BOO!

All Hallows Eve approaches, and it’s not just the children who love this holiday, with its ghost stories and the trick-or-treat traditions. According to the National Retail Federation, “more than 148 million U.S. adults plan to participate in Halloween-related activities,” [[i]] despite the restrictions of COVID-19! What is it that we love so much about Halloween? 

        According to a Purdue University professor, Halloween lets us experience a good scare without being in real danger. It is within human nature to seek out and suffer unpleasant feelings – but in small doses, allowing us to flirt with danger and experience the emotional rush— free of real consequences.[[ii]]   

        Historically, Halloween is believed to have originated with the pagan Celtic festival of Samhain. This ancient community, which lived 2,000 years ago, celebrated their new year on November 1 and believed that the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead collided. 

On October 31, the Celts believed the spirits of the dead returned to earth to cause trouble and damage their crops. They built huge sacred bonfires, where they burned crops and sacrificed animals to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. Before the festivities began, they extinguished their hearth fires at home. When the celebration was over, they re-lit them with flames from the sacred, ceremonial bonfire to help protect themselves during the coming winter.

        By the ninth century, Christianity had spread into Celtic lands and blended Christian ceremonies with older pagan rites. In 1,000 A.D., the Catholic church designated November 1 as All Saints’ Day, or All-hallows/All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints’ Day), absorbing the Celtic traditions of Samhain, with bonfires and masquerades. This became All-Hallows Eve, and the word eventually compressed into Halloween.[[iii]]During this time, new rituals sprang up and were theforerunners to trick-or-treat, a custom not loved universally by parents in today’s world.

        In Medieval England, on All Hallows Eve, poor people would visit the homes of wealthy families to receive soul cakes. The custom was called souling because “Little pastries were given in exchange for a promise to pray for the souls of the dead relatives.” [[iv]]  In Scotland and Ireland, young people disguised themselves by dressing in costume, and accepting offerings from households in return for singing, reciting poetry, telling jokes, or performing a trick before receiving their treat.[[v]]

        In the U.S., the custom of trick-or-treating became a staple of the American Halloween celebrations after WW II, when sugar rationing ended. In 1952, Walt Disney released the first Trick-or-Treat cartoon movie, starring Donald Duck, which helped solidify Halloween’s celebration in American culture.

        Whatever one feels about the practice of trick-or-treating, there is another tradition that almost everyone looks forward to. Halloween is a fine time to revisit our beloved and deliciously scary, creepy stories and find new ones. Who can resist the urge to vicariously experience, without consequence, the chills, thrills, and fright of ghost stories and strange happenings? 

Among thousands of spooky tales are Edith Wharton’s Ghost Stories, ranging from the unnerving appearance of ghosts in All Souls’, who appear at Sara Clayburn’s house to wreak havoc for one night. There is a spirit in The Lady’s Maid’s Bell, leaving the reader to wonder if the bell rang to warn of something terrible happening, or was it the narrator’s imagination?

 Then there’s the frightful notion of not recognizing a being from the afterlife in Afterwards when a husband disappears – and only at the end does the bereft wife understand that the ghost of someone dead had visited. 

Often, the tales of crime by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle imply something supernatural, as in The Adventure of the Speckled Band, about a mysterious death and a young woman’s fear that her own was approaching. And, of course, his classic The Hound of the Baskervilles can be read repeatedly and still maintain its emotional impact.Just the thought of the hound braying on the moor raises goosebumps.

There is hardly room to mention every author whose work has become a Halloween special. Among the scariest are Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, in which an occult scholar and his searchers seek evidence of hauntings and get more than they bargained for.

 

And the scariest, ever, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. Again, the author creates a terrifying picture of two dead servants returning and possessing the bodies of two young children, a brother, and sister. Again, the author leaves the reader questioning whether or not the events and their interpretations are from the nanny’s imagination, or are they real? Only Henry James knew for sure—or did he?

 

So, on All Hallow’s Eve, when you’re done with your traditions, trick-or-treating – whether ringing doorbells or handing out safely wrapped candies set the mood. Darken the house, keep a reading lamp bright to illuminate the pages and curl up with a hot chocolate or something more robust and let yourself be immersed in the netherworld and allow yourself to be scared.BOO!


                              [i] https://nrf.com/media-center/press-releases/consumers-anticipate-new-ways-to-celebrate-halloween-despite-covid-19  10/23/20

[ii] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3860638/The-science-Halloween-Researchers-reveal-safe-gross-appeal-spooky-celebration.html 10/22/20

[iii] https://www.history.com/topics/halloween/history-of-halloween 10/21/20
[iv] Ibid
[v] Ibid
ART:
Image OF HANDS ON GLASS  by Sergey Gricanov from Pixabay
Image  SETTING THE MOOD by Enrique Meseguer from Pixabay
Image of GHOST WOMAN  by DarkmoonArt_de from Pixabay
Image OF ESTATE FOR HOUND by Basil Smith from Pixabay 

Mary Oliver—Who Heeded the Call

 

by Renee Kimball

 

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

~ Mary Oliver

 “Ten times a day something happens to me like this – some strengthening throb of amazement – some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.

~ Mary Oliver                          

* 

Sometimes we bump into an author that shakes us—strikes deep.  In complete amazement we say, I wish I had had the advantage of her wisdom sooner.  Now, going forward, may we all be as aware as Mary Oliver, may we all practice her approach to life, love, and nature.

 

*

Mary Oliver was born on September 10, 1935, and died at the age of 83, on January 17, 2019. She published over 25 books of poetry and prose during her lifetime.

Oliver rarely wrote of her Ohio childhood.  She was a victim of extreme child abuse and family dysfunction. To survive, she escaped to nature and literature and they sustained and saved her.

She studied at Ohio State University and Vassar College, but left before completing her studies.

Oliver won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984.  She continued to win numerous other literary awards as well as honorary doctorates during her lifetime.

*

—from Upstream (Penguin Press, 2016).

“. . .Teach the children.  We don’t matter so much, but the children do. . . Show them daisies. . .Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms. . Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

“. . . But first and foremost, I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel. . .I learned that the poem was made not just to exist, but to speak—to be company.  It was everything that was needed. . .”

“I quickly found for myself two such blessings—the natural world, and the world of writing: literature.  These were the gates through which I vanished from a difficult place. . .”

“. . . And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness—the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books—can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”

—from Dream Work (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994)

“. . . You don’t want to hear the story
of my life, and anyway
I don’t want to tell it, I want to listen
to the enormous waterfalls of the sun. . .”

 

 

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert,
repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of
your body
love what it loves.

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell
you mine
Meanwhile the world goes on.

. . .

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”

—from Devotions (Penguin Press, 2017)

I Wake Close to Morning

Why do people keep asking to see
God’s identity papers
when the darkness opening into morning
is more than enough?
Certainly any god might turn away in disgust.
Think of Sheba approaching
the kingdom of Solomon.
Do you think she had to ask, “Is this the place?”

The World I Live In

I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of reasons and proofs.
The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that. And anyway,
what’s wrong with Maybe?

You wouldn’t believe what once or twice I have seen. I’ll just
tell you this:
only if there are angels in your head will you
ever, possibly, see one.

*

The world is much lonelier now without Mary Oliver.  We are fortunate that she left us a word filled legacy that advises us to be awake, attentive, read without stopping, and become a lover of nature.

Lastly,  if you are lucky and should hear the creative call, then do the work, whatever that may be that calls to you—open your arms, your mind, your being, and respond.

Those of us left behind remain immensely grateful that Mary Oliver heeded her call.

*

“. . . My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely.  It does not include mustard, or teeth.  It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot . . My loyalty is to the inner vison, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. . .

 “There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done.  And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything.  The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

 —from Upstream (emphasis added).

***

References

Cover photos from Amazon

Mary Oliver page from Goodreads.

Mary Oliver 1935–2019. Poetry Foundation.

Mary Oliver website.  Beacon.

“On Being with Krista Tippett  Mary Oliver Listening to the World.” Radio Podcast. September 3, 2020. Original Air Date February 5, 2015.

Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver. October 10, 2017

Upstream: Selected Essays by Mary Oliver. October 29, 2019.

Dream Work by Mary Oliver.  May 1, 1986

***

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

 

PLAIN OR FANCY?

by Helen Currie Foster

Mystery readers are tetchy. We want an interesting plot with a fair shot at noting each clue—but don’t want to guess whodunnit too soon. We’re prepared to care about the protagonist, the sleuth, perhaps the victim. We hope some characters will intrigue us; others should do their part and get offstage.

Of course, setting is key. We may want a mystery set in our own state—or on the far side of the world. We demand accurate detail; we’re slow to forgive mistakes. We want to feel we’re actually in the setting: riding the Cornwall train with an exhausted Cormoran Strike, in the basement of the Russian Club with Peter Wimsey, escaping from a southside Chicago industrial complex with V.I. Warshawski.

So for setting, how much description is too much? Do you find yourself sometimes turning the page, skipping the paragraph describing the view from the ski-lift, the row of shops in the village, the squalor of the factory yard?

Recall Oliver Strunk’s Rule 6, Do Not Overwrite (Section V, “An Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders”): “Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.”

Oliver Strunk’s Elements of Style

The Wild Places: 9781783784493: Amazon.com: Books

Yes, but sometimes a writer stops us in our tracks with beauty. Take Robert MacFarlane, The Wild Places (my favorite, describing hikes in Britain)or The Old Ways, or Landmarks. Contrary to habit I scribbled many quotes in the back of my copy of The Wild Places. He describes moonlight on a freezing night atop a mountain: “trillions of lunar photons pelting on to my face and the snow about me, giving me an eyeful of silver…”

An eyeful of silver! He writes of hiking an eroded old seabed, “We moved through dozens of weathers.” Of a frozen waterfall: “A hard portcullis of ice, beautifully mottled by dark figures of thaw.” Can’t you see it? Feel it? He quotes Stephen Graham on the rare moment when we feel part of nature: “‘As you sit on the hillside, or lie prone under the trees of the forest, or sprawl wet-legged by a mountain stream, the great door, that does not look like a door, opens.’”

The great door, that does not look like a door!

Maybe our sleuth lacks the time, is in too much peril, to describe moonlight “giving me an eyeful of silver,” or the moment when she or he, lying beneath a tree, momentarily sensed “the great door, that does not look like a door…” Too contemplative, when the sleuth has no time to contemplate.

A mystery setting has additional jobs besides painting the landscape. Ideally it draws us straight into the plot, shaping our view of the characters. Here’s the beginning of Sayer’s Strong Poison:

Mystery Monday: Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers | Ms M's Bookshelf

“There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood.

The judge was an old man; so old, he seemed to have outlived time and change and death. His parrot-face and parrot-voice were dry, like his old, heavily-veined hands. His scarlet robe clashed harshly with the crimson of the roses. He had sat for three days in the stuffy court, but he showed no signs of fatigue.

He did not look at the prisoner as he gathered his notes into a neat sheaf and turned to address the jury, but the prisoner looked at him. Her eyes, like dark smudges under the heavy square brows, seemed equally without fear and without hope. They waited.”

Already we’re caught, sensing the prisoner’s peril. Immediately we must turn to the next page.

Or Tony Hillerman’s first paragraphs in The Ghostway:

The Ghostway (Leaphorn & Chee, #6) by Tony Hillerman

“Hosteen Joseph Joe remembered it like this.

He’d noticed the green car just as he came out of the Shiprock Economy Wash-O-Mat. The red light of sundown reflected from its windshield. Above the line of yellow cottonwoods along the San Juan River the shape of Shiprock was blue-black and ragged against the glow. The car looked brand new and it was rolling slowly across the gravel, the driver leaning out the window just a little. The driver had yelled at Joseph Joe.

“Hey!” he’d yelled. “Come here a minute.”

Joseph Joe remembered that very clearly. The driver looked like a Navajo, but yelling at him like that was not a Navajo thing to do because Joseph Joe was eighty-one years old, and the people around Shiprock and up in the Chuska Moutains called him Hosteen, which means “old man” and is a term of great respect.”

Hillerman has us. Shiprock silhouetted against a sunset, the Chuska Mountains, Navajo tradition being violated––we’re hooked by this authoritative voice placing us where we wanted to be, in Navajo country.

Strunk has other words for us writers as well. His Rule 14, Avoid Fancy Words: “Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so use Anglo-Saxon words.” I checked: “word” itself is Anglo-Saxon. https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=word

This instruction helps mystery writers follow several other rules, such as not overwriting, and choosing powerful verbs and specific nouns. See page two of Hillerman’s The Dark Wind:

Amazon.com: The Dark Wind (9780062018021): Tony Hillerman: Books

Lomatewa glanced past the rabbit brush at the second boot. It matched. Beyond the second boot, the path curved sharply around a weathered granite boulder. Lomatewa sucked in his breath. Jutting from behind the boulder he could see the bottom of a foot. The foot was bare and even from where Lomatewa stood he could see there was something terribly wrong with it.”

Here he uses mainly (not all) Anglo-Saxon words, though some traveled from Latin through old French.

When I’m writing I’m always aware of Strunk’s strictures (uh-oh, late Latin). Indeed, I should probably reread him every week. But in working on this seventh mystery I also hope to discover “an eyeful of silver”, or “the smell of charred stone”, or move through “dozens of weathers,” or more.

***

You can find more information about Helen Currie Foster at helencurriefoster.com

How to Get Your Brain Unstuck: Overcoming Writer’s Block Caused by Minor Stress

By N. M. Cedeño

Most people find it hard to concentrate on work when their stress levels rise. Meeting work goals becomes a challenge, and even routine tasks become hard-fought slogs because of stress. For many writers, the more stress we have in our day-to-day lives, the harder it is to put words on the page. Conversely, we feel less stressed when we have accomplished writing something. So while stress can prevent writing, writing can relieve stress, if we can get past the obstructions that are making it difficult for us to focus on writing.

from Pixabay

Stressors can pile on top of each other like bricks in a wall, forming a barrier that prevents focusing on other important matters.

Pandemic and natural disaster news = a load of bricks.

Kids attending school virtually from home = a load of bricks.

Election year politics = a load of bricks.

The insurance hassle of a minor car accident = a load of bricks.

Someone’s oral surgery to remove an impacted tooth = a load of bricks.

Zoom meeting after zoom meeting = a load of bricks.

Appliances and plumbing demanding immediate attention in an escalating pattern that explodes to include the dishwasher, clothes washer, water heater, refrigerator, water softener, several emergency water shut-off valves, and every faucet, shower head, and toilet in the house = a load of bricks.[i]

 All of those bricks can build a solid mental barricade. Demolishing that wall and getting back to writing takes effort. We need to take the time to de-stress by doing activities we enjoy. Lots of people are working from home right now, so taking a day off looks different than it has in the past. We have to consciously avoid sitting down to work that is ever-present and, instead, choose to do other activities.

image from Pixabay

First, we have to identify relaxing activities. Things I’ve found to alleviate stress include walking a few miles, scrubbing things, yardwork, reading mysteries, drinking tea, baking, eating chocolate, and, sometimes, binge-watching a television series in the evening.

This week, I set aside a morning to transplant my aloe vera plants from their overcrowded pots into more spacious ones. Ignoring those plants for five years allowed them to multiply like rabbits behind my back. Two bags of potting soil and 70 or so plants later, the plants looked much better, and I felt less stressed.

About half my aloe vera plants.
Photo by N. M. Cedeño

I have several walking routes measured to cover two to three miles near my house. One of them, perhaps fortuitously, or maybe not, depending on your point of view, passes right by a local coffee and donut shop.

Walking and yardwork are healthy ways to relieve stress, and they counterbalance unhealthier, but enjoyable activities like baking sweets and consuming chocolate. This past week, I baked homemade Nestle triple chocolate cookies and chocolate chip banana bread, and interspersed the baking with walking eight miles, edging and trimming the property, and transplanting all those plants.

Reading and watching television can refocus the brain on story plots, pushing stressors aside. Last weekend, I read Rhys Bowen’s latest in her Royal Spyness Series, The Last Mrs. Summers. This week, I’m working my way through a mystery short story collection. A few months ago, I watched the entire Star Trek: Enterprise series, watching one or two episodes every evening for a few weeks. This month, I watched a Canadian police drama.

When life’s minor stresses start to pile up and begin to interfere with writing deadlines, we must set aside time to de-stress with activities we enjoy. Generally speaking, a little exercise and a dose of relaxation can get the creative juices flowing and allow the words to start tumbling onto the page again. And, if all of the usual methods fail, it might be time for a vacation.[ii]


[i] Yes, this happened. While annoying, this is still minor stress compared to the loss of life, jobs, and property many people are facing right now.

ii] Note: This advice is for minor stress. If you are living with the floods, fires, storms, or disease that have defined 2020, as opposed to on the fringes of it all, these techniques may help mitigate stress, but won’t relieve it. For those with major stress, you have my sympathy.

~~~~~

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Book Review: Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do; Edited by Meredith Maran

by Renee Kimball

Meredith Maran decided to write a book about writing to show her “gratitude to writers everywhere.”  To do that, however, she needed information from at least twenty best-selling authors.  Their responses would form basis for the book and a portion of the final profits would be donated to the 826 National literacy outreach centers promoting reading and writing in underprivileged areas.  She hoped this extra incentive would entice the “twenty” to respond.

While Maran’s greatest worry was whether the popular selling authors would even acknowledge or ignore her plea, she found her worries groundless—every author she contacted fully participated.  The responses were beyond Maran’s wildest expectations.

Along with their replies, the authors also included a bit of personal information and a plethora of sage advice for new writers.  The result of Maran’s inquiries became,  Why We Write 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do.

While you will need to read the book to enjoy of the wealth of information, below a few of the authors’ replies are highlighted.

 Isabel Allende

“I need to tell a story. It’s an obsession.  Each story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, like a tumor, and I have to deal with it sooner or later. Why a particular story?  I don’t know when I begin. That I learn much later.” (p. 4).

“It’s worth the work to find the precise word that will create a feeling of describe a situation. When you feel the story is beginning to pick up rhythm—then you know the book is going somewhere, and you just have to find it, and bring it, word by word into this world . . . (p.11-12).

David Baldacci

“If writing were illegal, I’d be in prison.  I can’t not write. It’s a compulsion.” (p. 16).

“When the sentences and the story are flowing, writing is better than any drug.  It doesn’t just make you feel good about yourself.  It makes you feel good about everything.” (p. 16).

“It can go the other way too. . . But actually, sitting there and conceiving story ideas and plotting—it’s the coolest profession in the world.  I’m paid to daydream.” (p. 16).

“Whether you’re writing a novel or a cover letter. . . shorter is always better.” (p. 23).

“The upside of the current state of publishing:  it’s a lot easier to self-publish than it ever was.  Publish on the Internet, or on demand, or self-publish in print—but whatever you do, if you want to share your story, publish it” (p. 23).

“Writing for your readers” is a euphemism for “writing what you think people will buy.” Don’t fall for it! Write for the person you know best: yourself.”  (p. 23).

Sue Grafton

“I write because in 1962 I put in my application for a job working in the children’s department at Sears, and they never called me back.  Seriously, I write because it’s all I know how to do.  Writing is my anchor and my purpose.” (p. 52).

“My best time as a writer is any day, or any moment, when the work’s going well and I’m completely absorbed in the task at hand.  The hardest time is when it’s not, and I’m not.  The latter tend to outnumber the former.  But I’m a persistent little cuss.  And I soldier on.” (p. 52).

“Most days when I sit down at my computer, I’m scared half out of my mind.  I’m always convinced that my last book was my last book, that my career is at an end, that I’ll never be able to pull off another novel, that my success was a fleeting illusion, and my hopes for the future are already dead.  Dang!  All this drama and it’s not even nine a.m.” (p. 53).

“Mystery writers are the neurosurgeons of literature.  Or maybe magicians.  We work by slight of hand.” (p. 57).

“There are no secrets and there are no shortcuts.  As an aspiring writer, what you need to know is that learning to write is self-taught, and learning to write well takes years.” (p. 60).

Ann Patchett

“I write because I swear to God, I don’t know how to do anything else.  From the time I was a little child, I knew that writing was going to be my life. . . I put all my eggs in one basket, which has resulted in a great number of eggs.” (p. 185).

“Don’t be afraid to make money writing the kinds of things you’d never write for the fun of it. There’s no shame in earing a living, whatever your write, even catalog copy or fluffy magazine articles, makes you a better writer.” (p. 192).

 Jane Smiley

“I write to investigate things I’m curious about.” (p. 206).

“A novelist’s job is to integrate information with the feelings and the stories of her characters, because a novel is about the alternation of the inner world and the outer world, what happens and what the characters fell about it.  There’s no reason to write a novel unless you’re going to talk about the inner lives of your characters.  Without that, the material is dry.  But without events and information, the novel seems subjective and pointless.” (p. 206).

“When I am writing, more than any other emotion, I feel excited.” (p. 209).

“Don’t write the book you think a publisher will want to publish.  Write the book you want to research and the book you want to read.” (p.215).

Maran’s small book is well worth reading and you just might find a kindred spirit within its pages.

Allende—obsession
Baldacci—compulsion
Grafton—writing is my anchor and my purpose
Patchett—can’t do anything else
Smiley—to investigate things

***

*826 National is a nonprofit organization that provides strategic leadership, administration, and other resources to ensure the success of its network of seven—soon to be eight—writing and tutoring centers.

Photos courtesy of Amazon

***

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

Ahhh, The Days of Lipstick, Make-up and Clothes

I took my grandson to Barnes and Noble yesterday. When we got there, I realized I’d forgotten to take his mask.

“Uh, oh,” he said, looking forlorn. “Do we have to go back, YaYa?”

I reached into the bottomless pit, called my purse, and pulled out the extra mask I always carry. “No problem, darling. I always have extra.” But it was precisely the same as the one I wear. Hmmm. What to do? I smoothed the masks out on my lap.

“See that little mark?” I asked, pointing to one.

“Yes. Is that one for me?” he asked, hopefully.

“No, my dear. That mark is from my lipstick. You’ll wear the other.”

So, into B & N we went. He had a great time looking through toys (educational only—YaYa’s policy) and books for Kindergarteners.

I, on the other hand, puffed into my mask, fogged my glasses, and whenever I felt no one could see me, I cheated. I lifted the thing off my face for a couple of breaths of fresh air! After all, I’d rather not be treated worse than a murderer or rapist because I need some oxygen along with the C02 I’m breathing by wearing the mask.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the reason and basically agree that wearing masks is at least some help against ALL viruses, not just COVID. It’s not a bad policy if uncomfortable and lipstick-smearing. I learned during the great toilet-paper chase, not to wear lipstick under the mask.

Early on, I was also using disposable masks. I knew that paper made incinerated garbage burn hotter, and I wondered how all this extra fabric and paper would impact the environment. It didn’t take long to find an answer about the potential problems for the environment at https://www.energylivenews.com/2020/03/17/coronavirus-face-masks-could-have-a-devastating-effect-on-the-environment/

While I am not an environmental warrior, I was the first in my family to question the wisdom of the public using disposables. Those should be reserved for our courageous nurses, doctors, and workers who actually need them to preserve their own health while on the job. Thus, by the end of March, everyone in my family, kids, kids-by-marriage, and grandkids have switched to washable masks. We disinfect and launder them at the end of each day. Kudos to me!!! LOL

Of course, I can’t take much credit, since I have also developed some bad habits in this new masked and locked down society. As an example, here I am, today, awake, writing, and taking care of business since four a.m.—no praise here – just my body clock- I haven’t yet bothered to comb my hair, wash my face, or get into street clothes. Sitting in front of a computer screen absolves me of the responsibility to present a decent face to the world – or does it? Or should it? I say no, but do it anyway, except for Zoom meetings, when I’m forced to at least wear some makeup.

So, as my grandson browsed, I looked around at all the masked people. Some wore ear-loop face masks, others wore the type with elastic bands that wrap around the head, while others wore the pull-up masks.

How different from our pre-COVID lives. We would have reacted quite differently to anyone walking into high-value targets for robbery like banks, restaurants, jewelry stores, and movie theaters with face coverings. Also in our pre-COVID life, we were encouraged to be environmentally responsible and bring our own reusable bags to stores and supermarkets. Now, if we do, the cashiers tell us before beginning to scan that we must pack the bags ourselves. This suits me anyway. I prefer doing it myself. I want ‘like items’ bagged together, which makes unpacking faster and more efficient.

And now, the social distancing. No more hugs for friends and relatives. That stinks, and I refuse not to hug and kiss my grandchildren, but I have learned to kiss their heads on top, not their faces. Can’t live without my hugs, but we hug with our faces turned away from one another—well, it’s better than nothing!

So, while I complain, grouse, have hissy fits over the whole thing, I remember how fortunate we are as history repeats itself. One-hundred-and-two years ago, the world suffered a pandemic called the “Spanish Flu, or the Spanish Lady,” even though it did not originate in Spain. 500-million people worldwide fell ill with this early variety of H1N1 and Avian Flu combined (as per CDC). In the U.S., 675,000 died, including those who are always most susceptible: young children and the elderly. The surprise in that pandemic was men and women in their primes became ill and died at alarming rates. At least we can be grateful that the young children and young adults seem to weather this COVID thing much better.

A-hundred years ago, there were no antibiotics, no pharmaceuticals to treat the virus, and they knew less about better hygiene. Although state and federal governments did close some schools and some businesses, most people had to leave their homes to earn a living or leave their family’s to starve.

 

 

So what have I learned from all of this? First off, back to good hygiene, people. For years domestic chores like house cleaning weren’t high on the intellectual list of essential tasks. How much better might people have fared in 1918 if they’d had the cleaning products we have today? Perhaps we should resurrect the saying, “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”

And of course, masks. They are not foolproof, but they are valuable tools and if wearing them was good enough for my great-grandparents, I guess it’s more than good enough for me.

 

As for my bad habits, when COVID-19 ends, I will once again learn to groom early, get my face on, and leave sufficient travel time for appointments. Meanwhile, I can jump on to virtual meetings without contending with traffic, or worrying about what I’m wearing. While all of this lasts, I’ll spend less on lipsticks and face powder, less on clothes, but have more to spend on books, and I’ll also pay attention to many of the unique ways we’ve learned to cope with this stinking virus.

Stay safe, and stay masked!


	

More Than There Was Before

When you reread a classic
you do not see more in the book than you did before;
you see more in you than was there before.  ~ Clifton Fadiman

*

The first few years I studied Romeo and Juliet with my high school freshmen, when I was in my early twenties, I followed the Star-Cross’d Lovers school of thought: Romeo and Juliet, two innocents, their eyes meet across a crowded room, she teaches the torches to burn bright, he’s the god of her idolatry, he wants to be a glove upon her hand, she wants to cut him out in little stars—but the cruel world conspires to bring them down.

The way Juliet’s father tells her to thank him no thankings nor proud him no prouds, but get to that church on Thursday and marry Paris or he’ll drag her thither on a hurdle—what kind of father says that to a thirteen-year-old girl? Parents don’t listen.

The kids might be a little quick to act, and goodness knows Romeo should have waited to talk to Friar Laurence before buying that poison. But who can expect patience of such romantic souls? A sad story indeed.

When I hit thirty, and had several years of teaching under my belt, I shifted to the What Can You Expect When Teenagers Behave Like Brats? philosophy: Romeo and Juliet, a couple of kids in a hurry, he doesn’t even bother to drop in on his family, just runs off to crash Capulet’s party, proposes to a girl before the first date, insists on a jumped-up wedding, then gets himself kicked out of the city, and he still hasn’t been home for dinner.

She mouths off to her father, tells him what she will and will not do, and that’s right after he’s told her what a nice husband he’s picked out for her. I mean, if you were a parent and your daughter spoke to you in that tone of voice, would you pat her hand and ask what’s wrong, or would you remind her who’s boss here?

If Romeo had just gone home in the first place, like any decent boy would, instead of running off with his friends, this mess wouldn’t have occurred.

In fact, since Old Montague and Old Capulet had that very afternoon been sworn to keep the peace, they might have arranged a marriage between Romeo and Juliet–formed an alliance that way—and the whole of Verona would have lived happily ever after, and Montague would have been spared the expense of a gold Juliet statue. Paris might have been a little put out at being jilted, but he’d have gotten over it. Kids! They don’t think.

When I hit forty, however, I developed the dogma of the Meddlesome Priest. Friar Laurence has no business performing a secret marriage between two minors without parental consent. He says he wants to promote peace, but he isn’t a diplomat. His field is pharmacology.

Furthermore, when Juliet informs him she’s about to acquire an extra husband, why doesn’t he go right then to her father and tell the man she’s married? Capulet wouldn’t have been pleased, but he’d have gotten over it. Instead, the Friar gives Juliet a sedative and stuffs her into a tomb with a passel of relatives in varying stages of disrepair.

The man appears to mean well, but it’s also possible he intends to take credit for being the brains behind the peace accords. Bunglesome or corrupt—the end is the same. With role models like him, are we surprised that children run amok?

Soon after the last epiphany, I ended my stint as a classroom teacher. I’ve wondered what would have happened if I’d continued to study Romeo and Juliet year after year. Would I have had new insights? Developed new interpretations? Uncovered new layers of meaning?

How much more would I have discovered in Shakespeare’s words? How much more would I have shared with my students?

Would I have continued to teach them respect and reverence? Would I have led them down the primrose path of dalliance and left them mired in levity?

How much more would I have given my students?

How much more would I have seen in myself?

***

Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. Her latest publication is STABBED, written with Manning Wolfe. She lives in Austin and is working on a novel.

Barbeculinary Thoughts

by Helen Currie Foster

I know, you’re asking yourself what barbecue has to do with mystery writing, my other beloved topic. Barbecuing, like writing (see K.P. Gresham’s wonderful recent blog), is a solitary pursuit.

And a mystery. And we barbecuers want it that way. We have our little ways. We know exactly how those baby-back ribs should go limp when done, go kind of boneless, as did Trixie, the little girl in Knuffle Bunny, when her dad left her beloved bunny in the laundromat dryer.

We know precisely the color of mahogany-ebony-mesquite the brisket will achieve the moment we decide it’s time to begin applying the mop. Also, of course, we know the color of the mop, its ingredients, its smell, its virtue. We know precisely the heft and flexibility that a brisket should demonstrate when we pick it up in our silicone-gloved hands to test its doneness.

We know, and we’re not telling.

Like writing, barbecuing is a solitary calling. Sure, people will wander out, ask if they can help. But these terrace tourists don’t want smoke in their eyes, their hair, their clothes. Besides, the Barbecuer doesn’t want them. Doesn’t want suggestions, doesn’t want comparisons, doesn’t want recipes. So if you wander out to the Barbecuer’s sacred precincts, your only job is to ask if the Barbecuer would like something to drink.

The Barbecuer, alone on the captain’s deck, seeks perfection. [Yes, I’m rereading my favorite Patrick O’Brians.] Perfection requires concentration. Because the Barbecuer is engaged in a sacred ritual: preparing the offering for the people.

You may be thinking wrongly of the word “barbecue” as did famed food-writer Michael Pollan who admits,[A]s a Northerner, I’d already spent more than half of my life as a serial abuser of that peculiar word, which is to say, as a backyard blackener of steaks and chops over too-hot fires—over flames!—with a pitiable dependence on sauce.” Cooked, p. 45. That was before he saw the light on the road to whole-hog barbecue.

Barbecue is not the mere flipping of burgers or sizzle of a steak or blackening of hot dogs over a too-hot fire. Barbecue, while a gift, traditionally, to the gods, is a ritual offering to the gathered cohort. See the Iliad.

It is a ritual to be communally observed (not kibitzed at).

Think of the best barbecues in which you’ve participated. The Barbecuer completes preparation of the ritual gift and serves it forth. On a large and venerable cutting board, in sight of the waiting crowd, the Barbecuer slices the brisket, offers the pulled pork, displays the properly limp yet crispy-crusted ribs. This offering is accompanied by the ritual sighs and groans of the rapt crowd, holding plates and awaiting their turn.

Sure, it’s competitive. I mean, Achilles way outshines Agamemnon when it comes to barbecue, and that’s strategic. Achilles and his team nail it when Odysseus comes calling to beg (unsuccessfully) Achilles to make up his quarrel with that tyrant Agamemnon:

…Patroclus obeyed his great friend,
Who put down a heavy chopping block in the firelight
And across it laid a sheep’s chine, a fat goat’s
And the long back cut of a full-grown pig,
marbled with lard. Automedon held the meats
While lordly Achilles carved them into quarters,
Cut them well into pieces, pierced them with spits
And Patroclus raked the hearth, a man like a god
making the fire blaze. Once it had burned down|
and the flames died away, he scattered the coals
And stretching the spitted meats across the embers,
Raised them onto supports and sprinkled clean pure salt.|
As soon as the roasts were done and spread on platters,
Patroclus brought the bread, set it out on the board
In ample wicker baskets. Achilles served the meat.

Il. 9:246-259 (Robert Fagles’ translation).

See? “Lordly Achilles.” No way will Achilles lose that argument with Odysseus, despite the latter’s eloquence. I’ve always said that peace in the middle east could be achieved if both sides ––all sides––sat down to share really excellent barbecue, but that approach didn’t work for Agamemnon and Achilles.

Given the stellar role of the Barbecuer, alone there in the spotlight, one would think the Barbecuer would figure strongly in our literature. Here, Readers, I seek help. I’ve searched vainly for roles for the Barbecuer equal in stature to the best barbecue. (Though apparently—I can’t find where—Chaucer at least wrote “Woe to the cook whose sauce has no sting.” Readers?)

Some mysteries do involve barbecue, or use barbecue in the setting. My Ghost Next Door features murder of a food writer during (key word) the first annual Coffee Creek Brisket Competition. One contestant is even a suspect. But not a serious one, because…what self-respecting Barbecuer would leave the side of his or her barbecue, even if presented with a great opportunity for a secret silent murder? Can you imagine a Barbecuer taking the risk that the ribs would burn? The brisket dry out? The pork shoulder shrivel? Certainly not.

Thus in my view the role of murderer is contraindicated for a Barbecuer. Perhaps the writer could assign the deed to a mere Assistant, who might go AWOL and stab the buddy who forgot the beer, the aunt who forgot the devilled eggs, the guest who always volunteers to make coleslaw but chops the cabbage too big and uses way-old ranch dressing instead of Real Mayonnaise. The Assistant could even create an alibi—leave to buy more beer, to get more salt and ice for a guest making homemade peach ice cream, to help carry in the giant blackberry cobbler, to husk the corn.

But writer, you would sacrifice realism if you excused the Barbecuer from tending the ritual offering merely to move the plot forward. Even if the Barbecuer has the best thermometer, the most accurate timer…could slip out for a moment of mayhem…the responsibility’s too great.

Of course barbecue itself is a mystery. Here I reveal my own prejudices. Standing in my back yard north of Dripping Springs is a venerable Weber kettle. Like Knuffle Bunny it has lost some of its elegance, some of its youthful gloss (and a few knobs and vents). Relatives have Tragers they like. Green Eggs have appeared. But I love the old Weber the same way I love, say, the old Kitchenaid stand mixer in the kitchen. Both are old-fashioned, made of steel, curvy and solid. The old kettle adds greatly to barbecue mystery—no, there’s no automatic temperature sensor, indeed, no electronics whatsoever. It’s acoustic. Acoustic Barbecue. Just the meat, the coals, the mop—and time. Time to gaze solemnly at the developing crust, time to add just a few more coals to the “parsimonious little fire” on one side of the kettle, time to poke the meat to gauge whether it’s almost ready for the mop…

Still ahead lies the moment on the cutting board, the presentation of the ritual offering. Much like a book launch. But in the meantime, there’s the solitary work, the focused attention, the lone responsibility on the shoulders, of the Barbecuer.

A lot like writing.

***

Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series. The latest in the series is GHOST CAT, available at Austin’s BookPeople and other independent bookstores as well as Amazon and Kindle.

Agatha Christie Wrote Paranormal Stories?

Do you enjoy books that make a chill dance down your spine by invoking the otherworldly or the supernatural?

As a teen, I read all of my mother’s Agatha Christie novels, which fixed Christie’s place in my mind as a writer of traditional mysteries. I somehow dismissed the short stories written by Christie that fall firmly into the paranormal category until I picked up a copy of The Last Séance: Tales of the Supernatural. This collection of Agatha Christie’s short stories was put together and republished in 2019 by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. I’ll try to review the paranormal stories presented in the collection without too many spoilers.

The Last Séance: Tales of the Supernatural contains 20 stories of crime, murder, and suspense. Some of the stories feature clearly paranormal elements: otherworldly beings, premonitions of danger or death, possession or other transference of souls, and the ability to call upon supernatural forces. Other stories in the collection involve criminals using technology, complex cons, or gaslighting techniques to create the illusion of the supernatural, or malefactors taking advantage of an atmosphere of superstition to suggest a paranormal cause for a crime they committed. These latter stories hardly count as paranormal since the supernatural element is faked by the criminal. One or two of the stories fall into both camps, with the crime being committed from a mundane motive, but with the suggestion that perhaps the criminal wouldn’t have acted except for the influence of evil in the atmosphere weighing upon them.

Ghost from pixabay

Of the stories that contain clearly supernatural components, premonition is the most common element employed by Christie. The stories The Last Séance, In a Glass Darkly, S.O.S., The Gipsy, Philomel Cottage, and The Red Signal use premonition, either via dreams or via a sixth sense that something is wrong, to build suspense. The characters recognize that they are in danger, but don’t know the source and aren’t sure if they should believe the bells of warning ringing in their brains. Some heed the warnings as best they can, but still fall into dangerous situations. Other characters dismiss the warnings until circumstances force them to pay attention. From story to story, the results of heeding or ignoring the warnings vary as the characters dance to Agatha Christie’s tune.

A couple of the stories feature ghosts or supernatural beings. The title story, The Last Séance, features a medium channeling the soul of a dead child for a grieving mother. The second story with a ghost, The Lamp, involves a family moving into a long vacant house. The house has stood unoccupied for years because the ghost of a child is haunting it. While The Lamp is a pure “ghost story,” The Call of the Wings and The Dressmakers Doll both deal with nonhuman, otherworldly beings. The Call of the Wings describes a man’s interactions with a pan-like creature and angels. The Dressmakers Doll revolves around a doll with a mind of its own.

from Pixabay

Reincarnation and the suggestion of lost supernatural knowledge from ancient civilizations appear in Christie’s stories as well. However, little can be written about these stories or the ones featuring possession or transference of souls without spoiling them. Christie’s use of these story elements can be easily traced to the author’s own travels in Egypt and interest in archaeology and to the Egyptian archaeological discoveries of the early 1900s which aroused public interest in ancient belief systems and mystical powers.

The collection The Last Séance: Tales of the Supernatural is a mixed bag of suspense stories, mystery stories with a crime that needs to be solved, and stories that feature no crime at all. Christie’s two main detectives, Miss Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot, appear in a few of the stories. Poirot takes the stage in The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, The Dream, and The Flock of Geryon. Miss Marple reasons her way quietly to answers in The Idol House of Astarte and The Blue Geranium. While the crime provides the mystery in some of the stories, in a few of the purely paranormal stories, the only mystery lies in the paranormal or supernatural event itself.

*****

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Take Control of Your Life! Write!

 

by K.P. Gresham

This pandemic thing is getting really old. (A quote from Captain Obvious, obviously) But we writers have one thing in our arsenal that others don’t. We can create a world where we want to be.

Lori Rader-Day

Lori  Rader-Day, National Sisters in Crime President and award-winning mystery author, spoke to our Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter last Sunday. Besides promoting her new book, The Lucky One (which is an incredible must-read psychological suspense mystery), she also talked about how the pandemic is influencing her writing.

Authors, in our stories we get to create whole worlds that we can completely control. Our characters must acquiesce to our every whim. The settings can be places we want to hang, RESTAURANTS we want to eat at, crowded parks where we can watch fireworks with friends and family, churches where we can go to worship. As Ray Bradbury said, “Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to get up for in the morning.”

This is a time where we can escape into our stories. Want to say something pithy in the real world? Act it out in your characters. Want to kill somebody? Do it on the page. (I can speak to this. It’s very cathartic.) The empowerment that comes by sitting down to the computer and writing just 250 words can produce those happy endorphins that’ll spark you right up. At least William Faulkner thought so. He said, “The right word in the right place at the right time can soothe, calm and heal.”

Full disclosure now. For the first two months of the pandemic I wrote absolutely nothing. Maybe I was too rattled, or just waiting for this pandemonium to pass, or in denial–bottom line I didn’t write one word.  Then I got mad. I wanted to scream at the TV. I wanted to rant on Facebook, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” After a few more weeks, I finally realized that this angst had to be released or I’d go crazy. And then I remembered how I had released that angst at different low points in my past.

Oh, yeah. That’s right. I wrote.

So I offer that you give it a try. Sit down, create the world that you CAN control and say what you have to say. As Walt Disney wrote, “That’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”

Take control of your world! Write!

***

K.P. Gresham authors the Pastor Matt Hayden mystery series. Her latest is MURDER ON THE THIRD TRY.