Thursday, March 28, 2013

Easter Musing

 Earlier this week I read over the first draft of my latest novel that I wrote during National Novel Writing Month this past November.  I had completely forgotten that I had created a character who was a former priest from Argentina.  For random reasons during the slap dash of the first draft I made him a Franciscan, but I named him Ignacio after the founder of the Jesuits.

In case anyone missed it, this struck me in a Twilight Zone kind of way because the Roman Catholic College of Cardinals recently elected a new pope:  a Jesuit from Argentina who chose to give himself the name Francis after the founder of the Franciscans.

I know!  Weird, huh?

Truth be told, this kind of thing has happened to me before.  A few years ago I wrote a novel in which the main character, Samantha, becomes pregnant with twins.  One of the embryos implants in the uterus like it’s supposed to, but the other one implants in a Fallopian tube, which causes big problems.  We writers like to create big fictional problems, tension, drama and conflict.  It’s what we’re taught to do.  I didn’t even know if this weird twin problem was medically possible, but when you’re writing a first draft you just go with it.  You worry about so-called reality later.

A few months later I went to consult with a co-worker about a student, but when I stepped into her office she was on the phone.  I started to back out but she waved me in. She was just hanging up.  She told me she’d been talking to her father about her sister who had just had surgery for something called a heterotopic pregnancy.  Come to find out what was happening to my friend’s sister was the exact scenario I had created for Samantha just a few weeks earlier.  Her sister had to have one of her Fallopian tubes removed—just as Samantha did.  The other embryo eventually grew into a healthy baby and she gave birth a few months later—just as fictional Samantha did.

When my friend told me about her sister’s experience, I said, “Oh, that happened to the main character in my novel,” as if I was telling her about a secret sister of my own.  I certainly didn’t intend this, but I guess it sounded a little “been there, done that.”  My friend looked surprised.  “The doctors told my sister they’d all heard of this condition, but it was so rare that none of them ever thought he would see it in his career.”

I was stunned.  No, I did not feel that I had caused it, and I did not feel that I had predicted it.  However, it did seem somewhat beyond coincidence.

These synchronous twists started, I guess, with a poem I wrote after I visited Ireland with my family in 1985.  I love Celtic mythology and I bought several books of fables when I was in Dublin.  When I came home I wrote poetry based on a few of the stories.  Some of the poems were published in my chapbook Life on the Flood Plain, (Butterfly Tree Publications 1987) others were included in the anthology Unlacing:  Ten Irish-American Women Poets, edited by Patricia Monaghan (Fireweed Press, 1987).

One poem imagined Finn MacUail, a hero of Irish legend, as a prophet who has a vision of “the troubles” yet to come.  As we writers know, a vivid scene needs colorful, specific details, so I wrote that Finn saw a “bomb explode in an Omagh shop.”  I used the town of Omagh because family legend has it that is where my great-grandfather Bernard Moss was born.  I didn’t worry about accuracy.  I made the foolish assumption that most towns in Northern Ireland had seen their share of bombs.

Well, I was wrong.

It was thirteen years after I wrote the poem, but a car bomb did explode in Omagh’s main market place in August 1998.  It made international news because the carnage was so horrific:  twenty-nine people where killed, 220 people where injured.  The bomb was set by an IRA splinter group that was opposed to the peace process agreements in which both sides had pledged a commitment to non-violence.  Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, and tourists were all among the victims of the blast.  It was the single worst terrorist act in Northern Irish history.

Again—I did not feel responsible, and I did not feel like a prophet.  But I felt funny about it.  What can I say?  I don’t know what any of it means.  There have been a lot of these little “coincidences” over the years, but these were the most dramatic.

A few years ago I wanted to write about my poem and the subsequent Omagh incident, but I couldn’t remember exactly when it happened, so I went on-line to do a little research.  As I was reading the entry on Wikipedia, I realized that this explosion happened just a few days after I had met (for the second time) a man who would become my lover and companion.  We’re not together anymore but our relationship was very important to me.  We met the first time when I was with my special education students on a field trip.  His interaction with my students—who all had severe disabilities—was so kind that it touched my heart.  So I went home that evening and wrote a poem about him.  I didn’t expect to ever see him again, but a few months later he came to my door.  He wanted to meet the person who had carved the Buddhist chant in the sidewalk outside my house.  I recognized him and—once he got over the fact that it was this eclectic Catholic woman who wrote the chant, and not a Buddhist elder-- we fell in love.  I always felt that my poem had somehow summoned him.

Easter reminds us that magic is possible.  If a man today claimed to have come back to life three days after being declared dead, we probably wouldn’t believe it.  We’d assume it was some kind of a scam.  It would be easy to explain away Jesus’ resurrection too.  Maybe he wasn’t actually dead.  After all, they didn’t have all that electronic equipment to monitor brain waves and heart beats two thousand years ago.  The soldiers thought he was dead, so they didn’t break his legs.  Maybe he actually survived and his followers were able to revive him.

Or maybe he died, but his followers told such a convincing story and they got enough people to believe it and the next thing they knew they had the Catholic Church.  Maybe they should have thought a little harder before they went through with that!

Or maybe it happened just the way the Gospels say it happened.  Anything is possible.  In fact I believe everything is possible.  I believe that God manifests him and herself in whatever way each person will understand, as Jews and Muslims, Catholics and Evangelicals, as Pagans, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, and so much more.  God may come to you as the sunrise or a blue scrub jay or your pet dog or cat.  She is in every human face you will see today.  And sometimes, quite often, God likes to remind me that she comes to me in my writing.  I’m blessed that way. 

Post Script:  since this piece was about coincidences, I have to note that I was surprised when I googled the Omagh bombing (again just to get a few facts straight) to find that just last week two men were found responsible for the bombing, in a civil suit brought by families of the victims.   No one was ever tried in criminal court for the explosion, but these two men were members of the now-defunct group, the “Real Irish Republican Army,” and the court found overwhelming evidence to connect them with the events of that day.  For more info, here’s a link:

Thursday, March 21, 2013

My Writing Life

I want to share some books that have enriched my writing over the years.  I would recommend these books to all writers.  And for teachers of writing—no matter how young your students—these books may also be helpful. 


Writing the Natural Way, by Gabriele Lusser Rico
         This book was ground breaking for me in the early 80s.  Rico’s techniques helped me get past the right brain/inner critic to the deeper left brain/inner poet.  That first week I couldn’t write fast enough.  I was scribbling poems on paper napkins in the cafeteria while I supervised my students at lunch!  Later I learned to pace myself. 

Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
         Another amazing eye-opener from the 80s on giving yourself permission to pick up a pen and keep your hand moving, to write free and uncensored from any inner critics.  Natalie Goldberg is a legend now.  Read her!

Writing as a Way of Healing, by Louise DeSalvo
         This book is less celebrated, but was equally influential in the development of my writing and my psyche.  I was reading it years ago when I had an argument with my then-companion (a not infrequent occurrence).  The next day I told friends about this argument, but I made it sound cute and funny.  Everybody laughed.  I thought, “I should write this up:  it’s cute and funny.”
But because I was reading this book I did something I’d never done before:  I wrote what really happened.  I allowed myself to write about how dark and shameful it was.  It wasn’t cute and funny anymore:  it was incredibly powerful.  I didn’t show it to anyone:  I do have boundaries, which is why I write mainly fiction now.  But after this book, my writing was never the same.


Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, by Linda N. Edelstein
         The name says it all.  This is a fun book filled with little quirks and habits that will help lift your characters out of one- dimensional-land into the realm of living breathing human beings.

Story Structure Architect, by Victoria Lynn Schmidt
         Character development is one of my strengths, but coming up with a plot used to intimidate me.  This book has alleviated my apprehensions.  It briefly outlines dozens of plots--you fill in the blanks to make the story uniquely yours.  It has been invaluable to me in the plotting of my novels.

The work of Pat Schneider and the Amherst Writers and Artists Institute has also been a great influence on me.  I will be writing about them in a future post.

My writing has always been inseparable from my spirituality.  I have garnered strength from the writing of Pema Chodron, Clarrissa Pinkola Estes, Anne Lamott, and Carolyn Myss.  More on these and other inspiring writers in subsequent posts.

Please tell me about your favorite writers and artists.  Who has influenced you?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Unexpected Blessings

In my novel, Welcome Stranger, an encounter with a stranger changes a woman’s life.

Thinking back on my life as a writer, I was remembering that a somewhat unexpected turn set me on this path.

Junior year of high school, the administration actually allowed us to choose themed English classes, rather than subjecting us to the generic English III.  My friends and I signed up to take a class taught by the young, cool, blond 20-something Mrs. Schell, who specialized in assigning exciting multi-media projects.  No ordinary term papers here.

But the class was full and I was disappointed to be randomly assigned to a class taught by Sister Mary, the traditional English teacher/vice principal.

Now don’t get me wrong.  Sister Mary was not one of those scary nuns from my elementary years.  No veil, no habit, no heavy wooden cross for her.  Sister Mary was 30ish with a flippy hair-do and mini skirt.  But gosh darn it, we were gonna write in this class, she told us that first day, and you better not expect an A unless you produced something insightful and special.  I was not a happy camper.  Easily intimidated, I was a little scared.

Long story short, Sister Mary was the first person who told me I could write.  In fact she told I excelled at writing, that I could be a writer.  Or maybe she was the fist person I listened to.  At any rate, her praise made all the difference to me.  Forty years later and I’m still scribbling.

Have you ever had a chance encounter that made a difference for you?  Was there a special teacher that made an important contribution to your life?

Monday, March 11, 2013

My Catholicism

I saw a cartoon recently of three mythical Catholic cardinals, each of a different ethnicity, happily discussing the upcoming conclave. 
The first says:  “Perhaps the new pope will be from Africa.”
The second says:  “Perhaps the new pope will be from Latin America.”
The third says:  “Perhaps the new pope will be from Asia.”
Beside them is a nun in full habit standing with hands folded and head bowed in prayer.  She thinks silently, “Perhaps he’ll be from the 21st century.”

I was baptized as an infant, attended weekly mass with my parents and grandparents, spent twelve years in Catholic schools.  I’m with the cartoon nun:  we need a pope with a 21st century sensibility.   Priests should be allowed to marry, women should be ordained, and gays should be welcome as they are.

However, regardless of the next direction of the church, I expect I will continue to practice Catholicism.  I was raised here; it’s home.  I consider myself a follower of Jesus.  “Love your enemies,” he said.  Has anyone ever said anything more startling and radical than that?  Do any one of us live up to it?  Well, not many of us, and certainly not often.  But it’s worth shooting for.

The other reason I stay with the church is to receive the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist.  There is a deeply sacred mysticism that manifests itself in the Eucharist.  We are sharing the very essence of the Divine in the physical form of bread and wine.  I was taught as a child to accept such things as mystery, but as a writer it pains me to say that words may be inadequate to explain it.  I simply have a very deep faith that the Eucharist is the heart and soul of the church.

There’s been evidence in recent years that makes it seem as if the patriarchy wants to turn back the clock to pre-Vatican II times when women were complicit and complacent, gays were closeted, divorcees were excommunicated, the pill hadn’t been invented yet, and pedophile priests were spirited away at the first hint of scandal.  The church has many awful things facing it, things which must be dealt with.  But why can’t the hierarchy focus on welcoming everyone in to receive the grace of the Eucharist rather than putting up barriers designed to exclude many good people?  Why can’t they see how healing that would be? 

God bless Pope Benedict on his very wise decision to retire.  Although I know that the cardinals who will elect his successor have all been appointed by Pope Benedict himself or by John Paul II, and news commentators are dismally predicting little change in church policies, let us affirm that somewhere in the College of Cardinals, there waits another Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who when elected as Pope John XXIII, surprised everyone by sensing the great changes afoot in the world, and opened the windows of the church to allow the entrance of the Holy Spirit, by calling for the Vatican II conferences that brought great light to the church.  Let us pray that God will call forth such a man to lead the church into a more progressive era.  I suggest we pray to Blessed Pope John, that he may intercede for us, who still hope and believe that the Roman Catholic Church may be a beacon for good in the world.

Let the novenas begin!!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Welcome Friends and Welcome Strangers!

I have been blessed in this life to have two vocations, two passions that I have had the resources to pursue.

For over thirty years I had the privilege to work with students who have severe disabilities, first as an instructional assistant and then as a credentialed teacher.

But before that, I was a poet.

Now I have chosen to take my leave from teaching and focus on my writing.  I have finished my first novel, Welcome Stranger, and I have three more novels I’m currently revising.  I’m excited to have the time and energy to enjoy this work.

This is my new web-home.  I want to have FUN here!  Please feel free to join me!  Whether you’re a fellow writer, a wannabe writer, or you hate writing; if you’re an avid reader or a so-so reader, please come in and join me, and leave a comment or two. 


“Be not forgetful to welcome strangers, for thereby have some entertained angels unawares.”
                                    Hebrews 13:2