, Hazel, found out last year that she was suffering from congestive heart failure. She decided, at 84, that she had lived a good long life, and she wasn’t going to take any more treatment. When Mother went into Hospice, I visited her regularly and we had long conversations about religion and science. Mother was a social worker and a high school English teacher with a Master’s in Education. She, like her mother, Helen, was a brilliant person who read extensively and knew more about every subject than your average person. I tried to explain the miraculous science behind the First Law of Thermodynamics. She just laughed. She wasn’t willing to give me a pass just because I thought I’d found a way to make religious theory work with science.

Albert Einstein became one of my heroes. I read about the theory of relativity and became convinced that somehow, this was the solution to my attempt at uniting science and religion. If the earth could deflect space and time just by its slow movement, why couldn’t we move on in a different way even when our physical selves ended? Would you like to hear my theory of attraction? Okay, scientists, take a deep breath – I know I don’t have this down perfectly. I don’t care.

I imagined that on the space-time continuum, we could all reconnect at appropriate moments. Maybe we wouldn’t even know we were interconnected. Maybe there would just be a moment of comfort, a spell of silence from the aching thoughts that propelled us through our stressful world, a moment of moonlight in a darkened yard. As explained on, “He [Einstein] showed that the speed of light within a vacuum is the same no matter the speed at which an observer travels. As a result, he found that space and time were interwoven into a single continuum known as space-time. Events that occur at the same time for one observer could occur at different times for another.” If there is truly no “fixed frame of reference” (Redd, 2016,, there is no beginning and no end. There is no end. Or, as Jodi would say, “Everything’s going to be all right, and we’re all going to the House of Pancakes” (Courtesy of the old TV show, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, ).

This is how we non-scientists comfort ourselves, by trying to make connections where perhaps none can be made. I’m not a physicist. I am, however, fascinated by the research. I was thrilled when the University of Florida, where I worked for so many years, announced that they had detected gravitational waves that reinforced Einstein’s theories ( My ulterior motive is not that of a scientist – mine is only an attempt to make sense of something that makes no sense.

Because of my family history, I can’t routinely accept that I will be “saved.” I can’t dismiss as lost the beautiful lives of my mother and my grandmother, who, by the way, were two of the most helpful, loyal, sweet, caring people in the world. The list of people they helped throughout their lives is too long for this essay. Yes, they were modern women. They were strong, sarcastic, funny.  But each would literally give you the shirt off her back. How did they deserve to go to “hell,” only because they refused to accept any religion?

My mother had very definite ideas about how her life would end. My youngest sister, Laurie, lived with her and took care of her, but Mother refused to allow any extraordinary measures to extend her life. She didn’t want to go to the hospital – she didn’t want any surgeries – she didn’t want tubes or breathing apparatuses, or machines. Like her mother before her, she made a decision that it was time to go and she was prepared. She made sure my father, who was in a veterans’ rehab facility for dementia, would be well-cared for. She made sure my sister, Laurie, would have financial security. To give Laurie a break from caring for my mother, I visited her frequently during the last year of her life, and every time I was impressed by how alert she was, despite having trouble breathing and being on morphine for pain.

Mom and I had long discussions about everything, how her grandchildren and great grandchildren were doing, how my dad would do after she passed away, what would happen to Laurie when she no longer had Mother to care for. And we talked about religion. A lot. Her attitude was so similar to that of her own mother, Helen, that it was amazing. She wasn’t afraid to die. She wasn’t afraid of what would happen if she didn’t accept some form of religion, or some savior. She was ready to go and did not believe there was anything beyond this life.

But there must be something more for them. The limited span of consciousness that is life is just not enough, because if it weren’t for them, so many people would not be alive today. My grandmother, Helen Roth Ihnen, had five children. My mother, Hazel Ihnen Thornton, had five children. And each of them was responsible for rescuing multiple people from tragic situations. They didn’t make a big deal about it. They just did it. After their deaths, people told me stories I didn’t know, about their kindness and their assistance. How could I see them in hell or as dust in the wind?

In early September, my mother called and said, “You need to come up here for a while. Your sister needs a vacation.”

“This isn’t a good time,” I answered. I’d already been to her house many times during the summer. I was very busy with work and various upcoming events. Apparently, I didn’t sense the urgency of the situation.

“You need to come now!” she said. The tone of her voice told me this was not optional. This wasn’t a visit. I got on the road immediately.

My sister, Laurie, had planned a vacation to visit my brother in North Carolina. We figured she would be gone for about ten days. I drove up and settled in, planning to cover for my sister for a week and a half.

The first night, Laurie was still there. Mom seemed fine, if a bit weak. The hospice nurses came by and we talked about her medications, the liquid morphine, how to get in touch if I needed them. My sister packed and headed off for her vacation in the mountains.

We spent the day, Sept. 10, 2016, talking about the presidential election, watching CNN and MSNBC, preparing for the ceremonies related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks coming up the next day. We talked about her children, her grandchildren, her great grandchildren. We talked about football. My parents were both football fanatics.

I should point out here that I married a man who once played football for the University of Florida. My parents were so excited when I started dating Ken. They couldn’t believe that their sports-hating daughter was going to marry a football player. They also adored him for the wonderful man he is. Once when I split up with Ken while we were dating, my mother insisted I go back and apologize to him. Without her, I wouldn’t have my decades-long marriage. So many people were guided by her in similar ways.

It’s easy to say that a bad person is going to hell. It’s easy to say that a non-believer is going to hell. What do you do about someone like my mother, whose list of charitable giving went beyond the norm but who refused to believe in the importance of any organized religion? What do you say about someone like my grandmother, who went out of her way for so many people, but thought religion was a con game perpetrated on the poor and the ignorant?

The first night after Laurie left, Mom started to get up out of her chair to go to bed. She was using a walker. She tried to stand but was unable to rise. “I can’t get up,” she said.

I ran over and tried to help her. I couldn’t get her up. “Mom, I’m going to call the hospice nurse, okay?”

“No,” she snapped. “Don’t call anyone. Don’t call anybody. Promise me.”

“You need to be able to lie down.”

“No, I don’t want any help. Please, you have to promise me.”

I didn’t want to promise. I felt so strange, sleeping on the couch beside her as she leaned back in her recliner, struggling to breathe. The night seemed to last forever. I would drift off to sleep for a few minutes, then wake when I heard her gasping for breath. She tried to talk, to tell me that she was happy, that she was lucky. At one time, I said to her, “You’ve had a wonderful life.” And she replied, “Yes, I have beautiful grandchildren.”

I have never been so close to the death of a human before. I’ve lost dogs and cats, but it’s different when it’s a sentient being who knows what’s happening. You don’t know what to say. Do you say goodbye? Do you say, I love you? I tried to tell her about my theory that when we die, we just become another form of energy. She waved her arms at me as if to say, “Just another one of those silly afterlife theories.” I didn’t pursue it.

I brought food she wouldn’t eat. I put her ventilator mask on and tried to help her breathe, but she took it off. I gave her small doses of morphine throughout the night, though it didn’t seem to help.

The next day, she seemed more alert. She still couldn’t get up, though, so I called my middle sister, Valerie, who lived an hour away in Birmingham and she drove up immediately. We debated whether we should call the hospice nurse despite Mother’s wishes. We were afraid she would end up in the hospital, furious at both of us for betraying her.

Eventually, we called 9-1-1 and asked the operator to send someone to help us move her. We explained that we didn’t want her transported to the hospital. The town sent a crew of firemen, who very sweetly shifted her into a wheelchair and transported her down the hall to her bed. She was embarrassed about needing their help. Still, she made jokes about how nice it was to be rescued by such handsome young men. They made jokes about how fun it was to help such a sweet old lady. They were all trying to be upbeat. My sister and I had to keep going outside to cry.

Mother had to be cleaned up once she got in bed. It was clear she was going downhill fast. Though she didn’t want us to, we called the hospice nurse, who came and showed us how to tend to her. The nurse asked me privately if I was prepared to be alone with my mother when she passed.

“Is anyone ever prepared?”

“We can move her to the hospital,” she said.

“Right, and she’ll hate me forever.”

“But –” The hospice nurse stopped. “Forever” is a relative term in those circumstances.

“No,” I said. “We can handle it.”

Valerie and I turned on the Alabama football game for her. We debated whether to call my younger sister or not. It occurred to us that Mother had deliberately sent her away because she didn’t want her to be there when she died. Or maybe she was afraid Laurie would insist she go to the hospital. I don’t know. But if we didn’t call, would Laurie hate us forever for not letting her know how fast Mom was going downhill? We called.

Laurie immediately jumped in the car in North Carolina and drove all night to get back to us. That night seemed unending. I held Mother’s hand as she gasped for breath, her breathing becoming slower and slower. Valerie prayed over her. As we sat there all night, waiting for the end to come, we read poetry to her, talked to her, whatever we could think of.

We were both relieved when Laurie finally got there. My sisters were out in the living room talking when I sat in the room with my mother for the last time. I held her hand and whispered, “You’re okay, you’re okay.” She was practically thrashing now, almost as if she were having convulsions, the kind Jodi had when her coma was at its deepest. Posturing. I kept saying, “You’re going to be okay, you’re all right.” I knew from my experience with Jodi that hearing is the last sense to go.

Finally, I said, “You’re all right and we’re going to be all right.” To my astonishment, she stopped flailing, opened her eyes, stared at me, and smiled. Faintly, it’s true, but it was definitely a smile. And then, like a breeze, she was gone. I don’t mean she died then. It would be hours before the labored breathing stopped, hours before the liquid morphine began to bubble up out of her mouth, the fluids left her system, the convulsions stopped. What I mean is that I could feel her self, her personality, her spirit, whatever you want to call it, leave her body. The body was still there but the person who was that person was no longer there.

When it was all over, we three stood over her bed, unsure what to do. Finally, we called the hospice nurse, who brought in all kinds of people to take care of everything, removing the body, filling out paperwork, etc. We were devastated. You would think after all those months of hospice care, we would have been more prepared for her death, but no.

I drove back home the next day. There was no reason to stay. There would be no funeral – she didn’t want any kind of religious service.

On my way home, I turned a corner in the foothills of the Appalachians and the sunlight, which was just coming up, hit the tops of the trees at an angle which made the woods look like they were catching fire. I thought of my mother missing this beauty. Hysterical, I pulled off the to the side of the road. Yes, you can say, see that light shining through those trees, illuminating those woods? That happens because the light enters your eye through the pupil, passes through the lens, focuses on the retina, blah blah, blah. And that would be true. But tell me why, scientifically, when I saw that light shining through those trees on my way home, did I find it so insufferably beautiful that it made me cry?


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Found some old poems today – published in:





Delegation from the Local Music Scene

As long as a face listens to the music
clean, almond shaped, sucker-boned
growing up in the country
hacking away lazily, ear for genius,
head for notes, shy, waiting to be discovered.

You hover on the edge of nightfall
construction in the details, small changes
that take you off to a different tree
then wherever a ribbon is strung,
a Marquis marked, changed more than you supposed.

The uniform songs about your homeland
embarrass you with their sentimentality.
violent chants about your birthplace
ring like a bell, mutter even louder
than the whipped puppy under the bed
and the singing cement outside your window

at 3 a.m., waiting to find a fist in the mouth,
a peephole through the wooden door
where dark skin against light learns lessons
an organist can trill, ownership of the moon
and the morning shafts of sunlight in a bar.
Here is where you are now, Babe. You’ve arrived.

First Law of Thermodynamics

When it comes down to it, you and I
will deal as we always do
in our own unique ways
with the vagaries of finality.

You will see my passing as natural,
maybe a little karmic,
your punishment for bragging
that everything was going so well.
Nothing can sustain such perfection.

I’ll complain that God is just damn difficult
and what did I do something to deserve this,
alternate between the peace
which passes understanding
and the first law of thermodynamics,
nothing created, nothing destroyed.

People tell me their end desires
as if I had some kind of inside track
“Should something bad happen
let me die. For God’s sake, don’t bring me back.
If I drop dead at this table, move to another.
Walk away. Just let me go.”
Foolish pessimists, what do they know
who expect me to stay past well enough.

Do you think my body will float away,
an uncomprehending corpse?
No, I’ll be the nightmare victim
trapped in a Florida nursing home,
existing for years on nothing but air.

A billboard flashes by – “Someday.”
That’s all it says, all it has to say.
Nothing to understand, no cosmic plan.
On good days, I romp with grandchildren,
on bad days, pick out funeral garb.

And when your time comes, my kinsman,
you won’t go gently either.
We have to play out the parts as written,
see them through to the end.

You play the part of the grieving widower
and I will be the wind.

In The Muir Woods

The bowl-shaped valley hides
from homeless in doorways,
limos ratcheting over the hills,
Victorians descending down to seals,
and the skater in a pink tutu
twirling his lace parasol.

No sunlight invades the bottom of the bowl.
Giant ferns reach outstretched palms to the light,
futile sunbeams stream from the top
towards fire-hardened roots, older than the millennium.
It is so quiet here, so cool
the trees generate their own air.

Somewhere developers pull out
their well-thumbed plans,
diagram their static dreams.
A breeze blows through,
the sigh of an ancient enduring
beyond her ancestors.

Then, breaking the harsh solemnity,
delighted children sprint the paths.
They will enter the cradles created
at the pedestal of the trees
only if no one takes their picture
and no one steals their souls.

Spiritual Pirate

I refuse to justify
my fragile faith
in the face
of your perpetual doubt.

Escaping, I defy
generations of atheism.
Circling around Pamlico Sound
trailing clouds of incense and myrrh,
around the Outer Banks I sail,
eyes fixed on a distant horizon
where a tiny dove leads the way
to New Providence.

On Nassau’s shores
I eat pineapple tarts and
entertain the cockatoos
With my whispered prayers.

Like Calico Jack I circle the horn
A spiritual pirate off Paradise Cay,
retracing Anne Bonney’s footsteps,
navigating around Deadman’s Reef,
fishing for shark off Cedar Key
and blessing the sun I definitely know
God created just for me.

In the end I’ll always defy
The sneer of naysayers
Bereft of belief.
Like Blackbeard stumbling
beneath the blow
I will let mortality go
And cry, “Well done, Lad,”
To the swordsman.

Wendy Thornton has published in The Literary Review,
Riverteeth, Confluence and other literary magazines.
She has a new story coming out Summer 08 in the
MacGuffin Magazine. She is a regular invited reader
for the Let’s Go Downtown Series, The Word is Spoken,
Third Eye Spoken and at the Gainesville Civic Media
Center in Gainesville, FL. She has completed a book
of short stories and a book of poetry and is finishing
a novel.

© 2004 – 2009 Underground Voices

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