To Bear Witness

This post first appeared on Melissa Embry's blog: on July 30  

If you are at a writer’s conference and the first speaker of the weekend shares with you his ‘moment of grace’ where he received his commission in life, you should sit a little straighter, lean forward and tune up your hearing.

Luis Alberto Urrea went on a mission trip as a young man; he came back a writer.

What was this ‘moment of grace’, as he called it? He and his pastor were working among the most forgotten, the world’s cast-offs who lived and died in an actual garbage dump. Young Luis, notebook in hand, was writing his observations, thoughts, scenes, scribbling words on paper that he would turn into story. A resident of the dump asked what he was doing. Writing. About this place? This dump. About me? Yes, about this place and about you. “Tell someone I was here.”

Now, Mr. Urrea did not say that the sky opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him. But novice writer Luis knew that this moment, standing in a cathedral of trash, was his commission, his anointing, his sending forth. He was tuned in to the energy of the moment; he was paying attention. That is what we, as writers, are asked to do. Pay attention, and as my friend, the writer Bill Marvel, likes to say, bear witness.

We are to bear witness to history in its small moments and its large moments. Bear witness to people, to changes in the atmosphere, to changes in attitude. Pay attention to the new and to the ancient that threads through the now. Be an instrument of history, a commentator, a sense maker, a question raiser.

Writers sift through the materials of life and choose a bit of this to expand on, a bit of that to explore. We churn and tumble and wrestle with the stuff of life long after they have moved into silent history and then we snatch them back and give them a place on the page.

“Tell them I was here”’ is our common plea.

It is also our job.







Keep the Lights On

Most nights the porch light is on till two or three a.m. while one of my sons goes about photographing interesting sights and lights and shadows.  So, naturally, I do a dose of worry/prayer to keep him safe. Most nights I read for several hours by the light of my I-Pad. I read and think. Think about all sorts of people and situations since my childhood, little bits of this and that, faces, personalities and events. Mini-reviews of my life.

And I pray for them as their faces pop up in the video that runs in my head each night.

I watch the news in the morning; I watch the news at night. There is so much good in the world, yes, there really is. Good people, beautiful days, events filled with love and gratitude, laughter, joy and compassion

Gratitude might be the key here. ‘Gratitude, the Heart of Prayer’, a title of a book and good advice. (That and the ‘Spirituality of Imperfection’ are among my favorite titles in my bookshelf).

Of course, I know there is much that is not good. The doctrine of Original Sin covers some of that: we are good with a propensity for sin. I used to teach Baptism prep classes and at the time the trend was to emphasize community and welcoming and to shy away from the bummer that is the doctrine of Original Sin. One woman, a grandmother I believe, got up and left the class when she asked about when we were getting to that. I explained that we emphasize the welcoming aspect of Baptism. The one-with-community aspect, joining in our imperfect communion of saints.  We were leaving the whole Original Sin thing like an embarrassment in the corner.

I often think of that woman being annoyed with my noveau approach to teaching baptism.  I imagine she was raised in the St Augustine school of thought, as I was, that emphasized our need for grace to strengthen us against the real and present danger of sin and here I was telling the folks to baptize their babies because it is good to join in the community.

It is good to join in the community. It is good to not be alone against the evils offered by the world to ruin our souls. It is good to be washed clean of Original Sin, a doctrine that fell out of favor in the do what you will and its all groovy craze that took hold in the last half of the twentieth century.

But there’s that grandma leaving my come on in the water’s great class to search for someone who could deal with sin.

Good for her.

Because there is darkness and evil and yes, sin. You’d have to be very young or very naïve to think otherwise.  And I'm pretty sure that with every act of sin, the world gets a little dimmer, a little darker: veils layered between the sun and us.

But, wait. That is not what we hope, that is not what we place our faith in.

So, while most of us are feeling virtuous or massaging our own neuroses, there are people in the world who are keeping the lights on for the rest of us.

Pray-ers. That’s their job description. Monks and nuns in monasteries. Parents teaching their children the Our Father; parents staying up nights reciting the rosary or whatever prayers they learned in their youth to get their children home safely. Aunt Jule with her list of people she prayed for each night dating back to the 1890’s. People of all descriptions poking holes in the veil. And, boy do we have our work cut out.

This is how I picture it: with all the prayers against the darkness offered up by pray-ers, those layers separating us from the light are peeled back, worn away. But the darkness is unrelenting, you might say. Yes it is.  But it is our jobs, amateurs and professionals, to keep the lights on.

PS:  I've been away so long from this site because I was finishing up work on my novel, The Narrow Gate. Now, my quest is to find an agent and a publisher, so if you have a minute, could you pray that I find one?  Thanks.

Please visit  Melissa Embry's blog. I am a guest blogger on her post as of last week.








Second Half, Chapter Two

Readers,  this is the second half of chapter two.  Hope you enjoy.  Comments welcome. Thursday, April 1, 1954

Millie was almost true to her word. One week she gave Meg.  Yesterday she called in the afternoon and told Meg that she would be preparing lunch at her house.

“I’ve got in a lovely canned ham from the A & P, Meg.  Since we can't have it on Friday, you’ll have to come for lunch tomorrow. I don’t much like fish and I want to make an occasion of it. So, I’ll expect you at one.”

“One?  Alright, Millie.  Only because it’s you. Don’t you dare have any one else there.”

“Just us, Meg.”

“Just the two neighbor widows.”

“Just two old friends.”

Thursday morning Meg is up at 6:30, same as she’s done for years.  She doesn’t look at the empty side of her bed.  She slips on her blue chenille robe and heads down the stairs to make coffee.  One slice of toast, with a little butter and jam.  The coffee perks in the glass button of the aluminum pot on the stove.   Meg turns off the gas, gets the milk and sugar and pours herself a cup.  She will wait until the coffee cools before pouring the rest down the sink.  She thinks she might buy one of the small percolators she has seen in the A &P.  The right size for one person.  MaybeOr maybe I’ll just learn how to measure out enough for me.

As she washes up the few dishes, round and round with the dishcloth on the small plate that only had crumbs to dirty it, she sees the note, as if it is right in front of her, as close as the faucet.  Typed unevenly:  Banfry--- 82-19 Forest Parkway.  Blue shutters, loose knob on front porch banister. Careful.   Tucked under Gerald’s undershirts, wrapped in a handkerchief.  The Holy Family on a prayer card was lying on top of the note.  Gerald’s touch of protection.  For her.  Whatever he did, he did for her.

The running water has been getting hotter as she stands with the cloth in her hand, watering the flowers on the plate.  Just before it scalds her she pulls away.

She sweeps the kitchen floor, dusts the living and dining rooms, then starts up the varnished banister.  Once upstairs she goes into the little bedroom that Gerald had used as an office.  Papers are piled on the narrow bed against the wall. She sits in the chair at his desk.

She is too tired to cry.  Wrung out.  She never did ask him if he were guilty or innocent.  He didn’t use those words.  He used the word ‘betrayed’.    Betrayed by his assistant, someone he trusted.  After they took him that night, during the trial and when he was sentenced, the papers were full of him.  Oh, how the mighty have fallen.  The whispers in church, in the shops on the avenue.  The sympathetic smiles, the sneers.  They almost looked the same.  But she always rose above.  Always held her head up.  She would not play victim for them.  She would not be disgraced.

There are always those who love to see a local hero fall.  Too big for his britches.  Tsk, tsk-ing  from their comfortable well-stocked kitchens, with their tight mouths and even tighter hearts.

  Better the trouble that follows death than the trouble that follows shame.

Nasty, narrow minded fools!

All the years he was on fire for justice for the working man, the oppressed, those on the edges of the world who cleaned up after the rest of us.

She thought of all the good he did.  All the jobs he saved.  The working conditions and wages improved.  The speeches he made that got them fired up and emboldened to change things, to claim their rights.  She was proud of him then.  She will be proud of him now.

Meg arranged things in her mind over the years that her husband was framed.  Framed by the District Attorney looking to make a name for himself.  Framed by the Mafia, angry that they couldn’t make him fall in line.  Framed for holding out so long when others caved to the pressure.

They don’t know how long he resisted.  How long he would not get dirty.  Even with the threats against his life.  But this message she had found last week was different.  He knew they were watching the house, watching her.  How many years had that note been in his bureau?  Before they beat him in the backyard?

That gave her a chill.  He was brave.  He was protecting me.  I will protect him.  My beloved. My husband.

Over the years, though, she saw him wear down, the fire go out of his words.  Little resentments at the lack of gratitude, the men who did nothing to further their own state but expected him to carry their burden.  The deserving poor.  She knew that sometimes he said the deserving poor with the emphasis on deserving rather than poor. Yes, she could see that sometimes, when he was tired and spent, when he had no money left because he had given so much away, sometimes, then he fell from his ideals and thought they deserved to be poor.  For drinking their paychecks and living in squalor.  For not wanting something better for their children.  For not seeing a bigger picture.  And then he would recover and begin again.

Meg sits there a little while longer.  She smiles and wipes away a few tears, good tears.  He was vain.  Oh, yes, he was vain.  He liked a new suit.  He liked his shoes polished and sharp.  A good silk tie with a gold bar.  He liked the way he sounded, the echo in the halls and the roar of applause, the standing ovations, the press write-ups.  He liked seeing himself on the front page with the mayor.  Yes, he was vain.

Meg and Gerald had a deal, an unspoken pact.  She didn’t ask.  He didn’t offer to explain.  For better or for worse.  The better was worth the worse. She will remember that.

Meg takes the crimpers out of her hair and carefully places them in her top drawer.  Purposefully, carefully she works her fingers through her hair that is more silver than it was last Easter.  She hadn’t noticed it so much until now.   She rather likes it; it suits her.   She slips her navy dress with the white piping from the cushioned pink hanger, then chooses two stockings from her lingerie drawer.  She unwinds the red lipstick from its gold tube and dabs, dabs, smacks her lips, then blends it with her right pinky. She smoothes the front of her dress,  sweeps two fingers of white cream that smells of roses and caresses it into her hands, corrects a twist in her left stocking. She is almost ready.

Meg walks down the stairs to the living room, standing taller than she has these several days.  Her black wool coat, white silk scarf tucked artfully over the lapel, and gloves pulled over her fingers.  Now she is ready.

Test Driving Chapter Two

Readers:  last week I posted a short piece from my novel-in-progress.  Since I received several encouraging comments and e-mails I thought I'd test drive the first piece  of Chapter Two.  The setting is New York, 1954.  The protagonist in this chapter is my main character's grandmother.  If this goes over well, I will post the second half of this chapter next week.  Let me know.  Comments appreciated.    

March 1954

Meg runs her hand over the bristles of the green mohair couch, back and forth, back and forth. How many years had they sat here, reading the paper, curled up with a book, her head on his chest, his arm around her shoulder? Stiffer than velvet, yet soft and inviting. Quite a remarkable fabric, she thinks.

She sits in the curve where back turns into arm, draped in Gerald’s sweater. His scent is in the wool, his shaving cream, his aftershave, him. She knows this will dissipate, but she doesn’t want to preserve it in a bureau drawer.

Mass cards and late arriving funeral bouquets clutter the house. Just two days ago he was laid out here, where the couch has been returned, under the bay window, drapes pulled closed behind the bier and the casket covered in a blanket of flowers. His head, mostly bald, with silver hair that ran from ear to ear in a partial tonsure flattened and lacquered by the beautician’s craft, lips daubed a pasty pink, wrinkles dusted with heavy powder, and glasses over his closed eyes. Why do they put glasses on a man who can’t see? Did he fall asleep in his best suit in this box, with a satin pillow and a rosary entwined in waxen fingers?

They came and arranged it all. Calls made, by whom, she’s not quite sure, but someone called and someone took care of these things. All done so smoothly, quickly, neatly, and there, her husband is in the living room, laid out for all to see. She answered questions and gave them a suit, she thinks she did, maybe it was Philip or John.  A shirt, a tie, cufflinks. All fixed up. So dapper, so right, so wrong.

That night, he came in from work, tired, a bit gray in the cheeks and under his eyes. He tried to eat the chicken Meg had roasted for them. He managed a few bites and said I need to lie down, Meg. I’ll just go the couch. Meg kissed him on the head and squeezed his hand. He was wearing the sweater. It was chilly that night.

Someone sent a large carnation shamrock, sprayed in an odious green paint. It was delivered this morning, but she would let it in no further than the vestibule. It stands on a wire easel draped with a purple ribbon and gold cardboard letters that spell out Friend, adorned with a few cardboard shamrocks for good measure.

Her irritation with this leprechaun schlock gives way to the realization that it was sent with good intent. Someone whose name probably ends in a few vowels thought it would be just the right thing. But no, the card says Condolences from O’Malley’s Pub. Every St. Patrick’s Day they color the beer green and affect some unidentifiable brogue. Gerald held union meetings there. She can’t stand the sight, or the smell, of it. She can’t look at another mass card or read another letter of condolence, a testimonial to what a great man, what a blessing her husband was.

She is alone in the house where they raised their sons, entertained on so many Saturday nights, held meetings that ended with strikes planned and from which riots erupted and other men, maybe not great in the eyes of the world, were hurt, and some killed. Alone in the house where they first heard FDR announce the war which took her sons off.  Alone in the house where the commotion in the yard shook her out of sleep the night the Mob goons came looking for Gerald, met him at the back door and left him bloody and bruised. Just a warning, they told him, next time, next time you won’t be so lucky, you stupid Mick.

They were sitting on this couch that other night, the night they came, lights flashing in the black and white outside the door. A detective flipped a badge and entered their home. He may as well have stolen all their silver and china while he was there. He stood on her floral patterned rug, the rug where her sons ran their trucks and built their block castles when they were little boys.  He left a muddy foot print on the vines in the pattern. The detective read out some words from the paper he was holding while a uniform put cuffs on her husband, led him out on that cold night, coat draped around his shoulders, his head bare against the wind. Words like embezzlement, misappropriation of funds from the union accounts, were a distant echo, like whispers off stage in someone else’s play. It must all be a misunderstanding, a lie. None of this was possible. Who would have accused him of such a thing? Gone two years. Now gone forever.

All the years this house was filled with life, with tears, with joys, and not yet three days before the body of her husband was laid out in grand fashion. Lines of mourners and gawkers filed through while Meg and her sons took hands and cheeks offered in sympathy. So much chatter filling every corner of the house, guests eating the food that friends and neighbors brought, drinking what the men carried in crates and set up on the kitchen table. Some women took a measure of the quality of the drapes, the furniture, the silver laid out on the table for their use. He did pretty well for himself, didn’t he? Not such a common man as those he blathered about, now, was he? The kinder ones buzzed What a shame, what a shame through their house, their home. After all she’s been through, then he’s taken, leaving her alone again. Poor Meg. Poor Meg.

The doorbell rings. She sees through the blinds that it is the florist, but she will not get up. After a minute he goes, leaving another bouquet, another testimonial. Mail has piled up in the vestibule. How many days has she just let it fall through the slot, not able to touch it? Bills mixed in with sympathy cards, newspapers on the porch. Her sons had to get back to work and their wives are busy with their small children. She doesn’t want them here anyway. She wants to sit, just sit and cry without anyone saying oh dear it will be all right. She wants to scream It won’t be all right and just let me cry, haven’t I the right?

She realizes she has been on the couch for more than two hours. A cup of tea is what she needs. Pushing off the couch Meg goes through the swinging kitchen door, fills the kettle, turns on the gas, lights the stove with a match, then sets up a cup. The kettle whistles just as Millie puts her hand to knock on the back door. Millie is the only one Meg will welcome.

“I’ve taken your papers in, and put the flowers in my cellar. We don’t want anyone thinkin’ the house is empty and come breakin’ in surprising you to your death, now do we?” Meg gives Millie a tired smile and gets out another cup for tea.

“I’m givin’ you one week Meg. And then I’m takin’ you out.” Millie looks for Meg to disagree, to protest, but Meg smiles and says “have your tea, Millie. Oh, can your son take that awful shamrock to a pub on the boulevard? It might sell a few more beers to the thirsty men staying out all night.”

“Sure, Meg. Frank’ll come by after supper. He’ll take it to Woodys.”

Part two next week.


This is an excerpt from my novel, which has been long in coming to birth and written entirely out of order, depending on where my muse decides to deposit me. Youth is cruel.  And full of judgment, arrogance.

When you are young and healthy and your nerves still stay inside your skin and your body does what you want it to with out creaking or aching you look at older people and know, not just promise, but know, that will never be you. You will never have back fat leaping over your bra.   You will never take pills for depression or anxiety.  You will never drink too much to soften the pain.  You will always be productive and healthy and have the right attitude.

But then you get older. Little by little the round belly that was so easy to keep at bay stubbornly refuses to retract.   Your eyesight is just a little blurry. When you cannot read the tiny print in the magazine, you hear yourself speak the same complaint your grandmother did so long ago.

And that pain, that anxiety, that anger, that someone as healthy and level headed as you, find you need a pill, need a drink, need someone to talk to because life is just not working out the way you had planned.  And for some infuriating reason you find it harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning. You cannot sleep through the night and there is this vague weight pressing down on you so breathing is a little more difficult, but the doctor says there is nothing wrong with your lungs.

Then one day you look in the mirror and you see your mother. You understand that by the time you thought you could complain and judge her, you have become her. And then you are sorry and wish you could talk with her, but she is gone. So you pray.  Pray all the time, waking sleeping driving, you pray all the time. Then you realize that you are grateful for all the prayers you had to memorize as a child because they come to your aid when you have no other words; they are your plea.

Somewhere along the line you realize that if you lost as much as your mother did, you would not be able to move or function or keep it together either. You’d try, but you’d realize that you have joined a club that has been acquiring members since Adam and Eve.  The adult club where loss and pain and suffering are the price of admission. They were kicked out of the garden and suffered the loss of their darling child Abel. You know that these losses were what entitled them to become adults.  O happy fault!  O necessary fall of man!!  Easter Vigil finally makes sense.

You know, like the rising of the dawn, you know that these pains of life, these sins that happen to you and by you, are somehow necessary.  They bring you to your knees.  And that’s, later, you hope, later, you will realize that your knees is the proper place to be.  The only place to get perspective and the grace to carry on.  Not despite the pain, but because of the pain.

It dawns on you that all the programs you watched on how to stay young and defy the laws of nature are comical.  To stay young is to stay immature, to stay childish.    But still, you apply that cream of great promise each night and roll a serum under your eyes each morning.  You understand that this is a joke.  This is a lie.  But you do it anyway.  And know that the wrinkles on your soul and the graying of your once fresh, pink, glowing baby soul cannot be reached by creams in a jar.

And that’s okay.  And that’s okay.  You think it should be a surprise, but you are pleased that it is not.  That you always knew that this graying, this wrinkling and battering of the soul are what have to happen. Then you can move on.  And be kinder to yourself.  And be kinder to your parents.  And to all who have hurt you.  And then you can thank them.  Yes, thank them.  And this is not as much of a surprise at you thought it might be when you read that kind of thing in sappy articles in magazines with angels on the cover.

Little by little, you come to realize that this is the miracle you prayed for in such utter desolation and pain.  This understanding, this grace, to accept and then be grateful for the pain.  And to abide; not analyze or dissect or even understand.  Just abide.