Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Do You Know Your Neighbors?

How well do you know your neighbors?

Mike and I watched a movie last night, The Lovely Bones. I read the book a few years ago, but the movie took it from black and white into full living color. Most of the time, I prefer the book to the movie, and The Lovely Bones was no exception. But, for me, in this case, the movie added to the book.

I had an experience as a young girl of 16 that left me totally shaken for about year. I had just made Junior Varsity cheerleader before summer vacation. During the hot months in Ohio, way back in 1970, we had very little to do other than lay out on our favorite beach towels, listen to Diana Ross and the Supremes on our transistor radios, and eat concession stand food at our local swim club.

There were no cell phones, personal computers, or places to hang out like shopping malls or even a local soda shop. For a small family fee, you got a summer pass that allowed you to swim in a dirty lake, complete with diving boards, life guards, a grassy beach, and sliding boards. Man-o-man.

But it was heaven to me, because all my friends were there. My world was very, very small back then.

I was completely fearless at 16. After all, what did I know of the big, bad world? Not much. The Vietnam war raged on our television sets, as well as the civil rights movement and hippie protests, which were all promptly turned off in my home. We watched more enlightening shows, like Lawrence Welk, The Andy Griffith Show, and Mike Douglas.

All I knew is that every day I got to put on my over-sized t-shirt over top my two-piece (not bikini) bathing suit, throw my swimming paraphernalia into a hot pink patent-leather beach bag, and trudge a mile to the swim club every day. I walked down a long side street, then cut across a small field, around a camping area and ended up at the entrance to our favorite summer hang-out.

One particularly hot day, walking past a stretch of houses under construction, I got whistled at by some of the crew. (Girls got whistled at a lot in 1970.) But I kept on walking, ignoring the snide remarks, and made my turn into a more desolate patch of overgrown bush, weeds, and little trees. I had just walked down a small dirt and gravel hill when I heard something behind me. Thank God I turned around. There behind me, about twenty feet away stood a man with dark sunglasses hugging his head, his black hair slicked back, and all he had on was his watch. His hands covered his privates.

I had plenty of time to run. But I didn't. I was a sheltered girl, unfamiliar with the horrors of humanity. I stood there thinking I'd accidentally caught one of the campers taking a leak in the field. I had plenty of time to run from this would-be rapist, but I froze. Literally, I froze. Because this guy walked up behind me and began to grab at me from behind. Then, I realized what was happening to me.

I began to fight and kick like a wild cat. With him behind me, digging his dirty nails into my chest and shoulders, we fell backwards and with him being naked, I think it hurt him. Because I felt him loosen his grip, but we were both still on the ground. He never got to do to me what he wanted to do, because I remember that I had cried out for God's help. And whether you believe in divine intervention or not, I really don't care, because literally, that's what happened next. I felt myself pulled to my feet. I took off like a bullet.

Little did I know, my neighbor, a boy my own age but tall and strong, was following the same path and heard me scream. He ran toward the commotion, but got there in time to see this lunatic pull on a t-shirt and run bottomless the other direction. I recall that my neighbor said he took off after him, but lost him in a cornfield or something like that.

I ended up in shock, my knees bleeding, my hands full of dirt and gravel and blood. There were other cuts and bruises, but I sat in the office of the people who owned the swim club and shook until way after the police were called, and for days afterward.

But that was it. Two detectives came to our house, questioned me, and wanted me to walk the path over again while they followed me. My dad said, "Are you out of your minds?" That summer, Daddy built us an inground 20 x 40 swimming pool. He had three younger daughters. He would continue to shelter us for years afterward.

Despite the fact that I had a witness, the owners of the swim club started rumors that I made the whole thing up to "get attention." Man, I didn't need that kind of attention. I wasn't the type to mangle and bruise my body for just attention. Ha! The kids at school eyed me warily for months, not knowing who to believe. Obviously, the idiots who owned the dirty lake didn't want bad publicity. But it didn't matter, the place went downhill even farther after that.

I spent the summer in seclusion. I couldn't even go to the store without seeing this guy in my head, possibly looking for me. But it taught me some very valuable lessons. I learned how to defend myself after that, and I never took my innocence for granted again. Even that same summer, my mother sent me to spend some time with my grandmother. My aunt and I walked to the library one day, and a man exposed himself to me in the library. What a summer, huh?

I couldn't get away from it. The world had changed from Leave it to Beaver to The Streets of San Francisco overnight.

So when I watched The Lovely Bones, this all came back to me. I was fortunate not to have ended up like the girl in the movie, but it's something that still occasionally haunts me, all these years later. In fact, I still carry the small, faint scar of this guy's fingernail curve in my shoulder.

Our parents lived in a world of closed minds and rose-colored glasses. We could ride our bikes or walk for miles, play alone or with friends anywhere we wanted. That stopped with my generation. My children were never out of my reach. I knew exactly where they were at all times. Today, it's even worse.

My question is, do we really know our neighbors? The rapist-murderer in The Lovely Bones lived across the street from his victim in a nice middle-class and well-cared-for home. I know, the book was fiction, but is it really? I don't say live in fear, I'm saying be fearless and find out who lives next to you, or who is working in your neighborhood. Your neighbors may be wonderful people. It's nice to think we give them the benefit of the doubt. But after watching that movie last night, and with what happened to me, I understand why most of America can live beside a person for twenty and thirty years, and still never know their first name.

Blessings and God's protection to you and yours.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Priceless Commodity

I think blogging is one way for some to express their humor, views, philosophy, and just plain show off a little. Blogging is a way for some to get it off their chest, which I most certainly have done. But it's also used to gather "followers," build platforms, construct the beginnings of new ideas, innovative proposals, and open doors of communication between one person and their readers.

I've been blogging for five years and for me it's been a tool to say what's weighing heavy on my mind. Nothing more, really. Sometimes I've used it as a way to start a story, or try out a few new ideas for my next group presentation. Today, I'm blogging to myself.

I don't pretend to be an overly intelligent woman. I'm average, I suppose. I don't think of myself as a special gift to anybody. (Although my husband, would disagree.) But I do believe my "talent" more than not, exists in the written word. Sometimes it's not as much a talent, as it is plain old common sense writing. And unless it's a prepared speech, I write better than I speak. But this morning I awoke to a gift. A gift of wisdom. They say, that with age comes wisdom, and I'm a believer.

I wish I could've tapped into this wisdom thing a long time ago. In my twenties and thirties, when I thought I knew it all. I thought I'd paid my dues by the time I reached mid-forties. But as I sit here, at mid-fifty, I realize we never stop paying our dues. We just get wiser as to how to live with those dues, or rather the consequences of our actions.

If you've made mistakes in your life, small ones, big ones, or mammoth ones ... you've had to deal with guilt, failure, and lost love as a result. There are no easy answers, there is no easy way to put it behind you, short of suicide. So you hope as time marches on, the sharp edges of your mistakes will begin to soften. You pray for healing, you make changes, you hold up a mirror to your face and bust your butt to become a different person. You make serious strides for happiness and hope that those you love will see you in a different light.


I may not have the wisdom of Solomon, but I do know right from wrong. As clouded as it was in my past, those clouds have given way to bright blue skies. For me, I can't make those same mistakes. But I also see other things more clearly.

I see good, honest, hard-working people and value them, am proud of them, love them. But I also see, that someday, even though they've never made the horrible mistakes I've made, they also will live with regret. Of one kind or another. We all do. It's a fact of life, and nobody is exempt from it. Nobody. The question is, how will they live with it? The answer is, with the same hope of forgiveness they gave to others.

My point is, even though you grow older and so much hurt is behind you, it still rears its ugly head from time to time. Out of nowhere, suddenly you're blindsided. It's different now, however, because age and wisdom are involved. It still hurts, but the old you is gone.

You've gathered all the ingredients for forgiveness-happiness-love, prayed the necessary prayers, lit the candles, and surrendered your tongue to nothing but kind words. Yet in the end, those you love and cherish the most in your life, have become your accusers. Silent accusers. You've moved on, healed. It's a shock when you realize--they have not. You're left not knowing how to react. You wonder what can I expect, if anything, in the future? And for a moment, you agonize over what to do next.

Thank God for wisdom. Wisdom is powerful. Because in wisdom, we do nothing. We count our blessings, and there are so many of them. We see others who are so destitute, who suffer much worse pain, who cannot aquire wisdom because the clouds are way too dark and thick.

This little blip called life has its peaks and its valleys. When we're in the midst of the valley, it's as though we've lost our eyesight and all we can see is our misery. But I've learned not to wallow in that valley anymore. I really don't, because I've come to realize I've done my best these past twenty years. I've tried to be the best I could be and most of the time, I've felt pretty good about myself.

I was reminded this morning that Jesus was accused by those He loved the most, and He ... was sinless. Thus, just get over it. And do it quickly. Because we are not sinless, it doesn't matter who is right and who is wrong. Not anymore. Keep a wise tongue at all times, and let go of the rest.

Some relationships may never heal completely, they may never be the same or what you want them to be. Unconditional love does not come without a price. And then sometimes, you never receive it from those you want it from the most.

So, that's where your wisdom comes in. I appreciate what I have, where I am, and look forward to harvesting more and more wisdom as time marches on.

It has become a priceless commodity.

Blessings to you and yours.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

No Dizzy Blonds Here

I'm overwhelmed with life, and story, and a spinning head. I've been suffering with Vertigo since Sunday night. It's worse than major surgery, I swear. I couldn't open my eyes for hours; I was a dizzy mess. It's scary, really. There's not a lot you can do, other than suffer it out for the week. It's better now, but I still get spells and have to just lay on my bed and wait until it passes.

In the meantime, all I can do is think about my busy schedule that's coming up, all the housework that isn't getting done, and the next chapters in my book that are clamoring to appear on the page. I just hate not being able to work at my normal pace. It's like putting me in a straight jacket.

So as I sit here, writing this blog, I'm thinking I need to get back to my story while I feel good enough to sit here. I'm hoping (since I feel good at this moment) that the worst is over and I'm on the mend. I would not have made a good drunk. I don't like not being in charge of how my head feels.

I would've never made a good dizzy blond, either.

Blessings to you and yours.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Mourning in West Virginia

If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know I’m a coalminer’s granddaughter. My story, Coal Dust On My Feet, published 2006 in my collection of short stories, Southern Fried Women, is near and dear to my heart. Based on a real town with real characters, it's a love story set amidst the longest and most violent coal strike in our country’s history. A story that involved my family.

So when I read the following essay, published in the April 14th newsletter of the West Virginia Writers, I had to give honor to it.

Mourning in the Mountains
By: Denise Giardina - writer-in-residence at West Virginia State University. This essay was published in Charleston, WV on April 6, 2010

People in West Virginia had hoped that on Monday night we would gather around televisions with family and friends to watch our beloved Mountaineers face Butler in our first chance at the men’s N.C.A.A. basketball title since 1959. Men working evening shifts in the coal mines would get to listen thanks to radio coverage piped in from the surface. Expectations ran high; even President Obama, surveying the Final Four, predicted West Virginia would win.

Then, on Tuesday morning, we would wake to triumphant headlines in sports pages across the country. At last, we would say, something good has happened to West Virginia. The whole nation would see us in a new light. And we would cry.

Instead, halfway through Saturday night’s semifinal against Duke, our star forward, Da’Sean Butler, tore a ligament in his knee, and the Mountaineers crumbled. And on Monday evening, while Duke and Butler played in what for us was now merely a game, West Virginians gathered around televisions to watch
news of a coal mine disaster.

On Tuesday, the headline in The Charleston Gazette read instead: Miners Dead, Missing in Raleigh Explosion. And we cried.

Despite the sunny skies and unseasonably warm weather, the mood here in southern West Virginia is subdued. As of Tuesday afternoon, 25 men have been confirmed dead, two are critically injured, and four are missing and presumed dead. Their fellow West Virginians work round the clock and risk their own lives to retrieve the bodies.

Already outrage is focused on Massey Energy, owner of the Upper Big Branch mine. Massey has a history of negligence, and Upper Big Branch has often been cited in recent years for problems, including failure to properly vent methane gas, which officials say might have been the cause of Monday’s explosion.

It seems we can’t escape our heritage. I grew up in a coal camp in the southern part of the state. Every day my school bus drove past a sign posted by the local coal company keeping tally, like a basketball scoreboard, of “man hours” lost to accidents. From time to time classmates whose fathers had been killed or maimed would disappear, their families gone elsewhere to seek work.

We knew then, and know now, that we are a national sacrifice area. We mine coal despite the danger to miners, the damage to the environment and the monomaniacal control of an industry that keeps economic diversity from flourishing here. We do it because America says it needs the coal we provide.

West Virginians get little thanks in return. Our miners have historically received little protection, and our politicians remain subservient to Big Coal. Meanwhile, West Virginia is either ignored by the rest of the nation or is the butt of jokes about ignorant hillbillies.

Here in West Virginia we will forget our fleeting dream of basketball glory and get about the business of mourning. It is, after all, something we do very well. In the area around the Upper Big Branch, families of the dead will gather in churches and their neighbors will come to pray with them. They will go home, and the same neighbors will show up bearing platters of fried chicken and potato salad and cakes. The funeral homes will be jammed, the mourners in their best suits and ties and Sunday dresses.

And perhaps this time President Obama and Americans will pay attention, and notice West Virginia at last.

West Virginia Writers, Inc. Established 1977 http://www.wvwriters.org/

Blessings to the people of West Virginia this day and in the days to come.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A True Writer

Every year I purchase at least one new book on the business of writing. This year, the Writer's Guide to 2010 tickled my interest. (Writer's Institute Publications/Editor Susan M. Tierney/Publisher Prescott V. Kelly)

I'm reading a section called A Mosaic of Images by Cindy Rogers and there I find the best description of a true writer that I've heard in a long time. Cindy quotes Annie Dillard from her essay, "Living Like Weasels." Cindy compares the essay to the tenacity of writers. Cindy says about reading and writing "... I will never give them up; I will let them take me wherever they want, until my eyes burn out, until my flesh falls off in shreds, until my bones unhinge and scatter."

Powerful. The cliche 'until I die' seems rather boring after reading the above.

Blessings to you and yours.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Fingers For Rent

I've been plowing my literary field this spring. My office is a mess. I've written scenes for my next novel; they're splayed across a long, skinny table as I work relentlessly on this story. I'm concentrating on my research and pulling it in as needed. In a few weeks I'm visiting a wolf sanctuary. If my suspicions are correct, wolves are not what they have been portrayed. A critical piece of the narrative, the wolves represent the strange and the misunderstood. That which needs protected. Not destroyed.

As I roll deeper into the story, I'm finding--once again--my characters have voices of their own, totally separate and apart from me. It's a bizarre metamorphosis. I look down and suddenly my fingers are those of a thirteen-year-old girl, fair and fragile. Within minutes, they turn old and masculine. They're covered with tobacco that clings to my arms like pine resin. They belong to a black man who types as fast as the wind. He's got a few things to say. Because it's 1960, and the times, they are a changing.

A scene change and my hands belong to another character. They're slow and angry, and hot to the touch. Dangerous. They belong to a man, this time he's white and wrinkled. The fingers pound the keys and occasionally they ball into a fist. But just like that, they fade into another set of hands and suddenly I'm needing to get up and find my own fingers again. I need coffee. A break. It's not easy allowing these characters to flow through you and come out your fingers. It's not easy.

I have to laugh. I think I've read and studied every good book on writing from here to eternity in the past twenty years. But nobody can teach you how to tell a great story. Don Maass has come about as close to anybody I've heard, but in the end ... I've learned it's almost a spiritual thing. My explanation is that we have to become somebody else.

We have to look out the eyes of the man/woman/boy/girl/animal we're writing. A good storyteller can write it down and make it believable. But a great storyteller can become his or her character and make it real. I've learned that, I can only hope that in the end, that is my accomplishment.

One does not write to fulfill a fantasy. Or to become rich. A real writer writes because if they don't, they go mad and become a conglomerate of all of the characters stored inside them. Or worse, the writer shrivels up and fades away. Take away a writer's pencil or keyboard, and you strip the soul away. A writer is many people, patiently waiting for their turn to tell their story.

That's it. It's how God made me. I can't help it. I plow my literary field and life goes on. Until one day when it stops. Hopefully, by then, every character inside of me will have had their chance to use my fingers.

Blessings to you and yours.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Good Friday Thoughts

It's difficult to put into words, really, my random thoughts about this day.

Years ago, Good Friday for me meant a four-to-five hour Holy Communion Service, which consisted of a hell, fire, and brimstone sermon, worn-out choir numbers, a miracle massacre healing service, concluding with a candlelight "shhhh, angels are in the midst of us" communion service. Long, drawn-out, Hollywood productions where we sang the Old Rugged Cross over and over and over. But I honestly believe few of us really knew the true meaning of that day.

Guilt and anguish washed over me for just wanting to be home, filling my kids Easter baskets with jelly beans, Reese's peanut butter eggs, and those marshmallowy peeps. (Hey, it was the 70s, we didn't do nutrition back then.)

My point is, I was always so wrapped up in a Please God, get me out of this church service prayer, that I never saw Good Friday for what it truly was. I was forced to go to church, at gunpoint it seemed, and then blasted out of my pew with fear, guilt, and shame for not wanting to join the rest of the congregation while they flocked to the altar for their weekly obligation of weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. If the preacher didn't see us prostrate at least once a month, then we were not walking in the "divine" will of the Lord.

As far as I know, this is still going on in that messed-up church- to this very day. I know. Sick.

So, Pam, what do you believe about Good Friday?

Do I believe Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate and that he had him flogged until the flesh fell off his bones?

Yes. I do.

Do I believe that Pilate declared Jesus innocent, washing his own hands in water to show he had no part in this condemnation?

Yes. I do.

Do I believe Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified in order to hold off a riot and ultimately to keep his job?

You bet.

Do I believe Jesus carried his cross to the place of the Skull, or Golgotha as it is known in Hebrew, or Calvary-the Latin word for the site of execution?


Do I believe Jesus agonized on the cross for six hours. And that during his last three hours on the cross, from noon to 3pm, there was darkness over the whole earth?


Do I really believe when Jesus died that there was an earthquake, that tombs broke open, and a centurion on guard at the site of crucifixion declared, "Truly, this was God's Son!"

With all my heart, I believe it.

Did Jesus die for the sins of the world?

Yes. He did.

Was he resurrected on the third day?

Yes, He was resurrected!

Is Jesus the Son of God?

Without a doubt.

I never doubted it. I never doubted the story, because my heart tells me it's true. I believe we were created to worship Him. I never believed anything less, than Christ, His blood, and his righteousness.

But at least now, I can focus on the message, and never again the delivery.

Blessings to you and yours on this Good Friday.