Writing: Stealing Time

Yesterday it snowed again, just a dusting, but enough to make the roads slick. Of course, I left home later than usual and was worried about the time. I listened to my CD of the Civil Wars to relax and to think about the revisions I’m making on my novel. Their music is haunting and lyrical and brings to mind the complexities of relationships which is what I’m working on at the moment. The song called “Dust to Dust,” fits the complicated nature of my hero’s and heroine’s relationship perfectly. As I listened, the sun brightened the sky. The world was white with snow: on the ground, on the roads, swirling in the air around my car. Several crows flew across the highway, pieces of night silhouetted against the snow, their flight loopy but swift, pure poetry.

The contrast of white and black brought to mind darkness and evil versus light and goodness. I turned the possibilities of this image over in my mind and wondered how I could use it in my writing. I know I will; I just don’t know when.

Earlier in the year I posted that I was getting up an hour early to write, but when the time changed over from daylight savings, it wrecked my schedule. I haven’t been able to get up early because I can’t fall asleep early. I have been stealing time from other areas of my day, just as I did this morning on the way to work. I write when I’m cooking dinner, when I’m running errands, and when I should be grading papers for school. Often my commute turns into a mental review of my writing “problems.” Sometimes I even make it to my desk, but often my writing takes the form of jottings that must later be transcribed to the page.

What I’ve found is I write all the time, not just when I sit at my desk with my loyal Stella by my side. I see the world with a writer’s eyes. That is the difference. I can set aside a time–and I do–but what is equally important is thinking like a writer, finding the time when it doesn’t exist, seeing black crows against a white sky, and not being too distracted to notice.

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Evocative Words

When I got my haircut yesterday, Claudia, my stylist, told me about her trip to Florida, a place we all would like to go when the snow still flies here in the Midwest. When she was there, she went out onto her mother’s lanai and heard the crickets singing in the shadows. I don’t remember where she said her mother lives in Florida, but it doesn’t matter. That word lanai and the idea of crickets singing in the shadows took hold of my imagination and transported me to the place in my imagination where I settled onto a cushioned lounge chair beside a canal thick with boats and lined with manicured shrubs under which the crickets sang. Together Claudia and I shared our own daydream of summer where the word lanai had meaning. It is not a word I use in Wisconsin. My reverie was short but one I longed to repeat. The word lanai and the song of crickets made me think about how words evoke place and meaning, especially in our writing.

During revision of my historical novel, I have been mindful of the words and the cadence of speech of my characters. My book takes place in 1869 in Charleston, South Carolina, so when I inhabit my characters, I speak and hear the Southern drawl I grew up with, but even more than that I take a trip back in time to the Ashley River during Reconstruction. I use words like pluff mud, great hall, parlor, and live oaks. I envision a ruined landscape and a city and countryside rebuilding but still ravaged from war. Horses whinny and nicker, camellias bloom, and thunderstorms grumble in the distance. The scents of salt water, manure, pluff mud, and Carolina jessamine mingle in the heat and humidity, both of which are a presence, as are the mosquitoes.

When I inhabit the world of Charleston and Winterhaven Plantation, I describe trying to climb out of a well this way: “Sometimes I feel I’ve been thrown down a deep well. Like I’m trying to climb out, but I can’t gain purchase on the slick walls. I’m looking up at a little round spot of light, but no matter what I do, I can’t seem to reach it.”

The way my hero Josiah sees Faith, the heroine, is different from the way men look at women today. He’s not moved by her cleavage or her tight pants, not because he wouldn’t be, but that view is not available to him. Instead, he notices “her slender back” and “the twin cords of muscle on either side of her neck where wisps of hair had escaped her plaits.” And he longs to press his lips to the hollow there.

Objects matter too. Some important objects in my book are an the embroidered handkerchief Faith gave Belinda when she was a child which Belinda gives her as a gift when she leaves Winterhaven. Josiah’s mother left him some Repousee sterling silver, embossed with a garden of silver flowers.

The motifs we choose to evoke place communicate with our reader as well. My book is filled with flowers and gardens. Each one communicates something different. Noisette roses adorn the cemetery where Faith’s parents are buried, only white flowers bloom in the gardens at the mansion where Faith and Josiah attend a ball. Yellow jessamine grows in the pines at Winterhaven. Josiah leaves a gardenia on the pillow for Faith after they make love. The list goes on.

As writers we must think carefully about place and time when we choose our words. Like master painters we create worlds with our words, full of people, objects, and conflict. We provide the reader a private reverie that we can share, a bit like stepping out onto a lanai to enjoy a warm evening while being serenaded by crickets.

Act by Act, Word by Word

Since last Friday I have struggled to make sense of the senseless. I have tried to understand what can’t be understood. I have counted my blessings to have my own happy, healthy children who have lived to see adulthood. As a teacher I have wondered if I would have had the courage to do what those teachers in Connecticut did to shield the students in their care from harm. Along with our nation and the world I have mourned the precious lives lost in Newtown, Connecticut. I have tried to find words to express the ineffable sorrow conjured by this moment in time, a pivotal moment fraught with grief and politics, but also one I hope holds the key for change within our society.

For several days after hearing about the shooting in Newtown, I had no words to convey what I felt. Words seemed inadequate and still do. How do we comfort the parents of these children who will never see their faces again or hear their laughter? How do we comfort the families of the teachers and administrators who tried to protect those little children from this nightmare come to life? No words can convey our sorrow or our helplessness in the face of such grief. No gesture can offer enough comfort to ease their pain, but still we try because we can imagine all too well the same fate happening within our own communities to us. We still pray for them and reach out to the families of these precious children and wrap our arms around them even if it is from afar.

As I was returning home yesterday from Appleton where I finished my Christmas shopping and made a final grocery shopping run—two tasks which seemed incongruous in this moment—I turned on the radio. I looked for a Christmas carol station but couldn’t find one which had religious songs, only silly pop renditions of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” and the like. I needed the comfort of calm, so I turned to NPR. I knew there would be no commercials and perhaps some classical music. Instead I realized the news was playing. Frankly, I didn’t want to hear another story about the shooting, but yesterday the first two funerals were held. The correspondent for NPR was covering those funerals. I was only half listening to the story because I was worried about an imminent snowstorm on Thursday and wondering how my youngest son would be able to make it home. Ironic, I know, that I worried in the midst of this tragedy, but parents worry no matter how old their children become. Despite my being distracted the words of the rabbi who attended Noah Pozner’s  funeral made it through my own thoughts.

I believe the rabbi’s name was Rabbi Shaul Praver, and what he said finally allowed me to make sense of what has happened. His words allowed a puzzle piece I had worried over to fall into it’s proper place and filled me with calm purpose for the first time since last Friday. I regret I must paraphrase because I was so taken in that moment that I forget the rabbi’s exact words. He said Noah and the others who died are with God in heaven. It is up to us now to bring heaven down to Earth, act by act and word by word.  Wow! Those words sang through my consciousness. Finally, here is something I can do. I can make a difference each day by treating all people with kindness and compassion. I can be the light of heaven here on Earth. We all can. Another rabbi interviewed on the news, Rabbi Yehoshua Hecht said that we can “elevate and sanctify our lives in honor of these children.” Even those of us who are far away from Newtown can make a difference in this life. We can’t change what has already happened, but we can honor the memory of those lost by how we live. Even if we only touch one person with kindness, perhaps that one moment will make the difference between life and death.

The idea that we reach out to others one kind act at a time is what I am advocating here. Why should we do this? We should reach out because each life is precious, because we are our brother’s keeper. Each life on this planet contributes to every other life even if we aren’t always aware of our affect. Just look at the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. We all affect each other’s lives in so many small and sometimes great ways, and we will never know how great an impact we have had on our fellow man, at least not while we’re here. We are and should be responsible for each other. Let’s remember what John Donne wrote in 1624 in his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation17. I won’t quote the whole passage here, but the words do explain why each of us must make a difference in the lives of others. He says, “No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…Each man’s death diminishes me, For I am involved in mankind.”  Though these words were written so long ago, Donne’s message applies to today’s tragic circumstances.

Most of us will mark this tragedy in our own personal ways by hugging our children, by praying, by taking some sort of action. However we decide to accomplish the task, I believe we must make a difference in our world. Perhaps this tragedy will be the impetus for true change in our society. Perhaps we will mean it when we ask someone how they are instead of using “how are you” as a greeting. Perhaps we will be patient when we drive behind an elderly person. Perhaps we will treat the young men and women in middle and high schools not as delinquents but as people with strong opinions trying on adulthood. Perhaps we will guide them instead of ridiculing them. Perhaps we will treat each other as human beings worthy of love and forgiveness and kindness.

We must take responsibility for each other, act by act, word by word. We must bring God’s heaven down to earth and shine the light of His love into the darkness we see in the world. Get off social media for a while and interact in a physical way with your friends, family, and strangers. Become “involved in mankind.” Talk to people in the grocery store. Chat with the lady collecting money for the Salvation Army. Chat with the older gentleman in the pew next to you at church. Then really listen to what they have to say in return. Learn their stories. Embrace them with kindness. Become a part of your own communities. Make a difference.  Honor the memory of those who lost their lives long before they could make a difference here on Earth. Perhaps if we do these things, the wish for peace we all share at this time of the year will become reality.

 

“No Man Is an Island”

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

                                John Donne

Remembering A Hero

Col. Archibald Scott

Last Thursday I got a call to teach a class at the technical college where my friend Barb works. I was thrilled to accept the position, but I only had a week to prepare for a class I had never taught before. Brainstorming, scrambling, and praying for guidance and wisdom ensued. I also took several trips to the campus to fill out employment papers and send proof of having worked in something other than teaching, a requirement for the job. Verifying my occupational experience was a real adventure since most of that experience occurred more than twenty years ago.

As I searched the internet to find the employers I had worked for in the past, I found most of them were either no longer in business or had passed away in the twenty odd years since I had worked for them. One man in particular, Colonel Archibald Scott, was someone I truly enjoyed working for and with. In the course of trying to find him, I also discovered he was not just a wonderful boss but a true American hero.

Scotty, as he introduced himself to me, became my boss and was the manager of the Temporary Lodging facility on MCAS El Toro. The base has since been closed by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, but when I worked for Scotty, it was a thriving Marine base that welcomed Marines of all ranks and their families to southern California. It was our job at The Lodge to provide a place to stay for incoming Marine families who didn’t yet have a home. Sometimes if we had no room, we had to find hotels for them in the surrounding areas of Irvine and Tustin, but often families stayed for a month until they were settled in housing of their own in the area. Scotty was the perfect ambassador to those families, including my own.

When my husband and I arrived in California for the first time, I was completely disoriented. We had come cross-country from Pensacola, Florida, taking thirty days of leave to road trip up the eastern seaboard before traveling the northern tier of states to Wisconsin. It was an awesome trip! In Wisconsin we stayed at Bruce’s parents’ house for a few days until we saw the first of the winter storms gaining momentum across the plains. We packed our belongings and drove across Iowa where we were the last car to drive through on the interstate to Omaha. The state patrol shut it down after us because of a snowstorm. We were relieved to finally arrive in Omaha, Nebraska, at SAC Headquarters, Offutt Air Force Base. We made it to California a couple of days later with barely any money in our pockets.

The first person we encountered when we arrived at El Toro was Archibald Scott. He welcomed us at The Lodge with a big smile on his face and a friendly handshake. I was annoyed  by the traffic and afraid I’d have to live like a pauper in that alien place, but I  felt better after meeting Scotty.  I think that’s how everyone felt after meeting him. He inspired confidence.

Scotty was a fine man, happy and jolly, a coffee drinker, a golfer, a joker, but beneath his happy-go-lucky exterior, he was an Army colonel and a heroic man. He told me once about running away to join the Army when he was only fifteen. He showed me the indentation on his chest where, at the Battle of the Bulge, a mortar had bounced off his sternum without exploding leaving a concave scar on his chest. I knew these things about him, but when I looked at his biography on the internet, I was struck by how modest he had actually been.

Colonel Archibald Scott served in the United States Army during World War II—in the same 328th Regiment that Sgt. Alvin York did—the Korean War, the Bay of Pigs, and the Viet Nam War. He was highly decorated. In World War II alone he was twice nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor for acts of gallantry in battle, but never received the honor because one of the officers who witnessed his bravery was killed in the war before testifying on his behalf. He did receive the Silver Star which was later upgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross. He also received the Bronze Star with Three Oak Clusters, and a Purple Heart with four oak clusters. Oak clusters denote how many times someone receives the award. In the Korean War he was awarded the Bronze Star, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Silver Star. He was truly a hero.

I didn’t keep in touch with Scotty after I left The Lodge. I wish I had, but I became busy raising my family and being a Marine wife. I have never forgotten Scotty, however. I was saddened to read he died in 1996, when my oldest son was six years old. It’s odd the twists and turns life’s path takes. I never would have thought that my teaching job would turn up new information about an old boss, an admired friend, a man who welcomed me and my husband to our life together in the Marine Corps.

Even after I begin teaching at my new job, I will remember the hassle of filling out the employment verification paperwork because it brought me a new understanding of a man I thought I had known. And maybe that is what Scotty would have wanted me to know, a good and humble man who would never brag on his record, but who would be proud to know I had written about him all these years after his death. I miss you, Scotty. Thank you for your heroic service to our country and thanks also for the memories.

Picking Blackberries

About a week ago Bruce and I went to Iola to the ski trails to pick blackberries. Spending quality time together during the week is one of the few perks of our both being unemployed right now. We took along two big baskets, former Easter baskets from Erik and Travis that were much too big for the job, but we were optimistic after the rain we had had a couple of days before. After all, our cucumbers grew by leaps and bounds in that time.

When we arrived at the trails at about three in the afternoon, the sun was hot, and the grasshoppers were active as we high-stepped through the tall grass toward the trail in the woods. Seeing the cross country trails not covered in a well-groomed layer of snow and teeming with people was odd. So was seeing the wooden Viking ski jumper with grass growing between his legs. Stella, our Labpanion, took the lead immediately. She ran along and flushed a flock of wild turkeys roosting in the trees. When they took wing, it sounded like a herd of deer crashing through the brush! She was thrilled.

After about ten minutes of walking, we found areas where blackberries and some raspberries were still growing. Most of the blackberries weren’t yet ripe, but the raspberries were almost played out. Stella ate almost as many as we picked. She is such a berry hound, taking them when we offered them by hand and plucking them, thorns and all, into her mouth.

Absorbed in our individual thoughts and the quiet of the trails, we picked berry after berry. For nearly two hours we walked the trails in the shade of tall oaks and pines hearing only the bees and the wind soughing through the pines. “Listen to how quiet it is,” Bruce said. “I could live out here.” I smiled to see him so happy. With both of us out of work, we’ve been giving much thought lately to where we would live if we have to move to find work. We have to be ready to move if we must, but for now we are content with going outside and playing—a lot. We enjoy our river, our solitude, and searching for wild edibles. Life is good.

Hello world!

Southern Roots and Northern Blossoms

Twenty six years ago as one of my bridal showers was wrapping up, Mrs. Shirley Friedman and I were talking about my upcoming marriage. I felt overwhelmed with the generosity of my mother’s friends and wondered what would become of me when I left my home in Georgia to marry my handsome Marine husband.

You see, he was also a Yankee which could only mean one thing—he didn’t have the appreciation for the South that native Southerners do, a potential problem when it comes to choosing where to live. I was scared to death he would take me out of the South; I was right to be afraid. Though we didn’t immediately move away from all that was dear and familiar to me, moving was inevitable when he became a helicopter pilot.

I confessed my misgivings to Ms. Shirley. (Any well-raised southern child knows you never address one of your elders by their first name. You always include an honorific even with a first name.) She understood my dilemma immediately.

When she wedded Mr. Maurice, she lived in LaGrange, Georgia, and he moved her all the way to Sandersville, only a couple of hours away, but back then it might as well have been a world away. She tried to ease my mind. “You shouldn’t worry, Sugar,” she told me. “You’ll have Southern roots but you’ll have Northern blossoms!” I was charmed but still dubious. I wasn’t sure I could be as optimistic about my future away from home, but if Ms. Shirley had faith that I could blossom in the midst of a strange locale.

It has taken me many years to acclimate to the Midwest and to lose a great deal of the accent that so marked my language when we first moved here, but I have remembered Ms. Shirley’s words. Her words have inspired me to do something with my life, to plant seeds and nurture them to see what my “blossoms” will be. I have worked as a travel agent, substitute teacher, stringer reporter, and high school English teacher. I am now moving into the next phase of my life.

Ms. Shirley is still my mother’s friend. She and I still keep in touch, occasionally through the mail but also through Mama. I owe her a debt of gratitude not only for the title of my blog, but also for her faith in me, a faith I’ve finally come to share. In my early years I was sustained by family, by red Georgia clay under a sky shaded by pines. The South with all its flaws and finery formed my core.

In the South I absorbed the stories of my people, the cadence of their language, the history of my home, but now I walk among those with clipped vowels and curt nods. I bathe in the lakes and rivers of the Midwest where I feel the essence of this land coursing through me. Something about this place feels limitless—I know why settlers went west years ago—it’s a place where I can create my own place, my own destiny. This is a place where a woman like me can become what she wills. A writer. With southern roots and northern blossoms.