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Do we unknowingly write ourselves into pieces of fiction where we hide out of view until somebody unexpectedly points out that we’re in the story?
When Charli Mills (Head Rancher) here at the Carrot Ranch prompted us to write a 99-word piece of flash fiction with the prompt ‘Swift Passage‘, I immediately saw a big ship. No, I wasn’t at the beach or by the sea, but some prompts can make me think I’m there.
The image stayed with me for two days until my fingers started the journey that would bring a comment that got me delving deeper into what I had written.
I did a little bit of research for this flash fiction piece, something I’m not always very good at doing. As my eyes scrolled a list of names, hoping that I would find my name by a strange coincidence, I felt disappointed when it was missing. Not even a person with the same surname as me was on it, but my eyes were drawn and focused on somebody with the first same name as me – Hugh.
I instantly felt connected with that person and felt sad that Mr Rood had not survived his journey.
By the time I published my response to the prompt, I didn’t think much more about it. I sat back and waited for any comments to come in.
‘You might have a connection,’ were the words in one comment that got my attention.
It got me wondering. Had I’d unknowingly written myself into this piece of flash fiction, I’d titled ‘A Night To Remember.’
After all, I’d always been interested in the location of the true story where my flash fiction piece was based, and this was not the first time I’d used it as a location.
Earlier in my blogging journey, one of the first short stories I’d written and published was partly centred around the same location as ‘A Night To Remember.’ I particularly liked that some of the comments for that early short story highlighted the twist. The twist, it seems, was the last part of the story’s location – a place most thought they knew but which had them making the wrong assumption.
In that early story, I’d included a framed photograph, which was the main item the story was centred around. I laughed out loud when somebody asked in a comment, ‘is the photo in the frame, you?‘ Why had they thought it was me in the picture?
I read the story back to myself before responding to that comment. Although I denied it was me in the photo, something at the back of my mind disagreed. Then somebody else mentioned that they’d thought I’d written myself into the story. It was not long before I started to ask myself if all writers do the same thing without really knowing about it.
When we write fiction, do we sometimes write about our previous lives?
However, back to my piece of flash fiction, ‘A Night To Remember.’ Although my real name was not on the list of the dead, a further comment mentioned I could have had a connection to the actual location of the story. I then remembered that I’m terrified of water. If it goes above my knees, I start to panic. Despite many swimming lessons, I’ve never been able to swim, and I won’t go into the sea or board anything that floats on it.
Had I been on board the ill-fated Titanic (the location of both stories I’ve mentioned in this post)? And in my current life as a writer, author and blogger, had I written fiction based on events that I’d witnessed?
Have you ever written yourself into a piece of fiction? Did you know you were doing it, or did somebody point out that you were in the story? Do you believe some of our stories are based on our previous lives?
If you missed my first post on Diversity With A Twist, here it is.
Copyright © 2021 Hugh W. Roberts – All rights reserved.
Hugh W. Roberts lives in Swansea, South Wales, in the United Kingdom.
Hugh gets his inspiration for writing from various avenues including writing prompts, photos, eavesdropping and while out walking his dogs, Although he was born in Wales, he has lived around various parts of the United Kingdom, including London where he lived and worked for 27 years.
Hugh suffers from a mild form of dyslexia but, after discovering blogging, decided not to allow the condition to stop his passion for writing. Since creating his blog ‘Hugh’s Views & News’ in February 2014, he has built up a strong following and now writes every day. Always keen to promote other bloggers, authors and writers, Hugh enjoys the interaction blogging brings and has built up a group of online friends.
His short stories have become well known for the unexpected twists they contain. One of the best compliments a reader can give Hugh is “I never saw that ending coming.”
Having published his first book of short stories, Glimpses, in December 2016, his second collection of short stories, More Glimpses, was released in March 2019.
A keen photographer, he also enjoys cycling, walking, reading, watching television, and enjoys relaxing with a glass of red wine and sweet popcorn.
Hugh shares his life with John, his civil-partner, and Toby and Austin, their Cardigan Welsh Corgis.
Before my high school sweetheart entered the Air Force almost fifty years ago, I had never been on a military installation. I didn’t know once I married him when he got to tech school after basic training, we would both have a military identification card. Mine was orange to signify I was a dependent. His card was green. Each card had the photo of the person who was authorized to carry and use it to gain access to installations and their amenities.
Back in 1972, the active-duty person was identified by their social security number, as were their dependents. Any activity the member or someone in the family did was connected to that number including on-base traffic tickets. I can still recite his today even though I haven’t been married to him since 1980. In 2011, with identity theft becoming a problem, the US military ceased using social security numbers and instituted a numerical system specific to each service branch.
A military installation is a microcosm within a fence. A valid ID gets you into it through the guarded gates. Besides all the buildings and roadways that make it a unique place with a specific purpose for the US government’s use, there is a social center for the personnel and their families. That includes the Exchange (large department store); Commissary (grocery store); O Club for officers which consists of a restaurant and bar; NCO Club for enlisted personnel; child-care center; beauty shop; bank; hospital; security police offices; law offices; library; fire stations; movie theater; swimming pool and maybe a bowling alley and/or golf course. I’m sure I forgot some things.
Also within the confines of the fence is base housing which to qualify for a military person has to have enough time in service and a family. Officers’ and enlisted housing are separated, but dependent children of both share the same schools. Sometimes housing is located away from the installation and is more like a subdivision of patio homes or quadruplexes. Individual yards are often fenced, and there are plenty of small children and pets.
In 1974, my ex received orders for a three-year accompanied tour to Lakenheath AFB, England. We only had one child at the time, so that meant he would report there on a specified date, and then he would have to rent a suitable home for us before the Air Force would cut our orders to join him. It wasn’t a quick process, but the government footed the bill.
When I got the news he had rented a brick house with two large bedrooms, an attached garage, and fenced yards on Thetford Road, in Brandon, Suffolk County, I was elated. Then I learned that it had been empty for a time, and wondered why. The crux was that the coal stove in the kitchen heated the hot water radiators in other rooms. The landlord would only rent the house to someone who knew how to feed the stove methodically during the day, bank it at night and not mind the mess of coal and ashes. My ex had no experience doing such, but he knew I did.
I should interject the average low temperature during an English winter is around 40 degrees Fahrenheit and the summer high averages 70. Heat is necessary, but not like in the Finger Lakes area of New York State where I grew up with a large wood stove in residence.
I loved that coal stove. During the winter I always had a hot kettle of water at the ready. I made soups and stews on it and I got so I used the oven as well, especially for pot roast. Our son had learned to walk while waiting to go live with Daddy, and he experienced “hot” very quickly, so stayed away from that side of the small kitchen.
Our daughter was born at the Lakenheath AFB hospital in December 1974, which meant we became eligible for base housing. Thus, we only lived in Brandon for a year. I didn’t want to leave the house “on the economy” or the friendly town, but it meant an increase in the paycheck so, we moved into “substandard base housing.”
Moving while in the military is expected. It is also quite simple. A date gets set; the movers arrive, pack everything for you, and deposit it at the new address. You do have to do your own unpacking and decorating. I wouldn’t want it any other way, especially when it comes to arranging my kitchen cupboards.
“Substandard” meant we would live in a row house built in the 1930s at RAF Feltwell, Norfolk County. The rooms were small, the neighbors attached by thin walls, and no amenities. We had to drive seven and a half miles to Lakenheath AFB for those.
The following year we moved to “standard” housing in Thetford, Norfolk County. This home was much newer, had in-floor hot water heat, three bedrooms, a garage, and a fully fenced back yard. I enjoyed walking into town with our children in a large wheeled English pram (baby carriage.) The Little River Ouse runs through a park we frequented and my son loved to watch the fisherman. Still, all major shopping and other appointments happened on base, 12 miles away. My ex had coworkers living in the same subdivision, so they would share rides, and I often had a car at my disposal to do errands at Lakenheath. I didn’t find driving on the left side of the road a problem.
We returned to the states in 1977 but my memories of our time in the UK seem like it was much more recently. I would like to revisit the area with my grandson so he can see where his Mom was born and spent her first two years. I would point out the 700-year old buildings that are still in use and make sure there is time to visit the coast which I didn’t do when I lived there.
Have you traveled or lived someplace you would like to visit again? Have you had the opportunity to use an experience from your childhood, like a wood stove, to enhance a happening in your adult life? Please share your comments below.
Sue Spitulnik was an Air Force wife from 1972 until 1979. She stays connected to the military/veteran community through her membership in the Rochester (NY) Veterans Writing Group. The group has recently published an anthology of some of their military experiences, United in Service, United in Sacrifice, available on Amazon. If you would like to contact her directly, you can do so on her Facebook page; Sue Carmichael Spitulnik
In this series-depending on how long it lasts, for life, writing, and so many other things, are quite fleeting-I hope to look at a few classic films, give my take on them, perhaps even say something new that will have significance for today, and, failing that, try like the devil to be entertainingly provocative. I also hope to post a link or two about/to the films I examine, if available, so that they can be enjoyed (or dismissed) with full access.
In this, the sixth in my limited series of film observations, I want to pay homage to the reporter. Reporters feature predominately in noir. They are even more prevalent in police procedurals. Sometimes the line blurs.
I have selected two quite different films that both feature reporters. One honours the profession. Even if the main protagonist begins as a cynic, he evolves, becomes transformed. This classic is called Call Northside 777 and was directed by the always excellent Henry Hathaway. The second film is a formidable exploration into journalistic opportunism. Alternately known as Ace in the Hole and The Big Carnival, its director, Billy Wilder was an amazing fellow. Both fine cinematic powerhouses were shepherded by film artists.
Newspaper Noir: Call Northside 777
For reasons only a psychiatrist might be able to answer, Call Northside 777 is one of two films I have watched a dozen times at least. The other is the original King Kong.
Oh, make that three. The Maltese Falcon is solid and frequent comfort film food as well.
Call Northside 777, a film rooted in actual events, begins with an excellent documentary montage that incorporates both real and fictional footage is cinematic license at its best.
It is initially set in the early thirties.
The fading days of Prohibition.
The narrative begins with a sudden violent crime. It’s a miserable winter day in Chicago and a neighbourhood cop is warming up in a back room of Wanda Skutnik’s Speakeasy.
We then are witness to the sudden violent shooting of the policeman, the suspects fleeing, the immediate police response.
Frank Wiecek, played by the excellent noir actor Richard Conte, and his friend Tomek Zaleska are shortly rounded up and pretty swiftly convicted thanks to Wanda’s eyewitness testimony.
The prison doors slam shut.
The years move on.
10 years later, James Stewart is newspaperman P.J. McNeal. I should note here that Stewart’s character is based on Chicago Sun-Times reporter James P. Maguire, who wrote the original story on which the movie is based.
McNeal gets a new assignment. He reluctantly follows the orders of his Editor, played by Lee J. Cobb. Someone is offering $5,000 for information about the old shooting.
McNeal is a jaded reporter. He’s seen it all before. He tracks Tillie Wiecek down. Frank Wiecek’s mother has been scrubbing floors for over a decade constantly seeking enough money to pry loose what she believes is the truth: that her son Frank is innocent.
The story is written and McNeal milks it for what he thinks its worth. However, it takes on a life of its own. Bad Pun Alert: A life sentence of its own.
For my money, this film has many of the attributes I look for in a quality noir. Though missing a duplicitous femme fatale, (although there is variation on this theme in the guise of Wanda Skutnik- performed with gloriously grotesque skill by character actress, Bette Garde) it does have a protagonist who grows morally/ethically as the tale progresses. McNeal is aided by a loyal spouse, played by the tragic Helen Walker, and we catch glimpses of their life together, a beer after work, an ongoing jigsaw puzzle on the coffee table, a snarky but flexible boss, an actual city (in this case, Chicago, is featured) in all its dismal black and white beauty.
The strength of this film, aside from the acting, the location, the intensity, is how McNeal unravels the mystery. Every time I watch it, I enjoy it more.
Of course, the film is mostly set in the forties. The technologies are antiquated. Still, it is an investigative thriller, gritty, yet with an honesty about love and time and fear…well worth seeing especially for McNeal’s transformation from skeptic to advocate, and for what most will find a satisfying ending.
Newspaper Noir: Ace in the Hole
There is an argument to be made that Billy Wilder, the writer, producer, and director of the 1951 film, Ace in the Hole, is one of Hollywood’s most talented auteurs. Certainly, as others have noted, he wrote/co-wrote and directed two of the most influential and award-winning film noir, Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard.
Ace in the Hole, starring Kirk Douglas as fallen-on-hard-times big city reporter Chuck Tatum, is passing through Albuquerque.
Full of himself, even in his dilapidated state, he pitches his credentials to the publisher of a small paper, the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. Though Tatum is obnoxious and cocky to a fault, the publisher, played by one of the great character actors, Porter Hall, hires him.
A while later, while on assignment with a young co-worker (an assignment to cover an annual rattlesnake hunt),Tatum and his Jimmy Olsen-like companion pull into a full-service Tourist Trap, gas station, greasy spoon, (desert-style) and trinket emporium. It is a fortuitous stop for Tatum. The owner is stuck in a hole in the earth a short distance away.
The light goes on for Tatum. Though not to my knowledge based on any one real person, the event he stumbles on has been compared to two real-life tragedies: The first occurred in 1925. W. Floyd Collins, a skilled spelunker, got trapped inside Sand Cave in Kentucky. A Louisville newspaper, the Courier-Journal sent reporter William Burke Miller to cover the story. Miller covered the story so well, so creatively that he eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for the coverage. As a footnote, John Prine has a fine song on this story as well.
These true stories had to have been in the mind of writer and director Billy Wilder as he wrote the screenplay for Ace in the Hole.
The story that falls into Tatum’s lap, and his manipulation not just of the innocent victims, including Leo’s wife, Lorraine,
played by the wonderful Jan Sterling, whom he encounters at the small desert outpost but also of the story itself, his consuming desire to control all aspects, the creation of the ”carnival” of attendees at his nightmarish news fabrication, his blatant opportunism, all of this is best savoured by a viewing of the film.
Newspaper Noir: Final Thoughts
As with most human enterprise, journalism is practiced by a range of personalities. Certainly, the past few decades of cable news have given a painfully valuable insight into the depths of exploitation and personal tragedy which many journalists are capable of mining. On the other hand, many victims of tragic circumstance have become more than willing cohorts.
I believe these two films represent polar opposites…in one, (spoiler alert) an innocent man is finally liberated. In the other, though there may be just desserts in store for Chuck Tatum, his like always survive. And multiply.
I hope you have enjoyed the column. I have provided some links. There is one for the film, Call Northside 777, but only a link for the trailer for Ace in the Hole although it is available on YouTube to rent.
About the Author
Bill Engleson is a retired social worker, Pickleball aficionado, energetic novelist, poet, humorist, essayist, flash fictionista, an engaged community volunteer, and pro-vaccine fellow and is resident on Denman Island in British Columbia. He has published one noirish social work novel, Like a Child to Home, which received an Honourable Mention at the inaugural 2016 Whistler Independent Book Awards. In 2016, Silver Bow Publishing released his second book, a collection of humorous literary essays entitled Confessions of an Inadvertently Gentrifying Soul.
He has any number of writing projects in the hopper including a local monthly column, In 200 Words or Less, a prequel to his first novel, Drawn Towards the Sun, and a detective mystery set in the 1970’s, A Short Rope on a Nasty Night.
For more information, check his twitter, @billmelaterplea, and his occasionally updated website/blog www.engleson.ca
Family. That word conjures up images or thoughts. For some, they think of those they live with, others may think of parents or loved ones outside of their household, while some immediately focus on children and grandchildren. There are living family members, and those we’ve grieved. Whomever or whatever comes to mind, family has a lasting impact.
Our world has undergone an unthinkable health crisis with the COVID pandemic. Lockdown kept us in the safe confines of our homes with social distancing imposed, as fellow columnist, T. Marie Bertineau, shared in her column, isolation was not the hardest part, to which I agree. My retired parents are social and enjoy their daily outings. This apple fell far from that tree. I worried that they wouldn’t be able to sustain a lockdown as well as I could.
In the early days of the shelter-in-place, I remember thinking how grateful I was that my grandparents were no longer living to endure this crisis. They each battled enough in their lifetimes: wars, illnesses, poverty, and racism. Days rolled into weeks and weeks turned into month after month of uncertainty. Soon, I found myself longing for the wisdom of my grandparents.
My abuela would have undoubtedly helped us stretch our pantry items into delicious and comforting meals so we wouldn’t have to leave the safety of our home for groceries.
My abuelo, a WW II veteran, would have remained updated with what was being reported globally, nationally, and locally. He would have advised his seven children, nine grandchildren, and fifteen great-grandchildren on what he gathered from various sources of media and perceived to be the truth.
My paternal grandma was a single mother of eight, having outlived two of her children and a spouse, a grandmother to twenty-something, countless great-grandchildren, great-great grandchildren, and now, great-great-great grandbabies. She would have reminded us that this too shall pass, but not without some lasting effects. She would have said that fear is always an option, but not to expect something beautiful to come from living in that state. Similarly, my grandma would have reaffirmed that no one is invincible, and ignorance never wins. The entire family would have had homemade sets of masks sent to them. Most of all, my grandparents would have expected our family to look out for one another and our neighbors.
I recall going into summer longing for some respite, but seeing hate and racism take center stage. As I stated earlier, these were the things my grandparents endured as Mexican Americans. In an instant, I saw the fear in my children’s eyes as local protests clogged city streets and freeways. Then, unexpectedly, we received word that my mother-in-law died. She was just here and then she wasn’t. My husband lost his mother, and my children lost a grandparent. I knew abuela would have pulled out her prayer candles and kept them flickering from morning until night.
Throughout the pandemic, I learned how easy it is to become mired down in doom and uncertainty. It is strange how these events can change everything that we thought we knew about ourselves and our family. This was not the time to run, but instead, be still and listen. My comfort with being distant was no longer acceptable. I could hear my grandparents telling me to connect.
My children and I have made it an evening ritual for the past year to video call my parents to see them, their dog, and so they can see their grandchildren. Our calls are so expected now that even their dog meanders around them in the evening anticipating the ring of the phone.
Placing a call to my parents on speaker as I drove or accomplished another daily task, was how our conversations previously occurred. They often worked when I phoned them, and it was easier for us to converse without stopping our daily grind. Now, we all sit and actually take the time to see one another, albeit through a screen. Initially, I thought the connection was for my children and my parents, but I make them laugh and I look forward to that each day. That heals my soul too.
I wholeheartedly feel the pandemic has some lessons in it for humanity. As an educator, I teach my students about social awareness by looking inward first, then using that self-awareness to bond with one another. As a strong family of classmates, we are then able to bless our greater community with our unconditional love and respect. I realized I gleaned that outlook from my grandparents and how they approached life, despite adversity.
It’s been decades since I hugged my grandma, and over a decade since I laughed with my abuelo. Next year, will mark ten years since my abuela left us. I would love a phone call with my grandparents again. The pandemic has reminded me that despite the years, I still remember their wisdom and what it felt like to be in their presence. I miss my grandparents tremendously and the days of being called their grandchild.
Anna Rodriguez is a wife, mother, and elementary teacher. She is completing her first contemporary novel set in California’s Central Valley. Family and friendships are important themes for Anna’s work because of the influences they have had on her life. When Anna is not writing or hanging out with her family, she can be found reading or searching for music to add to her eclectic playlist. She will complete her MFA in Creative Writing in the summer of 2021.
It’s too early to say whether lockdown will permanently change the boundaries between work and home. For all the benefits of curtailing commuting, many have missed the water-cooler conversations and the nine-to-five routine. Zoom fatigue is common, although online meetings have provided some amusing stories: the judge who spoke from behind a cat filter; the executive who unwittingly invited his colleagues to watch him take a shower. We’ve yet to see how those stories will translate into novels; in the meantime, let’s consider a few set in the workplace in pre-pandemic times. As usual with my lockdown literature posts, clicking on the title will take you to the review on my blog.
Behind the glamour
Ever fantasised about being an astronaut? Jaroslav Kalfar’s debut is a lovely novel that almost defies description. While some novels suffer from the weight of too many stories, Spaceman of Bohemiamanages to be much bigger than the sum of its many parts: sci-fi adventure; love story; sociopolitical history of the Czech Republic and homage to Prague; psychodrama of how the actions of one generation shape the next; a meditation on identity, adaption to loss, and what makes us human.
Although we’re generally aware of the murk behind the make-up of show business, we’re still drawn to the glitter. In her beautifully accomplished debut about Hollywood history, Delayed Rays of a Star, Amanda Lee Koe presents the personalities behind the performance, entwined with the politics of prejudice and the murky world beneath the sparkle of cinema.
With a more contemporary setting, Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, is a playful novel, set out like a screenplay, raising serious issues about identity, stereotypes and cinema, and the invisibility of people of Asian origin in the narrative of the American dream.
Doing the dirty work
Some jobs are unusual and glamorous. Others are just unusual.
The men in The Butchers, by Ruth Gilligan, are a world away from your high-street butcher, although their job involves killing cows. This is a beautifully written and compassionate story of four characters adapting to major change in their personal lives while their native Ireland catapults into the twenty-first century, wrapped up in a mystery involving a disturbing photograph.
Also about butchering, Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica, is a refreshingly light, but not lightweight, dystopian novel about cannibalism, with themes of animal welfare, our collective disregard for humans deemed different to us, alongside the dehumanising culture of some types of work.
I could recommend a fair few novels about warfare, but I’ve selected one with a focus on the backroom boys of the battlefield. Louisa Hall’s Trinity, is a beautifully written meditation on bombs and betrayal, patriotism and paranoia around the development, deployment and aftermath of the original weapon of mass destruction.
Work that’s inherently tedious can, in the right hands, be fascinating on the page. From the title, I’d never have imagined that Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata would be so entertaining. It’s a novella about the pressures to conform to societal norms of female identity, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori.
A central character with no history or context beyond his working life. A focus on office life that fails to clarify the purpose of the work undertaken. An enigma that is never completely resolved. A plain understated style. For a glimpse of the absurdity of work, I recommend Jonas Karlsson’s novella The Room: a marvellous Kafkaesque fable about office politics, diversity and differing versions of reality.
I also enjoyed Tom Fletcher’s novel about a milkman: Witch Bottle is a literary horror novel set in rural Cumbria about a man whose childhood trauma has left him in terror of his repressed potential for violence.
If I’d ever fancied being a delivery person, Daniel’s milk round would have shown me the error of my ways. But after months in lockdown, many yearn to spend more time outdoors. Why brave the elements, when we can read about it in a book?
Nothing but Dust by Sandrine Collette is a startlingly honest account of the harshness of life on the Patagonian steppe and the impact of a mother’s inability to love both herself and her sons.
Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Borderis a gorgeous novel, about sex, class and old-fashioned sexism; the impact of a chaotic childhood; the prospect of Scottish independence; and the harsh realities of land management that the townies, with their idealised notions of the countryside, don’t understand. It’s about the compromise between freedom and comfort, the border between civilisation and the wild.
A career cut short
The performing arts have perhaps suffered most during the pandemic, but this novel is a reminder that other illnesses can prematurely curtailed careers. Every Note Playedis the story of a concert pianist suffering from motor neurone disease. I loved this for the author’s compassion for her flawed characters, and the emotional range and depth. Although often wary of a redemption-through-catastrophe-or-suffering narrative, I really appreciated eavesdropping on this family’s bumpy journey to some kind of resolution.
Novels about novelists
I tend to avoid tales of fictional writers, but A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne is so outrageously entertaining, I couldn’t resist. It’s an engrossing study of envy, narcissism and naked ambition in and outside the literary world. I’m sure no-one reading this bears any resemblance to the main character.
Would you set a novel in your own workplace?
One reason I’m not keen on writers as characters, is it can feel as if the author has taken the easy way out. Instead of researching a more interesting occupation, they’ve reproduced their own.
On the other hand, a writer’s day job – or in my case, former career – can provide a deep well of inspiration, while captivating readers to whom it’s unfamiliar. At least I hope so, as I’m about to publish a novel set in a fictionalised version of the long-stay psychiatric hospital where I worked for over a decade from the mid-1980s. I’m entertaining my newsletter subscribers with some of the back story to Matilda Windsor Is Coming Home. Why not join us and get a free e-book of prize-winning short stories: bit.ly/daughtershorts.
In the dying days of the old asylums, three paths intersect.
Henry was only a boy when he waved goodbye to his glamorous grown-up sister; approaching sixty, his life is still on hold as he awaits her return.
As a high-society hostess renowned for her recitals, Matty’s burden weighs heavily upon her, but she bears it with fortitude and grace.
Janice, a young social worker, wants to set the world to rights, but she needs to tackle challenges closer to home.
A brother and sister separated by decades of deceit. Will truth prevail over bigotry, or will the buried secret keep family apart?
In this, her third novel, Anne Goodwin has drawn on the language and landscapes of her native Cumbria and on the culture of long-stay psychiatric hospitals where she began her clinical psychology career.
Add your reading recommendations to the comments.
Tell me also, would you set a novel in your own workplace?
One day, back when we lived in California, I went to Catholic church with my spouse (I’m Baptist, so I have an excuse not to go all the time). As soon as I walked in the first door, I detected that sweet and yet overpowering scent of roses. Upon entering the second door, the freshness of greenery hit me – even over the scent of the incense – and my eyes feasted upon a mountain of flowers unlike anything I’d ever seen before (and I’ve been to true Southern funerals!). The mountain flowed from the bottom of a painting of the Virgin Mary. From beneath a statue of the Lady’s feet spilled another mountain of lush blooms, and the floral collection tumbled all the way across the dais on which the altar sat.
Being the shocked protestant I was, I leaned over to my husband and asked, “What is THAT?”
“It’s the Feast of Guadalupe. It’s very popular in Mexico.”
From that, I’ve learned a bit more about the feast and the story behind it. So pull up a chair, smell the flowers, and let’s dig in.
A Quick Rundown on Mary, Mariology, and Marian Apparitions
Mary: Mother of God.
If you ask me, that’s a pretty big job, and that should make Mary pretty important to religious folks. There’s not many details about Mary, however, present in the Bible. How do we study someone who, other than the details presented mostly in Luke, has mostly been erased?
The study of Mary is known as “Mariology”. Catholics and Orthodox parishioners include things such as Sacred Tradition and other, post-biblical doctrines as part of the information to be studied as part of Mariology. From this, aspects of Mary and her life have been more fully derived and defined for the faithful. As a protestant, I was most surprised to find out about the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is part of Catholic tradition.
Other sources of information are something called Marian Apparitions. These are times that Mary has allegedly appeared to people and sometimes given them help or direction. Through Mary’s continued actions, thoughts on what she supports have also built. These apparitions are often named “Our Lady of [Insert Location Apparition Was Seen Here]”. Our Lady of Fatima, for instance, was seen in Fatima, Spain.
And, most importantly, Our Lady of Guadalupe was seen in Guadalupe, a suburb of Mexico City.
Juan Diego Builds a Church
Our Lady of Guadalupe is based on a series of five apparitions, four to Juan Diego and one to his uncle, Juan Bernadino.
On December 9th, 1531, Juan Diego followed a call coming from Tepeyac hill. Once he reached the site, he discovered a radiant Indian woman dressed in Aztec finery. There the visage told him she was the Mother of God and all humanity, and she ordered him to build a house for her on the site. In order to fulfill her demands, he needed to ask the Bishop for help.
Juan Diego asked Bishop Juan de Zumárraga to build the temple, but he was dismissed. There are a few religious speculations as to why, but what I’ve seen points to a bishop that is ultimately blameless (if wrong). I think it likely that the bishop didn’t pay attention to a poor convert. As a Spanish conquerer, it makes sense the bishop would have (racistly and wrongly) ignored an Indian peasant. The humility, origins, and economic station of Juan Diego makes his story all the more important.
After having failed to obtain Bishop Juan de Zumárraga’s blessing and help, Juan Diego returned to the hill where the Lady told him to try a second time the next day. At the second telling, the Bishop found him bold and wondered why the man insisted a second Marian Apparition has appeared. He demanded a sign that Juan Diego is telling the truth.
Later that night, Juan Diego returned home to find his only family – uncle Juan Bernadino – so sick and ailing that he was surely dying. Juan Diego remained at his uncle’s bedside, caring for him for two days, but the man did not recover. He tells his uncle that he must leave to get a priest to prepare for death.
On his way, he runs into the Lady again. She rebuked him for not having the faith to return to her, but Juan Diego bravely asked her to give him the sign requested by the bishop. She told him to return to Tepeyac hill and pick flowers.
Juan Diego was confused because of the wintery season, but he followed through. At the top of the hill, the Lady of Guadalupe helped him pick the miracle flowers and placed them in his tilma. She told him to bring the flowers to the Bishop.
Upon giving the tilma to the bishop, the flowers tumbled out and reveal the image of the virgin.
At the same time that Juan Diego showed his faith to the Lady, she appeared to the uncle Juan Bernadino and healed him. After her church is built, it became known for its healing properties.
This last apparition, on December 12th, marks the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
A Travel Destination and Symbol of Mexico
The tilma (cloak) of Juan Diego was only supposed to last for a short time, but preservation of the image and a combination of miracles means that you can still visit it. While 2020 was of course an aberration due to the pandemic, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is otherwise one of the most visited religious sites on the planet (only behind the Meiji temple or the Kashi Vishwanath temple). People travel to this site for healing, to inspect the miraculous cloak, and to celebrate the December 12th feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The tilma and apparition has come to represent much more than a single set of events that took place during Spanish colonialism. It has come to represent Mexican heritage, social justice, healing, and hope for the poor and indigenous. As Mary appeared to a poor Indian, dressed in both clothes and skin of an Aztec, even the Church has declared her the patron saint of Mexico (even if there was controversy surrounding the authenticity of the story).
In addition to being a symbol for the downtrodden, she has become a symbol, rallying point, and part of Mexico itself. Starting with the war for Mexican independence from Spain, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla encouraged untrained peasants and common people to throw off the Spanish colonists. Because Mary, as the Lady of Guadalupe, symbolized hope and belief in the downtrodden, this helped in his rallying call and brought her image into politics as well as religion.
Since then, people of Mexican heritage have carried her image and importance all across the globe. She has seen Mexico through civil wars, popular uprisings, and battles concerning the separation of church and state. White, protestant Americans may not know much about the Lady of Guadalupe beyond her symbolism of Mexico, but she is important throughout all of the Americas and is an essential part of the world.
For More Information
I hope you enjoyed reading this – it ended up WAY longer than I’d intended! I also worry that people probably know more about this than I realize. I did, after all, grow up in a super-sheltered fundamentalist protestant household.
As I was reading up on this, I found that many sites included several details about the story that others did not. The main story in the “Juan Diego Builds a Church” section was my summary that took information from all of these sources. Be careful and discerning – a lot of sources are religious, so they have a certain agenda to fulfill.
And, of course, Wikipedia has a great summary.
About the Author: H.R.R. Gorman is a PhD chemical engineer with expertise in biotechnology and making drugs. Following science, Dr. G’s greatest passions are writing and history. If you want to know more about this white-trash-turned-excessively-bourgeois maniac, you can go to https://hrrgorman.wordpress.com/.
Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes, I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can escape the madness, melancholia, and panic fear inherent in a human situation. ~Graham Greene.
I am a classic example of this statement. When arthritis struck me in every joint of my body, the plus side was that I became aware of all the joints that exist. Each step would be as laborious as a chain smoker trying to breathe. The pain was excruciating, and to date, I get the chills. The negative side was I was forced to go into hibernation mode.
However, my infant was being taken care of by my mom, who had traveled from India. At the same time, I had to make an effort to move to nourish myself, in short, to come out of hibernation.
Weeks turned into months, and I finally decided to quit my corporate job since I had no hope of going back. It was a tough decision, but I decided to take charge of myself. No more blaming fate over it; thus, slowly, but with steady steps, I decided to fight this inflammation off my body while keeping a keen eye on my infant’s milestones in the background.
This autoimmune disease was my turning point in my life. While the doctors had prescribed me pills to ingest every other hour, I decided to fill myself up with affirmative messages to get my limbs moving.
I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn. ~Anne Frank
I started to pen down words since we all know that the society that we live in is filled with negativity. Dialogues from a distance such as, “Oh! How do you manage?” “Gosh! I feel for you.” “You are so young to get this?”
The above conversations would put me in the ‘Why me?’ stage, and I would get into the loop of never-ending pity. That would incur all sorts of negative emotions and make me take a back step.
Some of the writing:
Life has many phases bestowed upon us. There will be happy while there will be challenges to overcome. Don’t become serious when there are challenges ahead in life; continue to do your part to solve the issue by being sincere. You being diligent, honest will take you miles. But by becoming serious and losing sleep on it will make matters worse. Since the saying goes, “All work and no play make a man all dull and lame.”
You can do it!! This is the mantra we should always be chanting. Man is born to have ups and downs in his life. In this period of life, we go through ups and downs, and we can stay motivated during our down period by chanting the above mantra. Positive thinking helps.
The power of a touch, a small act of caring, can blossom a plant. Life is like a plant. Just as the plant needs water, fertilizer, sunshine, and fresh air, we need to experience the power of a touch, a smile, have a listener beside us, or hear a compliment to keep us blossoming and going every day in our lives.
Develop a challenge during a crisis. Keeping that attitude will make you confident; to try to overcome the problem, and you will be able to see through the smoky tunnel for light.
Life is a grindstone, and it will grind us down. We can choose to get polished by the grinding and shine like a jewel, or we could get crushed by the grinding.
Every minute our body creates a new cell. The cell divides, and a new cell is formed based on the type of energy we have. If we are bickering or complaining, the new cells formed are deformed and can have a derogatory effect on our health in the long run. No matter what the situation is, think positively. No problem can be as big as the kind of cell being produced in your body, which will reward us in the long run with good health.
The topic for the write-up would vary on my mood each day. But writing helped; I would go back to it; when fear, anger, pity would encircle me. These words would be gold then and would ground me and help me find light in the dark tunnel.
Eventually, this kind of pattern became a habit, and today I cannot live without it. My body is quick to retaliate if anything negative encircles around, making me conscious of my breath and thoughts.
Amidst all the chaos and the turmoil of inflammation, I could sense the negative and positive vibes. That also made me recognize that universal energy is supreme; thus, I learned about Reiki and other modalities.
I eventually started penning stories and novels and entered the self-publishing world in 2013. Also, I blog at Abracabadra, which has inspired many because of the mantras attached to each feature.
My 2 cents
Life is all about twists and turns. This detour in my life made me recognize the passion within, and I am living a fulfilled life.
Mantra for today: Man plans for his future, but only 1% of it gets executed. 99% is what destiny has in store for him. But the choice is yours to either drive it or let it drive you!
This post comes from Rough Writer Ruchira Khanna
A Biochemist turned writer who gathers inspiration from the society where I write about issues that stalk the mind of the man via tales of fiction.
I blog at Abracabadra which has been featured as “Top Blog” for five years. Many of my write-ups have been published on LifeHack, HubPages to name a few.
I can be found at:
Call me the girl in the bubble, but I like the comfort of my space. I’m not an especially affectionate adult—a flaw I own and often ponder. I’m reserved with PDA, sometimes a bit stiff. So when 2020’s tsunami of a coronavirus rose from the depths of the Wuhan meat market, engulfed the globe, and banished humanity to our six-foot bubbles of isolation, I was more than willing to adhere to the restrictions. Six feet? To be frank, that was more in keeping with my preference.
Though the CDC guidelines suited my needs, I was aware that not all society felt the same. My younger sister, for instance—the touchy-feely one of the family—is my polar opposite. While she lamented the lack of sight, touch, and scent of others, I took to wearing my six-foot isolation bubble like haute couture. Paired with matching mask, all that was missing was a spot-on accessory, a petri dish perhaps. Bubble fashion was on trend, at least for me.
In deference to my bubble, I rarely left the house this past year, with the exception of a grocery run or an occasional dash to the big-box store. I even ceased all visits to the hair salon. It has been a year since I’ve seen my stylist, a fact which is all too glaring. Had we a tower in our humble abode I could let my hair down, but the strands have become so brittle I doubt it would make for a sturdy climb. My husband, on the other hand, dared to tend to the activity of his follicles when restrictions permitted. Unfortunately, this created the need for safe distancing at home as well. Kisses resembled sideswipes of the jawline, a faint smear of L’Oreal’s Blushing Berry the only evidence of our encounter (provided I even bothered to apply makeup that day).
“Are haircuts really necessary?” I asked him each time he headed out to his appointment. “Are they essential? I’m thinking not.”
Much like me, my mother, who lives some thirty miles away on the Reserve, was holed up in her bubble, snug as a winter’s waistband. An elder of slight construction and a diabetic to boot, she wasn’t taking any chances with socializing. She was masking up, sanitizing, avoiding crowds, and abandoning her shoes on the doorstep upon her return home from essential excursions. On the rare occasion I delivered something to her or stopped by the house to help with a technical issue, we kept our distance, yelled at each other through our three-ply masks, and when I exited the residence, I’m certain I heard the hiss of a Lysol can in my wake. We blew kisses from afar and though pre-virus I would normally hug my mom, instead I hugged myself on these visits and mentally teleported the action to her. We were satisfied with that for now.
But that was us.
It was on a recent trip to the Reserve that my bubble was finally burst. It occurred two days post snowstorm, when I picked up my huggy sister to drive her to a medical appointment at the health clinic. A long-term cancer survivor, she’s tough as jerky and what’d you classify as a fighter, but that doesn’t make her any less of a people person. She had sequestered herself securely throughout the year, not by choice, mind you, but mainly because her immune system had been wracked by past chemotherapy. A novel virus was the last thing she needed, and she’d done a good job of avoiding it (knock on wood, as Mom would say).
Though in her youth my sibling had been delayed in physical development, as an adult, you wouldn’t know this about her. She’s fully bloomed now, her legs long, her trunk robust. True, cancer was a setback, but she emerged from the disease with a lush head of hair and the wisdom of one who’s tread the abyss, a trait which might jade others—but not my sister. Years have kissed her delicate face, but her smile is wide and her eyes bright, the combination of which emanates a childlike affection very few of us possess. It is this affection she is compelled to express. She is drawn to hug, to pat, to touch, her fingers like those of a seven-year-old pianist, slim, lithe tendrils, the only physical part of her which has not kept time. She is a perplexing blend of woman and child with a need to be nurtured through contact with others. Thankfully, on this particular day, she was respecting my rather stringent boundaries, keeping to her space in the rear passenger seat of my Subaru.
“We’re stopping by Mom’s, right?” she asked as we headed out of town, her voice eager. “I wonder if she’ll let us in.” We both laughed. Sometimes humor is our only defense.
The medical appointment was brief, and afterward we drove the few miles to Mom’s house. It was the week of my birthday, and she’d asked me to stop by to pick up my gift. With masks secured and hands sanitized, we climbed the porch steps. Mom was waiting at the door. She waved us inside. She’d had both her vaccinations by this time, and though she still wore her mask, was feeling a bit saucy. The three of us stood in the narrow hall, pressed between the washer and dryer on one side and a boot bench on the other.
“Here,” Mom said, presenting me with a large gift bag. “Open your present.”
“Right now?” I was surprised she was willing to remain in close contact with us for that length of time.
“Yeah! Go ’head!” It had been a year since she’d been able to watch any of us open a gift.
I reached into the bag and pulled out a card and three little bundles wrapped in white tissue paper: two sets of sleeveless, floral pajamas ideal for the post-menopausal woman and a pair of purple scuffs. Amethyst is my birthstone, and Mom often buys me things in hues of purple. “Mm,” I said, smiling. “So pretty! These’ll work perfect. Thank you!”
The gifts opened and pleasantries exchanged, our short visit drew to a close.
“I’m glad I got to see you,” my sister said to Mom. “I miss you.”
“I miss you too, honey,” Mom said, a nib of sadness there. Regret in a lower key.
My sister’s gaze tendered, her eyes hazed. Time lulled as a clock’s tick faded. The air grew thick, alerting me. Something was coming. Something was about to happen.
And then it did.
I watched as my sister’s arm reached out across the expanse. A hand in need. Gloveless. It emerged from her bubble, slipped through mine, eased into Mom’s. The tips of her fingers brushed the skin of Mom’s wrist, the back of her hand, her knuckles. A forbidden gesture; perhaps the first touch in over a year. “Mommy,” she whispered in her woman-child way.
I dangled there on emotion, aware of the significance of the moment—not just of the physical exchange itself, but of the struggle which had propelled it. The year-long isolation. The deprivation. I had witnessed an innate craving for affection, for an intimate connection with another human being. It was all spoken in a single, gentle sweep of warm skin: the toll this pandemic has wrought on something so human as touch. I had all but forgotten.
One’s bubble may be a comfort, but another’s may be a curse.
Born amidst the copper mining ruins of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, T. Marie Bertineau is of Anishinaabe-Ojibwe and French Canadian/Cornish descent. She is a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community on the L’Anse Reservation, migizi odoodeman. Her work has appeared online with Minnesota’s Carver County Arts Consortium; in Mino Miikana, a publication of the Native Justice Coalition and Waub Ajijaak Press; and in the annual journal U.P. Reader. Her debut memoir The Mason House (Lanternfish Press) was named a 2021 Michigan Notable Book. Married and the mother of two, she makes her home in Michigan’s Keweenaw.
In recent discussion with my husband about decorating our kitchen, I asked if we had enough paint for the base boards. Base boards? For the life of me, I couldn’t think what we call them here in England. Skirting boards. Yes, that’s what I meant.
This August will mark eighteen years since I left California. Eighteen years and it still won’t be as long as the time I lived there. I am British born and bred, but I left in my twenties and lived in America until my mid-forties. Those years shaped me into who I am today. They shaped my American/British children. And our heritage is richer for it.
My family is a blended mix of traditions and learning. My eldest son taught me what Thanksgiving meant when I volunteered in his first grade classroom. My middle boy taught me the story of Johnny Appleseed planting apple trees. My youngest gave me a tour of a ruined Spanish mission. Together, we learnt about California’s history.
In turn in England, I gave them fireworks on their first Bonfire Night in November. In the summer, I bought them 99 ice cream cones with chocolate flakes from a van by the sea. In between I took them to Hampton Court to show them where Henry VIII once lived.
In America, I did this: I got married, worked in downtown Los Angeles and moved to the Central Coast. I gave birth, raised my children through the American school system. I took college classes. I rented houses, bought one, lost one and bought again. I drove a Camaro that leaked power steering fluid. I switched to a family-friendly Windstar and got pulled over by a cop for a “moving violation” at a four-way stop sign on my way to church. I travelled the length and breadth of California and marvelled at Yosemite and the Grand Canyon.
I camped at Mount Shasta and watched a racoon steal our Cheezits.
In America I found joy and heartbreak. People I loved died. I got divorced. I moved back to England with my children and the remnants of our American dream in a shipping container. But America and our life there did not leave us. My husband has observed the unique way, as he puts it, that I interact with my children when we are gathered. I am not aware of it, it isn’t obvious. But it’s intrinsic because it’s who we are
I liken it to a friend from my school days growing up in Suffolk. She would invite me to her home for tea, and one afternoon her grandmother called for a quick chat on the phone. She lived hours away in Birmingham, my friend’s original home. My friend chatted away, oblivious that she had broken out in a strong “Brummie” accent. We laughed about it afterwards, but she hadn’t realised she’d reverted to her childhood lingo. She had slipped into it naturally, without thinking.
Expressions with words used differently once gave me pause. The first time an American asked me, ‘What’s up?’ I was taken aback. Nothing was wrong, couldn’t he tell? I soon realised he meant it in friendly greeting. Today in the UK it’s common knowledge, but in 70s Britain? Not so much.
As a “Resident Alien” in America, I retained my British citizenship with my rights of permanent abode. I could work, pay my taxes, but I could not serve on a jury, nor vote. This got more frustrating as time went by. I remained close to my family and roots in England to the point of homesickness, which never went away. But as time passed, I aligned myself more strongly with American politics, schooling and life in general.
My British accent stuck out in California. My American children stick out in England. It will always be so, but home is where we make it. And though our lives are different now, distant reminders are never far away.
Not so long ago on a typical food/grocery shop, I placed my bags in the boot/trunk of my car. I returned the trolley/cart to the shop/store entrance. I got in my car, closed the door. Where’s the steering wheel? The ignition? My mind had drifted. A fleeting thought in my subconscious, a distant memory of another day and not much to tell. But enough to plonk me down in the wrong seat. The passenger seat.
I smiled to myself and felt like a right twit. The driver’s side once-upon-a-time ago, but not now. I hadn’t driven in America for many years. A simple matter of getting out and going round to the driver’s side. Except I sensed eyes on me. That feeling you get when someone’s watching. A case of goose pimples/bumps? I turned my head and met the stare of a man in the car next to me. He had a sandwich to his mouth and too a chunk out. Of all the empty cars in the car park/parking lot, I had to get this one
I ducked down on pretence of rummaging through the glove/compartment box. Stupid when I think of it. I wouldn’t give it a second thought now to hop out of my car and walk round to the other side. Covid has definitely changed me. But that’s another story. For this story, I will tell you that I kept my head down. I slid my right leg over the gear/stick shift and hand/parking break into the driver’s seat. I heaved the rest of me into position and took off. I didn’t stop to notice if the man had finished his lunch.
A few times hence this has happened, but the gap grows longer and longer. Life goes on but we don’t forget. The lyrics from a song play on a loop in my head…you know the song, you know the words. Hotel California.
My life in America showed me where I belong. Home, I discovered, isn’t always a place, but it resides in our hearts with those we love most. And love is a word we know on both sides of the pond.
Until next time then, I bid you cheerio and have a nice day.
Sherri has published a collection of non-fiction articles in magazines, anthologies and online at her Summerhouse blog, diverse guest features and a memoir column at Carrot Ranch, an international online literary community. A keen walker and photographer from the UK, Sherri raised her family in California for twenty years. She has worked in the legal and medical fields and is now carer and advocate to her youngest on the autistic spectrum. Today Sherri lives in England’s West Country not far from the sea, hard at work on final edits of her debut memoir.