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I do not intend for this blog to be political, and I have spent my days since my last post on  October 10 working on a story about my grandmother.  It is decidedly apolitical. I have also spent the month watching the headlines and thinking about what is happening in the world and in the country. I have spent the days leading up to the mid-term elections hoping I am not alone in my understanding of just how important they are.

We must vote.

While I am firm in my commitment to write here almost entirely about writing, in all its many, glorious, and frustrating manifestations, there are times when it is no longer possible to leave it at that. There are times when remaining silent, or objective, or neutral, is not only difficult; it is destructive. There are times when a writer must write about what is happening in the polis. 

The state of the union in the year 2018 is alarmingly bad.

To remedy that, we must vote.

The foundation of our system of governing this polis that is America is crumbling, and what is at stake in the elections on November 6 is the basic safety net that makes it possible for all sorts of poor leaders to make an almost unlimited number of mistakes and bad decisions without razing the entire structure.

If the Republicans retain control of the House and the Senate, there will no longer be a functioning structure of checks and balances in the government of this country.

Those responsible for the atrocities of the last two years will have thrown off the last of their shackles and will be free to do precisely as they want. They won’t need my approval, or yours.

I keep believing that each new horror from this administration is as bad as it can get, that there will surely be a reckoning this time.

I believed it passionately when toddlers and infants were separated from their parents at the border. There could be no chance that the people of this great nation would be silent and passive in the face of what anyone who watches “Law and Order: SVU,” knows– what happens to children alone on city streets. The media talked and wrote about the lasting psychological scars that result when a small child is pulled away from all sense of safety and left to languish among strangers. The information was there. A remedy would be found.

It was not, and many of those children will never see their parents again.

This week eight hundred armed soldiers are amassing at our southern border to protect us from people much like those whose lives were shattered when their children were taken from them.

Last month, a man whose smug entitlement and the thin veneer of his privileged world collapsed in a red-faced, spittle-throwing temper tantrum for the simple reason that he had been questioned, had been accused, and might be deprived of what he wanted–and believed he deserved.

Our president, at a campaign rally during the same week, openly mocked the woman who dared to accuse him.

Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to a seat on the Supreme Court. Christine Blasey Ford was discredited and tossed aside, her utter irrelevance underscored.

Last week, a man with rage in his soul and Trump stickers covering his car, mailed bombs to prominent politicians and celebrities, including two former presidents.

Our president bemoaned the fact that “all this bomb stuff” had slowed down Republican momentum heading into the mid-term elections.

Yesterday, eleven people were killed in a synagogue in Pittsburgh by a man shouting “All Jews must die.”  It was a chilling echo of the war cries of the white nationalists who marched on the University of Virginia campus.

Today, our president assured us that the gun laws had no bearing on the shooting and that the incident would have ended more happily had the synagogue had the proper security  in place.  He joked later in the day that he had almost cancelled a rally because standing in the rain and wind, answering reporters’ questions, had made a mess of his hair.

And, so, this blog post isn’t about politics after all. It is about those things that are so clearly immoral, so firmly opposed to the basic standards of human decency, that they can no longer be addressed in terms of liberal vs. conservative or Republican vs. Democrat.  They are, or they should be, an insult to the good sense and acceptable values that are common to us all.

It is time now, for the women and men of this nation to stand up.  If we don’t stand now, it will be a very long time before we have the chance again.

We cannot afford to be partisan. We cannot afford to dither about the imperfections of this or that candidate. We cannot afford to stay at home or to vote for an independent or a libertarian or Aunt Sue’s best friend.  We must vote for survival. We must vote for the salvation of these United States of America. We must vote in spite of the irrefutable evidence that every effort is being made to keep us from voting.




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Editing With Pizza and Salmon

Before you start reading this blog, ask yourself one serious question:
Have you ever seen anything that looks better than that slice of “California Dreaming” pizza from Cogan’s in Norfolk, VA??
As I am laboring away at this story, “The Wife,”–which is feeling less and less like a story and more and more like the very bad start of a novel–I have taken a break to open a Patreon account (
There is a good deal of figuring out the site, which always feels like wasting time to me, although I will confess to a thrill of accomplishment when I actually do master any small detail.
And there is a good deal of writing. You know the kind of thing–biographical details that somehow make you sound charming, witty, serious, and a tiny bit eccentric, nothing excessive.  What’s wanted is just enough to enhance your charm and your  seriousness with a soupçon of spice, nothing to make you seem like a whack-job.
However that might be, the writing–in fact any writing–provides the deeply desired sense of Doing Something Important.  Doing my work.
What follows describes an absolutely delicious editing experience I had a couple of years ago.  I hope you enjoy it.

The Author
Rachael Steil is the author of Running In Silence: My Drive for Perfection and the Eating Disorder That Fed It (Koehler Books 2016).

I know Rachael because her mother knows a good friend of mine in Michigan, and my friend asked me to talk to Rachael about a book she was writing.  And that is how it all started.

For over three months, from early February to sometime in May of 2016, Rachael and I edited her manuscript.  When I first read it, Running in Silence weighed in at approximately 100,000 well-crafted, sometimes lyrical words. By the time I finally met her in person, Rachael had cut it down to a more manageable 80,000.  I remember that almost the first thing she said to me was, “I’ve cut 20,000 words!”

Running in Silence is a memoir, powerful and personal, the story of one young athlete’s war with the siren songs of binge eating and starvation as they play out on the running tracks of high schools and colleges coast to coast in this country.

On her first trip from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Norfolk, Virginia, I took Rachael out to meet John Koehler, founder and guiding spirit of Koehler Books, the Virginia Beach publishing company that had released my first book almost a year earlier.  John took us to lunch and gave Rachael the benefit of his experience  from many years in the worlds of publishing and marketing.  He was clear: “Memoirs don’t sell. You have to turn this into a self-help book. You need a good editor. I suggest Dean.” Although she was clearly charmed by John and grateful for all his advice, I saw the look of near-desperation on Rachael’s face as she absorbed his words about a self-help book.

When she climbed into her rental car the next morning, headed for the airport, I told her to think everything over and call me if she had any questions.  We parted on good terms, having enjoyed a couple of very pleasant days together talking about writing in general and our own writing in particular.  She had made a connection with my cat, Isaac.

It was about a month later that Rachael called and asked me if I would edit her book, and that was the beginning of an editing and writing partnership, and a solid friendship, that was more and certainly different than either of us expected.

—“I don’t know how I feel about turning my memoir into a self-help book.”

Dean—“I know exactly how Ifeel about it, Rachael. I won’t have anything to do with turning your manuscript into anything other than what it is. We have to figure out a way to impose a self-help apparatus of some kind onto it, almost like a frame.  But no violence to that text. I won’t do it.”

We were both relieved, I think, and we were soon to discover that we had set ourselves a formidable task.

I charged Rachael by the hour and considerably below the going rate for professional editing, because I had absolutely no idea how long this would take.  I sent her regular invoices, I think monthly, so she could keep track of exactly where we were.

**Rachael recently sent me this series of photographs from the four days she spent with me doing a final editing of her book.  I think they pretty well say  it all.










Sunday Rachael sends a chapter or two.

Monday Rachael and I do the first reading, out loud, over the phone, and we stop when we hear that “sour note,” continue to read the sentence or short section over and over and over, often going backwards and reading a paragraph or two before it, hoping to identify the problem in context. When we find the sentence that is out of tune, we take the time to rewrite if it can be done quickly and easily.

Mon-Wed Rachael integrates all the corrections we made or discussed in our reading; I go through the manuscript and, using Track Changes, make more suggestions.

Wednesday, as early as I can,  I send my corrected version to Rachael and she reads it over and either integrates my suggestions or marks them for questions.

Thurs We discuss the chapters as they now exist, Rachael again making changes as we go through.

Friday We read the chapters aloud again and Rachael takes them home over the weekend to write the changes into the text and file these chapters away for the time being.

This describes the rhythm of most of our weeks.  Once Rachael flew in to stay for four days of editing.  We turned off our phones, locked the doors, and read aloud and edited.  Our only contact with the outside world was the guy who delivered the pizza.  The next morning, I introduced Rachael to the thrill of cold pizza for breakfast.





Somewhere in there I cooked salmon and vegetables.

I started looking at self-help books online, not liking them any more than I ever had, but this was a mission.  We ultimately came up with a very simple formula.  At the end of each chapter we wrote questions for thought and short assignments for journals. Our goal was to engage the reader in as active a way as possible.  I began to take some delight in this entirely new area of creative thought. For example, and I’m proud of the sheer corniness of it—in this book about eating disorders and running, I labeled the two sets of questions “Mile Markers” and “Food for Thought.” I got us started, but Rachael soon picked up the rhythm and took over.  By the time the book went to Koehler Books’ editor and to press, she had fleshed out all the chapter challenges and had attached a Glossary and an exhaustive worksheet at the very end.  It is an amazing achievement. And the whole experience has led Rachael down some unexpected paths.

Rachael Steil has become a spokesperson for her cause. She travels to high schools and colleges, speaks to students, teachers, coaches, and counselors, raising awareness of eating disorders among serious student athletes, especially runners.

I believe she will back me up when I say that she never saw herself doing any of this, starting with that self-help book we were both so determined not to write.

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A Story Continued. First draft title: “The Wife,” Chapter Two

Chapter Two
“I Supposed Mr. Ainsworth Had Taken a Room”
Camilla Considers

For a good long while, several months at least, I saw almost nothing of our boarder, Mr. Martin Ainsworth.  His days were entirely taken up either by long sessions when Father provided detailed instructions on what needed doing and how it should be done or by the work itself.  Judging from a few pretty spectacular changes around the place and from Father’s increasingly happy mood, I concluded that Mr. Ainsworth learned quickly and there was more work than instruction.

Although Father was by far the best educated and the most successful–with a profession, a wife, a daughter, and a home– somehow their relationship was always one between equals.  I never heard Father speak to Mr. Ainsworth with anything other than genuine respect and liking.  And Mr. Ainsworth, for his part, clearly did not feel inferior or beholden to Father.  He soon was a comfortable member of the household.  His plan for taking his meals alone in his room was abandoned at Mother’s insistence, and we all sat down together as if we had been doing it forever.

I was aware, almost from the day he arrived, of his attention. In the beginning, it was so understated that I might not have noticed it had we not been such a small group, and even then I wasn’t sure all at once. But thinking back, and whether I was aware of it or not, I feel sure that Martin’s attention explains the discomfort I felt in the beginning. It was something new. I wasn’t accustomed to it.  Often, Mother and I would excuse ourselves to take the dishes out to the kitchen, get them washed and put away, make a pot of coffee, and generally get the house into order for the next morning. By the time we had finished with all that, frequently the men had either gotten into one of their discussions–the two of them could talk for hours about nearly anything–or they would have already gone off to bed.

So, with one thing and another, Mr. Martin Ainsworth and I exchanged very few words and hardly even saw each other except at the dinner table.  His presence in the house changed almost nothing in my daily life. Nonetheless, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, a man’s constant awareness of you whenever you are in the same room exerts a pull, no matter how subtle, that is nearly irresistible. These are lessons we learn only with hindsight.

But the day came–and I knew that it would–when Martin and I found ourselves alone.  Mother and Father had made one of their rare trips to town together. Our small Post Office had secured a display of photographs of some of the fancy vehicles used in the cities to deliver the mail.  Once Father heard about it, he just couldn’t stay away and Mother felt up to joining him, a treat for them both. Although they always denied it,  I have wondered over the years whether they had planned this.

I was sitting comfortably at the kitchen table, pages of schoolwork spread out in front of me, when Martin came in. It was early for him to have stopped working, and he surprised me.

“Oh, Miss Camilla, I’m sorry if I made you jump.  I have run out of the nails to finish the fencing around back, and I guess I missed your parents. They could easily have picked up what I need.”

“Yes, Mr. Ainsworth, they left almost an hour ago.”

“Well, the fence will just have to wait a day or two, and I can start on something else in the morning. That’ll work just fine, and I’ve got a couple of jobs in mind.”

“I know Father is very grateful to you for all the help, Mr. Ainsworth. And I think he is also grateful to have the company of another man around the place.”

“I’m the one should be grateful, Miss Camilla. This place, the work, the way you all have welcomed me, it’s just about saved me.”

I remember the conversation between us was awkward at first. It felt odd to even be in the same room with him with no one else there–not improper or anything, just unusual. I honestly couldn’t think of another thing to say, so I looked down at my papers and started shuffling them around, like I was about to get back to working on them.

“I hope it’s alright for me to say, but if that’s any kind of arithmetic, anything with numbers, and you ever need help, I’d be glad to offer it. It’s the one thing I did just about better than anyone in school, and a good thing since you need to know something about numbers to work on machines.”

I laughed, “I might take you up on that, Mr. Ainsworth, because arithmetic is the one thing I did just about worse than anyone else.”

There was silence again, not quite as awkward as before, then we started at the same time.

“Miss Camilla, would you mind if I sat down here at the table for a spell?”    “Can you explain how numbers are important for working on machines? Did you just mean you have to take measurements?”

This time we both laughed and, as he started to describe some of the machines around our place, and how knowing numbers let him use them in new ways, Martin pulled back the chair next to mine and sat down. Even at the time, I noticed how smoothly he managed it, and yet he didn’t seem conniving. I didn’t feel he was tricking me. And I noticed, too, that when he was talking about work he was doing, he talked more easily and seemed more relaxed. His voice even sounded different.

After a few minutes of numbers and machines, most of which I didn’t understand, Martin all of a sudden just stopped talking and sat looking at his hands. I completely forgot the proprieties and just blurted out, “Mr. Ainsworth, is anything wrong?”

“I expect so, Miss Camilla. I expect there is. I don’t even know what I think I’m doing sitting here at this table. I don’t think William and Megan would like it one bit. And they especially wouldn’t like what has been in my head from the minute I walked in and saw you.”

“Mr. Ainsworth, now I think would be a good time to stop. I’d like you to leave me to get back to my schoolwork.”

I remember how sad Martin looked as he stood up from the chair, and I didn’t want to let him go without saying something.

“Mr. Ainsworth, thank you for explaining about the machines and the arithmetic. It gave me some new ways of seeing things. But now you should go out.”

He left without any fuss, and I sat without doing much of anything until Mother and Father came home and I got up to help with dinner.

I must say that Mr. Martin Ainsworth impressed me when he appeared at dinner, the same as always, greeting Mother and describing to Father the nails he needed and the way he intended to use them.

There was one change, though, and I wonder if my parents noticed. Without appearing the least bit nervous or embarrassed in front of Mother and Father, he turned to me, and said, just as if he said it exactly like this every day, “Good evening, Camilla, I hope your day was worthwhile.”

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On Writing #6:Still struggling with writing a story and getting a little worried. Is it really all about page length?

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FIRST DRAFT: It has occurred to me that my insecurities about the short story are mostly grounded in a fear of the constraints of length–or lack of length. (27 words)

SECOND DRAFT:  I think I am afraid of the short story because it isn’t long enough for all my words! (18 words)

In the novels I have written, my characters have what seems an unlimited amount of time and space to lead the story toward its conclusion.  It isn’t so much how the novel ends as how long it takes to reach that end.  In a novel, I can begin my descent into my conclusion chapters back–with nothing more than a hint, certainly nothing resembling a plan or outline–meandering along, taking detours, tossing down red herrings, changing course, anything I like.  There is no page limit, specific or implied. A novel can go on for hundreds of pages; some of the best ones do.

In a story, I feel rushed toward the finish line, pressured to have that final paragraph composed in my head before I have finished typing the first sentence.  I can already feel the edge of panic. I have written the Prologue and Chapter One of whatever that untitled work is–story, novel, warm-up exercise–and I don’t know where it’s going to end. Nonetheless, I feel strongly that I should know. And what about that length question? Obviously, there is no set number of pages, and some stories even expand beyond whatever the unspoken limit is and then they belong to that mysterious genre, the novella.

Part of my problem is that, if length is to be restricted anyway, I want something more concrete. Show me a rule that a short story must not exceed 65 pages and a novella is between 65-125. These numbers are completely arbitrary, and that  is my point.  It is all much too vague.

I saw a contest  just last week for “Short Short Stories,” maximum length 1500 words.  That is perfectly clear, and give me the great luxury of facing my personal limitations and admitting that I am not, at least today, capable of producing anything like that.

And that leaves me with the Prologue and Chapter One–1600 words–of a piece of writing that has no plot or character development beyond those 1600 words, no idea where it is going and less of how it might get there.

All that said, there is no question about the relative quality of the first and second drafts of the sentence that begins this blog. Shorter is better. The grand and verbose southern writer William Faulkner had no doubts about it–shorter is better or, more to his point, great skill is required, and better writing is produced, by the author who can say the most with the fewest words.  The hierarchy, in his mind, is that those who can’t write poetry, write short stories and those who can’t write stories, write novels.

Perhaps those who can write neither poetry, stories, or novels, sit around trying to write definitions of those genres.

I believe I’ll take a look to see where the characters in my story want to go next.

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A Story With No Title Yet: Prologue & Chapter One









 It was an odd sort of day, in spite of the predictable late August weather.  As always in this corner of northwestern Georgia, it was hotter than blue blazes and so humid that even the rambunctious new puppy was panting on the front porch, his chin drooping half in the fresh bowl of water that Camilla had just put down.  The late afternoon skies held out the familiar false hope that this time the storm would cool things off a bit. They grew ominously dark, in anticipation of the first peals of thunder, the flash of lightning that startled Camilla every time, even though she’d grown up with it every summer for fourteen years, and finally the downpour that, for the few minutes it lasted, felt like it would drown the world and save them all.

“I suppose Father will be going out with the rest of the post.”

Camilla was angling to find out not just whether her father was about to leave for his afternoon round of delivering the mail but whether she might be able to get her mother’s permission to go with him. She knew perfectly well there was work needed doing in the house and that her mother was feeling worse in this heat, but she would gladly promise to get every single thing done the minute she was back. Camilla was a responsible girl, and her mother knew the work would get done. Still, and even as poorly as she was feeling, she couldn’t resist teasing her serious daughter.

“Mill, honey, you know he’s going out, at least down to that house by the creek and back, so that’s seven boxes to fill and a lot of miles between them. You’ve got these chores in the kitchen to get done.” Mill’s mother, whose name was Megan, had a hard time keeping her smile back when she saw her daughter’s face fall, but she managed for a minute more before putting an arm around Camilla’s shoulder and squeezing.

“And I expect you could drive on out with your father and still have time left over for housework when you get home.  I mean, if you want to go.”

“Oh, yes, ma’am. I do. I will. Oh, yes.”

Years later, Camilla remembered the unexpected sound of the knock on the front door, the quiet, raspy voice in conversation with her father, and her father’s deep call back into the house to her mother,  “Meg, could you come out for a second? I’d like you to meet someone.” Her mother pulled off her apron, smiled at Camilla, and said only, “It’s fine. I’ll be right back. You go ahead and get ready to go on the mail run.”


Chapter One

 “Yes’sir, I expect I could be of some help around here. I’ve always been handy in that way and the Cavalry kept me busy most of the time fixing whatever was broke, including equipment I’d only laid eyes on for the first time when it needed repairs. So I learn fast.”

“That sounds very impressive, Mr. Ainsworth. I’ll not deny I could use some help around here. I’m trying to keep up the little bit of farming I do, and I am pretty much the only person delivering the post.  Young Harley Brown takes a day here and there, but the boy’s not but twenty and he gets distracted. Anyway, you don’t need to hear all that.”

“Oh, no sir. I’m interested. I had a feeling when I walked in and saw your place that I might be able to stop here for a while, unpack my bag, do some honest work, and settle in.  I’m a quiet man, Mr. Whitfield. I’d get as much work done for you as I could, eat my meals in my room so as not to disrupt your family, and mostly keep to myself.  I’m just looking for a place to be and anything I can do to make your life easier I’d like to do. I’d need a good bed, a bath once a week, and my food at regular times.  And that’s about it.”

When Megan stepped out of the kitchen to join her husband at the front door, the men were talking, and she stood back so as not to interrupt.  Her husband was facing away from her, his attention on whatever their caller was saying. Megan couldn’t yet see the man and she was curious; normally, she would have joined them, but this time she decided to wait.

Although she couldn’t make out his words, she could hear the stranger’s voice. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it had the slight twang by which her father would have immediately labeled it “uneducated.” Her father, a pastor with his own church, wasn’t as interested in a man’s formal schooling as with whether or not he read books.  Meg was fairly certain this man at the door did not.

Megan Elaine Whitfield, William’s wife and mother of fourteen-year-old Camilla, was of average height, with thick, dark hair that she pulled to the back of her head in a heavy twist. The typical symptoms of her illness–extreme thinness and unnaturally pale skin–only seemed to enhance her appeal. Megan Whitfield was a beautiful woman.  She had suffered for years from consumption, and on her worst days was unable to get out of the bed.  Although the weather had made breathing even more difficult than usual, she was feeling better, and happy, after the easy banter with Camilla and ready to see who this stranger at the door might be.

She heard William say, “Well, come in, Martin, and meet my wife and daughter.” Then he turned and held out his hand, “Meg, come and meet Martin Ainsworth. He has stopped by to ask if we might give him room and board here in exchange for work.”

Meg stepped forward and held out her hand, “Mr. Ainsworth, welcome to our home. I am Megan Whitfield. Could I offer you a glass of water or tea on this hot day?”  Martin looked Megan straight in the eye, shook her hand firmly,  and said, “Ma’am, that would be very fine. I thank you.” He was reticent, but Megan didn’t think it was due to a lack of confidence, possibly only some habit from childhood of staying mostly alone. Whatever the cause of his shyness, she noticed that he was, at the same time, relaxed and at ease, not at all intimidated by these new surroundings.

Pushing open the kitchen door, she nearly walked into Camilla, who was crouched on the other side, listening as hard as she could, but without much success.  While she was making a glass of tea, Megan tried to describe Martin and to tell Camilla what was happening.

“May I come out, Mother? I will be very quiet–silent, in fact. I will sit in the very far corner of the parlor and only listen. Much like a small mouse.”

They both smiled at that wildly inaccurate description of Camilla’s personality.  She was  not a mouse of any size.

Megan was delighted with her daughter, as usual, but didn’t for one second believe her capable of holding her tongue.  Still, there was little for a girl of fourteen to do, and she hesitated to deprive Camilla of any new experience.

“I’ll tell you what, Mill. Let me take in this tea and I’ll ask your father what he thinks.  Will that suit?”

“Yes, Ma’am, it will.” Camilla knew her father had a difficult time saying ‘No’ to her about anything.  And, of course, she was right.

A few minutes later, Camilla was almost tip-toeing into the living room and seating herself, as she had promised, in the chair furthest from where everyone else had gathered.  As she had hoped, her father said,  “Oh, for goodness’ sake, Mil, come and join us.  Sit next to me and be formally introduced to Mr. Martin Ainsworth who might be coming to live here for a while.”

Mil smiled in her straightforward way–she had a great deal in common with her mother–and simply said, “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Ainsworth.”  It was enough to make an impression. Camilla Whitfield had inherited her mother’s exotic good looks, as well as her open manner–but not her illness. Already at fourteen, she drew attention without realizing it.

Martin Ainsworth had spent very little time around women. His mother had died when he was young; he had no sisters; and he tended to keep to himself most of the time. In response to Camilla’s greeting he was unable to do anything but smile and duck his head. For just that moment he was sure he had made a mistake coming here.  But it didn’t last, and soon he was answering questions for Megan, talking about various work that William had in mind on the small property, and smiling occasionally at Camilla. The Whitfield’s daughter was a child, and Martin wanted very much to fit gently into this family.  But still he was conscious of the girl.

They all liked him. Only Camilla went to bed feeling just the slightest bit of unease, and she didn’t really know why. Her impression was of an older man, tall, extremely thin, with large ears and the high cheekbones of hill people.  Not a handsome man at all.  He was polite, soft-spoken, and mostly concerned with the particulars of the work her father might want him to do.  Everything he said about repairing or building things sounded like he knew what he was talking about, and she could tell already that her father was feeling relieved at the idea of having some help.

She shook off her reservations and was asleep within minutes.  When she woke, just before dawn, she heard Mr. Ainsworth and her father talking in the kitchen.  She supposed Mr. Ainsworth had taken a room.

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On writing #5: I have turned blogs into essays and chapters of novels into short stories. I have been professionally published and have published independently. I have entered contests. Recently, I’ve been giving some thought to that woman on the waterfall.

I want to write a novel about her.

The woman on that waterfall, probably in her fifties when the photograph was taken,  was my father’s mother, and I have a great deal to say about her. Far more than enough to fill the pages of a novel. The only problem, and it is a big problem, is that I just can’t seem to muster the–whatever we should call the Whatever-It-Is that is absolutely necessary if you intend to write a novel.  You need it up front, long before you begin. You need it months before you touch a pen or a keyboard, weeks before anything other than notes–anything resembling a sentence–appears.

I have experienced it as a cluster of physical sensations and behaviors that I never recognize for what they are: my breath catches in my throat; I smile spontaneously at people I don’t know; I cry midway through hilariously funny movies, and I laugh so inappropriately, and so loud, that I am often asked to leave public places; I have ideas. Oh, my goodness, I have ideas. Thoughts almost literally spill from my mind, too fast for me to catch them. I am alive with ideas, some of which might belong in a novel about a grandmother climbing down a small waterfall, others clearly never will. On long walks around my neighborhood I imagine wonderful new ways to prepare salmon, and I am stunned when I hear myself speaking aloud a lovely sentence that contains a semi-colon–used correctly.

Slowly, this first rush settles. I am disappointed to lose it but by this time have begun to understand what it is. It is my grandmother’s novel.

She has always fascinated me. A schoolgirl, a bride, a mother, and a schoolteacher–all before I knew her–too many of her stories have come to me only second-hand and, as a result, only piecemeal.
















And, although I have, perversely, been able to make notes, to write whole sentences, to outline something resembling a plan, I have neither grinned at a stranger nor wept at “The In-Laws.” There is no novel calling to me.

I think back to the past year or so of writing and, after the most recent novel, I filled in the time by pulling chapters from the novels or by combining old blog posts and confidently sending off short stories and essays to literary competitions.  This activity allowed me to hide from the fact that I was not writing a novel.

I have run out of familiar choices. Two of my fellow-writers have thrown down the gauntlet, accompanied by a rolling of the eyes that no novelist could ever describe as subtle.  “Why don’t you just write a short story?”

Why, indeed, don’t I just write a short story?



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On Writing #4: Autobiographical Fiction, A Cloud of Unknowing


DECEMBER 16 2017
Not Quite a Year Ago

            “When I refer to Aunt Cade’s ‘big house downtown,’ I am talking about a house that, to my child’s eyes, was a castle. It had turrets and towers and lots of slanting roofs, and it was dark, looming over the street, completely shadowed by the big trees that surrounded it.”




Recently,  I reported having written a little over four pages of a novel about my family, with a great deal of compulsive “make-work” in between the sentences that were trying to carve their way into paragraphs. In the two months since October 5, those four pages have  grown to almost fifty, and I am stopped again.  Two months. At this rate, I don’t imagine I’ll live to see the end of it.  All the signs suggest that the wise course of action would be to abandon it and get back to something I have a chance of completing.

I haven’t been entirely idle, of course. I have found more than I expected about the family without the help of the whole generation at the center of the novel, who are long dead and buried. I know a great deal about what life would have been like for any family in rural Alabama during the period that began in the late nineteenth century.  I have polished sentences, taken as great care in my word choice as I imagine Emily Dickinson did, read aloud to myself and to friends, enhanced dialogue. I have found a photograph of my aunt’s house that figures prominently at least in the scant beginning of the novel.

But I am not moving forward very quickly. I am circling the novel, working the field around it, but I am writing very little.

Perhaps this slow pace is the undertow that pulls me into this challenging and disturbing engagement with characters and story that both are and are not real.

I have read the accounts by famous novelists of their characters taking over, and I have usually considered that sort of thing an annoying bit of writerly posturing.   Unfortunately, although it might well be both pretentious and transparently affected–dammit–it’s true.  The characters do, in fact and literally, stake their claim to the story early on and continue to speak and act in ways that I have not planned. They do this to the outlandish degree of sometimes actually disagreeing with one another about where we are all going.  It is disorienting and terribly exciting.  I wake in the morning, eager for the next twist in the plot but much, much more than their actions, my characters greet me with revelations about themselves. I am getting to know them. I am entering into their lives and hearts at a depth simply not possibly in life. There is something about this combination of the person known and the person imagined that is pure magic.

My friend and sometime co-author, Alison Daniels, encouraged me in a recent email to take my time. Alison and I have been turning out novels–and pretty good ones–every few months. She assures me that this one is different, that it has the potential to be a serious piece of writing, that I should think in terms of a year, at the least. I’m not sure.  I know that I seem unable to make the decision to simply walk away from it. So I suppose I will continue. And thinking of this as a year-long project has relieved me of some of the pressure I tend to put on myself.

“My name is Emily Cade Ainsworth, and I am going to tell you a story about a family. In many ways, both the story and the family are like all the other families and every other story. But because this is a story about my family, it is also a story about the South. And that complicates things.

There are as many narratives about the South as there were crawfish in the creek behind my house in the North Georgia hills. One common notion about those of us born and bred in the Deep South is that we are stranded, permanently and more or less contentedly, that–immobilized by the heat or our genes–we are unlikely to move from the place or the state of mind in which we begin. Although I am not unaware of those sons and daughters of the South who will remain happily sweating out their July days by the pool at the country club or on the porch of a dirt farmer’s shack, the southerners I have known best are a restless and dissatisfied lot.

And because the South is a land haunted by the Scriptures, we have the perfect metaphor for our odysseys. Whether we are Baptists or Episcopalians, the image of the Promised Land, just over Jordan, informs our dreams. However–with no irreverence intended–promised or not, I’m afraid that in this particular version of the journey, you can only get to Canaan by way of bloodlines, memberships, an air of carelessness, and the casual cruelty of the question, ‘Who are your people?’

Our ‘people’ were pretty much a disgrace, but due to the monumental efforts of the generation before mine, we have achieved a reasonably convincing appearance of gentility.”

I am layering and interweaving time and place, which drives Alison crazy and sometimes, I will admit, even confuses me, but it just seems to be how I write.  I have begun with a present-time first person narration by the main character and have laced in chapters that travel back to the late nineteenth century (my great-grandparents) and forward again to the 1920’s (my grandparents, parents, and aunts).  I have travelled from a dirt farm north of Birmingham to “Aunt Cade’s big house downtown” in Montgomery.

I spend long hours looking at the photographs of all the women whose story I am trying to tell.

Imagination and Memory. Imagination and Life. In my limited experience of writing fiction, I find that I can no longer readily distinguish them. What I find, in fact, is that by imagining them, by taking the risk of just showing up as they worry and decide and speak and act, I am coming to know and understand these women I thought I knew so well.

My cousins and I call them “The Queens.”



“And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.”

  • Johnston, William; preface:Huston Smith (1996) [1973]. The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counseling. New York: Image Books. ISBN 0-385-03097-5. (first edition, 1973)
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“Ordinary Rituals” A Story

What follows is an excerpt from my recently completed novel, I’m Not Going to Heaven. I’m Going to Birmingham: A Story of the South.  

The main character, Charlotte Cade Gibson, eleven years old, is based on my favorite aunt who was in her forties when I was born. I wanted to imagine the child who might have grown up to be the aunt I knew. I am satisfied that I have come, at least, very close.


Ordinary Rituals

 Charlotte Gibson was eleven the year her father, John Warren Gibson, died. Her sister, Marcella, was a year older, but it was generally understood among all the siblings that Charlotte was the one they would like to have in charge in an emergency. In both appearance and temperament, she was very much the person she would remain for most of her life. With her thick, dark hair and flawless skin, she was already a beauty, and she possessed an uncanny calm under pressure and an ability to think clearly in the worst of circumstances. But once in a while even Charlotte—who was, after all, still a child—was caught off guard.  And that is what happened in 1919, in a little town just north of Birmingham, when the second wave of the Spanish Flu hit the state of Alabama and much of the rest of the nation, as well.

Although everyone knew about the flu epidemic of the year before, Charlotte had heard that a lot of the people who got it had nothing worse than a low fever and chills, stayed sick for a week at the most, and then got well. She wasn’t too worried. Still, because she was in every way her daddy’s girl, Charlotte kept a sharp eye on him when she heard that the disease had returned to some of the large cities, including Birmingham. Just two days before he died, John Warren was out at the far edge of their small farm, mending fences. Charlotte had gone with him, and she could swear to it. He had been quite well. “Charlotte Cade, could you look over there where my tools are and bring me the small saw?”  Charlotte was always eager to please her daddy and had learned what every tool was, so she had no trouble picking up the small handsaw that she knew he used to trim the fence rails.

“Here it is, Daddy, and I went ahead and brought the middle size hammer and the right nails to put that rail back where it belongs.” Charlotte grinned. She was pleased with herself.

“You are the best girl I have, Charlotte, but don’t you go telling anybody. Nobody needs to get their feelings hurt.”

The next morning, he woke burning with a high fever, shivering uncontrollably, and hurting all over. In spite of her pregnancy and because she refused to ask her neighbors for help, his wife Nell was with him all that day and the children, including Charlotte, were forbidden to enter the room. As soon as it got dark, the children went to bed as always.  It was a large family, with Marcella and Charlotte the oldest, followed by their one brother, Stamford, who was eight. After that, came “the babies”: Kendall Ida, age five; Virginia, three; and, Beryl, just turned one. And their Mama, Nell, was pregnant and already showing.  Everyone had been excited about having a brand new baby in the house.  But that night, Charlotte and Marcella couldn’t quite imagine another one in diapers to take care of, and they just barely got the younger ones tucked in before they crawled under the covers in the bed they shared. They stayed awake a long time whispering.

“Marcella, what do you think’s going to happen to Daddy?” Charlotte tried to keep the fear out of her voice, but Marcella was afraid, too, and she responded as directly as she could because she knew Charlotte didn’t like being told anything short of the truth.

“I think, Charlotte, that our father is terribly sick, sicker than anyone knows how to fix. I don’t know what is going to happen, but I am awfully worried. I did peek in the door just an hour or so before we came to bed, and I can tell you he wasn’t any better, and I’m afraid he was worse.  His skin looked blue, and I could hear him trying to get a breath.”

Charlotte was silent. After a while, she reached over, took Marcella’s hand, squeezed it hard, and the two girls fell asleep.  When the sun was up, Charlotte raced into the front room where she found Nell with her hands around a cup of coffee, crying softly.  She didn’t dare to ask, so she walked into her father’s room.

Charlotte had spent her eleven years on a farm, and she knew what death was.  She had seen stillborn calves and dead chickens and even dead goats and cows. Some were messy because they had been torn up by other animals; some just looked pitiful, smaller in death. But they all looked basically like they had when they were alive—the chicken still a chicken, the goat absolutely unchanged from a goat.

Charlotte had never seen a real dead body—a person–and this wasn’t just any person. This was her father. Except this body, with its blue skin, the bubbles of spit still hanging on the mouth, the eyes open and black, looked nothing at all like her father. For just a minute, Charlotte was terrified and wanted to run out of there as fast as she could move. But she didn’t run and pretty soon she got up her courage and reached out to touch her father’s hand.

She stood like that for only a few minutes before her sense of responsibility—already far greater than her eleven years—took over, and she walked out and sat beside her mother who was still crying and had opened a jar of whiskey that she was pouring into her coffee.

Charlotte took a deep breath and said, as gently as she could, “Mama, I expect some of the neighbor ladies will be getting here soon. Would you like me to brush your hair and pick out a dress for you to wear? I think that dark blue one would be real pretty.”

Nell looked up at her daughter. Dear Charlotte, always knowing what to do, always thinking about how to get everybody organized. She was a big help at times like this, but sometimes Nell had to admit Charlotte was more than a little bossy. Sometimes Charlotte got on her nerves. Just for a second, Nell had the urge to scream that she wanted to be left alone. What she finally said was, “Charlotte, baby, if you can give me a few more minutes just to sit here, maybe make me one more cup of coffee, then I will really thank you if you can do something with this hair. And you’re right about the blue dress. I think it will even fit over this baby.”

By the time the first of her neighbors arrived, Nell’s hair had been brushed and pulled up into a knot above her pale face, lovely and sad-looking. Charlotte had been right about the blue dress. It was dark enough to clearly signal mourning while still flattering Nell’s hair and complexion. And it hung loosely over her pregnancy. When the first knock at the door came, Nell seemed to freeze, and Charlotte actually thought for a minute that she might bolt.

“Now, Mama, I don’t want you to worry about anything today. Let’s go open the door together—it looks like it’s Miz Henry from the next farm—and then you sit right back down in the kitchen and let her take care of Daddy.”

With that reassurance, just as Emmeline Henry knocked on the screen door, Nell started forward and, in a weaker voice than Charlotte had ever heard, she turned her smile on her neighbor, “Emmeline, you are much too kind, and I am grateful. I am going to need a whole lot of help to get through this.”

“And you’ll get it, Nell. Don’t you worry. We’ve got some pretty great neighbors around here, and I know that Martha Flannagan will be right behind me. She was taking a ham out of the stove at my house, and she’ll be bringing beans and something else—maybe a pie—and will be staying to see to your husband.”

Emmaline saw no point in mentioning that Nell could have asked her neighbors for help anytime, and maybe given them some help in return, if she hadn’t been so stand-offish. Emmaline had never figured out whether Nell Gibson thought she was better than the rest of them or was just shy, and she guessed it didn’t matter now. What Emmeline couldn’t know was that Nell was a bit of both.  She was certainly shy, or at least very private, because she felt that she had let her life get away from her and it made her feel ashamed. She had married John Warren Gibson, the very first man who had asked, when she was only fifteen and, it felt like before she knew it, there were all these children. So, she did feel sheepish about asking her neighbors, with their two and three children, to help her with her houseful. On the other hand, and just as strong an influence, Nell had been her parents’ only child and her father’s darling. He never let a day pass that he didn’t tell her she was the smartest and the prettiest and the most wonderful girl in the whole wide world.  In short, Nell was so confused about how she felt most days that it seemed easier just to keep to herself and let people think whatever they wanted.

Emmeline Henry was a simple, straightforward woman, generous, kind, and not given to thinking too hard about anything other than the job in front of her.  Today Nell needed their help, and they would all show up to do what they could. The Henrys were good people, and today was no exception. Emmeline walked in firmly, gave Nell and Charlotte quick hugs, put two large covered dishes on the table, took off her coat, and turned to Charlotte.

“Honey, let’s walk out on the porch for a minute.”

“Yes ma’am, Mix Henry.”

And once Emmeline thought they were far enough from the open door, she began. “I want to give you an idea of what’s gonna happen, Charlotte, because your mama seems like she’s too weak and upset to take it all in.” Charlotte just nodded, and Emmeline continued. “When Miz Flannagan gets here, which I expect will be soon, we’re going to need all the soft cloths you can find and the biggest pot you have, filled up with real warm water. Why don’t you get the stove going and the water on, if you can wrestle us out a pot. I’ve brought a special soap and some real sweet-smelling herbs from my garden, and we’re gonna take good care of your daddy.”

“I can get the pot easy, Miz Henry, and I’ll get my sister, Marcella, to help me fill it and heft it up onto the stove. Should it be boiling or not that hot?”

“Go ahead and let it boil, sweetie. It’ll cool off fast enough, but don’t you all try to lift it once it’s hot.”

Charlotte and Emmaline Henry were talking quietly, and Charlotte, who had been thinking hard about what she wanted to say, got up her courage—seemed like she was needing to do that fairly often—and turned to Emmaline, “Miz Henry, I want to ask you an awful big favor.”

“You go right ahead, Charlotte. I expect the answer will be yes to anything you’ve got in mind.”

“I’d like to help with Daddy. Just me. Nobody else would want to, but Daddy and me, well, we were close, and I would just, well, I guess I would kinda like to say goodbye. I don’t know . . .”

“Charlotte Cade Gibson, you are an unusual girl. I will admit I never would have thought about you wanting to help in there, but I say ‘why not?’ So, yes, sweetie, you certainly may join us and help just as much as you like. You have to promise you’ll go slow and wait for me to tell you what to do.”

“Oh, yes ma’am. Yes, ma’am, I surely will. And, oh, thank you, Miz Henry, thank you so much.”

“You’re very welcome. Now let’s get on back inside and see what we can do for your mama. Oh, and here comes Martha Flannagan, so you go hold the door ‘cause it looks like she’s carrying a load of stuff.”

And so the morning went. The women arrived with food, with their own scented soaps and ointments and with one or two soft cloths each, until there was a respectable pile. These were poor farmers’ wives, and the soaps were often no more than slivers, the ointments the last traces in a jar that had been put back for the next death. This was what they did. They took care of each other in death as they always had in life, the rituals familiar in this small community. But Nell was an exception. She never came to help when someone’s husband died, never wanted to even think about it, and she failed  entirely to see the irony in the comfort she was now taking from having her house full of these same women and knowing they were taking care of John. Emmaline called Charlotte over, “Charlotte, honey, do you think your mama’s gonna be all right? She’s putting an awful lot of that whiskey in her coffee. I know sometimes it helps but more often I think it’s just apt to make things worse.”

“Yes ma’am, Miz Henry. We know about the drinking, and I’ll tell you the truth. We’re worried near to death. Some days Mama just seems like she’s so wound up she can hardly sit in a chair, and ever since the baby was there it’s gotten worse.  I really am afraid some days that she’s just going to go flying off down the road and never come back.  And the drinking can’t be good for the baby, right?” It wasn’t a conversation that had any kind of satisfactory conclusion, so they just drifted off and Charlotte headed inside to get snacks ready for when Kendall and Virginia came back in from wherever Stamford had taken them to play.  Bless him. It was exactly the kind of help she needed.

In the afternoon, the men came in a small wagon, hands washed, to stand around the front room, shuffling their feet and talking in low voices about crops and the weather.  They didn’t stay inside long, and some of them went out to take care of John Warren’s chores for that day. They fed the few animals, checked on the fields and repaired a couple of places where a fence rail was pulling loose. Those that didn’t help on the farm unloaded raw pine planks from the wagon, carried them out to the barn, and began the work of building a coffin.

Inside, Charlotte stood ready as the job of preparing her father’s body for burial began. She had to admit that she felt afraid at first, remembering the grotesque face and swollen mouth. Mrs. Henry had explained to her that they would wash every inch of the body with the scented soaps and the cloths, would rub it with oil, and sprinkle some of the herbs all around the bed. Emmeline watched Charlotte carefully to be sure she wasn’t going to get upset, limiting what she let her do at first, handing over a damp cloth and pointing to a hand or a calf and showing her exactly how to rub, very softly, in circles.

Finally, Charlotte turned to her and asked, “May I wash his face?” Emmeline hesitated. “Are you sure, Charlotte?”

“Yes, ma’am. I’d like to see if some washing and some of your oil might smooth it out a bit. It looks kinda scary the way it is.”

“You’re right about that, honey, but look again and you’ll see that the blue is fading out of his skin and the swelling is going down, so you will be doing your daddy a real service if you really think you can.”

Charlotte spent a long time on her father’s face. She didn’t hurry. She was no longer afraid. When she had finished with the oil, John Warren’s face looked young and relaxed. More important for Charlotte, he looked like her daddy again, just dead. And Charlotte wasn’t afraid of dead.

For the next two days, the Gibson house was filled with neighbors—friends, and even some strangers—come to pay their respects to John Warren and to offer their sympathy and their help to Nell.  On the third day after his death, John Warren was carried in a new pine coffin to the Bucksville cemetery for burial.  Because the land was so iron-rich, digging with ordinary tools was nearly impossible, but some of John Warren’s friends, who had gone to work in the big furnaces at Tannehill, came with their miners’ tools to break through the hard ground to bury one of their own.

Charlotte Cade went home to put her younger siblings to bed, to try to convince her mother not to drink too much whiskey, and to stay up late whispering with Marcella under the big quilt. Even after she heard Marcella’s breathing deepen and knew she was asleep, Charlotte lay awake remembering the feel of her father’s skin on her hand. She felt the great silence of the house around her, broken only by an echo of her father’s voice, “Charlotte Cade, could you look over there where my tools are and bring me the small saw?”

“I’m here, Daddy. I’m right here! Please come back.”

But John Warren Gibson would not be coming back, not ever, and the sound of his voice was dimmer, as Charlotte heard him say, “You are the best girl I have, Charlotte, but don’t you go telling anybody.” She never did, and because she was wise for her years, Charlotte knew of course that the voice she heard was only her imagination, only just the sound of her missing her daddy so much, but still she felt strangely peaceful.  What she didn’t know was that it was the last time she was to have any peace for a very long time.

Aware that their mother was sad, that she was expecting a baby, and that she was pouring more whiskey into her coffee every day, Charlotte, Marcella, and even Stamford  took on the chores on the farm. They didn’t complain about watching the babies when Nell wanted to catch an occasional ride with a neighbor and spend an afternoon walking around Birmingham, “just to get a little relaxation,” she explained.  Butthen one morning, as Charlotte was sweeping the front porch, and Marcella was following behind with a bucket of water and an old mop, giving it a good scrubbing, a dusty, slightly battered automobile pulled up out by the fence and a man climbed down and started toward the house. Charlotte had looked up at the unfamiliar sound of the car’s engine and had time to turn back to Marcella and whisper, “We do notknow anybody with an automobile, Marcella! Who is this?” Marcella just shook her head.

Then they heard the screen door open behind them and Nell stepped out onto the porch, obviously pregnant, but looking very pretty in one of her best dresses, her hair freshly washed and shining. Charlotte stood with her mouth open, utterly silent, so confused she couldn’t even think of a question to ask. She knew one thing, although she couldn’t have said exactly why she knew. This—whatever it was—wasn’t good. Marcella looked straight at her mother and said, “Mama, you sure look pretty. What’s going on?”

Nell laughed self-consciously and said, “Now Marcella, does something have to be going on for your mama to look pretty?” By this time, the three little ones were clustered behind her, but she spoke only to Charlotte and Marcella, “You girls, I’d like you to meet a particular friend of mine. This is Daniel Darden. And Daniel, these are my two oldest girls, and my helpers around this place.

“Charlotte, Daniel knew your daddy. Daniel used to farm but then he took a job up at Tannehill. He works that big furnace. What do you think about that?”

Charlotte was staring at Daniel and looking every once in a while at her mother. “I reckon that’s fine, Mama. Are you about to go somewhere?”

“Well, yes, darling. Daniel has offered to drive me in his automobile into town to get a few things we need. I won’t be gone too long and I won’t worry about the children as long as you and Marcella are here.”

“Yes ma’am.” With that, Charlotte picked up her broom, turned, and walked into the house, shooing the smaller children in front of her. Marcella just said, “Well, Mama, we’ll be here when you get back.” Neither girl had acknowledged Daniel Darden. All the children were listening carefully as the car started up and drove away. Kendall Ida, five years old and always full of questions, couldn’t get them out fast enough. Charlotte sat in the big chair, pulled Kendall onto her lap, smelled the sweet little-girl hair, and couldn’t say anything except, “I don’t know, Kendall. I don’t know.”

Six months later, Nell Gibson and Daniel Darden were married, and the following exchange had occurred:

“You can’t make me give up my kids, Daniel. You cannot make me do that.”

For a long time, they just sat, neither of them speaking, until Daniel got up, stretched, and before he headed out to his car, said, “No, Nell, I can’t. But I can’t stay if you don’t.”

The buildings in which the orphanage was housed were large and, if they had been recently painted, would have been a stark white.  But on the day Nell Gibson left her children there, the paint was peeling and several of the shutters on the main building were hanging loose. Charlotte could hear them knocking against the windows. She wondered why the glass hadn’t broken. She wondered a great many things that day and for most of the days for years to come. But Charlotte being Charlotte, she took Marcella’s hand in one of hers, and Kendall’s in the other, and she saw to it that Marcella and Stamford were looking after the others, and they walked up those stairs as proud as if they were entering a palace.

Aunt Dean

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The Pope, the priests, the archbishop, the children, the church, the political polarities, and–in there somewhere–God

My Home Page promises some discussion of
The News of the Day and
so here goes.

In an article in the New York Times, the man who lived with Oliver Sacks for the six or so years before Sacks died, quoted the neurologist and writer,

“The most we can do is to write — intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.”

(Hayes, Bill. “Swimming in Words With Oliver Sacks,”
NYTimes, August 29 2018)

There have been times, as a teacher of the great works of the English language, when I have believed that writing–and the mindful reading of great writing–opened beyond itself and straight toward the divine. Today, when my mood is dark or my faith weak, I reach for Faulkner or Shakespeare, John Donne or Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, the early novels of Margaret Drabble, Joan Didion’s essays, or the Bible.

Carl Jung’s famous definition of God is,

God is the name by which I designate all things that cross my willful path, violently and recklessly, all things that upset my subjective views, plans and intentions and change the course of my life for better or worse.”

Are Pope Francis and all the other Popes back to Peter really the representatives of God as the result of Jesus’ commission to Peter at the crucifixion, “On this rock I will build my church?”

In the glare of an Archbishop’s accusations, Francis doesn’t seem like much of a rock. Time will tell, of course, but whatever the truth, I tremble when I imagine his fear. Bishop of Rome, or not, he is a man, and an old man at that.

This business of who is or is not God, of who does or does not speak for God is of vital importance today.

We need to know how serious it is likely to be if, indeed, Francis was involved in concealing and protecting priests who were molesting children and seminarians.

Is this about God’s absence from the world we have created? Is it about the corruption of the institutional Church? Or is it just one more sordid story about a  pathetic man who did not do what he should have done and did exactly what he should not have done–and has been found out?

Of course, there is no answer to those questions about God’s presence or man’s sin, no resolution to the dreadfulness of all this sexual intimidation, grooming, and actual seduction and often rape of (mostly) young boys by the priests in charge of their care and education.  There is both too much and not nearly enough to be said about a history of rottenness, and its deliberate concealment.  Sometimes there really aren’t the words.

Here we have Pope Francis, challenging norms, questioning centuries-old repressions; speaking for the young man, Jesus, who walked the roads of Galilee, preaching a radical theology of forgiveness and poverty.

Whether he is the true heir of Peter and God’s voice on this earth–and whether those of us who have listened to him and watched him are Catholics or Protestants or Muslims or Jews or nothing at all–this Pope has stood as a symbol of many of the values we honor and for which we have recently despaired.  The very fact of the man holds out hope. But what if?

What if he has done this terrible thing? What then happens to God? 

To tell the truth, I have no idea. I know only that things have gotten awfully confused.

In a summary of what has happened to the human cast, Richard Perez-Pena, filed from London on August 27th.

“An archbishop, Carlo Maria Viganò, released a letter claiming that Pope Francis, his predecessors and others in the church hierarchy knew of sexual misconduct by Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, years before it was made public.

Archbishop Viganò said he told Francis in 2013 that the pope’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, had ordered Cardinal McCarrick “to withdraw to a life of prayer and penance” because of the accusations against him. But Francis, Archbishop Viganò wrote, empowered Cardinal McCarrick, allowing him to help choose American bishops.

I do, in fact, experience a kind of edgy despair as I recognize the same old players–out of the woodwork come the representatives of the newly energized extreme right, both in the Church and outside it.

Inside the Church, the bitterly opposed factions struggle over abortion, gay rights, and a host of other social issues. They also struggle, though it is not mentioned, over power, and here we come up against  God again.  If we are to hear the voice of God in the voice of the Church, then the Church must do better than this. Those who oppose Francis believe he is unduly influenced by the gay faction and that  he is undermining the basic tenets of Catholic theology.  His supporters heave a sigh of relief as they hear a Pontiff finally articulating what they are sure is the good. They believe Francis has opened a window and let in some air and light.

Outside the Church, the usual suspects, the most obvious a group I call “Good Old Boy Anti-Catholics,” bubble up out of the mud to drone the old canards about too much money, too much silver, too much ritual, and the evils of all those queer priests living together.

Another group, less blatant and more dangerous, is a large cohort of otherwise perfectly respectable people who now can air their quiet discomfort with all that silver on the altar, with the unnatural celibacy of the priesthood, with the billion-dollar hoard in the Vatican banks. It down just seem to go on and on,

I vividly remember that, when John Kennedy was elected, my grandmother was convinced that the Pope was going to “take over America.”  Even as a teenager, I knew  that didn’t quite make sense.

If what we have is just another wrangle between liberals and conservatives, just another sordid example of men molesting boys, then I am a little tired of the whole thing.

If this is about God, about what God might want, then the situation is important beyond belief.

If this is about God, in any way, then we are being called to turn toward  the divine in our own natures and perhaps to carry a larger share of the load.B3-BM908_WORDST_P_20180823122430

I, for one, would like to see Pope Francis–and God–intact when it’s over.

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Melania Trump

Michelle Obama

Laura Bush


Marilyn Monroe

Janis Joplin

Zelda Fitzgerald

























I have been drawn to Melania Trump since the first mention of her in the press. In spite of myself, I paid attention to those early stories of languages she did or did not speak, degrees she had or had not earned, the childhood poverty, the modeling career, America, New York, Donald Trump.

I vividly recall the provocative black and white photographs of the teenage model. There was a spread of them somewhere, beautiful and unnerving.  Even behind the strained bravado of a young girl trying hard to look sure of herself, to look older, one could see the heartbreaking vulnerability.  I couldn’t look at them for long at a time.



The first time I ever ran across the term “slut-shaming” was in reference to the public comments–many by reputable journalists–that Melania dressed like a prostitute and had screwed her way out of her village, into fashionable Manhattan parties, and finally into Donald Trump’s bed and into the White House. We were about to have a whore as First Lady.

In our national language, the slut seems to come in two styles–stupid and crazy–and a great deal of ink has been devoted to illustrating Melania’s lack of intelligence. “Dumber than a bag of rocks,” seems to be the consensus. This has made it relatively easy not only to attack her perceived excess sexuality but also seemingly every project she has tried to launch as First Lady. I was horrified at the vicious ridicule heaped on her for the “Be Best” campaign.

The incurable provincialism of Americans is never more evident than in our apparent belief that anyone who speaks with an accent is stupid.

My usual sources of news, analysis, and opinion, The New York Times and The New Yorker, both of which I now read online, are full this week of the death of John McCain.  One focus of all this coverage is yet another example of the petty, vindictive behavior of the President of the United States.  It happens so often, in such appalling ways, that it hardly even deserves a comment.

Buried somewhere in one of the articles in the Times was a reference to Barbara Bush’s funeral and to the fact that Melania Trump attended without her husband (who was, several articles report, on the golf course). The reference was to an “iconic” photograph of four former presidents and their spouses posing with Melania Trump who was there representing the President. The media have thoroughly explored possible reasons for Mr. Trump’s absence, all to some extent believable, but the impression the photograph made on me has nothing at all to do with whether Trump’s absence was legitimate.

It has to do with the image of two beautiful women, only one of whom is alone, both of whom have been judged for their looks–Melania Trump for her whorishness, Michelle Obama for her blackness.  There, too, is Hillary Clinton, criticized for not looking sexy enough. Is there such a thing as wonk-shaming?

Women in the public eye leave themselves open to the worst sort of intrusions into their lives, and even the compliments have an edge.

Janis Joplin, every man’s punching bag, died when she fell off a toilet with a needle in her arm.fullsizeoutput_4948



Zelda Fitzgerald was committed to an “insane asylum” by her writer husband when she started to write and paint. She died in the fire that burned the asylum to the ground. Their degradation as women was paraded across every front page in the world. I actually read that Joplin had semen in her vagina, and that Zelda Fitzgerald was a drooling madwoman before she died.  She took her clothes off in the corridors of the madhouse. There is no way of knowing if those things were true. But they were written down.

After many decades,  I still occasionally try to watch a film clip, or even look at a photograph, of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to John Kennedy.  Her breathy, little-girl’s voice is much like the President ‘s wife’s. I think about the expensive, tasteful clothes that are Mrs. Kennedy’s trademark. Marilyn Monroe wears an expensive, slutty, gold designer dress that reveals everything.  She is singing for applause, or love, or kindness. Singing for her supper.fullsizeoutput_4944

Malraux et les Kennedy


Joplin recorded a song with these lyrics, “Get it while you can. Don’t you turn your back on love. No, no, no.”

I only want to say that sometimes it just isn’t worth it.

Melania Trump has announced that, in the fall, she will travel to Africa to visit some of the places her husband called “shit-hole countries.”800

The President will not accompany her.