Another memorial service yesterday – a wonderful one with an open bar and a live band, exactly what the deceased would want. Still, the dependable presence of that person, that mind, is no longer here, and that’s a loss no amount of “celebrating” can diminish.
Okay, it’s that time of life, but peers dying in significant numbers is… I was going to say “unnerving” but it’s not that. It’s more like a gradual free-fall as links to minds who share one’s world-view and require no explanations, vanish. Four of those minds have very recently taken off on the heels of eight previous flights – all smart, educated, interesting, feminist, socially and/or politically engaged friends/acquaintances. Leaving me with a strange awareness that if, as seems likely, I keep living, I’ll have to spend entirely too much time explaining what terms like “misogynist” and “sexist” mean even if Hillary runs and the Republicans design ever-nastier buttons.
It’s sort of like that September after high school when everybody leaves for college and you know nothing’s ever going to be the same again. Except this time they’re all off to some impossibly distant and fascinating grad school while I stay behind and write novels. Which is okay; I like staying behind and writing novels! But the spate of recent deaths made me ask where I got the grad school idea, which is weird but for some reason resonates.
I’d forgotten, but I got it from somebody named James Padgett (http://www.jamesepadgett.com/, who may or may not be a multiply-removed relative. Years ago I received, and declined, an invitation to be honored as his descendant at a church in Los Angeles devoted to his ideas. I’d never heard of him but was curious, looked him up and stumbled onto a story somebody should write. Because James, while about as far from “eccentric wacko” as it’s possible to get (he was a successful Washington, DC. attorney), rather reluctantly became a spiritualist, a medium who recorded 2,640 messages from his dead wife, Helen, and other spiritual entities. Yeah.
Of course James’s whole experience can easily be seen in subjective psychological/sociological terms – he was a stressed single parent, grieving the death of his wife, during an era in which spiritualism was widely popular among educated people. Even so, he feared professional censure and kept his automatic writing revelations private, which fact is significant. No cornball huckster deluding people for a buck, James just went on for nine years doing his thing, alone. There’s something to be said for that.
He transcribed all these messages between 1914 when Helen died and 1923 when he died, and of course spiritualism was all the rage back then, so he was taken seriously by the few friends with whom he shared his experience. And apparently still is taken seriously, since his ideas have contemporary adherents and an organization. The ideas are buried in heavily altered but nonetheless recognizable Protestant/Christian terminology (he was a pillar of his Methodist church in DC), but if you strip all that out, what’s left is a description by Helen and others of a tiered afterlife system that sounds more Buddhist than Christian. It also sounds like fun. Levels of awareness through which the soul must journey. Grad school! Buddhists would say, “ stream-enterer, once-returner, non-returner, and arahant.” For me it’s Baccalaureate, Master’s, Ph. D. and post-doc. Something to look forward to. Eventually.
Meanwhile, I wonder how my friends are doing every time I hear Pomp and Circumstance.
Over a year ago my agent got a form letter from somebody representing Jodie Foster and/or the production company making a movie called Elysium. It was a request for the use of my first novel, Child of Silence, as a prop in the movie.
I thought okay, sure, this is neat – some edition of my book will share the silver screen with Jodi Foster! I signed the forms and got a check sufficient to cover a lavish celebratory dinner party at Home Town Buffet ($12 for seniors, all you can eat and the best, possibly only, collard greens in California). Then I completely forgot about Elysium.
Until a few weeks ago when, watching previews on a hot afternoon at Loew’s Boston Common, I saw Jodie in a silver Armani suit and Matt Damon in what looked like parts of a vintage tractor. It all came back.
“Child of Silence is supposed to be a prop in that movie,” I told my son, who wisely said, “Why?”
Who knew? The movie has absolutely no connection to anything in the book, but then who looks at the titles of prop books in movies? Maybe Jodie just liked it and wanted it around. A great fan of her work, I was thrilled at the idea. But of course I would have to see Elysium if only to scan the sets for bookcases, with books in them.
Back in California, I hit the closest Cineplex on Elysium’s opening night, carefully watching both a grungy, apocalyptic ruin shot in Mexico (Earth) and the sterile, manicured and clearly shot in southern California space-station of the wealthy elite (Elysium) for the appearance of anything resembling a book. There wasn’t a single one.
The elite, despite speaking French half the time and looking like the cast from Mad Men, apparently did not read. Neither did the testosterone-maddened crew of Hell’s Angels types on a sickenly overpopulated Earth. But then you don’t expect a lot of literacy from guys with AK 47’s (literally) bolted to their skeletons.
I would have left fifteen minutes into the movie but for my book-search. As it was, I rooted for bad-guy Jodie, blowing the invading riff-raff out of the sky until, of course, semi-cyborg Matt manages to breach Elysium’s defenses in time to save the leukemia-stricken little girl.
The movie ends there. Jodie’s character is dead and in my imagined sequel Elysium is overrun by illiterate thugs who quickly turn it into another seething mess populated with weapons-grade cyborg boys, one kindly old nun and sufficient sweetly imploring young women to continue overpopulation to its inevitable ghastly conclusion.
My book cover wouldn’t have made a conceptual dent in the story, but I wish Jodie had insisted on one long, close shot of anything by Robert Malthus!
Standing around on the main drag of Pigeon Forge waiting for Dolly Parton’s homecoming parade, I chatted with the guy beside me on the sidewalk, thereby plummeting headlong into a dimension of the conflict currently tearing the country to shreds. His name is Terry Hall and he’s “saved,” a fundamentalist to the bone and perfectly happy to “witness” to any godless soldier-of-the-antichrist Californian who happens to be standing around in Pigeon Forge. That would be me, and I wondered which of us would qualify as the “melungeon,” the demonic different one. Both of us, I suppose.
I and everybody I know on the entire planet regard people like Terry as deluded, incomprehensible and dangerous. And unquestionably Terry and the entirety of his social cohort regard us in an even darker light. There is no interface.
And yet… Terry is intelligent and articulate, scarcely the traditional vicious wacko, and we had a good time bantering on a Tennessee sidewalk. I said, “I suppose this means you voted for Bush,” to which he answered, “Both times!” I said, “How could you? The man’s an idiot.” He said, “Yeah, but he gets it!” So there you have it. George W. Bush “gets” something or other about fundamentalist religion and nothing else matters. This is the impasse, the uncrossable chasm, and it’s scary. At least Terry’s indifferent to the rapture stuff, considering it mere “theology,” which doesn’t interest him. I, on the other hand, love to talk theology, in which the rapture doesn’t figure. Terry and I do not, cannot, understand each other or make sense of each other, but there’s something to be said for hanging out for a while.
After the parade Terry gave me two of his eighteen gospel CDs (here’s his website – http://terryghallmusicministry.com/) and I promised to send a couple of my books for his wife Janice, since Terry will read nothing but the Bible. Neither of us was willing to abandon hope, however. As we left I said, “If you would just read one book – Jeff Sharlet’s C STREET – you’ll at least understand why millions of people are so uncomfortable with fundamentalist religion in politics.” “Here’s a deal,” he said. “You send me that book and I’ll read it if you’ll read Romans 8.” Hey, deal.
So I read Romans 8, St. Paul pointing out that an exclusive focus on rationality is deadly, a position with which I do not argue, so I’m not sure what that was about. I’ve sent Terry C STREET. Maybe he’ll read it.
Eastern Tennessee, near a village called Townsend. Special trip, friend’s 70th birthday. The idea was to escape the city, any city, all cities. Total success.
The dirt road to our spectacular two-story log “cabin” is barely wide enough for one car and you have to drive through a creek. We were warned that the black bears are emerging from hibernation and that one, probably a two-year-old, has been seen in the woods surrounding the cabin. “Just don’t walk around in the woods with a bucket of fried chicken,” we were told. Well, okay.
(Two hours after writing the above we’re back from town, I sit down at my laptop on the table facing the deck and there he is! On the deck, not fifteen feet away, a young black bear! Friend is cooking something with a lot of onions and the scent was apparently irresistible. I grabbed my camera, but he took off into the woods before I could snap a shot. We’d been leaving the deck doors open, but they happened to be closed right then or he would have come on in. Black bears (except moms with cubs) aren’t ferocious and this one’s just a hungry kid, but still… what does one do with a bear in the house? Probably better keep those deck doors closed.
We’re in the Smoky Mountains; the national park boundary is about 200 yards from the door, which means wi-fi access is almost nonexistent since no towers are permitted on national park grounds. I’ll have to drive into Gatlinburg or someplace to post these blogs, but that’s the trade-off for limitless natural beauty, quiet and a bear.
Also for a cultural experience I’m still trying to figure out. Scots, English, Welsh and Irish settlers made their way through
these mountains centuries ago, and their descendants are still here. But another group, mysterious as the song that is their anthem, also struggled to survive in secret valleys and hollows, until they were driven out and moved to different valleys and hollows. They were the Melungeons, mixed-race people of European, Native American and African genetic stock, whose name some linguists consider a bastardization of the French word melange (mixed). However, my favorite among the theories is that the term reflects a now obsolete Elizabethan word, “malengin,” that meant guile, deceit or ill-intent. Spenser, in The Faerie Queen, named an evil sprite character “Malengin,” and those early English settlers would have known and used the word.
In any event, the Melungeons were often shunned in primitive mountain settlements where survival might depend on mutual effort. Dark-skinned and “different-looking,” they seemed demonic to the predominately white and culturally British mountain settlers.
I’d never heard of Melungeons until yesterday when I bought a CD of local bluegrass songs at Cade’s Cove, an old settlement the last descendant of which died in 1999. One of the songs, “Wayfaring Stranger,” I’ve heard many times but never thought about. This version, with its haunting Dobro guitar, auto harp and mandolin, was so compelling that of course I had to research it to death and discovered that its origins are simply unknown. Here’s a link with an orchestral version – http://www.manhattanbeachmusic.com/html/wayfaring_stranger.html. There are countless lyrics to “Wayfaring Stranger,” which sounds as if it should be an old negro spiritual, except it isn’t. Its origins are lost in the weary footsteps of long-dead Europeans who moved westward into the Appalachians, only later to become associated with the even more weary, outcast Melungeons.
Later I will conclude that the Melungeon thing has some current resonance. Around here, I and literally everyone I know would qualify, at least insofar as seeming demonic!
To be continued….
When I walked out of my dance class yesterday, Bart was as usual sitting at one of the tables the Y puts out there. Bart, a very recently retired Professor of English, always has something interesting to say. I was betting on a quip about Margaret Thatcher, the news of whose death was all over the place that morning.
“Bad news,” Bart said, looking oddly doleful for someone I was sure had been no fan of Margaret Thatcher. “Annette Funicello died.”
My heart sank. The shock was real and scarcely related to the actual person of Annette Funicello, whom of course I’d never met and hadn’t thought of in over fifty years. I didn’t have to think about Annette because she existed perpetually, never changing, in my own history.
I’m in Jr. high and my first boyfriend David has walked me home from school, carrying my books and my Conn cornet in its clunky case. David is not allowed to come inside, since my parents are still at work, and that’s fine with me. Adolescence is a slow and patchwork affair in the 1950’s; I’m not really clear about why he insists on walking me home but understand that it’s expected of both of us. When he leaves I can go inside and turn on the TV (which has to warm up), and what’s on both of the two stations available? The Mickey Mouse Club!
And I watch. Annette, the most popular Mouseketeer, is twelve and so am I. By current standards we’re way too old for this juvenile stuff, but I don’t know that then. In my late-afternoon living room, surrounded by my mother’s collection of Wedgwood miniatures (green, not blue), it’s okay to be a child, or at least childish, again, and I revel in it. When the show is over I sing the closing song with Annette and the cast, alone in the final moments of both childhood and an era. I will never forget the song.
Bart and I analyzed the source of our reaction to Annette’s death. She was an icon in our history, a remembered symbol of something akin to innocence. Bart said he, like every other American boy, fell in love with her even before she got the famous boobs. He said she always seemed deeply wholesome in some way far surpassing the corny All-American Girl Next Door image. I remembered wanting to look like her, not realizing that I’d have to become Italian. It didn’t matter; she was us. Annette was an ideal, somehow embodying a goodness peculiar to that time, outgrown long ago but cherished in memory.
Bea, Bart’s wife and retired teacher, and Bonnie, an about-to-retire grade school teacher, straggled out of our class. Bart gave them the news; their reaction was the same. We stood around in the sun talking about Annette for a few minutes and then wandered toward our cars in the parking lot beneath a small shopping center. It’s all slab cement and girders in there, dim and echoey. Then somebody started the song and we all joined in, belting it out, the words bouncing off cars and cement, filling our world for one last time. M-I-C…K-E-Y, M-O-U-S-E… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pWH9HGS7SvQ
I won’t forget that, either.
Every author dreams of this day but I never thought it could happen to me. In nine novels I’ve never managed a sex scene that wouldn’t earn the imprimatur of the Holy See, Catharine MacKinnon and my first-grade teacher. The School of Peripheral Detail is my choice for those moments – lavish descriptions of the wallpaper, his charmingly crooked front teeth, her concern about a possible allergic reaction to feather pillows. Fade to the next day and something else entirely.
The Paper Doll Museum lacks even those lightweight hints at passion. It’s totally lacking in passion, at least that sort. In the sequel, yeah, probably. But not yet. So the likelihood of its being banned was zero.
But it was banned.
When doing a freebie, a span of a few days in which a book is free for Kindle, authors sign the title up with many, many sites that alert readers to free books. Most are gratis, a service to readers, but one is expensive. It’s also effective and highly regarded by authors, so I signed The Paper Doll Museum up with it, credit card in hand. Two days later I received an email stating that my book was inappropriate for the entire community of people who read books and had been rejected.
Whaaaat!?!? More to the point, why?
Thrilled as I was at having joined the ranks of To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men and The Catcher in the Rye, I couldn’t help analyzing my good luck. No sex, no racism, no politics, just a story about a retired high school English teacher who suddenly has magical powers, sort of. Any high school English teacher will tell you in three seconds that the tale is an allegory, but maybe the nihil obstat gatekeeper didn’t get that and thought it was a work of satan. Wow. Or could it be that single word, “retired”?
“OMG, this is a novel with retired people in it – ycchh! The reading world must be spared exposure to the experience of anybody over fifty, which would have to be both boring and unspeakable, damned and anathema! This title is banned.”
I’ll never know, but my money’s on the latter.
Here’s the link to a free Kindle copy of The Paper Doll Museum, February 15, 16 and 17, if you’re into banned books.