Learning to “Cowgirl Up”

Ready to Ride

If that’s a “YeeeeeHaw!echoing down the corridors of your Fortune 500 company, or the distinctive click of boot heels tapping across polished granite toward the exit, there’s no question what’s happening. It’s Rodeo time in Houston.

Founded in 1931, the Houston Fat Stock Show & Exposition eventually became the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, but for most Houstonians, it’s just the Rodeo: a mélange of trail rides, barbeque, bronc riding, , baby animals, wine tastings, quilt exhibits, livestock auctions, concerts, and calf scrambles that truly has something for everyone.

With the Rodeo in town, everyone’s a cowboy or cowgirl. Even the slickest, most citified sort turns up wearing boots and overblown belt buckles. People who generally equate beef with the ribeye on their plate begin discussing the finer points of Longhorn breeding. Local broadcasters trail  behind trailriders, sopping up stories like so much sausage gravy, while dance studios cope with a surge of people demanding classes in Western Swing and the Texas Two-Step.

It’s Rodeo Fever, and even a Yankee can catch it. After moving to Houston, I discovered I had no immunity. After all, as a child, I didn’t long to be a princess, a ballerina, or a nurse. I wanted to be a cowgirl.

I didn’t want to jump ropes, I wanted to twirl them. I didn’t want to eat my carrots, I wanted to feed them to a horse. I tuned in to the noon market reports not because I cared about corn futures, but because I wanted to sing along with the Sons of the Pioneers. Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds was my favorite, and the most famous member of the group, Roy Rogers, was my hero. If Roy liked Dale Evans? I could learn to like her, too.

I watched them on television, and collected their comic books. I carried my school-day sandwich in a Roy Rogers lunch box, and my milk in a Dale Evans thermos. Eventually, incessant whining wore down my parents, and I received a passionately longed-for black-and-white cowgirl outfit: minus the boots, but with a lovely pair of six-shooters and a beautiful, faux tooled-leather holster. What the Smothers Brothers sang as parody in their Streets of Laredo,  I believed to be true:

I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy,
I see by your outfit you are a cowboy, too.
We see by our outfits that we are both cowboys,
If you get an outfit, you can be a cowboy, too.

I had my outfit, and loved it so much that I outgrew it before I stopped wearing it. Still, despite the outfit, I was no cowgirl. It took a new life in Texas to move me beyond childhood fantasy to a deeper appreciation of what being a cowgirl might entail.

Long before I became friends with some real Texas cowgirls, I began to hear stories of the famous ones. In the Coastal Bend,  Louise O’Connor, a fifth-generation member of a family that’s been ranching near Victoria since 1834, published a first book, Cryin’ for Daylight. The title came from a statement made by Will King, an itinerant cowhand: “We loved to work cattle so much we’d just be sittin’ around, crying for daylight to come.”

Connie Douglas Reeves taught generations of girls to ride at Camp Waldemar in Hunt, Texas, before being tossed from her horse and dying at the age of 101. She taught far more than riding. Her most insistent bit of advice – always saddle your own horse – became the unofficial motto of the Cowgirl Hall of Fame and a touchstone for thousands of women who’d never touched a real horse. When I found her words painted on a cedar board that had been washed or purposely wedged into a pile of rocks along a deserted stretch of the Sabinal River, I smiled, knowing she would have been pleased.

And then there was Hallie Stillwell, who continued to ranch in Texas’s unforgiving Big Bend country for years after her husband’s death. Through a combination of classic sharp-shooting, political skill, quite ordinary town jobs, and the syndication of a newspaper column, she managed to become one of the largest of the larger-than-life ranch women who populate the American West.

My favorite image of Hallie, produced by artist Debbie Little-Wilson and called “Hallie’s Moon,” still can be spotted on Texas streets, since it was imprinted on tee-shirts for the Texas State Arts & Crafts Festival in Kerrville,


It’s true that, as author Kenneth B. Ragsdale wrote in his book Big Bend Country, “People throughout Texas either knew, claimed they knew, or wanted to know Hallie Stillwell.”  But one of first women ranchers I knew personally had known Hallie and, as she put it, “Hallie really knew what it meant to cowgirl up.”

At the time, I had no idea what she meant by the phrase. Later, I was told that it’s a variant of an old rodeo warning call from the chute — “cowboy up” — meaning that the rider was seated up on the back of a bronco or bull and was ready for the gate to open.

Over time, the expression took on a broader meaning, suggesting someone was ready and able to tackle the next challenge: physically and mentally prepared for difficult or dangerous tasks. Used as an exhortation, “cowboy up!” means, “Get with it. Don’t shirk your responsibility. Give it your best.”

One of the most vivid examples of a woman who understood what it meant to “cowgirl up” was Helen Bonham, a rodeo cowgirl who also served as Miss Wyoming. During the year of her reign, she traveled the country, delighting crowds with her considerable riding skills.

In 1920, she arrived in New York City to invite Mayor John Francis Hylan back to Wyoming for Frontier Days. During her visit, the NY Times reported she would entertain 15,000 Girl Scouts during their annual Field Day by roping and riding her way through the Sheep Meadow in Central Park.

Travel can be frustrating, lonely and tiring, of course, even when undertaken in pursuit of a dream. From all accounts, Helen Bonham helped to balance the challenges of her life by staying in touch with those she’d left behind. With no email, Twitter, Facebook, or Skype to help her out, she coped in the same way that previous generations of travelers had coped. She wrote letters.

This famous postcard, showing Helen using her saddle as a desk, was used by Debbie Little-Wilson as the basis for her print, St. Helen Bonham, Protector of Email.  When I saw Debbie’s Cowgirl Saints series, there was no question that St. Helen, along with Debbie’s interpretation of her importance, would have to come home with me.

While rodeo cowgirl Helen Bonham corresponded religiously back home,
she would never have imagined that one day letters would travel at the blink of an eye.
She would have ridden cyberspace with the same daring as she did her horse.
Saint Helen protects the sending and receiving of email
and the mystery of it all.

Today, St. Helen’s artfully enhanced image hangs above my computer desk, next to the postcard which inspired it, watching over my wisdom and my foolishness alike. Helen Bonham never had a computer, and I never got my horse and saddle, but we both benefited from traditions still living in the far reaches of an unfenced country: traditions of self-reliance, adaptability, resourcefulness, and flat hard work so necessary for life in a real world.

It may even be that roping calves and wrangling words have more in common than we imagine. Certainly, the solitude of riding the range and the solitude of writing are related, and the fact that so many cowgirls, ranch hands, and vaqueros also are accomplished songwriters, historians, and poets stands as evidence.

In any event, the Smothers Brothers’ humorous parody makes the point obliquely: an “outfit” is neither necessary nor sufficient for successfully riding the range. As generations of ranch women have made clear, all that is needed for success is a good horse, a clear eye, a steady hand, and a ready willingness to “cowgirl up”.

Comments always are welcome.

Followed by a Star

starseeker2

Perhaps she noticed my absence. More likely, she felt a draft from the partly-opened door and came out to investigate. Whatever drew my grandmother onto the porch that cold Christmas night, she discovered a quilt-wrapped, shivering, unhappy litle girl huddled on her front steps.

“Well, for heavens’ sake,” she said.”What’s the matter? What are you doing out here?” “I don’t want to go home,” I said. “Of course you don’t,” she said, sitting down next to me on the step. “It was a nice Christmas. Did you have fun? Did you like your presents?” Unwilling to look at her, I murmured the complaint voiced by generations of children. “I wish it wasn’t over.”
Continue reading

Auntie T and Anti-T ~ Part I

Julia Child and friends

The familiar voice — an absurd, bird-like trill of enthusiasm — pulled me toward the living room. Irrationally hoping that the doyenne of dough had raised herself from the dead to once again begin unraveling the mysteries of pâte feuilletée or asperges au naturel, I found instead the trailer for Julie and Julia, the charming, if slightly overdone true tale of Julie Powell, a dissatisfied office worker who determined to prepare every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking within the space of a year.

Watching the clip, I wasn’t inspired to go searching for my pastry cloth, but I did remember how closely Julia Child resembled my beloved Aunt T. My father’s younger sister, she seemed both exotic and mysterious. In the course of her occasional visits, she dropped advice, humor, and an alternative view of the universe into my life like so many bouquets garnis: nudging me to look beyond the bland certainties of a 1950’s childhood. Continue reading

Wisdom: Gift-Wrapped and Waiting

The key sits loosely in its lock, unturned, unnecessary. In a neighborhood where children drift from one house to the next as freely as wind-tossed leaves, and women freely borrow milk or sugar from unattended kitchens, no one locks a closet.

In this neighborhood, closets hold no treasure — no jewels, no gold, no banded stacks of bills. They overflow with life’s necessities: shoes tidied into original boxes, purses and shirts, a wardrobe of ties. Now and then, two closets nestle side by side. Hers is obvious: ajumble with boxes of quilting scraps, extra pillows, photographs, and report cards. His, more intentional, arranged with more precision, is a purposeful array of hunting vests, stamp paraphernalia, drafting tools, and gun cases. It’s a perfect marriage of closets.

Dimly lit and cave-like, the closets are mysterious, compelling and sancrosanct. Few children dare enter them without permission, but in these weeks before Christmas, a child might be tempted to cross the bounds of caution by the merest whisper of possibility: “There might be presents…” Continue reading

The Great Graham Cracker Miracle

First Methodist Church, Newton, Iowa

What John and Charles Wesley would have thought of my youthful Methodism, I can’t say.

To be frank, I’m not certain I knew during childhood that John Wesley had a brother. I loved hymn-singing on Sunday mornings, but it was years before I realized that Charles Wesley had written most of my favorites.

I certainly didn’t know about the history of the denomination, the doctrine of prevenient grace, or why our Greek revival building looked more like the town bank than any of the other churches in town.

I only knew that our church was comfortable, and well-suited for children. No one had to force us out of bed on Sunday morning in order to force us into a pew; we suffered no nightmares because of Jonathan Edwards-style preaching. In spring, we played tag or jacks on the church’s broad, sun-warmed steps. In winter, we sneaked into the kitchen to filch coffee hour cookies: then ate them, giggling, in the narrow, hidden passageway leading to the dome.
Continue reading

Appreciating Small(s)

Victorian Tussie-Mussie, or Bouquet Holder

Some of the best words in the world are fading away.

Unless you’re lapidicolous (given to living under a rock), you know language is labile (unstable and given to change). Shakespeare’s forsooth and great-Grandma’s tussie-mussie have disappeared from common speech, along with a gallimaufry (jumble or confused medley) of other archaic, unrecognizable or overwrought words: the linguistic detritus of an older world that didn’t feel itself constrained to messages of 140 characters.

What hasn’t changed is the human need for euphemism.  From the fifteenth century phrase with child to our modern senior citizen, words and phrases like passed away, concrete overshoes, and broad across the beam always have served as a kind of verbal code for cautious or bashful conversationalists.

When it comes to euphemism, my fondness for smalls has endured since childhood.  Each time my mother asked me to hang laundry on the outdoor line, she would admonish, “Be sure to hang the smalls on the inside.”  

Smalls, of course, were underwear: the panties, bras and briefs not fit for public display.  Hanging them on inside lines, between the sheets and the towels, kept them from public view. It was a common practice, meant to save self-conscious, clothes-hanging children from embarassment, and to prevent nosy neighbors or curious passers-by from drawing conclusions about the owners of the garments after scrutinizing the lace, ribbon, patterns or color of the unmentionables. 

Less embarassing was another, quite different collection of smalls. Smalls also referred to the eclectic assortment of sewing remnants, baubles, and bits found in boxes or tins at the back of any woman’s closet.  They were pretty things, frivolous and sparkly. They could keep any child engrossed for hours: sorting, selecting, re-arranging and admiring their glowing, intricate beauty. Snippets of lace, broken strings of beads, buttons and ribbon, tatted flowers: all were as compelling as they were tiny. 

Sometimes, women re-purposed lace to decorate lingerie. Just as often, it trimmed bed linens or Baptismal gowns. Tatted flowers were stitched onto doll clothes, or glued onto stationary. Pearls, faceted glass beads, and bits of jet were restrung into necklaces for dolls, or little girls.  Buttons served as coins in a million play-transactions, while imagination transformed rhinestones into diamonds. Harsh as moonlight on snow and brilliant as the stars, the little gems embedded themselves into a thousand childhood dreams.

Accustomed as we are to a bigger-is-better mentality, we tend to discount not only the smalls of that simpler world, but small in every form. We equate small with insignificant: judging small items to be less valuable, small plans unworthy of consideration, and small events of little consequence.

Such easy dismissal trivializes the power of the small and the singular. Small treasures, distillations of beauty and elegance that fit into the palm of a hand as easily as sunlight fills up a meadow, are approachable, rather than overwhelming. They speak with their own voice, and teach their own lessons.  They reveal their truths with a certain intimacy, and they endure over time, at least in part because of their hiddenness.

My early fascination with all things small only increased with the gift of a small sterling box, tucked into the toe of a Christmas stocking.

The year I received a new bicycle as my “big” present, I was more than satisfied. In my excitement, I turned away from my stocking, until my parents urged me to have another look. When I looked, I discovered the box, buried beneath a cellophaned string of candy canes, a chocolate Santa, and some colored pencils. Perhaps two inches across, filigreed and shining like a star, it was padded and lined with burgundy silk.  Hinged, but without a clasp, it wasn’t suited to hold much of anything. It simply was.   

Not my treasure, but very much like my treasure

Some years ago, I realized the box had disappeared, washed away by the great tide of life. Still, I cherish its memory as the first of an assortment of smalls that have fallen into my life.  

A rhinestone bracelet from my grandfather, gold weights from Ghana, a bronze medicine pot, an intricately carved soapstone candle holder, a wooden fife, a pocket watch, a tangle of silver bracelets bartered for across the sweep of western Africa: none of these treasures would fetch an extraordinary price in the marketplace, yet each is priceless. Exquisitely crafted, inherently beautiful, overlaid with the patina of memory and polished by decades of loving touch, they are my life: ready to be fitted into suitcase or bag.

Today, even as my mother and grandmother hoarded their small collections of treasure, I cherish my own small discoveries: talismans and touchstones that serve to enliven memories of where I have lived, and from whence I have come. 

They also remind me of those who accept the challenge of creating on a smaller scale: painters and writers, musicians, sculptors, and photographers who by accident or design find themselves scaling things down in order to maximize impact.

A delightful example of “small is beautiful” can be found at the Little Gems exhibit currently showing at the West End Gallery in Corning, New York. Highlighting the work of artists who may or may not work regularly on a smaller scale, it includes several works by GC Myers, whose thoughtful and thought-provoking Redtree Times is one of my regular reads.

His extraordinary style translates beautifully to smaller-sized works, proving that strong lines and bold color don’t require a large canvas for their effect. This year’s pieces seem to continue a movement toward more jewel-like tones, making the paintings even more appropriate for an exhibit of “Little Gems.”

Wisdom of the Wind ~ GC Myers 4″ x 6″
Trailblazer ~ GC Myers 4″ x 6″

Of all the paintings entered into the show, I find myself most drawn to The Outlier’s Home. Apart from my fondness for his use of amethyst and turquoise, and the subsequent transformation of the iconic Red Tree, I find myself delighted by a perceived echo of Mark Rothko’s work. I first encountered Rothko’s bold, brash canvases as part of the Menil collection in Houston, and I love imagining the sight of The Outlier’s Home hung next to something like Rothko’s Green Over Blue (1956).

The Outlier’s Home ~ GC Myers 4″ x 6″

As Gary has proven over the course of several exhibits, small doesn’t have to lead to art that is prissy or precious. I suspect that, seen in person, these small canvases would do even more effectively what they do well enough here: focus the eye, the attention and the heart in arresting and memorable ways.

Ribbons and lace, a scattering of beads. Sterling boxes gifted by love and silver bracelets discovered by chance.  Washes of paint and smudges of charcoal arranged by an artist’s hand. Each of these tiny treasures reminds in its own way that, while bigger always is bigger, it isn’t necessarily better. In life as in art, even the small has its place. 

Storms Are On the Ocean ~ GC Myers  4″ x 6″ 

In the ages-long struggle against adversity, the smallest gesture counts.  In the midst of the world’s anonymous masses, the most insignificant and unnoticed person is worthy of infinite respect.  The most hidden event may alter the course of history forever, and the larger forces pulsing through society and occasionally raging through the natural world are not the only harbingers abroad in the land.

In the midst of the blizzard, each single snowflake counts. In the midst of the flood, a single rock stands firm. In a forest of doubt the straight tree of truth still rises up, and in the midst of every flock flies the small and solitary singer, lilting its heart to the sky.

To see Gary’s Little Gems paintings full-sized and read his comments about them, please click here.  Comments are welcome, always.

Tree Houses, Books, and the Joys of Reflection

To my parents’ chagrin, I was a climber. Long before I walked across a room, I was climbing stairs.  I clambered over picket fences as easily as those woven from wire. After I scaled Mt. Refrigerator, on a quest to reach the chocolate chips hidden away in the highest cupboard in the house, Mother laid down the law. If I wanted to climb, I would do it outside, in the trees.

No doubt she knew the maples in our front yard were too large for me to climb, just as the crabapples were too small, and the elms too brittle. But a cherry tree in the back yard turned out to be just right, with strong lower branches, and a sandbox nearby to use as a ladder. An agreement was reached. Once the fruit had been picked, I was free to scramble up as high as I could go, until branches began to snap. Then, I promised to retreat to a more secure spot. Continue reading