NOTE: The local garden club will tour my yard June 9. This piece was written for them as a preview, but it also conveys that you don’t learn how to do something just by thinking about it: you have to get your hands dirty.
My parents grew vegetables; I had no interest in digging in the dirt until I left home. I planted my first vegetable garden in the yard of a rental house in 1977, but I moved out before I could harvest a thing. I decided not to plant again until I owned a piece of land. That took another 20 years, although I continued to stick things in the ground wherever I landed. In fall 1999, I bought a house and began to make big plans for my property—but you know what they say about the best-laid plans. Nowadays, I’d call my whole yard an “experiment.”
Baby robins in a nest their mum built in a climbing rose on the southeast corner of my house. Cardinals had nested in the same spot the year before, but their nest was destroyed by a violent thunderstorm. I installed a chicken wire contraption to give the cardinals' next nest a sturdier base, but Mother Robin beat them to it. The cardinals built that year's (also flimsy) nest in the Mugo pine in the back yard. The fledgling cardinals bailed just as home started to fall apart, too. The bird world needs building inspectors.
When I say my yard is an "experiment," what do I mean? Despite my earlier attempts to grow vegetables like my parents did--they made it seem so easy--I knew very little. A friend suggested I plant things called “perennials” because they come up every year. I bought some books that talked about “compost” and “amending the soil” and “sunlight requirements.” Who knew?
Not me. But I learned. I read about and experimented with conditions that would make for happy plants. I bought plants on sale from catalogs; I made pity purchases at greenhouses in late July. I was introduced to verticillium wilt by a local greenhouse I haven’t visited since. I discovered Klinger Farm Market, the largest greenhouse in the area 20 miles north of here, and began supporting the Klinger children’s orthodontia. I became bold: I moved plants around. I began to mix edibles with ornamentals. I planted for the birds. I planted for the bees. If I saw pretty flowers along a sidewalk in the neighborhood, I wanted some, too. If I saw a pretty tree in one of my books, I bought one—like the Prairiefire crab, the Sunburst Locust, the Red-twig Dogwood in the front yard. When friends offered me plants, I asked what the plants liked and tried to provide it.
Our first spring, 2000, I planted my oldest bed in the southwest corner of the property. It’s in a state of flux even now, fifteen years later. There, you’ll see red peonies rescued from under my cousin’s black walnut tree, Shasta daisies, penstemon, ornamental onion, irises rescued from a pile of compost when we dug a memorial garden at the high school down the block, tansy, various sedums, hyssop, orange butterfly weed, Goldmound spirea, Happy Days daylily, and delphiniums (the finicky things). I hope you don’t see any sprouts of a pretty plant I bought at Klinger’s ten years ago and stuck in there. The plant was so happy it began to spread. Everywhere. It was Japanese Knotweed, which is notoriously invasive. Once I learned what it was, I became its nemesis. I dug it and poisoned it without mercy, but I preserved a sprig in a pot and told it if it lived, I’d save it. It’s still alive in that pot, waiting for me to turn my back for just one minute. . . .
Our first summer here, I laid the brick patio under the Basswood tree and included planting beds. These beds featured Asian lilies until the Nashiki willow, Korean Spice Viburnum, and weeping lilac grew so big and cast so much shade the lilies gave up, so I transitioned the space under them to ferns and coleus and violets and spurge; you'll also see European ginger, a Sum and Substance hosta, and a Big Blue hosta. Porcelain berry vines up the trellises. A Henry Kelsey climbing rose grows in the one spot under the Basswood that gets sun. Nearest the garage are two sunny spots I reserve for for herbs and vegetables; this year these spots are planted with carrots, broccoli, green beans, chocolate mint, tarragon, rosemary. A Bowl of Beauty peony and Mugo pine stand guard to the east and the catio (an eight-foot-tall outdoor playpen for my cats) stands guard to the west.
The next part of the yard that got dug up is the southeast corner. It’s planted with barberry, sedums, and an Annabelle hydrangea, all tough plants that can survive the shade and the roots of the boulevard maple to the south, which is the bane of my existence. Its prolific seed production gifts me with myriad baby maples every year that must be pulled by hand. Same with the silver maples in the back yard.
The sidewalk leading to the house came next and expanded to the west a couple of years later when I removed an overgrown birch and replaced it with a Prairiefire crab and a Sunburst locust. The ferns went in between them in 2014. Those ferns have been moved three or four times, bless their plucky little hearts. Along the curvy front sidewalk grow a rhododendron, an azalea, a Diablo ninebark, white peonies, artemisia, sundrops, Egyptian onion, variegated iris, and milkweed (yup--it's for the Monarch butterflies.)
Across from this curvy bed is a heart-shaped bed that changes from year to year. It gets sun, so that’s where I often plant vegetables; this year, there’s a tomato and cucumbers. It’s also planted with ornamental Japanese corn, Malabar spinach, and scarlet runner beans, which I planted after hearing the founder of Seed Savers Exchange, Diane Ott Whealy, talk at our library—Seed Savers and I had corresponded at length for many years via checks from me and seeds from them. They do good work.
I do good work too, but sometimes a living plant gets sent to that Big Garden in the Sky. A damaged maple was removed to the east of the house around 2005; the pond sits atop the tree’s ground-down base. (Check out the pond's sassy goldfish—he thinks he's all that when he moves to the big pond for the summer.) This bed is anchored on the south side by raspberries that want to take over the world. It’s anchored on the north end by a cherry tree that also has empire-building tendencies. Three kinds of currants grow to the east of the cherry tree along with a Little Free Library and, this year, tomatoes and golden zucchini. Beside the pond are two trees, a Harry Lauder walking stick and a pagoda dogwood. I stuck them in together saying, “May the best man win.” They decided war is not the answer; they both lived. You’ll also see tradescantia, a Hansa rose, Morden Centennial roses, European ginger, and baptisia, all volunteers or refugees. Last year I beat back the raspberries so I could plant flowers beside the pond. One plant of lemon balm has become an army that’s challenging the raspberries and cherry tree for world domination. This bed was expanded in 2009 when I dug up the row of red honeysuckles I’d planted along the sidewalk and moved them north to the backyard fence.
West of the cherry tree along the house stands a birch frame that was another experiment: in France, many stone building exteriors showcase living walls, layers of felt with pockets that contain plants that are watered and fertilized from above. I tried to build such a wall, freestanding, but winter was not kind to it. So that experiment requires tweaking. South of the birch frame are tulips, Bonfire spurge, Japanese Hakone grass, and a Rosa Mundi plant that struggled its first year but seems to be perking up this year. That giant rose at the southeast corner of the house is a John Cabot climber. Its climbing rival on the east side of the garage is a Jackmanii clematis that sat in a washbasin all summer when the garage was built in 2007.
I can’t do a lot in the back yard because I have a dog and a kid who owns a trampoline, but two years ago, I put in a little woodland garden between the silver maples. I chose plants I hope can handle shade and competition from the maple tree roots: dogtooth violets, foam flower, maple-leaved heuchera, columbine, hostas, and clematis Virginiana.
Like every gardener, I battle deer, rabbits, grass, dandelions, and baby trees. Terry Hershey, who lives on Vashon Island in Puget Sound, says (courtesy Dave's Garden), "People who love this world, people who pay attention, are gardeners. People who are invested, people who are aware. They are gardeners, regardless of whether or not they have ever picked up a trowel. Because gardening is not just about digging. Or planting, for that matter. Gardening is about cherishing."
Cherishing and experimenting. That's pretty much life, am I right?
Someday it will be me lying in a coffin, quiet as dust, still as paint on the walls, while above
and around me others still breathe, still have facial muscles that broadcast thoughts, still
have warm blood in their veins.
We buried my Uncle Marshall on Thursday. He’d been a farmer. For a while, he was a milk hauler too, back when dairymen poured their milk into cans and haulers drove it to the central dairy on dark, cold roads the snowplows hadn’t cleared yet.
Marshall was a collector, too, of a lot of things—his attic was stuffed to the gills with picture frames and schoolbooks left over from one-room schoolhouse days and dried-out cans of paint and moth-eaten wool suits and old letters hand-written with fountain pens. His favorite collectible was old cars, which he’d fix up and take out for a drive when the weather was fine. At the funeral, somebody said, “I’ll never forget that old blue car—when you saw that parked on Main Street, you knew Marshall was in town.”
The visitation and funeral and interment were held at an old Lutheran church that sits on a windy hill overlooking fields of corn stubble leftover from last year’s harvest. Nobody’s been out plowing yet; it’s still too cold to plant. It rained cold the morning of the funeral. The trees weren’t leafed out yet, and the grass wanted to turn green but was still mostly brown, and the steady rain could only soak down so far because the frost from the long winter still hunkers 18 inches deep and isn’t about to melt when it’s only April.
Inside the church vestibule, feet stomped off raindrops. Coats dripped on the floor. The church smelled of old books, old dust, old people. Up from the basement drifted the smells of the meal the church ladies in the basement were rustling up for after the funeral, which likely would include hot dish and dessert and coffee.
To the left of the front door, in the vestibule, Marshall’s coffin was tucked under some windows so folks could come in, shed their coats, have a look, and go on in to visit. Closer to the nave, two easels held two arrangements of photographs. One arrangement featured Marshall’s nephews and their families; the other featured his life on the farm with his wife of 64 years, my father’s sister, Shirley. They had no children.
As at any funeral or wedding, I didn’t know everybody. I’d never had occasion to meet Marshall’s farmer neighbors—and even if I had, farmers tend to be a circumspect lot on account of there being an awful lot of natural fools in the world with whom they prefer not to associate. (Not saying I’m a fool—just saying they and I wouldn’t have met for coffee on a regular basis.) Uncle Marshall’s farmer neighbors at the funeral were gray and neatly barbered and slow-moving, and most of them had quit farming about the same time Marshall did. Full-tilt farming is a young man’s game. The other people who came to pay their last respects were relatives I generally see only at weddings and funerals.
Inside the nave, the hard wooden pews sat dark and shiny with age and use. The chancel in front featured an eight-foot-tall painting of Jesus surrounded by an ornately carved wooden frame the same dark brown as the pews. On the floor of the nave stood a baptismal font, also made of old, dark wood; the pulpit on the right was made of the same stuff. Candles wearing little brass caps sat on stands. The pastor wore white robes and a day’s worth of stubble on his chin.
While the pastor puttered around in front before the service started, I talked to an uncle who raises sheep. They’ve already started lambing. During lambing season, my uncle keeps watch over the pregnant sheep during the day. He gets up several times a night to check on them in case they start giving birth and can’t deliver. This year, so far, he’s delivered two sets of triplets. This uncle bought land from Marshall.
Another uncle became a widower just a few months back when his wife died of Parkinson’s disease. Over more than 20 years, the Parkinson’s wore her away to a point where her husband fed her three times a day as though she were an infant. Now that she’s gone, he travels to see their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The rest of the time, he lives alone on a big place in the country and cuts wood for winter. The aunt with Parkinson’s was Marshall’s sister-in-law.
Marshall’s funeral service was cobbled together out of the standard Lutheran funeral service, tidbits the family passed along to the pastor, and Easter references still relevant and handy since Easter was just a couple of weeks ago. The pastor told stories not entirely trued up with fact, which Marshall might have pooh-poohed. But we just smiled and nodded and let it go. You know how it is at a funeral.
After the service, we collected outside at a grave dug about 40 feet from the front door of the church. The hard rain had stopped, but the sky still spat little droplets that dewed up beehive hairdos and pattered on umbrellas and soaked Sunday windbreakers. Mud squished up around everybody’s shoes. Marshall had served in Germany at the end of World War Two, so the VFW provided a bugler and a rifle party to give him a three-volley salute. The same three-volley salute and mournful “Taps" sounded at my own father’s funeral sixteen years ago:
Day is done, gone the sun
From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky
All is well, safely rest
God is nigh.
The sergeant knelt at my aunt’s feet and presented her with a folded flag. A lump swelled in my throat.
Not because Marshall was gone. The man had been in terrible health. He’d suffered. And, truth be told, he and I were not close. Probably like you, I scrabble after every spare minute I can get because there’s never enough time, is there, to work, to run a household, to rear a family, to visit people removed from the frantic Here and Now. I’m not a Lutheran, like he was. I never farmed, like he did. No, Uncle Marshall and I didn’t have the How of our lives in common. But we did have the Who.
See, the people Marshall and I come from are farmers. They came to America from the old country for a better life. They watched a lifetime of sunrises in a land their fathers never saw. They prayed that rain would bless fields harrowed and planted by the sweat of their brows. They came here, Marshall’s ancestors and mine, as young people with hope in their hearts too big for the old country and in need of a land big enough to hold all that hope. They staked their claims, and they dug in, and they stitched their dreams to the dreams of others. They built communities of corn fields and red barns and little villages and country churches and roads to the city.
They mourned lost babies and thanked God for healthy ones. They survived one Depression because you can always eat potatoes. They sent their sons to fight a world war in the trenches. They survived another Depression by making clothes out of flour sacks; Marshall’s wife wore those dresses. The ones who survived that first world war sent their own sons to fight a second one. Those who did not fall in it came home to live out the rest of their lives until, at last, like Marshall, they passed on to whatever comes After This.
After the graveside service, we trooped inside to the church basement where we lined up for hot dish and buttered bread and dessert and dill pickles and coffee. (Told you.) While we ate and visited, somebody stayed outside and took down the tent over Marshall’s grave. A big steam shovel filled in the hole in the ground. By the time everybody was on his or her second cup of coffee, the steam shovel was tamping down the mud. Ashes to ashes.
Someday it will be me lying in a coffin, quiet as dust, still as paint on the walls, while above and around me others still breathe, still have facial muscles that broadcast thoughts, still have warm blood in their veins. Someday I will have to stay upstairs while the ones who still have eyes to see and ears to hear and legs to carry them trundle to the basement to fork down tuna casserole and chocolate cake. They will have to shush the little kids, who’ve sat all the way through a service, but by the end of it have untucked their shirttails and are now running around like puppies. Eighty years ago, somebody brought little Marshall to a funeral where the exact same thing happened.
I don’t entirely mind funerals, even though they force us to let go of people we wanted to keep and force our feelings to the surface where everybody can see them. Because a funeral is a signpost.
A funeral tells me where I am on my own journey. A funeral reminds me that someday I’m going to be the painted mannequin left upstairs who doesn’t get any cake, so I’d best make my life—make each day—count, while I still can.
Rest in peace, Uncle Marshall.
“I have quit FB numerous times, and am getting ready to quit for good, not because of the evils of anyone or anything else, but simply because I do not like who I become on FB. An insecure child who posts way too many ridiculously unimportant, self-absorbed things, often drunk. I am saving myself from myself.”
The comment above was appended to a Feb. 4, 2015, article on lifehacker titled “Don't Quit the Social Networks You Hate. Bend Them to Your Will.” The article suggests social networks are more useful than annoying and shares ways to deal with the “time-suck” networking can be, including using them sparingly. Another option is to set up an autopilot account that posts for you so it SEEMS like you’re active when you’re really soaking in a bubble bath with a glass of wine, sort of like having one of those lamps on a timer that turns off and on when you go on vacation so it LOOKS like you’re home.
If these measures aren’t enough to curb one’s overuse of social networks, the article recommends Tough Love: blocking, unfriending, unliking, clicking “hide” or “I don’t want to see this.” People driven to curb their use of networks shouldn’t quit altogether, they should step away from the network and let their profiles just BE, like a coffee table book that requires only occasional dusting. Why? Because employers, old friends, and stalkers expect to find you online—besides, doesn’t it get tedious explaining why you don’t use social networks?
But the reason I’ve invited you in today isn’t to talk about social networks, it’s to talk about the quote at the top of this column from a person who wants to walk away from the biggest social network of all: Facebook. How big is Facebook? According to The Washington Post, the number of people who use Facebook is the same as the number of people who live in China. Yet the writer wants out. Why? First, the writer refers to him or her self as “an insecure child” when using Facebook. Second, the writer self-flagellates over posting “too many ridiculously unimportant, self-absorbed things,” Last, the writer says, “I do not like who I become on FB.”
If we replace “FB” with “smoking” in that first sentence, we’ve got something an addict might say. Are social networks addictive? Why, yes, according to researchers at Chicago University’s Booth Business School, who concluded that tweeting or checking emails might be harder to resist than cigarettes and alcohol. They say that sleep and sex may be stronger urges, but people are more likely to succumb to social media, although you can get the monkey off your back if you really want to.
Check out the second sentence. Who hasn’t felt that little warm fuzzy when somebody “likes” something you say on FB? But does depending on “likes” make you an “insecure child”? I know a person who took a FB break for that very reason: he thought nobody liked him in real life if he didn’t get enough “likes” on FB. He wisely realized THAT was messed up, so he took a break to screw his head back on. (Yes, he’s fine now. He sends his “Like.”) Conversely, it hurts when you’re misunderstood. I made a remark under a friend’s post that meant one thing to me but meant quite another to his troll friends, who savaged me over two days until, bruised and disgusted, I deleted my remark so the trolls wouldn’t sniff me out and start savaging me on my own page.
If people don’t “like” you often enough but don’t savage you either, is that good? No, because that might mean you’re boring. It might mean your friends have decided to ignore your single-minded obsession with Shrek. It might even mean people don’t read your posts but you don’t know it because you’re too self-absorbed to care. More than once, I’ve spent time composing a post and then thought, “Does anybody care about this but me?” and deleted the whole thing. Or I’ve read posts and thought, “I did not need to know that you are eating pastrami on rye right now, particularly since I’m 300 miles from decent pastrami myself.”
Of course we know not every one of our FB friends reads every one of our posts. That’s for addicts. We pick and choose what is of interest. In the lifehacker article, for example, one man said, “I stopped using Facebook years ago, when I hit the age that ‘friends’ (people I haven't spoken to in over a decade) started posting pictures of their kids. I don't like kids, and I really don't like *your* kids.”
Fair enough. On FB, I “hide” articles about abused animals or abused children or abused women because those articles make me want to find the abusers and give them a little hair of the dog, and I don’t like being somebody who wants to go all Old Testament on other humans, not even if they deserve it.
The last sentence I want to talk about, the one that grabbed me by the chin, was “I do not like who I become on FB.” That remark implies a whole ‘nother dimension, because I can’t quite wrap my head around the idea of being one person in real life and another person online. Maintaining a tissue of lies seems a colossal waste of time and energy. (No, I never falsified a dating profile. Which may explain a lot now that I think about it.)
True, I express myself more circumspectly online than I do in person, given how frightfully easy it is to misunderstand a message when the only medium of communication is black letters on a white background. In addition, the assumption about social media seems to be if you say something online, you’re OK with it being shared, reviled, bounced, truncated, and plagiarized. So I edit before and after I post. I try (and, sadly, often often fail) to be the Zen guy on top of the mountain if somebody ticks me off.
But I don’t dislike who I am on FB, because she is me. If I tell the truth, if I talk about interesting things in an interesting way, if I respect readers' time--then I’m using social media like I use any other tool of communication to connect with people and to counter stupidity. I don’t wish to save myself from myself, nor am I qualified to save anybody else, but I can try to do good.
Self-examination can look to an outsider like navel-gazing. This post won’t do that. This post shares my travel from Point A (“I must write this story”) to Point Q (“you can buy Jem, a Girl of London on Amazon.”) This post may help you decide what to do next for your own book, because it shows the only way to get anywhere is to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Our mutual baseline is that you not only like to tell stories but are compelled to do so. Two days ago, a fourth-grader said to me, “You write for FIVE HOURS A DAY?” To spare him the embarrassment of his fainting in front of his friends, I didn’t confess it’s sometimes more. Writers write.
So, writing first. The idea for Jem, a Girl of London came from a conversation with my students about George the Third of England and whether the Revolutionary War might never have happened if George had been more sympathetic toward the Colonies. That discussion was my Big Bang. Initially, I thought to tell the story of the Revolution from the point of view of George the Third’s mistress—but then I learned that George was so happily married to Charlotte that they had 15 children. There was no mistress. But there was gout, and there was madness, and there was a little physician’s helper named Jem in the royal bedchamber who didn’t say very much. But she wanted to. She wanted somebody to tell her story.
Next, I had to discipline myself. I decided to get up every day two hours before I had to get up for work (so, 4 a.m.) and write fresh from my dreams. Those two hours were my sacred writing time. No phone, no job, no nothing but me and my story. After my precious two hours were up, I started my day.
Was it a strain to lose two hours of sleep? No! I told a wannabe writer yesterday that doing something I loved was energizing. Grabbing for myself the gift of time made me feel happier about everything else in my life, because I wasn’t giving up every waking moment to other people. Those months of sleep deprivation were glorious. Diana Gabaldon once said she wrote the first book in her Outlander series just to see if she could write a whole book. She could. I could. You can. It takes time, but you have to make the time.
Third is process. I write longhand on yellow legal pads using a fountain pen. I like a pen because I don’t have to fumble for keys or correct spelling or edit—I can just let the story flow from my brain down my arm and out the end of my pen. Many people recommend doing research first, but I didn’t because I had a rough idea of what happened when. But when Jem, a Girl of London was done, I spent about six weeks looking up whether X Y Z actually could have happened. Did I revise at this point? Oh, yes. Once the story was historically correct, I word-processed it. I edited. I gave it to Beta readers. Edited some more.
At this point, I thought I had a book, so I began the query process. If you are not a writer, the query process is basically like interviewing for a job you really want: you know your skills are a perfect match, your resume kicks ass, you’ve got an interview suit that makes you look like a million bucks. You are SO going to get this job. With queries, you don’t get the job, and they don’t tell you why. (Why query? Most publishers won't consider unagented submissions. Agents are the keepers of the gate.)
Queries work like this: 1. Find out the names of literary agents who might like your book. A literary agent is a person who represents writers to publishers and assists in the sale and deal negotiation of the same. You can find agents online and in books like Writer's Market (WM FAQs here). Research them. 2. Spend two hours tailoring each letter you send to each specific agent. 3. Comb your rejections for any clue as to why you were rejected. 4. Repeat. Shoot for at least 20 queries a month. Tweak your submissions until you find a combination of query letter and sample page/synopsis that seems to be attracting nibbles. (Yes, it IS like fishing. You need the right bait.)
The query process brought me to Step #4, which happened after Ann Behar of Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency said something helpful in her rejection: “My problem with this book is that it is in the voice of an adult--Jenna, as an adult. Although it is very well written and the story is engaging, the voice must be that of a young person in order for me to be able to take it on. Children's publishers will not buy a book with an adult voice, period.” Ms. Behar forced me to consider my book not only as a baby but as a baby I wanted to sell. I rewrote Jem to remove the adult perspective. I streamlined the plot and winnowed yet more chaff from the language. (Thank you, Ann Behar.)
Despite my winnowing, the book was now twice as long as genre guidelines recommend, so I split it in half. I rewrote the first half so it would be a complete story. Querying continued, but by this time I already had queried agents most likely to represent a YA historical fantasy, which meant I couldn’t query them again. (No means No means No.)
By this point, 16 months had gone by. I cynically had decided that when agents say “I just want a really good story” what they mean is “I just want a really good story that’s a whole lot like whatever is hot right now, because I know I can sell it.” At the time, dystopian fiction with female heroines was hot (The Hunger Games, Divergent). Jem, a Girl of London is historical fantasy, so it did not appeal to any agents who had to earn a living and who knew that if they made one false move they might lose whatever perch they’d clawed their way up to. I have to confess that while I didn't expect any agent to read my query letter and sample and think I was the find of her or his career, I hoped it would happen that way. It didn't.
Leap of faith #5 was my deciding to self-publish using Amazon’s CreateSpace. Writers like Hugh Howey and John Locke went that route, but being a rebel was a huge step for an oldest child (me) who does the right thing at the right time in the right way and insists everybody else do the same. Agents advise against self-publishing. (They oughta know, right?) Still, I’d just spent 16 months hoping for a yes and getting only maybes and no thankses. I decided to be my own yes.
And that changed everything. I wanted Jem, a Girl of London to be the best it could be, and I knew if I self-published I wouldn't have a ready-made team at a publishing house to make it so. Based on recommendations by other authors on Goodreads, I hired an artist named Derek Murphy of Creativindie to create a cover and design the book. I needed an editor, too, but who should I hire? One editing consortium called Book Butchers offers three degrees of edits for fees that get higher the more you want done. The way Book Butchers works is that a writer uploads a sample of text. Editors read it and do a sample edit. You pick the editor you like. You make a partial payment. One editing consortium called Book Butchers offers three degrees of edits for fees that get higher the more you want done. The way Book Butchers works is that a writer uploads a sample of text. Editors read it and do a sample edit. You pick the editor you like. You make a partial payment. Editing ain't cheap. One editing consortium called Book Butchers charges $.02 to $.06/word depending on what you want done, which is pretty standard. Book Butchers asks writers to upload a sample of text. Their editors read it and do a sample edit. You pick the editor you like. You make a partial payment. Sample edits are a sterling way to find out what you can expect from an editor before you shell out hundreds of dollars. This post from Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) outlines what else to look for (and what to avoid). Don't miss the links at the end under "Professional Resources" and "General Information."
One editing consortium called Book Butchers offers three degrees of edits for fees that get higher the more you want done. The way Book Butchers works is that a writer uploads a sample of text. Editors read it and do a sample edit. You pick the editor you like. You make a partial payment.
Ultimately, I hired a freelance editor named Mary Ellen Foley, who, as the SFWA article recommends, did a free sample edit. I knew immediately she was The One. Her tone with me was cordial and collegial. She said, for example, “if you were to engage me to edit the book, I’d need instruction: are these suggestions useful because they provide options for you to consider, or are they intrusive fiddling?” How could I NOT hire a person who used the phrase “intrusive fiddling”?
Mary Ellen blue-penciled false notes, flat prose, emotionless characters. Her questions and quibbles were about things you can’t see until someone points them out, no matter how good a writer you think you are—a bit like standing next to a sequoia and saying “But where are those big trees that are supposed to be here? All I see is this wall covered with bark.” No matter how much you’ve written or how many college degrees you’ve earned, you need an editor. Mary Ellen's deft touch on my manuscript turned it into a novel. When I got back my document from Mary Ellen, it took four, 40-hour weeks to answer her questions and quibbles. When this sixth step was done, I told Mary Ellen, “When I think of how badly this could have gone without you, I feel like you saved me from walking the plank. No. I KNOW you did.” We have stayed in touch even though she is a Very Busy Person. Because in the back-and-forth of editing, she changed from a person I hired (and would hire again in a heartbeat) to a person I liked.
Meanwhile, Derek was working on the design. He and I also went back and forth choosing a model, deciding on fonts and colors, settling upon an overall book design. I asked my Facebook followers which cover they liked and why. Derek was receptive to my ideas without stifling himself if he thought I needed to hear “NO, BAD IDEA.” (One thing I didn't know when I hired professionals is that everything takes longer than you think it should. Professionals are busy, and you aren't their only client. Plan accordingly.)
While editing and designing were going on (in England and Thailand--gotta love electronic communication!), I did other things that must be done by self-publishers (step #7). Others have written about the process of self-publishing (Christina Katz, author of Get Known Before the Book Deal, and Brandie A. Knight, author of Self-Publishing Like a Pro), to name two. One thing I had to do was to apply for a Library of Congress number, without which my book could not be purchased by libraries or schools. Find out how here.
Jem, a Girl of London went on sale January 9 on Amazon’s Kindle Direct. I ordered a proof of the print version, asked Derek to correct errors I found, and ordered a second proof that also had errors. The print version will be released by the end of the month.
My journey proves you need more than writing talent if you want to be published. You need humility. Tenacity. Patience. We write because we have to, but we seek publication because we want to connect with other people. We seek community. A poet friend recently said something to me that all writers should paste over their desks: “Never confuse writing with publishing. The worst that could happen is all the no's you get stop you from doing something you love.”
So, don’t stop doing what you love, not for any reason. Just remember, writing is the easy part.
For further information on self-publishing check out "How to publish a book on Amazon" here.
UPDATE: As of 1/21/15, Jem, a Girl of London is available both in paperback and Kindle versions.
About a week ago, I woke thinking about the New Testament story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). I wondered what the woman thought about the whole thing.
Cast the First Stone
Keturah drank strong thistle tea to keep from conceiving, although part of her longed to be reckless and let Javan father a child on her. Certainly it wouldn’t be a sickly son like the one his skinny wife had borne, the only child she had allowed her splendid husband. No, if Keturah and Javan had been allowed to marry , Keturah would have given him two or three fat, healthy children by now.
Keturah bathed and dressed in the linen tunic that had come all the way from Egypt, the one that had belonged to Hadassah, Keturah’s mother. It was white and soft and entirely inappropriate for a shepherd’s daughter, but it fired Javan’s passion every time he saw her in it. The fine fabric snagged on his hands when he pulled the garment over her head, but, for Keturah, painstakingly repairing each snag was a small price to pay for having Javan’s hands on her body. It was the only time Keturah felt truly alive.
She sprinkled her bath water on the floor to settle the dust. She placed a bowl of dates on the table. She cleaned her teeth with stick of siwak and darkened around her eyes with a bit of charcoal crushed into tallow from the lamp. She stained her lips with the wine she’d placed on the table. Keturah did not need to look at herself to know she would please Javan. She’d always pleased him, from the time they were two small children playing with stones until they grew into two very different beings, a pretty maiden with a merry laugh and tumbling chestnut hair and a young man with a form and a face out of a dream. Javan’s mother and Hadassah had begun talking of marriage between the two while Javan and Keturah were small.
But one black day when they were grown old enough to marry, Javan had come to Keturah with tears in his eyes to tell her he had contracted to marry Mara, daughter of a perfume maker.
“But—why?” Keturah said. The day before she’d stood at the edge of a cliff glorying in the vista of her future, but now she felt the edge crumbling to bits.
“It was not my doing,” Javan cried. “I told my father I did not want her, I wanted you. But my mother makes bread from borrowed flour. My brothers and sisters are hungry. And so my father hopes to strengthen my family’s position by joining our family to Mara’s.”
“But the bride price is fifty shekels,” Keturah said. “If you and your father cannot feed your family, where will you find that much money?”
“Father had ten and borrowed forty more.”
“So you are worse off than you were before you contracted to marry her!”
Javan took her hands. “No, Keturah. Mara’s father is taking me into his shop. I am to be his heir, with Mara. He is teaching me how to make perfume.”
“You, make perfume?” Keturah had noticed when Javan began wearing scent, but she’d thought he did it to please her, that it meant his family was prospering. Now she had a terrible suspicion. She forced herself to say out loud, “You already are working with Mara’s father, aren’t you.” Javan nodded, miserably. Keturah pulled her hands away. “You’ve already contracted to marry her. How long have you known?”
“We were betrothed just after Passover.”
Keturah’s jaw dropped. Javan had been legally wed to Mara for half a year! “You said nothing! All this time, you let me believe you loved me.”
Javan hung his head. “I didn’t know how to tell you.”
Keturah pressed her heart against the knife of Javan’s betrayal. “Why are you telling me now?”
“Our chuppah is in two days.” Keturah gasped. At their chuppah, Javan and Mara would consummate their marriage, and Javan would belong to Mara. Forever. The thought of it made Keturah’s head spin. Her throat clamped shut as though she were being choked.
Keturah had no words for her agony. Tears were too poor a thing to express her pain. All she could do was look at Javan, drink him in, fill herself with him so she would have him, always, even when he belonged to another woman.
Keturah took several breaths before she could force out her next words. They were hateful to say, but she raised her chin and said them anyway in a voice that shook, “She is a good woman. May you both be happy.” She stepped back. Now Javan would go, and Keturah could die in peace.
But, suddenly, Javan knelt at her feet and said, “No, Keturah. I can’t do it.” He wrapped his arms around her legs and pulled her close. “Oh, Keturah,” he breathed in her scent. “I thought I could come and tell you, and we would part and go on with our lives. But being near you, touching you, hearing your voice—I can’t go through with it. I can’t be with Mara. I will pay for a get. I will be a shepherd again, and take you instead.” He buried his face in her robe.
His hands warmed her buttocks, and his touch gave her strength to speak even though her knees felt weak. Keturah slid her hand into Javan’s hair. His curls curved around her fingers like the tails of monkeys. She said, softly, “Javan the money. The fifty shekels. Your brothers and sisters. Your mother and father.”
“I am a grown man,” his muffled voice rumbled along her belly. “They are my father’s concern.”
“You are a good son,” she said, “and you cannot abandon them. Not even for me.” She pushed back his head to look into his dear face. “And this is the chance of a lifetime, to live near the temple. To craft ointments. To make incense for the priests to burn. To sleep at night in a house in a bed, not on the hard ground beside a fire with sheep milling around you. Javan, if you learn to make incense for the Temple, you could be respected in all Jerusalem and all your family with you. With me, you would be just another shepherd.” She lifted her hands, watching each curl slip from her fingers. She tugged Javan’s hands from her backside and gave them back.
Keturah called on her last bit of strength to force a cheery note into her voice as she walked to the door. She said, “Perhaps you will make so much money that you can take a second wife, like Jacob of old.” She opened the door, surprised to see the sun was still shining. “Go now, Javan, and get ready for your bride.” Javan, eyes burning, reached for Keturah, but she evaded him and turned her back so he couldn’t see her face. “Javan, please go.”
She heard him breathing behind her, then she heard him whisper, “Goodbye, Keturah.” When the door closed, Keturah wanted more than she wanted to take her next breath to open it again and pull Javan back inside. Instead, she waited until he knew he was gone, then collapsed to her knees and let the tears rush out in torrents. This was a nightmare. She would wake up.
But she did not awaken the next day, nor did she wake during the hours she knew Javan and Mara were consummating their marriage. Her nightmare went on and on, and Keturah was certain the grief would kill her.
But it did not. Keturah went on living. She said “no” to every single man who expressed interest in marrying her, until her father became angry and her mother became ill with the stress of it. When Hadassah died eleven months after Javan and Mara became one flesh, Keturah’s father abruptly stopped pressing Keturah to marry, for now he needed a woman to keep his house. Javan came to visit Seth and Keturah after Hadassah’s funeral, along with his wife and their baby son, but although Javan carried the babe, he stood apart from Mara. He did not touch her or look down at her. He did not reach out a hand to brush his fingers over his wife’s hair. He did not smile.
When Javan and Mara bid farewell to Keturah and her father, Javan said, “May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem," traditional words, and his eyes were wells of anguish, but the way Javan held her gaze, Keturah wondered if his anguish was entirely for her mother’s passing. Keturah discovered that a tiny spark of hope still lived in her heart.
Two days later, Javan came to their house when Keturah’s father was gone out with the sheep. Keturah stood quietly while Javan wandered from the hearth to the table to the window, picking up this bowl or that tool and setting them down again. Finally he turned to her, and she saw the tears in his eyes. “Keturah, forgive me for leaving you,” he said, “I am the loneliest man in the world.”
Keturah could no more ignore his anguish than she could ignore her own heartbeat. She went to Javan and enfolded him in her arms while he wept. When his storm of weeping was passed, and Keturah knew she should step back, she held on. She brushed away his tears with a hand that trembled. And when Javan’s mouth dropped to hers, Keturah felt the spark in her heart burst into flame. Javan loved her still. No more words were said, no more words were needed when Javan led her to her pallet on the floor.
Afterward, they lay dazed and delighted, and Javan said, “She is cold, Keturah, cold as stone. After Uri was born, she turned me away. ‘No more children,’ she said. I asked what I was to do for a wife, and she said her father had found release elsewhere, and I could do the same.”
Keturah’s eyes widened. What kind of woman would refuse her husband the comfort of their marriage bed, especially a man such as Javan? What kind of woman would invite her husband to seek out other women? A small voice in her mind mocked her: what kind of woman would break the commandment against adultery, as she had just done?
Yet, as Javan made regular visits and the lonely misery of the last two years began to melt in the joy they stole, Keturah worried less about right and wrong. She remembered, instead, the great injustice that had been perpetrated on them both. She clung to the thought that Javan had loved her first, that he loved her still. Soon, it began to seem to Keturah that Javan’s marriage was the greater wrong. And so, Keturah made herself ready on days she expected Javan. She drank her thistle tea. She donned her linen shift. She accepted Javan’s small gifts and hid them from her father. She especially treasured an alabaster vial of perfume Javan said was of his own creation. He said he chose the scents in the blend because each one reminded him of Keturah. She wore the perfume every time Javan came but took care to wash it off so her father wouldn’t smell it and question her.
So great was their delight in one another that neither Keturah nor Javan stopped to think that someone had discovered their secret.
* * *
Along the streets leading to the Temple, scribes and dovekeepers and sellers of perfume conducted a brisk trade with the residents and visitors who had not paused for midday prayers. When his own prayers were completed, Elon the Pharisee walked to a shop where half a dozen scribes usually spent their days taking dictation, but where, today, only Mattan’s voice quietly echoed the words of his client while his reed scratched on parchment. Elon waited until Mattan saw him, and then waited a bit longer while Mattan finished with his customer. As soon as the man left, Mattan stood, stretched, and came to Elon.
“Where are the other scribes?” Elon asked.
“Not yet back from prayers.”
“And why did you not attend prayers?” Elon asked.
Matton sighed. It was ever thus with the Pharisees, even with his friend, Elon: no matter what circumstances a man found himself in, the Law must be obeyed to the letter. “Someone had to watch the shop,” Matton said. “It was my turn today. I can pray here, you know. I don’t have to go to the Temple. God is everywhere, is He not? And if He is everywhere, He can hear me no matter if I sit with all the others or sit in the middle of the desert, is it not so?”
“Do not speak lightly of prayer,” Elon said, “lest God punish you.”
“My friend,” Matton said, “I will not be drawn into another debate with you. Save that for your brother Pharisees, who seem to enjoy argument for its own sake. Now, tell me what brings you here.”
“Jesus of Nazareth is at the Temple.”
Matton’s smile faded. “Again?” Matton was not especially bothered by Jesus or by any of the other rabbis who spoke on the Temple steps, but Elon and the other Pharisees harbored a fanatical hatred of the Nazarene.
“He must be stopped,” Elon said.
“What can be done?” Matton shrugged. “The people love him.”
Angry voices sounded outside the shop. Through the entry stormed another scribe, Hirah, and the perfume-maker, Jabez. “He brings shame to my house,” Jabez hissed.
“Do they want a divorce? Shall we have a scribe write out a get?” Hirah asked.
“And take her back into my own house? No! Besides, she told him to find someone else to enjoy!”
Hirah’s jaw dropped. “Your daughter told her husband to find a mistress? Is she mad?”
“She is selfish and thoughtless. My grandson’s birth was hard, and she fears another pregnancy. Let me ask you, Hirah: In a case where a wife turns away her husband from their marriage bed, whose fault is the divorce? What happens to the bride price if the marriage is dissolved on those grounds?”
Elon stepped in. “If I may?”
Jabez spun around and paled when he realized he’d been overheard. In contrast, Hirah’s anxious expression relaxed. Hirah said to Jabez, “This is Elon, a great master of the law. He can answer.”
“I would not trouble you with my petty problems, master,” Jabez said, his thoughts whirling. If he accused his son-in-law of adultery, Javan might be put to death—and what was the penalty for a wife who gave her husband permission to stray? Was she guilty of his adultery? Jabez said, carefully, “My son-in-law, Javan, whom I took into my shop and have taught my art, has—strayed—from his marriage vows.”
“At your daughter’s request, I hear?” Elon said.
Jabez stammered, “S-somewhat.”
Elon said, “It is a thorny question.”
“Adulterers must be punished!” Hirah said hotly. “I am sorry, Jabez, but it is the law. Elon, we must bring this matter before the priests. ”
“B-but adulterers are stoned,” Jabez said. “If Javan dies, Mara would be a widow. She would have no husband, no protector—she would live the rest of her days in my house. And what happens when I die? Who will provide for her and my grandson?”
“The harlot’s husband—what does he say?”
“She has no husband,” Jabez said.
Elon tut-tutted. He said, “Hirah, you know one of the accusers in a matter like adultery must be a spouse. But this woman has no spouse. The son-in-law’s wife—your daughter, Jabez—cannot bring a complaint against a man when it was she herself who urged him to sin. No, Hirah, we cannot bring this matter before the priests.”
“But, Elon, they sin,” Hirah whined. “We cannot ignore it.”
Elon smiled and said, “We won’t ignore it, but perhaps we can consult a rabbi other than a Temple priest. One who might provide guidance as we seek the best way to handle this matter.”
“Who?” Matton asked.
Instead of answering Matton, Elon said to Jabez, “lf I could find a solution that would end your shame without ending your son-in-law, what would you say to that?”
“I would bless you all the days of my life,” Jabez said, impulsively reaching out to clasp Elon’s hands.
Elon gently disengaged his hands, saying humbly, “I do not seek the blessings of men, only that God’s will be done.”
“What is your plan, Elon?” Matton asked.
Elon said to Jabez, “When does your son-in-law customarily visit his harlot?”
“He is gone from the shop now,” Jabez said. “He combed his hair and left the shop stinking of myrrh an hour ago.”
“And where does the harlot live?”
“Not far from the Mount of Olives. Her father is a shepherd.”
“Not a powerful family, then,” Elon said. “Even better. Come with me, Jabez, and you as well, Hirah. We shall watch for Javan’s exit and take the harlot before Jesus of Nazareth, who even now speaks to a crowd from the Temple steps. If Jesus condemns the harlot, then all will see that he lies when he says love and compassion are above the Law. If Jesus forgives the harlot, then all will see his disdain for the Law. Either way, Jesus damns himself in the eyes of the sheep who hang on his every word.”
Matton said, “But, think, Elon: Jesus has outwitted many others who try to trap him. He has made them look like fools.” Matton laid a hand on Elon’s arm. “My friend, I would not wish to see you lose face.”
Elon shrugged off the hand. “First of all, Matton, I am disappointed that you think so little of my ability to outwit the witless.” Matton opened his mouth, but Elon raised his hand. “Secondly, Matton, this has nothing to do with me and everything to do with the Law. And, I might ask why you know so much about the ‘many wise men’ who had interactions with Jesus of Nazareth—if I didn’t know better, I might assume you, too, had been beguiled by Jesus’ lies.”
Matton’s face hardened. He said, “I listen when my customers tell me things. More than one has told me over business that this Jesus does things no mortal man should be able to do.” Matton seated himself at his table and picked up a knife to sharpen the point on his reed. “Go and do as you must, all three of you, but if Jesus truly is the Son of God, you tread on dangerous ground when you seek to discredit him.”
“Son of God?” Elon sneered. “He is the son of a carpenter! He is no more divine than I am! His every word is blasphemy. He needs to be stopped before he brings down God’s wrath on all of us for harboring a false prophet.” Elon swirled his robes around him and said to Jabez and Hirah, “Come, you two. We shall gather others who also detest the Father of Lies. We shall go to the home of the harlot and take her as soon as Javan departs.” He wrinkled his nose in distaste. “We shall take her to Jesus and ask him to judge. And then all shall fall out as it should.”
The three men dashed out like three wolves on the trail of a gazelle. Matton watched them go, then set down his knife and his pen. “Do as you will, Elon,” he murmured, “but beware lest judgment fall on your own head.”
* * *
Elon, Jabez, Hirah, and three other men hurried through the streets of Jerusalem toward the Mount of Olives. Elon could hardly contain his excitement. At last, at long last, he had the means to back Jesus into a corner. There would be no escape this time, and Elon would be a hero for showing the people that Jesus was an enemy of the Law and therefore posed a danger to their eternal souls. Elon imagined the praise, the accolades, the glory that would accrue to his name once Jesus was forced to reveal his true nature.
Elon held his head high as he walked toward the house of the shepherd, Seth, and his whoring daughter, Keturah, and the other five hurried after his flowing headdress. All six men garnered attention as they strode along. Stragglers began to trail after the six, sensing some drama about to unfold. A few houses down from their destination, Elon raised his hands for quiet. “People of Jerusalem,” he said, “mighty is our God.”
“Mighty in all things,” the people recited.
“Great and glorious are his ways,” Elon proclaimed.
“In all things, we praise Him,” the people chanted.
“Blessed are they who keep his commandments, and blessed are they who help their brothers to righteousness,” Elon said.
“Blessed are the keepers of the truth,” the people intoned.
Elon lowered his hands and said, “We go to take for judgment a shamed woman who denies the command of her God to keep herself pure.” Some of the people looked at one another. Two men in the back of the crowd turned to go. “You there!” Elon barked at them. “Do you not want to see God’s will fulfilled?” The two men turned back. They hung their heads. “Good,” Elon said, “I am glad to know the men of Jerusalem demand justice.”
“There,” whispered Jabez, “there is Javan.”
The crowd craned their necks and saw a handsome youth standing in the open doorway of a humble house, apparently taking his leave. A slender hand reached out and caressed Javan’s face. Javan turned his face to the palm and kissed it, then the hand clasped his neck, and Javan pulled into his arms Keturah, Seth’s daughter, whom many of them had known from birth. Elon watched their passionate kiss with joy in his heart because everyone who stood nearby had seen it.
“They sin in front of witnesses,” Hirah hissed in Elon’s ear, “we should take them both now.”
“No, for Mara’s sake, no!” Jabez said.
Elon put out a hand to stop Hirah. “There is no need, Hirah,” he said.
“But both are guilty,” Hirah insisted.
“Their guilt is not the issue,” Elon said. “This is about Jesus of Nazareth.”
“But the Law—” Hirah said.
“—will be served,” Elon snapped. At last, Javan pulled himself from Keturah’s arms and hurried away, and Keturah shut the door. Elon turned back to the crowd. The two men who had tried to leave were gone. No matter—Elon had enough witnesses without them.
“Now,” Elon said to Jabez, “we will take the harlot.” Elon led the crowd forward. He pounded on the door.
“Javan?” Keturah called joyfully and then opened the door. Her smile disappeared. She stared at Elon’s face, then recoiled when her eyes dropped to the tassels of twisted cords on his outer garment. She tried to shut the door, but Hirah stepped forward and held it open. Hirah said, “Keturah, daughter of Seth, we accuse you of adultery in front of these witnesses. This man”—he indicated Jabez—“will bear witness that you have tempted his son-in-law to sin.”
“No, no,” Keturah cried, and ran into her house. Elon nodded at two of his men, and they dragged her out, one on each arm. Her linen shift was rumpled but so sheer that every person in the crowd could clearly see her shape through the thin fabric.
“She needs a robe,” a woman said.
“Leave her as she is,” Elon said. “It proves her wantonness.”
Keturah said, “I am no wanton.”
Hirah said, “Woman, we saw you in the arms of a man who is not your husband. What say you to that?”
Keturah said nothing.
Elon continued, “We all saw him kiss you. Jabez, was the man who kissed this woman your son-in-law?” Jabez nodded. “And is this woman your daughter?” Jabez shook his head. Elon turned back to Keturah. “Well?”
Keturah swallowed. She said, “Sir, let me tell you a story: Once there was a young man of great beauty who loved a shepherd’s daughter. He couldn’t ask for her hand until he had scraped together her bride price. He knew he would work many long years before he could ask for her hand, but he was willing to wait, for his love was as deep as the ocean.” She looked at Jabez, and her voice hardened. “Then, one day, an older man promised the beautiful young man wealth and position if he married the older man’s daughter instead of the shepherd girl. For the sake of his starving family, the beautiful young man accepted the offer, but he cried bitterly for the loss of his true love.”
“It was his choice!” Jabez stormed.
Keturah kept talking. “But the young man’s new wife was not pleased with the bargain her father had made for her, and once they were wed, she told her new husband to seek his pleasure in another woman’s bed, for she wanted nothing to do with him.”
“Be quiet!” Jabez said.
“And so,” Keturah’s voice carried to the very edge of the crowd, “the young man went back and wept out his pain in the arms of the shepherd’s daughter, she who had loved him from the start. And although neither the man nor the maid nor the wife was happy with the situation, all three were glad to have crumbs instead of nothing at all.”
“This tale is not fit for the ears of decent people,” Elon said. “It is further proof of the state of your soul. Bring her.”
In triumph, Elon led the harlot and the crowd back toward the Temple. More than one man they passed watched the parade and especially the star attraction, the scantily clad beautiful girl with chestnut hair flowing down her back, tears in her eyes, and a stubborn tilt to her chin.
When Elon saw a crowd larger than his own at the Temple steps listening to the preaching of Jesus, he felt his heart twist into an even harder knot. Then he calmed himself: all of them would turn their backs on Jesus soon enough. The day of reckoning had come. With great difficulty, Elon kept himself from grinning. At long last, Jesus would be crushed. Elon took a breath to order Jesus’ listeners to move.
But before Elon could say a word, Jesus waved his hand gently over the heads of his listeners. Like the Red Sea of old, they parted, making a path for Elon and his followers. The two who gripped Keturah’s arms dragged her forward and dropped her into the dust at Jesus’ feet. Jesus looked up from the woman into Elon’s face.
Never before had Elon been so close to his enemy. He had listened to the rumors and fed his resentment until it was a living, clawing thing in his heart. Now, Elon faced the beast himself, but the eyes Elon stared into were not full of guile or guilt. Not brimming with false compassion. The eyes of Jesus were piercing, like a sword to the heart. For the first time in many, many years, Elon’s self-confidence wavered.
“What is the trouble?” Jesus asked.
Elon planted his feet and said, “This woman was taken in adultery. The Law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”
Jesus looked at Keturah, then he looked into the eyes of Elon, Hirah, Jabez, and at some others in the crowd.
Then Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger.
This was not what Elon had expected. He frowned at Hirah and Jabez. Then he said, loud enough to be heard to the limits of the plaza, “Well? Judge, rabbi. Shall this adulteress be stoned?”
Hirah said in Elon’s ear, “What is he doing? He won’t give an answer!” Hirah shoved forward to read what Jesus had written. When he saw the lines in the dust, Hirah stumbled back. He muttered, “This was a mistake,” and he pushed through the crowd, away from Elon! The people began to mutter.
“Where is he going?” Jabez asked.
Elon covered his own confusion by saying loudly, “I suspect Hirah has gone to notify the priests that Jesus is about to make a judgment.” Elon raised his hand to quiet the crowd and demanded of Jesus, “Well, rabbi? What is your answer?”
Jesus wrote again in the dust. Elon’s hands twitched. He wanted to take Jesus by the throat and shake an answer out of him. But that would be unseemly. Elon said, “It seems the rabbi has run out of words. Perhaps we can make sense of what he scrawls in the dirt.” Some people near him laughed, but many of those who had been listening to Jesus stood quietly, expectantly, awaiting whatever came next. They were sheep who deserved to be crushed along with Jesus, Elon thought, but he said, “I shall attempt to read for one and all whatever Jesus of Nazareth has written in the dirt, no doubt his best judgment on the serious matter of adultery, which our Law says must be punished with death.”
Jesus stood and said, “Let he who is without guilt cast the first stone.”
Elon’s heart stuttered. What did Jesus mean by that? Whose guilt was he referring to? A small voice in Elon’s head buzzed a warning, but he couldn’t stop now. Everyone was watching. He had to see this through to the end. Elon stepped over the whore, shaking dust from his sandal to her shift. Everyone who had followed Elon held their breath. Those who had been listening to Jesus waited.
Elon stood over the word Jesus had written, and he gasped when he saw the letters writhing in the dirt like snakes, the letters of a name: Sarai! Sarai, Elon’s mistress for the last ten years. Now Elon knew who Jesus meant when he asked about guilt: he was talking about Elon himself.
Elon paled. The lion’s heart in him shrank to a nugget of nothing. Nobody in all Jerusalem knew about Sarai.
Jesus knew. Those sharp eyes pierced Elon’s very soul and held him struggling and helpless. Jabez hissed, “Elon, what is wrong with you? Carry on. The people are waiting and listening.”
Elon heard as through many layers the muffled words of one of his followers, “What does it say, Elon?”
Another asked, “What is written there?”
From the back, Elon heard someone call, “Master, what is it?”
Elon’s eyes burned. His ears were stopped up. His throat clamped shut. Elon feared that if he spoke Sarai’s name aloud, saying that one word would burst his throat. If he read out something else, others would step forward to corroborate the judgment and see that Elon had lied, and he would be ruined. Elon brought his foot down on Sarai’s name. He looked up into the eyes of Jesus and saw his own face reflected there with flames consuming his beard and shooting out of his mouth.
Horror and fear swamped Elon’s soul, and he ran through the crowd after Hirah.
Jesus looked at Keturah’s other accusers, especially at the three scribes who had come along to support Elon and Hirah. All quailed before that gaze. The crowd that had followed the Pharisees expecting a show began to dissipate. They melted away, and the path that had opened to let in Keturah and her accusers closed up again.
Jesus stood. He held out a hand to Keturah and helped her to her feet. The moment Keturah touched the rabbi’s hand, she felt as though she touched a waterfall that channeled along her arm and through her body. She felt clear-headed and clean.
“Who accuses you?” Jesus said.
She looked into the rabbi’s face, which seemed at that moment even more beautiful than Javan’s. “No one, Lord,” she said.
“Neither do I accuse you. Go and sin no more.”
Keturah bowed her head. “Master, I obey,” she said, and the followers of Jesus parted once again to let her pass. A woman draped her outer robe over Keturah’s shoulders . Keturah turned for one last look at Jesus. The crowd had merged again. Before he began speaking again, Jesus looked up once more at Keturah. She heard his voice in her mind: Go and sin no more.
When Keturah got home, she thanked the woman and sent her on her way. Keturah poured water into a basin. She washed every inch of her body. She washed her hair and put on a fresh robe. Then she took her fine linen shift and wrapped it around the alabaster vial of perfume Javan had given to her. Keturah placed a coal from the fire on a pottery shard and carried her bundle and the coal to an open place at the foot of the Mount of Olives. She lit a fire.
Keturah prayed as she burned the shift and the perfume. The smoke from her offering rose thick and sweet and pleasing to the Father, for it was the smoke of true repentance.
When I say I felt out of place on my first visit to Long Beach, California, it’s not a complaint. It was pretty great to sit outside in November wearing just a light sweater over my jammies while I had my morning coffee. It was a miracle to see palm trees and jasmine (below) growing right out of the ground because of the constant warmth and sunshine—a climate that allows Bird of Paradise, which sells here for $7 a stem, to grow like a weed that people cuss and yank and compost.
In winter, women in these parts don’t worry about bad hair days. We don’t wear high heels or skinny jeans. We retire our skanky clothes in late fall and haul out survival gear: fur hats and felt boots and sweatpants. Although, truth be told, some of us never even bother switching out winter for summer clothes because it seems a waste of time to box up stuff you’re going to need in about ten minutes anyway.
We know winter so deep in our bones that some of us don’t understand how warmer cities can shut down over an inch of snow. When that happens, some of us say, “Are you kiddin’ me?” because an inch, to us, is the work of five minutes to brush off the car, not a reason to hole up in a motel for the night. If it’s more than an inch, though, the law requires us to clear snow from our sidewalks within 24 hours. Some obey the law right away and some obey in their own sweet time, but the sweet-timers shoot themselves in the foot because even one person walking on new snow packs it down into footprint-sized pads of ice. Most of us obey the law in self-defense.
We who live in cold country don’t use a lot of words. When a blizzard is forecast and we go to the store to stock up on milk and bread and canned soup, one man will say to another, “It’s coming,” and the stranger he’s just spoken to says, “Yup,” and their words bond them in a classic conflict: Man against Nature. After the storm, we don’t get cocky about punching through to the other side. We yell across the street to the neighbor who’s out shoveling too, “Coulda been worse,” because even though we got eighteen inches of new snow, it HAS been worse. It will be worse again.
It sounds like I’m complaining, but the truth is, I wouldn’t live anywhere else. Cold country inspires. A fresh dusting of white, white snow limning a black tree branch is a poem. A dozen wild turkeys scratching for a meal in the drifts and squabbling over a tidbit is a comedy routine. One neighbor snow-blowing another’s driveway (“might as well, since I got my machine out anyway”) is kindness made flesh. Walking the dog in the silver-pink light of early morning while fat flakes whisper down is quiet magic every time it happens.
I could tell how entertaining it is to live in four different seasons. I could talk about spring when crocuses peek up through the snow and blossoms flutter along branches and maple buds burst and baby leaves whisper, “Now? Now?” I could talk about summer when fields of corn wave like an inland sea and the crash of thunderstorms reminds everybody that nature is the boss around here. I could talk about fall when the glory of red and yellow leaves in the woods is a pagan fire giving notice to winter that all of us, trees and people, are in it for the long haul. But for me, winter defines this place. Sometimes we declare to one another during a long spell of sub-zero days that we’re going to leave this ice box. Our parents said the same thing, and so did their parents, all the way back to our ancestors, many of whom came here in the nineteenth century from equally cold countries like Norway and Germany. Yeah, we talk big.
But we don’t go anywhere. Cold is our comfort. In July when it’s 90 degrees with 70 percent humidity, we post pictures of snow on Facebook to prevent ourselves from complaining about the heat, saying things like, “It’s coming,” “it” being the season we spend most of our lives enduring, enjoying, bonding over. “It” came early this year, and I hunkered down into it, glad to be home.
*Totally made-up statistic based on observation of vehicles in my neighborhood.
My son works too hard, and it’s my fault.
A decent person who becomes a parent starts kicking him or herself for being an idiot about ten minutes after leaving the hospital where the nice nurses know exactly what to do when babies cry. Euphoria moves out and panic and guilt move in. A child comes with no manual, no directions. Your new baby is the most important thing in the world, but the only equipment you have to do the most important job in the world is the seat of your pants. Your own parents on speed-dial. Couple of books, maybe, but there isn’t book in the world that makes you feel better when your colicky baby is still crying at 4 a.m. and you have to get up at 5 a.m. No book can blunt the fears that stab your heart as the post-curfew minutes tick by and your teen-ager isn’t home yet. Especially if you’ve been a teen-ager yourself.
When I taught school, at parent-teacher conferences, I reassured parents that teen-agers making their own decisions is part of growing up and that if the parents let their children make bad choices, the children would learn. That’s what I said, and that’s what I meant, but many a time, depending on the parent, I also thought, “But your kid wouldn’t make such dumb choices if you’d taught him how to make better ones.” This isn’t entirely fair; children often make "non-optimal" choices regardless of parental guidance. Furthermore, blaming parents for what children do, even in part, reinforces what so many parents (including me) think far too often when our children mess up: THIS IS MY FAULT.
(Even though parents and children alike are all just making it up as we go along.)
Somehow, though, our children age into adults, and we’re able to lighten up. Kind of. When your child becomes a parent, say, part of you recoils in horror because he just got his braces off, for crying out loud. Part of you thinks “It’s payback time: I hope she’s just like you.” The last part of you is teary-eyed with delight and joy and, yeah, sadness too—after all, the new bundle of joy means you’re way further along your own life’s path than you’re ready to be. When your only or last child goes off to college, and home turns into a Laundromat, a la carte restaurant, and bank, there’s a sense of “Dang, that went fast. Is it really over?” combined with the joy that comes when you look in the bathroom mirror for the first time in twenty years and nobody’s banging on the door to use the shower. It’s a time to rediscover your spouse, yourself. As the ads would have it, it’s a time to go to Disneyland. It’s not better or worse, it's just different--a lot like you felt when you became a parent in the first place.
But watching your adult children negotiate life reveals more than anything else what part of you stuck to them. When they face a problem, you think about how you’d handle it if it were your problem—you give advice, if asked—but your child navigates the rapids and survives, and the way he handles himself shows you what he really learned from you: How to be a human being. Unfortunately, it’s not all good.
Here’s an example of what I mean. One value that’s been in my family for generations is conscientiousness:
When you make a promise, you keep it.
When you commit to something, you follow through.
When you’re given a job, you go above and beyond because that’s what a decent person does.
Conscientiousness is good, yes?
No. Not always. I worked outside the home as a teacher (a job that sucks you dry, trust me) and reared a child alone. I gardened and canned, wired and tiled, dry-walled and installed in between cooking and cleaning and kissing boo-boos. Not gonna lie—many a time I wished I had the money to just hire somebody, because the real coin of my realm was time. There was never enough because A Single Parent Gathers No Dust.
Turns out my boy watched and learned. He learned that you don’t have fun until the work is done. He learned you leave family celebrations early because you have work to do. He learned that you don’t watch TV or read a book or take a walk if you have work to do. He became the kind of person some parents dream of—but today I’m feeling guilty for modeling my workaholic tendences, especially since I’m the only model he had.
My son is an busy adult. He has a job. He is learning karate. He commutes 50 miles a day round-trip to college, and he lives at home. He does his laundry here, I keep the frig stocked, he has a little suite downstairs—he has his space and privacy, I have mine. It works for us. But he is not outgoing. His only two friends are guys he met ten years ago in high school, and one of them just became a parent while the other has no interest in the things that occupy my son’s mind nowadays. My son doesn’t go to bars: he’s just a quiet, nice guy who’d like to meet new people, make new friends. A week ago, my son paid to go up to the Boundary Waters on a weekend camping trip with an Outdoor Adventures group at his college. Finally, I thought, finally he’s going to hang out with new people. He told me on Friday he was leaving after class that day for his trip, and I said, “Have a great time!”
Saturday morning, his car was in the driveway and he was in his bed. Turns out a computer program he’d spent 30 hours on for an assignment wasn’t compiling by Friday afternoon, so he felt he couldn’t go on the trip. The campers wanted him to come, and they waited an extra hour for him, but he told them to go without him. He worked seven more hours on the assignment and turned it in by his midnight deadline even though it still wasn’t working properly. And so my son missed his trip, he missed getting up into Nature on a gorgeous weekend, and he missed out on connecting with people who might have turned into friends.
THIS IS MY FAULT. I didn’t tell him what to do in this situation—he made his own decision—but I modeled How to Live. I modeled stupid, crazy, long hours and no time-outs and fun only when the work is done. What I should have taught him is that the work is NEVER done, so you’ve got to live a little while you can.
If I could go back and do it over, I would. I’d hire out some of the home repairs and give out fewer assignments to my students. I’d work less and play more.
So today’s takeaway is this: even if it makes you feel guilty, step off the treadmill occasionally and make a daisy chain with your kid. Don’t wait for a better time, because there’s no such thing, and the lesson you teach your child about enjoying life is more important than completing task #568 on the List of Jobs you will be working on to the end of your days.
Once upon a time, there was a junkyard dog whose nickname was Ollie. He was lord of all he surveyed. His territory was the second-biggest junk yard in the whole world, and he prowled its perimeter daily, his powerful shoulders and big, white teeth ensuring that nobody sneaked in. If anybody tried, Ollie chased them out or ate them up.
Ollie’s ally was a clowder of cats. In return for the dog allowing them to sleep in the nicest junked cars, the cats helped guard Ollie’s turf. They stopped up all the holes they could find. They welcomed everyone Ollie liked and attacked Ollie’s enemies. They spied for Ollie. They sashayed out into the world and took all the food from all the country around and gave it to Ollie (although they kept back some for themselves—wouldn’t you?). The cats kept Ollie rich, and Ollie kept the cats fat. Everybody inside the junk yard was happy, but everybody outside the junk yard had a very hard time finding enough to eat.
One day, a tiny, hungry little mouse smelled the food on the other side of the fence. He stuck his nose through a hole in the fence the cats had missed. Ollie was upon the mouse in an instant. “Get out or I will eat you up!” Ollie growled. The mouse pulled out his nose and ran home to tell his mother. She told the little mouse’s father. He told all the other mice.
The next day, a hundred mice poured through the hole in the fence. Ollie growled and snapped and pounced. He killed several mice. The cats helped him. But there were so many mice, neither the cats nor Ollie could kill them all. The mice who escaped spread out amongst the rusty cars and settled in. Not even the cats, sneaky as they were, could find all the little mice. There were just too many.
When the cats realized their easy lives were over, many left the junk yard for more hospitable homes. They didn’t want to fight mice all the time; they only wanted to win. The cats that stayed promised the mice they would leave them alone, and the mice said, “See that you keep your promise, or we will chase you out too. And stop bringing all the food in here. That’s stealing.”
When Ollie’s allies were gone, the mice began raiding Ollie’s food dish every night until Ollie was forced to guard his dish or starve. Ollie had to stop patrolling the junk yard. More mice moved in. The first wave of mice fed the new ones and showed them all the paths in the junk yard. And lo and behold, the junk yard stopped belonging only to Ollie. He didn’t control it. He wasn’t the boss.
Ollie retreated to the six feet he could protect and cursed the traitor cats and growled at the mice who passed by him on their appointed rounds, but he dared not leave his dish.
The mice still had to watch Ollie lest he get so angry he chased them again, which he often did. When he chased them, however, the mice sent in a commando squad of their best mice to raid his food dish, and Ollie had to circle back to what the mice had decided was plenty and enough.
Eventually, Ollie learned that he could have as much food as he needed, but he couldn’t have all the food in the whole junk yard. He had to share.
Ollie never changed his mind about chasing the mice out, and they never changed their minds about staying. The mice and the dog distrusted one another forever.
But the junk yard was everybody’s home, and that’s the way it stayed. The end.
One morning last week while walking my dog, I met a guy on the sidewalk: pale skin; dark, thick glasses; long, greasy hair; tattered flannel shirt and puffy jacket in 80-degree weather. My dog’s tail twitched; I said “Good Morning”; the guy nodded. The end.
Or that would have been the end if I were not a writer. Long after my dog had sniffed ten additional trees along our trajectory, I was still thinking about this guy. What was he about? What was up with the winter clothing in August? What if I was the only person who said a word to this guy all day? What if the fact that I spoke to him was a “sign” to the guy that he would not have to kill me? This game of “what if” spun along in my mind for the next couple of days into a disturbing story about a serial killer with multiple personalities. “Something Like a Person” creeps me out because I don’t like the main character in the story. Giving him life is like giving birth to the baby in It’s Alive.
I didn’t set out to write a story about a serial killer. It just came after I saw that guy on the street and asked “what if,” which is the heart of storytelling. A writer’s mind takes one little thing and asks “What if THIS happened instead of THIS?” Then the writer adds her Cousin Barney’s bad breath and a peek at a road map and Poof! she’s got a story.
Stories come in dreams as well. A few weeks ago, I dreamed about a tattooed arm handcuffed to a dock—yup, just the arm--which turned into my Boucheron Anthology story, “Tsunami Surprise.” Stories come in jars: just over a year ago, my son found a dried-out wolf spider and brought it home, and that sad little event morphed into “Spider Bites,” about a gal with a mother’s love for arachnids.
Which leads me to ask: Does my having written these two stories mean I am a serial killer or a lover of spiders? Does eating a hamburger mean I hate cows? No. Just because I can imagine something happening doesn’t mean I want it to happen. I can imagine my adult son crashing his car, but if it actually happened, I would—I don’t even know what I would, it would be that awful.
I bet you, too, can imagine something without believing in it, wanting it, or condoning it.
For example, the intro to the TV show Castle, starring the ever-fabulous Nathan Fillion goes like this: “There are two kinds of folks who sit around thinking about how to kill people: Psychopaths and mystery writers. I’m the kind that pays better. Who am I? I’m Rick Castle.” Nobody, but nobody, with whom Castle works would suspect him of being a psychopath (okay, in one episode he’s a suspect, but put that aside). Castle is a writer. He is expected to use his imagination. It’s part of who he is. It’s required for what he does. Castle, like me, has a brain that launches “What if” scenarios even in his sleep.
But having a talent for “what if” was undervalued recently in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when a middle school teacher (Patrick McLaw) was taken in for a medical evaluation and suspended from his job when it was discovered he had written two fictional books about a school shooting. “Fictional” as in “made up” or “not real.” This teacher, let it also be noted, had been nominated for Teacher of the Year and had made national headlines when he helped a 14-year-old student self-publish his own e-books on Amazon.com.
Why would a teacher imagine a horrible thing like a school shooting? Could it be because this teacher, like every teacher, is in the line of fire and it’s on his mind? Could it be because he knows he could be the next person to die defending his students in yet another town where “we never imagined it could happen here”--except that Patrick McLaw DID imagine it? His reward for using his imagination—for playing “what if”--was to be suspended and to have his classroom searched and to have his superintendent say, “the gentleman has been placed on administrative leave, and has been prohibited from entering any Dorchester County public school property."
Okay, okay, we live in a crazy world. People are testy. Inclined to incivility. Argumentative. (For confirmation, check your liberal relatives’ responses to your conservative Facebook posts. Or vice versa). People find it hard to “live and let live” to a point where a whole lot of folks don’t put the smackdown on Stupid any more out of fear that Stupid will slash their tires or worse. I get that. I also grant that Mr. McLaw may have violated some clause in his employment contract, or maybe his book’s bad guy is a body double for his superintendent. I have no idea.
But, says United Liberty about McLaw, “Folks, the idea of freedom to write what we want to write is essential to liberty. No, he wasn’t writing some political treatise that would protect all that we hold holy as Americans, but so what? The rule isn’t there to just protect some works, it’s there to protect them all. That includes novels written by a teacher, no matter how much bad taste is involved.”
“Bad taste” references that McLaw wrote about students getting killed, which is supposed to be, and is, a teacher’s worst nightmare. That’s why teachers think about it, worry about it, practice escape plans in the event the nightmare walks their own halls. If I had to, I’d guess that’s why McLaw wrote about a school shooting: it’s his worst nightmare.
Nightmares of a different sort are made flesh in fairy tales, a genre that takes it on the chin now and again. One objection to traditional fairy tales is that the violence in them might scar children’s psyches. K.J. Dell'Antonia of the New York Times asked in November 2011 whether fairytales are really for children. She agonized, “when you turn the page of a familiar tale and find yourself saying, ‘And presently he fell upon the good woman and ate her up in a moment’ to your wide-eyed child — [it] stirs something universal in parents just as experts say fairy tales speak to something universal in kids. It’s not that we don’t think our kids have contemplated being orphaned or eaten by beasts. It’s that we don’t want to appear to condone that kind of thing.”
If parents fear their children will get the wrong idea about parental values if the kids hear the parents reading a fairy tale, something else here may need to be addressed, because reading aloud or listening to an idea doesn’t mean you condone it. Voltaire’s biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, said, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." In 1644, John Milton argued in Areopagitica “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859) defends freedom of expression by insisting that truth drives out falsity; therefore the free expression of ideas, true or false, should not be feared.
The idea of a free marketplace of ideas seems to have escaped evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who says it is wicked to teach children about things that could never happen such as a frog turning into a prince. But according to G.K. Chesterton, "Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed."
Dangerous things happen in fairy tales. Dangerous things happen in real life, sometimes brought on by dangerous ideas. We could stop allowing people to have dangerous ideas if somebody could figure out how to turn us all into Lotus-eaters. Until that happens, however, dangerous ideas are here to stay and are, in fact, examined at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) held over the weekend at the Sydney Opera House in Australia. Simon Longstaff, co-curator of FODI, says, “Our objective in presenting dangerous ideas is not that these ideas be promoted or adopted, but simply that they be encountered and, thus, assessed on their merits. … We believe that ideas of all kinds are best exposed to the light of reason and discernment.” Basically, the festival posits that dangerous ideas exist, so there should be a way to look at them without endangering ourselves. Hence, FODI.
Hence, fiction. Fiction—whether it’s a story about a serial killer or a book about a school shooting or a fairy tale about a wicked stepmother—allows us to try on a variety of scenarios and wrestle with the way the world works. We play “what if” along with the characters, we make choices in tandem with or in opposition to them, and in doing so we learn who we are, who we want to be, and who we CAN be.
So don’t shun people who can imagine the worst. Instead, thank them for showing us how to handle evil when we run into it, no matter how ugly—or how pretty—it looks from where we’re standing.
Delaney Green writes short stories and historical fiction. She blogs from her home in the American Midwest.
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