I’m giving away two signed print copies of my book, Tally: An Intuitive Life, published by All Things That Matter Press. To enter, visit my Facebook Author Page and post your most creative request. It can be words only in the post, or a link to a photo, artwork, poem, etc. as long as it’s by you. Giveaway Contest, Tally: An Intuitive Life
Alexander McCall Smith’s Famous Female Characters
We can think and act ethically in various ways. In his two series featuring female characters, Alexander McCall Smith illustrates this. One approach, in the Isabel Dalhousie Mysteries series, is to “stop and think” before acting. This creates an interruption in the flow of events. The other, in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, involves a continuous evaluation and adjustment which can become almost seamless.
There are problems with the “stop and think” ethics, as McCall Smith notes. Isabel Dalhousie often makes the right decision for the wrong reasons. This happens because she doesn’t, and can’t know all the information about another person and the particular situation they’re in. In the last book of the series, she doesn’t have an important piece of information, but the person, Jane, she’s helping does. Jane learns that her supposed father is infertile. The other part that Isabel has not taken into account is Jane’s psychological processes. All Isabel knows is what Jane told her: she wants to find her father. Isabel doesn’t put herself into the other’s shoes, that is, an act of consciousness, and so she doesn’t imagine other possibilities. Now, this is not always true; sometimes she imagines other scenarios, but these are based on a reworking of the facts and perhaps a few psychological clues. These imaginings are usually far-fetched, almost artificially-induced, one might say, rather than organic (nurtured without artificial methods). So she is caught unaware of Jane’s acceptance of the “false” father and her re-focus on her mother. In time, this may not be enough for Jane, as McCall Smith hints. David Hume said that philosophical statements, ideas, theories would be best linked to psychological processes. This is what Isabel is missing, what she struggles with. In fact, she struggles with empathy.
Isabel’s quick, unexamined assessment of others has led her to be uncharitable. When she learns to “stop and think” it keeps her from jumping to conclusions, based on assumptions. She learns to question her assumptions. She grants, cerebrally, that others have a point of view and that their reasoning may be plausible. This helps her begin to develop a sense of what might be going on with other people. It’s a poor substitute for empathy, or compassion, but in her case leads toward developing these capacities.
There’s another way to become more just and charitable toward oneself and others. McCall Smith comes closer to this with Mma Ramotswe in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Mma Ramotswe is alert to, aware of, what is going on within herself and with the people around her. She is continuously evaluating and re-evaluating her thoughts, feelings, actions and their consequences, and information gained from her relationships. She is naturally empathetic, but has learned to use her reasoning ability to temper her emotions and perceptions. She monitors her subliminal stream of consciousness, as well as her conscious thoughts. With her the process of stop and think is not one of interruption. Her reflection and evaluation, and then adjustment, is ongoing, and integrated into the flow. It appears to be natural, or intuitive.
What causes this difference in the two characters? David Turnbull (No Dangerous Thoughts) points out that Isabel is alienated from other people. Isabel is “part of the privileged wealthy class who don’t have to work to make a living. Part of her problem is that it doesn’t come naturally to her to live ethically and her musings about that are part of her effort to overcome her basic alienation.”Mma Ramotswe, however, is “very attuned to the people around her.” Her thoughts are not only ethical, but often spiritual.
Mma Ramotswe grew up in a village, and goes out in the world to deal with people every day. She has suffered through an abusive relationship and the death of a child, both events that could have left her alienated, but her father’s compassion enables her to re-establish her self-respect and purpose again. Mma Ramotswe is integrated in her own life, while Isabel is not — or not yet, because she is striving for the integration of love, community, work, and purpose that make life worth living.
This is the first part of Covenant: A Story of Friendship, a young adult, historical and literary fiction Kindle novellete ($1.99)
A Story of Friendship
“What frustrates us the most is the slowness of our evolution as human beings.”
Paul Johnston “PJ” 1899-1987
Cover design and artwork by Richard Spiegel
Copyright by Mary Clark 2000
All rights reserved.
Chapter 1 Rain Dance
As soon as he left the garden, he could see more clearly. Red moved toward the courthouse flanked by reporters.
Orchie felt a deep restless current: something was happening to someone she knew. . .
* * *
Ten years before, Orchie’s voice flew like an arrow, “Watch out for snakes!”
She slipped into the shade of a cypress swamp. Cypress trees vaulted into heat-stroked sky, high thin branches festooned with plants that breathe. Below a canopy of feathery light-green leaves, an eagle’s nest kissed the sky.
Bobby leapt ahead. This was one of his favorite games: The Swamp Fox and his army attacking from a refuge of live oak and spiky palm only to vanish again into the swamp’s interior heart. Rainwater whirled into the ground below his feet.
Orchie’s fleeting shadow was a beacon flashing in the olive green light. She jumped from one dolphin-curved cypress root to another above pools of water the color of black tea mixed with upwellings of amber.
Red followed them at his own pace.
A sleeping raccoon ignored their whistles and a fledgling eagle, silent and immobile beneath the canopy, watched with golden eyes.
Nosing through a bright green carpet of tiny water-borne ferns, an alligator the size of a bass-fishing boat headed toward the bank on the far side.
Orchie called again, “Watch out! Old Ironsides!”
Red turned to look at the old gator, sizing him up.
Orchie leap-frogged onto an island of pine and palmetto scrub. Bobby scrambled up the bank, fingers digging in mud and legs flailing. Red and Orchie reached out and each taking an arm pulled him to safety.
Sprawling on silky pine needles, they drank from canvas-covered metal Scout canteens. Bobby curled into the nook of an oak tree, nestling deep into a place where mysteries haunt the human brain.
Crickets sang counterpoint to the chorus of the heat.
A rush of wind and the surface of the heat fell, bringing a scent of sea and pine forest, waking brains that have gone to sleep. In the silence, a new alertness: twitching ears of deer, revolving heads of owls, a panthers’ stealthy prowl.
Thunderclouds blew up over fields. White egrets took flight, broken bits of bread flung into a burning sky. Lightning found the seam, scarred the sky, magnetized the children’s eyes. They sprinted across a field to a paved road that led to a new subdivision of concrete block homes, each painted a pastel color: lemon, peach or tangerine, with white trim and multi-colored pebbled roofs. Streaking around a giant yucca, they barreled into Red’s screen porch.
The storm rolled over the land, resounding in the shells of their brains. Rain coursed from open veins. Rain-worshippers, they drank it, wine of their lives.
After the rain the world had a terrarium look, full of yellow-green light, luminous lawns, deep shadows, vivid flowers. Frogs croaked their delight, looking for lovers. The air cleared with the pop of a flashbulb.
Bobby took off for home, saying, “I’m hungry.”
Orchie left the safe harbor, a sailing ship whose rigging seemed to set itself. There was no going home, no place to be safe, unless on her own.
Farther down the street she saw Bobby’s house heave to, much like an empty cabin cruiser riding the tide, a hollow plunking against the dock and creak of loose moorings. At the end of the driveway, the mailbox with dinged red letters read: “Farrow.”
Inside, the living room was strewn with clothes and dishes, piled into higher heaps on a couch and in corners. Orchie busied herself cleaning up and making lunch. Some people said Bobby’s mother had died in an accident or suicide, but others said she went crazy and they put her away. Orchie knew his father lived miles away and visited Bobby for an hour most evenings.
“Are you afraid at night?” Orchie put food on the table. “To be here alone?”
“Sometimes,” Bobby admitted. “But Duke’s here.” He patted the old dog. “We sleep together.” Bobby pointed to a pile of ragged sheets and blankets in a corner. The bedroom doors were closed.
Orchie opened the hall closet for a mop and saw a rifle propped against the shelves. She cleaned up the mess and swept the kitchen. Watching Bobby sitting at the table alone, feet not reaching the floor but swinging back and forth as he ate, she thought, I have to bring him bread and milk, and oranges and grapefruit from the groves.
“Okay,” she said, washing her hands. “You all right?”
Bobby nodded, okay.
Gazing out the window she saw the retention pond, seeming to be a mirror rather than a source of life, and Bobby’s face reflected within it. Quickly turning away, she switched on the radio. Elvis’ voice resonated through the empty home: “Love Me Tender.”
Chapter 2 In Search of a New and Innocent Life
In PJ’s apartment, Rogue showed me PJ’s fine press work, the hand-colored prints of Joseph Low, and letters to and from typographers, printers and publishers: W. A. Dwiggins, Burton Emmett, Dard Hunter, Eric Gill, Bennett Cerf and Ward Ritchie.
“Who’s Francis Meynell?”
“The founder of Nonesuch Books.” Rogue handed me more letters and broadsides to sort through. “I could do some research on PJ in Woodstock. I’ve been talking to a man who was interested in setting up a poetry reading there.”
“Really?” So far away, I thought.
“I’ve been thinking about moving up there. The city is getting too much for me.”
I hid my surprise and alarm with my silence, focusing my eyes on the documents. In the lamplight my bangs were lit up with red and blonde strains; all the range of colors that made my hair an ever-changing reality: in less light, brown, in more light, strawberry blonde.
Looking at PJ, I wondered what color his hair had been, how he had looked in his early days in the Village, and what he was thinking as we sifted through his much younger life.
Rogue set up an art exhibit for PJ at San Caliente.
PJ prepared a leaflet that said his art “was unique in all the world” and other things that I could not decide were meant to be sincere or satirical.
After hanging the exhibit we ambled down Ninth Avenue to a Spanish restaurant for dinner. For dessert, we went back to PJ’s, then to Washington Square Park. It was crowded on this late May evening. We sat on a bench near the fountain, students and mothers with children scattered about, a spring breeze in the young green leaves.
I took photographs in the park. Rogue was sketching and PJ encouraged him to work intuitively, without preconception, to let it happen.
Rogue was as beautiful as a young Don Juan, with his gleaming auburn hair, brown eyes and sparkling smile. His sketches grew greener and greener as night fell.
I thought we formed a wonderful threesome, two young aspiring artists and an elderly man whose mind was sharper than ours would ever be.
At San Caliente’s reading series, Rogue introduced the poets and small press publishers. He asked me if I would like to meet them, but I preferred to stay by the door handing out flyers. I was too shy to introduce the evening’s featured poets, much less read my own work. Instead, I took it all in with stunned dismay or awe.
At one reading the featured poet entertained us with ribald, working class poems. Jake was a heavy set young man with stringy light brown hair. He invited everyone to a book party at his East Village bookstore the next Saturday.
I heard Rogue say, “That’s Erin.”
“That’s Erin?” Jake gave me a surprised and appreciative look. He approached me and urged me to come to his party to “Celebrate Spring.”
My friend Rue and I arrived a half hour late. Light flowed from the small storefront, moving with the people as they moved. The place was packed. Literary magazines swayed like loincloths on a clothesline in the large plate glass window.
“Where have you been?” Jake roared at me, looking like a lost hippo among flamingoes.
The crowd milled around free-standing stacks of magazines, comic books, and small press chapbooks. The walls were lined with metal shelves displaying arcane, esoteric, famous and once-banned literary books. Two fluorescent light fixtures with exposed bulbs hovered over us like time-lapsed explosions.
People in the crowd kidded Jake, “Where’s Ted Berrigan? Did you even talk to him, or were you drunk? How many mushrooms did you eat?”
“He said he’d be here,” Jake bellowed, his face flushed by stress or drinking.
Rogue arrived with PJ, who lingered tall and frail by the door. Someone brought him a chair. His smile was genuine, childlike. He was offered food and wine, which he accepted.
I introduced Rue to PJ and Rogue.
Jake rousted his large body through the crowd. “You never spoke to him,” a man said to Jake.
“He was here.” Jake’s blue shirt was open two buttons down and sweat poured down his face. “Promised me he’d read tonight.”
We waited, we ate the cheese and drank the wine. I drank more wine.
“He’ll be here at midnight,” Jake announced. “He just called and he’s on his way.”
“He forgot,” a friend of Jake’s shouted. “They’re just as high as we are.”
Everyone was high, whether on wine, pot or excitement at being at an impromptu, late night reading by one, or perhaps two, of the last of the great Beat poets. Where Ted Berrigan went, Allen Ginsberg might also. Maybe he could be persuaded to speak.
Rogue told me PJ had to leave because of his health. Rue had to catch the last bus to New Jersey at midnight. We hailed a cab on Second Avenue and all climbed in.
Rue and I sat in the back with PJ. He was looking for his nitroglycerin. “It was a good party,” he said. “I’m glad I came.”
A few days later, Rogue and I met at PJ’s. We thrashed our way to the unwashed front windows. The Jefferson Library wavered beyond them like The House of Usher.
“The Women’s House of Detention used to be there.” PJ pointed to a garden behind the library, an Impressionist vision through the years of dust.
He hung his shirts from the mantel in a line in front of the fireplace. “All bohemians do that,” he said. “They never use the closet for clothes.”
In the hallway all sizes of matting boards leaned against one wall. A large skylight in the bathroom caked with grime let in almost no light, but that was the landlord’s responsibility. Very few repairs had been done on his apartment, partly because he would not let workers who were strangers in, and because he was a rent-controlled tenant paying a pittance each month and the landlord was waiting him out.
Next to a small round kitchen table, an ironing board stood upright, covered with papers, letters, bowls of paper clips, nails, rubber bands, screws, and small linoleum blocks used for print designs. A tray held ballpoint and felt pens, screwdrivers and assorted tools. On one shelf rested an ancient cutting and splicing machine for films.
I helped PJ line up bottles of pills and tubes of skin ointment on the counter by the gas stove. On dingy once white walls a calendar with a full-lipped smiling woman and a drawing of PJ by Rogue flirted beside a room thermometer.
The brick inner wall of the front room featured an ad of a beautiful woman half-clad in a bath towel.
PJ saw me looking and said, “Olga,” he said, “O.”
The famous O, his last love. He had written thousands of pages to her and about her.
There were boxes in the front room labeled “O,” and others labeled: Loves, Early Loves, and Later Loves.
At first, the Bohemian lifestyle shocked him but, in fact, he was running from his puritanical upbringing. “I came to Greenwich Village in search of a new and innocent life. At the age of 18, I was already leaving behind a guilty past.”
“Guilty? So young?”
“I had a tumultuous relationship with my mother,” he explained. “She had an unnatural love for me, all her life. We shared the same bed until I was twelve. I had strange dreams as a child that may have had a factual basis.”
“But that’s not your fault.”
“I started to watch the girl across the street and walk naked around the house. Finally, I went outside without a stitch of clothing and walked down the street. A black woman I knew worked in one of the houses saw me. She didn’t blink an eye and told me, ‘Young man, go home.’ I didn’t know it then, but I was becoming an exhibitionist and a voyeur.”
As we cleaned the place, I found piles of newspaper and magazine clippings about pornography: sex and violence, theater and nudity, art and censorship. Many images were lurid and over-the-top. I was disgusted and thought of walking out on PJ. I mean, it’s sex. Just do it.
There were stacks of nude photographs of men and women that PJ had taken. He also made erotic and pornographic films; the reels were scattered around.
“I was in a porno film once,” he said. He knew other filmmakers and went to see their movies. I picked up early editions of Screw and several volumes of Casanova’s memoirs.
“Casanova wrote his memoirs in his old age,” PJ said. “How much exaggeration do you think there might be in an old man’s memory?”
Sexual exaggeration. I looked around. That’s what it is. What had he been looking for in all this? His youth of wild passion? Compensation for lost love?
He told me Egmont Arens and Jo Bell had been the previous tenants of the apartment. Jo Bell had been involved in a court case about obscenity in literature.
“Apparently she had the look and demeanor of innocence,” PJ said, “because the judge dismissed the charges. It was a big issue then,” he said. “Ulysses was banned, and later Lady Chatterley’s Lover and A Farewell To Arms.”
I was surprised to hear about A Farewell To Arms.
Rogue told me PJ talked about the galleys and handling the plates for Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He had done some research, “The book was banned in December 1929.”
“So that means PJ would’ve worked on it probably in the 1930s.”
“He said he took the books to Frances Steloff at the Gotham Book Mart. I went up there and spoke to her, and she asked, ‘How is Paul Johnston?’” Rogue smiled. “I said he was clinging to his sense of humor.”
Egmont and his wife were divorced and one day, passing by, PJ saw a note on the downstairs door saying that the garret was for rent. The rent was low and he took the apartment. Gas and electric, though, ran five times higher than the rent. A few years ago, he told me, he had an outstanding bill to Con Ed for several thousand dollars. One October when it was beginning to get cold, his gas and electric were shut off on a Friday afternoon. There was nothing he could do about it until Monday. Because he was going blind, he could not read their bills or notices threatening discontinuing service.
After this, the city found him eligible for visiting nurse and home care. But PJ refused to let the women in the front room or give him much nursing attention. The home care attendant kept the bathroom and kitchen clean, basically housekeeping, and had to wait for him to leave the apartment before she could charge into the front room and change the sheets.
Rogue was setting up a contribution of PJ’s fine press work with the New York Public Library. PJ would receive some much-needed compensation.
After I cleaned the kitchen and swept the hallway, I moved to the front room, clearing paths through the rubble, sorting out trash for PJ to inspect and agree to discard. We gathered like things together, making sense of years of artwork and book design.
There were handwritten letters.
“The Colophon,” PJ answered. “It was a quarterly for book collectors.”
Into a box went Adler. “One from D. B. Updike? And Bruce Rogers?”
“Bruce Rogers,” PJ said, “who in 1899 or so he was working for Houghton Mifflin. Updike was a very careful and thoughtful printer. Both Updike and Bruce Rogers had nobody to lead them in their styles, but themselves. They had only the history of good printing to look back on, and they were making their contributions to a movement that started in the 1400s, well, I would say, 1500, began to take on a very distinctive style and even after …
“See, I researched all this in the New York Public Library. The library was my alma mater. I used to go in there all the time, spend the day and days and days in there, looking up old specimen books and old printing work. I found an unknown New York printer who had, like Updike, a style of neat printing, and they were printing dissertations of students and politicians and poetry. In the 18th Century, in the 1790s, to put some style in their work they were publishing dissertations. T & J Swords. So I researched and did a story on them. I did all that research in the library. When Updike began in Boston in 1900s, early 1900s, he had nothing to guide him but his own good taste in printing. He was not imitating because there was no style in printing. Rogers was up against the same thing.”
His research and correspondence led to his book, Biblio-Typographica: A Survey of Contemporary Fine Printing Style, published by Covici-Friede in 1930.
While I collected his fine press work, placing them in clean boxes and labeling them, I admired the book designs, the exquisite fonts and covers and binding.
“All that ended when I died in the hospital,” PJ told me.
PJ’s innocence ripened for forty years before it was plucked from the vine. “I plucked it,” he said, “but isn’t that often the case? I was in an affair, and so was my wife. I thought I was in love and I sensed that my wife needed to be free of me. But after the separation it became unbearable. I’d made the worst mistake of my life. The affair ended, of course.”
When he realized he was losing his wife, he became ill and was hospitalized; surgery on his heart led to complications. In the hospital, he physically died and was revived by the doctors.
Afterward, he began The Document. In the early years of writing, he was often depressed. “You do not want death, no matter how much you cry that you do. Yet you are fighting against life. You fight it with illness. You fight it emotionally, being unwilling to love others, to be full of love and attract others who could and should be loved. You have discovered that your lassitude and illness is an evasion of the necessity of making your life worthy of yourself.”
After a pause in which PJ sat with his hands loosely clasped, he said with a hint of a grin, “I wonder how many who wish for death in their youth, at the first stroke of disintegration, live to be a hundred?”
Jake told me he was going on vacation, and asked me to work several days at his East Village bookstore. For the job, I wore my best blue jeans and a short-sleeved Asian-style blouse. On the last day, Rogue came by, lounging among the book stacks. He looked Continental Communist in lightweight European-style pants and a workman’s pullover shirt. We walked as evening brushed the Village with its paints. To escape the summer heat, we stopped to browse in air-conditioned stores along the way. I had a drink at a vegetarian restaurant on Spring Street that made me woozy.
As darkness fell we saw the lights of the Our Lady of Pompeii Festival bloom above the low-rise tenements and brownstones. We bought calzones, and one for PJ, and strolled up Sixth Avenue to his apartment.
In the night, with people swirling by, PJ occupied a lawn chair on the corner of Greenwich Avenue.
I asked him why he had not brought out the Fair Weather Gallery and he said he had just come out to cool off.
His face lit up when we handed him the calzone.
Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press, is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble: Paperback $16.95 (check for discounts) and Kindle $5.99. Tally is in Amazon’s Matchbook program, which means you can buy the print book and get the Kindle for just $1.99. Send one as a gift!
I’ve been asked to respond to the following questions about My Main Character in a Work In Progress.
1) What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?
My stories are primarily character-driven, with what I hope are strong settings and varieties of inter-relationships. My last book, Tally: An Intuitive Life (All Things That Matter Press 2013) is non-fiction, and could be seen as a character study. The main character, PJ, was a Greenwich Village Bohemian, one of the last of the early 1900s tribe by the time the other major character, Erin Yes (yes, from the Greek, erinyes, The Furies) meets him. With their mutual friend Rogue they become “entangled” as human beings who find one another interesting do, leading to a mental and emotional dance of ages.
Recently, I’ve been writing about Leila Payson, a fictional schoolteacher in Miami. It’s a complete change of pace for me. Leila is inspired by a woman I knew in New York City, and several other remarkable women.
2) When and where is the story set?
The story is set in contemporary Miami, specifically South Miami. This neighborhood is next to Coconut Grove and Coral Gables. Leila lives near Fairchild Botanical Garden and Matheson Hammock Park, one of the most popular parks, especially with locals, in Miami. She meets friends at a South Beach café. The setting allows me to write about Florida, a place I love.
3) What should we know about him/her?
Leila is forty-something. She is a Social Sciences teacher, with tenure and a Masters Degree that is also beginning to age. Teaching is her life, and most of her waking moments and a good portion of her REM sleep, are dedicated to her students.
In her work and everything she does, Leila tries to act in a way that does the most good and least harm. Upon graduating college, she works for a social service agency in inner city Miami for two years. Her boss is the energetic Sally Lacrosse. After this, Leila begins work as a public schoolteacher. After the first few rough years, she settles in and the work is exciting. In time, though, she feels the narrowing that comes with too much routine.
Leila joins a relief agency in a foreign country. While there she learns of the debate about giving aid to others and whether it fosters dependence rather than responsibility. The aids groups are re-evaluating their role, becoming more holistic in their approach. Leila also becomes the friend of and helps out an occupational therapist. What she learns she takes back to her job of teaching, and into her life. She revives a local playground, where she meets the neighborhood families. Her personal and professional aspirations and values are integrated, and that makes it a spiritual experience as well.
4) What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?
After 15 years on the job, Leila wonders if she is “aging out” of being useful to her students and to the kids in the playground near her home. A world of opportunity has opened for women in her lifetime and she wonders if she is doing as much as she could. There are still stereotyped behaviors and attitudes toward women, especially women who engage in critical and philosophical thinking.
In her personal life, there have been several loves, but for some years, she has lived alone. She has close friends, who are younger and busy with their new ventures. After lunch with them one day, she sees at another café, a “man with a book.” She is surprised to see him again at a local art gallery’s exhibit of bird photographs. Is he a philosopher? An artist? An ornithologist?
Once again, she re-evaluates what she is doing and how it matches to her sense of a life worth living.
5) What is the personal goal of the character?
Leila is working to find just the right niche to maximize her abilities, particularly a way of living that enables her to use her wings and fly.
6) Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?
The working title is Leila: Bird of Inspiration. I am contemplating putting some excerpts on my blog once it’s nearly complete.
7) When can we expect the book to be published?
This is in the budding stage and will take months to complete.
And now, I’ve tagged these four extraordinary authors (and I don’t say that often) who have agreed to join the blog tour. Their Meet My Main Character blog post will be online May 19th.
Matt’s first novel, Conversations Among Ruins, is coming soon from All Things That Matter Press. His second novel, The Brothers’ Keepers, will be published by MuseItUp Publishing. Currently, he is working on his third novel. The link to Matthew Peters’ blog is: http://www.matthewpetersbooks.com/blog/ Read his Meet My Main Character blog post.
Marta is an Argentinean writer, translator, and psychoanalyst publishing with Jorge Pinto Books Inc., New York. She has written three novels, a self-help series, and other works. To learn more about her, please visit her Amazon page, and her website, and on Facebook. Read her Meet My Main Character blog.
Marylee writes literary fiction and creative nonfiction. Her book, Montpelier Tomorrow, to be published by All Things That Matter Press in 2014, is about a mother who would do anything to keep her family from harm. She blogs and writes about writing, long term illness, and caregiving on two sites: http://maryleemacdonald.org and http://maryleemacdonald.us
Jo is a South African writer and blogger. My 4-star review of her novel, African Me and Satellite TV, is on Amazon. Her new book is the science fiction/paranormal/fantasy novel, Shadow People. Please visit her website, African Colonial Stories.
In this “docu-memoir” I re-collect my first years in the midtown neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen (officially as Clinton). In the beginning I worked at St. Clement’s Church in the theater and poetry program as a volunteer. Later I ran the Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s, begun by poet and small press publisher Richard Spiegel a year or so before my arrival. From 1978 to 1983 the Poetry Festival was a great part of my life, as it still is: something we come to know as we grow older is that the past is always part of the present. Many poets, actors, and other artists appeared in PoFest productions. While I was working at the church, I came to know some of the neighbors and began attending local group meetings. Into The Fire is the story of how I found a place to call home.
This is an excerpt from Into The Fire, Part 1: 1978-1979
Upstairs in St. Clement’s sanctuary’s vast open space, rows of tall arched windows resembled trees, and their stained glass mosaics formed branches, flowers and leaves. The peaked roof with hewn beams two stories high was Noah’s Ark come to rest upside down on Manhattan Island, filled with seminal winds and sounds of the flood.
A red carpet on the stairs and in the offices was worn but still warmed to the glow from the windows’ mosaics. These mosaics were not primary colors and depictions of saints or scenes from the Bible, but Longfellow’s forest primeval—lichen green on fallen trees, earthy orange, and clouds streaking into blue.
Watty Strouss, a member of the church’s Board of Managers, said, “Oh, they’re actually not stained glass. They’re leaded glass.”
“There’s beauty under the grime.”
“We’d like to restore them, but it’s very expensive. Each piece needs to be cleaned and re-set with new binding.”
A heavy wire mesh covered all the street-front windows, crisscrossing the muted mosaics. The protective mesh made the church look almost medieval.
“Oh,” Watty said, the word “oh” a major part of his vocabulary and depending on the inflection, having different meanings like the Chinese language. “Someone didn’t like our being an anti-war church and threw a Molotov cocktail through an upstairs window.”
In the 1960s, he told me, Joan Baez was married in the church. Later she referred to it as “that funky little peace church on the West Side.” Watty sighed. “She couldn’t remember our name.”
The upstairs space was both the Sanctuary where services were held and a theater. In the 1960s it had been remodeled to accommodate the American Place Theater. After American Place left for new digs in the basement of a high-rise on West 46th between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, another Theater at St. Clement’s was born. That incarnation had a good run, but collapsed amid questions of missing funds. The current Theater at St. Clement’s started in the early 1970s and operated in the downstairs space, which was also called the downstairs theater.
The church’s main income came from renting the Upstairs Space to outside theater groups. Every Sunday church services were held onstage, making use of the current play’s set to match the sermon’s theme. Vestry members with corduroy jeans beneath their robes rolled out the altar and pulpit and lowered a large crystal cross from its station in the light grid high in the beams.
So, the Upstairs Space had several names as well, depending on its current use and who was using it: the Upstairs Space, the Sanctuary, and the Upstairs Theater.
Alone at the massive gray metal desk in the front office I heard sounds in the church: voices, stories, pieces of song, wind in the sanctuary, birds in the oak tree, the organist practicing hymns, tales of the flower fund and the trust for burying the poor.
From where I stood on the church steps, I could see lines of tenements come riding out of the setting sun, full-tilt railroad flats roaring toward midtown Manhattan. Skyscrapers rose in Pyrrhic tower after tower, the Hudson River sang through the streets of its power; scarlet mist filled the air, diffusing over playgrounds and bars, vacant lots, delis, schools and cars. Fire escapes flared the red of steel mill fires, and flames slashed across tenement faces.
I walked into the street:
This is the fire, this is the glow
as flames rise in the core,
heat rises ethereal, takes on new forms,
almost human, they flow
along fire escapes: angels, angels
walking on ladders of flame
What if we are all in a dream, and it is just a phase, a phase that must not be interrupted, but allowed to run its course, or the promise will be unfulfilled? That’s the idea that informs Waking God, Book 1, by Philip F. Harris and Brian L. Doe, All Things That Matter Press. The main characters, Andrew and Mara, carry the godseed that can bring forth a new Being equal to or even greater than its Creator. “They shall be as gods, for that is their design. The dormant gene shall emerge.”
Harris and Doe give flesh and blood to this theme. Andrew, a professor, is on a quest: “To discover the unified secret, both lost and perhaps conspiratorially hidden, that lay behind man’s spiritual existence. If he could close the circle, science and religion would once again merge.”
Not only is there a conspiracy to keep Man from knowing, there is this impetus behind all scientific and spiritual search:
“If you knew the reason for everything as it happened, you would stagnate. Man is not yet all-knowing. If he were, there would be no purpose for any of this. Not having all the answers at one’s fingertips puts us on the path of discovery. It is how we evolve.”
“While physicists were exploring a more real world theory of a unified universe, Andrew felt that such a hypothesis would never truly answer all of life’s greatest questions. Intuitively, he knew that quarks, neutrinos, packets of photons, vibrating strings of energy, dark matter were but half of the “grand equation. …What was different, [Andrew] often queried, between the transcendental notion that an event in one part of the universe rippled throughout all of reality, and the current quantum string theory?”
In the search for “the unified secret,” all the cards in the deck are reshuffled. What has been promulgated as “good” is revealed to be an attempt to prevent human beings from waking from the dream-state and discovering their true potential. God is undefined, appearing to be an aloof and mystical causal agent (reminiscent of the Holy Ghost). While many of the traditions, organizations and symbols are Christian in this book, there are episodes where other spiritual traditions and religions come into the story.
If there is a divide between Man and God, what side would the angels be on? It turns out their loyalty would be divided, and a battle has been playing out since ancient times. What gives human beings hope that they will wake from the dream-state is the force of consciousness
Of interest to me is the notion that every human being is an agent of change. We are, I believe, not only agents of change, but rogue agents, a disrupting force in the universe. As disruptive causal agents, our influences and interactions can become disruptive causes in themselves. So the interactions may initiate series (are they chains?) of actions and reactions. We push the known limits of being and becoming. Some say this is to become more like our creator, attracted by unity; others that we will realize our full potential and become the equal of or greater than our creator.
Why would the god-principle create a force that could, once it wakes up, challenge all other forces or agents and even become dominant? One possible answer is that it would be natural for a causal agent to create more than harmonious effects or results (the Garden of Eden, for instance), but other causal agents (Adam and Eve). The god-principle, as the creator of all causal agents, is the greatest of them. But can this god-principle be subject to being overtaken by its own creations?
Our role in the universe may be to keep being and becoming alive, both by creating and developing and by breaking patterns or rearranging them, even to the extent of destroying (changing matter and energy in one form to another distinct form), or making chaotic what has become too stable. These are precipitating events, another theme of Waking God.
All the while, we view ourselves as rational beings, with a desire for order. Camus said rebellion, which is disruptive, was at base a call for unity, the most positive form of order.
In our quest to fully develop our potential, at some point, we will reach a level where transformation to a higher form takes place. In a sense our current condition is a dream state; we are not truly awake to what we are becoming, or could become.
It is this vision that Waking God explores.