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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.

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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.”

 

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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.”

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“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
1919

 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
God,
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.

Posted in Uncategorized

SLUTS

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.

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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.

 

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On Writing #3: They Don’t Like My Novel??

My mother’s favorite word was “Shit!” and she wasn’t even a writer. She was a Southerner, though, and that probably explains it.

This morning, “On Writing #3” was a short essay describing the next phase of the writing of my autobiographical novel.  It followed smoothly and logically from “On Writing #2”– some thoughts on the first four pages and the elaborate techniques I developed to avoid writing them.  All as planned. These are, after all, summaries of the stages of a completed novel. They are re-workings of my original on-the-spot reporting of the process as it unfolded, lost to me–and, no doubt, to the ages–by the recent flame-out of my three-year-old website and blog.  I am able, with a little effort, to blame this not-entirely-unexpected event on any number of villains, but the real culprit was the fact that I had no hand in the building of that site and hadn’t taken the time to learn enough to save it.

However, I digress.

In one twenty-four-hour period, John McCain died, Neil Simon died, and my autobiographical novel was rejected by the most significant of the three literary competitions to which I submitted it.

Possibly “rejected” is too strong a word. I made it into the list of 158 semi-finalists, a fact that might have ameliorated the pain somewhat except that it came immediately before I learned that being a semi-finalist did not constitute being a “winner” and therefore, if I wish to revise and resubmit for next year, I am eligible, along with the people whose names appear nowhere but whose manuscripts have been judged–not just inadequate for a prize–but “rejected as not ready to place.”  I can’t help wondering if anyone spoke up in favor of a search for a gentler word than “rejected.”

Whatever the case, during the period between submitting the manuscript in March and  receiving today’s email, I have already made substantial changes.  In order to re-submit (not until December), I must attach to the newly minted book a letter describing my revisions and making a case for a reconsideration.  Already I’m worrying that they won’t even let it in the door.

The subject of the rejected (let’s just say it) novel is my mother’s family, and I found the whole experience of writing it both painful and transformative.

Tentatively, cautiously, I am feeling my way towards a novel about my paternal grandmother, and have begun, as I seem to do, with images, photographs of the fifteen-year-old girl who married a twenty-seven-year-old cavalry officer, a boarder in her parents’ home, and just nine months later gave birth to my father.  She was a  beautiful girl. This photograph was taken on her wedding day.

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The Kind of Republican We Remember

ROBERT MUELLER is a lifelong conservative Republican and the great hope of every liberal Democrat in the country.

A prosecutor who, in nearly forty years in government service, has honored and worked within the parameters of that government and the law, he is the conservative’s conservative. When he was appointed United States attorney in San Francisco–a politically unlikely position for Mueller–he  requested resignations from all the supervisors in his office then advertised as “positions now open” all the major prosecutors’ jobs in Northern California.  The conservative, methodical, tradition-bound Mr. Mueller could up-end the norms when need dictated.

He avoids publicity and is prosecuting arguably the most widely publicized case in American history.

During the past week, Mr. Mueller has inspired an equal number of rants, raised voices, and confident predictions–both ruinous and salvific–from the usual suspects at MSNBC and Fox News.  There have even been days when we have finally had to admit a mild fatigue at Anderson Cooper’s measured tones.

It seems impossible to make one’s way through the thicket of opinion and speculation in the wake of the latest round of confessions and convictions.  It sometimes seems an unreasonable challenge even to go beyond the handsome, patrician face, the quiet demeanor, the air of mystery–qualities that can either infuriate or comfort.

On Saturday evening, settling in to a long and thorough piece in the NY Times (“What Will Mueller Do?”),  I recognized fully the complexity of the man, his history, and the situation.

“By almost any measure, Mr. Mueller has led the swiftest, most successful independent investigation in modern Washington. In just over a year, he has indicted 25 Russians for trying to influence an American election. He has won a conviction of Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman at trial and secured guilty pleas from two campaign aides and the former national security adviser.”

I heard the echo of a recent conversation with an informed, educated, liberal friend who generally understands the workings of government and politics.  She was expressing her opinion, supported by dates and milestones, that the problem with the entire investigation is that “it has dragged on so long.”

I began taking notes and, sure enough, the fault line is distinct, but it often does not run down the usual, expected party or ideological lines. Robert Mueller, who has never aspired to elected office,  and has consistently chosen public service, is the ideal conservative candidate for just about any office in the land.   His work in the Russia inquiry has been too slow or too fast. He refuses to bend to political considerations or he has assembled a team that is part of a Deep State committed to undermining Donald Trump. He is, in turn, aggressive and impatient or cautious and plodding.

Robert Mueller is clearly driving us all a little crazy.  Too complicated to label and yet clear and unwavering in his convictions, this man conducting the nation’s most potentially explosive investigation carries it on without fanfare, revealing his cards only when he has something to show.

Frustrating or not, Mueller is the perfect foil for the man he might bring down, a creature of the media whose strategy is always to show every card he holds.

Yesterday, SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN died of the cancer in his brain that he has fought for many months, the same cancer that killed SENATOR EDWARD KENNEDY just when PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA was making a final push for the Affordable Care Act .

Marilyn Hall Patel, a retired federal judge in San Francisco, said of Robert Mueller, that he is “a different kind of Republican, the kind we remember.”

Robert Mueller  is precisely the kind of Republican we need.