“Rock On” Means So Much More Now . . .


Valerie Voyles Phillips

This is Miss Helen’s favorite photo of Valerie. I can see why, can’t you? Isn’t she beautiful, our Valerie? And the thing about Valerie: her beauty is inside and out. It’s organic. It’s through and through. It’s authentic. All the makeup and plastic surgery in the world can’t create this kind of beauty. It just can’t.


When I think of Valerie, I think of her faint stutter, the hesitancy with which some words fall out from between her lips. I never really thought of it as a stutter until today. It’s always been just the way she talks.


She is smart, you know – brilliant, really – and that brilliance is woven together with the homespun wit and wisdom of her mother. What a combo: intelligence and wisdom.


When sitting, Valerie rocks gently, as though she’s in a front porch rocking chair we can’t see. I don’t know why she does it, but I think it might confirm that she’s an old soul, living deeply and authentically far ahead of her years. Even in high school, she’s lived from a place I’m still trying to get to.



This is Valerie’s little brother, Larry. He had a crush on me once upon a decade. I still have the love letters he wrote me – those big, deliberate words written with a little boy’s hand using a big, chunky pencil on pages of 3-ring paper snatched from Valerie’s notebook. Funny, I don’t ever remember Valerie being embarrassing, even when he asked her to deliver his love notes, though she certainly didn’t offer any commentary when she tossed them in my direction.



My birthday is February 14, and Valerie’s is February 15, you see, and for reasons I can’t explain – maybe time just got away from them, maybe they just wanted to be different, maybe they just weren’t all that good at math – our parents huddled up and threw us a Sweet SEVENTEEN birthday party.

ValerieVoyles DanTurner

Valerie was dating Dan Turner at the time. Dan is now married to Kathy Turbeville who was at the party with Joe Lee that night, a guy I’d dated previously.


I was dating Dwayne Lindsey who Valerie went on to take as her first husband after we graduated from high school.


Growing up in a small town you learn that everybody has history and stories and a life before you, and you don’t let things like former boyfriends get in the way of a good girlfriendship. Shoot, you learn early-on not to let anything get in the way of your relationship with a girlfriend cause good girlfriends can be mighty hard to come by. When you love somebody, you weather storms, you deal with whatever comes up, and you never, ever cut the ribbon of connection. You don’t even consider it. Our mothers, friends forever and a day, taught us that.


It was such the well-orchestrated ruse, that Sweet Seventeen Shindig, that Valerie and I were totally and genuinely surprised. Dan and Dwayne planned a double date at some exotic destination that allowed us to dress up for the night, and they picked Valerie up first because she lived “in town.” Mother and Daddy had other plans (wink, wink) that coincidentally had them leaving in dress-up clothes and leaving the house before I did. Just before Dwayne’s white GTO pulled up in my driveway, Daddy called (from the clubhouse, of course, but it was before caller id, so I didn’t know that at the time) to say shoot – he’d forgotten to lock the gate at the golf course and wondered if we’d mind going by to lock up. “Oh, and be sure to check the clubhouse doors, too,” he said without a trace of a smile.


Nobody minded, especially since the golf course was within walking distance from my front door, so that little side trip wasn’t going to make us late. Well, you’d think we would’ve noticed something when we pulled up and saw cars in the parking lot – and maybe we did – but we never dreamed that we’d hear a riotous SURPRISE when we walked through the unlocked clubhouse door. It only now occurs to me to ask Why did we even go inside at all?



With all the tape and construction paper the local 5 and 10-cent store had to offer in those days before Amazon and Walmart were even ideas, Miss Helen and Mother, along with Mr. Charlie and Daddy and even our boyfriends who’d been let out of school for the afternoon to help (Our mothers worked at the local board of education, so they simply called the principal and told him they needed the boys’ help. It helps to have friends in high places.), transformed my family’s small town golf course clubhouse into a festive haven where we teenagers could be young adults for a night – even holding hands and slow dancing right in front of our parents – without all the responsibilities, trials, and heartbreaks we now know are inherent in adulthood. Did our parents think about that as they watched us that night, I wonder? Was that the real gift of that night, the gift it takes decades to realize?





In addition to friendships that have lasted a lifetime, our friends chipped in and gave us each a heart-shaped pendant with sparkly little diamonds to mark the occasion. I still have mine. I think I’ll wear it to the memorial service.

Valerie, you see, died in the dark thirty hours of Sunday morning, along with her husband, Darrell and her daughter, Emily, when their house burned to the ground.

Because there’s an ongoing investigation and unimaginable things must be tended to, we don’t know when the service will actually take place. So in the meantime, as we wait, let’s hold our own collective service, swaddling the friends and family of Valerie, Darrell, and Emily in our warmest, most loving and kind thoughts and prayers, why don’t we? What say we pay tribute to Valerie and Darrell and Emily by letting our friends and family know how much we love them. Many of my elementary and high school friends still live in our not-so-small-anymore home town. I’ve moved away, but there’s still a strong connection, a groundedness that means the world to me. There’s something quite comforting about having friends who’ve known you through thick and thin, though feast and famine, and love you regardless.

As Miss Helen (Valerie’s mother) and Larry (Valerie’s brother) along with Darrell’s family members tend to the business at hand that must precede planning the service, let’s do what we do best: tell stories. Please pull up a chair and share your favorite stories and memories about Valerie, Darrell, and/or Emily in the comments here or in the comments on my Facebook posts. Miss Helen and Larry are reading, and your words are a balm to their souls.

And as we go forth, let’s all rock gently in a rocking chair only Valerie can see.



You know, I’ve long said that my children made me the best friends. Now I realize that my mother did, too.


Other photos from the photo album of That Sweet Seventeen Party: (cue Those Were the Days music)


Dianna Harrell and Gary Baker


Elender Ballard and Webb Howell


Ginger Jones and Glen Ward


Chris Rollins and Robert Reeves

JimNations DanaDougherty

Jim Nations and Dana Daugherty


Joan Dumas and David Knowles


Kathy Turbeville and Joe Lee


Karen McClanahan and Addison Lester

KathyDettmering BuddyBridges

Kathy Dettmering and Buddy Bridges


Markie Swafford and Terry somebody (whose name I can’t remember)


Pam Burdette and Gordon King

BrendaTyree ButchRush

Brenda Tyree and Butch Rush

SueEllen MikeGable

SueEllen Daniel(s) and Mike Gable (They are now married.)


Suzanne Davis and Doug Walker

JeanneHewellDwayneLindsey 1

Dwayne and me, changing the music
(Yes, those really are vinyls.)


and last, but definitely not least:
the people who made this all (right down to the two guests of honor) possible:


Ada and Crawford Hewell


Miss Helen and Mr. Charlie Voyles


Dear Valerie, I’m betting . . . hoping . . . that with the arrival of you and Darrell and Emily, your daddy now knows how you and I felt when we walked through that clubhouse door. I love you, and I miss you already.

The Engineer & The Artist Do Art Camp: Day Three


Communion 12

I’ve long ached for an epiphany – for things to come whooshing in, connecting, clarifying, lining up. I’ve witnessed it happening to other women, and I’ve held the space for women so it could happen for them, but I’ve never had The Big Epiphany myself . . . until 4:50 this morning when I woke up with a start and clarity like I didn’t know was possible. I saw cloths, I transcribed my artist statement, I knew what I do and do not want to do. I couldn’t turn the light on, though, cause Andy was sleeping, so I just sent myself an email and when I copied it into my journal later this morning, it filled almost 20 pages. Astonishing in every way.


Communion 10

(Communion is the series where I stitch what conversations with Nancy look like.)

I designed eleven cloths today, basting each one of them so that they’re ready to stitch. Yes, that’s right: eleven.


Andy threw some more pots, but honestly, I’ve lost count. Late in the afternoon, I did accept an invitation to join the potters who convened on a nearby bar for drinks, and what a fun bunch they are! After supper, it was back to the studio for me. I could stay here forever.


The Engineer and The Artist Do Art Camp: Day Two

“breakfast starts at 7:30,” he says in a bit of a startle when the alarm clock goes off at 7:10 this morning.

“so?” i say, rolling over for (at least) a 10-minute snooze.

“so we need to get moving,” he says in a tone that’s rather annoyingly urgent.

we have breakfast, and as i look forward to heading directly to the studio to start working on something – anything – he reminds me that class doesn’t start till 9, even though the studios open at 8. his engineer is showing.

when we meet for lunch, he’s thrown another 6 pots:

Arcpots2 1

AND he tells me that he’s gotten over his bout with perfectionism. i clap a little bit, delighted to know that he’s embraced the wonkiness factor:

Arcpots2 3

by the time we met for supper, he’d glazed all his pots and finished a face jug:


[ :: ]

meanwhile, my day started out with a trip to the local cemetery where we did a few tombstone rubbings before the downpour turned us back an hour or so ahead of schedule. this is the one i rubbed:


back in the studio, i set to work dressing up my key a wee little bit:


and laying out and basting Rinse Cycle 5:



as well as Rinse Cycle 6:


i can’t begin to describe how relaxing it is to spend so much time in the studio. (even if i haven’t yet completely tucked in and shed the outside world.) oh, if my life could be like this.

there is stitching in my immediate future. and a lot of it.

[ :: ]

today’s bonus:
as we left the fiber studio when andy came to pick me up for lunch, i said i wanted to start putting in at least 37.5 hours on writing and stitching each week to which he said “and you need to get your studio so that it’s conducive to creating space wise.” oh man am i ever glad he came now cause after being in this fabulous fiber studio a few times, he sees how important it is to have a space that loves it when you’re creating. even if he hasn’t thought about the fact that i’ll need his help to make changes.

The Engineer and the Artist Do Art Camp, Day One

Arcpots1 5

honestly, i wasn’t sure how much i’d like being at art camp with my husband. turns out i like being here together. i like it a lot. not only do i have somebody to sit with me at all meals plus a roommate i don’t have to worry about short-sheeting my bed or hanging my underwear on the flagpole or anything such as that, it’s great, big, huge, heartwarming fun to see his work, to see him create. he’s taking a pottery class called Turners & Burners: Folk Pottery of Southern Appalachia, and man is he productive. in the first 3 hours of class on day one, he threw 4 pots and a pitcher.

Arcpitcher1 2

“some aren’t smooth and round,” he says in a (surprisingly) apologetic tone.

“they’re wonky, andy” i tell him. “they’re the ones you would buy or at least gravitate to if somebody else made them.”

“i know,” he laughs.

[ :: ]

while andy was throwing pots, i was in a fiber class. not so much productivity for me on day one, but i did make this key:


and meet susan lenz (the instructor) in person – finally – and see some of her beautiful work up close:



and also meet rena wood, the textile artist-in-residence:



“i think of it like doodling with thread,” she says of this puddling effect:


this piece was done on a vintage tablecloth given to her by a woman who works here. rena dyed it black and started stitching:





and this piece was inspired by the loss of memory she saw in her grandfather. he was losing his memory as she was building hers:


[ :: ]

afterwards, there was a bonfire (complete with wine) then more walking hand-in-hand with andy as we strolled through the town.

you know, when i went to camp with my lifelong best friend, dianna, a few decades ago, my mother didn’t send me the first note or letter, even though i left a stack of self-addressed/stamped envelopes ready and waiting. as we settled into orientation, i get a text message from this same mother, asking me the name of the song that played when the ballerina jewelry box was opened. my goodness how things do change.

but hey, they don’t make me drink milk at this camp, so there.

the engineer and the artist: caregiving


This time last week, my daughter Alison had a partial thyroidectomy. It was a harrowing time, made even more harrowing by the fact that she is a professional singer and actor and voice instructor. The surgery finally over, we joined her in the Recovery Room, where she enjoyed small cups of ice chips that I called mini-margaritas.

In the week since, while I set alarms every 2-4 hours round the clock for meds, crush pills up and bury them in applesauce then spoon-feed them to her, fill ice bags to keep on her throat to prevent swelling, find ways to make and keep her comfortable, The Engineer fills bird feeders, plants cyclamen and petunias, and does odd jobs around her house.

Three days after surgery, at 2 a.m. as I remove (with the surgeon’s approval, of course) the steri-tape strips covering her incision, because she is so very allergic to the adhesive in the tape, Alison cuddles with the oversized stuffed pink bunny that The Engineer bought his ever-little girl.

My mother washes clothes and cooks.
Dr. Frank Cole doesn’t give up until he finds what needs attention.
Donn Chambers (my brother-in-law, an anesthesiologist) points us to Dr. Liz Shaw. It’s who he’d have operate on him, he says, and a week later, I can sure see why. The woman has good hands. Real good hands.

Friends and family call and mail and email and text their concern and support. Some send flowers. One sends a stone that I carry with me to the hospital. People we’ll never know in person light candles and send prayers out and up.

Though it’s surprising how much energy the surgery saps from her and how long it takes to replenish the reservoir, she stays up a little longer each day and can stand more space between pain pills. They warned us to expect hoarseness, but there’s actually very little. And though she hasn’t sung yet (unless you count that one note the day after surgery), she will. In fact, she has an audition next Tuesday.

Forward motion.

So many helping, supporting, praying, comforting. Through it all, an entire village – a large and powerful village – rallies, and we see quite clearly that regardless of how your brain works . . .

Beauty heals.
Science heals.
Love heals.


It really is all we need, you know.



Alison’s recovery is nothing short of remarkable.
Yesterday, her surgeon came into room 713
and sat on the bed with Alison to remove the drainage tube.
Dr. Shaw: Now sing me an “eeeeeeee”.
Alison sang an “eeeee”.
Dr. Shaw, with a big smile on her face: “That was beautiful.”
Alison: “But it was only a G.”

Art and science collide.

Dr. Shaw,
the surgeon who loves science,
speaks in terms of the particular sound
that will allow her to gauge the performance of Alison’s vocal cords.
the professional singer with perfect pitch,
and for whom music is oxygen,
hears and responds in terms of musical notes.





This is a love story written by a friend and former coworker of my son, Kipp.

who you gonna’ call?


around here, a folks ask the heavenly father for things. mostly they ask that his will be done.
i’ve never been good at that – at asking some male being to be in charge of deciding what’s best for me, to make decisions about my life with no input from me – and i stopped all communication with the one they call heavenly father a long, long time ago, choosing trees and sky and clouds and friends and family instead.

if you want to know the truth, i’m not all that good at asking anybody for anything in part because it makes me feel needy and weak and whiny and in part because i’m often disappointed when i depend on somebody else to be in charge of my well-being.


last week i was caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, so i asked y’all for support, and you didn’t disappoint.

not one little bit.

i got an ark full of voicemails and text messages and emails and fb messages. i even got notes and cards and one beautiful stone in the mail. and the stories – oh my goodness, the stories y’all shared from the pages of your own life. what a gift the stories are. i don’t know when i’ve felt loved and supported and comforted like never before. thank you.

and when i say “i”, i mean “we” – alison and me, both.

alison will have at least a portion of her thyroid removed. we’re all hoping they can leave enough to keep the thyroid chugging along, producing its hormones – you know, it turns out that the thyroid is a little organ with big responsibilities. anyway, surgery is scheduled for 10:00 a.m. tomorrow (wednesday, 3/19/14 depending on when you are reading this). maybe you could send another wave of support via whatever means you’re most comfortable with? maybe you would be willing to talk to your go-to on our behalf? we’d all appreciate that so very much.


IOOL 3 1 4

IOOL 3 1 8

IOOL 3 1 3

these scratchings
these marks
are nancy’s response
to what’s happening around her.
i’m convinced of that,
though she can’t confirm
or deny it.
she can’t explain.
but she can teach
she can set an example.


today i add an activity to my day:
10-15 minutes of nancy-style mark making
in response to what is happening around me.
no words
no explanations
no apologies
no defending
just marks.

today’s marks were made in the context
of a conversation about health issues
and second opinions from surgeons.
but you could probably tell that.

i could become addicted.

in and out


more and more
i do something i’m sure about in the moment
then doubt myself afterwards.
when emotional buyer’s remorse sets in.
when i feel overly exposed.
once i just lived with the doubt and the second-guessings,
but lately,
the Sweet Spirit of Surprise
seems to send me nods and whisperings of support.

last week I posted about
some rough spots in the road.
i opened my heart to you
telling you something
that we’ve talked about
around our table,
but never as openly as on a blog post,
and within minutes,
your loving support came pouring in
i came across
and the next day

i feel better
but not woohoo-great yet.
we met with surgeon #1 today
to talk about removing the thyroid.
no decisions yet.
there’s much to consider.
so much
given the fact that alison
is a professional actor and singer
and of course there’s the vitamin d
and depression.

i’ll keep you posted.

[ ::: ]


while i wrap the support of your outpouring
of concern, love, and information around me,
i find solace in cloth
with its ins and outs.

work on In Our Own Language 3 has begun in earnest.
it’s slow going.

each of nancy’s drawings takes about 1.5 hours to stitch.
it doesn’t look like it should take that long,
but it does.

there are 271 drawings in set 3.

[ ::: ]

i’ve been stitching nancy’s drawings since june 2012
and i’m still loving and learning with every single stitch.

leaping because the need for support is just that big

SleepinBeauties1 copy

“if you can’t easily tell the difference between right and wrong,” i told my children repeatedly, “choose the hardest thing cause let’s face it: if the right thing was the easiest thing, everybody would do The Right Thing.” i sit here torn, split, spun. i come from a cultural legacy of not airing dirty laundry in public, of stiff upper lip, of silence is golden. my mother has friendships that span almost nine decades, and it has not escaped my notice that their conversations are about the weather, happenings in the community, about recipes and fashion. they seldom if ever talk about health issues, except to add a name to the prayer list . . . without any details, of course. they don’t talk about children gone awry or any other unpleasantness, angst, sadness or hurt. they don’t talk of anything that might be construed as embarrassing or negative, and i often wonder if that’s not the secret to the longevity of the friendships.

that’s where i come from, and today i live in a world of social media where people are warned against posting too much personal information for fear of retribution in the workplace or at home. again with the stay-light-and-positive-or-stay-mum routine. i’m of an age (tenured, i like to say) when i can say “pfffft” to such things, but my daughter is young . . .

i’m trying to decide whether or not to tell you that my daughter is struggling with thyroid issues, low vitamin d, and depression. she hit that dark spot again recently – emotional black ice, i call it – and this time she held nothing back on facebook. “do you ever wonder if people would miss you if you weren’t here any more?” she posted. my initial instinct was to cringe and wish i had access to her login information so i could delete it. as a mother, i often fall into the mindset of to stay small is to stay safe. but this time, i wondered aloud if posting snapshots of her pain on facebook didn’t make her one of the bravest among us. and when she asked about being missed, well, she was telling us exactly what she needed, so doesn’t that make her one of the most honest among us? it resonated deeply with my bones as they nodded and smiled in agreement.

she was certainly willing to risk being alone, that’s for sure.

to her question about being missed, one woman posted something about how my daughter should not be concerned with what other people thought, how she should think enough of herself, blah blah blah blah blah. i became instantly furious. livid, in full and glorious mama bear mode. hell, my daughter had just told us precisely what she needed (to be told she’s loved and has had a meaningful impact on lives and would be terribly missed). the last thing she needed was to be preached to, to be told what she should be feeling and how she should be viewing things and what she should and should not be saying. livid, i tell you. livid. but we’ll talk more about uncaring (which often looks a lot like stupidity, if you ask me) another day. i have stories, oh my goodness, do i have stories.

for today, though, i’m taking a risk, opening myself and my daughter up to avoidance (important note: these particular things we’re dealing with are not contagious), preaching (please, please, please don’t tell us about how “the lord never gives us more than we can handle” or to “keep calm and carry on” or to “look on the bright side and be positive”), scoffing (it’s maddening to us and unbecoming to you), and pity (it’s a really heavy thing to have cast over our shoulders. empathy is okay, but pity, that’s more like an anchor, so no thank you). but i’m also opening us up to caring and concern and love and support, and i’m telling you that’s what we both need.

it is not easy, though, opening up like this. my daughter is brave, but me? not so much. i am a private person and for many good reasons that we can talk about later. i can tell you this much now: more times than i can count, i’ve been told that i make too much out of things, that the problem with me is that i feel more than i think – and the worst thing? they were said with the voice of authority, and i took them to heart. plus when people cluck and fuss, i launch into pleasing hostess mode and do whatever i can to reassure them and restore them to a place of comfort – which takes a lot of energy that is better spent elsewhere. so yes, energy conservation keeps me quiet, too.

one thing my daughter has consistently done in her adult life, though, is nudge (okay, shove) me out of my comfort zone. she’s shown me how to take risks and how to live with the consequences. she’s repeatedly shown me that vulnerability is its own brand of strength, and today i dip my toe in that stream and hope for the best because, well, the need for support is just that huge.