Posted in Theatre

ENG 111: Becoming Lady Boyle

Arthur Przybyszewski (Peter Bost) and Lady Boyle (Jane Lucas) / Ken Burns

When I decided to audition for Superior Donuts, Lady Boyle was not on my radar. What had drawn me to the play was its writer, Tracy Letts. A few years earlier, I had seen a production of Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning tragicomedy August, Osage County and had left the theatre hoping that I would someday have the chance to perform a role he had written.

Then came Superior Donuts. As soon as I read the character list in the audition notice, I knew I wanted to read for the role of Randy Osteen, a woman Letts described as a forty-nine-year-old Irish American cop. (As a fair-skinned forty-eight-year-old, I seemed like a good fit.) After I auditioned for Randy, the director asked me to read for the other female role, Lady Boyle. I didn’t give her much thought until the cast announcement arrived in my inbox. When I read the director’s email, I was elated to discover that I had been cast but surprised that I wasn’t Randy. Instead, I was Lady Boyle, the seventy-two-year-old bag lady.

The role of Lady Boyle was appealing but daunting. An alcoholic living in her own alternate reality, she was a woman whose foul-mouthed nonsense unexpectedly gave way to moments of clarity and wisdom.  Often when I think of her, I am reminded of Letts’ decision to name her Boyle even though her name is never spoken in the play; the other characters simply call her “Lady.” For Letts, the name Boyle granted Lady her humanity, which is what I aimed for as I worked to become her. As I learned her lines and developed the mannerisms that would accompany them, I hoped the audience would see her as more than a type.

That’s how the other characters saw her, with the exception of the donut shop’s owner, Arthur Przybyszewski. In the second act, when Arthur asks about her children, he inquires not as a shop owner making small talk but as a parent struggling to reconcile with his daughter. As Lady Boyle and Arthur sit together at a table in his shop, she tells him that she has outlived three of her four children, and recounts their deaths:

LADY: One of ‘em got shot by the coppers in a gasoline station stick-up. One of ‘em had a grabber, mowin’ the yard. And one of them died in the crib with that disease. Where the spinal cord gets a mind of its own and decides it don’t want to live trapped inside those little bones no more. You know what I’m talkin’ about?

ARTHUR: I don’t think so.

LADY: Your spinal cord gets it in its head to go free and slitherin’ out into the world. That’s what killed my little Venus. Her spinal cord got its own notions. (44)

Delivering those lines of Lady Boyle’s—and finding myself speaking some of them through tears—sustained me during a difficult time. (As Lady Boyle would say, it “happens to all of us.”) My husband had been laid off from his job in Richmond two years earlier. We had landed on our feet in North Carolina, where he was working again as an editor, but I was an invisible adjunct longing for the full-time teaching job and the community of colleagues I had left behind.

Becoming Lady Boyle made me feel whole again.

Letts, Tracy. Superior Donuts. Dramatists Play Service, 2010.

Posted in Teaching, Writing

Burrowed Time

It started with the rock. Actually, it started for me with the rock. For you, the story would start elsewhere, I’m sure. I came across the rock, now your rock, in the backyard shortly after my husband and I moved into the house. I was struck by the granite’s natural beauty, its graceful belt of pale stripes. I moved the rock from its cradle of broken bricks and overgrown grass to a spot on the corner of the deck. There I could see it from the window in the kitchen door, and from there I would soon see you, too.

At first, the novelty of seeing you drew me to the window. Then I began to meditate on our similarities, not the fact that I’m a small mammal, too—not chipmunk-small, but human-small—or that I’m omnivorous. Instead, my thoughts turned to how we are both solitary creatures who construct intricate tunnels.

Back in mid-March when the civilized world was forced to shelter in place, I developed a heightened awareness of my tendency to burrow, as well as my need to emerge. Teaching from my burrow, rather than in the classroom, confined me to a solitary labyrinth that I tunneled through by writing. The writing—the blog posts that I composed for my students and the comments that I posted for them— distracted me from the uncertainty that came with COVID-19. Writing had a calming effect. Yet at the same time, all that tunneling within a tunnel meant too much solitude.

Moving to a new burrow and returning to the classroom—the actual, not the virtual, classroom—has roused me. But I am not up to speed. The back-to-back trials of navigating remote instruction and packing my life into boxes led to a state akin to your annual torpor. I am still crawling out, even as the tunneling act of writing continues to help me make sense of it.

Now, as I continue to forage for the right words, I pause in my writing and picture you back on your perch, contemplating life. The stripes in the granite reflect the ones that border your curved back.

I don’t know whether you visited the rock before I moved it, or whether you simply like the corner where you found it. I only know that seeing you stake your claim has brightened the quiet moments when this human has watched you from the window.

Thank you for welcoming me home.

Posted in Teaching

Five, Six, Pick up Sticks

A flannel shoe bag, a pile of mini craft sticks, and a repurposed Q-Tip travel box: These items are in my hands most days. They’re often in the hands of my students as well. Any of them who walk into the classroom early—before the beginning of the hour—and spot the bag and the box of sticks on the front desk know that they’ll be working in groups that day, at least for part of the class period. Their job, if they choose to volunteer, is to make random groups by drawing sticks, which are labeled with the students’ names.

The size and number of groups varies from class to class. In my current English 111 class of eighteen, students draw names to create two groups of four and two of five. For the largest of my British survey classes, which has twenty-seven students, they make three groups of five and two of six.

The sound of the process depends on the volunteers. Before dropping the craft sticks into the shoe bag, some students shake the plastic box, rattling the sticks like dice in a cup. Others pour the sticks into the bag before they shake them, making slightly muted clicks, like coins in a sock.

To me, all of these noises are sounds of collaboration and community building, of students not sitting passively but instead taking an active role in preparing for class. A flannel shoe bag, a pile of mini craft sticks, and a repurposed Q-Tip travel box: In the classroom these are small, good things.

Posted in Writing


In my childhood home, the bedroom closets were so small, the one in my parents’ room was too diminutive for my mother and father to share. It held only my mother’s clothes and shoes. My father claimed for himself a closet downstairs in a room that had been converted from a garage by the previous owners. My father’s closet with its sliding door became one of my favorite hiding places. In my mind, I am back there now, standing under the clothes rack, half hidden by corduroy and gaberdine, eyeing the pale sneakers nestled among the other shoes. Those sneakers on the floor of my father’s closet were my first glimpse of Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars and my introduction to a part of my father’s life that ended, for the most part, before mine began.

The white, low-cut All-Stars in my father’s closet were ones that he’d worn playing rec-league basketball. Though I hold one brief memory of him on the court in his Piggly Wiggly jersey, those days of his mostly predated me and my older sister. Our father played basketball only rarely after he became a father and left his job as a junior-high biology teacher to operate a marina on a lake near our hometown.

That former life of his that I could never truly see remained a source of fascination for me. The man I saw most often wearing a uniform that resembled a gas station attendant’s, complete with an oval chest patch with Dave stitched in script, had once been a multi-sport athlete. He was a first-generation college student whose baseball skills had won him a scholarship to High Point, an opportunity that my grandparents approved of only because it was a Methodist school. Though he never wore his Chuck Taylors on the baseball diamond, those shoes were an emblem of his years as a student-athlete. 

In 1921, ten years before my father was born, Charles “Chuck” Taylor, a travelling salesman who’d played farm-league basketball, was hired by Converse. Wanting a basketball shoe for himself that wouldn’t hurt his feet after a game, he recommended design changes that Converse adopted in 1922. In 1923, to honor his contributions, Converse added Chuck Taylor’s signature to the ankle patch (Dalesio par. 8, AP par. 3).

I bought my first pair of Chuck Taylors at the Salvation Army when I was in high school. My then-boyfriend had introduced me to thrift-store shopping, much to my parents chagrin. They didn’t mind when my boyfriend and I combed the local flea market and thrift stores for vinyl records, but buying clothes there was a different matter. We’ve worked hard so you don’t have to wear clothes from thrift stores, they said. My parents continued to repeat those words until I was in graduate school. That’s when they began to remark on the quality of my consignment-shop and thrift-store finds. For me, in those years as a graduate teaching assistant, used clothes were my creative solution to a problem: how to assemble a professional wardrobe on a meager grad-school stipend. But I digress.

The first Chucks that I bought–navy high-tops from the Salvation Army–weren’t just a retro fashion statement, they also proved ideal for my summer jobs in factories. With their thick rubber soles and ankle support, those navy Converse saw me through eight-hour days of standing on cement floors, two summers in a furniture factory and one in a glass plant.

In 1972, a few years after I first glimpsed my father’s All-Stars on the floor of his closet, Converse leased an old rubber factory in Lumberton, North Carolina. From 1972 until the factory closed in March 2001, all Converse were finished or made entirely at that factory (Dalesio par. 12), including the navy high-tops that I wore for three summers. Back then, when I was a student, I had no idea that All-Stars were made in North Carolina, just 136 miles from my hometown. I still didn’t know it in 2001, two months after the Converse plant closed, when my husband’s newspaper job found us relocating to Virginia.

In a thrift store in Richmond, I happened upon my second pair of Chuck Taylors. When I spotted them on the shelf, my mind traveled back to the navy ones that I’d worn years earlier. I’d forgotten how comfortable they were and have since acquired several more pairs, none of which I bought new. As a woman with small feet, I can wear the size six Converse that teenage boys have grown out of.

My older nephew, now beyond his teenage years, wears Converse, too.

How many more generations will rediscover them?

Works Cited

Associated Press. “Who the Heck was Chuck Taylor Anyway?” Kentucky New Era. 28 March

A7. Google News.

M20FAAAAIBAJ&pg=1717%2C8232748. Accessed 21 Jan. 2019.

Dalesio, Emery P. “Converse Closes Chuck Taylor Plant.” Kentucky New Era. 28 March

A7. Google News.

M20FAAAAIBAJ&pg=1717%2C8232748. Accessed 21 Jan. 2019.

Posted in Writing

Treasure Aisles

As a young child, I was mystified by my parents’ interest in estate auctions. Though the auctioneer’s chant intrigued me, I could no more understand his rapid-fire bid-calling than I could my parents’–and all of the other adults’–inclination to stand stock-still in the blazing sun, raising their hands only occasionally to signal a bid.

Once when I had endured standing for as long as I could, I wandered away from my parents and climbed atop one of the tables. For me, it simply offered a respite from standing; I didn’t think of it as a sale table. But when my mother appeared before me a few minutes later, she said, “The auctioneer’s going to sell everything on this table. If you don’t climb down, he will sell you, too.”

As I remember those words of my mother’s now, I can almost feel the splinters burrowing in my palm as I pushed myself away from the point of purchase. Though I had contemplated life with other parents, the ones that I had were tolerable, and I had no desire to be sold to the highest bidder.

I never became an auction-goer, but I share my parents’ fascination with objects from the past. And I can trace the allure of artifacts back to those outings with them. Rather than standing and listening to an auction chant, I prefer the quiet pastime of browsing the shelves of antique shops and thrift stores. What appeals to me about such excursions is the possibility of the unexpected find: most recently a set of wooden letter blocks at Picket Fence Antiques, and earlier a chair from The Crow’s Nest and a student desk from Diversity Thrift (all of which are pictured here).

For me, the serendipity that comes with thrifting and antiquing is akin to the discoveries of the writing process. Though the journey doesn’t always lead to unexpected treasures, when I persist–whether as a browser or a writer–I eventually find something of value that I did not seek.


Posted in Teaching, Theatre, Writing

Another Way with Words

TGR’s “Boeing Boeing” (2017) / Ken Burns

A year ago, as a model for my students’ introductory assignment, I composed a post about my work as a writer. Now as I revisit that assignment, rather than turning again to my writing, I have chosen to write about acting.

Though I began performing in community theatre as a teenager in the 1980s, I was away from it—focusing on my teaching and writing—for more than twenty-five years. Becoming an acting student in my forties—enrolling in classes in Richmond, Virginia, in 2011 and 2012—rekindled my passion for the craft. I fell in love with acting all over again, and I found myself wondering how I’d ever left it. Since moving back to North Carolina in 2013, I have performed in plays at Foothills Performing Arts, Hickory Community Theatre, the Green Room Community Theatre, and most recently at the Hickory Playground’s second annual festival of new one-act plays.

HCT’s “Incorruptible” (2016) / Ken Burns

HCT’s “Superior Donuts” (2016) / Ken Burns

For me as a writer, acting is another way of working with words, a process of transporting them from the page to the stage and transforming the language into the utterances of a living, breathing character—someone who isn’t me but in whom I can “live truthfully,” as Sanford Meisner would say, “under the given imaginary circumstances.”

Posted in Teaching, Writing

“I Could Tell You Stories . . .”

Early illustrated writing c. 1974
Early illustrated writing c. 1974

Three pictures, one-hundred words, minimum: That’s what I asked of my students, and of myself, for the introductory blog assignment for the semester. “Rather than trying to tell your whole life story,” I wrote in the assignment,  “focus on one aspect of your life or one interest of yours.” It sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? But when I sat down to complete the assignment, words initially failed me. As I tried to compose a draft in my mind, what came to me instead were these lines from Patricia Hampl’s essay “Red Sky in the Morning”:

How much reality can subject-verb-object bear on the frail shoulders of the sentence? The sigh within the sentence is more like this: I could tell you stories–if only stories could tell what I have in me to tell. (178)

Choosing to include those lines of Hampl’s reflects my passion for writing, while the words themselves illustrate the struggle of writing–even for those of us who identify ourselves as writers.

Heat ms
1989 manuscript with notes from my teacher. The story, which she titled “Heat,” was published in 1991.

At the beginning of last semester, when I projected my own blog on the screen for the first time, one of the students remarked on the tagline: “Writer, Teacher.”

Have you written any books? she asked.

Written, not published, I started to say (“I could tell you stories . . .”), but instead I said, “I am not an author of any books, but I identify myself as a writer because I am someone for whom writing has always been a way of making sense of the world.

Review of "Go Set a Watchman" (2015)
Review of “Go Set a Watchman” (2015)





Work Cited

Hampl, Patricia. “Red Sky in the Morning.” Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. Ed. Janet Burroway. 3rd ed. Longman, 2011.