A peacock, safety, and the NRA

With the news of another school shooting, my heart is heavy again. It is horrific that these acts of violence continue to plague our children. I know for me I will take better aim on my gun safety advocacy. I’m doing what I can for another group of victims, the ones we’ve lost because of gun negligence. There’s much talk about control. I have been adding my voice about safety. Gun tragedies, like the accident that killed my son, claim many lives, too. I have a story to share and safety to teach. Gun owners must make changes, too.

I believe I can support Moms Demand Action without being anti-gun ownership. I’m anti-gun negligence, a position that makes a place for gun owners to support my work teaching gun safety. I’m inside of gun safety organizations like Moms Demand Action, and Everytown for Gun Safety—but I sometimes feel like I’m a peacock.

In my neighborhood lives a peacock. I don’t see him year round. He disappears in the winter. I don’t know where he goes. But every Spring he returns. I usually hear his screeches start in late March—early in the mornings and late in afternoons.

I was out walking the dogs when I heard his familiar cry. I’d been hearing them for weeks, but for some reason on this day I decided to find him. He was in a neighbor’s yard— feathers down, standing in the driveway.

As I got closer I snapped a picture, then watched as he trotted toward the shrubs to hide near my neighbor’s garage. My bulldog and golden were oblivious, too busy sniffing the familiar spots in the grass with deer droppings. I stared at the peacock for a few more minutes, then walked away. I looked over my shoulder one last time and noticed him coming out of the bushes. I slowed my pace long enough to see what he’s curious about.

Peacocks seem like one of a kind birds. There’s only one in my neighborhood, and I’ve read that they call out looking for another peacock. That’s me right now, calling out, and calling in places like Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action.

I went to Washington DC last month to call on a Senator. It was part of the fellowship training Everytown gave me to be an advocate. I was lucky to be chosen. Well, not that lucky, because those chosen all have lost a loved one.

The group of fellow survivors I met in DC is still with me in my heart. After our work together, Diana and Katy sent texts wishing me safe travels home. The trip was fellowship training, but turned out to be much more. We bonded, forming a family.

But while I am one of these survivors, along with 37 other people who have survived gun injuries or deaths, I know I am different. I’m an advocate who is working for safer gun ownership, to make owners responsible and accountable if they’re negligent. Accidents can kill, like the one that killed my son.

Inside of Everytown, or Moms Demand Action, I feel that family bond around our losses. I stand for a common ground, though. Before we can make changes about ownership of guns, and availability, we have to start with awareness of guns in our lives. We’re all at close range.

I didn’t feel close to the Senator who we were supposed to be meeting, because Sen. Tillis wasn’t in the room. Like a lot of lobbying meetings, a few staff members listened to my story, and stories of other survivors of gun tragedy.

I call them tragedies because that’s what every fatality and injury has in common — crime, mass shootings, or negligence causing fatalities. The first two subjects are getting lots of attention now. The negligence, though, kills far more people than the other tragedies.

In a way I feel like I am in the right place, talking about guns and safety. I have something different to say. Everytown and Moms want diversity in their ranks. Not just racial diversity, but political, too. “Let’s get Republicans out for the Wear Orange meeting,” one volunteer suggested. Good idea.

My idea is to get gun owners, responsible ones, into the Wear Orange meetings. Their homes and cars and offices are where the guns are. They can take the first steps to making our world safer.

I told the senator’s staff I belong to the NRA. I told them I was a gun owner, and that my son owned a silencer for his gun. The bill we lobbied against will make it easier to buy a silencer. It doesn’t need to be easier. My son Lance says it’s not hard to buy one.

Our fellowship trainer Aimee said, “You’ll be met your lobbyist in the Dirksen Senate Building hallway. He’ll give a brief explanation to the senator’s aide about who you are and why you’re there.”

We met as planned—me, two other gun violence survivors, plus a lobbyist. When I walked into the senator’s boardroom with three other survivors, the lobbyist sat quietly. I told my story right away as I introduced myself, even before the lobbyist had a chance to explain why we were there. After all of these years, my story is still at the surface of my life, ready to bubble over. I was nervous, too.

John, a middle aged man from Henderson, North Carolina who had been shot while entering a Detroit television station, told his story first after the introductions and the lobbyist’s explanation about our position on the bill.

Then Susan spoke. A sweet grandmotherly woman from Winston. Her daughter had been killed by an abusive husband. Now it was my turn. I rubbed a stone in my pocket, the one from my training welcome bag that said, “Courage.”

First I forgot to introduce myself. Shit. Then I blurted out, “I lived in Boone. We have a business there, a car dealership. And my son died while he was in college.” I pulled Jon’s picture from my purse, and pushed it toward the aide. I wanted him to get a good look at my son.

He nodded, along with a colleague, but neither touched Jon’s picture. The younger aide took notes. The older one talked about parts of North Carolina with each of us. He talked to me about Boone and Appalachian State College. He then asked, “Was the owner of the gun was over the age of 21?”

“Yes.”

“Was the gun purchased legally?”

“Yes.”

I knew from my briefing with the Everytown staff woman that at some point I needed to reveal my gun ownership and my NRA membership. Everytown’s trainers saw that as a powerful part of my story. This particular senator receives money from the NRA and votes in favor of less gun regulation.

I waited for my moment. And boom! I started talking. “My son owns a silencer. He purchased it through the current law. He passed a background check and did the waiting period. Why change? Let’s keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. I’m a gun owner and an NRA member. We need to find common ground.”

The aide looked at me and agreed. He was closing the meeting and said, “Yes, we need to find common ground.”

Shared that kind of story with a senator’s aide is different from the stories I shared with other Everytown advocates. Most of them don’t own guns, and I’ve met nobody who’s in the NRA.

That’s my diversity. Gun owner. NRA member. Mom who wants guns to be safer by stopping the negilgence.

I know I can be an NRA member and a Moms Demand Action Member. I don’t know yet if I’ll find another peacock while I’m calling out. Calling in DC. Calling in Texas, at local meetings.

In the meantime I’m still speaking up, teaching gun safety to PTA moms and dads as often as they’ll have me. When I tell them my family owns guns, they nod, understand, and respect that.

Peacocks are a unique bird, but they’re not one of a kind. They seem that way, because you don’t seem them together much. Maybe I’m a peacock who wants other birds around.

I think I got my message across. I need more practice. More Be SMART presentations. And what does a peacock have to do with all this? Another thing I learned is why peacocks screech. They’re looking for a mate. Me, being an NRA member and a Moms member, I’m looking for mates. Kindred spirits, middle-of-the-road sensible thinkers. Am I the only one out there? My trip to DC made me wonder, but it didn’t stop my searching.

My memoir At Close Range includes an idea about making our world safer with a basic talk with kids about gun responsibility. I want to hear from my gun-owning friends about how you can teach more safety. Leave me a comment.

My first Official Sweepstakes Entry from the NRA

The NRA wants to give me guns as sweepstakes prize. They do have a prize in the sweepstakes I would like to have, but it’s probably not for the reasons they think.

Last week in my mail was a sweepstakes envelope from the NRA. I stared at the glossy emblazoned mailer that included an early entry bonus prize. I could win a 36-Gun Grand Prize! I stared at the envelope from Fairfax, Virginia, and turned it over in my hands. I know I’m a new NRA member, but a gun giveaway? How many school shootings have there been since the start of the new year? I read it’s now 10. My skin crawls, and I refuse to look inside of the envelope. I hadn’t thought of guns as a prize. For the last nine years I’ve thought about them being safer in our world.

After Jon’s death, my son Lance started collecting guns. He asked for one for Christmas, and I told him I’d never buy one. But I needed to play a role in his gun life. So for his 25th birthday, a birthday that Jon never lived to see, I bought Lance a gun safe.

Days went by, and that thick NRA envelope sat on the corner of my office desk. I wasn’t sure what to think. After all, the school shootings continue. Last month’s ceremonies to commemorate gun violence at Sandy Hook are so fresh. I can hear the names of those dead children being called out at the Central Presbyterian Church. All of us walked up to light a candle. I offered my prayer for safety.

I finally broke down and opened the envelope. Then I realized this might make for a good blog. Let me show you my staged photo of the enclosures.

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Some lucky person gets to win 36 guns.

I say it out loud, “36 frickin guns! Who the hell needs 36 guns?” I choke swallowing some of my own spit.

After spending 10 minutes staring at the selection of AR’s, rifles, shotguns, pistols and revolvers, I decide to search the flyers for any evidence of compassion—a sharp-shooter’s eye seeking proof the NRA will do anything about safety.

I read the official rules page, looking for keywords like: background checks, safe storage, and NRA accountability. But guess what? Not a single mention was made. The only sign of safety came in a small blurb about an early entry bonus prize—a Winchester Silverado 51 Gun Safe.

Needless to say I will not enter the sweepstakes. It’s a fundraiser to promote the part of the political arm of the NRA. But I did find the perfect use for that NRA envelope. I was at a Starbucks, sitting across from my writing coach. We were talking about this blog, and every time I leaned in to take notes the table wobbled. Ron went to grab some sugar packets to stuff under one of the legs. But I said, “No, I think this will work.” He laughed.

Really glad he told me to take this picture.

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Before I got my chance to post this there was another school shooting. Two dead and 19 wounded. Chills run up and down my body. I know people are tired of hearing about the gun violence. I’m having a hard time myself looking at my Facebook and Twitter feeds. More and more gun deaths. Some of my friends probably quit following me, it seems all I post about is tragedy. But there was a gun safe at the very top of the NRA’s sweepstakes. Just one prize, one that I consider the grand prize. Safety.

Public Speaking 101: a lesson about saving lives

I knew at some point along my journey of gun safety that I’d be speaking publicly. That petrified me, even though I recently took a workshop to prepare for speaking. The class was giving me platform-building tools, something writers need. Oh, did I mention that I tanked when it was my turn to stand up in front of the class and deliver an impromptu speech? Yeah, I literally said, “I pass.” And no bit of encouragement from the instructor could change my mind.

Of course, since I backed away from that challenge, I got another. I was contacted by the leader of Mom’s Demand Action here in Austin. Would I speak at the Fifth Anniversary of Sandy Hook ceremony? I was honored, but it still scared the bejesus out of me. The meeting was at a downtown church. I hoped I wasn’t expected to preach.

If you were hiding under a rock when Sandy Hook happened, on a day in 2012 a mentally ill young man shot 20 children and six adults at an elementary school. That day fell three years after Jon’s death, and I can still feel the hairs on what I call my God bumps rising on my arms. I tried to fathom the horrors happening to them, but mostly I felt my own loss. I couldn’t block that image of those mothers and their pain, though. The next day I felt an urgency to do something. It was the first time I’ve ever written to a President. The letter I received back felt more like a reply to fan mail, and that official piece of letterhead ended up in the trashcan.

I was discouraged, but not enough to throw in the towel. Instead, I subscribed to some gun safety sites. That’s when I first looked into Mom’s Demand Action. But I wasn’t sure if I would fit in. I was worried about my gun-owning family, and what MDA might think. I just wanted to protect children.

Earlier this year I found the courage to go to an anti-gun rally, and then blog about it. Next, the MDA meetings, and now this candlelight vigil for gun violence. It would be my first public speech as a survivor. You only get to do something for the first time once. I wanted to make it count.

Gun violence didn’t kill my son. Everything out there today refers to gun violence, from Sandy Hook to Las Vegas and all of the world in between. I need a phrase that fits accidents that can be prevented. I need a phrase that calls attention to negligence and recklessness. I need a phrase that will save lives without needing to make guns illegal, because we need to change lots of lives.

I’d love to hear your ideas about that phrase. Right now it feels like gun negligence, because 164,000 people have died from gun accidents since Sandy Hook. Coming soon to my Twitter-verse: #gunnegligence.

What happened to Jon was a violent death, I know. It was also a moment that could have passed by without taking his life. I believe this strongly enough to say it in front of people who want to take guns from our lives. My message is kind of lost in translation, for now. I’m working on it, though, and one early step was giving my speech.

It was scary because I was afraid I’d make a mistake and people wouldn’t listen. I worried in the car with my go-to, ol’ faithful friend Susan. She let me lean on her in that first anti-gun rally and so I leaned on her in the wings while I waited to talk. I got shushed before I whispered with Susan during the opening song. I felt better when the songwriter said she was scared too. Like she was going to ask us to forgive her if she forgot the words and messed up a guitar chord. I was in a place where everybody was a little new at sharing their stories.

I made it to that podium with my speech in hand. The meeting leader asked if I’d let her stand beside me while I spoke. She might’ve known I was nervous, and I messed up my first line. Once I was speaking, though, my heart took over. I even improvised a little, sharing the names of a few books Jon loved to read. I heard the applause, I saw the tears. I hope I touched hearts in the room.

After my speech, two women running for Congress wanted to talk with me. It was the first conversation I’ve ever had with any candidate running for office. Kathi Thomas running for District 25 has a high-school daughter. Kathi’s already giving the New Talk, telling her little girl to ask questions about the guns that come into her life. She’s also asking her friends about gun safety in their homes—before her daughter is allowed to come visit. It was everything I wanted to hear.

If Kathi wins office and sees a chance to make a difference in safety, I’d like to believe my first speech helps her do the work to save our children. It’s all I can hope for, right now. I’ll speak anywhere people will listen and in the meantime, you’ll hear my voice here.

Peace on earth, and good will toward men, and women, and children.

Taking aim at a gun-friendly world

Clamp on your holsters, people. This is my new gun safety rant. It’s gonna be a little like target practice.

My hairstylist has a daughter who’s a high school senior, and like many parents of graduating students, they’re starting to visit college campuses. I was excited for her, so I listened while Molly (not her real name) talked and stirred the colors she’d be using to cover up my hideous gray. She said she’d already gone on one campus tour and liked the school because it’s close to some of her family.

That school, like her other prospects, was here in Texas. It’s fun to talk to your hairstylist while she applies color and foils. I call it free therapy. I shared the story about the latest accidental discharge of a handgun in a Texas A&M dorm. I had to reach for some dark humor.  “I wonder if they’re going to start putting safe gun storage boxes in the dorm rooms?” We laughed, but afterwards Molly replied, “I’m going to find out what they’re doing at my next school visit.”

Texas schools, like a lot of universities, have too little control over who carries a gun in the classrooms or the dorms. That sounds risky. While she’s applying those foils, Molly and I ramble on. That’s when I learn her lease agreement has a new clause. Molly shows it to me. “You’re not going to believe it, but I had to sign it yesterday,” she says. For the first time in the lease, there’s a clause to protect the landlord when a shooting happens in the salon building.

I am shocked. This is college and haircutting we’re talking about. Not places where we’re used to thinking about gunplay, or even accidents like the one that killed my son. When guns become our individual safety crisis, we’ve lost control over murders. Accidents happen, too. Fewer will happen once we protect our safety.

People start to call this gun control, but my family owns guns. We don’t think of it like control. We want the NRA to think of it like safety, too. I’m trying to figure out how we bring them to the table to talk about this—and use their big influence in politics to make everybody safer. Even gun owners.

Without that influence, my hairdresser probably has to start packing a weapon to cut my hair. Shit! That’s a trim that’s a little too close to the bulls eye. There are people who believe having a gun everywhere makes them feel safer, but isn’t that really a statement about fear? Inside of that thinking, everyone is a potential killer, so let’s all arm ourselves. What happened to love thy neighbor?

So, I have to ask…

NRA, WHAT’S IT GOING TO TAKE TO GET YOU WITHIN RANGE OF A CONVERSATION ABOUT SAFETY?

Because I don’t want to carry my own gun to a salon appointment.

After my salon visit, I learned the US military can’t do its job, at the moment, to track dangerous ex-soldiers so they can’t put everybody at risk. Everybody right down to people praying on a Sunday. In Texas.

In these days when the bad news for gun safety is everywhere, Molly and I came up with a list of questions she’s going to ask at her next campus visit. It’s such a good idea, I going to call my son Keaton’s campus and ask them, too. I hope you’ll take them to your legislator, mayor — and especially to your college campus administrators. Laws take a while to hammer out. The safety of students in a college community is something that can happen a lot faster.

  • If the military can fail to keep proper records, what guarantees do we have about college campuses?
  • What is the plan to prevent this from happening on our college campuses?
  • How are they keeping records of ownership, licenses and background checks?
  • Will dorms now be installing safe gun storage units?
  • What happens if a gun is stolen, or someone else holds it and it misfires?
  • Will enrollment forms need new language, like the lease Molly signed, so the colleges won’t be held liable when a shooting happens?

After all of that, I have to take a breath. My thoughts are with those who have been forever affected by the latest shootings. My prayers, though, are for better ways to make gun safety more permanent than a hair coloring. I think about the moment when a gun changed my family’s life. There’s a way to make all of our lives safer—whether in a college town in a rent house, or inside a classroom. We need to insist that our schools hit that target.

Safety demands more action from this mom

The bullet landed in a bed frame in the college dorm. I heard about that shot at close range during my first meeting with Moms Demand Action, another one of the ways I’m stretching myself to tell my story. Like the woman telling about the dorm accident, it was my story too.

But first I had to get to that meeting. I was running late. If you know me, that probably doesn’t surprise you. I was committed to the moms’ gun safety group, but I lingered before I left the house. Instead of casually flipping through a magazine and relaxing before leaving on time, I was cramming in as many to-do items as possible. I put those dirty glasses into the dishwasher, added food to dog bowls, and watered the wilting plants. You know, the important things in life that can’t wait.

Those last-minute tasks had me driving like a crazy woman to the meeting. I zipped through stoplights that just turned red, checking Google Maps and hoping to beat the start time. Google had me arriving a few minutes late. I remained optimistic about missing nothing, though. When does a meeting ever start on time? Google Maps was right about my ETA.

I have to park on a side street, but I’m relieved when I watch another woman cross the street, also arriving late. The Brentwood Social House is a pastry cafe. The front counter that usually displays croissants, muffins, and fresh baked breads is empty. The cafe is an old converted house, and the meeting is in one of the smaller rooms up front. A cheerful volunteer directs me to the sign-in table, points to an ice chest of cold sodas, and then tells me to take a free Moms Demand Action t-shirt and a wristband, too.

Meetings like this happen in public places. After sizing up the shirts I take in a chair in the middle of the room. All around me people are talking. The lady next to me is complaining about a bad smell. “Oh, its just a toilet backed up,” says her friend. I decide to ignore it by taking an interest in the artwork on the walls. It doesn’t exactly mask the smell, but the colorful, quirky paintings for sale are a distraction.

Finally a youthful mom with dark hair and eyes, wearing the bright red Moms Demand Action t-shirt, introduces herself and welcomes everyone. She then gives an update on the progress that’s been made. I’m listen but wondering how many of these people have suffered a loss like mine—or are they here because they’re passionate about changing a gun culture?

The guest speaker is dressed in purple. I notice she’s even wearing really cute purple pumps. She’s an attorney with the Texas Council on Family Violence, and her purple is for October’s Violence Awareness Month. She talks about how she got involved, her kids, and then shares statistics. Stuff I didn’t know, like 68 percent of violence perpetrators use a firearm to murder their female partner, 77 percent of perpetrators kill their partner in the home—and in Texas last year, 183 children lost their parent.

The statistics convince me I’m just a small fish in this big ocean of guns. I think about Jon’s death, and then the children who live in fear. The horror of losing a mom killed by a dad. I understand why some people don’t want any guns in the world. The attorney in her purple pumps confesses to being a gun owner. This is a match up for me. We both believe we can live in a world with guns, so long as there’s enough safety.

Moms Demand Action works to lobby for responsible ownership of guns in places where children, no matter how old they are, might be within range. They propose control, but we all know the group’s genuine goal is safety. We all have a desire for safety in common.

Finally, there’s a Q&A. I listen, but not really, because I’m jotting down notes for this blog. Suddenly the volunteer who checked me in speaks up. She says, “Did you all know there was a recent accidentally discharge of handgun at the Texas A&M campus?”

I hear a few gasps, and then someone who has a child at the school asks for details. It didn’t make national news, just the College Station Eagle newspaper. At this university, the second-biggest in Texas, a stray bullet from a Glock was shot through a dorm room. The owner, a licensed concealed carry holder, let another student hold his gun when it accidentally discharged. It eventually lodged in the bedframe of the room next door. It’s a miracle no one was hurt.

That’s the problem. Texas has campus carry laws and the guns can float through the dorm rooms. The university spokesperson said there was “minimal property damage.” Yeah that’s what we should be concerned about. I felt my blood boil.

Afterwards, I walked straight up to the volunteer of the group’s BeSmart program and linked my story with the one I just heard. People didn’t think that A&M gun was loaded. Like in Jon’s deadly accident, the guns can sit out in rooms with students who don’t know safety measures for guns. They know movies and first-person shooter games.

The lack of safety can be a trigger for gun owners. The practices and regulations from the school administration are full of holes, like the laws. My book helps my work as a safety advocate—a label I just started using because let’s face it, it fits so well with my mission to close up the holes. Every one of those holes might kill a son like mine, a boy who had the tragic misfortune to be in a room with college kids and an unsafe gun.

I told that volunteer to call me and tell me what she wanted me to do. I am willing and ready. I don’t have much experience in this yet. All I have is a family tragedy and a desire to keep other sons and daughters safer than my Jon was in that college town. A day with your friends who own guns is around every corner for every student. When that day comes, better education and the New Talk might keep tragedy out of range.

Do you have a story like this one? Something that happened with a handgun and a college student? Tell it, on Facebook or Twitter, or reply to me and I’ll forward the message. Hagtag your story #mystorytoo, so we can tell the world how much we need more safety.

 

 

Paying My Price of Discomfort

Have you ever signed up to learn something—and a day before you’re about to start the class you realize what a totally insane idea it was?

Yeah? My stroke of genius was the day I signed up for the public speaking workshop. I am super awkward on stage, in front of a crowd, or in a video. I get a knot in my belly, sweat all over, and usually laugh inappropriately.

But for some reason that I wasn’t quite sure of, I decided to take a two-and-a-half day workshop on public speaking. I think I was pumped up by the excitement I felt at the writer’s conference in July. Back on that day I looked in on a talk given by an ex-news reporter turned professional media consultant. Elli did this great presentation about how to handle an interview about your book. I loved her energy, her blue eyes, and the pocket phrases she gave us to use when answering hard questions about our stories.

Of course I felt intimidated, considering my gigantic fear of public speaking. But during that panel discussion we were invited to name our fear—mine was Wiz—and I began to own it. Afterwards my burst of adventure to learn more about overcoming panic stayed with me. I went up to Elli and gave her my card, vowing to take her workshop later in the year.

I’m a competitive tennis player, so why not face my fear head on? The day before the class I finally decide to get prepared. I start with reading all the emails that have been sent to me over the past few months. There’s the email congratulating me on taking the course, the one about how much fun we’re going to have, and finally the schedule for the next few days.

In that last email there’s the mention of the word “spotlight.” I dig a little deeper, curious about what this means exactly. All of sudden I realize I’m expected to be presenting a 30-minute talk about my book’s message. Holy shit!

That fear knot in my belly reappears and now it’s triple the size. I decide to call the one person who can help me quickly put together a speech—my writing coach. On a side note, if you don’t have one these people I highly recommend it. Email me and I’ll give you his name.

My coach seems excited, but then again he’s been a theatrical actor. He tries to calm my massive knot, but nothing’s making that thing go away. We form a plan. He reminds me of a recent conversation, the one I had with a spokeswoman from Everytown for gun safety. “Didn’t she suggest you speak at the next legislative session?”

Yes she did. I decide this will be my spotlight. I will prepare a speech about gun safety and practice on the people in this workshop. It takes several hours. I know it doesn’t have to be perfect because that’s what Elli does—fine-tunes your message.

But still I don’t want to come across as unable to express myself. I am supposed to be a writer. So I write and rewrite well into the night. Randy makes dinner, brings me a plate, and sets it down on the desk in our home office. Afterwards I ask him if I can read my speech before I’ll share it with the group in the morning. He’s so sweet. He listens intently, gives only one change to the language, and then adds an extra boost of confidence to push away my doubt.

Finally, the big day arrives. Elli is all smiles, even wearing an ice cream bar skirt to loosen us up. Maybe ice bars would’ve been better than a skirt with them, but she knows how nervous I am. She picks on me, asking questions I don’t remember. Yes, I did get up in front of the class, and I did see a few black spots of dizziness. But luckily I was able to talk while I sat in front of my computer, and so I could control my shaking legs.

Bolstered by my writing, I didn’t feel completely broken. I was able speak slowly, take a breath, and look into everyone’s eyes. And as I told my story of loss and gun safety I noticed a few tears. I also saw one of the ladies in the class grab a kleenex.

After I finished everyone stood up and clapped. Of course, this was part of the support we all shared when someone was in the spotlight. I was then given the chance to ask questions. I needed to know if my story was compelling, and did my message need to be heard? How uncomfortable did it make you feel?

Elli said, “Leesa, of course you made us feel uncomfortable, but we need to feel that way. It’s your purpose. You want people to know what happened to you so they can prevent it from happening to their children.”

She was right. I love other moms’ children as much as I love my son. I didn’t write my book because it was something I was supposed to do. I wrote it because it was something I was called to do.

I love this line in an opinion piece I read by Michel Martin. “What might happen if, instead of demanding comfort for ourselves when we face our biggest problems, we accepted the discomfort as the price of living in a dynamic but complex world. What would that look like?”

My reason I took the class, and felt my awkward moments in the spotlight and that discomfort? I want things to change about gun safety. Discomfort gets the talk started that can change things for the better.

Empty Nester? 

I did it! I finally completed my memoir, At Close Range.

Days later I was in South Padre, visiting friends. The first day we all went down to the beach to catch some rays. As we walked toward the shoreline we noticed black tar in the sand. I could see it floating in patches in the water. Yuck! I decided then and there I’d be spending the rest of my vacation beside the pool. The rest of the group agreed. No one wanted to deal with the tar sticking to our bathing suits and bodies, or worry about using baby oil to remove it.

And so I found myself lounging by the pool instead. Although I couldn’t see the ocean, I could smell the salty air and hear the caws of seagulls. I was alone, but Randy and our friends would be down shortly. They wanted to wait until the afternoon sun had disappeared behind the building. But not me. I wanted to feel the heat and dangle my feet in the water of the pool.

I brought my iPhone to keep me company as I sat under a big umbrella sipping on a bottle of water. (I know what you’re thinking. Where’s the vodka? It was a little early, so I was hydrating first.) I sat at the pool and read a post on WordPress about empty nesters. I felt my nest had been emptied, too. Besides having a case of the baby blues over completing my book, I was about to be an empty nester again. Let me explain.

After a year of living with us, my 23-year-old son Keaton decided to return to Boulder and finish his college degree. He’s only got 30 hours of school remaining, and I have a feeling he’s moved out for good this time. It feels like when his older brother Jon stayed behind in Boone, North Carolina. We sat at a table at Applebee’s that summer, all four of us—Jon, Lance, Keaton and me. Jon talked about how much he loved the mountains and how it was time he got on with his life. Funny, he was also 23. That was 10 years ago.

Then Lance moved out seven years ago. He was also 23. He’s been living and working at his “career job,” as he calls it, ever since. Keaton left while I was in Padre. I know I’m going to miss him, but there must be some magic in that number 23. Young men, like my Jon, Lance, and Keaton, all have a phenomenon researchers say is a maturing brain. Age 25 is the marker where frontal lobes are fully developed. My life as a mother has shown me young adults are reckless I’m not worried about Keaton, though. We’ve had the talks about drinking and driving, and the other one so close to my heart—gun safety. But seeing his room empty once again this month will feel strange.  I wonder what I’m going to write about now that I’ve finished my book.

I wrote 116 pages, 22 chapters and 54,982 words. I should feel happy, amazing even, but instead I feel sad. I know my writing coach would say, “Us writers, we are never finished with our books—they’re just completed.” Completed like in housework, I’d say. You can wash all the clothes in the laundry basket, but by the next day there will always be more to do. I know at some point my pages will look dirty, and I’ll need to clean them up. But for right now I’m done, and that has me sick with the baby blues.

I’m surprised I didn’t think about the emptiness. My book has been the child I’ve carried around with me everyday, and while I wrote it, I lived it. I’ve nurtured it and watched it grow. I realize it kept me connected to the memories of Jon. Now, I worry if this the beginning or the end of his story.

I hope it’s just the beginning. I’m waiting for one of the agents who I pitched at the Agents & Editors Conference to give me a new mission. I am pleased and surprised to say five of them asked for pages to consider representing my book. Of course, commercial publication is always a long shot, but my mother believes you can manifest anything. So, let’s all put our energy together and see me getting the perfect agent! I did meet a cute, bubbly blonde who told me I needed to “wow” her with my words. Well, that is my intention. But I don’t want to just wow her, I want to wow the world.

My nest looks empty today, but Jon has left me a kaleidoscope of memories— wearing homemade Halloween costumes, superheroes who ran through the backyard, and the deafening sounds of video games and music. As Lance and Keaton age I get a glimpse of what could have been for Jon. Sometimes I smile, and sometimes I cry. He gave me something as he left, though. I’m a storyteller thanks to my son, and I hope his story will save lives.

All I know for certain is that life will be different now. There is something new and different to create. I’m making a home in the world for my story of Jon, a place somewhere out there for the words that lived only on my laptop—and in my heart—until I came to complete my book.

A Forgiving Message from the scene of the Crime

Do you ever wonder if the universe is sending you a message?

That’s how I felt returning to the scene of the crime. I was at ease, for once, the first time I felt that way in North Carolina since Jon died. Boone was no longer a place like Death Valley. Keeping my footing was  sign that what I’ve done over these eight years since Jon died has strengthened me. On the plane Randy does the math, trying to calculate the last time I was there. “I think,” he says, “it was either 2013 or ’14.”

I’m not sure about my reply in the moment, but I do remember the timing. It was the year I sat barrel-to-barrel with the sheriff. Rominger was armed with her facts. I was using questions as weapons. No point in reminiscing about that, although I came away with answers.

We arrived at the Charlotte airport, all four of us. I chatted with the boys as we made our way to baggage claim, telling them about the activities I’ve planned. “Tomorrow we’re going zip-lining and then four-wheeling at Doe Park Mountain the next day.”

They seemed excited. Planning fun things to do has always made my vacations enjoyable, but having activities for our visit to Boone was different. This town was full of Jon memories and I knew I’d need distractions. Otherwise, I’d find myself living in the past.

When we reach the foothills, the temperature drops. Keaton rolls down his window and breathes in the fresh air. A few mile markers later I see the crop of Christmas trees, still there, all sectioned off and planted in cute little rows.

Randy nods, but he’s more impressed with the new Toyota dealership. He talks excitedly, telling us all about it. I think he’s strange, because after all of these years I know no one else who cares about dealerships as much as he does.

Soon after, we’re in town noticing other changes. The favorite burger shop gone, but there’s a new Publix grocery store, and the college housing has doubled in size. Then we drive by our old house with its long-range views and wrap-around porch. “The cedar-shake siding needs a fresh coat of stain,” I say. We still own the house, but it’s been leased to same person since before Jon’s death.

On the other side of town, closer to our dealership, and farther from the house where Jon died, we’ve rented a cabin. We pick up the key and drive past the road leading to that house. Like on all other visits, I keep my distance from the Dragonfly where he partied on that night, the road Jon lived on, and the pub where he read his poems. They are a mix of places where he was happy, the places that told me Jon was liked, comfortable, creative. Everyone was casual in those places, too. That was the Jon I knew.

My pace of planned activity started to grind on my boys. “Mom, we just wanna hang,” Keaton said. “I love spending time with you, but I want to be with my friends.” I was going to have to hang with my memories, those unwelcome thoughts, the sharp feelings.

Lance would hang out with his friend, too. I didn’t learn right away his friend was acquainted with Brett’s wife. That was an unexpected connection, a chain of evidence that could upset my balancing act. I learned about the links in the chain when Lance told me about them.

He didn’t have to share any of that. It was his business, his history with his brother and the people who were at the scene of Jon’s death. Lance came to me with the story of his visit, though. I was asleep at midnight when he called out to me. The master bedroom was on the cabin’s second floor. He must’ve walked halfway up the stairs, because I could see his shadow.

He said, “I met Brett’s wife.”

What are the chances something like that would happen? It’s the universe at work. We’d been around town for a couple of days and the only friends I’d seen were those I’ve made a point to see. I threw off my covers and rushed down the stairs after him.

Lance smirked. “I knew that you’d get up.”

Anxious to know what the news meant, I say, “Spill it.” So, here’s the skinny: Brett has gotten married to a girl Lance has dated once. She knows few of the details about what happened on the night Jon died. “Brett never talks about it,” Lance says, relaying her story, “and he has lots of anxiety,”

“I’m sure he does,” I gently reply. Brett’s in pain, too.

Lance says someone then suggested inviting Brett over. But Lance refused. Lance explained to the wife that he holds nothing against Brett, but her husband did lie.

Lance and I talked for a while about the gun, blame and responsibility. We share different opinions. Lance believes everyone was at fault the night Jon died. While I think everyone played a role, it was Brett’s responsibility to holster safety. It was his house, and more important—it was his gun.

Still, Lance’s refusal to see Brett again surprised me. He’s always stood up for the people in that room. We forgive Brett, though, so he can go on and live his life. What was the message the universe was showing me? To follow forgiveness, to show that I’ve changed—or both, maybe. The thing about messages from the universe is you don’t get to reply. I received the gift of Lance’s loyalty to Jon on that night. It was wrapped in that message he shared with me, as he told a gun owner’s wife we forgive him for what happened to Jon.

What are your thoughts on the responsibility of gun owners?

Wish me luck, Southern-style

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So next weekend is the Writers’ League of Texas Agents and Editors conference at the Hyatt Regency. I’ve spent the last three weeks adding new stories to my blog, like this one. Yesterday I sat at my desk and made a list of the panels and speakers I wanted to hear. Then, I familiarized myself with the agents and editors at the event. I narrowed my list down to the agents representing memoir. Finally, on a road trip to San Antonio I listened to the Writer’s League of Texas Podcast about how to perfect my pitch.

For anyone not in the writing world, a pitch is a few short sentences you say to convince an agent or editor to ask to hear more about your book.

My pitch sounds something like this: “My family all owns guns. I love them all—even though my son died because of a reckless gun owner. My story is how I survived. How they tried to call his death a suicide. And how I am learning to be responsible while I grieved.”

The last time I went to this conference my pitch was different. I was still in the writing stages, not quite finished with a first draft of my book.

This didn’t matter, though. I was nervous, really anxious at the prospect of talking to an agent. I mean the kind of nerves that leave your entire body shaking, and then have you laughing inappropriately. I have a great inappropriate laugh.

So there I was, laughing inappropriately at the conference last year during the welcome reception. Have I mentioned my outfit? How I spent all afternoon in my closet, trying on every blouse, searching for the best look with my white jeans? No? Well, I settled on a red tunic because the color enhances my skin tone. At Jon Powers’ school for aspiring models, we always knew our go-to skin tone matches. Makeup-counter kind of wisdom.

Armed with my fashion wisdom, I took my walk at the reception. While my outfit was cute, my pitching was not pretty. In the Hyatt ballroom I saw the lines of people waiting to talk to agents. All fighting for their 15 seconds of face time.

It was my first rodeo, my first writer’s conference. More like a three-ring circus, and I felt overwhelmed. I searched the crowd for my safety net—the people in my memoir workshop group. Ah, my supporters were there, huddled together. I joined them and ordered my first beer. Even my group pals could not make the bubbles of nerves go away. I needed to stay present, in the moment.

Memoirists WLT 2016A staff member of the writer’s league announces contest finalists, and my writing coach is recognized among the contestants. Anne, a writer in my memoir group, takes a selfie of us all. Then everyone wanders. I, on the other hand, remain next to my coach Ron Seybold, clinging to my Michelob Ultra. Ron points to a short woman leaning against a high top table. “She’s an agent,” he says. “Why don’t you go over and give her a try with your pitch?”

I’m hesitant but say, “Wish me luck.”

I introduce myself to the woman. I am trying to make a spot for her in my memory bank, and all I can come up with is she’s a Kathy Bates lookalike — the actress who played Annie Wilkes in the movie Misery. Annie was the novelist’s Number One Fan. I hope for that much while I wait to pitch. The agent is from New York, her response to hopeful-writer Caleb’s pitch goes straight to the point, and there’s no fluff.

Suddenly I feel sick. My heart races, and I have a case of the inability to speak. I ramble—saying things about losing my son, in a college town and guns. The agent holds up her hand and stops me. “Sorry,” she says. “But I can already tell you’re not for me.”

I secretly think, “Good, you’re not for me either.” I want to walk away but I don’t. I’m a competitor, the kind who doesn’t give up that easily. I pitch more, until she interrupts me. She says, “We don’t have to worry about those kinds of problems up north. Guns—those are a Southern thing.”

I look at her, not sure how to respond. I’ve never thought of guns as a Southern thing. But apparently this agent doesn’t know any book publishers who want to sell books in the South. Or something like that. I am flummoxed, but I smile. And laugh inappropriately.

I’ve learned how to do more than smile and laugh at this year’s conference. I’m not worried about rejections. They’re a part of every writer’s life. I spent the last year learning more about my story and how it can improve everybody’s life. Not just people from the South. If the agents at this year’s conference need to learn about readers and stories from the South, there’s no better place to do it than in Austin.

How do you authors prepare for your pitches for books? Readers, is there such a thing as an “only in the South” story about gun safety and the loss of a child? Tell me in your comments below.

 

 

 

Rally: part 2

At the #wearorange rally we’re laughing at the silly orange costume pieces. Susan replaces the orange tutu and funny little party hat on the table next to the band of orange hair that I was wearing. We walk away talking. Susan’s going to post a picture of us wearing the gear on social media. The volunteer who took our picture hears Susan say this and points to a poster with a list of websites we can include in our posts. We make our way back to the table and our purses.

Susan posts the picture to her Instagram and Facebook accounts. She tells me that I was tagged in the picture, and that she’s added a comment: In support of my friend Leesa and in memory of her son Jon.

I love this and decide to put the picture on my new Twitter account, my @leesarossaustin account so new that I only have four friends. As I upload, Susan calls out, “Ah, we’ve already had some people like our post.” I laugh. Not because I’m surprised by the quick responses but because I’m not sure if my four new friends will respond. Susan laughs at my novice social network. In times like these, at a rally for gun safety, it’s important to keep a sense of humor.

The afternoon sun peers through the trees and I start to feel hungry. About this time the wait-staff starts to bring out several trays, setting them on the table in front of us. Hooray, free food. There’s a tin filled with chips, another with queso — and at last, slices of BBQ sausage. We proceed to the table and as we say in Texas, “make a plate.” Tables that were once empty are now full, and people are wandering around looking for places to sit.

No one seems brave enough to ask us to share our table. The picnic table has plenty of seats. I decide to check my deodorant, making sure it hasn’t worn off. Hmmm—I smell fine. I wonder if it’s a different scent. Am I giving off the odor of someone who might not belong? Are people picking up the scent of gun owner, like a hound smells rabbit?

Finally, there’s a voice asking about an open seat. I look up from my second helping of chips and queso. It’s a woman wearing no make-up, or a bra, and her eyebrows could use a good plucking. She’s holding a lunchbox. I hate to be judgmental, but I trade a look with Susan.

Bobbie sets her lunchbox on the table. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a 50-ish woman carry a kid’s lunchbox. It’s monster box, and by that I mean it’s in the shape of monster—green googly-eyes. They stare at me. This woman starts talking before she completely sits down, asking if we were here last year. We respond no. I get a strange feeling Bobbie’s about to tell us a story. Maybe it’s the way she leans in once seated or that both elbows were on the table.

Susan and I continue to stab at the slices with our eco-friendly wooden forks. We learn that last year’s rally had a small group of protesters opposing the group—all men. “They stood right over there,” she says pointing to the entrance of Schultz’s garden, “wearing their guns in holsters.”

I pretend to look shocked. I’m thinking about Lance, my gun owner. Wondering how Bobbie’s story might go if she knew my son collects guns. Susan and I share a look; she’s got a concealed carry handgun license. No need to upset the monster lunchbox, so we remain silent. Bobbie’s eyebrows jump up and down as she talks about guns. Then her brows furrow. “You know what I did to those protesters?”

I shake my head no.

“I removed my shirt and gave those men something to look at!” I did notice those breasts sag in her orange cami tank when she first walked up, but knowing she let them hang unclothed made me stare harder. I tried not to picture the old wrinkled things hanging down to her waist in the wind, but there it was. Pulling off your cami top isn’t a part of rallying, is it? College-age boys are reckless, that much I know. Jon died in a college town.

I pull the trigger on that thought. I can be a supporter like I’m a Pets Alive no-kill supporter, with my credit card. I let today be different, though. I keep my top on, but I am here in a crowd. Among some kooks, people who bring the spice in the BBQ. The meat is me, people who lost somebody and dress appropriately.

I look past her, finding distractions in the DJ and her music selections, the elderly lady with her cute little poodle, the mother strolling her toddler. But Bobbie continues to talk. “I was like those college students who handed out dildos. Were you there at that rally?”

No, but I know what she’s talking about, a protest on UT’s campus when the debate started over the campus carry law. It allowed people to carry guns into classrooms. Some students protested by handing out dildos. Their slogan was “Fight absurdity with absurdity.”

I’m filling the time before the speakers recalling my gun experience. Adults under the age of 25 are impulsive. Handguns should not be allowed on campus. I barely have time to re-load my fork with a piece of sausage when Bobbie opens up her monster and hands us some stickers. I offer pictures of them here because I’m kind of unsure if WordPress allows the saucy language from stickers representing Betsy Riot, a progressive neo-suffragist group. Even after I Google this at the table I’m not sure what that label means.

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I’m gonna put it out there, the NSFW slogans: “Lick Pussy, Not Guns,” and “Fuck Your Guns.” I look over the stickers and then a “Betsy,” as they call themselves, starts to unload a full-on anti-gun message. I squirm a little and look for another slice of sausage. Betsy wouldn’t approve of my Lance.

Bobbie is compelled to get closer to the stage because the mic is not working well. I move up too, because maybe I’m moving closer to being a supporter who goes beyond a credit card. But I came to Schultz’s and its sausage slices to be heard, hoping I might share my story how a lack of gun safety took my son from me. It’s too simple to say “no guns” and shout over your monster lunchbox. I keep this to myself. That I’m here at all is my breakthough for today.

The next speaker tells us her son died only nine months earlier. Brave, daring, I say to Susan. I don’t think I could talk in front of a crowd even now. The speaker begins to cry and finishes her story. Another woman was shot herself, she tells us. All women here, so far. The tears come easily.

It’s hard to lead this kind of passion, I learn. The local Everytown organizer tells the crowd she’s stepping down, handing the reins over to another woman. The organizers prompt us into a group picture, something they assure us they’ll post to Facebook and Twitter. Where there are a lot more than four followers. After today, though, I’m among a bigger crowd.

I know how to volunteer. I extend my commitment by doing that, and the motivation has to begin somewhere. The rally day can mark the start of that. The event is also another kind of investigation for me, the next phase of my Nancy Drew work. I can discover kindred souls, getting to know people who’ll want to listen to my story.