Monday, July 28, 2014

Learning from the French and Indian War

I'm writing a historical novel, so I've been spending a lot of time in the 18th century. Learning as I write is one of my great pleasures. I didn't know that nails were so valuable they were often used as currency. Or that corn was first cultivated by the Native Americans. Their annual Green Corn Festival probably took place right about now.

"The Adoption of Mary Jemison" by Robert Griffing

My book is based on the life of Mary Jemison who lived in Pennsylvania during the French and Indian War. In those days, the British government, the French government, and certain Iroquois tribes all had claim to the same part of North America. So did German, Scotch, Dutch, and Irish immigrants, like Mary's family. When settlers crowded their hunting grounds, the Iroquois tried to scare them away by terrorizing them.

When Mary was thirteen, the Jemison family was captured by six Shawnee warriors and four Frenchmen. Most of the Jemisons were killed, but Mary was given to two Seneca women whose brother had been killed in George Washington's first battle in Pennsylvania. The Seneca women could have chosen vengeance by killing Mary however they pleased. Or they could have adopted her to take the place of the brother they lost. Mary was fortunate. Her new sisters treated her with such kindness, Mary chose to remain among the Seneca until she died at age 90.

Such adoptions seem unfathomable. How could anyone welcome their enemy into their family? Wouldn't it be dangerous? Perhaps. But if we can't adopt our enemies, maybe we can at least try to adopt a new point of view.

How can we do that? How can we ever understand each other when we take refuge behind our walls, whether real or metaphoric?

We can begin by reading about other people's lives. 


Monday, July 14, 2014

Why not just open the can?

Dear Two-Legged One,

I thought your book was finished. You know, the one that features an amazing cat who uses her wisdom and prowess to rescue two humans and catch several mice.

Why can't I sit on these pages?

What are copy edits? Those marks look as insignificant as small insects. Why are you bothering to study them? I know you have better things to do.

Isn't it time for my dinner? For goodness sake, just open the can!

Sincerely,
Blackberry



Dear Blackberry,

You raise an interesting question. Why did the copy editor spend so much time putting commas  in the right places? Why am I making sure the copy editor understood what I intended to write so that the commas will be in the right places? Why not--as you say--just open the can?

Because it's good to pursue excellence. Books can be published without correct grammar or graceful language. Neither has much to do with plot or character. But all too often we choose what is cheap or easy. In a culture of short cuts, any well crafted thing should be treasured.

You are a cat. You leave no part of yourself un-groomed. So it is with prose. If hair is out of place, it will distract.

I'm grateful to the copy editor who worked so hard on this book. I applaud anyone who pursues excellence in anything.

Sincerely, 
Jane

PS --- You had your dinner. Now it's time for a nap.





Friday, May 30, 2014

DON'T SOLO!

Like most writers, I spend a lot of time thinking about my voice. I try to be uniquely clever or comical or poignant. I want to stand out from all the others with stories to tell.

Just some of the many members of the Brooklyn Community Chorus

But for a few hours every week, I focus on a different kind of voice. I'm a member of the Brooklyn Community Chorus. Tomorrow night is our spring concert. We'll dress in black clothing with a "pop" of color so we won't look too funereal. But the black is what's important. It erases the individual to help turn us into a chorus.

I love singing with a group. It's the only way I can. I never had the kind of voice that effortlessly soars along the notes. Mentally I know what I should do, but for whatever the reason, the shape of my nose or the density of my bones, I'll never sing a solo. At least, not intentionally. There's always a chance that I'll make a mistake and come in a beat before the rest of the altos. Or hang on to a note after everyone else observed the conductor's cut-off. Then the audience would hear MY voice in the wrong spot. This is why we always joke before each performance––DON'T SOLO!

Today's culture is all about soloing. It's hyper-competitive and short-sightedly greedy. Many of the institutions that used to bring us together have been diminished.

And so I would like to sing (ha ha) the praises of blending voices. Of listening to each other––because if you can't hear your neighbor's voice, then you're too loud. Of counterpoint phrases that allow each of the sections to have a turn at the melody. Of harmonies that resolve in a big lush wave of sound. Of music that can uplift not just those who are in the chorus, but those who come to hear a group of all ages and abilities and political beliefs make music.

Without (fingers crossed) a solo from me!



Monday, April 21, 2014

Love Lock on the Brooklyn Bridge


 Many years ago––31 to be exact––I was in New York City on Easter Sunday. My family in Wisconsin were celebrating the holiday with the traditions of my childhood:  church, egg hunt, chocolate rabbits, and roast lamb dinner. None of these options were available to me. And yet I didn't want the day to go by without some celebration.

I asked a friend of mine (yes at that point we were just friends) if he wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. Lee said, "Sure." So we took the subway to the Brooklyn side and set out.

The distance is a mile. The views are spectacular. The traffic hums beneath those iconic cables. The vibrations feel like the electric charge of the entire city.

I can't recall what we talked about. But I do remember this. The walk felt so important that we agreed to repeat it every Easter for the rest of our lives. This promise was no more impractical than two people coming to New York City to try their luck at art's game of chance.

We neared the Manhattan side. We paused to savor one last moment suspended as we were between river and sky. We turned to smile at each other. Did our smiles inch closer?

Kerplop.

A drop of water fell from one of those suspension cables and landed on Lee's head. We laughed and continued on our way. Neither one of us mentioned the moment when we almost kissed.

Until a few months later when we did kiss.



 Lee and I have kept that vow––among others. We have walked the bridge every Easter Sunday; sometimes in winter coats, sometimes with friends, eventually carrying our baby daughter.

As we walked this year, I noticed that hundreds of people had fastened padlocks at various points along the bridge. The locks were inscribed with two names and a date. I hope that the Brooklyn Bridge connects all those couples as it has connected Lee and me.


Monday, April 7, 2014

a poem

ZENO & ALYA

by Belinda Diepenheim


Zeno's
perched in splendour
in a Brooklyn oak
calling, Kathekon!
Liberated from one
servant, in that space
where "I"
does not include
friend.

Gray can be all corners
and mood,
it can be the lost spot
beneath unfinished blue
sky. Alya lies
in the path of gray,
betrayed by her own
body.

Zeno, brilliant, beautiful
bird wisely self improves
as Alya tries after all trying
has furled inside her.

Who is "I" if it is alone?
A fragment of gray
to paint with the colour
and music of another
calling, you're the friend!
Yes, yes, yes.

Friday, March 7, 2014

INSIDE A YURT

 


As a writer, I travel to fascinating places. I've been on top of Mt. Greylock, in an attic full of bats, battling a storm over the Atlantic Ocean––in my imagination.

I also get to visit bookstores, classrooms and libraries all across the country. Last Sunday, I went someplace I have never been. Inside a yurt.

This yurt is the special place for the youth group at the Universalist Unitarian Church in Hartland, Vermont. I was fortunate enough to be invited inside to speak with them.

I read the section from The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya in which Zeno first meets the homing pigeons. Zeno knows 127 words, but he isn't quite clear on the meaning of  “friend” or “home.” He has heard that a friend is "another I," so he thinks his friends should also be African grey parrots.

The kids were much wiser. They knew the Golden Rule says we should treat our friends as if they were ourselves. They knew it would be boring if we were all the same. They knew that they can learn from having friends who are different. They knew the distinction between a house and a home.

It was fitting that we discussed those ideas in the yurt. The word "yurt" means "home" in  Mongolian. The kids were of different ages and had different experiences. Several had moved quite a lot. I could tell that belonging to this youth group means a great deal to them.



Nomadic people carry their homes with them. We may not have such beautiful portable structures or any camels to help lug them. But we can still bring our friends and families with us wherever we go. As well as a few books!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Snow hushes the city

Blackberry is wondering what happened to the world.

 
New York City has been transformed by snow.  This most recent precipitation clung to the branches. The snow turned everything it touched into a Winter Wonderland.
The change isn't just visual. All that white adds an abundance of light. It softens the harsh edges of the city. It hushes the sounds. The dogs are almost beside themselves with joy. The people smile.
It really is like magic.
Now I love to read books in which there are dragons and wizards. But the books I write aren't usually about creating brand new worlds. 
I like to find some kind of magic in this one.  Rainbows, meteors, people doing what they thought was impossible, birds finding their way home. 
 I like to make magic too. Storytelling can do that. 
So can listening to a friend or sharing a smile.

photo by L. M. Lucius