Category Archives: Writing The Past

In Praise of Fresh Starts

In North Carolina, like much of the East Coast, there is that slice of the year–days only– that is bereft of humidity or cold or heat. If you don’t pay attention, you miss it in all it’s glory. It’s where the weather is almost not there. You walk outside to a silken breeze and sunshine peeking through leaves. And it always reminds me of the first day of school!

At Villa Cabrini Academy, on Burbank Blvd in the foothills of the Verdugo Mountains, the first day of school would find me in a baby blue pleated uniform with white collar and cuffs, Buster Brown shoes and white anklet socks. My bangs were probably very short because I kept moving when Mom was trimming. [I am sure there is a picture somewhere of me with little stalks of hair sticking out of the top of my forehead.] [Right to left: Belinda, Mary Jane Francis Waggner -with frog- and me] I’d have a new book bag, a light navy blue sweater and I’d be lining up with my class for assembly in the quad between the eighth grade classroom and the Angelus bell. From the loud speaker John Philips Sousa would blare and we would march, around and up one, down two, up two, down four, up two, alternate down two and off to the class room in order, lowest grades first . I loved it, there was a consistency, a rhythm. It was order and process. This probably was to tire us out, prepare us to sit in our desks and learn. [Kindergarten, 1951] Although for me, sitting still was a struggle.

These few, very few mornings, with a slight chill in the air, a baby blue sky, and pure gold sunlight are prized. I hear a John Philips Sousa march in my head and I’m in that quad, with my friends, getting ready and it’s like the first day of school, bright, shiny, clean. I cherish the memories of consistency, rhythm, order and process that enables fresh starts. Because we all need them. I’m very lucky. I can go there every morning.

Sacred Times

When I was growing up we started Easter Vacation on Thursday. But it was not vacation. No, that actually started on Easter Monday. For the next three days it was church and more church. Mass on Holy Thursday was lots of incense and feet washing. Good Friday was dour, lots of purple, the saying of the Stations of the Cross. And Holy Saturday was lots of ‘Let us kneel’ and ‘Let us stand,’ and ‘Let us pray,’ [maybe not in that order] preparing was how I always thought of it.

Then one Easter, I must not have been paying attention, sometime in the 80’s, Holy Saturday went away, and I feel the loss. We knew the Good News was coming, but Holy Saturday was the final wrap-up. To appreciate. To think. To meditate. It was one more opportunity to look into the darkness, to see the despair, to know that at one time there was little hope for redemption or salvation. That there had been only waiting. But the waiting was almost over.

Now, Saturday is the Easter Vigil. A long, long, event with the lighting of the first fire, the lighting of the Paschal candle, baptism and confirmation if we have RCIA candidates. Long. But there is no step in between the awfulness of Good Friday–to die on a cross, to hang suspended by nails in your hands and feet, to wait for that moment when the pain and suffering of the moment ends–to Easter. Christ dies and YAY, he is Risen.

When we were in Massachusetts, attending St. Edward the Confessor church, I joined the liturgy committee. A Ph.D in Theology from Boston College came once a week for three or four months and helped us to understand how the liturgy had evolved from the first Christians in the catacombs to the present time. Mostly it was of the Western civilization bent, before the mass was codified in the Roman Catholic church as we know it today. Although that changed with Vatican II and opening the windows–when some people wanted to open the doors too. To me, Vatican II was never about change but about letting both Catholics and non-Catholics learn about who we are, what we are. I came to understand it was big risk, but not as big as leaving the Church as an impenetrable monolith, feared and mysterious.

I think we took a big risk too, getting rid of Holy Saturday. The journey for the Jews and Christ’s followers was not an easy one–it was arduous, fraught with terror and fear, open to seeing the worst of mankind as those in authority tried to suppress this new faith.

Although my knees are not good, I do miss standing shoulder to shoulder with friends and family on a Saturday night, and Father intoning from the altar, ‘Let us kneel’ and ‘Let us stand,’ and ‘Let us pray.’ More than ever we should feel the need to kneel and pray as we too wait in hope for redemption and salvation.

Magic

I’ve been to the Magic Castle. Nope, have no clue how they do it. I don’t watch ‘behind the scenes’ shows. I don’t want to read blogs on the main characters. Or how the actors live. I grew up in Los Angeles. Went to school with children and grandchildren of ‘those Hollywood’ folk. There was no paparazzi. There was no stalking. They were just ordinary people with a job in the movies.

Hmmm…do I believe in Magic? Sort of. Yes, that wand would be cool. Yes, that spell book would come in handy. Who wouldn’t want all of that? Just a wave here, a snap of a fingers, a few words there and, bob’s your uncle, BAM! Done.

Some say magic is to some, what science is to others. Would I use magic? Probably no. It feels like it we don’t have it because it is too easy. But I do know magic.  I’ve been a reader since forever. I’ve been to places that no plane, train or ship could go. I’ve seen worlds that are too horrible to contemplate, or are too much fun to miss, or are just downright lovely to spend time in. Reading is magic! That is what I am looking to create.

I think of those ‘behind the scenes’ shows and wonder if anyone would be as excited to see a writer shaping a story? Creating a world?  You create a character. You give him/her life, foibles, obstacles. You provide family, homes, towns. You record their thoughts, ambitions, musings. So, yes, I do believe in magic, but not the kind with a wand or a spell book.

Because writing is hard. In nonfiction it is research, read, write, revise. Research, read, write, revise. Sigh.

I’m at that middle of a narrative nonfiction that is a slough. The writing is hard because the subject is hard. While it has been discussed in very academic circles, in MG/YA, not so much. I’ve got to get in some information. Yes, it’s important. Can it be boring? Can it difficult to translate for high school kid? Yes.

I’m sort of at that place where I know what comes after, I know how the narrative continues, but this one place! THIS. ONE. PLACE. Sigh!

Yes, it would be a miracle. And I’m letting it block me. And so, I think I will put in my draft ‘something happens here’ and move on.

Is that a good choice? I have no idea. My goal is to finish this narrative by the end of summer. So I have a couple of months. But time does fly. As if by Magic!

 

Love

Love can be wielded like a cudgel. There is the commercial Love has no Labels. Love is about diversity and inclusion. From the my Baltimore Catechism we learned of the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity; faith in our God, hope in the promise of heaven, and charity which is benevolent, disinterested, and generous, bringing forth friendship and communion. Most say Faith, Hope and Love. But no. Charity– ‘love one another as I have loved you.’ Open, sacrificial, giving, no strings, no tag lines.

Recently there was a TED talk by a Dr. Mary Donohue, a ‘preeminent keynote speaker on multigenerational workplace’.  Dr. Donohue’s TED talk is about the ways in which the other generations communicate enabling one generation to talk to the other so, in her words “work doesn’t suck!”  She uses a phrase like ‘conversation clever,’ describing the generations as builders, doers, adapters, brilliant and then neatly goes on to prove each point with very commercial examples. Sigh. Her talk is clever, practiced, polished and gives each generation something to like about itself and dislike about the others. Supposedly this will help communication but I don’t think it will advance love.

The way we use love  in a commercial campaign is about the same. Slick, practiced, polished and neatly pigeonholed to show it is all right for same sex love, to love a sibling who is disabled, to love one of another ethnicity. And I get it. I don’t think that is the love that will save the planet–politically or culturally.

In my faith Charity is the greatest of them all. In this world Truth is the greatest of them all.  There is the ideal that  love will solve our problems. I think of a banner my sister gave me while in college. We laughed about it because it is so real, so true. It is easy to say that love will conquer all. But no. Not really. It won’t conquer. It can’t even alleviate the distress. Just look at our national politics and all who say that they only want everyone to love one another. Do we see everyone as willing to be  ‘benevolent and open’?

I can say I love everyone. Love is so much easier. But truth, truth is the coin of love, it is what makes love potent, desirable, unshakable. Truth is harder than love because you may have to admit to a lie, one that may have protected you, that made you look good, that served your interest.

Why this interest in truth?

In the middle grade mysteries I write, while love is the emotion that drives the character, it is the truth that finds the killer. A character can grow in love, but it is in finding the truth that lets the main character understand and be ready to take responsibility, to grow up. Putting  together means, motive and opportunity and identifying the killer is to find the truth. Only truth breaks through.

In nonfiction it is the weeding out the propaganda, the bias, the self-interest, both in studying the historical figure and in assaying the author. In nonfiction, with a historical perspective, truth can be victim to the sham of love. It is the sham of love that  wrapped a whole people allowing them to  suffer totalitarianism, brutality and oppression for decades. Only truth will break through.

 

Roiled

Roiled. A state of mind-my mind. Hmm…I’ve been thinking a lot about what I wrote, well, gee, yesterday. About reality and wordsmithing, joy and raw history. I worry. I wasn’t always a worrier. I was mostly unconscious as a kid–and sometimes, no, lots of times, I miss that. But I’ve had kids, have a husband and a life, and possessions and so now I am a worrier. Sigh. Probably goes well with that Type A + personality that is high in Command.

And what I’ve been thinking about and worrying about is words more than anything else. I just reread Cheryl Klein’s MAGIC WORDS chapter POWER AND ATTENTION on writing across cultures…but I think this chapter also speaks to writing across time. She states six basic principles. And if I were to distill them, I’d say what she asks is that you write truthfully, in the moment, in the character and don’t let your own self get lost in the story.

Sometimes I think almost everything we write is across time; a different type of diversity than we usually consider. You may write it as contemporary, but by the time you sculpt that idea into a workable story, develop characters, write dialogue, craft settings and worlds, it is no longer contemporary, even if you are writing in the present tense. Even if you write about the future, it is already past, because the idea is now out there.

Between my middle grade mysteries I am writing non fiction. Not science. Not biography although it started out that way. Sort of like my one picture book story, I think I have one and only one nonfiction in me, I think. It started with my admiration and fascination with Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary General of the US, remembering as an adult the impact his death in 1961 when I was a kid. And while I was fascinated, his story is not really one for kids in that you can almost believe although he was small and grew into adult hood, in truth,  he was never a kid. So I needed a story around his story and I chose where his life ended. It ended not by him,  not on purpose, not willfully, though from the publication of his journal, when he took the job as S-G, he had made his own peace with God and with the future. It ended because of politics. Of national interests. Of personal gain. Of disrespect for another human being.

The story is of the Congo. Of all the nation state stories in the history of the world, Congo stands out among the most sad. From the moment Leopold II of Belgium decided he needed and wanted to rule something bigger and more prestigious than Belgium, Congo became not a home of a people, not a land graced with much of the earth’s wealth, not a nation, or even several nations, it became one person’s property. And, although Leopold II is gone, it is in many ways, still one person’s property.

Here we sit, I sit, in these United States, in a country that has a covenant of over two hundred years giving me, all of us, the right to rule ourselves. Yes, it is through others. Yes, we do not all agree. But we have that right.

I will not be writing the current history. Doubtless not even the next generation will, although many will try. Probably someone who was born in this decade will be writing this story, will have access to the news, the tweets, the posts, the blogs, the pundits, the instagram, and all manner of communication and will be able to distill the story, be far enough away from the story not to get lost in the story.

I am writing the history of a story that started more than a century ago. And I worry. I worry not about getting lost in the story, I worry about telling the story in current terms, not telling it in the time it happened, not telling it in the language of the people who lived it, not telling it truthfully.  I worry and  that roils my thoughts and disturbs my writing.