This I Believe

croppedImg_15853487I have been a Unitarian Universalist for 25 years. It wasn’t the faith I was born into–that was Catholicism–but it was the faith I chose. If you asked me why I chose it and why I have stayed with it, you would need to prepare yourself for a very long answer. That said, I will speak briefly to the congregation today as part of an informal series we have had, modeled along the This I Believe public dialogue about faith.

 

 

This I Believe

At the very end of my mother’s life, I went to see her in the nursing home. It was a Saturday and my brother called to say to say I should get there as soon as I could. I sat at her bedside, held her hand, and prayed.  It was the only thing to do.

I hadn’t been a Catholic for 30 years but my mother still was, so I reached deep in my memory and prayed what I could remember of the rosary. I could only produce the children’s version—an “Our Father” followed by three “Hail Mary’s.” I repeated this a few times, trying for the depth of faith I once possessed.

It wasn’t quite there.

At some point I tuned into the sounds of the nursing home. Aides were stopping by rooms, small conversations were happening, and in the big room down the hall they were playing bingo. A woman called out “G-55” and then “O-70.” I studied my mother’s face, stared out the window for a while.

Then I heard the woman again, “B-13. B-13.” There was a long pause and then a sigh, “I’ve called all the B’s and all the G’s. Someone has to have won.”

 

It’s OK to laugh a little. My mother would have. While she was always the quietest in a room of mixed company, she possessed an Irish wit that could be biting—and she hated bingo.

 

I sat for a while more and then decided to leave in time for the Saturday evening Catholic mass. I would come back the next day.

Except for weddings and funerals I hadn’t been to a Catholic mass since I was 14. Still, 30 years later, I remembered every word of it, even the Nicene creed. This Unitarian-Universalist chimed right in, “I believe in one God // the Father almighty // maker of heaven and earth..”

But it was reflex. This wasn’t my church; it was my mother’s, and I was there for her.

I drove home. My brother had called again. My mother had passed away while I had prayed in her church.

 

The Christian idea of Grace, as my mother explained to me, is God’s love and forgiveness, given to us in moments we need it most. I hope it came to my mom while I sat in her church that afternoon. My mother believed but had her doubts, so I hope she **knew** she was entering the Kingdom of Heaven as she slipped away.

I do know grace came to me during that bingo game. I needed that reminder of my mother, of her wit, of what she had been like before that illness took her body and mind. I don’t know if God herself is there to grant me grace, but I know grace is there. I waver between hopeful agnostic and minor-league Christian, but those moments of love come to me.

I find moments of grace here, in this church. They are there for me lately in coffee hour with a warm handshake from an old friend I haven’t seen much in my sabbatical from church. They are there for me when I see a teenager in coffee hour and see the four-year old version of them from our preschool classroom. They are there for me when Reverend Anita ends each service by urging us to go into the week with “fresh courage.”

 

When I was a boy and I would go to church with my mother, I would listen to her sing the hymns. She wasn’t much of a singer in the same way she wasn’t much of a talker but she had a pretty soprano voice and she made even the most dismal Catholic hymn sound good. My mother didn’t have an easy life. She was a single mom, working and raising four children on her own. Church was probably the only respite in her week and those hymns were probably her only refuge.

Which leads me to another thing I believe. I believe in beauty. I believe that even though bad things happen—in the world, in our lives, to the people we lost, to my mother—our lives are interrupted by moments of beauty. We all find it at times, don’t we? Maybe it’s in poetry. In something we read or watch. In something we’ve made. In nature.

For me it’s the choir and my small part in it. I took a five-year sabbatical from church but I took a 20-year sabbatical from the choir. So I am back in it, groping my way through. I sing baritone so I put myself strategically between Jeff Morrison and John Pustell, two stalwarts with fine voices who know what they are doing. I am at my best when I quiet myself, listen, and put myself in tune with them. When I told Jeff how much I rely on them he quipped, “It’s like bowling with bumpers.”

I am going to let you in on something even though it embarrasses me. There are times when I am so full of emotion up there I can hardly sing. If you look closely, I am sometimes crying. This usually happens at a point in the song when I am soldiering through my baritone part and those beautiful soprano voices around me take flight.

I grew up in a massive Catholic church, easily five times the size of this sanctuary, with stained glass and holy water, confessionals and kneelers and incense–and Christ on the Cross, in bold relief, towering almost 30 feet above the altar.

We have no such ornamentation here. We don’t, as the Catholics do, consider our sanctuary a doorway to the Kingdom of Heaven. But this place fills my heart more than that massive church ever did. This is the place where I find those moments of grace and beauty.

This I believe.

Short Story: “Airport Run”

penny_shorts_full_logo_500My short story, “Airport Run” has been published in the online journal, Penny Shorts. I’ve mentioned elsewhere about all the rejections I got before I got any acceptances. It has been a strange run, though not unexpected. Publishing is full of rejections. After going 0-97 I suddenly went three for five–a great day at the play for anyone.

I have 20 stories that I consider complete, nineteen of which I have been submitting. I have two more that are close to complete, then maybe two more that have some early promise. I consider two of the three to be published–this one and “What You Can Do” to be pretty dark. Among the other stories I really like so far, these two are probably the darkest, at least in content if not in tone. The third one is different.

I am not sure what that means but for now I am going with it. It’s nice to be out there.

Searching Again and Landing in Sugar Hill

sugar-hillI’ve discussed internet research before and, in particular, searching. I am 20 something years into using the Web, several years more into availing myself of Usenet, and a few more years beyond that into using electronic bulletin boards–oh the warm, sweet sounds of a modem, no matter how slow, chattering and finally connecting. (Oh, and a side note, some people conflate “the internet”,  and “the web,” but the distinction is both correct and useful.) Anyway, I should be jaded but I still marvel what is out there, a few keystrokes away.

Just to establish my bona fides in the physical world, though, let it be known that I have been doing some research offline lately as well. I have picked up a few of these things called “books.” I even took one out of the library using this miraculous, interstellar-like thing called “inter-library loan” (look it up sometime, it’s kind of amazing).

Still, I am amazed at the knowledge at my fingertips and how I can think of something, type it in, and read about. So as I worked on a short story recently, I found my way to:

  • Cerebral spinal rhinorrhoea
  • Arch (adjective)
  • River bank
  • Ice floe (after typing it as “ice foe,” perhaps a more interesting idea)
  • Hell is other people
  • Opposite of furtive
  • Famous crooked noses
  • Sugar Hill NYC
  • Man’s inhumanity to man (see “hell is other people,” above)
  • Jokes stinking drunk

I should weave my research history in more with the actual drafts of my writing–perhaps I can create a version of the story with the research threads I followed. I used much of what I looked up in the draft of the story, though Sugar Hill was left on the cutting room floor. “Hell is other people” and “man’s inhumanity to man” must have been more about my mood than the story. Indeed my character does break his nose (well, someone break it for him) and he ends up near an icy river (OK, enough with the spoilers!).

As everyone knows, there can be a serendipity in search. So when I imagined my character as a law student at Columbia, I decided his budget would put him well up in Harlem when Harlem was affordable. So as I searched for neighborhoods in and north of Harlem I found Sugar Hill. I knew a little about Sugar Hill because of the talents of Nick Bloom, the son of my friends John Bloom and Amy Farrell. Nick was in a writing workshop I taught, had been living in Sugar Hill, and wrote a song–a sweet farewell to the neighborhood he had lived in before moving to Austin for graduate school.

When Nick played the song to the workshop, it took all my composure to not fall to pieces. It was the first time someone wrote a song in a workshop I taught and it’s a wonderful song. It was a gift to us all, but whether Nick intended it this way or not, it was a special gift to me. My brothers had both gone to Columbia and my oldest brother had gone to the law school as well. I visited him there often, and he’s been out of NYC for decades but that part of the city still holds a special place for me, all the more so because we have been estranged for almost as long. When he left New York City, a small part of me left with him. I’ve been there at least 100 times since and I love the city but it’s never quite been the same.

Ultimately, because the character’s place in the world wasn’t central to the story, I decided, at least at this point, to leave Sugar Hill out and save it for another day. Perhaps I don’t know enough about it, or perhaps it deserves more than a passing reference. I saved the paragraph I wrote. Who knows? It could turn into something.

Short Story: “What You Can Do”

AscentMy short story, “What You Can Do,” was published this past weekend at Ascent. the literary magazine hosted at Concordia College and edited by W. Scott Olsen. Scott had an excellent insight on the original version of the story, and I made some changes at his suggestion. This is my first short story published since I had one in my college’s literary magazine sometime in the last millennium.

The story begins with:

On a sunny February morning, Howard Stevens worked a shovel up and down the sidewalk in front of the giant colonial he and his wife Ellen had bought in 1980, right after he got tenure at the state college nearby. Five dry inches of snow had fallen the night before, and Howard had risen early. The house faced south, and if he had the walk shoveled, salted, and sanded by 9:00 there would be a whole day of sun to finish the melting. “Don’t be fooled by the calendar,” he had told his son too many times over the years. “The sun is strong this time of year. The days are getting longer. Nature’s on our side.”

Howard knew to pace himself. He didn’t want to get winded, and he didn’t want to get too sweaty. If he worked steadily, he could get it done in an hour, and today, he wasn’t in a hurry. It wasn’t at all windy, and the sun was indeed strong. The work would be done well, and he even might enjoy a conversation or two. That young couple down the street with the big dog liked to talk. Besides, with Ellen gone, there was nothing for him in the house.

You can read more here

Acceptance

IMG_1411After a steady 17 months of writing, after sending 19 different short stories to over 140 publications, and after batting a perfect zero for 97 in rejections, I had two stories accepted by two publications in the course of a week.

Who woulda thunk it.

Experienced writers might bristle at me complaining about 17 months. That is not a lot of time to deal with rejection in writing, but note that I said a “steady 17 months.” In fact I have been writing, in stretches, for nearly 40 years. I wrote my first freelance newspaper articles in the spring of 1978. I wrote my first short stories a year later, and I was a regular stringer for a mid-sized daily newspaper, The New Bedford Standard-Times starting in the fall of 1980.

I wrote steadily through graduate school, and between roughly 1985 and 1989 I produced a few decent short stories during my M.A. program and after. I had a few thoughtful, personal rejection letters, including one from Ploughshares and one from the North American Review. It’s possible that, with a few steady years of writing (there’s that word again) I could have had a few things published. I look back at what I wrote then and I still like a few things. I took one piece, rewrote it, and have submitted it again. I have four rejections for it, but three came with personal notes and invitations to resubmit other things in the future.

What happened between 1989 and the fall of 2015 when I finally got back to it? Well, I married in 1989, bought a house in 1990, had my first son in 1991, and had my second son in 1993. I changed jobs and careers in 1989 and change jobs again in 1993. After that? It was off to the races.

In a word, life happened, and I don’t regret it one bit.

I did put aside my creative writing almost entirely, but I found ways to stay in the writing game. I work in publishing, though my work on the technology end of publishing keeps me a couple of steps removed from the editorial work. I teach writing, though freshman composition is not the same as creative writing. And I have written. I co-wrote two technical books, contributed a chapter to another book, and wrote a few dozen articles for technical and business trade magazines, newsletters, and websites. I count the newsletter writing–for the Gilbane Report and the Seybold Report–to be the best analytical writing I have done. They were long-form pieces, written for editors with rigorous standards and discerning eyes, and I was paid well for them. I also wrote a few long-form articles for trade magazines that came with big paychecks. I made more money for each of several of the magazine articles than I did for each of my books.

I am not bragging. On the whole, these are modest accomplishments, but it’s how I stayed in the game. All of these things helped me. I can write a good sentence, I can write clearly, and I can find my end from the beginning to the end of a lengthy piece of writing without losing myself or my reader.

I have to admit the last 17 months have been lonely. Rejection is not fun even though I know it’s the name of the game in publishing. (I recall vividly hearing an industry pro tell me, in graduate school that, “There are only Fs and As in publishing, and there are a lot more Fs than As.”)

Ninety-seven Fs and two As later, I can confirm he is indeed correct.

More to come. I will post links and such when the stories get posted. I will share, though, what one editor wrote to me after I rewrote a story at his suggestions. In his email to me telling me the story would be published he wrote, “…’What you can do’ is a fine and wonderful story, Bill.”

That feels good, even though I know some of my work is very good and even though I know  each of those 97 rejections didn’t mean my work is bad. Tastes are subjective. A story that is very good for one publication may be exactly wrong for another. Maybe the person reading the slush pile didn’t read something with the right care and attention. I told myself for 17 months that I didn’t need validation, but, really, don’t we all?

The picture above is of my desk this morning, 17 months in. More to come.

 

 

First Day

norma-ann-halliday001-copyIt’s my mother’s birthday. She would have been 87 today. That would have been a grand old age–and, really, she should have made it. She would have seen her grandchildren grow to be really fine young people, but, sadly, she would have outlived my sister and she didn’t deserve that on top of everything else.

I wrote a short story last year and have submitted it to a few publications. It’s very loosely based on an event in her life. I also tried to capture some of her internal voice. My mother had a sense of humor that was sometimes generous and sometimes biting. The older I got, the more I appreciated the latter. Maybe I see more of myself in the biting version of my mother or maybe I outgrew my sensitivities.

I don’t know if my mother coined this, but she once said to me, “People who spend too much time in small rooms end up saying small things.” There is a spirit of that in the story, which I briefly excerpt below.

I started my morning submitting this story to another publication. My mother deserves another reading.


From, “First Day,”

Marie Brown was sweating even before she reached the top of the stairs. It was the Friday of Labor Day weekend, and almost 90 degrees. School was starting the next Tuesday, and Marie’s shoulders sagged at the thought of her fourth grade class starting out the year in this weather.

Marie paused at the top of the stairs, putting the box she was carrying onto a table. She had bought some folders, a new grade book, a new binder for her lesson plan. The binder had a bright green cover with an owl and the words “Teacher Binder” in different colors. It’s loud, she thought, and she didn’t like the school years, 2015-2016, printed in big blocky numbers.

She didn’t need to be reminded of the year. It meant she had been teaching for 35 years, in this same building, and even in the same classroom until this year when her principal talked her into a new one. “You have seniority,” Joe Guarino had told her. It was the biggest classroom, on the corner overlooking the one quiet part of the building. It had trees outside the windows.

Marie picked up her box of supplies, went to her new room. She walked the perimeter of it, taking in the dimensions, surveying how she might want to space the desks, where to put the tables that would hold supplies and books. She stepped to the window, looked out. A small garden stood there—someone’s idea a decade before to give the quieter kids something to do at recess. It had been tended exactly one year, but then they went into the summer with no plan about how to maintain it. It ended up producing some tomatoes no one ate and a few pumpkins that were stolen just before they could be collected for Halloween decorations. It had grown fallow, but at some point a neighbor got sick of it and filled it with wildflower seeds. Marie studied it. It still had some color.

I Will Never Be Annie Dillard and That’s OK

newbedfordunionstreet1970(An excerpt from something that might be in progress or might not be.)

I started reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek on a warm spring afternoon in a seedy bar in New Bedford, Massachusetts. I was a senior in college, spending more time as a stringer for the local Standard-Times than I was spending in class or studying. I had arranged it this way. I had taken enough classes as a sophomore and junior to give myself an easy glide-path out of college.

I had filed a story that day about a car wreck. A full-time reporter had written the main story and they had given me a sidebar to write. The driver, shitfaced at 10:00 in the morning, had swerved to miss some imaginary thing in the road and had crashed into a convenience store.

The store owner, his back to the window as he stood at the cash register, never saw it coming. The car roared through the front window and crushed a candy display and knocked the lottery machine off its table and into the legs of the owner. The machine snapped one of his femurs cleanly in two.

I had been a block away when I heard it and got close enough to watch the EMTs stabilize the leg while the mean screamed and then passed out. He was screaming in Portuguese and I hardly knew a word, but I did fashion a quote out of the screaming with some help from his son. “Mamãe! Meu Deus, Mamãe!” I decided I would have been screaming the same thing.

I filed the story and walked to the bar. I had to settle my nerves. It was my second car wreck in two weeks. I had covered the first one for a local radio station where I also freelanced. They didn’t have a real night-time reporter so I went out there alone, steno pad in hand. The cop wouldn’t let me near enough to see anything, but there were two bodies on the street. Someone had produced drop cloths to cover the bodies. They were soaked through with blood. I walked a block away and puked.

I ordered a boilermaker, Old Thompson Whiskey and a 16-ounce Narragansett beer, and I pulled Dillard from my jacket pocket.

I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest….

(Well, heck, I used to have a cat, too! The summer Midnight went into heat—and the only summer she lived through—she would jump from roof to roof up the two-deckers lining one side of my street. She would then climb, squirrel-like, down one of the 4-by-4s that framed our back porch. She would scratch on my brother’s screen until he let her in.

That fall, Midnight wandered a bit too far onto the next block. Something got to her—a dog maybe but more likely a pack of kids—and a friend found her, scraped her into a box, and brought her to us. She was still alive, but when we got to the vet he didn’t have to look at her for very long. He tried to soften the blow for me. “It looks like you are going to have to get another kitty.”)

The boilermaker felt good enough to order a second and then a third. I soldiered on through Dillard.

The sun in the west illuminates the ground, the mountains, and especially the bare branches of trees, so that everywhere silver trees cut into the black sky like a photographer’s negative of a landscape.

“Goddamn that is good writing.” I must have said it aloud because the bartender turned to me. I wasn’t quick enough to explain myself so the bartender brought me a fourth boilermaker. I downed the shot and chased it with half of the beer before I took a breath.

At some point the bar filled with reporters, including Dave, who had filed the full story on the crash. He dropped a copy of the paper in front of me. The Standard-Times was an afternoon paper and the story I had finished writing two hours before was now miraculously in front of me, printed and folded, my byline in bold 10-point Futura.

“Six inches, my little man.” The city editor had cut my story, which I always knew would happen, but she had also cut my lede, including the first line, which I had been celebrating in my head the whole afternoon. “An otherwise perfectly normal day for Alberto Gomes took a bad turn this morning when a Buick LeSabre crashed through the front window of his Union Street convenience store.”

Dave was downing his first beer. “Don’t use adverbs. Carol fucking hate adverbs. And ‘bad turn.’ Jesus, kid, have an idea.”

Carol was the city editor. She had moved up from covering crime for nearly twenty years. She chain smoked and sounded like Robert Loggia. I had filed 20 stories with her after doing only sports for the first two years. She had lopped off every one of my ledes. Dave had tried to coach me a little. “If you like it too much, little man, it probably sucks.”