Characters

Another Scene

I haven't posted here in such a long time. I have been working on revisions for the book I mistakenly thought was completed. My timeline was out of order, so I have corrected that. I have filled out many scenes, and added many more. For whatever reason that urges such things, I thought I'd share one such scene with you. I love to hear from you, so please leave comments or questions. Rose takes the arm that Dennis offers as they exit the church. It snowed overnight and this morning Rose feels she is standing inside a pewter cup; the image of Don Quixote with the barber’s bowl on his head makes her smile in a quizzical way. The thoughts we have, at the oddest times, she thinks.

She takes her seat in the limousine next to Kieran and Marie. Dennis drives their car. The heavy clouds have snuck into her brain somehow, causing her to feel muffled. Every thought she has is dull and impotent, a soft mess of tragedy and comedy.

The hearse drives slowly through the stately iron gates that separate this bit of earth from the homes across the street on one side and the cars zipping by on Metropolitan Avenue on the other. Angels and saints and large stone crosses rise up alongside ancient trees that stand sentinel over the occupants covered in dirt and memory. This is a place of reverence; there is no rushing here, no need to rush ever again.

There is no direct route to the patch of ground this dark procession is heading toward. This is some kind of metaphor, Rose thinks, designed to symbolize the winding roads of life that bring us ultimately, here. The earth is blessed, words echoing baptism are proclaimed by the deacon whose job it is to minister to the dead, to sprinkle holy water and make the sign of the cross that bought our eternal life, so she has been taught since infancy.

The ground is still soft at the Banfry family plot, still rounded from when their father was buried just weeks ago. The big square hole next to Phil Banfry’s mound is deep.  The casket is suspended on straps so it can be lowered gracefully into the damp dark earth, to rest above the bones of their sister. Rose wonders what is left of Cilla, thirty years here. Surely the flesh is gone. In movies they open caskets to expose naked bone, hollows where eyes and nose once lived. Lips and face evaporated, teeth large and bold in a mockery of the once living person .

Ashes to ashes.

Her dress is probably still there, Rose thinks, covered in the dust that was once Cilla, that white dress she wore so proudly on her First Communion, holding a small bouquet, twirling the skirt out, tapping her white patent leather shoes on the tiles in church. The white is probably gray, maybe yellow.Empty dress. You’ve done your job. What was she spared, Rose thinks, for the first time, what was she spared being taken so young?

She turns back to her brother. In that box, such a lovely box, with brass handles, polished to a high degree.He slept on the floor in a room he never cleaned, now his broken body lies on satin, wearing his father’s suit. Our father. His dead face was not fit for viewing, smashed and torn on the rough asphalt. She had to identify him hours after he died. Yes, that’s my brother, that’s Jimmy. Though she only nodded and turned into her husband’s chest.

We had that one night, that last dinner of pot roast and beer. Do this in remembrance of me. He stood in the backyard, arms open to the rain, to the lightening. A second baptism; his last rites.Rose asked for the chaplain who served the morgue, asked for the anointing of the dead, though Jimmy may have scoffed at that, she asked for him because she needed to see her brother prayed over, signed with blessed oil.The ancient rites that join us generation to generation.Words of consolation and hope.Words of promise that this life was not in vain.This life mattered.

 And, sudden as a gust of wind, a terrible possibility indicts her.

Did I do this? I wanted to save my brother, didn’t I? I wanted to have him in my life, I wanted him to be whole. I wanted him to be someone other than who he was. Someone clean and happy and successful.

But more, I wanted him to know my wounds! See, you were not the only one hurt by them. I wanted to let him know that all the years I was alone had taken their toll on me. I wanted him to take some responsibility for this. He was my big brother!! Why didnt he protect me? Protect me from that soul disfigured priest. Protect me from our mother who lashed out because I was the only one there. Protect me from the pain of the absence of our father.

Did I do this? Did I kill my brother? The questions echo in Rose’s head. Did I ask too much of him?

This wildness in her!  Standing here while the deacon reads from the gospels and they make the sign of the cross, even now, she makes the sign of the cross in unison with everyone while beneath these gestures, the real Rose is accused, tried and condemned because of her selfishness.

Pay attention! Here these men, strangers, in their dull black suits and black ties. Their uniform. Professional pall bearers. Professional mourners. We have to hire people  to show us how to do this, this act that is just as much a part of life as birth. They go home to their lives and tomorrow there will be another family to escort to the grave.

They are so careful with his remains.Would they have noticed him just last week? Would they have crossed the street if they saw him coming toward them? Disheveled, dirty. His anger contagious. His illness a disease to guard against. I would have crossed the street. Hell, I wouldn’t have even been in the same street with him to begin with.

What did he need from me? Need from me? I only thought of what I needed, wanted. I wanted him to go back in time and save me from that priest, save me from my aloneness. I wanted him to be the son my parents wanted so there would be peace in the family.Was that too much to ask? Why did you have to make trouble, Jimmy? Why did you have to move in with Kathy? Why couldn’t you just be good, like they wanted?

This is just a nightmare, right? A nightmare and now I’ve learned the lesson. Now I can awaken from this terrible dream and know not to have expectations of Jimmy that he cannot handle.

What’s the use of learning if the price paid for my mistake is his death?!

There is no coming back from death, no chance, no second chance, no third. I’ve learned my lesson, God. I’ve learned. Oh please, let me wake up!! Let me wake up and see my brother, alive, whole, happy. Let Me!!

Who am I yelling at? A God who will not hear. A silent God, a God whose only answer is that Jimmy will remain dead and I will have to live knowing that I killed him. Knowing that I killed Cilla because I was tired of her being sick all the time?

It’s time to go. Dennis steers her with her elbow back to the car.

 

Friend of Santa

What's the deal with dissing Santa? It's bad enough we can't have Nativity scenes, but now there's a major retailer putting Santa down.

I object.

I know, it's supposed to be humorous. But the defender in me always rises up when I see those ads about how the retailer can best Santa in the game of gift giving.

Just so you know: I'm a dyed in the wool, steeped in the DNA Catholic.

I love the sacramental infusion of the smells, the bells, the holiness of the ordinary, the ritual, the language,  the music, the art, the mysticism of Catholicism. And the gracious, non-deserved, no naughty and nice list of the Gift of Christmas.

And maybe, just maybe, that's why I love Santa Claus.

Long, long time ago, when I was a young mother of a two year old, I was standing in the back of the church, holding the Lectionary waiting to process up the aisle. Next to me was a woman, probably in her fifties, a kind of "church lady" with her sensible gray hair and plain grey skirt. It was Christmas morning and I was the lector at the 10:15 Mass, and she was a Eucharistic Minister.  I mentioned the fun of Christmas with my toddler daughter, the anticipation of Santa and the gifts.  She very plainly said, "oh we never bothered with all that with our kids. We emphasized the spiritual rather than the Santa aspect of Christmas."

She was of so sincere. And humorless. What a drag.

For just a moment I felt chastened. I had been corrected by my elder on the true nature of Christmas and what's important to teach children. But that didn't last long.

What's more Christian, more holy even, than a saint spreading the blessings of God on a world deeply in need of reminders of love?

We are physical, that is, incarnate, beings  not spirits just renting out space in a body--we need the sights sounds touch excitement, magic, yes magic, of Christmas and the  concrete expressions of love and undeserved gifts.

So when folks complain about the secularization of Christmas, I wish they'd leave Santa out of it. He's a holy man. A wise man. A magi.

And, man oh man, he's one of the best teachers of the holy that we've got.

Merry, Merry everyone.

 

Meat and Potatoes

Pot Roast, anyone? Characters in my novel-in-progress have been hovering around the kitchen, the living room and the back yard for weeks now, waiting to eat Pot Roast. They've been lingering and thinking, but now it was time to eat. But I couldn’t seem to get them to the table. Well, finally, they can have their supper.

How did such a thing happen? Well, that’s what I’m writing about: the glimpses of the numinous we get to be part of in the creative arts.  Mine is quite a humble glimpse, but, I am thrilled by it.  Why?  Well, let me tell you.

I started this novel quite a while ago.  Started with a writing prompt in a seminar.  I don’t remember the prompt, but the picture it nudged into life has stayed with me for the last few years. I ‘saw’ a woman holding onto a Miraculous Medal. She is in pain.  She is angry, confused and her world vision has been turned inside out.

But that’s all I had.  I hadn’t yet learned what it was that upset her, what sent her into a deep well of darkness.  I had to discover that.  So over time, much time, since I am quite slow at this, my character Rose had to turn into a real person, albeit one that lives in my imagination and in the pages I have churned out.  But the truth is, she lives in this other place, this place I couldn’t just access by willing it. I had to ‘drop down’ into that place where writing happens. Then, I had to be let in.

Someone I know often said that a person with a pencil in his hand can make characters do and say anything the writer wants.  That may be true, to an extent.  But, it is only part of the story.

Talk to writers for a while and they may let you in on a secret: the best, most compelling writing comes not from the conscious, willful mind. The writing that delights the writer (and hopefully the reader) comes from something bigger than our own little controlling sensible logical day-time brain.  It is writing that surprises the writer.  It is the turn in the story or development of character and plot that has its own trajectory, its own secrets to reveal. It is the thin slice of gold that is the real reason writers face a blank page day after day, hoping, working, putting letters on a screen, in anticipation that we can get to the yellow brick road, even if only for a few steps.

When one of my characters needed a cigarette, he went to the back porch to light up.  It is raining.  Without warning, he steps into the rain. This impulsive act sets in motion a way to break the tension and allow dinner to proceed. I didn’t know he was going to do that. Actually, until the words showed up on the page by way of my fingertips I was struggling with what turn of events would progress the story. I was thinking too much. I was in my own way.

Remember the Nav’i in Avatar?  Those long pony tails were not just for show, they were the cord by which the large blue people connected with the horse like flying creatures, each other, and the tree of life that was at the center of their culture.  Connected, they were more than they were alone; they were one with the greater energy that is always present, but often ignored.

I had been trying to steer my novel in a certain way, like the man turned Nav’i in Avatar was trying to steer his ride.  Once he was connected, braid to braid, he was part of the process, not part of the resistance. He could move forward.

Now that my characters have had their dinner, I wonder what will happen to them next. Guess I’ll find out.

Dessert, anyone?

Friends

You know what I’m glad for?  I’ll tell you.  I’m glad for my Tuesday morning prayer group.  Where else could I get introduced to an up and coming saint and no one thinks that is hilarious. Or childish.  Or naïve. Or superstitious. Or unsophisticated. Or un-cool. I’m glad for these wonderful women for so many reasons, but one of those reasons stood out for me this morning while I was praying.  I have a couple of saints that I have considered my friends over the years. St. Anthony has been a staple since Aunt Jule had such a devotion to him, and as a bonus, he’s in charge of finding lost things.  I lose things all the time, so I call on him almost daily.  Over the years I have assigned particular saints to my children to watch over them. Long before my daughter named her son Jude, I had often called on his intercession for her.  My oldest son also loses things often, so St. Anthony got the job of watching over him.  For the next oldest son, I asked St. Joseph to be his guardian since they are both craftsmen.  And my youngest son has always had St. Francis since it is his middle name and they share a love of animals.

I now have another saint friend. When one of the women in the group asked us to pray for the intercession of Blessed Brother Andre for the healing of her brother who had cancer, he had yet to be canonized.  We asked for his intercession when we met, and also in our own daily prayers.  As of this time, her brother’s cancer is in remission and his future looks bright.  Blessed Brother Andre is now Saint Andre, but I still call him Blessed Brother Andre, ‘cause that’s how I picture him.  He was a humble fellow in his monastery in Canada.  He had a great devotion, or friendship, with St. Joseph. In his humility, his reputation for holiness grew. He had menial assignments around the monastery—he was not a scholar or a teacher, just a humble ‘ordinary’ man who performed his tasks with great love.

Due to my near total immersion in Catholic education, I did not have pop stars for my role models when I was a kid.  I had saints.  Which has often been a hindrance, I do admit.  There they were being all holy and good in the midst of the very same temptations we live with today. They chose a different path so I knew what was expected of me: to turn away from the allure of sin and be holy.  And when I fell—oh so often-- I had them to turn back to help me get on the right track.

We all need friends to navigate our way through life.  Some of them just happen to have lived in different places and times than we find ourselves. That’s why we have the ‘communion of saints’ to call upon and ask them to pray for us.  It’s like having a whole bunch of aunts and uncles banging on the door of God pleading our case.  Who wouldn’t want that?

Character, Characters

I'd like to think that I would have been one of the kids who joined Harry Potter in his secret society to counteract the fascism that has taken over Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The wise and benevolent Dumbledore has been disenfranchised due to a wave of suppression and rule by terror that has overthrown their world. The personification of this government of terror is Dolores Umbridge, a Dark Arts professor clad in  pink, sporting immovably coiffured haired and a smile that broadens in insincerity in proportion to the pain her students suffer at her discipline. Harry and friends employ courage, skill and cleverness to undermine the darkness that is a constant threat.

But I am not writing about Harry Potter.  I'm commenting on characters and character and the role literature plays in our understanding of such things. When a story is well crafted and its heroes and villains embody the qualities that writers and artists have been portraying since the ancient days of cultural mythologies those writers have become wright-ers of our current mythology; that is, they craft stories that help us understand the moral battles we must all face, in one form or another no matter where or when we live.

The names and settings may change, but we humans have been battling the same evils with the same virtues forever.  Since folks gathered around communal fires and shared meals we have anticipated the arrival of the local seanachie to tell a tale and subtly, oh so subtly, teach us about courage and love and evil and good and all the other things that go into wondrous mix that makes us human. Even when they are writing about wizards.

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