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Sticks and stones
May break my bones
But words will never hurt me
In William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker, Annie Sullivan despairs of ever reaching the blind and deaf little girl, Helen Keller. Annie makes a speech in Act Three about the importance of words and language. made all the more poignant because Helen is sitting there, playing, unaware of the anguish Annie reveals. “. . .words, why, you can see five thousand years in a light of words, everything we feel, think, know– and share, in words, so not a soul is in darkness, or done with, even in the grave.”
Harper Lee died Feb 19, 2016. She was eighty nine years old. My mother was also born in 1926, just about forty miles down the road from Monroeville, Alabama, where Nelle Harper Lee grew up. I always liked that synchronicity. Of course, I was also born just down the road from Harper Lee’s home town. I can’t remember the first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird. I know that my first, oldest copy is a 1962 paperback that is falling apart. As an adult, I bought a hardback copy, the fortieth anniversary edition. I also have a first edition, twentieth printing.
I can quote lines and even paragraphs from this book, as many who count this among their favorite books can. “The Truth is not in the Delafields.” “Don’t you say ‘hey’ to me, you ugly girl. You say ‘good afternoon, Miss Dubose’.” “He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”
And there is this paragraph, the one that makes us see and smell the setting of the story. “Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.”
And the introduction to one of the most unique and beloved characters in literature, Dill.
“Sitting down, he wasn’t much taller than the collards. We stared at him until he spoke.
‘Hey yourself,’ said Jem pleasantly.
‘I’m Charles Baker Harris,’ he said. ‘I can read.'”
And the voice, the point of view, one that came from an adult distance but sounded pitch perfect true to every note of childhood, that voice shaped the entire novel, telescoping from a little girl named Scout back to the grown up who retells with great fondness a story we all relate to, because there is so much in the telling that is similar, even universal, about the play and the ideas and the outlooks of small children.
Well, that voice, that telescope, is gone now. Nelle was buried quickly on February 20, quietly, privately, surrounded by only a few relatives and friends, just as she lived.
To Kill a Mockingbird became an instant classic, on the bestseller list for eighty eight weeks, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and became a classic movie as well, with a luminous screenplay written by Horton Foote, who managed to get the tone exactly right. The book has sold well over thirty million copies worldwide, is the novel that is taught in school more than any other, and served as inspiration for a generation of lawyers who wanted to be like Atticus, and a generation of feminists who emulated the spunk feistiness of Scout. The American Library Association lists it as one of the one hundred best books of the twentieth century. I find those parameters to be narrow.
Surely, this novel has influenced and shaped me as much as any religion. In a way, To Kill a Mockingbird served as a Bible for me. I can quote passages from the Bible, of course. But Scout and Jem, Atticus, Calpurnia, Uncle Jack and Aunt Alexandra, Miss Maudie and Miss Rachel Haverford. And of course, the Radley family. The spooky, sinister stories told by the children of the town turned Boo Radley into a ghost, a legend, and a source of endless speculation and entertainment.
Miss Lee has herself become a legend, a literary icon, one with a spooky history of reclusiveness, friend and help mate of Truman Capote, her childhood friend, the writer who wrote one book and never another.
As I framed similarities between my mother’s childhood and Harper Lee’s, I also shaped parallels between their later lives. My mother gradually lost her sight to macular degeneration. So did Miss Lee, who lost her hearing as well. I became a writer as much to please my mother, to make her proud of me, as I did to emulate Harper Lee, who was my literary hero. When my first novel was published, I sent a copy to Miss Lee, through her agent. I received a handwritten note in reply, encouraging me to continue with my writing endeavors, and informing me that sadly, she could no longer read books with normal font, because of her worsening eyesight. I treasure that letter.
I once snuck into the famous courthouse, long before it became a museum. I climbed to the top of the clock tower and looked out over Miss Lee’s town. It looked pretty much like my own hometown, and besides paved streets, not so different from that time when Nelle ran and played, read, and made up stories.
I don’t know why I feel as sad and lost today as I did when my mother died. I never met Harper Lee, never even saw her despite many trips to Monroeville. Her book, the one that I reread and memorized, the one I count as a better friend to me than most people, the book that compelled so many children to become lawyers and encouraged little girls to retain their spunkiness, the one that remarkably, said everything there was to say about small towns, race, courage, and being kind, just on the cusp of the civil rights movement of the nineteen sixties, that book, those words, still light my way, as from the first time I read them, lying on my bed beside an open window. Words can enlighten us. sure. They can live with us, in us, and they can shape and inspire and entertain. Miss Lee’s words did all of that for me.
Addendum: Here is the eulogy read at Miss Lee’s funeral service on Saturday, Feb 20, 2016, delivered by Dr. Wayne Flynt, historian, Alabama native, and lifelong friend of Miss Lee.
Andi Marquette is at it again. check out an excerpt of her latest novella From The Hat Down here. Then do what I did and buy the darn thing so you can finish reading it.
Today is #DDay70. I tried to post on that Twitter hashtag but something kept going wrong.
Sally Bellerose has done it again. She won this year’s Saints and Sinners short fiction contest. Then she generously posted it here for your reading pleasure.
I love it when writers I admire do things like that.
I woke up at 2:30 am this morning, don’t know why. I made coffee, turned the internet machine on, and saw the date. There are some we don’t forget. Many veterans of that singular day in World War Two might be surprised that someone not of their generation remembers that day. So many young men buried in that cemetery in France.
I have lately starting working on my next novel again. This time the important thing will be finishing it. Following Andi’s and Sally’s lead, here’s a little excerpt:
Marengo County 1880 The Morgans
“If you can’t kill ‘em with kindness, you might as well shoot ‘em,” Mama said, standing calm as a glass window pane, smoke still rising out of the barrel of her shot gun. Us kids were all lined up on the edge of the porch, running to a halt when we heard the blast. I pictured Mama with a leather headband, one single feather in the back, wearing a buckskin skirt with fringes swaying. Boy, was I wrong about that. Daddy had reached us by now, dinner napkin still around his neck. He didn’t stop on the porch, but went right on into the yard and yanked that twelve gauge out of Mama’s hands.
“What in Sam Hill are you doing?” he yelled, loud but not as if he really was mad. I guess we all were trying not to laugh, because a loaded gun is nothing to laugh at.
Mama just pointed up the dirt road to Grandma’s house, about a hundred yards away. We all looked that direction and saw Uncle Ulmer, staggering around the yard and talking to himself. “Don’t worry,” Mama said. “I didn’t shoot him, I shot at him. If I wanted to hit him, I would have, you know that for a fact.”
We all did know that as fact. Mama always hit what she aimed at. I knew, but the younger kids might not, that there was no way that shotgun could have reached that far, so Uncle Ulmer was never in any real danger. The best use of a shotgun is the loud noise it makes when you chamber a round and the fearful loud boom when you pull the trigger. That tends to make anyone in close vicinity take off at a run.
The thing is, Uncle Ulmer couldn’t run. Even as drunk as he was, he knew well enough not to make Mama mad enough to really shoot him. Uncle Ulmer lost a leg in the War, and ever since, he stayed drunk as often as he could sneak some moonshine into the house. Daddy whittled a nice piece of cypress into a leg. It had straps on it, and a foot too. Uncle Ulmer saved it for occasions when he had to dress decent. He preferred a simple peg leg for everyday use. He hated using his crutches or a cane because he wanted his hands free, so he stomped around the yard like a pirate, his face showing a dark beard, punching holes in the ground with every step, waving his brand new Winchester and muttering.
No telling what Uncle Ulmer had done this time to provoke Mama to fire a warning shot. Seeing him stumbling around the yard with a loaded gun was probably enough. Having survived the War, all but his leg anyway, Uncle Ulmer always paid attention when a weapon of any kind went off. It made him start twitching and shaking like a dog with fleas. Even in his drunken state Uncle Ulmer appreciated the scattering effect of buckshot and Mama’s good aim enough to abandon further escalation of hostilities.
“Every one of ya’ll get back in the house and finish your supper. I’m not staying up past dark to get the dishes done. Young Charles, you get me some water as soon as you get through. You should have done it before you sat down to eat, as you well know. Now scoot, all of you.”
We all scooted, even Daddy. Mama wasn’t mean, not ever, but I had seen her kill a cottonmouth with her hoe. Nobody ever doubted Mama’s intentions, that’s for sure. My daddy was Charles Barrett Morgan, who came from a fine Southern family who owned hundreds and hundreds of acres and slaves to work them, before the War. I kept a picture in my head of Daddy too, imagining how he must have looked, and this picture was pretty accurate. I know because Daddy told us stories often enough about his family and all their land and slaves before the War.
The fact that our land was all that was left of the thousands of acres the family once owned meant something to Daddy. It meant he was not like every other struggling farmer. His family had long grown cotton with slave labor. The land he plowed behind a cantankerous old mule, its rich dirt sifting into the cuffs of his pants, into the creases of his skin as he walked every step of his property, his father and grandfather had surveyed from the backs of beautiful horses saddled in gleaming leather, and they wore shiny black riding boots, like the kind you see in that portrait of George Washington. I picture them as they watched the overseer, who watched the sweating black people, who lived in a string of cabins that were all gone now, except for a few for sharecroppers, land owned now by the Duboses who came here after the war and bought up all the land, slowly getting the Morgan land piece by piece, until it all shrunk down to the last quarter section we lived on, and the ten acres Grandma Morgan held.
Settled back at the supper table, Daddy finally asked the question all of us wanted to. “What was Ulmer doing this time?”
Mama held the baby on her lap and fed her mashed field peas. “William Dubose is all you need to know. That man has built a bank in town. I swear he won’t be satisfied until every single piece of dirt and every dollar in this county belongs to him.”
Whatever Mr. Dubose had bought, that wasn’t the only reason Mama was mad. Her few remaining family members kept getting pushed farther and farther back, into the deep woods. See, Mama was a Choctaw Indian. Now Dubose owned all their land and the timber on it too.
I always believed that one reason Daddy tried to cling tight to his ancestry is because he was so ashamed of Mama’s Indian background. It caused me to wonder why he ever married her in the first place. I think he did it because he was afraid of Mama’s father, who lived deep in the woods beside the river with the Mowa band.
If Daddy, a fine, upstanding, Christian example of generations of white breeding in the Morgan clan, had been sincerely true to his own heritage, he would have married someone from another upstanding family and kept Mama in a cabin in the woods to have his children, who would grow up on collard greens, corn, fish, squirrels, and deer meat. I wouldn’t have minded that secret life so much. As long as he saw fit to bring me books, that is.
He couldn’t resist those dark brown eyes, that blue-black hair, the cheekbones and the spine. He did a fine trade business with the Choctaw, because they respected Mama.
Charles Barrett Morgan, Mama often said, is so contrary he would argue with a fencepost. All the Morgans are contrary, she claimed. Maybe that contrary streak is what gave him the courage to marry Mama. I know it certainly is responsible for most of the whippings I got.
I also know that white-skinned, blue-eyed boys and girls everywhere in the county sure gravitated to our family. Something about the brown eyes that turn to black when we get snapping mad, the dark brown hair, the way we go quiet sometimes, all traits I link back to Mama’s side, attracted every skinny white boy with over-sized Adam’s apples and big knuckles to my sisters, and the same was true about the girls with curled hair and starched dresses coming to see my brothers, who fell for the lowered eyelashes and sweet smells quicker than water skittering on a hot skillet.
I used to wonder why Mama stayed with Daddy when they fought so much. Now I know that when brown eyes change to black, it isn’t always because of anger. It’s something else that turns them dark, inward-looking, opaque. I know that I have eight brothers and sisters, and all of us were born no more than two years apart, some of us only separated by fifteen months, a pair by only twelve months. By my calculation, Mama stayed in a constant state of gestation for almost eighteen years. Daddy liked those snapping dark eyes.
In Florida, when it rains, it really rains. For days, sometimes. For twenty four consecutive hours, as in the present case. And by rain, I mean steady, continuous, fill up the ditches then the roads rain.
Photos don’t do it justice. Rain is water, after all, and it goes where it wants to go and fills up everything. Low thunder rumbles, and I am glad it sounds very far away. Last summer, lightning struck one of our biggest trees and killed it. When the thunder gets closer, when I can hear the crack of the lightning, then I get worried, restless, as if there is some escape and I should make for it.
Rain is all encompassing. There is no escape. We are closed in, enveloped, and will soon be overflowing.
The farmer/rancher who has the acreage behind us just yesterday finished plowing up[ the winter grass, harrowing Sandy called it, and laid off rows. I think he means to plant peanuts again. Now that will have to wait.
We will have to wait to get our little acre mowed. We have to wait to haul the week’s trash to the road for pick up by the county truck.
Rain puts a hold on so much. No grocery shopping today. Have to make do. Can’t make it into town on the roads, can’t load and unload groceries in this downpour that never slacks, never stops.
This is the view out of my office window. Sorry about the flash. It rains, then for a while it rains harder, then it goes back to just raining. May I remind everyone that the last time it rained like this, I got the Blazer stuck in my own front yard. (In the country, people drive their trucks across their yards, or anywhere else it suits them.)
The Blazer has four wheel drive. Which I forgot about. And the neighbors towed it out. You know the story. The point is, we had so much rain that the ground couldn’t absorb it all.
I love living in the country. This kind of rumbling, non-stop rain reminds me once again of rain I experienced as a child, watching sheets of it pour down from the eaves, I think that was Hurricane Betsey. We lived in the house out another road from Sweetwater, and there was a salt lick for the cows where we waited for the bus. (I don’t see farmers do that any more. I wonder why?) That house still stands, and the last time I drove by it, was still occupied. I remember the little old lady who lived across the road from us, in a sharecroppers cabin, in the middle of a cow pasture. There was corn planted all around out house.
While we were living in that house, Daddy went fishing and came home with a wash tub full of perch and catfish. He showed me how to scrape off the scales of the little perch, how to cut them open and dig out the insides. I thought it was great fun. I got to play with a knife, and Daddy got his fish scaled, skinned and cleaned pretty fast. There must have been fifty fish in that wash tub. I believe that Daddy did that a lot, tricking me into thinking work was fun. I was only six or seven. The others were too old to fall for it I suppose. I played with little things that Daddy called swim bladders. He popped one for me, and said that’s what keeps fish from sinking. Mama wouldn’t let me eat any of the perch. She said they were too full of bones. She cut fillets off the bigger catfish for us, and we dunked them in Catsup. It was a sure sign of maturity when Mama let me eat a whole catfish by myself. I carefully slid the meat off the bones.
My big brother Jimmy had a dog when we lived in that house, a pitch black hound. I remember somebody ran over him or shot him and Mama flying down the drive to cuss them out magnificently. My older sister Charlotte probably remembers the details better.
There’s a lot of things I want to ask my older sister about, now that Daddy and Mama and Jimmy are gone. I hope she can recall more details than I can.
When we lived on the other side of Sweetwater, in the house that Daddy built, I remember summer thunderstorms so sudden that steam rose from the paved road. It brought some relief from the heat, so grownups gathered on the porch to enjoy it, and the kids, if there was no lightning, were allowed to run around in the yard, splashing and sliding through the puddles, celebrating the rain. Mama caught rainwater, as I’m sure most people did, in tubs placed at the corners of the house. I distinctly remember sliding on bare feet across the grass, soaking wet, but it felt so good.
Mama told me stories, and I never doubted her sincerity when I was growing up. She told some stories over many times, and now I wonder why. Now, I wish I could remember every word of those tales. My Aunt Duck, Mama’s sister, isn’t as much of a story teller, and claims not to remember some of the things Mama told me. That may be true, because she got married and left home when she was very young. Her life and memory got filled up with raising her own kids, I suppose.
The rain has eased up a little. Thunder still rumbles in the distance, so I know more rain is coming, rumbling its way toward us here on our little plot of ground that has helped me remember and enjoy so many simple things from my childhood, like fishing, and dogs, and rain.
The point is the rain, falling down in glassy sheets that made me feel like I was inside a waterfall. I remember both those houses. I remember the salt lick. I remember the old lady. I remember the black dog, and the fish bladders, and scales sticking to my skin. And I remember the rain.
I dreamed about Ellen Hart last night. I was a houseguest. The entire main floor was a kitchen. She had a sixteen-year-old dog, and a young one who kept bouncing around our feet. It was morning, and I was in pajamas and a robe, and she was cooking like a mad scientist, while I watched animals play outside. That’s all I remember. Maybe it’s because I recently read and reviewed The Cruel Ever After. Or it was something I ate.
Lately, I have been dreaming about my brother. In one dream, he was very young, and he kept following me and teasing me. I begged my mother to make him stop, but she just said, that’s what brothers do.
I barely remember my older brother when he was that young. He was a teenager, then out of the house and gone as I was growing up.
He would have looked like this, in the dream. When my brother was that age, I was probably a baby. I never noticed it before, but in this school photo, he has that same half grin that Mother had. You can barely see, but he is wearing a chain with dog tags in the picture. I never noticed that either, but I do have clear memories of him wearing dog tags. Now I wonder, whose were they? My daddy’s from his time in the army? I never really thought about it.
I’ve told you this before, but if you haven’t yet caught on: Jill Malone is one of the finest writers anywhere. You should read her essays here: http://www.jillmalone.com/brave. And then, you should read her newest novel, Giraffe People. I think it is her best yet, but her previous books garnered so many awards that some people may disagree with me.
While I am raving about writers, here’s another one that I greatly admire and envy, Sally Bellerose. You can catch up with her here: http://sallybellerose.wordpress.com. And then go read her wonderful book, The Girls Club, because she has another book in the works. I’ll keep you posted about when that one comes out.
As for me, I am wandering around in my latest work, just stopping here and there to admire, moving on, not quite settling down to do a cohesive run through the whole thing, because I don’t think it is whole yet. Memories come and go like dreams, like old faded snapshots, and that is how this new book is shaping up. IN the mean time, if you miss me, go read this: What’s Best for Jane.
It is rainy, cloudy, drippy here this morning. Perfect writing weather. This is Thursday, two days after the State of the Union, and I am stil thinking about Ted Nugent.
I have imaginary confrontations with him. I feel so bad for Luke Russert, who tried to interview Nugent after the speech.
Since Newtown, I have been thinking a lot about guns. I live in the country now, where it would be practical to have one for wild creatures that might attack us or the cats. There are all kinds of animals in these Florida forests, including coyotes, cute but destructive raccoons, armadillos, alligators, even panthers (rare) and bears, so they tell me.
We sit in the back yard and watch wild turkeys and many other kinds of birds, the giant woodpeckers, robins, cardinals, hawks, owls, others I can’t identify. We listen to them. There are chickens and roosters, feral cats who howl, there are deer, rabbits, possums, and of course, snakes. There was a dead snake tangled in one of the bushes in the front yard when we moved in. His skin and head are still there.
Lately, my partner and I have taken up fishing. The search for the perfect fishing hole is as much fun as actually fishing. We have caught perch, catfish, snakeheads, and some we can’t identify. The fishing isa re-enactment from both our childhoods, when I fished for catfish in the Tombigbee and Sandy fished for bass with her daddy in Texas.
The thing about fishing is when you find a good spot, you keep it secret. So we have this place we go to fish that is very far into the woods. I always think we should have some protection other than fishhooks and a knife. And a cell phone that probably has zero bars. What if we stumble upon a snake?
Guns sales spiked after the Newtown tragedy, as they do after every incident like it. People rush to buy guns before the bad federal government takes them away, because they are scared, because they believe they need to arm themselves for a civil war or some other equally ridiculous idea.
Even as the president was delivering his speech Tuesday night, a week-long rapage against the police was coming to a violebt end in Big Bear, where Christopher Dorner holed up in a cabin and engaged in a gun battle until the cabin caught on fire and burned to the ground, as the president spoke about the need to try to curb some gun violence by voting, please, on universal background checks for all gun purchases, for the ban on large capacity clips and magazines. Gabby Giffords was there for the speech. So was Ted Nugent. He sat beside some gay rights activists. He did not look happy about it. I wonder if he thought there would be a reserved section for the gun nuts like himself so they could all sit together?
The dogwoods are beginning to bloom. The grass is turning green. Spring is near, at least here in Florida it is. The azaleas have opened up. Trees are beginning to grow new leaves. The fish are jumping, birds are congregating, and the spring wet season is starting.
In all this new awakening after winter, I am getting the itch to play in the yard, go rambling, to dig in the dirt, and to write. What lingers though, is Newtown, and thoughts of guns.
Georgia Beers is one of the most popular, best-selling authors in lesbian fiction today, and with good reason. Beers knows her stuff, and I am thrilled to have her here to share some of her skills with us. From Thy Neighbor’s Wife, my personal favorite, to Fresh Tracks, a Lambda award winner,to Starting from Scratch, a finalist for this year’s Lambda, Beers has consistently brought us entertaining fiction with genuine characters and trademark humor.
Having just celebrated a birthday – and unfortunately, the numbers are going up rather than down no matter how hard I wish otherwise – I have found myself reflecting on my writing career so far. I have some things in the hopper, several new ideas at once (which doesn’t happen often), and a third floor writing studio I’m working on, so being a writer has been taking up a lot of space in the forefront of my mind lately.
I’ve been a published author for over ten years now (holy crap) and I thought it might be fun to make a list of the things I’ve learned so far. Some may help you. Some may not. Some may make you laugh, roll your eyes, or nod in agreement. Whatever your reaction, here are the lessons I’ve learned in the first decade of being a writer, in no particular order:
You will always need an editor. Always. There are no two ways about this. I don’t care if you’ve been writing for fifty years. There will always be plot holes you can’t see. There will always be the possibility that you love your characters so much you haven’t noticed the unrealistic personalities you’ve given them. There will always be typos. There will always be overused words or phrases. And if you’re me, there will always be the inability to use ‘affect’ and ‘effect’ the right way.
You will never please everybody. Somebody will always hate your book. Whether they’re jealous because you can write and they can’t or they harbor some grudge against you or your work is just not their cup of tea, somebody will always give you a crappy review somewhere on the internet. Do what I do if you’re sensitive about such things: avoid reviews like the plague. If there’s a glowing one somewhere, somebody who loves you will find it and forward it to you.
The next idea will always come. This is one that I have an especially hard time with. When I finish a book, I immediately start to worry about never having another good idea. Ever. Trust me, you may be drawing a blank in the awesome new story department, but don’t fret. You are not a one-trick pony. You are not a fluke. Just relax. It’ll come. It always does. I promise.