By Glenda Council Beall
I come from the old school where we sent “hard copies” through the mail with a self-addressed stamped envelope to make it possible for our work to be returned if the editor didn’t want it. We hoped we would also receive, instead of a rejection in a form letter, a few hand-written words telling us to “try again” or “sorry it didn’t fit our needs right now.” Saturday I sat in a class with five other writers and poets to learn how to electronically submit our stories and poems to publishers who use the new technology.
In today’s fast-paced world, editors hardly respond at all unless they want our story or can use one of our poems. The rules have changed in favor of the publication, I think. I do know that most editors of popular magazines and e-zines are overworked and already have a huge number of items to read, thanks to the internet and the computer, before my submission ever reaches them.
In our world today, everyone thinks he is a writer whether he has honed his craft or not. Everyone thinks he can write a book even if he has never studied one thing about writing. Too many writers are more concerned about publishing than they are about learning how to write. Therefore, all these would-be writers bombard publications with half-baked fiction, short stories with simplistic plots and poor characterization. Sadly, many of the journals print what they receive. Makes me wonder, who are these editors?
I visited http://www.duotrope.com to find journals that might want my personal essays or short stories. I checked out several of them and clicked off in disappointment. I am not the world’s best writer, but I recognize really poor writing and found that to be the norm in most of what I saw listed.
However, there are some excellent publications. Recently I subscribed to Sun Magazine, a fine literary publication, and received a sample digital issue. I am impressed with almost everything I read there. Today I received in the mail a copy of Creative Nonfiction which I have not yet opened. I feel sure this magazine will also contain good work. Will any of my stories fit their needs? I doubt it. My work is not gritty enough. My essays and stories are likely too touching or not edgy enough. My poetry is not deep or difficult to understand. Like today’s movies and TV shows, stories and nonfiction must include the lowest type of human beings doing horrible things to themselves or others. They must use coarse and crude language, come from the most dysfunctional homes and end up on drugs or worse. The darkest side of human nature seems to intrigue most editors.
I have not given up on using Duotrope to find a place for my writing. With all they have listed, somewhere I will find a home for my southern regional writing. My stories about my life, my time in history, and my thoughts and reflections on that time when man walked on the moon, before and during the time black people were given their civil rights, when women were unchained from their mops and brooms and allowed in the board room. An innocent time when life was all about discovering rock and roll, dancing till you wore a hole in your shoes, having a boyfriend, not a bed mate at sixteen, family gathered around the dinner table every night, summer evenings on the porch, Sundays at a country church for an all-day sing and dinner on the grounds, parents who lived together for sixty years.
That is what I came from, but we had our share of conflict and controversy. In fact I had planned to write about my dysfunctional family until I met other writers whose stories made my family appear completely normal. I have told the story of my father holding a gun on his neighbor, the little black boy who fell from the hay wagon and was caught in the harness of the runaway horses, the time my father lost his eye in a fishing accident, the car wreck that lingers with me to this day, how we defied medical opinion and brought Mother home to live another decade, and much more.
I hear editors say they look for reasons to reject immediately because they are buried under the files they have been sent to read. Somewhere in cyberspace, if I persevere, I’ll find a good place for my stories and poems. And now I know how to submit online through Submittable which will keep track of my work. Submittable will tell me when it has been read, accepted or rejected. Electronic submissions make for faster rejections, no personal interaction, and no hope written in human hand. But that is the new way and we must learn to use it.
As more and more writers and poets send work to all the new online journals, I visualize offices filled with sweating young men and women, fingers flying over their keyboards, clicking and sliding on touch screens, refusing thousands of pages of words as more continue to fill up their Inboxes.
Writing is fun. Marketing writing is work. I will leave this earth with most of my stories, essays and poems stored on my computers. I will have had the joy of writing them and that is all that really matters in the long run.
Waiting in Line
By Staci Lynn Bell
I have always hated waiting in line, whether it be a line to pay for groceries, buy something I really want, or get good seats for a concert. For most of my life, I never really had to wait in line. My family had money, lots of it, and money makes it easy to avoid lines.
Growing up wealthy in Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago along the shore of Lake Michigan, I was far removed from anything as pedestrian as lines. My grandparents were both upper class. My Papa was a lawyer, an importer/exporter from Japan, and Nana had come from money as well. Being the early 1960’s, however, memories of the Great Depression still affected the way my grandparents thought. Time and time again, I would hear Papa’s lesson “You know Stacala, not everyone is as comfortable as our family.” “Education is the key” Nana would chime in “without a solid education, we would have suffered even more.”
Papa, the smell of expensive Scotch warm against my neck as he cradled me in his lap, would then explain in detail how hard working people had gone from having jobs and food on their tables to no food, no table and no house in which to eat what they didn’t have. Nana promised this would never happen to me, as a standing prime rib roast cooked in the oven. “You will never know a bread line or ever have to worry about paying bills. Papa and I have you set up for life.” This assurance from them that I would not become one of “those” people made me feel safe. I would never have to beg for need of anything.
Imagine my surprise some 40 years after Papa’s death and 10 years after Nana’s, when I found myself waiting in a very long line contemplating how I had gotten behind in my mortgage, 2 months behind on the electric and had absolutely zero food in the house. Southwest Florida was hitting rock bottom by 2007, and I had been without work for more than 6 months, a fate most of my friends were going through as well, but they all had family to help. My family was long gone, and I had no clue what to do next. I only knew two things for sure. I was hungry and had no money.
I had just heard from the electric company. “Ms. Bell, you are two months behind on your bill with us, so now you owe the back bill plus we are adding a $300 deposit to your account,” stated the stony female customer service rep.
My voice shaking, I responded, “If I can’t get enough to pay the current and past due, how am I possibly going to come up with an extra 300?” The phone clicked off on her end. Holding my puppy, I snuggled my face into Cinder’s soft fur and thought about waiting in line.
Rumors spread through the mutterings of neighbors that an organization in the small town I lived in, just east of Ft. Myers, once a month helped out folks with their utility bills. The catch was you could only come for help once a year, and that day was tomorrow. I called the town hall and was given the phone number for this organization. An older woman answered the phone curtly, “How may I direct your call.”
Stammering, I choked out, “What time do you open tomorrow? I need help with my electric bill and I heard that you help local residents.”
Without even taking a breath, she recited by heart, her words, monotone, “We open at 9am, but we only usually get to the first 50 people, so if I were you, I’d be here at 4, no later.”
“I need over 400 dollars to keep my electric on,” I began, but she stopped me mid cry. She informed me that I must really get there early because once the money they have is gone, no matter where you are in line or how long you have waited, it’s gone. She did assure me, however, that 3am should be sufficient. Get up at 3am and wait in line for a place that doesn’t open until 9. Having never done anything like this before, miserable and humiliated, I knew I had no other choice.
I couldn’t believe what was happening! Me! A nice, rich Jewish girl, highly educated, very bright and had it all: thriving career, husband, home, food, clothes, vacations, things I now recognized as luxuries. I did it all the right way; this was not supposed to be happening to me! I had prepared early in life. College, great grades, worked my ass off climbing the proverbial ladder, the whole deal. At 47 I should be at the height of my career, with my loving husband, a larger house, more clothes, more things. I had none of those anymore. Instead I sat alone, save for Cinder, shivering in a tight ball, waiting, to wait in line.
I was precisely on time, 3am. The line already had 9 people waiting. I know that because I counted, and as I was counting I realized they were sitting in chairs, lawn chairs, sport chairs, all different types of chairs. Most ripped up, with strands of material hanging down. I had no chair, and none was offered. I had expected to see what I had seen on TV: “bums,” “low life’s,” “welfare whores,” of course all ignorant and certainly uneducated. “They” had snack bars and juice or coffee; they were smart enough to bring things like chairs and something to at least drink while waiting in line for 6 hours.
Helplessly crying, I took my place as the tenth person in line, gave in and called my ex-husband. He, taking pity on me and living nearby, brought me a golf chair. No back and only 2 feet off the ground, but I was grateful. By now at least 100 or more people were in line behind me…waiting.
A bit later, about 6:30, a timid looking woman approached me, looking near my age. Her offer of a cup of her juice more than kind. “You look so lost,” she said as she put her hand on mine “you look like I used to look and I have a story to tell you. I am a teacher, 8th grade, lost my job 9 months ago,” she whispered in my ear. “That man next to you is a plumber with 3 kids. He had been with his company for 15 years; they are losing their home.” I glanced over at him, just in time to see his pain, then it was gone behind the cloak he put up, for his children’s sake.
As the sun finally rose on June 4, 2007, I began to really see those around me, finding a part of me in each of them and their stories. Different backgrounds, different stories, different circumstances, yet I now saw us all as one.
Although surely the people inside saw the angst of us waiting just outside their door, the click of the lock turned at exactly 9am, not a second earlier. The vouchers went quickly, so quickly in fact, that I was only given one for 50 dollars. My heart sank, and I begged for more, but to no avail. I was also told to consider myself lucky since they only had 5 vouchers left and hundreds were going home with nothing. 6 hours waiting in line for a 50 dollar voucher, that was not going to stop my electric from being turned off at noon.
It has been almost 6 years since I stood in that line. I have thought about it many times. Reflecting on that day, my thoughts are different now. I didn’t spend 6 agonizing hours just waiting in line; I spent 6 hours learning to empathize; learning that we are all going through something, all just trying our best to make it day by day; learning that no one is better than another.
Now when I pass a church or community giving out boxes of food and see the lines those who have lost their lives and homes form as they wait to eat, I don’t judge, for I know all too well who they are. I always hated waiting in lines, until I found me, waiting in one.
A SINGLE LETTER
By Ann Chandonnet
Students sometimes find history or poetry too abstract to lodge in their minds. And the teacher can’t import Plymouth Rock or the Alamo to make a point. I’ve been known to dress up in a Pilgrim outfit as Thanksgiving approaches or to bake scones for the entire class when reading Robert Burns. Students are impressed by such things. Sometimes something as simple as a letter can have a similar impact.
Whenever I was teaching “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed” or “The Gettysburg Address,” I would bring to class a letter written by my grandmother’s foster father, who served in the Civil War. John Bodwell was a tailor who served in the infantry for the state of New Hampshire. His health was so affected by his service that though he stood six feet, he never again weighed more than a hundred pounds. Up in the attic, my grandmother stored his cap, jacket, and powder horn. The shoulders of the jacket were so narrow that I could not fit into it when I was thirteen.
Bodwell must have written other letters, but this was the only one that had survived to the mid-1960s when I began my teaching career. The letter is addressed to Bodwell’s sister, Esther, explaining why he decided to enlist. Teens are naturally so skeptical that there was always at least one member of the class who said this faded document was “a fake.” It couldn’t be real. But others believed–and learned as a result.
If your attic lacks such letters, they can often be found through a little googling or binging on line.
The Bodwell letter follows. Spelling, capitalization, and underlining kept as they are in the original.
Chichester, August 27, 1861
My Dear Esther:
I suppose you will be surprised to know that I am stopping at this place instead of C. [Concord, New Hampshire] and you may want to know what I am doing. Well you know there are 5 companies of heavy artillery to be raised and to raise them there must be some one to recruit the men. Last Wednesday I got papers from the Adgt. General of N.H. [Charles Dodd] appointing me a recruiting officer for the 5th company. And yesterday I came out here. I think there is a good prospect of my getting some men here.
O Esther you will not blame me for going into this company without letting you know any thing
about it. For you know you thought I was going the last time you saw me. I expect we shall go into camp at Concord. I shall go there the first of next week and I want to see you there. You said you would come home if I went into the Navy and you will come now, won’t you! I left home before the mail got in. But I expect to get your letter here to day [sic]. O I want to see you as soon as possible. You will be home as soon as you can [,] won’t you. It was hard for mother to give her concent [sic]. But she thought I had better go, than to stand the draft. I called on your mother Thursday eve. She was quite surprised to know I was really going.
For Esther I have been examined again [physically] and been accepted so Esther, I am sure to go. Though I have enlisted I hold my own papers and if the business is not done fair I can destroy them and then I cannot be holden [sic]. So you see I have an advantage over any one who enlists at the office. But any man who enlists under me will find every thing as I represent it, or I shall not give up their papers but destroy them. Renselear has enlisted again. and Mr. Fastis [?] of our S.S. [Sunday school] class is recruiting for the 8th company. Rens. enlisted in that company but as one of their officers were under some obligations to Mr. R. S. Davis the chief officer for this company he will get him transferred to this company so you see we shall go together.
You will be sure and come home early in the week wont you for we shall be organized sometime in the week. and I want to see you once more before I get on “my suit of blue.”
You will not think hard of me for enlisting, will you Esther without letting you know. For I know how you felt before. and think you will feel the same now. The Postmaster is making out the mail. So I think I cannot have time to write much more.
If you write to me again before you come, please direct to [Camp Jackson at] Concord. So Esther I may get some of those long letters after all.
In haste–yours very
The call of July 1861 was for 300,000 Union volunteers. The state of New Hampshire committed to organizing several regiments; the officers and men who enlisted in the Fifth totaled 1010.
John Bodwell ended up in the infantry, so perhaps his papers escaped his grasp at some point. After his service, he lived in Tyngsboro, New Hampshire. He ran a prosperous tailor’s shop and was the owner of one of the first dry cleaning establishments in the area.
After the war, many of the Civil War’s regiments formed veterans’ associations, held regular reunions and appointed a historian. The Fifth New Hampshire’s historian was William Child, MD, Major and surgeon. His history was published in 1893, and includes a complete roster of men, reminiscences, and a detailed report of marches, camps and battles (including South Mountain and Antietam).
Neither Renselear [by any spelling] nor Bodwell is listed in the roster, which is not surprising, as I have found many errors (and duplications) in rosters that are said to be “complete.” There is the possibility that his physical debility necessitated an early leaving of Union service, and his discharge was unknown to Child. A copy of Child’s history is stored at the library of the University of New Hampshire, and may be downloaded.
Note: Bodwell’s Testimonial of Service certificate, dated Feb. 22, 1867, has been donated to the Dracut Historical Society, as have his blue cap, wool jacket and powder horn. Some of the scenes from the large, engraved certificate have been reproduced on the cover of “Write Quick”: War and a Woman’s Life in Letters, 1835-1867 by Ann Chandonnet and her third cousin Roberta Gibson Pevear.
A PAGE FROM JODY’S LIFE
Although twelve years ago I found it physically jarring to be near her when I had to be, I’ve been hyper-commenting on Jody’s Facebook page. But why?
It’s the wake of one key event in her life, I realize— since she’d adopted a child from China. In fact, when Jody had first sent me her friend request over a year ago, I hadn’t (at that time) heard a peep out of her in over a decade.
Jody and I have a mixed history. She worked as a fine arts professor at the liberal arts school I attended. While I never took any of Jody’s figure study or ceramics courses, I did end up volunteering on campus with the same charitable organization that Jody co-lead as campus advisor, doing outreach projects with disadvantaged youth in the town– hosting everything from school supply drives to Halloween and Christmas parties and Big Brother-Big Sister type mentoring. Jody often held pizza- party planning meetings in the living room of her on-campus apartment which also housed her two rescue pups, Wallace and Grommet, and a turtle another college volunteer nicknamed Ace. Jody had found Ace wedged behind her back tire one morning and almost squished it flat to the pavement before she hit the brakes, scooped it up, and deposited Ace in a terrarium she kept by the kitchen sink.
So Jody could be helpful– when she wanted to be. But like all of us, she had a more contradictory, complicated side. Jody had not one but two Ivy league diplomas, and she loved nothing more than to bring them up whenever anybody talked about graduate school plans– hers were by far the superior programs and hers were the definitive reasons why. Jody also had a tendency to steamroll to get what she wanted. For instance, she maintained that “the only quintessentially Neopolitan” pizza was found in a neighboring town and she insisted that we drive twenty miles out of our way to patronize that particular shop. And, not to be mean or petty, but Jody had a way of laughing out loud boisterously (which, in itself, is not such a bad quirk, really) but whenever it’s combined with a remark such as, “you just think that because you’re 20 years old, wait a few years and tell me you still think that,” it does not endear a cash-strapped scholarship student sophomore who is homework-laden and experiencing an epic dating slump. Jody regularly showed exactly zero tact, not a stellar quality for someone who work with youth year-in, year-out.
I never externally sparred with her or even spread scathing rumors about the reason why her fiancé had dumped her, as some people on campus did, but I do think that a random comment I made to a fellow volunteer, “if she steps on my last nerve one more time I’m going to tell her where she can stick her opinions,” probably made its way back to her. For that immaturity on my own part, I feel remorse.
But that’s also why, so many years later, I was a bit surprised to see the friend request from Jody. And I admit: I was curious. What had she been doing in the past decade? Did she still teach fine arts? Did she still conduct the volunteer program? And whatever happened to Wallace and Grommet? They were the sweetest and most loopily enjoyable pound mutts a homesick college student could ever wish for as an afternoon diversion. After a few moments’ hesitation– did she just want to “friend” me to nose into the little I’d been doing in the past ten or eleven years?– I went for it and clicked the accept button.
And then I started to trail her page for signs of dirt. But there was surprisingly little of interest. No, she had not divorced or even married (although while perusing her page I suddenly remembered a conversation we’d had at a planning meeting one time where someone asked her what her ideal man was like and she’d replied without missing a beat, “a red-headed tenor with broad strong shoulders”). Yes, she still taught fine arts, but at another university. No mention was made of volunteer coordinating or her two dogs who, I imagined sadly, had probably gone the way of poor Ace the turtle after all of these years. Pretty mundane stuff, actually. So mundane that I promptly forgot I’d even friended Jody after a few weeks.
Until The Day. That was the day in shining September that Jody posted a personal blog and a photograph of a teeny-tiny Asian girl of about three, dressed in a pale pink dress with lace trim and knee socks and holding a chubby, wide-eyed teddy bear in one hand while, kneeling at her side, was Jody–with the most gleeful look I’d ever seen on her face. That was the first time I read about Sun-Ming and how Jody had met her while volunteering in an orphanage abroad a year-and-a-half before, how it was parental love at first sight, and “red tape and thousands of miles be damned,” this was Jody’s daughter and her heart had “opened wide, then wider after meeting my daughter.”
Sure I’d seen Jody’s care and naturally people-loving personality before, but this was a whole new level. I was transfixed– and not just on that day, but suddenly I started to read through almost every status update posting Jody left– and once Sun-Ming came home to suburban Chicago there were profusions of them. There was what Sun-Ming had said at the park that morning (“Sun-Ming pointed to the buffaloes and shouted, ‘barf-os”!), pictures of Sun-Ming in a private pre-school pinafore (“with coordinating blue ribbons, courtesy of NaNa Marie and PapPap! Thank you!”), and even video clips of her first chocolate-and-vanilla Barbie birthday cake complete with aunties and uncles and teen cousins gathered around singing the birthday song. Every day– indeed, every hour– was infused with Sun-Ming updates, and I for one hit the thumbs-up button on 95% of them.
But why? I have plenty of other friends who have children and I don’t always comment on their children‘s Facebook updates (although, I tend to comment on a fair share of ballet and Little League postings). By your thirties it’s not uncommon that, even if you’re unmarried, 90% or more of your friends, coworkers, relatives and acquaintances have children or grandchildren. It couldn’t be the novelty of these postings, because every parent on my Facebook page, particularly with those who had kids under ten, made regular comments about their children’s stage/rage/cuteness. It also wasn’t the fact that Sun-Ming was adopted or even from another country. I’d had several close friends in recent years who adopted beautiful children from both the US and abroad. All of those adoption stories had touched my heart, witnessing via photo, letter, or personal visit the immense love and sacrifices these friends had made to welcome children into their lives, children they’d planned for and yearned for, in some cases, for years.
So what was it about Jody and Sun-Ming? Why was I suddenly their #1 commenter? That’s when it hit me: it wasn’t Jody nor was it Sun-Ming, at least not either of them solely. It was them collectively. Because, while I have four or five friends who are salt-of-the-earth single mothers currently, every last one of them had started their lives as parents with a partner in crime. Whether that spouse or boyfriend stuck around or was invited to stay around was another matter entirely– but they’d all gone into being a parent believing that their relationships were stable and that their partner was committed to co-parenting. They had set up a life and jumped in with both feet, expecting and planning as such– not to say that it’s any more fair or any less hard to deal with parenting in the midst of widowhood or divorce and its often attendant financial downward spiral and stress, but all of them had had some moments of the Kodak picture nuclear family going into parenthood.
All of them, except Jody. Jody used to talk about her then-infant nephews and preface it with statements like, “when I find the love of my life and have children, they’ll already have two marvelous cousins who’ll come for play dates in the summer.” It wasn’t an if back then, it was a when– and the when was implied to mean any-day-now. And who could blame her? She was in her early-thirties at the time, had lived on her own for well over a decade, paid her own bills in a timely fashion, had had the requisite bad-idea musician/bartender boyfriend in her early twenties before two other transitioning relationships and had just (a few months earlier) broken up with a long-term boyfriend she’d once assumed would be her “Mr. Forever.”
She was still young enough that she laughed through the bitter disappointment when she’d mention him, never by first name, just “Mr. Forever.” She could do that then because she still had some time to make it all work out, biologically-speaking. She had a stable job, she was organized, she had an education, she had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, she was involved in her community and actively gave back to others– she had it all, all that the Feminist movement said she as a middle-class, upwardly mobile American woman deserved and was capable of enjoying for a lifetime. The only small piece of the puzzle missing was the spouse. Even then, she talked routinely about wanting to start a family. None of us doubted she’d find a spouse. Jody surely didn’t.
But then years happened. How often had she dated? Had she dated much at all? Had she kept herself socially active? Had she just been too intimidating to the men she met? Conventional wisdom and women’s self-help literature always preach not to be too “put together” because “men need to feel needed.” Or had she been too clingy or needy as the possibility to have biological children streamed like sands through the proverbial hourglass, faster and faster to a no? A strange thing starts to happen to women in their thirties and forties– as unmarried men in that demographic have more and younger options, women have fewer men in their own age and experience range who are interested in them or will even give them a chance. Suddenly, the men these women wouldn’t have dated ten years earlier become the men who now won’t date them– and by the time this happens and they find out, more time has passed. Had she given up in the face of such depressing and buzz-killing realities? Or maybe, to be fair, we should assume it might have had nothing to do with her conducting a search or her sitting at home on a Friday at all. Maybe she just never found that strong, red-headed tenor, for whatever reason. Maybe, through no fault of her own, it was just in the cards for her to remain single? It happens sometimes.
But something else had happened, too. Sun-Ming. So a man had not come into her life permanently– but a new vitality and life force had, in the presence of that little girl who needed a mother. As an educated, professional woman now in my thirties and having weathered my requisite disappointments in love and false Mr. Forevers and not exactly a stranger to Saturday nights alone, more and more Jody’s path to family makes sense to me. And seems a likely path I myself may trod one day. After years of volunteering with children and being an auntie, I’ve often admitted to close friends that if it doesn’t happen for me– the life partner and marriage and settling into life with a significant Him– then I could definitely see myself adopting. Especially if I’m still single in my forties.
Granted, I haven’t exactly given up entirely and there are a few years yet ’til that next milestone. And yet there are already plenty of miles behind me–miles whose knowledge I want to share, preferably with a spouse and potentially with someone of my own genetic makeup– along with experiences that stretch years ahead. But I could easily love a child not biologically my own.
Much like Jody– who never thought she’d be where she is at this point in her life. But she is. And she’s doing it as a single mother, raising this beautiful child and through all of the normal blood, sweat, tears of the parenthood experience, here she is– what she’d wanted all along, albeit in a form she never quite planned. Still, she’s somebody’s Mom. She’s Sun-Ming’s Mama reporting on Facebook how yesterday Sun-Ming poured orange juice onto her cereal thinking the carton said milk, how she has three boyfriends in pre-school already and how she explained, “Dylans’s for mowning, Jack’s for afterwoon, then Carson for the rest of the day, of course!”
Of course. Nothing’s guaranteed in this life except that you hit a certain point and you know enough to take love, to embrace family, in whatever form available and necessary– whether that’s Mr. Forever and his biological offspring or a Chinese girl in blue pinafore with coordinating ponytail ribbons.
Jody, whether my true friend or not, is a mom. And perhaps even a glimpse into my own not-so-distant future.
Mary Elizabeth Parker
CONFESSIONS OF A NUN MANQUE
I’ve always craved a place where the world can’t get at me. A few days at a convent that forbids speech (a retreat fashionable now among the secular) would be a start. Yet my yen toward a nun’s life is, at the core, crazy—given that, hard as I yearn, I can’t believe in God.
Despite Methodist Sunday school when the love of and fear of God was drummed into me, despite a stint of quasi-Catholicism when I was 16 and lousy with emotion for something, belief in God has remained, for me, out of reach. At 16, when on Saturday afternoons I stood alone, singing, in the deserted balcony of Saint Francis de Sales Catholic Church, belting out Lauro Nyro’s credo song “Timer” (about God) into the perfect acoustics of the church’s huge, modern, bat-wing shell—I did almost apprehend God. But not quite. Until I discovered boys (I was a late bloomer) I considered myself secretly a nun manqué, kept from touching the hem of Christ’s garment only by the slight impediment of not believing.
Even now I practice a kind of prayer and praising without ceasing—consciously letting my appreciation for the world’s myriad beauties well up in me throughout the day. Yet I have no sense of a cosmic ear that attends my praise: My gratitude seems to drift and fall flat like so much confetti. It would be wonderful to pray to something, to believe in a loving intelligence that crooks its dove’s wing around me, to nestle inside that pocket of faith. But the best I can believe is that God is a daemon who set this amazing universe in motion like a perpetual dynamo, and then decamped.
A while back, I watched, bemused, Miami Ink, the TV ‘reality’ show that glorifies the work of South Beach tattoo artists. One of their clients impressed me: a plump, grandmotherly type with dyed red hair who apparently had met transcendence via the Blessed Sandwich, a 10-year-old grilled cheese which sold for an obscene amount on e-bay—$28,000. She was having a likeness of the sandwich tattooed to the slope of her huge right breast. Like other of the faithful, she believed the greasy indentations and shadows in the cheese formed the features of The Virgin’s face.
Nearly in tears with the fervency of her faith, she said (of The Virgin): I’m just so grateful she came to ME. A little whacked out. But I admire her certainty. Hard as I try, I can not believe in signs (in cheese or elsewhere) as proof of God. I guess I won’t believe a loving God exists unless I’m whomped upside the head by a ten-ton personal visitation that says, Okay, stupid, it’s me!
If God smote my ear and gave me blessing, then I’d know I’d received my vocation. Then I could enter the convent gates (if my husband would agree to my entering). Or I could skip the convent, stay home and enter without guilt into my true life as a contemplative—a modern anchorite, a kind of Julian of Norwich in Suburbia, With Husband.
The crux is for God to okay a contemplative life without guilt. Because, truth is, I’m a closet contemplative now (but a guilt-ridden, atheist one). I spend most of my time pondering. I think and I read and I write and I think. I don’t have children to rear (by default, not by choice), and my writing work isn’t 9-5. People ask what I’ve been up to, and my shameful, vague answer is nothing, because what I actually do, I know, is sanctioned only for nuns at contemplative orders. Just thinking isn’t, for the secular woman, recognized and respected as work.
My upbringing didn’t countenance sluggards. I haven’t been a useless, lollygagging, unproductive wool-gatherer always. I grew up in a house with no money, worked my way through three university degrees, and labored on clumsily for 20 years at respectable humanistic jobs that paid little. Struggle is the norm where I come from—work, work, and more work to acquit oneself—though even then, grace is not assured.
I began my religious schooling at Temple Methodist Church. (My mother’s mother, in her hat and white gloves, held my small hand in its white glove. I loved the propriety of that.) When I was twelve and my siblings were even younger, my parents kidnapped and hustled us to a more forgiving Unitarian church. (Singing alone in the Catholic sanctuary was my own secret detour.)
Yet it was the unrelenting specter of John Knox’s Calvinism that draped its bat-wings over my family and just sat on us, without stint. My mother was a Ferguson and, despite everything, the tribal imprint sticks. We’re no longer starving in a Scottish croft, but every one of us is, still, the dour Scot. A Scots grimness weights every atom of our being despite the humor with which we try to leaven it (fatalistic humor, of course). If I’m walking down the street feeling, really, just fine but with my Ferguson mouth (genetically, constitutionally) down-turned, I can expect to be accosted by strangers and urged to Smile! It’s not that bad! My father’s lineage is grim, too: My great-grandfather on my father’s mother’s side died of sepsis from bad teeth and his wife succumbed to grief one month later, leaving an 11-year-old orphan, my grandmother (who then died at 59 of twisted bowels, when I was 17).
The Calvinist creed (no salvation but through election, and the sign of election is works) was not carved over our door; it was merely branded upon our souls. As a kid, I felt guilty for the time I spent lazing through books and daydreaming. I was never upbraided for my wool-gathering but I knew, guiltily, that spending long hours just thinking wasn’t normal: That was moodiness, that was unfocused, that was unconscionable wasting of time. I knew from example that my behavior was contumacious: How could I loll when my father drove himself twelve hours a day scouring the counties selling insurance, and my mother (without money or materiel) raised six kids and arranged a home Martha Stewart would envy and eventually aced her way through a college degree and into a job as a medical librarian.
Somehow, I acquitted myself satisfactorily through high school and college. But when the moment came to grow up and earn, I stood on the sidelines, sick with fear: I felt like a terrified spectator at Le Mans, desperate for the careering world to get itself under control, compose itself, slow down—and let me cross safely to adulthood. Instead, like everybody else, I was shoved out onto the tarmac to dodge as well as I could. As I struggled for success, my life was jammed with work, with the tasks and obligations that connote a fine upstanding human being.
Thirty years later I still believe that at the end of a day, as justification for snorting up my allotment of air, I should be able to list Tasks Completed. So on a ‘good’ day now, I vacuum my home, wrestle linens and laundry, bathe the pup, scout stores for bargain groceries (I feel guilty for spending my husband’s income—my writing earns such a pittance), perform (marginally) in the kitchen, toil at my writing, and pack off my manuscripts to literary journals.
But most days, truthfully, I don’t do that much work. I read, I write a little, I contemplate the struggling world, I feel guilty for sitting in my house doing: nothing.
Lean, rich Brazilian women, I’ve read, believe it’s their right to do nothing— that simply raising a hand to lift their hair off their sharp faces makes a day. Maybe instead of yearning for nun-ness, for sanction (maybe from God) of my indolence, I should simply strive to be a rich Brazilian woman—a sort of contemplative shod in Christian Louboutin red-soled pumps. But I don’t have the sharp racehorse bones for it.
MORE THAN A NICKEL
The longer we ponder some memories and their related stories, the more muddled the details sometimes become. Often times, the recollections become so blurry that we begin wondering if they really happened at all, or if they are mere remnants in our minds from a dream, a passing conversation or a movie from our past. The saving grace, at times, is found in those precious photographs that someone had the foresight to take. Such pictures can empower us, and those who follow, to revisit our experiences with greater levels of clarity and accuracy and a heightened sense of sentiment.
It was one of my very first days of school. As is traditional, the elementary school I attended was having a fall festival that included a variety of events, activities and contests that lasted over a period of a few weeks. One such contest captured my eyes as I walked up the broad concrete steps and through the tall, heavy wooden doors that appeared to me more made of paint than of wood. The first thing I saw inside was a huge jar of candy resting on a small wooden table. As I moved up for a closer look, my own reflection in the glass jar was quickly replaced with a crystal clear view of the treasure inside. My trance was broken abruptly when an older student asked me if I would like to pay a nickel to guess how many pieces of candy were in the jar. He went on to explain that the money helped to buy school supplies and that the person who guessed the closest to the actual number of pieces of candy would win it all. “Are you kidding me? All of that candy – for just one nickel?” Impervious to statistical odds, laws of probabilities and the likes, I quickly surmised that this was much more than a good cause; this was indeed a deal just too good to pass up. Still gazing at that huge jar of candy, I surrendered a portion of my lunch money for a guess; I don’t remember how I bought lunch later that day. After studying the jar for a few minutes and knowing very little difference between twenty-five and a hundred and twenty-five, I wrote down a number on the little piece of paper for my guess, turned it in and paid my nickel.
I remember going home that afternoon and telling my mother and father what a great investment I had made and how wonderful it would be when all of our family would have this enormous supply of candy at our fingertips for – well, probably a lifetime. It must have been my confidence, maybe my innocence, or perhaps a little of both that charged them to join me in celebrating this – my very first executive decision as a first grader. Perhaps, chastising me for recklessly wasting a portion of my lunch money would have been a more practical response, but maybe they thought that five cents exchanged for a profound lesson on coping with life’s disappointments would be a nickel well spent.
It must have been about a week later when I heard my name called over the school loudspeaker – a thing that no first-grader wanted for – asking me to report immediately to the principal’s office; no one ever got sent to the principal’s office for anything good. I remember walking the long hallway trying to think of what it was that I must have done wrong to land me in front of the principal. When I arrived at the door, I was motioned in and instructed to take a seat. Sitting in another chair close by was a big sixth grade boy; I remember he had a very serious look on his face. The principal began, “It seems we have a bit of a dilemma, fellows. The two of you guessed exactly the same number in the candy jar contest and as luck has it, yours is the closest to being the correct number. I’ve thought this over and decided to have you draw straws to decide a winner. The youngest of you will draw first and the one drawing the longer of the two straws will be our winner”. A little confused about the unfolding event, I tugged at one of the smidgens of straws poking from the principal’s tight fists and sat holding it pretending to have some concept of what was going on. When the sixth grader then took the remaining straw, noticeably shorter than the one I held, I was pronounced the winner and found myself hauling this huge jar of candy back down to my classroom.
Now, I was not always the most popular guy in school, but I can tell you that I came mighty close that day. I still remember the eyes of my classmates when I walked back into the room that morning with hands clutching a massive jar of goodies rather than rubbing my backside as they may have imagined me to be doing. The enormous jug of candy was outsized only by the smile on my face – which may have diminished slightly upon my teacher’s suggestion that I walk around the room and offer everyone a piece of candy.
I remember carrying that jar on my walk home that afternoon; we lived within a block of the school. I wanted to run, but I tried to pace myself so as not to lose the death grip I had on the glass jug. I don’t need a picture – though I’d love to have one – to recall my mother’s expression when I came into her view as she stood on the porch of our house watching me walk home like she did most every afternoon. I honestly think that she may have been more excited than I was. The conversation at the dinner table that evening was great as I told the story about guessing the number to win the candy and then outsmarting a big sixth grader to close the deal.
I don’t know whatever happened to that old glass jar, but I can tell you that for many months, it sat on a table in our hallway sharing tokens of my good fortune to any and all that passed. When the candy was finally consumed, my mother could hardly bear the thoughts of moving it, so she creatively transformed the jar into a place of safe-keeping for our family’s spare change throughout the year. Each night, my father and older siblings would put their loose change in the jar; it became a challenge to see how nearly filled it could be by year’s end. Then, a few weeks before Christmas, our family would gather around the kitchen table, dump the change out and divide it evenly among the children to use for Christmas shopping. For many years, the jar continued to represent giving to our family in this manner.
As I look at the photograph of that little boy holding that big jar of candy, many thoughts go through my mind. I don’t remember what the candy tasted like, how many pieces the jar held or what lucky number won the prize. But the smiling face in the photograph is yet reflected in the lessons and traditions that were secretly embedded within the jar’s contents. Often when I see a small child reluctantly sharing some of his candy with another, I think of the wisdom that my first grade teacher showed as she nudged me to share some of my good fortune with my classmates that day and how good the feeling was to have something to share. To this day, I have a habit of keeping a jar of candy on my desk for visitors. As well, in the corner of my closet, there sits a large gallon jar in which I deposit my loose change each evening. We do not divide the money up at Christmastime, but for years, my children have seen this jar as the little well that never runs dry – though it has been dangerously close a few times – to which they can go whenever they need a little extra money for school or church.
So what if I had never won the candy in my elementary school? What if my mother had not thought to freeze this moment in time with the miracle of her camera? Would I still keep a jar of candy sitting on my desk? Would a gallon jar for my loose change yet be stationed in my closet for my children? Perhaps so; but one thing is for certain, when it comes to the value in reminiscing, the lessons and memories gleaned from a photograph of a first grader and his jar of candy are worth a fortune – or at the least – more than a nickel!
PARSLEY, SAGE, ROSEMARY, AND THYME
I feel stuck in a canticle like Simon and Garfunkel’s rendition of “Scarborough Fair.” Not only does the refrain of “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” floats through my head on a constant recurring and refreshing breeze, and the alternate lines that they inserted worm their way in, too, but they aren’t a refreshing breeze. They are a reminder of the constant fight between love and it’s counterpart. Now whether hate or indifference is that counterpart, I won’t debate here. The idea of a melody of life with its ever-present undercurrent of downs to steady the ups—that is the issue here.
At first our minstrels weave the tale of true love, “Are you going to Scarborough Fair?”, followed by the haunting recurrent, “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.” Then: “Remember me to one who lives there. She once was a true love of mine. Tell her to make me a cambric shirt. Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. Without no seams, nor needlework.” The first in the singer’s list of impossible tasks he demands. He goes on to list others like cultivating the elusive land that appears between the foamy waves and the dry sand, or reaping the harvest with a sickle of leather. He admits after naming even more tasks that these are impossible, as true love often asks for the impossible, but if his once true love will at least attempt these feats, and then return to him and ask for his hand (the woman being the asker is another unthinkable task for the Middle Ages), then she’ll be a true love of his once again. Then they will marry. A dreamy yearning of a jilted lover perhaps? Yes, perhaps, but without the dreaminess that love brings, all that we have left is stark reality.
Hauntingly between it all: “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme…” In the days of the song’s writing, these fragrant herbs all had special meaning to the people of England. Parsley was used to take away the bitterness of a meal; it aided in digestion. Sage has been a symbol of strength for thousands of years. Rosemary stood for sensibility and prudence, and hence, female love. Rosemary is strong and tough, yet it grows slowly. Brides in England and other parts of Europe once wore, and sometimes still do wear, circlets of rosemary in their hair. Knights’ shields were emblazoned with images of thyme, the widely recognized emblem of courage. So, with every task the singer requests of his love, he re-emphasizes the traits that she must have. She hurt him once, but he will put aside his hurt and pain, if she soothes his bitterness (parsley), makes her love strong again (sage), wears the symbol of feminine love and matrimony (rosemary), and gets up the courage (thyme) to ask him to marry her.
A love song, a love song. Sweet is the tune, haunting the melody, revolutionary the theme. Does the singer’s dream have even half a chance of coming true?
In a strange quirk of the muse, be it genius or just a wandering thread of thought indulged, Paul Simon, the arranger, juxtaposes both on top of, and between the original lines of song, another song entirely. I had listened to this song ever since Simon and Garfunkel’s version came out in the 1960’s, and I am embarrassed to admit that I never even realized quite what was being said. I thought them ghost lyrics of the love song, like a round almost. But they are not. Here are those superimposed lines: A hill in the deep forest green/ tracing of sparrow on snow-crested brown/ blankets and bedclothes the child of the mountain/ sleeps unaware of the clarion call. On the side of the hill a sprinkling of leaves/ washes the grave with silvery tears/ a soldier cleans and polishes a gun/ sleeps unaware of the clarion call. War bellows blazing in scarlet battalions/ a general orders his soldiers to kill/ and to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten.
Two stark images, two pictures painted. An innocent mountain child sleeping, unaware that war rages somewhere. In another spot, a graveyard perhaps, a soldier polishes his gun. But how can he be unaware of the clarion call? Or is he asleep to the purpose of his actions? Or is his conscience asleep from years of suppressing it as he fired his gun again and again, hitting straight and true his target, sending his enemy home to the earth? A cause, long ago forgotten. Are these two people, the child and the soldier, one and the same? Does the sprinkling of leaves wash across the grave where they lie?
The song ends with the refrain, “then she’ll be a true love of mine.” Does his true love await him? Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme?
The juxtaposition of love and war, a cause long ago forgotten, a love lost, an innocent child: all these images, taken together, are my mind these days. And this song haunts me daily. What am I about? Love, war? Do I not do battle every day in the classroom, sometimes struggling on to win for a cause I’ve long ago forgotten? Do I struggle on, dreaming for true love anyway? The parsley, the sage, the rosemary, the thyme. Their fragrance is as sweet and pungent as this song is bittersweet and ephemeral. And yet the ephemeral lives on. Still searching for true love. Soldiers still fighting for the forgotten cause.