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Saturday, January 17, 2015

Not Good-bye but Bon Voyage

There seem to have been more than the normal number of deaths in my little circle lately - friends and daughters and fathers. Whenever I know people are grieving, I can't help but think of my friend, June.

June had asked me to give her eulogy when she died and she had very specific instructions for what I was to tell her loved ones.

Seven years previous, she'd gone into cardiac arrest in the hospital and almost died. I say, almost, but actually she did die...for a while. During that time, she had an after-death experience and when she came back, she was exalted by it. During the remainder of the years she lived, she was joyful, as if she had a special secret knowledge that made life a different thing altogether than it had been before.

She told me all about it right after it happened, of course. I've read a lot about ADE's since and her experience was typical. She heard all the bells and buzzers going off around her, heard the intercom announce that help was needed in her room stat, heard the sound of feet pounding down the hall.

Meanwhile, her being went up to the ceiling and hovered, rather interested in the furious actions being performed on her body although she didn't feel personally involved. Eventually, she went out of the room and into the tunnel that is usually a part of after-death the end of the tunnel was the Light. And she made it there.

The most exceptional quality of the light, one she repeated over and over, was its welcoming warmth and the complete serenity she felt being bathed in it.

"Vic," she said, "no human on earth has ever felt absolute peace of mind. Even if your life is going well, you're anxious about something, be it money, your kids, your health but this was total...imagine the most stress-free moment you've ever had and multiply it by a million. That's what it is like in the light."

Suddenly though, she was back in her body. Her doctor was pounding on her chest.

"Come back, June, come back," he was urging.

"Just let me go," she pleaded, "let me go back."

He told her that all her children were on their way to the hospital and she surely didn't want to go off without seeing them.

That was another element that was so distinctive about the after-death experience, she told me.

"Time is completely different there, not at all like it is here."

So she told the doctor, "it doesn't matter, I'll see them again in just a little while anyway."

He reminded her that her daughter was pregnant with her first grandchild and she'd told him how much she was looking forward to being a Grandma.

She was able to return, briefly, and in the light her soul touched the baby's soul. She knew him, knew he was a boy and knew that if she left now, they would would miss each other as one departed and one arrived.

So she came back and she fought to live.

She told me what I was to say to her children and her friends at her funeral.

"Tell them please not to be unhappy and not to worry. Tell them not to say good-bye but wish me Bon Voyage for I'll be going on a trip to a place I've always wanted to go and soon enough, we'll meet again when they make that same exciting journey."

She almost glowed when she told the story of what it was like to die.

I tried to think of that when my little mother passed, that she was on a ship eagerly cruising to a fascinating destination. She was no longer old, her mind no longer broken by dementia. I tried to say Bon Voyage, rather than good-bye.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Who Does He Think He Is?

This is the New Year for us where I live. When we cross that bridge from December 31 to January 1, the land around us is snow-covered, the water is icy if not quite iced over. The wind bites.

I always thought Spring would make a better New Year since it is the time of new beginnings - new babies, new green growing things, new heart for people who yearn for the sight of colorful flowers and the feel of warm breezes and the fecund smell of an awakening earth.

Or perhaps, October, when the harvest is done and everything is butchered and canned and covered. The earth celebrates the end of its work year with a riot of color before it shuts down and goes into hibernation. People look forward to a time of rest before the hard labor of a new season begins, at least, that's the way it was when most of us lived by the rhythms of farming.

But no, here we are, celebrating on January 1, which is just a continuation of winter really...just two more long months of cold to look forward to.

There's no particular reason we have to celebrate the coming of a new year on January 1 except centuries of tradition. For generations, the new year came in March but our current new year was dictated by the Roman god, Janus, the ancient, two-faced god – for whom the month of January is also named. One face of Janus looked back into the past, and the other peered forward to the future and I guess that's how he earned the honor of naming the new year.

We could have changed it once pretty easily before the whole world was computerized and industrialized. An emperor could have simply declared it - "I hereby declare April 1 to be the start of the year forevermore", and we'd have complied - but I suppose it is too late now.

It doesn't really make much difference to a retired writer. If anything, the cold is more conducive to staying home with my nose to the grindstone of the computer than birdsong and roses would be but still, it's irksome because I resent that old Janus having the glory of being able to dictate the start of our calendar.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

'I Wonder What Rafe Has Been Up To?

I feel sorry for any author who doesn't write a series because no matter how much you may love  your individual books, it's not the same as having a character or group of characters that become so interwoven into your life, they feel almost like members of your emotional family.

Rafe Vincennes is that person for me. I have written eight books about him. My current WIP is about three boys who grow up in an Irish Traveler family. I love these boys and the research I've done on the Irish Travelers is fascinating. I am enjoying the writing of this novel very much but still, every now and then, the question drifts through my head: "I wonder what Rafe has been up to?"

Because Rafe is like a real person to me, more real than some actual humans I interact with regularly. I would write about Rafe even if no one ever bought or read those books simply to satisfy my own curiosity.

I admit that he's not everyone's cup of tea. Twisted men seem to be my forte. Almost all of my main male characters are anti-hero as much as hero and Rafe is even more so. People often ask me how I came up with him. Me - a plump, gray-haired, Grandma-aged, not-especially-adventuresome woman - and amoral racecar driver Rafe (although, of course, he does have a moral code, it's just not like yours and mine). The fact of the matter is that I didn't come up with Rafe, he came up with me.

In that way of his, he sauntered into in my head full-blown and flashed me that mesmerizing grin and said, "here I am" and seduced me. I never know what is going to happen in my books until it actually happens. Rafe has turned me off and turned me on, he's sometimes shocked and dismayed me. He's made me laugh and guided me through describing experiences I've never had. The few times I've tried to change him, soften his image a little, he said no. "I am what I am, take it or leave it."

I am a great Outlander fan and people have asked me how I think Diana Gabaldon has been able to write nine (enormous) novels about Jamie and Claire Fraser, not to mention the supplementary novellas. I would never claim to begin to compare to Gabaldon but I do think I know the answer to that question: she loves Jamie and Claire and she wants to know what happens to them next.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Words Have Power


Writers understand this better than most. The way we describe things shapes what people think about them. We've recently seen a powerful and awful example of this with the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on torture.  We know that enhanced interrogation is the same as torture but somehow describing it as enhanced interrogation makes it sound more palatable than torture. The very word, torture, makes it impossible to pretend you don't know you're approving of something evil.

Politicians often go to great lengths to find names for laws that make them sound necessary and innocuous. Thus we end up with the Patriot Act  (PATRIOT being the acronym for " Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001"). Well, who could be against something like that? Obviously, almost no one but the devil is in the details and some of us are not so thrilled with some of the various tools required to intercept and obstruct.

Kentucky has a healthcare program which is very popular in the state and Tennessee's governor is in favor of passing the same kind of legislation. I say, Kentucky's program is popular and it is - as long as you call it Kynect and not, heaven forbid, Obamacare  - although it is simply Obamacare by another name.

A male character, depending on the words a writer uses to describe him, can be wimpy or he can be sensitive; he can be commanding or he can be a bully. Is our blonde female a brassy blonde or does she have a palomino mane or, perhaps, flaxen locks - change a word or two and we conjure up pictures of three completely different women.

Per our description, the same weather can be a welcome friend or a mortal enemy. Does your character see that snow drifting down, piling softly around the house, as a fire blazes merrily in the fireplace, as cozy or does it seem endless, as she wonders when she'll be able to leave, while she takes a mental inventory of the food she has in the house. Is she enclosed by the quiet beauty of the snow or imprisoned by the harsh isolation of it?

Words are not just words, they are emotions. They are persuaders. They are weapons or they are salvation. They have power - and they confer their power on us. To be writers, word people - sometimes that seems like an awesome honor as well as an awesome responsibility.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Words Matter - I Wish I Could Disappear This One

    This is a thug.

    So is this

   And this


    They can sometimes be too.


Words matter. For instance, I have grown to despise the word "thug". The dictionary defines a thug as a "violent person, especially a criminal" but it has become a catch-all phrase to define our biases. Mostly, it is used to describe black males, be they violent or criminal or not, if they simply look that way to a segment of society. If a young man is black and wearing a hoodie, hey, that's enough to tag him as a thug. Follow that thinking a little farther and you can probably get away with shooting him because, you know, you were in fear of your own safety. You don't have to actually BE in danger, you simply have to BELIEVE you were....or say you believed you were.

And never fear that certain parts of the media will jump in and eagerly contribute to their labeling as thugs. The first piece of "evidence" we got in the Michael Brown shooting was a video of Michael stealing cigars from a convenience store, which isn't to say that had Darren Wilson been charged with some damn thing, even involuntary manslaughter, that wouldn't have come out in a trial and influenced a jury. But, as it was, it was a Cover Your Ass move by the police to paint Michael Brown as a thug before any other details of the case were released.

And Trayvon Martin was smeared by social media and professional media alike. He had been "suspected" of theft by his school, we learned. And he was carrying the ingredients, Skittles and some kind of drink, that are supposedly used to make some concoction for getting high.  So, it wasn't that big a deal that he was killed. Society can do without thugs of his kind.

And now the 12-year-old that was shot within 2 seconds of police arriving to see a boy carrying what turned out to be a b-b gun. Tamir Rice had never been in trouble but his mother and her boyfriend were legitimate pieces of crap so, mostly likely, Tamir would have turned out to be a thug with that kind of background. Police probably just saved society some heartache by taking him off the grid.

I debate with a lot of people on Facebook about these issues. As soon as I see the word thug, I know what I'm in for. They can't even begin to put themselves in the shoes of the parents when their child's body is left on the street for 4 1/2 hours after his death (Michael Brown) or they aren't notified that their son is in the morgue (Trayvon Martin) because their kids aren't thugs so it doesn't compute. Raise a thug and that's what you can expect. Shrug.

In raising these questions, I have been called "sewer scum" and nigger-lover (a term I thought had gone out of style now that we're a "post-racial society" - ha!ha!) Some people are verbal thugs.

My opponents on Facebook get angry if I even dare to suggest that there are two sides to all these stories because to them, it is all black and white and, yes, the pun is intended.

Oddly enough, it is the ones who are vociferously supportive of the police in the Michael Brown case and were passionately supportive of the wannabe cop in the Trayvon Martin case who were generally, equally as militantly supportive of the militia in the Cliven Bundy affair....the very militia that threatened to shoot federal agents if they didn't back off and leave poor downtrodden Bundy alone.

So, which is it? Do they make their judgments on the fly based on who is on the other side of the police? Black kid in hoodie versus cops = thug versus cops.  Old white scofflaw versus cops = upstanding citizen versus thugs.

Well, it does shorten the process of deciding the merits of a case. Identify the thug and you automatically know which side you're on.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

A Grasshopper Without Regrets



There two kinds of people in the world as we all know - ants and grasshoppers. I wonder if it is possible to change from one to the other or if those qualities are so innate as to be immutable?

Of course, all of us have some characteristics of each but most of us lean distinctly one way or the other. I have always listed far to the grasshopper side. Like one of my heroines, Scarlett O'Hara, I've always been able to tell myself, "I'll worry about that tomorrow".

My mother-in-law, whom I loved dearly, was an ant to the nth degree. I can remember sitting on the bank of the creek beside the yard on a lovely sunny summer day when she came out to see me.

"How can you sit here doing nothing when you have dirty dishes in your sink?" she asked disapprovingly.

"I'm not doing nothing....I'm watching the minnows and the crawdads and the dragonflies and enjoying the warmth of the sun.....and I can do it because all those things will be gone soon but the dishes will still be there whenever I go in."

She and my father-in-law denied themselves when they retired...trips and furniture and a new car - because they put everything back for their "old age". And yes, they got old and they ended up in a nursing home because of my father-in-law's illness....and soon, all their savings was gone. They still ended up on Medicaid, only a few month's later, when their own money was used up. I figure when my times comes, I'll just be on Medicaid from the git-go.

When she was in that nursing home, she told me once - "I wish I'd been more like you and worried less and enjoyed life more."

But she couldn't change her nature anymore than I can.

People like me, grasshoppers, shouldn't even be trusted with credit cards. It's too easy for us to convince ourselves that we need that vacation for our peace of mind, whether we can afford it or not. Or that the spare bedroom would be PERFECT if only it had that puffy pink comforter from Ebay on the bed and what I spend on Amazon, I don't even count because, well, books.....

Grasshoppers are self-indulgent. I am addicted to smoking but I never do as one friend does...she buys four cartons every month when she gets paid and she rations herself to make sure they last until she will be able to buy more. Me, I smoke with abandon - "smok'em if you got'em!" I assume if I run out, I'll either think of a way to get more or I'll just do without. Rationing is not in the realm of my possibility.

Both of my husband's were grasshoppers, like me. Because of it, we careened around the country from Indiana to Illinois to South Carolina to Texas and several more points in between. When we had money, we lived high and when we didn't, we pulled in our horns and survived. Our lifestyle was what my father always called - "chicken today and feathers tomorrow". If you ask me now, if I thought the chickens were worth the feathers, I'd say yes.

I never thought about the future in my working life. I can't even remember how many jobs I've ever had - bartender, waitress, secretary, legal assistant, real estate salesperson, insurance underwriter, chicken house mother. I've soldered and punch-pressed and taped and cut hoses and orientated in all kinds of factories. I've worked with cops and robbers and bikers and boozers and druggies and musicians. I worked with deadbeats and devout Christians, rich people and poor people and blacks and whites and latinos and learned from and enjoyed all of them.

When I finally went to work at City Hall and then followed my boss to the Sheriff's Department, I stuck because I loved the work and the people. When I got fired by the new Sheriff, I went to the Prosecutor's office and it turned out that I'd, almost accidentally, worked at enough government jobs to earn a pension from the Public Employee's Retirement Fund. Meanwhile, many of my peers who stayed at positions they hated for "security" found out that security isn't always a dependable thing. I actually ended up better off financially than many of them.

I make just enough money being retired to survive if I'm careful....but I'm not good at being careful. When I first get paid, I'm generous-hearted with what I have. I tear through the aisles of the grocery like I have unlimited funds. A big fat steak? Yes! And chocolate ice cream and Starbucks coffee pods and real butter and cheese and fruit. If I run out of money before I run out of month, oh, well, chicken today and feathers tomorrow!

I write the same way I live. No plan, no outline, no particular genre....just plunge in and see what happens. Sometimes, I'm as excited to find out how it all comes out as any reader could be. I say what I think and I'm not concerned about offending people. I've always been that way about my political writing and now I'm the same with fiction and taking on taboo subjects.

So, here I am at 68 - the ultimate grasshopper - and no regrets.