I was inspired to read The Ebony Swan after reading Kay Hudson’s, Remembering Phyllis A. Whitney, a master of the mystery genre.
I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed her stories, years ago, and I hadn’t read all of her works, which added up to an impressive 77; the last three or four when she was in her nineties—Wow! What an inspiration to us all. Her numerous works included 39 Adult mysteries; 4 On Writing; 20 in Juvenile Fiction, and 14 YA.
Whitney was not only a prolific writer but also a force for advancing women’s recognition in the mystery genre. In the late 1980’s she wrote an open letter to Mystery Writers of America, admonishing them for their refusal to take women in the genre seriously. She pointed out that in their forty-one-year existence only seven women had been awarded the Edgar for best novel. Yes. It was time to become reacquainted with Phyllis Whitney.
I chose one of her last works, The Ebony Swan, a story that encompasses a subject dear to my heart: ballet.
With a light touch, Whitney draws the reader into the worlds she creates. In the Ebony Swan, it is the lush backdrop of the Virginia Tidewater, where we meet Alexandrina (Alex) Montoro, now in her seventies, once a world-renowned ballerina. Alex was married to the late distinguished author, Juan Gabriel Montoro; they had one child, Dolores.
The mystery: Why was Alex’s daughter dead? Twenty-five years earlier, Dolores died when she fell down a flight of steps, and Alex’s granddaughter, Susan, witnessed the tragedy at a very young age. Ruled an accident, Alex feared the unknown truth and remained silent.
Did Susan, in a fit of childish rage, push her mother? Juan Gabriel, still alive at the time, was found unconscious on the hall floor above where Dolores’s body lay. Was he somehow responsible, or was there someone else in the house that day?
After Dolores’s death, the unspoken turmoil and competing passions in the Montoro family exploded. Susan’s father took her away from Virginia and forbade her to have any contact with her maternal grandmother, but after his passing, Susan found herself at a crossroads and decided to return to Virginia.
Despite her grandmother’s joy to be reunited with her only grandchild, Susan is not welcomed by all. On the surface, her reception is friendly, but there is an undercurrent of fear and resentment. Could a return to the scene of her mother’s death jog Susan’s memory, and what will she remember? Who is friend and who is foe, she wonders, while getting to know Alex?
A hint of romance adds another dimension, but anger, jealousy betrayal and danger drive the story as the impact of one deed crosses two generations.
Some say Whitney’s books start too slow for today’s reading public because she spends time and words immersing us in location, atmosphere, and historical data, making them relevant to her character’s lives and the story; for me, it was a breath of fresh air. Phyllis Whitney’s gift for spinning a yarn with gossamer threads that weave together in beautifully crafted storytelling is still compelling.
Francine Paino, aka F. Della Notta, is a native New Yorker and a Texas transplant. She loves learning about her new State and enjoys melding the cultures and characteristics of two cities: New York and Austin.
In 2018, writing as F. Della Notte, she created the Housekeeper Mystery Series in the tradition of the clergy amateur sleuths, with a 21st-century twist. The housekeeper isn’t a sidekick; she is the sleuthing equal of the priest. The second book in the Housekeeper Mystery Series, CATWALK DEAD, will be released in 2019.
One of the most frequent, if not the number one, questions asked when joining a book club is, “Who is your favorite author?” My inside voice always answers, “Do you have to have just one?” If you are a reader and a book lover, one author, or even one genre, can never be enough.
Six months ago, I joined an on-line book club. I needed to change my lifelong reading patterns. I was in a rut and had no idea of what I was getting myself into but decided to make it through the first month and see what it was about. Many of the book clubs were based on physical type book clubs–everyone read the same book, made comments, and moved on to the next book. But I did find one that was different; it comprised competitive teams reading for points.
I was reading anyway–why not? It was one of the best choices I could have made.
The founders/administrators are young to middle-aged adults. The members’ ages range widely with “oldie but goodies” thrown in the mix. The approximately 1000 members are divided into specific teams with an overriding theme for each month: Superheroes DC Icons, Tricksters, Lovers (Valentines), Broadway musicals, etc. At first blush, maybe a bit silly you might think.
So exactly what does this club do differently? It is a competitive reading book club – the more you read, the more points you are awarded, and the team with the most points is the monthly winner. Sounds simple right?
Each team is provided monthly activities under two primary lists: a Criteria list and a Bonus list. There is always an author highlight –three to four authors–and you choose one to read. The Bonus point list includes activities for additional points. These are alternative choices such as cooking, crafting, watching a documentary or movie, providing weekly book reviews, posting Instagram photos daily, or creating something uniquely yours as an opportunity to garner extra points for your team.
While this may appear to be busy work or something less, it is first a community of readers striving together with reading as it core principle. It additionally is a forum for young and old readers to meet online regardless of physical location and to join together in their love of reading. The Criteria listing exposes readers to new authors, subjects, and genres, but you can read whatever you want regardless of subject matter or format.
The benefit is that, whatever you read in whatever form you receive it, the more you read, the more points your team accumulates. But, best of all, you can read for the joy of reading.
A wide variety of delivery formats are accepted, including physical books, audio books, Fanfiction, and E-books. Regardless of the reading form, the page counts equal points. Format is not important; reading is the goal. Extra points can be garnered using your smart phone by taking pictures, writing reviews, and posting. Social media is used widely among the members. Computer skill sets are used and keep members engaged on a variety of levels. (A good skill set for older readers).
What I Learned
Many established authors advise that to be a good writer, you must first be a reader. What is a better research tool than a book club to see what readers are interested in reading?
I joined this book club because I wanted more information about the current market, what was selling, who was writing, and the current subjects of interest to others. I also needed to change my reading habits and see what was popular among current book buyers. I finally had the time to explore a wide array of reading material and believed this was a good start.
Although initially frustrated with the choice of authors at times (young adult) or difficulty finding novels that met the criteria such as “Read a book with the title written in Green, Purple, or Gold”; Read a book featuring a taboo subject,” I continued signing up for another month.
(Believe me, as plain as these requirements might look at first, finding books you might want to read under these simple criteria can be a bit tricky).
I began to look forward to the announcement of each month’s winners, the next team themes, the range of highlighted authors, the criteria list and beginning the hunt for reading material that would meet that month’s focus.
It became apparent rather quickly that there is a large group of young adults and middle-aged adults who are buying and reading books in all kinds of formats and a multitude of subjects. They are sharing their love of reading in formats never imagined. Reading is alive and well despite the warning that print books are declining.
And I learned that I have missed some very worthy authors, at times by dismissing young adult literature as a reading option. Despite being categorized as “young adult,” these very same novels deal with difficult real-life issues and provide support and help in dealing with terrible events: the Holocaust, rape, drug addiction, child abuse, and dysfunctional families.
Joining has been an enlightening experience and has offered myriad alternative options to my tried and true reading habits. While the group is based online and does not physically meet, it is nonetheless a vigorous community committed to reading varied types of literature in many formats. It has also pushed me to establish reading goals, and for that I am very grateful. I believe that not only have a become a better reader over the past six months but that it has opened numerous possibilities for more confident writing in the future.
Some of the books read since November 2018
Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book
Jona Oberski, Childhood
Carol Rifka Brunt, Tell the Wolves I’m Home
Michael Cannell, Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, The Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling
Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Ruth Ware, The Lying Game
Olivia Kiernan, Too Close to Breathe : A Novel
Photos courtesy of Amazon.com
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 from shelters and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.
In her 2001 collection Rereadings, Anne Fadimanchallenged writers to revisit books they read before they were twenty-five, and still re-read. Contributor Arthur Krystal (his favorite re-read is a boxing book, Witwer’s The Leather Pushers), quotes George Orwell: “The books one read in childhood, and perhaps most all bad and good bad books, create in one’s mind a sort of false map of the world, a series of fabulous countries into which one can retreat at odd moments.”
Oh yes, “odd moments,” like when the world is too much with us. Then I repair to the shelves and drag off not only my pre-twenty-five faves (Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, Jane Austen, Kim) but also later loves: Patrick O’Brian, tattered volumes by Dorothy Dunnett, mysteries by Rowling/Galbraith, Marsh, Hillerman—and, especially, John Le Carré. Over and over I return to the travails, humiliations, and perilous triumph of his character George Smiley. Sometimes re-reading feels guilty—shouldn’t I be reading Important New Novels, not the Le Carré spy novel genre?—but it’s guilty pleasure, like getting on a train clutching a Hershey-bar-with-almonds I don’t have to share.
One Rereadings contributor vindicated my re-reading of Le Carré. The terrific Pico Iyer addressed D. H. Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gypsy, which he discovered “within the tightly guarded confines of a fifteenth-century English boarding school.” Iyer says, “[Lawrence] had something in common with all the great English writers who railed against English narrowness and skepticism (Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham, John Berger and John le Carré)….”
Yes! An English writer calling Le Carré a “great English writer”! Rereading is justified!
For instance, consider Le Carré’s genius for character depiction. Let’s look at just two of his repeating characters, George Smiley and Peter Guillam, and their relationship, in three books: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974); Smiley’s People (1980); and his recent A Legacy of Spies (2017). Le Carré builds Smiley in part through others’ eyes:
From the outset of this meeting, Smiley had assumed for the main a Buddha-like inscrutability… He sat leaning back with his short legs bent, head forward, and plump hands linked across his generous stomach. His hooded eyes had closed behind the thick lenses. His only fidget was to polish his glasses on the silk lining of his tie, and when he did this his eyes had a soaked, naked look that was embarrassing to those who caught him at it. (Tinker)
A police superintendent describes the complexity behind Smiley’s face, in Smiley’s People:
Not one face at all actually, the Superintendent reflected….More your whole range of faces. More your patchwork of different ages, people, and endeavours. Even—thought the Superintendent—of different faiths.
He’s so physically unimposing as to be nearly comical, yet his intellect and ferocious tenacity come across to other characters. We come to understand why he inspires fear in his adversaries and devotion in those, like Peter Guillam, whom he has mentored.
In other words, I can pick up my Hershey bar with confidence that—again—Smiley will triumph…for the Circus…at least for a time. I have the same confidence as Guillam that Smiley will ultimately succeed…for this battle. So, another bite of Hershey bar.
And I, like Guillam, have confidence that while others are still scrambling to see the big picture, Smiley will ultimately hold all the threads in his hand. But—again like Guillam—I cannot see all the threads, until the end, if then.
Le Carré uses physical description to support Smiley’s reliance on Peter Guillam for sometimes perilous tasks. We see the younger Guillam in Tinker:
Guillam drove languidly but fast. Smiley wondered how old Guillam was and guessed forty, but in that light he could have been an undergraduate sculling on the river, he moved the gear lever with a long flowing movement as if he were passing it through water.
Le Carré shows us Guillam in action when at Smiley’s request Guillam sneaks into the Circus to steal records. Despite appalling potential consequences, under the very eyes of Smiley’s adversaries, Guillam pulls off a bald-faced daylight theft:
Move. Once you stop, you never start again: there is a special stage-fright that can make you dry up and walk away, that burns your fingers when you touch the goods and turns your stomach to water. Move…. His shirt was clinging to his ribs. What’s happened to me? Christ, I’m over the hill. He turned forward and back, forward again, twice, three times, then closed the cupboard on the lot. He waited, listened, took a last worried look at the dust, then stepped boldly across the corridor, back to the safety of the men’s room.
Then, when we meet him later in Smiley’s People, Guillam’s still fast-moving and independent (the Porsche has a role in the plot):
Guillam, it may be added, was an athlete, half French, but more English on account of it; he was slender, and near enough handsome—but though he fought it every inch of the way, he was also close on fifty, which is the watershed that few careers of ageing fieldmen survive. He also owned a brand-new German Porsche car, which he had acquired, somewhat shamefacedly, at diplomatic rates, and parked, to the Ambassador’s strident disapproval, in the Embassy car-park.
Guillam worked for Smiley on and off for years. By the uncomfortably present time of A Legacy of Spies, both are retired and have not seen each other in nearly a decade. Did Guillam ever see the big picture? He asks himself that question as first-person narrator of A Legacy of Spies, where we see everything through his eyes. British interrogators haul him out of retirement in France and back to London, where they confiscate his British passport (he’s hidden another elsewhere). They repeatedly demand, “Where’s George? When did you last see George? Or talk to him?” Guillam hasn’t, and won’t, until the last five pages of Legacy. The plot involves laying blame on Guillam for decades-old failures at the Circus, and Guillam has to rely on decades-old tradecraft skills to escape, plus, appropriately, some new skills, like resorting to his hearing aids (“deaf aids”) to buy time in his interrogation:
[‘Bunny’ Butterfield] “Let me ask you just one question ahead of the rest of the field. May I?” —squeeze of the eyes. “Operation Windfall. How was it mounted, who drove it, where did it go so wrong, and what was your part in it?”
Does an easing of the soul take place when you realize your worst expectations have been fulfilled? Not in my case.
“Windfall, Bunny, did you say?”
“Windfall”—louder, in case he hasn’t reached my deaf aids.
Keep it slow. Remember you’re of an age. Memory not your strong point these days. Take your time.
But when it appears his captors won’t let him go, Guillam is off and running
When the truth catches up with you, don’t be a hero, run. But I took care to walk, slowly, into Dolphin Square and up to the safe flat I knew I would never sleep in again. Draw curtains, sigh resignedly for the television set, close bedroom door. Extract French passport from dead letter box behind fire precautions notice. There is a calming ritual to escape. Don clean set of clothes. Shove razor in raincoat pocket, leave the rest in place. Make my way down to grill room, order light meal, settle to my boring book like a man reconciled to a solitary evening. Chat up Hungarian waitress in case she has reporting responsibility.…Saunter into courtyard….Prepare to join exodus to Embankment, never to return.
No spoilers about Guillam’s final reunion with George Smiley. A Legacy of Spies feels even more complex than earlier plots, given Guillam’s flashbacks and immersion in old records, and more immediate with his first-person narration. Of course, British cold war spylore is still a trip to another country, though not necessarily as Orwell says a “false map of the world.” Indeed, Guillam puzzles over whether the Circus itself had a false map of the world, whether even George Smiley had a false map of the world, or whether he himself—with his unquestioning patriotism—had one, and Smiley might have known it was false but did not tell him, for all the best reasons.
Hey! Hey! Holy Mackerel! The Cubs are on the field!
Baseball’s back, and I’m celebrating with a return to one of my favorite subjects—The Chicago Cubs. Yes, I am a huge Cubbies fan, so much so, I wrote a book about it, THREE DAYS AT WRIGLEY FIELD.
Why? Easy. Chicago Cub blood runs in my veins. And I come by it honestly. Blame my father, Ed Gabel.
Born on Chicago’s northside in 1920, Dad was a lifelong Cubs fan. In his lifetime he never saw his team win the World Series. Oh, they went a few times, but no World Championship. That never stopped him from rooting for the Cubs. I swear his DNA had Cubbie blue genes in it, and I inherited those beautiful blue chromosomes. I was a Cub fan from conception.
Wrigley Field was only six years old when my dad was born, so you could say the two grew up together. I remember he talked about how, during the depression, Mr. Wrigley let the neighborhood kids come in and sweep down the stands after games. Their payment was a free ticket to the next day’s game. Dad did a lot of sweeping back then.
When he was seventeen (i.e. 1937) Wrigley Field underwent a few renovations, enlarged for more seating, and put up the huge, iconic, hand-operated centerfield scoreboard. (Which is still in use!) And Bill Veeck (who started out with the Cubs) planted the bittersweet ivy along the outfield wall.
Yep, my dad loved the Cubs, and he passed that passion on to me. Sometimes a curse, but mostly a blessing. Hey, it’s taught me that success has many faces, and that it’s a cardinal sin to be a fair-weather fan. (And yes, that’s a direct dig at that team from St. Louis).
I wrote THREE DAYS AT WRIGLEY FIELD before the Cubs won the 2016 World Series. My favorite review from Publishers Weekly Booklife Prize called it “a love letter to baseball and powerful page turner.” A love letter to baseball. Yes, that’s exactly what it is.
Then came 2016, and my Cubbies won the World Series. As I watched play resume after that nineteen minute rain delay in the ninth inning, I thought of my father. Although he was long gone, I felt I was watching the unbelievable come true—but not just for me, for my dad as well.
To capture that soul-filling love in a book is humbling and exhilarating. I invite you to experience that love with me. Give THREE DAYS AT WRIGLEY FIELD a read.
Last week, Fran Paino described how family obligations can keep a writer from writing. My post describes an experience that happened several years ago. It’s similar to Fran’s–and at the same time, very different.
In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron introduces the Artist’s Date–a weekly solo “adventure to feed the soul and allow for continued creativity.” In other words, artists–including writers–need to play. At a writers’ retreat in Alpine, Texas, author Karleen Koen led students through a whole week of play. Returning home, I vowed to incorporate the Artist’s Date into my writing life.
But having just had a week-long Artist’s Date, I chose to start with a Writing Date instead.
Here’s how it went:
I woke at a reasonable hour and dressed to leave for my coffee shop/office.
Downstairs, doling out cat food, I realized I’d seen no cats. That was troubling. William usually slept late, but Ernest was an early riser. He often climbed onto my pillow and swatted my face, making me an early riser, too.
So I called, ran upstairs, searched, called some more. William, draped across his pagoda, opened his eyes and blinked but offered no help.
I ran downstairs, called, searched, dropped to my knees and peered under furniture. I ran back upstairs. Etc.
Finally dropping in the right place, I found Ernest under the bed, sitting in that compact way cats have, with all his feet nearly tucked in. His eyes were not warm and welcoming. When I tried to pull him out, he wriggled loose and ran into the hall and thence into the guest room and under that bed–a sure sign of a sick cat.
He reminded me of a get-well card I once sent to a great-aunt. On the front was a drawing of an orange tabby with a bored, Morris-like expression on his face, and the words, “Feeling poorly? Do as I do.” Inside it said, “Crawl under the porch.”
Ernest didn’t have a porch so he crawled under the next best thing.
I put batteries in the flashlight and girded my loins. Negotiating the guest room is not for the faint of heart. The bed is built low to the ground, and there’s stuff in there.
Again on my hands and knees, and practically standing on my head, I located Ernest lying in a corner near the wall. I stretched out on the carpet, reached as far as possible, and scratched his ears. He didn’t protest, but the look in his big green eyes said I’d better not make any sudden moves.
Ernest is mostly muscle. Talons tip his twenty toes. He has a mouthful of teeth.
Like Barry Goldwater, he believes extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.
I believe in keeping my all blood on the inside of my skin.
But I also believe extremism in the pursuit of getting sick children to the doctor is a necessary evil.
And I had a pretty good idea of what had occurred.
Ernest suffers from what might be termed a sluggish constitution, aggravated by his habit of swallowing objects that aren’t food, like bits of string, thread, ribbon. We don’t leave it lying around, but he finds it anyway. The vet says cats are drawn to elongated things. Something about mouse tails, I guess.
The first time he hid under the bed, two years before, I had to authorize X-rays, ultrasound, and a simple procedure he really, really didn’t like. We refer to it as the $400 enema. Swallowing string can cause serious problems for a cat. So I had to get him some help before a minor problem became major.
I found his jingly collar, the one he refused to wear, lay down again, and jingled at him. He gnawed on the collar and purred. Then he flopped over onto his back so I could rub his belly.
After a couple of minutes the dust bunnies keeping Ernest company attacked. I began sneeze. Ernest doesn’t care for sneezing–it scares him–so I went back downstairs and sneezed till my throat was raw. Then I coughed. And coughed. And coughed. I couldn’t find cough drops or unexpired cough medicine, so I poured out the dregs of some extremely aged Jim Beam (my mother had bought it to baptize her Christmas applesauce cakes thirty years before), and added the only sweetener we had, David’s hummingbird sugar.
While I was resting, sipping medicine from a spoon, Ernest waltzed down the stairs. He sashayed past me and headed to the kitchen. I heard crunching. Then he sashayed back.
Sneak that I am, I lured him into my lap, applied a full nelson, stuffed him into the waiting crate, lugged him to the car, and hauled him to the vet. He protested. When two big dogs in the waiting room charged up to his crate to pant hello, he shut up.
First stop was the scale: seventeen pounds. No surprise. My back muscles were already crying for the massage therapist.
Then the vet poked and prodded and determined Ernest had indeed ingested something he shouldn’t have, probably something the shape of a mouse tail.
I had three choices: take him home, give him meds, and watch him for twenty-four hours; leave him there for meds and the procedure he really, really didn’t like and pick him up at five p.m.; or be referred elsewhere for X-rays, because our vet’s office was in process of being moved down the street and his X-ray machine was in pieces.
He said choice #1 would have been fine for his cat, but I chose #2. If I left Ernest there, I knew he would come home unclogged. If I took him home, he would run under the bed and I’d never see him again. I hated to leave him, but it was, after all, his fault.
Anyway, at five p.m., David and I retrieved Ernest and a tube of Laxatone for maintenance. Ernest recovered and, after a time, forgave me. Everything returned to normal, till the next time he ate thread.
And that is the story of what I did the day I didn’t write.
I’m still trying to decide if it qualifies as an Artist’s Date.
Note–and this is how I understood the veterinarian’s explanation, not to be taken as medical advice: Some foreign objects will biodegrade in a cat’s GI tract. String, thread, ribbon, and things of that type, even if they’re biodegradable, sometimes catch in the back of a cat’s mouth when he swallows. As food travels through the GI tract, the thread straightens out and becomes taut and can cut the cat’s intestines, necessitating surgery (if the problem is diagnosed in time). Laxatives can worsen the condition. A visit to a veterinarian is desirable.
I’m a morning writer, and it’s morning. Filled with energy, and inspiration, I grab the notes I’d scribbled on the post-it when ideas woke me during the night. Sharpen those pencils and dust off the keyboard. Coffee’s brewing, toast pops up. Ready, set, go.
Not So Fast—
The phone rings. “Mom. Emergency. The sitter is sick. Can you take the baby for a few hours?” I, the devoted grandmother, agree to help. When the baby naps, I’ll write.
The phone rings again. The nonagenarian is desperate to get to the supermarket.
Welcome to life in the sandwich generation.
Here I am a piece of Swiss cheese firmly pressed between two slices of hearty Italian bread. On one side is my nonagenarian mother, a feisty old lady, who doesn’t look or act her age. She is in great physical shape other than the fact that she can’t hear very well, can’t smell very well, and claims not to be able to walk very well. As for the walking, just give her a shopping cart in the supermarket and try to keep up with her. I’ve lost several pounds chasing her up and down the aisles.
On the other side are my grandchildren, normal little people going through the different stages of emotional, physical and intellectual growth. They provide the expected tests for the adult nervous system: conflict, espionage, and subterfuge. Put any one of them together with the nonagenarian who wishes to be a revered elder and a naughty child at the same time, and it’s like herding cats.
And so, I pick up the 24-month-old and then the 95-year-old, and off to the supermarket we go!
The young one sits in the basket in front of me, and the old one is behind me zipping around with her cart and getting into as much mischief as possible, picking up candies and treats she knows the 24-month-old is not allowed to eat.
The child’s radar, of course, locks onto the junk food. She tries to elongate her little arm to reach over me and receive the treat from her great-grandmother.
The powers of observation in both the toddler and the nonagenarian are impeccable; their timing the envy of any dance team. If I turned to a shelf on my left, the nonagenarian reaches over my right shoulder to give the toddler some forbidden sweet. Once that sweet is in the 24-month-old’s chubby little fist, I must employ all my powers of persuasion to get it away. After I succeed, I turn to scold the nonagenarian but she’s disappeared. I find myself talking to thin air.
This continues up and down each aisle as the elder rises to the challenges of flexible movement and rapid deployment, accumulating as many different snacks as possible and passing them to her beloved great-grandchild before I can stop her.
The woman who cannot walk so well is able to dodge, feint and sidestep with incredible speed. She appears and disappears at key times while I actually try to gather items on the list.
At last, I make it to the check-out line where the naughty old child hands a candy bar to the determined young child. “Here, sweetie, take this,” but my antennae are up and my intercept quick.
I snatch the bar away before the little one captures it in her vice-like grip. Both the old and the young cry out in dismay. Finally, I have no choice but to appropriately discipline both, which nearly creates a riot at the register. It is my good fortune that no do-gooders are there to insist that I be reprimanded for reprimanding those in my charge.
Bags packed, groceries paid for, I swiftly maneuver the nonagenarian and the toddler to the car and get them safely strapped into their seats, after which I load the shopping.
I drop the nonagenarian at home with her purchases. And now there is one. This is manageable.
As soon as I reach the safety of my home, I promptly put the toddler down for a nap. Ahh. Blessed relief. It’s quiet at last, and time to write. I smile and close my eyes for a moment of peace to gather my thoughts.
The next time I open them, a little voice is calling, “Nonna.”
The original version of this, “Supermarket Nightmare,” appeared in the March 2015 edition of Funny Times.
“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves…”
― Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
Bravery. Courage. Confronting yourself, owning your failings and exposing your sins to the world, no excuses given and none allowed. Unearth black secrets, stand tall, forgive yourself, and find the strength to go forward. All of these are within the hard inner nugget of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. This is the book for all women—both young and old; it is a talisman tale that will make a profound difference in how you see your life’s purpose. It is a punch in the gut, a kick in the rear, a message to confront your raw self and face what you see. It is not for the faint of heart.
Wild on its own is a remarkable achievement, but it is much more than a story; it is a lesson plan for life. Overcoming self-doubt, the past, the present, lack of talent, self-worth and a host of other things are laid bare in language that flows and connects. It forces the reader to think deeply, to look at their own life, to examine their flaws in the mirror, be honest with their actions, and then to find a way to self-forgiveness and to push onward to something better.
What drives a person to literally walk their unhappiness and self-hatred away? Loss, grief, disappointment, adultery, addiction, and guilt are only a few—many more are in the mix for Cheryl Strayed.
She began her journey of 1100 miles alone—the Mojave Desert lay on Strayed’s right and the driest desert of California on the left. It was summer—the hottest time of the year. On her back stood her “Monster,” a pack towering above her upright body and weighing almost half her body weight. To position the pack on her back, she was forced to lie down and wiggle her body into straps, then maneuver herself into a sitting position while struggling to stand. Sometimes she was lucky and could lean against a rock to hoist her self up, but not always. Then, she began to walk—all day, until she was physically forced to stop.
“I made it the mantra of those days; when I paused before yet another series of switchbacks or skidded down knee-jarring slopes, when patches of flesh peeled off my feet along with my socks, when I lay alone and lonely in my tent at night I asked, often out loud: Who is tougher than me? The answer was always the same, and even when I knew absolutely there was no way on this earth that it was true, I said it anyway: No one.”
Strayed’s trek was not a Victorian stroll in a garden; it was brutal. She fell, faced a bear and snakes and real thirst. There was always an uncertainty—on the edge of not knowing what could or would come around the bend.
She was exposed literally and figuratively. Her body racked with pain from her ill-fitting hiking boots, and her back from the constant press of the metal frame resting unceasingly on her back and shoulders. From the slipping and sliding of her feet inside her boots she lost all but two toenails, pulling them off herself when them became too loose.
Despite physical discomfort, she wrestled with unrelenting inner demons, a self-inflicted purge stretching on within with every new day.
She always had a choice of course: she could turn around, she could quit at the next stop available and go back home—but she persevered for three long months. The memory of her abusive childhood, her father a brutal drunk; a mother trying to mend the dysfunction under extreme financial hardships and then, the sudden loss of her mother; the destruction of her remaining family; the dissolution of her marriage, a result of indiscriminate and compulsive sexual encounters with strangers; her short escapes with heroin, and her loss of self-respect: Strayed’s thoughts percolated in a black and toxic sludge behind her eyes—unrelenting punishment with no place to hide. Her saving grace—thoughts of her mother’s steadfast patience and love—now, out of reach forever.
“Fear begets fear. power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.”
Cheryl Strayed is a hero of a new breed, a woman who is totally alone confronting issues of her life on her terms to full self-healing. Strayed’s issues, sadly, are familiar to women everywhere—the overcoming of monumental loss of self and the dawning comprehension that you can face whatever is thrown at you and survive.
Strayed is an excellent writer. She knew she wanted to be a writer at six years of age. Despite the monumental difficulties of her life, Strayed succeeded beyond her expectations and it is a testament to her strength. Strayed is a warrior. All women can learn from her honesty.
Sometimes we come around to things the long way, despite our stops and starts, and surprise even ourselves—we survive. You will never regret reading Strayed’s story—you may even glimpse a small part of yourself in the pages.
Read it, believe it, and live a long and full life; you can be a warrior too.
“ I had diverged, digressed, wandered, and become wild. I didn’t embrace the word as my new name because it defined negative aspects of my circumstances or life, but because even in my darkest days—those very days in which I was naming myself—I saw the power of the darkness. Saw that, in fact, I had strayed and that I was a stray and that from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn’t have known before.”
Renee Kimball loves books and reads widely. She has a master’s degree in Criminal Justice and is involved in rescuing, fostering, and finding forever homes for homeless dogs. She’s working on a novel set in the southwestern United States.
Nationally renowned and award-winning mystery author Jan Burke came to speak to the Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter recently about two subjects dear to her heart: missing and unidentified people and the lack of uniform standards and training in the medico/legal death investigation system in the United States. She reminded the crime fiction authors in the crowd that they have a platform to bring attention to subjects such as these.
In the United States, 600,000 adults and children go missing every year. The vast majority are found relatively quickly. However, over ten thousand people remain missing for more than a year. And sadly, around 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered every year. In an attempt to match the missing with the unknown dead, the Department of Justice and the National Institute for Justice created an online database called NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
However, only three states require reporting of unidentified remains to the NamUs database. In most states, individual counties make the rules regarding handling of unidentified remains. Consequently, a person who vanishes in one county may turn up dead, lacking identification, four counties away, and their family may never be notified. This creates what NamUs calls the Nation’s Silent Mass Disaster: a huge volume of unsolved cases regarding missing persons and unidentified dead bodies.
One example of this problem is the case of Lupita Cantu. Lupita disappeared from San Antonio, Texas, in Bexar County, in April 1990. That same year her body was found near Pearsall, Texas, and buried as a Jane Doe, because authorities couldn’t identify her. She wasn’t identified until 2011, when DNA analysis finally matched her with her family. Pearsall is only about 55 miles from San Antonio, in Frio County. Had the counties been required to report unidentified remains and missing persons to a central clearinghouse, Lupita might have been identified much sooner. This problem is even more extreme in places where it’s easy to cross state lines. Someone who disappeared from one state might never be linked to remains found two states away.
NamUs creates a central clearinghouse for missing persons and unidentified remains, allowing both families of the missing and law enforcement agencies to enter information into the database in hopes of matching the missing with the dead. NamUs also can provide law enforcement agencies in rural, low-population, or underfunded counties the forensic resources needed to identify the dead, including forensic odontology, fingerprint examination, forensic anthropology, and DNA analyses. Families of the missing can receive DNA collection kits so that their data may be compared with the DNA from unidentified remains.
The NamUs clearinghouse is necessary because of the lack of uniformity in the handling of deaths by the medico/legal system in the United States. Each state has different standards and rules that apply to the person whose job it is to declare whether a death is natural, accidental, or homicide. Some states have medical examiners. Some states have coroners. Some of these people are elected. Some are appointed. Some are required to have medical training. Some are required to be forensic pathologists. And some aren’t required to have any special training whatsoever. Within each state, whether a county uses a coroner or a medical examiner may vary by county and by population.
This patchwork quilt of laws means that there are over 2,300 different systems for dealing with death for the more than 3,100 counties (or parishes, or whatever the state has labeled the entities) in the United States. Multiple scientific studies have reviewed these systems, and all have consistently returned the same recommendations. The population would be better served by a more consistent set of rules and regulations across the United States. The current system creates great disparities in the administration of justice.
For instance, in a county where a justice of the peace (J. P.) decides the nature of death, where the county has no medical examiner and must send bodies several counties away for autopsy, the county’s budget may determine if a death by unknown causes is ever reviewed. Consider this scenario. Suppose a fifty-year-old man is found dead in his bed at home. The house was locked and police can see no visible evidence of foul play. The police may ask the J. P. to find the death is suspicious, to have the body sent for autopsy in a neighboring county. However, the J. P. has the power to deny that request. The J. P. may say that since nothing looks suspicious, the police should assume it’s a natural death, close the case, and save the county the money they would have paid for the autopsy.
Crime fiction writers use death to build plots in novels all the time. Ms. Burke suggested that by mentioning NamUs as part of a fictional family’s search to find a missing loved one, authors can raise awareness in the general public about this resource available to real families who are missing a relative. She also requested that writers be accurate in their depiction of death investigations. Many people are under the misapprehension that all death is investigated like it is depicted on C. S. I. and other similar dramas on television. Those shows don’t remotely reflect the reality of death investigations in many parts of the country. As writers, we can do better. We can reflect reality.
N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Most recently, she has been writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories and the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017). Find her at nmcedeno.com or amazon.com/author/nmcedeno or on Facebook.
I recently had the incredible honor of attending Lady Gaga’s Las Vegas Jazz Show. I say honor, because this woman is so talented. Not just at singing, or dancing or playing the piano.
This lady can write.
I write fiction. I like to say I kill people for a living. This incredible woman writes the language of the soul.
I was struck by one song in particular. I am in the final stages of putting out my next book, MURDER ON THE THIRD TRY. The questions I ask myself are overwhelming, and all have a common theme: Is this book any good? I know this something most writers struggle with. Actually, Robert De Niro said it best. “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination and consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.” That pretty much sums up my inner dialogue as I walked into Lady Gaga’s show.
Then she performed “Born This Way.”
From the time I learned to read and write, I knew I wanted to be an author. I wanted to create worlds that people could escape to, tell stories that would make people laugh. I wanted my creations to go down on paper and be shared with my friends and family. I knew in my heart I was born to be a writer.
One of the lyrics in “Born This Way” says, “In the religion of the insecure I must be myself, respect my youth.” This spoke to me on so many levels, but especially made me remember that I’ve known all my life that writing is what I born to do.
As Lady Gaga sings, “I’m beautiful in my way ‘cause God makes no mistakes. I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way…I was born to survive…I was born to be brave…Don’t hide yourself in regret…There ain’t no other way.”
Writers, we are who we are. All the creativity and self-doubt. All the procrastination and all-nighters. All the work at honing our skills and all the stuff we haven’t learned yet. Our lives would be a lot better if we could come to terms with ourselves as Lady Gaga has written it so beautifully. Be brave. Accept this is what we do and don’t look back or give in to doubts. We’re on the right track.
Wow. Thank you, Lady Gaga for talking to my soul that night. I’ll try to keep your words in my heart. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, I’ll keep writing.
Friday evening David said, “Should I wake you at nine tomorrow?” and I said, “Why?” because I never know what day it is, and he said, “You’re going to Saturday writing practice at the Yarborough library,” and I said, “At the Yarborough,” and he said, “Yes, the Yarborough,” and I said, “The Yarborough, the Yarborough.
So the next morning I sat in the parking lot of the Twin Oaks library for nine minutes, until I knew it was open, because I didn’t want to wait outside and freeze, and at one minute after ten, I went inside and found the meeting rooms dimly lit and empty, and I said to myself, “The Yarborough.”
Then I considered what route I should take to the Yarborough: Lamar St. and be extra late, or Loop 1/MoPac and fight traffic. I decided on MoPac because it was Saturday morning and there wouldn’t be as many nuts on MoPac as there are on weekdays.
Fizzing about the nuts on MoPac, I turned left out of the Twin Oaks parking lot—I should have turned right—and wandered through a neighborhood, and came to a semi-dead end and then another, so I had to turn left again, twice, and by the time I got back to civilization, I had decided I was on W. Oltorf Street, where I wanted to be, and from which I would turn onto S. 1st.
But I wasn’t on Oltorf, I was really on W. Mary, where I didn’t want to be, because the left turn from W. Mary onto S. 1st is unprotected and there’s always oncoming traffic. But I didn’t know I was on W. Mary until I got to S. 1st and saw the light with the unprotected left turn. I was lucky and turned without incident.
From S. 1st I made my way to MoPac, which was almost completely devoid of nuts. Then I had to ruminate over which exit to take, because Burnet Rd. doesn’t have an exit, and the Northland exit goes to the acupuncturist, and Research is too far north and goes somewhere else, and that’s when I decided I should have driven up Lamar to 45th and been extra late. And then the little light above my head came on and I said, “Forty-fifth.”
So I took the 45th St. exit and went to Burnet, where I turned left and headed north to Hancock Blvd. and the Yarborough library. However, even though I went to the Yarborough on the second Sunday of every month for two years, when the Sisters in Crime chapter met there, and I knew exactly where I was going, I overshot Hancock. I wasn’t certain I’d missed it, but when I got to Northloop, I knew I’d missed Hancock, and when I passed the Monkey Nest and then Karavel, I knew I’d better turn around immediately before I found myself in Waxahachie. So I turned around in the Mephisto parking lot.
This time I managed to turn onto Hancock, as I would have done before if I’d recognized it, and about half a block down, I turned into the Yarborough library parking lot, and parked, and went inside and got to the meeting room only twenty-eight minutes late. Five other members sat around the table writing, and I was so glad to see them, and they said they were glad to see me and that they’d just begun a fifteen-minute writing.
And then I did what I’ve done one Saturday morning a month for the past twenty years: I sat down and shut up and wrote.
I wrote this last Saturday after I finally arrived at the writing practice group Fifteen Minutes of Fame, to which you’re all invited. I’m posting it as proof that quality is not our middle name. I did edit a little so it would make sense.
Please read on.
A Formal Invitation: Please join us at 15 Minutes of Fame
15 Minutes of Fame meets once a month at Twin Oaks Branch Library (unless it meets at the Yarborough), from 10:00 a.m. to noon. No dues, no fees, no RSVPs. Just show up.
We are not professionals. We are not English teachers. We just like to get together and write.
What we do: We sit around a table and write for a specified length of time–fifteen minutes is the default–and then read aloud what we’ve written.
We read aloud if we want to. No pressure. Passing is perfectly all right.
All you need are pen and paper. Or you can bring your laptop.
We don’t care how you spell or punctuate. You don’t have to punctuate at all if you don’t want to. You don’t have to live in Austin.
We offer no critique. We don’t comment. When something is funny, we laugh.