The Secret Behind the Art of Painting the Past

Painters employ color, light, and shadow. Writers use small, standardized black marks set against a white background. Yet these marks can inspire, condemn, evoke tears, laughter, anger, or regret. They can sweep a reader into a different reality, even bring a vanished time to life. What is the secret of their power?

Claude Monet

Claude Monet

All the elements of writing well and writing good fiction apply to writing the historical novel: characterization, voice, plot, theme, and solid research about the time period. But what makes a good historical novel—a novel that uncorks the magic of historical fiction, engrossing the reader in a story that transforms the past from a misty construct into something “real”?

To do that, there must be an authoritative voice that makes the characters and the historical setting believable and allows the reader to “suspend belief.” Part of establishing that voice is found in the advice to writers that characters in historical fiction need to think/speak/act as they would in the era we are writing about, as they are products of their time and upbringing. And we can aim for that. We can put effort into thinking about the words and phrases we use in order to avoid the anachronisms that pull a reader out of the story, and we can season the story with the spices of our careful research. But in reality, we can’t really accomplish it; it’s all anachronism—our very language is different from the language of the past in many ways.

Remember your high school Chaucer?

Chaucer

WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne is swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour:

Obviously, if you wrote a story in the real style of that time, it might be authentic, but who would, or could, read it? Structure can also be an issue. You might write a Moby Dick or Ivanhoe, but no modern day publisher (and very few readers) would put up with such meandering beginnings. The secret is to write a story structured in a way that is understandable and engaging to the modern reader, yet creates an illusion of being an accurate reflection of the past.

Art, even a photograph, is a symbolic representation of what the artist wishes to communicate. It is the same for writers. Good dialogue, for example, is no more a true replication of how people speak to one another, than a brush stroke of green paint is actually grass. Well written dialogue is condensed, shaped, and structured to accomplish the writer’s goals—to reveal character, forward the plot, or build atmosphere. It creates the illusion of real dialogue. In the same vein, use of dialect can help create the illusion. Applied too thickly, however, even though it might be more accurate, it can bog down or confuse the reader. Even information—the historical novelist’s primary tool—must not overwhelm the story, but enhance the suspension of belief.

How much is too much? There is not a definitive answer to that question. It is a matter of what works. M. T. Anderson pushed the envelope in incorporating the style of a time period in the structure of his language, writing of events in 1770’s in his novel, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing:

 Some few months later, a mob assembled in Old South Meeting House, and, after a rousing word by Mr. Adams, some habited themselves as Mohawk Indians and repaired to the wharves where they dumped tea.

I did not hear of this charade until the next day, and did not understand its purport; rather thinking it a pleasant interlude from the more brutal games of the Sons of Liberty. There was something almost gentlemanly about it, a hint of sport. Dr. Trefusis and I walked along the wharves and spake of disguise, color, substance, and the solidity of matter.

Far out in the harbor, tea clotted the brilliancy of sun upon the water. Men thin as insects rowed scows between the clumps, shepherding them with paddles, pressing down upon them, dousing them, drowning them, so that light might play unimpeded upon the winter sea.

In his notes, Anderson explained that he used selected words and phrasings to create the sense of the time period and style of writing, but had to temper it significantly in order to make it understandable for the modern reader. I believe Anderson spent as much time studying the words and phrasing of writing in the 1700’s as he did historical facts. What he did was daring and not for beginners, but it worked, beautifully.

On the other hand, my debut novel, Noah’s Wife, was set several thousand years in the past. No one knows what language was spoken in ancient Turkey in 5500 BCE. It was impossible to have “authentic” dialogue or duplicate the accurate structure of the language (writing having not been invented yet). Similarly, in Angels at the Gate—the story of Lot’s wife set in the time of Abraham—the spoken languages were a mixture of Akkadian, Egyptian, and Canaanite. Attempting anything like what Anderson did would have been ludicrous and would have had the opposite effect of the one intended.

In both books, avoiding the use of words or metaphors that would not have been part of the characters’ worlds and using slightly different sentence structures than those expected by the modern ear helped create the subtle illusion of an older time. And of course, utilizing information and extrapolations about the culture and environment of the time periods in a way that flowed naturally from the story deepened the illusion. From my novel Angels At The Gate:

 If the path of obedience is the path of wisdom, it is one not well worn by my feet. I am Adira, daughter of the caravan, daughter of the wind, and daughter of the famed merchant, Zakiti. That I am his daughter, not his son, is a secret between my father and myself. This is a fine arrangement, as I prefer the freedoms of being a boy.

At the head of our caravan, my father and I walk together beside our pack donkeys, the late day sun casting stubby shadows before us. Our sandaled feet raise a cloud of dust along the dry path that winds through Canaan’s white-and-taupe hills, studded with shrubs and spring flowers. We are taking a gift of sheep to our tribe’s elder, along with a portion of our recent purchase of olive oil and wine. I am less than enthusiastic.

Father sees this in my face. He reads me well—often, too well. “You are not happy to see Abram and Sarai?” he says, giving my donkey a pat. “Why not, Adir?” He always uses the masculine form of my name, even when we are alone. He is afraid if he does not, he will forget one day when he is angry or tired.

I shrug. “I am happy to visit with my cousin, Ishmael, but Abram is old and likes to talk.”

“He is a wise and learned man,” my father says, resting a hand on my shoulder. “You should listen to him.”

I should do many things I do not . . . .

The Impressionists often painted with thin brush lines that individually seem chaotic, but together (and at the right distance) transforms and suspends belief, so that the viewer “sees” what was intended. So too does the novelist, and the historical novelist does so with both the additional challenge and the additional tools of rich information about the past. It is all illusion, but then science tells us that what we think of as reality is also an illusion, a reconstruction created by our minds. This reconstructed “truth” of our perceptions is no less beautiful, tragic, or engaging . . . like a good story.

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What No One is Talking About

9506791-largeTwo of New York’s police officers are dead, executed by a gunman. I can’t seem to find the words to express my sorrow for the families, my gratitude to the officers who put their lives on the line for us all every day, and my desire to find some meaning in all this. Perhaps in a few weeks, I can write about it, but for now, I’ll post the thoughts I had about the Ferguson incident and a viewpoint no one was talking about.

As a police officer for over two decades, I have walked in the shoes of the officers who daily take risks that most people can’t begin to imagine unless they have served as a law enforcement officer or in military combat duty. While thousands of voices are raised in protest against police, we have heard little from their perspective.

Police officers rarely volunteer to talk to the media. Why? To start with, the perception of their job makes public relations difficult. Their focus is on preventing or solving a crime, not PR. Also, for many, experience has given them a cynical belief that their words or meaning may be twisted or taken out of context. For the same reason, they are suspicious of civilian review panels, which officers believe do not and cannot understand the dangers and expectations of carrying a gun and badge and going boldly where others do not wish to tread.

So as a general rule, (there are, of course, exceptions), police officers are not comfortable with articulating their feelings and viewpoints to anyone outside of the “brotherhood.” Talking to a civilian, even in a social setting, about police work is a sure path to engendering a litany about that person’s past wrongs at the hands of police.

Another problem is that the media usually wants to talk about an ongoing criminal investigation. In the recent Ferguson case, for example, the public was outraged that the police department did not share details of the case. Regardless of whether the department handled everything in the best manner, officers risk the investigation when they give out information. Many witnesses have to be uncovered. For a variety of reasons, they don’t necessarily step forward and their veracity is compromised if details are made public. Even if they hear misinformation from the media, law enforcement is very circumspect about responding. An investigation takes time and in our 24-7 news-and-talking heads world, people want answers now.

There is no doubt that in places people’s civil rights are being abused or not appropriately respected. There are examples of horrendous acts by a minority of law enforcement, abuses of power that should not and cannot be allowed. As a resident of Birmingham, Alabama and a student of civil rights history, I know great sacrifices were made to establish civil rights in this country, and I understand that although we have come a long way, we have not accomplished the healing we would hope for.

But Michael Brown is no Rosa Parks, whose agenda was to peacefully protest an unjust law. There is no doubt that, in the early part of the encounter with Officer Wilson, Brown attacked the police officer. For those who find this hard to fathom, in 2013, officers were the victims of almost 50,000 on-duty assaults. “Of the 27 officers feloniously killed (47 died in line of duty), six were killed in arrest situations, five were investigating suspicious persons or circumstances, five were ambushed, four were involved in tactical situations, four were answering disturbance calls, and two were conducting traffic pursuits/stops. One was conducting an investigative activity, such as surveillance, a search, or an interview.” (FBI Statistics 2013).

These were officers involved in carrying out their everyday duties. Where is the outcry over that? You will not hear it, and officers know that. The responsibility for protecting themselves falls on their shoulders, and they know that too.

Something else they know: According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report, “Firearms claimed the lives of 92% of the officers killed in the line of duty from 1976 to 1998. The officer’s own gun was used in 12% of all murders of police officers.” [Italics mine.]

Put yourself for a moment in an officer’s shoes. What do you suppose are your chances of survival are if an assailant gets your gun? They are slim. What happens to other people who are now subject to violence at the hands of a criminal with your gun? You must guard that gun at all costs. That includes an unarmed assailant with the intent to get it. You can’t wait for him to get close enough to take that decision away from you. At a certain point, when you have reasonable fear that a person’s approach is with the intent to assault you and take your weapon—demonstrated in this instance by the prior attack and the fact that a man you have ordered to stop and have even shot is continuing toward you—you must act. Gunshots do not always stop an assailant. That is why police are trained to aim for center mass—their best chance of stopping someone. Officer Wilson was backing away when he fired. No training made him do that. He was in fear for his life.

I am not black. I have not walked in those shoes. I am asked, however, to understand or try to understand the perspective of the black community who feel that they are not seen as human beings worthy of respect or treated equally by the criminal justice system. That is hugely important and there are certainly steps we should take and support to get there, but it is a two-way street. One of the first things I learned in law enforcement was to recognize the ongoing balance between freedom (civil rights) and security. We often gain one at the risk of losing the other. What would happen if we took guns away from police officers? On the other hand, if car and body cameras help reduce law enforcement abuses, we should use them. If we need to reinvigorate the concept of community policing, we should go there. If we need to address poverty and the relationship between education and school dropout rates and crime, we must do that. All parents, black and white, should instruct their children how to behave when interacting with law enforcement, understanding that police officers are never sure who or what they are dealing with.

We may never have a perfect world, but as Gloria Steinem once said, the answers for our society are “not about a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It’s about baking a new pie.” The primary ingredients of that pie must include mutual respect and understanding.

 

T.K. Thorne is a retired Birmingham police captain and author of Last Chance for Justice: How Relentless Investigators Uncovered New Evidence Convicting the Birmingham Church Bombing, as well as an award-winning historical novel, Noah’s Wife. Her latest historical novel is Angels at the Gate (March 2015).

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Writing the Funny

StopStopA friend of mine has a gift for writing humor. “But,” she says plaintively, “I want to write about deeper issues.”

What is humor anyway? Is it frivolous to write it?

I know people can twist everything, even humor, but I’m talking about the good stuff.

I don’t often write humor per se, but my characters sometimes surprise me. Surprise is in integral part of humor and, for me, a significant part of the joy of writing.

Humor is a sense of perspective. I would have drowned in a sea of guilt without Erma.

Bombeck: “My theory on housework is, if the item doesn’t multiply, smell, catch on fire or block the refrigerator door, let it be. . . .”

Even the most serious subjects are subject (pun intended) to the human injection of humor.

Twain: “God created war so that Americans would learn geography.”

Humor is the gasp of wonder and delight we feel when a child makes an astute observation from his/her perspective:

A two year old at being told maybe his ears are tired, because he is not listening : “Umm no, they’re not tired. I think their batteries died.”

Or my little nephew, looking up into the night sky: “Mommy, the moon is broke. Can you fix it?”

In our response to humor, we leave the universe we have created with it’s rules and definitions of reality and—just for one delirious moment—perceive a different reality. We are enlightened—understanding and accepting that reality is not the construct we have given it, but something so much more, so infinite, so marvelous, so indefinable! First on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s list of what constitutes success: “To laugh often and much. . . ” Laughter catches us up in a moment of pure being, a moment where we are alive and in the present. We just get a glimpse, but it is no wonder that the Dalia Lama laughs with such ease. Laughter is holy.

Laughter Therapy: Several studies point to the healing power of laughter, even to it having an effect on serious conditions. Maybe, as Reader’s Digest has told us for years, Laughing is the best medicine!

Laughing with others creates bonds. If you laugh at my humor, I love you.

Laughter helps keep us from taking ourselves and our world too seriously.

Bob Hope eased many hearts during hard times in our country. Could you watch Red Skelton or Carol Burnett and not feel better about whatever was wrong or hurtful in your life? Ok, I am really dating myself, but I will never forget the Coneheads from the planet Remulak on Saturday Night Live.

Beldare Conehead: “May I have 55 words with you?”

Or Carroll O’Connor (Archie Bunker), Jeff Foxworthy, Lucille Ball, Bill Cosby, Robin Williams, Desiree Burch, Jon Stewart, and so many more all keep making us look with new eyes at our cultural values and assumptions (while we hold our sides laughing), and even when they die—as long as we have the written word, the video tapes/files, and the joke-tellers—their humor will live on.

How do you put a value on that?  cat saving the world

My friend Becky and I, in a rare contemplation of the meaning of our lives, once had a discussion about what we should put on our gravestones. For hers, I suggested—“She loved to laugh.”

“What about yours?” she asked.

I thought a moment. “She loved to make Becky laugh.”

Now if you’re going to pun, that’s a different story and there’s a place in hell for you.

T.K. Thorne is the author of an award-winning debut historical novel, Noah’s Wife and Last Chance for Justice: How Investigators Uncovered New Evidence Convicting the Birmingham Church Bombers. Look for her upcoming novel, Angels at the Gate.

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Angels, Venus, & Sin City

pencil01

Book recipe:

Mix two angels, Venus, and a famous, licentious city. Add salt. What do you get? Angels at the Gate: The Story of Lot’s Wife. Well, it wasn’t quite that easy. Lot’s Wife actually started with Noah’s Wife, my first book. Unnamed in the Bible, Noah’s wife merited one brief mention. (What was she, chopped liver?)

I never planned to write about Biblical women, but she deserved more. Her story won a “Book of the Year” award for historical fiction. I thought I was through—as a biblical novel chef—until a sarcastic co-worker asked, “Noah’s wife, huh?”

“Ye-es.”

“What’s next?” he said, raising an eyebrow, “Lot’s Wife?”

Stunned, my first reaction was No way!  Abraham’s nephew, Lot, was supposed to be that story’s hero, the only “righteous” man in a sexually sinful city, yet he offered to give a lustful mob his two virgin daughters. Way too dark for me.

To write Noah’s Wife, I wove scientific and historical evidence about the flood and culture with my own imagination to create a central realistic, strong character in a story I felt was more believable.  (Plus, Lot’s Wife would require lots (no pun intended) more research. Abraham’s time period was four thousand years later than the flood.   

However, like Noah’s wife, Lot’s wife was unnamed in the Bible. She also only got one line in Genesis, albeit, a more famous part—she looked back at the burning city of Sodom (against an angel’s command) and was turned into a pillar of salt.

 

iStock_000011600738_LargeWhat could I do with a bizarre ending like that? And who would the angels be?  Can’t carefully craft scientific and historical basis for everything else and just have angels flapping around!

 It was the last question that really grabbed me. Apparently, I love a challenge. I started reading this very cool book called Uriel’s Machine that made a fascinating case connecting Stonehenge culture, ancient worship of the planet Venus, references in the Dead Sea Scrolls, angels, Solomon’s Temple, and eventually the Masons. And we’re not talking mystic stuff, but theories extrapolated from real data.  Did I mention I was fascinated?

stonehengeVenusAbout a year later, I was ready to start writing this book I had refused to consider writing. I’d researched the time period of Abraham, the various theories about what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah, who the freakin’ angels could actually have been, and now I had a pristine blank computer screen staring back at me.

. . . Well, almost, if you take away the cat.

a-cat-on-computer

I realized I knew nothing about my character, the most important element of a story. No clue what her life was like or what was going to happen to her (other than the salt thing). I moved the cat off the keyboard and, for a long time, I stared at that screen. I got up and made some coffee and returned to staring at the screen. Repeated this a few times, sticking cold coffee in the microwave.  Eventually, I decided to follow my father’s lead—  The first occasion he ever had to be in a hospital, he found he could not sleep. When he complained, they brought him a sleeping pill, which he considered far too tiny to have any impact.  “I waited,” he said, “and didn’t even get sleepy. I waited and waited until, finally, I gave up waiting for it to work and went to sleep by myself.”

Hmm. I gave up trying to figure out what I was going to write, moved the cat off the computer again, and just put my fingers on the keyboard.  Here’s what they typed:

“If the path of obedience is the path of wisdom, it is one not well worn by my feet. I am Yildeth, daughter of the caravan, daughter of the wind, and daughter of the famed merchant, Zakiti. That I am his daughter, not his son, is a secret between my father and myself.”

Really?  How interesting.  I wonder what happens to her. . . .

black-divider-th

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Related Posts:

Noah’s Wife &  The Titatic       Why Noah’s Wife Had Aspergers
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Noah’s Wife & the Titanic

Crowe and ConnellyWhen it comes to your floatation devices, you can’t get more famous than the Titanic or Noah’s ark—but the connection doesn’t stop there. Oddly enough, the link is Robert Ballard the explorer who found the long-lost, sunken Titanic.

TitanicUnlike the notoriety of the Titanic and Noah—both have movies now, for God’s sake! (pun intended)—Noah’s wife, although she does get a role in the Noah movie, received just a brief mention from the only known written documents about the Middle East flood stories. The Bible merely states that she went with her family into the ark. The lady doesn’t even get a name, although all of her sons do.

An even older source, a stone inscription discovered in ancient cities in what is now known as Iraq, is the Mesopotamian epic poem, Gilgamesh, which says pretty much the same thing, although the names are different. The Biblical story credits mankind’s sin for calling down God’s wrath and the great flood. In the Gilgamesh story, the gods are angry at mankind—not for being wicked, but . . . (wait for it) . . . for making too much noise.

Filling in the Tabula rasa of the life of Noah’s spouse was an irresistible lure for me. As a humanistic Jew, the siren call lay in the challenge of writing a story that wove my imagination onto the structure of the Noah tale in a believable, historically accurate setting. I wanted to tell the story of what might have really happened, given the foreknowledge of how the tale was eventually written down in the 6th -5th Centuries BCE by Hebrew scribes. That required a study of the roots of Judaism (and what might have been motivating the scribes) as well as studying available archeological evidence about the culture of the time. I took literary license to give Noah’s wife a form of autism known today as Asperger Syndrome, in order to portray a unique perspective on the culture she lived in.

Normally, a researcher relies on long-accepted works and theories, but archeology is a living science about the dead. Theories and assumptions are being overturned daily in the Middle East with the advance of scientific methods and new discoveries. Only with the Internet can a writer hope to keep up.

But where to start?

The Biblical dating system is fraught with problems and to use it requires buying into a creation date that belies generally accepted current scientific knowledge. Instead, I looked for evidence of a prehistory flood and stumbled on the expedition of Robert Ballard. He was searching for proof of a drowned civilization in the Black Sea, a body of salt water forming the northern border of Turkey. That caught my attention. The Bible mentioned Mount Ararat—a mountain or mountain range in northeast Turkey—as the ark’s resting place. But why was Ballard there?

I learned he was following the trail forged in the late 1990’s by two geologists, William Ryan and Walter Pitman* who had gathered core samples from beneath the Black Sea. The long collection tubes acted as time capsules, capturing history in the layers of sediment, and every location they dredged told the same story: Something catastrophic happened, about 5500 BCE, that changed a small body of fresh water into a salt sea, reversed the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and flooded a large area in the Middle East. That could account for both flood stories. Ballard’s sophisticated cameras confirmed the geologists’ theory by locating underwater ruins off the Turkish coast that fit the time period.

I was hooked.

Four years later, the novel Noah’s Wife was born.

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Noah’s Wife is available anywhere books are sold. Now also an audio book on Amazon.com, Audible.com and ITunes.

NOAH'S WIFE COVER for AUDIBLE for web

 

* Noah’s Flood, The New Scientific Discoveries About the Event that Changed History (Simon & Schuster, 1998)

 

 

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Love and A Bony Butt

DuneI fell in love the moment I saw his bony butt. I have no idea why, except I knew he was to be mine, though a friend had arranged this meeting and first choice was hers. He was big and moved with an easy, if unsophisticated, grace that made him a joy to ride. Only four years old, he had not filled out yet. His registered name was Nikka Doone Sugar Bars.  I called him, Dune, after a book by one of my favorite authors.  He was a bay—brown with black stockings, a little white chip on one heel, a sweet face with a sickle-shaped splash of white on his forehead and bright, kind eyes.

For reasons I would never understand, but never regretted, my friend passed him by, and Dune was mine.  Over the twenty-six years we were together, he saved my life twice and just about got me killed an equal number of times.  I fell off him more than once and pay for it now with various aches and pains, but I don’t regret that either.

Like some men, Dune pretended he was not interested in affection and had to play hard to catch for at least a few minutes.  In the early days, before we moved to the country, I would get up before dawn and drive out to the farm where I boarded him, ride, get home, shower and go to work. One day I walked into the barn and saw him down in his stall.  He lay still and didn’t get to his feet when I approached, as instinct would have normally urged him to do.  My heart sank.  Only a sick horse would stay down like that.  Then I noticed a tiny furry head looking over his back.  Just after that, the straw near his hooves stirred, and I realized barn kittens had come in to snuggle during the cool of night, and my big horse was afraid to move lest he hurt them!  I knew then he was a special boy.

He was a gentle giant with children as well as kittens, though he never cared much for dogs.  I taught several kids how to ride over the years, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Dune taught them.  When a child led him, he walked slowly and carefully, his head lowered to the top of the little human’s head, and each foot placed as if on an eggshell.  If a child was on his back, I had to chase him with a stick to get him to move faster than a walk, and that would only be successful for a few feet, then he was back to a steady walk. On the other hand, the moment I got in the saddle–Katie, bar the door!  He loved to run and to jump, though apparently only with a rider, as I never saw him do either in the pasture.  All I had to do was lean forward and grab his mane, his signal to let ‘er rip, and we were off.  I usually aimed him at a long uphill grade to be sure I could rein him back in. The blood of race horses pulsed in him, and it was a thrilling, humbling experience to sit atop that explosion of power.

We had many adventures.  Somewhat idiotically, I rode him most of the time alone. We tried a show once, but he was so excited, he neighed at every horse he saw, his whole body vibrating so hard I had to grab the saddle.  Most of the time, it was just him and me—jumping over a barrel, exploring a path in the woods, or making our own path.

Once, a loop of vine caught me and swept me off backwards. The reins caught behind the back of the saddle, pulling Dune’s head up and back.  Trying to get away from this pressure on his mouth, he backed, slipping in a pile of dry leaves. I had landed painfully and couldn’t move, and I felt his hooves all around me and brushing my back.  But even in the awkward, frightening position he was in, Dune knew I was there and danced to keep from stepping on me.  Then he stood, trembling, waiting until I could come fix the problem.  On another occasion, he got tangled in barbwire. Although many horses would have panicked, he stood patiently through the night, waiting for me to come get him out of the mess.

Another time, I made a poor decision, taking a path in the woods that turned out far steeper than it looked.  Halfway up, it got worse, and then for a short distance, it was an almost vertical cliff. We were in trouble.  We couldn’t turn around; if we stopped or slowed, we would have fallen over backward.  I didn’t think we could make it, but I did the only thing I could—I leaned low and grabbed his mane and told him it was up to him to save our bacon.  He never hesitated, taking that impossible incline with a bold heart and, somehow, scrambled us over the top.

I didn’t think I could write about him.  It has only been a few weeks ago that I had to put him down, and it wasn’t the way I would have had my old friend go. He was in a lot of pain and didn’t want to move, but when I asked him to–just as he had crossed scary bridges and rushing creeks and too-steep inclines–he did . . . because I asked him.  I just hope I was able to spare him some pain. I am not sure I believe in heaven, but I hope somewhere he is waiting for me, and when it is my time, we will gallop up a long hill together again.

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A Street Angel

snowstorm_0The last few days an unexpected snow storm blew freezing rain, sleet, and snow across the south. In a matter of hours, thousands were stuck on slick roadways, in their offices or the home/business of a stranger. Many angels unveiled their secret wings.  This is just my encounter:

As we made our tedious way along residential back roads yesterday in bumper-to-bumper traffic, trying to get out of town, we encountered a downhill slope ahead. Ahead of us, an African American man gestured and approached the passenger window of the car in front of us. I would like to think that my reaction had more to do with his demeanor and intimidating size than the color of his skin, but I don’t know. All I know is that my first thought was that he was taking advantage of the situation in some way, trying to solicit money, as some people do in congested traffic intersections.

As we watched, however, we realized that he was literally pushing the car as it slid sideways on downhill ice, trying to keep it in the roadway, and had probably been doing that for hours in the bitter cold. His own feet kept slipping, and I caught my breath, because that car could have knocked him down as it slid, but he just grinned and shuffled back to push it again. When the car ahead of us finally made it safely down, a hand with money reached out the window to him. He just laughed and shook his head, filling me with simultaneous pride and shame. It was only one small act of selflessness from an anonymous person in a day filled with such, but I will never forget it.

Do you have an angel encounter story?

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The Reader’s Mind: A Writer’s Most Important Tool

I am handicapped.  Might as well admit it.  It’s a fact well known to my dogs.

The walk down our driveway to the barn is one I take every morning to feed the horses.  Pugsly and Glenny always go with me, and every morning they bounce with excitement, as if they have never been the route before.

Morning Walk

Morning Walk

Glenny is off on a mad dash, tracking something he has no hope of catching and wouldn’t have a clue what to do with if he did.  A clump of grass arrests Pugsly’s attention.  He freezes to digest the story about an intriguing creature that, perhaps, passed by in the night.  I’ve no idea what he smells, but urine (I understand) has a rich tale to tell—what particular animal, its sex, its health, what it has eaten . . . for all I know, what it was thinking at the time!  To my dogs, I am a pitiful, handicapped being, ignorant of the ever-changing world of scent . . . and hearing impaired as well.

My loss.

But observing the fascination with which they explore the world of our driveway, I am determined to open my own senses to this path I walk daily.  It is the same everyday, but it is different—different wildflowers bloom, changing out the colors.   Last night’s rain and the morning sunlight string dew pearls on pine needles and halo a spider’s silk design.

weblichensA suggestion of movement catches my eye—a slug on a wet fence pole.  The intricate pattern on its back mimics the variations of wood, making it almost impossible to see.  I never knew slugs came in anything besides basic black.  Also, for the first time, I note the forest of devil’s matchstick lichens that inhabit the top of another rough-hewn post, making a tiny world of deep crevasses and red-topped spires that exists right under my nose.

I get some satisfaction that my dogs missed these things.

As a writer, I know it is important to note the small as well as the large.   It is my job to make a scene real, so the reader can imagine it and be there in the story with the characters.  With the possible exception of people on the autistic spectrum, our brains screen out an enormous amount of detail, focusing the limited capacity of our attention on what it determines is important.  This process is enhanced in moments of tension—hence, the phenomena of perceiving only a narrow field of vision (like the end of a gun barrel) in an emergency.

Directors do the same thing with film, choosing certain angles or shots of facial expressions, telling details that give us much more than what we are actually seeing.  Even the music that plays gives us subliminal hints about how to interpret the information pouring into our brains.  We have evolved to attend to specific details and populate the rest of the world around it.  A skillful writer will often direct the reader’s attention to a small detail, describing it in a way that makes the whole environs pop into the reader’s reality.

The lantern bobbed with the ship, leaking a shifting orb of pale light into the dark corridor.

Did you hear the creak of the ship; the slap of waves on the hull?  Did you smell the sea?  Feel the sense of mystery or suspense?  If you did, all of that was created by your own mind, the most powerful tool in a writer’s arsenal.  Every moment is comprised of thousands of bits of information.  A writer cannot possibly describe them all and does not need to.  Sometimes a whiff is all it takes….

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To Dream the Possible Dream

I have a dream

Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King urged us to judge people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.  There is no question that poverty and lack of equal education can affect the course of people’s lives, and we should be putting research, resources, and wisdom toward changing that, but there have been many people from those circumstances, of various shades of skin, whose character has been a shining light to our world.

There are times when I am ashamed to be a human being—when I see what our thoughtless consumption and greed are doing to our ecosystem or how we treat each other.  But when I consider those people who live to their potential, especially those who have done so despite the challenges of their circumstances . . . I am proud to be.

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The Wise Win Before the Fight

Morhei Ueshiba

Morhei Ueshiba

Violence surrounds us—in the media, in our entertainment and sometimes even in our homes.  From the streets of Chicago, to the wars in Iraq and Syria, to video games—violence is a way of life.

Must it be?

“Those who are skilled in combat do not become angry.  Those who are skilled at winning do not become afraid. Thus the wise win before the fight and the ignorant fight to win.” –Morihei Ueshiba

Anger is oft a child of fear. The bond between fear and anger melded in our long-ago past when many of our choices boiled down to Flight/Fight.  Chronic anger is often a component of depression because our mind/body doesn’t know the difference between a “real” danger and one that originates from our mind and/or body.  I awake from a nightmare panting, sweating, my heart racing.  My fear is as real as if I faced a physical snake crawling up my leg.

When a remark from a loved one makes me angry, I can usually pursue the emotion to its roots of fear.  How dare he say that? [Anger] If he can say that, does he really love me? [Hurt] And if he doesn’t really love me, what if he leaves me? [Hurt/Fear] And if he leaves me, will I grow old alone and miserable!  [Fear]  –A logical progression, but not a rational one.

We are evolutionarily programed to make those leaps, because in the world of the tiger-in-the-forest, we had to act quickly. We didn’t have time to ponder the root of our anger/fear, so our brains aren’t good at that.  We deceive ourselves very easily  Seeking the roots to anger and pain is an uncomfortable journey. It is easier and feels better (and safer) just to be mad.

In our society, the expression of anger is more acceptable (especially for men) than the expression of fear, and seeking power can be a way to manage fear.  Can a whole society be fearful?  As Master Ueshiba implied, uncertainty begets fear.  In a war zone (of any kind) one’s environment is fertile ground for fear. Subtle fears can infiltrate their way deep into our psyches; our relationships are riddled with fear mines.

Our cultures, as well—across the world young people are finding roadblocks to education or that their education is not an easy ticket to a job.  Frustrated and disenfranchised, they can turn to the sense of belonging and purpose offered by gangs, freedom fighters, or terrorist thugs. In many poor neighborhoods around the world, people have always been in economic crises, possessing neither the skills nor the hope of ever having the skills to succeed.  Fear of all sorts is an intimate and constant companion.

Is it any wonder our world is full of tangled expressions of anger and fear?

In Master Ueshiba’s Way (the martial art of Aikido) one learns understanding and compassion for one’s attacker.  Does this make the practitioner a “bleeding heart” who allows the blow to fall?  No, absolutely not, but in understanding, one can choose whether to break bones or step aside and allow the attacker’s force to bring him where he can do no harm.

One does what is necessary, not out of anger or fear, but out of compassion and understanding.  Compassion is not a passive emotional reaction but a call to responsible, rational action. Acting from a place of compassion, rather than anger, frees us from the tyranny of emotion that can eat us from inside and steal our happiness, and allows us to make good decisions.Aikido

Of course, “what is necessary” is not always an easy question to answer.  Perhaps the more fear, the more drastic the definition of “necessary.”  Was it necessary to drop an atomic bomb on Japan?  So many innocent people suffered terribly, yet it ended a horrible war.  History may classify Vietnam and Iraq as mistakes, but is all war a mistake?  What would have happened if we had not entered WWII?  Are the actions we are taking in the Middle East “necessary?” Perhaps. I don’t pretend to have the answers, only to suggest that we look behind anger and fear to find compassion and understanding for our enemies, so that we may know them and ourselves, and be among “the wise who win before the fight.”Violence surrounds us—in the media, in our entertainment and sometimes even in our homes.  From the streets of Chicago, to video games, to the Sudan, violence is a way of life.

Must it be?

“Those who are skilled in combat do not become angry.  Those who are skilled at winning do not become afraid. Thus the wise win before the fight and the ignorant fight to win.” –Morihei Ueshiba

Anger is a child of Fear.   The bond between fear and anger melded in our long-ago past when many of our choices boiled down to Flight/Fight.  Chronic anger is often a component of depression because our mind/body doesn’t know the difference between a “real” danger and one that originates from our mind and/or body.  I awake from a nightmare panting, sweating, my heart racing.  My fear is as real as if I faced a physical snake crawling up my leg.

When a remark from a loved one makes me angry, I can usually pursue the emotion to its roots of fear.  How dare he say that? –>Does he really love me?–>What if he leaves me?–>I will grow old alone and miserable!  Most of the time, of course, I don’t bother seeking those roots to my anger and pain, as that journey itself is uncomfortable.  It feels better (safer) just to be mad.

In our society, the expression of anger is more acceptable (especially for men) than the expression of fear and seeking power can be a way to manage fear.  Can a whole society be fearful?  As Master Ueshiba implied, fear is born of uncertainty.  In a war zone (of any kind) one’s environment is fertile ground for fear.  More subtle fears can infiltrate their way even deeper into our psyches; our relationships are ripe with fear mines.   Our cultures, as well—in Saudi Arabia and India (particularly for women), in Europe and China, more and more young people are finding their education is no longer an easy ticket to a job.  Highly trained/experienced workers in the U.S. and Europe have found themselves jobless in the recent economic crises.  In many poor neighborhoods around the world, people have always been in economic crises, possessing neither the skills nor the hope of ever having the skills to succeed.  Fear of all sorts is an intimate and constant companion.

Is it any wonder our world is full of tangled expressions of anger and fear?

In Master Ueshiba’s Way (the martial art of Aikido) one learns understanding and compassion for one’s attacker.  Does this make one a “bleeding heart” who allows the blow to fall?  No, but in understanding, one steps aside and allows the attacker’s force to bring him where he can do no harm.

Uisheba 2One does what is necessary, not out of anger or fear, but out of compassion and understanding.  Of course, “what is necessary” is not always an easy question to answer.  Perhaps the more fear, the more drastic the definition of “necessary.”  Was it necessary to drop an atomic bomb on Japan?  So many innocent people suffered terribly, yet it ended a horrible war.  I don’t pretend to have the answer, only to suggest that we look behind anger and fear to find compassion and understanding for our enemies and for ourselves, so that we may be among “the wise who win before the fight.”

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