“Lord, please don’t let me die in a CVS bathroom,” a young friend of mine, Kelli, posted on her Facebook status during the Texas Tornadoes of Tuesday, the day when semi-trucks flew like box kites.
I thought, What a great way to handle a crisis: with a prayer on your lips, your sense of humor intact. Not only that, but I knew that keeping a sense of humor in spite of the stress and danger, would be calming both to Kelli and the frightened folks with her — because it is hard to think of something funny and be terrified at the same time.
Just moments before Kelly’s post, I had been talking to my daughter Rachel, who lives in small town Forney, Texas, and with whom I’m writing a humor food blog and book by the same name (We Laugh, We Cry, We Cook). Tornadoes are so commonplace in Texas that when Rachel answered the phone with, “Hi, Mom. I’m in the bathtub with the baby and a mattress pulled over our heads,” I almost asked, “Again?”
This would be our third cell phone conversation this year with my daughter scrunched in the tub with her baby, her phone, her lap top, a mattress overhead. This is simply “Life in Texas” during tornado season; but in my fifty-three years of doing the Bathtub Tornado Preparedness routine, I’ve never seen one funnel cloud. Hard to take those TV tornado warnings seriously when they seem to happen every little whip-stitch in the Springtime.
But then Rach said, “Mom, the weatherman just shouted that a tornado has hit a Forney school.” Rachel lives only a half-mile from a Forney high school and elementary school.
All the blood drained from my face.
“Honey, stay on the phone with me…” I said, and then heard nothing from her end of the cell phone but snap, crackle, pop, followed by … silence. I called back, but cell phone service had ceased in her area.
I grabbed the remote, flipped on the TV only to see the words “Forney,Texas” flashing, with scenes of the menacing tornado playing across the screen.
Sick with fear, it was ten, long, excruciating minutes before Rachel called back to report she was fine, not even a drop of rain. She sounded calm, but then she’d not yet seen what had just miraculously missed her home.
I cried, my husband Greg (who is not only CEO of WordServe, but a stellar comforter) hugged me. My legs now Jell-o, I sat down, glanced at my computer and my eyes landed on Kelly’s brave/funny status post (from somewhere near Greenville, Texas) and somehow… I managed a laugh. And with that first laugh, calm began to flow through my veins, and my traumatized brain began the process of soothing itself.
I fell in love with President Reagan the day he calmed an entire country with the words, “Who’s minding the store?” soon after he and several others had been shot. If Reagan could still joke, and we could still laugh, everything would be okay. America breathed a collective sigh of relief, thanks to the President’s cool head and sharp wit.
I’ve written three books with brain specialists, and I’m proud that I could gather enough middle-aged brain cells to write something serious and science-based. But what flows from my soul and my pen most naturally is humor. I used to feel that writing humor was somehow less important, not terribly “literary.” I know many serious writers who still believe that writing humor takes less intelligence, less skill, and not much depth of thought. To those writers, I say, “Try it. Then, let’s talk.” I once heard an interview in which Barbara Mandrell’s little sister (“the blond ditzy one”) said, with a wise wink, “It takes a lot of smarts to play dumb.” It also takes a tremendous amount of skill to be self-deprecatingly funny on paper, without being corny, or forced, or silly.
Over my writing career, I’ve received hundreds of letters or emails that read something like, “Someone gave me a copy of your book while I sat with my dying mother in the hospital, and we both laughed until we cried. Thank you for giving us that happy memory together.” Or, “I lost my husband last year and could not read anything serious or heavy. But your stories, and the laughter… oh, how healing it was to laugh again!” And on and on.
My time with the brain doctors taught me that laughter is a gift to every cell in our body. If you can write stories that bring a grin or a chuckle, you share a priceless gift with your readers. You give them a short mental vacation from their worries and those common looping, overly-serious thoughts. Laughter helps re-set the brain from negativity to lightheartedness in a short amount of time.
Whether you write books of humor, or just sprinkle some well-placed wit into your prose, there is no genre that cannot be improved, or heart that cannot be lifted, or worried brow that cannot be soothed by a touch of the clown, now and then, from your pen.
“Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.” Steel Magnolias
Question: As a reader or a writer, can you recall a time when humor helped you through a dark time, a frightening experience or even a season of grief? What authors do you admire who consistently help you laugh and perhaps gain some fresh perspective?