Friday, July 15, 2016

She writes!

After a year and a half, I return to Cattown. It's hackneyed to say what a long, strange trip it's been, so I'll just say it's been quite a journey, down a dark night's road into the graying light of a new day.

Retirement. It's just not something "we do" in my family. We don't retire. We evolve.

I rebel against the very idea of retirement being "the end," the period at the end of the sentence. I've had two careers -- journalist and minister -- and now I'm embarking on the third: novelist. I thought I knew all about writing. I've been doing it all my life, since the age of six, when I penciled a primitive form of a graphic novel about my kitten, "Little Runt May and Her Mother Molly in Adventuretime." I went on to write horse novels, heavily influenced by Walter Farley, in study hall from the ages of ten to thirteen.

In high school I decided I wanted to be a magazine editor, and that decision led me to Syracuse University's program in magazine journalism and a summer internship at Advertising Age in New York City through the Magazine Publishers Association/American Society of Magazine Editors. (It was not long after Don Draper's era in "Mad Men": from things I learned at the magazine, I understood the in-jokes of the industry in that show.) Originally I thought I'd work for one of the hip magazines for young women in New York after graduation, but when I learned that pretty much everyone started as a secretary, making coffee and running the copy machine, and the pay was minimal, I decided I wanted to be a business journalist. (This was the heyday of the feminist era. Serious journalists, in my opinion, did not make the office coffee.)

After college, I moved to Atlanta and worked for several business and technical magazines. Along the way I got an MBA, which never brought me the big bucks I'd hoped to make when I spent those long semesters struggling through cost accounting, finance, and macroeconomics. (I still have nightmares about a final exam in macro, when I haven't been to class all semester and don't even know when or where the exam is.)

But the MBA did help me understand the ins and outs of institutional investing when I became the editor of a magazine about pension funds. Sounds boring, but it wasn't. I liked to say the pension industry never had a conference in Cleveland. No, we went to Hilton Head, the Cloister at Sea Island, or Hawaii.

Midlife brought changes. After struggling with the decision for fourteen years, I left the world of journalism and went to seminary. My friends in the publishing industry were stunned. My friends in the church said, "Oh, yeah. Of course." I spent four arduous years going through the process to be ordained in my denomination. A number of my classmates managed to finish seminary but never got through the tortuous (not tortuRous, although it was that too -- tortuous means "twisted") process.

As an ordained minister, I served three churches, each one somewhat larger than the last. It was hard work, with long hours, but I had the joy of knowing I had made a difference in some people's lives. Oh, yeah, I served for six years as a director of the denomination's pension plan. We met at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia. It was fun.

And I got to write sermons every week! Terrifying at first. There were many dark nights at four a.m. when I'd be struggling to get through those sermons, my writing path just as dark as the night outside. Over time, it got less frightening. Sometimes I was blessed with a sermon that seemed to write itself. Sometimes I stared at the blinking cursor until I fell asleep at the keyboard, then woke up in a panic.

It took a few years, but I developed a system for writing a sermon, just as I had learned a system for writing news stories and feature articles years ago. It worked.

And then the last ministry ended and I came home to New Orleans. I knew I didn't want to relocate again to take a position. I wanted to be home. So I officially retired from ministry and started getting a pension.

What happens to one's identity when one decides to "retire"? Poof? Or not? That has been the struggle of the last two and a half years. Who am I now? I decided I wanted to be a New Orleans Novelist.

I thought I could write a novel in three months, no sweat. I knew how to write. Wasn't I writing novels in study hall back when I was ten years old? Hadn't I been writing all my life, as a journalist and as a minister? Hadn't I written short stories over the years?

I discovered I had a lot to learn. There is a huge difference between writing a five-hundred-word article, a two-thousand-word sermon, a five-thousand-word short story, and a seventy-five-thousand-word (or more) novel. It's the difference between a hundred-yard dash and a marathon.

It's been a learning experience. I'm grateful for the workshop leaders and participants at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference for their help, as well as an online class in story structure I took through Stanford.

The novel's not done yet. But I know where I'm going, and that's half the battle. I'm awed when I scroll through the manuscript and see how much I've written so far.

The novel is a story of life in New Orleans before, during, and after Katrina, told through the eyes of two women, one white and one black. The white woman, Maggie McBride, is the narrator, and the black woman is her housekeeper, Eloise Jackson. Both are widowed in the aftermath of the storm.

I've started another blog, fictional Maggie's blog of life after Katrina. The title for now (subject to change) is I'm Still Here.

And, oh yeah, I'm preaching again. And writing new sermons, because the old ones don't always fit the state of the world today. What did I say about retirement? In my family, we don't retire. We evolve.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

What I read in 2014

In my first year of retirement, I read thirty books! I kept a list! Looks like at this point in my life, my favorite choice is mysteries.

In order:

Monday Mornings by Sanjay Gupta
Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink
The Famous DAR Murder Mystery (Borderville) by Graham Landrum
Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Classified as Murder by Miranda James (Dean James)
The Night of the Comet by George Bishop
Baptism by Max Kinnings
Kinsey and Me: Stories by Sue Grafton
My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
Creole Belle by James Lee Burke
The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood
Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlan
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman
The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke
Light of the World by James Lee Burke
Swan Peak by James Lee Burke
The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad by Brett Martin
Dollbaby by Laura Lane McNeal
The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke
Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor
How the Light Gets In: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel by Louise Penny
Soil and Sacrament by Fred Bahnson
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The Beautiful Mystery: A Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery by Louise Penny
The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills
The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith
Misdiagnosed: One Woman’s Tour of – and Escape from – Healthcareland by Jody Berger

Which one was the best read of 2014? Five Days at Memorial. For me, it was personal. The hospital is located a mile from my home, and if it had been built on my block, it would never have flooded -- and I say "never would have" because it's been flooded time and again since it was built in 1927. It was personal because most of my immediate family spent their last days there -- it was, after all, the local neighborhood hospital. And I was hospitalized there just months before Katrina. Two of the doctors who treated me are mentioned in the book.

What happened at Memorial never should have happened. The disaster that happened there over five days before, during, and after Katrina happened as a result of a lot of bad decisions by a lot of people, but if I had to point a finger in one direction, it would be at the corporate level of the hospital's owner. It's significant that Tenet ended up selling all its holdings in Louisiana and getting the hell out of there. Their reputation for care and compassion was, well, it wasn't. Not after what happened at Memorial. That particular hospital is now owned by Ochsner and has had its original name restored -- Baptist. And it's slowly coming back to life.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Easter lilies!

Back when I was in my first parish, I took pity on the Easter lilies that didn't get picked up after Easter. I brought them home and planted them in the yard. I quickly learned that if I kept adopting orphaned Easter lilies, it wouldn't be long before I had a yard full of them. So I gritted my teeth and let them go...some of them, anyway.

The year we had a heat wave just after Easter, I went into the sanctuary at the end of the week after Easter (like most sane pastors, I took the week off after Easter) and found the abandoned lilies dead from the heat and lack of water. That was sad, tossing out all those dead lilies. But I learned to steel myself and not take responsibility for lilies other people had failed to take home with them.

Anyway...ten years later, I'm retired from ministry and gardening like crazy. And I now have three patches of Easter lilies in my yard. Guess what? They multiply over time.

And this week they came into bloom, two weeks after Easter, dozens and dozens of lilies. If we hadn't had such a long cold winter in New Orleans, they might have bloomed for Easter, since it was almost as late as it can get this year (April 20).

Do see the post in my blog New Life in the North Country, July 23, 2013. In the North Country, climate zone 5b, they bloom in July. At least in New Orleans, climate zone 9b, they bloom during the Easter season!

Oh by the way...for all my New Orleans friends...everything else may be running two weeks behind schedule, but tonight, May 10, the termites are swarming around the outdoor floodlights. They must have calendars. Right on schedule!

Monday, March 24, 2014

What I'm reading

This is my first attempt at writing a blog post with my iPad. I've been having difficulty working in Blogger with IE10, so I thought I'd try working in Safari. Seems a lot more compatible, but I can't say     I'm not crazy about writing on an iPad keyboard. Yes, I do have a "real" keyboard for this thing, but I've forgotten how to use it. But that is another blog post.

     The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival was terrific. This was my first time attending, and I was duly impressed with the professionalism of the presenters. There were several tracks to choose from. I attended the Master Classes and literary panels. I purchased books by two of the presenters (some of the titles sold out, which is a Good Thing if you are a writer!) -- Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan, P.I. Novel What the Dead Know and Knitting Yarns, a collection of essays by writers on knitting, edited by Ann Hood. Today I picked up her novel The Obituary Writer at the library. I've added a couple of other writers' books to my Amazon wish list. I think I am set for reading for the next few months.

    And yes, I'm working on my own novel right now. The classes and panels gave me a much-needed boost in that department. When I read what I've been working on and think it's dreck (now there's a word I haven't seen or heard in a long time!), I remember that these authors' novels that I hold in my hand are the result of multiple revisions and didn't start life as brilliant works of writing. It takes time. It takes multiple revisions. It takes patience. And, as one author told us, it takes a thick skin. Words to live by.

Friday, March 21, 2014

A tourist in my own home town

This week/weekend I'm attending the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival in the French Quarter. Just finished two days of Master Classes for writers at The Historic New Orleans Collection on Royal Street. Great classes, spot-on topics (for me, anyway). Two writer-lecturers were particularly helpful: Laura Lippman, author of the Tess Monaghan P.I. novels, spoke on point of view, and I learned some ideas about it have changed since I studied it in high school and college. And Ann Hood talked about the "art" of revision -- it's far more than fixing commas or spelling errors! I bought her new book, Knitting Yarns, and she autographed it (actually she's the editor). Knitting Yarns is a collection of 27 essays by writers about knitting. I've been knitting now for a little less than two years. As a pastor, I knew it was a spiritual practice, but who knew that writers knit too? Seems to me the connection between writing novels and knitting projects is that both take a long time to finish and a lot of patience! And sometimes you have to rip out a bunch of stuff you did because there's a mistake back there...

Anyway, when I took the streetcar to the French Quarter on the first day, I tried to remember the last time I'd been down there and I couldn't. My last memory is more than ten years ago, which is something I probably shouldn't confess. I'm like a New Yorker who has never been inside the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. In my youth, I used to go down to the Quarter just about every weekend, albeit to buy underground newspapers from hippies who sold them on street corners to pick up a little money. As an adult, sadly enough, I never go to the Quarter unless I have a reason to be there, like to meet friends from out of town for a meal. I've missed a lot.

In some cases, being down there felt like a bad case of "Ain't Dere No More." The buildings are still there, but the businesses have changed. With a shock I remembered how I used to drool over the display windows of Hurwitz-Mintz, the furniture store on Royal Street, when I was in my teens. Now the Royal Street windows are used by an antique shop (still displaying beautiful furniture), and Hurwitz-Mintz has a huge store out in the 'burbs. And a number of their beautiful pieces now grace my home. Sometimes it is good to grow up and be able to afford those things you could only dream about when you were young.

But the Quarter is humming with new shops (new to me, anyway) and lots of tourists, even on a weekday in March, which, by the way, is a good time to visit New Orleans, before the hot weather sets in. Street musicians can be found on each block of Royal, playing a variety of music from jazz to blues to bluegrass. And the city really is cleaning the streets early every morning. When I'd walk down Royal early in the morning, I could still see the suds at the curbs.

I stopped in at 520 Royal, the former home of WDSU-TV. A gas-light maker now occupies that space. I walked through the main corridor out to a courtyard in the back. I had never seen it before "for real." But I have a painting over the fireplace in my dining room of this courtyard, described as "Brulatour Court," done in the 1930s by the well-known New Orleans artist H. Alvin Sharpe early in his career. My grandfather must have been impressed with his work, because there are several of his pieces in the house. Wow. I had never seen the real deal before, because it was part of the TV station's headquarters. It was neat to see it at last.

If you live elsewhere and are still wondering if the city has come back after Katrina, let me remind you that the Quarter didn't flood -- it's the original city and was built on high ground -- and damage from the storm was relatively minor. That said, things are booming and there are more restaurants than you can ever dream of eating in, even if you live here. Come on down.

On another note, for months now Blogger has been whining that it doesn't support my Internet browser. It's Internet Explorer 10, people. Upgrade your software. I don't know of any other websites that are having problems with it.

Monday, February 17, 2014

About that pony...

We were downtown on Valentine's Day, meeting friends for dinner. There was an NBA All-Star Jam going on at the Morial Convention Center, which was probably a mile from where we were, but the streets were where the jam was. A police escort was taking some of the celebrities down Poydras Street in the direction of the convention center (maybe coming from the Superdome?) and traffic was a mess.

However! I am the eternal optimist! I am the child who finds the pile of manure at the front door on Christmas morning and starts jumping up and down, because I know there's got to be a pony around somewhere!

Four years ago, when we left New Orleans for upstate New York, downtown New Orleans was a ghost town. The Central Business District was darn scary even in the daytime. One day I suggested to a friend that we meet at a certain (fairly new) restaurant in the building that was once Sears' downtown store. When we got there, the place was locked up and the chairs were piled upside down on the tables. It had closed. And darned if we could even find another restaurant in the neighborhood. It was one dusty glass storefront window after another, covered with brown butcher paper.

So, four years later, we're home, and stuck in traffic in downtown New Orleans at night! Welcome back, downtown! And welcome back, us!

Monday, December 23, 2013

An epiphany at the manger

Shortly before we left northern New York, a friend took us to St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal. It has a museum with a collection of eight hundred nativity scenes from countries all over the world. There is one huge one, more than life size, that takes up an entire room.

I spent a long time examining that nativity scene, moving from one figure to another: the shepherds, the Magi, the animals, and, finally, Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. I had never seen a nativity where the people and animals were so large and so life-like. I was fascinated.

After a few minutes, I realized that the appearance of the figures reminded me of a nativity scene my parents gave me when I was two years old. It contained a wooden stable and manger. The people and animals were made of plaster and hand painted: Mary, Joseph, Jesus, a donkey, a cow, a shepherd, four sheep, three wise men, a camel, and an angel.

I still have it. Setting up that nativity scene every year has become a sacred ritual for me. It’s traveled with me to all the places I’ve lived. Some years it’s been set up under the Christmas tree, some years on a desk or table, some years in my office at whatever church I was serving at the time. It dates from the same era as the one at St. Joseph’s Oratory, which may be why the room-sized one reminded me so much of the little one I’ve had almost all my life.

And then, as I stood pondering the bigger-than-life nativity scene before me, I had an epiphany. At the manger. How appropriate, our friend noted.

The epiphany: my childhood nativity scene was my first experience of faith, at the age of two. By the time I was in second grade, I wrote out the whole account of the story of the birth of Jesus in pencil on the double-lined paper we used in school to help us learn good penmanship. Years later, after my mother’s death, I found the pages in her desk. By the age of seven, I had that story down cold. I could recite every detail, without hesitation.

Our friend commented that the nativity story was probably the first experience of faith for many children, not just me. I think he’s right. And what a wonderful teaching tool a nativity scene can be! As I look at mine, I realize that today the manufacturer would have had to recall it because some of the pieces are small enough for a young child to swallow. My parents must have supervised me carefully and taught me to treat it with care, because I didn’t swallow any of the pieces.

However, when I was four, one of my little friends picked up one of the sheep and, to my horror, threw it on the floor and broke it. I screamed and cried inconsolably. Fortunately, only one piece broke off the base. My mother carefully glued it back together, and to this day I can still see the tiny seam when I turn the sheep upside down.

So maybe a child’s nativity scene should not be made of plaster, glass, or some other breakable material. Wood, perhaps. Non-toxic paint. And big pieces, too big to swallow. It’s important for a child to be able to pick up each piece and feel the shape of it, admire the color of a robe or the hump of a camel, turn it over, and listen to someone tell the story behind each piece.
When I was growing up, my church put on a "living nativity scene" on the lawn each Advent. For several evenings in December, church members – adults and older children – would dress in costume and stand perfectly still for thirty-minute shifts as cars passed and people came to stand and watch. When I was in junior high, I started to take part: first as a shepherd, then as a wise man, and when I was sixteen, as the angel, perched on a ladder at the back of the stable. It was freezing cold that night – for New Orleans, that is, which means it was probably in the forties. Still, that’s pretty darn cold when you can’t move for thirty minutes.

Years later, as an adult, I was Mary. I got to sit in the stable for those thirty-minute shifts, which in my opinion made it the best role to have. That year it was so warm that I was discreetly slapping mosquitoes around my ankles as I sat beside the manger.

Time passes. Much of the nativity scene was stored under the raised choir loft and was destroyed in the flooding caused by the levee breaches after Katrina. The costumes were on the second floor of the education building and survived.

The congregation is much younger today than it was when I was growing up. This year, some of the men built a new stable and set it up on the side lawn of the church. Last Friday night we had a "reimagined" living nativity scene: a reboot, if you will. The children of the church right now are much too young to stand still for thirty-minute shifts. In fact, five minutes would probably be too long. So, led by Pastor Fred, we all streamed onto the church lawn at twilight, children and adults in costume, and had a combination living nativity - impromptu Christmas pageant right there, with the cars going by and people stopping to see what was going on and taking pictures and videos with their smartphones (something else we didn’t have back when I was growing up).

We brought Gabby the dog with us, not realizing we would be invited to take part. So we stuffed a sheepskin under her harness and made her a sheep. We grabbed a couple of shepherd’s robes and joined the children in being terrified by the angel and then running to Bethlehem to see this child the angel told us we would find there. One of the fathers was wearing a donkey costume (at least I think that’s what it was) and got down on his hands and knees in front of the stable. We went through the story twice, and a good time was had by all.

It was definitely not the living nativity of my childhood. But that’s okay. Back then, all of us in our different roles were characters frozen in a moment of time long ago (which never really happened in the Biblical account; the wise men didn’t show up at the same time as the shepherds). This year, we told a story. We were moving around, experiencing the events for ourselves, in our own lives and in our own time. And there’s something theologically appropriate about that.

Jesus is not frozen in time, way back when. Jesus is alive and active in our world, even today.

Our friend is right: The story of the birth of Jesus is the first experience of faith for many children. They learn it by picking up and examining the pieces of a nativity scene. They learn it by acting out the roles in the story. They learn it through the costumes, and the words of the story, and the songs they learn to sing about the birth of Jesus. Sure, some of them are hokey – at least that’s what it may seem like to some of us adults. But maybe not so hokey to the children, not yet.

In time, if their families make faith a priority, they’ll learn more about Jesus. And maybe one day they’ll decide for themselves that they want to follow him.

And here’s my nativity scene, set up for Christmas 2013, back in New Orleans again.