As The Spirit Writings are on hiatus, please see Meditative Dishwashing for my regular blog.
As The Spirit Writings are on hiatus, please see Meditative Dishwashing for my regular blog.
I don’t intend for this to be dramatic, although only one thing has felt more emotional, vital, painful and soul crushing in my life. Sure, I had some fun writing my first book the past six years. I read an inspiring biography by Deborah Blum, and for the first time in my life, bam! I had a novel in me.
I had 100% confidence in it, and in myself, for the first – oh, I don’t know – three years. Ever since the third grade newspaper, there were always people saying they like my writing. Why did I listen? They said I was a good listener, too. My sixth grade art teacher also told me I was good at art, and I never thought, “Hey, I’m gonna go be an artist.” Cause that would be dumb, right? I guess it’s more about what I wanted to see, and what I wanted to be. So sue me, I wanted to be a writer.
Despite the ever-present discouraging remarks (Everyone wants to write a book, don’t quit your day job, few people are successful, and for God’s sake don’t write unless you have to), I sent my book off with hope and the wonder of what was to come to at least twenty agents. For a while I got either no reply or a “No thank you,” so I stopped to revise some more, and went another round. More ignoring, more rejection, but I had two agents read the full manuscript. The first one replied within 3 days that the “no” was not only from him, but on behalf of his whole agency. Well, okay then. That was my first experience of going from the utter elation of getting a request to the exhausted disappointment of an Agency-Wide No three days later. (They wanted more horror.)
The second agent, whom I researched very well and thought to be a preposterously good fit (she was looking for my book, I was sure of it), took eight months to reply. I mean, come on. By then I had already decided to self-publish, and had moved 2000 miles across the country to boot. I was way beyond checking my email for her reply when I got it: “I enjoyed reading your ms,” she said, but “I didn’t relate closely to the main character.” Oh, well, I’ve only spent the last six years of my life making her the best person I thought she could possibly be, someone I might even want to be myself in a silly fantasy way, and I wasn’t waiting for your opinion anymore, but – yeah, noted.
Maybe it sounds ridiculous to say I also don’t intend for this to sound bitter. I’m at that point, though, where I just don’t give a shit. Because I’m tired of watching drivel turn into best-selling novels over and over again, with no end in sight, by so many authors who either don’t care about quality and integrity, or just aren’t that smart or talented (but boy do they have great connections/boobs/Facebook friends). I’ve read many books, especially those in or close to my genre, that are really, embarrassingly good and clever. In a majority of good moments, I don’t begrudge them their success. Some of them have worked hard for it.
My book (actually split into three novellas) is much closer to the quality, well-written style of books I admire than it is to the drivel (best-selling or otherwise). Of this, I remain 100% confident. I used to be able to say it’s outstanding, but I have no perspective anymore. The message I’ve received loud and clear – about the subject matter at the very least – is that it doesn’t stand out. But it is meticulously researched historical fiction, insightful and socially responsible YA, worth a chuckle here and there, and introduces a uniquely non-horror, realist angle to the supernatural. This is the core of what I really wanted to do with my writing. It’s what I wanted to express to the world. That is, when I wasn’t as fed up with it as I am now.
I sent it smartly out into the electronic universe, connected it to the proper channels (Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube, Tumblr, Pinterest, About.me, and of course WordPress), and networked, networked networked. I joined my local writing group. I told everyone I knew, and tried to tell everyone I don’t know. It just so happens that all those agents who ignored it were, in fact, faithfully representing Readership At Large. When I put my book out there, I didn’t just get the old Agency-Wide No. I got the old Sound of Crickets closely followed by a long line of people who only wanted to collect me as a fan. Or a stat. Or not.
I did it, too, so I understand. I will say, along the way, I met a small handful of genuine, supportive fellow writers. But it was such a truly small handful. I’m talking fingers. And honestly I’m sick of all of this dog-eat-dog cyber self-promotion. I’m just not like that. I’m a walking in nature, vegetarian, animal loving, treehugging, introspective kind of person. I like real, genuine, physically-there, nice people. I don’t want to be immersed in a sea of faceless commenters. I’m sick of being “online.” Do we even know what that means anymore? What if I’m “offline” – does that mean I am unreachable, invisible, less important or marketable or quality or … -???- I don’t even know.
I’m astounded by all the, “Oooh, don’t mess with the Ouija Board,” and “Watch out for evil spirits!” and “There’s no such stupid thing as stupid ghosts, stupid.” But these are the top three attitudes I found during my publishing foray about something I will for the sake of brevity call spiritualism, something I hope more people can easily accept and really understand for what it is. Did you know people used to say you weren’t a good Catholic if you didn’t believe in ghosts? That when Darwin and the Civil War killed religion, Spiritualism came along and gave people hope? It had immense value. Now, no one knows this. We only know we want fake reality (Huh?). We want formulas and copycats. And we really want to paint a bleak future for humanity, kill off 90 % of it (horribly) and read all about how terrible things become. Give us blood, demons, murdering psychos, scare tactics, fighting constantly for your life – and you’ve got yourself a readership.
Boring. And guess what: you’re going to die someday, yes you are, and you don’t want it to be with blood and demons, at the hand of murdering psychos, after absurdly stress-filled days and weeks and months of constantly fighting for your life. No, you don’t.
So, goodbye, cruel world – and I hope “you,” Mr./Ms. World, take that as a compliment. You should, because it’s obviously what you most want to be. I’m not offing myself. I’m not really going anywhere, and I’m definitely not gonna impale myself by jumping off a towering gravesite marker onto the pointy iron gate of a cemetery (although that would make a great scene in a book, wouldn’t it??). I’m just going to walk away from this website, away from my books (which I have UNpublished), and away from a lot of stuff and people and bullshit to reflect on how to live this life that I thought for so, so very long was going to be spent as a “paperback writer.” O the naivete.
It’s not all I have to offer the world. But it is all I wanted to offer, as my profession, my niche, my own unique talent. I really thought it was the dream to follow. Paolo Coehlo said when you endeavor to follow your dreams, the whole universe conspires in your favor. I read the fable and was proud of believing it. Now, I’m not, and I don’t. ~
Let me start by saying I am not dying. Nevertheless, it is true that I keep this diary now of what happens to me because the life I have led thus far will soon end and another will begin.
The loveliest and most musical phrase—”no more school”—has finally become a reality for me, and yet I remain as blessed as I am cursed. In that respect alone, nothing has changed. At minimum, I hope to succeed in at least two things: by recording certain memories, events, and dialogues here, I will never forget them; and by keeping the appearance of a diarist, I may be able to continue with the spirit writings.
I must learn to stop them, however, from accosting me in the midst of sleep. Last night when the moon was high, Crete knocked at the inside of my skull and I bolted upright, waking from what was otherwise a peaceful sleep. I propped the pillow between me and the cold wall, reached through the chilliest chunk of dark beneath the bed, and fumbled for the materials. It did not matter how dark it was in the room; I should say it never does, as I am not the one who does the writing. I leaned back, poised the pencil in the upper left of the page, and proceeded to black out.
When I came to, I reached over to my left and felt around in the dark for the scratchy surface of the matchbox, hoping I did not stupidly forget to fill it. (Again.) Eventually, I found a single match and struck the flame that faithfully brings light to the page and water to my eyes. Though I’ve learned to find nearly anything in the dark, I cannot seem to light a match without inhaling its sulfur stink and stinging my eyes. Igniting the wick on the lamp, and so as not to disturb Mother, I created just enough light to see what was written.
I woke up this morning with the writing still on my lap, my body propped up in bed, not having read it until just now. This one was something about a floating boy. I must have dozed straight off. I woke late, but because of the crick in my neck, it took me a while to gingerly dress myself, and I headed out to school a little later than usual. To avoid too much strain on my old dress, I lifted the ends of my skirt extra high as I hopped quickly over fence after fence. I knew on this day especially I must not arrive with a hole in my clothing. Yet, as I hopped so very near the clearing, I heard the familiar rrrip of the tight seam at my side. (Again.)
Other than that, I have no complaints. For months now, I have been able to cross the Dodd farm on the way to school without incident. For a long time, Tad and Marcus Fisch would hide along the path and leap out when I came by, laughing and howling, reaching out with their dirty hands to pinch at my clothes right down to the skin. The usual taunts followed: witch, ghoul girl, devil’s daughter, Satan’s mistress. It went on like this for years until one day Marcus grabbed for my braids but instead got my breasts. I don’t think he meant to, because he stopped for a moment as if in shock, but a boy like Marcus only shocks himself into delight at his own debauchery. He resumed his taunting, only this time it was even more vulgar, and all I could think was, How could a boy’s hands, let alone his mind, be so dirty this early in the morning?
Then Uncle T intervened—an important moment, though I did not know it at the time. He did not intervene directly, of course. No, he has told me so many times that is not his way. He instead instructed me to cut a thin but sturdy branch and make a blunt point, then carry it in front of me the next day on my way to school. “Hold it good ‘n’ tight,” he said. Well, I did, and when Marcus Fisch did as he was accustomed, jumping out from behind the barn, the blunt end of the branch poked straight into his privates. The stick broke in two pieces, kind of like Marcus as he doubled over and fell to the ground. Tad stood over him and eyed me, not so much in disgust as in disbelief at what I, a mere scrawny girl, had done to his older brother. He ran as if he had just seen a ghost.
Sometimes being the town ghoul girl has its moments.
Unfortunately (as I might preface many of the events of my life), this particular moment did not last. It did not take long for Miss Webster to get wind of the incident and call the three of us to meet outside the schoolhouse.
“Ava Godfrey,” Miss Webster began her admonishment, “I thought I told you to stop this nonsense.”
I had expected as much. Of course, Miss Webster would consider it my fault. No matter what I said, I knew the result would be the same. I could say I didn’t do it, or the devil made me do it, or Dolly Madison herself did it. It wouldn’t make any difference.
“They were trying to scare me,” was all I said, figuring I might as well say the truth.
“Well, they weren’t the only ones trying to scare someone, now were they?” Miss Webster asked rhetorically, standing close and looking down on me with her steel-gray eyes.
I learned to give up quickly when Miss Webster looked at me like that. If I didn’t, I might get a painful twist on the ear—or somewhere else. “Sorry, ma’am,” I said as ruefully as I could. She responds best if I am as pitiable as possible.
Miss Webster’s face relaxed a little, and she ended her lecture by asking the Fisch boys for their word that this hullabaloo would never happen again. The boys nodded and Miss Webster let the three of us follow her inside. She seemed satisfied enough, probably knowing that even if they didn’t mind her, at least the boys would soon be leaving school for good, and I would not be there much longer after that. I went up the steps after Miss Webster, so of course one of the boys pushed me from behind and made me stumble. I just missed Miss Webster and fell onto the second step near the top, hitting it so hard that one end of the wood popped up. I stood, and forced myself to keep going without turning around. I could hear the boys cawing behind me like blackbirds. At least it was the last day the Fisch brothers jumped out at me on my way to school.
There is no point in dwelling further upon such things on this particular morning when I have vastly more pleasant things to think about. I guess I have a knack for attracting the dismal. Although I was up half the night with the spirit writings, I am now giddy with excitement. For after this particular day, I will no longer walk up the broken steps and ring the bell, help with recitation, pass out the McGuffey Readers, or lead morning song time. There will be no more watching for little boys cheating during arithmetic, or reading aloud to little girls about how Eve, fashioned from Adam’s rib, created sin with her desire for knowledge. No, after this particularly fine day, I am to be the teacher’s assistant no longer. I never have to go back to that school again.
The thought makes me excited, a little tired, nervous, and extremely annoyed. For weeks, Miss Webster has been speaking with my mother, discussing my future without my input. While this is to be expected, it is not the most irritating part. The most irritating part is that Miss Webster insists not merely that I marry as soon as possible, but that my husband-to-be must be the boy matching my age. But the boy matching my age is the furthest from me in all other respects, including emotional maturity and overall behavior. It is indeed the boy who, seven months ago, acquired part of his father’s land and needs a wife as soon as possible to complete the house. It is, in fact, the boy who has cawed and clawed at me more than anyone else: Marcus Fisch. ~~~
The man rolling into New York City standing in President Roosevelt’s car looking like he owns the place is Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, and he was right – about owning the place, and a great many other things.
Entrepreneurs from the mid 1800s all the way through to today may credit his financial example as their inspiration, but it wasn’t always his opportunistic brilliance and business acumen that made him millions.
Mr. Vanderbilt was an unabashed Spiritualist who credited visions, mediums, clairvoyance, healers and spirits as part of his success.
It gets quite glossed over, this fact. But consider how he became entranced with the idea of building Grand Central Station: he saw it in a vision, along with correctly “seeing” (as it turned out) the future development of many of New York City’s most affluent neighborhoods. His foresight into the future of railroads, gold, and the stock market was highly regarded as uncanny. For good reason.
Spiritualists of the day knew the “Commodore” could quickly send them into an early, wealthy retirement at the signing of a bank note, as long as they could help him. Even if a psychic or medium had an actual gift, getting close to the man was not easy. The Commodore, in all of his worldly success, remained a cad and a complete sourpuss his whole life. Even if one got close, this might last days or minutes, depending on how voracious his appetite or terrible his mood that day. By many accounts he was insufferable.
A handful of women ended up being able to stand the old coot for any length of time. This is unfortunately not counting his first wife, a kind woman from whom he was mostly estranged until her death in 1868. Close to that time the Commodore took a liking to Tennessee Claflin, sister to Victoria Woodhull (who happened to be the second of the three who found his company bearable). The third would be his wife, Frank, but that would come later on.
First, the Commodore needed to spend some quality time with Tennie Claflin, a known child prodigy in the Spiritualist world. Their relationship was special, in that she seemed to be the only woman who wasn’t terrified of him and even had pet names for him. Because of so many physical ailments, Vanderbilt was physically coddled by Tennie, who had a reputation for healing (and, on the flip side, a manslaughter charge for one time in particular she failed to heal someone). Apparently whatever she did for the Commodore worked well enough.
In the meantime, while Tennie tended to Vanderbilt in all ways physical, it was her sister Victoria who tended to him “spiritually” by going into trance and giving him advice. He usually took it, and in one case he even made one of Victoria’s own predictions for herself come true: through “uncannily” timed gold trading based on Victoria’s advice while in trance, Victoria was awarded her share of profits in the amount of $700,000 – a sum she once saw herself getting in a vision.
On Christmas 1868, when Victoria said in trance that the price of a certain stock was “bound to go up” and then it closed the same day with a gain of $31 a share, the Commodore responded to others’ astonishment by saying his secret was to “consult the spirits.” Whether or not this was “sound advice” is moot. The point is that this self-made richest man in America had some very real physical success that, according to him, originated in something other than the physical world.
And it was enough to get him into powerful circles indeed, if the above picture is any lasting indication.
Ava Godfrey. Newly minted adult, she wants to write as much as possible about her life, which may at any time, in any manner, and by any number of degrees spin out of her control. A small town girl in 19th century Wisconsin simply doesn’t go anywhere, unless it’s across the Cooper Arm to the noxious weeds and slippery grip of one Marcus Fisch.
Uncle T. Really Ava’s great uncle, he once played a good game of cards – waaay too good. He always wears his lucky hat, with the bite taken out of it, and smells of leather and lime and whiskey. He has a lot of tall tales, and once made something shiny and weighty appear in Ava’s hand, clear out of thin air.
Marcus Fisch (a.k.a. “that toad”). Sneaking up on Ava at the well, he plucked two petals off a single, wilted daisy. She loves me, she loves me not. He says “all that hairy-scary stuff is gonna stop” with him, and he feels no particular need to go on plucking petals.
Annabelle Godfrey. Ava’s mother. Bakes biscuits, needlepoints aprons, wears glasses, and keeps to herself. She moved her family all the way from Doverton, Ohio, and that’s all the traveling she cares to do, thank you very much. Knows what a good girl would and would never do, and is fond of saying, “It isn’t wise to speak of the dead.”
Jonathon P. Godfrey. Ava’s father. Has not come home or written in a year. Last known whereabouts: Chicago. Or maybe Kansas.
Miss Webster. Pleasant End schoolteacher. During morning prayer, she always looked at Ava, her assistant, when they recited the part: And deliver us from evil. Doesn’t know Ava is not now, has never been, nor will ever be, evil. Cringes when Ava walks across the creaky slats of the schoolhouse floor, and gives her a basket of cherries on her last day.
Parisienne (Pari) Barclay. Relative and guest for a week of the town deacon. She was supposed to stay in Pleasant End for a week, but she would rather have tattooed her chin with squid ink than spend one more minute than necessary in the sleepy little village. Offers Ava an invitation. And then another. And eventually, another.
Irene and Thomas Barclay. Wife and deacon of Pleasant End church house. Irene: may or may not know of anyone passing through Pleasant End from Minneapolis on their way East, and doesn’t understand this “women’s liberation” movement. Thomas’s fondest retort: “Behind every happy man is a happy woman.”
Other than being author of many inspirational and all-around kickass quotes, William James was a lot of things: philosopher, psychologist, brother of famous novelist Henry James, Harvard professor, apparently a great sketch artist, and a writer. I knew him first as a philosopher and next as a preeminent psychologist. While his work in those roles was intriguing, the two most interesting facets of the James jewel I have encountered came from 1) a book chronicling his work in psychical research, and 2) a sweeping 2006 biography ten years in the making. Respectively these are Ghost Hunters: William James and the Hunt for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, by Deborah Blum, and 2) Robert Richardson’s William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism – really the go-to WJ biography and most used resource in gaining information for this article.
For most of my adult life, I considered myself a writer who didn’t write. Put that way, it sounds . . . exactly as sad as it felt. I have boxes upon boxes of journals and notebooks I’ve kept since age nine, which is also when I wrote a play my third grade teacher had me direct and my classmates act out one day in class. I wrote some articles online, some poetry in minor print, and a couple of published essays, but I never had a real story. You know, an actual novel with plot and characters and twists and denouement. I never even got to use that word: denouement. Except for my shining writing and directorial debut in third grade, it took me until pretty much now to feel like a writer.
This feeling had its roots in 2008 when I found an audio version of Deborah Blum’s Ghosthunters: William James and the Hunt for Scientific Proof of Life After Death. I knew I liked the hokey but personable television show “Ghosthunters” and needed something to keep me entertained on my many 4+ hour drives between an apartment in Minneapolis and my hometown of Brookings, South Dakota, where I would frequently visit my mother. I was fascinated and intrigued by Blum’s biographical story of so many distinguished scientists – true Renaissance men, like William James – who started the “Society for Psychical Research.” The first president of the American chapter was none other than William James. Like his British counterparts – FWH Myers, Henry Sidgwick, and Edmund Gurney among them – James wasn’t exactly a skeptic, but he prided himself on the use of scientific method and felt that the popular Spiritualist religion of the time was well worth a look through the microscopic lens. For the first time since the inception of Spiritualism, serious people were having a go at ferreting out the fakes from the real deal in a world filled with alleged psychics, mediums, slate writers, table tilters, and mesmerists. Not only that, but they freely admitted that untold numbers of people since the beginning of recorded history had been telling ghost stories that they themselves believed – and wasn’t that at least worth a discriminating ear?
While the original British society remains the most sophisticated and active one today, the American Society for Psychical Research still exists in some form but was most active when it began in 1882 with William James as its first president. Depending on whom you ask(ed), James was already a worldly, successful man at the time (despite the wild success of his literary brother Henry), with a wife and children he loved, a background of education and global travel, and a prestigious professorship at Harvard. The fact that he was the British Society’s appointed #1 was a vote of confidence, but James could be a little hard on himself and worry that he wasn’t living up to his potential. He couldn’t have known he would be called the “Father of American Psychology” later on, since psychology hadn’t been invented yet. He didn’t start out as a psychology professor, but rather his classes fell more under the subjects of philosophy and even medicine. I’m still pretty mad at him for his initial support of vivisection, but we’ll leave that for another day. At least for now I owe him credit for inspiring my first real stories, and my first adult foray into the world of authorship.
Both books mentioned here are excellent, and each is very different from the other. Deborah Blum’s book has more history of Spiritualism and the Society for Psychical Research, but Richardson’s In the Maelstrom is no dry treatise, like the intensely bearded guy on the cover would have you believe. William James was a lot of things, as I mentioned, but he also had an incredibly complex and brilliant life. He (like me!) went to Germany and studied the language. He (unlike me)had a form of smallpox and lost a 2-year-old son to whooping cough. He (nothing like me) took chloroform to get a good night’s sleep. He coined the phrases “stream of consciousness” and “bitch-goddess success” (I’m still flummoxed by that one). He taught Gertrude Stein, W.E.B. du Bois, and Theodore Roosevelt. He asked the biggest questions that were about truth, religion, death, and belief throughout his life, right up until the most otherworldly questions were answered by his own death in 1910. After that, he reportedly became the after-death author of a book through a psychic medium and fellow philosophical writer Jane Roberts, someone I imagine James would have found a fascinating subject in his physical lifetime.
Given all the quotable snippets you can find in his works, letters, and even on many Internet sites devoted to such things, William James must have known he was (or at least would be) an inspiration to many. He didn’t have a constantly blessed life. He made depressing mistakes and learned from them. He even wised up to the ultimate futility of learning about life by experimenting on the dead, and preferred trying to communicate with the dead. I am still inspired by a man with the guts to be among the few first scientists (Alfred Russell Wallace was another) who investigated ghost sightings and who finally admitted that science couldn’t have all the answers to all the important questions. Some call him admirable, others call him maverick. I’ll call him the dead guy I’d most like to have a beer with – especially with him on the other side.
It is hard to believe people used to play parlor games, read by candlelight, hand write letters, and have photographs taken only on special occasions. Am I alone in wishing the world could be like that again sometimes? Not even counting computers, the following 5 inventions deeply affect every person’s life on the face of the planet today, sometimes without a single pause, whether it is from personal use or the effects of widespread use. Needless to say, their effect is not always good. Because these ideas – along with computers – make no appearance in the era of THE SPIRIT WRITINGS, readers may remain blissfully ignorant of them if they wish.
Light bulbs/Indoor electricity. Did you see Ebenezer Scrooge flicking on the light switch when he came into work? Or Scarlett O’Hara turning out her Tiffany lamp at the end of a long day? No – but it wouldn’t have been impossible. The most obvious invention we take for granted, indoor electricity was not widespread until the early 1900s, but the first light bulb that made indoor electricity possible was invented in 1809. Inventors were experimenting with the most practical and longest lasting materials until 1880, when Edison got a light bulb to last 1200 hours – horse pittance by modern standards. Those inventors never really stopped, because today, unless an incandescent lightbulb is energy efficient, it may even be banned in some countries (but certainly NOT the good ol’ U.S. of A). Yes, today, this is clearly the most boring invention that completely rules our lives.
Telephones. Name one American high schooler that wouldn’t find the topic of phones interesting, at least until their text alert goes off and they scamper away. I may have my phone within arm’s reach this very second, but that doesn’t mean I’m not tired of thinking about it all the time. The telephone was introduced by Alexander Graham Bell at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, but it was not to an ecstatic audience who knew their watered down lives would soon be shaken into a seltzerlike spray. Rather, it was taken as a quaint gadget or tool, probably never to catch on for personal use. It was also not exclusively the work of Bell. Updates by the illustrious Thomas Edison were crucial to bringing us the best development of the telephone – until Steve Jobs et al, that is. Not only that, but Edison was purportedly working on a telephone-inspired invention when he died, which was designed to reach out and touch the spirit world. Yes, that’s what I said, because that is what he did.
Cars. There was a type of car in 1769, but within a couple of years someone had crashed it into a wall. Whoops. In 1863, the world had a “horseless carriage” that used an internal combustion engine and could go a whopping 3 miles per hour. This could still be useful today, if we wanted to walk alongside our car-driving friends for mild exercise and relief from the extreme frustration and boredom of riding in such a car. Imagine how many backseat games you’d have to play with your kids on the way to the nearest Target or Applebees. Thankfully, a German named Otto patented an internal combustion engine in 1879 that is most closely linked with the engine cars use today. Twelve gazillion pounds of noxious carbon emissions later, I sometimes want to tell Otto to go suck a carburetor.
Cameras. Photographs exist even from the early 1800s, but like the telephone and light bulb, the materials have changed so much that it is complicated to say when the camera was invented. On the other hand, the personal camera was definitely a development of the invention of roll film, patented by George Eastman – as in the Eastman Kodak Company, and as in the already-bankrupt Eastman Kodak Company. According to the company website, they put out the first marketable roll film in 1889. While investors in Eastman Kodak might want to burn their shares over a campfire for warmth now that their pensions are gone and homes are in foreclosure, we can at least thank Mr. Eastman not only for the personal camera, but for movies. Okay, I’m on board for that.
Movies. Does anyone these days think about how the word “movies” is an incredibly cute diminutive of the phrase “moving pictures”? George Eastman’s roll film led to the possibility of running all those images together into the illusion of movement – voila, moving pictures. Now that we have Hollywood, Netflix, and YouTube, we don’t need to give the slightest nod to roll film, and for that matter we can shoot, star in, edit, and produce our own movies, completely alone if we want and without much techie knowhow. Even the idea of the movie star wasn’t invented until the 1910s when, according to The Independent’s “100 years of movie stars: 1910-1929,” public curiosity demanded that actors’ names start to be listed in the credits. The first known actors were people like Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, but back then you didn’t really have Pickford-mania or Chaplin-holics, and no one tried to combine star-couples’ names into one cute name (e.g. “Brangelina”). Nope, kids in 1878 had no one to (ahem) belieb in but their parents, other family members, and themselves. They had no movies to believe in, either. But if we lived in a world that never knew the likes of People magazine? Now that’s a cozy little dreamscape for me.
A mere 126 years ago, no one had movies, or cars to drive to them, or telephones to call up friends and invite them, or cameras to sneak in and take illegal videos and post them on YouTube. There were no movie theaters. There were just plain old theaters – you know, where real people frolic around all dressed up on a stage and act out things? Yes, we still have those! But unless you’re seeing a Broadway show, you probably haven’t been to many theaters. We have too much comfort and entertainment within arm’s reach to bother.
If I thought too long about how I’m now one of those people who can start a sentence with, “Back in my day…” and watch a kid’s eyes glaze over .2 seconds later as I go on about how I used to develop roll film in a dark room with tubs of chemicals, how a gallon of gas used to cost under a dollar, or how a mere 15 years ago I marveled at people milling about having private conversations on mobile devices – I might get depressed. Ah, depression – now there’s another invention they didn’t have back in 1878, because back then, psychology hadn’t even been invented.
Speaking of psychology in 1878, it would only be a few years before the first university classes would take place in a little town called Boston, at a little university called Harvard, with a not-so- little man named William James . . .
THE SPIRIT WRITINGS are coming directly to an e-reader or computer near you! Scheduled for March 30, 2014 release are:
Book 1: BEYOND PLEASANT END
Book 2: SAY YES
Book 3: REMEMBER
“Deliver us from evil.”
Miss Webster looked at me when she said that part. Everyone in Pleasant End thinks I am a devil worshipper, but I am far from it. Because they don’t understand me, they think what I am and what I can do must be evil. If it were only misunderstanding, I could forgive that.
Early on, there were times when I could not control the visions and spirits vying for my attention, nor could I control my reaction to them, no matter where I was or what I was doing. I would even get spirit messages during afternoon quiet time. To my horror (and likely to theirs) I would start to write them out on my slate or the desk or whatever lay directly in front of me. It happened once when I was at the chalkboard demonstrating an arithmetic problem. All I remember is opening my eyes to the words TELL BETSY I LOVE HER scrawled across the entire board. Miss Webster made me sit in the corner that day and write the Hail Mary five hundred times. I only wrote it 437 times.
Thank goodness they haven’t tried to burn me at the stake. (Yet.)
The class always ends the morning prayer enthusiastically. I decided to say it too with extra enthusiasm. As my “amen” echoed in the room, the littlest children snickered, and a few others groaned. Jewel Ladley, Junie’s younger sister, clucked her tongue impatiently. She’s gotten to be such a brat.
I kept my eyes on Miss Webster and offered her a prim smile. I assumed my teacher would shoot me a look of sharp disapproval before going on to the next lesson, but Miss Webster did something that surprised me. She picked up the small basket covered with a blue-and-white checkered cloth on the corner of her desk, walked over, and handed it to me. Before I could look under the cloth, she did something shocking: she thanked me!
“I am grateful for your hard work with the children and look forward to visiting with you after service on Sunday,” she said.
Just as I was wondering what miracle had given Miss Webster such a change of heart, she added, “So what are your plans for your official coming out?”
If one could even call it that, my “official” message to the community that I am now a woman is never going to happen. It was then that I understood completely this unusual reprieve from her distaste for me: Miss Webster has hastened her speed, and if it were her decision alone, she would have me married off to Marcus Fisch before sundown on Sunday. Miss Webster of all people should understand why I do not want to marry anyone, least of all Marcus Fisch. She herself never married.
Well, I did not make it easy for her. Mother would have positively fainted if she had seen it. With aplomb (if I do say so myself), I replied, “Oh, I was going to have my ‘official’ party just as soon as Father is back. He deserves to see me become a happy woman, don’t you think?” Miss Webster looked constrained, as if she were simultaneously trying to speak and trying to choke words back down into her throat.
I didn’t say a thing more, and thankfully neither did Miss Webster. We held lessons, then broke for recess, and after seeing everyone out, I left the schoolhouse. The barely dry fields—now full of oat straw, purple clover, and clumps of prairie grass—shimmered in the sun as though still wet with dew. I passed the Dodd farm and saw pointed new growth pushing through the soil in softly peaked rows. I felt stretched and anxious, as if I myself were pushing through the darkness. As if I myself were buried alive, reaching up to the sky for breath, and once there, taking in the newfound sunlight like joy incarnate.
On the outside, one could say I have every reason to feel terrible. After all, if I thought things were bad before, this will be the start of something far worse. Everything points in the direction I know I do not want to go: getting married, moving to a strange house on a new farm, taking care of a wretched husband, and having his half-wretched children. I already seem to have lost Father. Soon I will lose everything else: Uncle T, the spirit visitors, Mother, and maybe even Crete and the writings. My only blessing is the time I now have to myself, which shall also soon be gone for evermore.
And yet today, just hours ago, wasn’t there the faintest glimmer of hope on the horizon? Could not the morning again follow the darkness I face?
As I began to cross the footbridge on the way home today, I confess that I looked down in distaste at the basket in my hand and the jewel-like cherries beneath the checkered cloth. Miss Webster had brought in a huge bucket of them for all the children last week, myself included. In fact, they remain in a small white bowl on the dining room table. I turned toward town in that moment and watched as my fingers uncurled one by one from the handle and the basket fell to the ground. The cherries rolled back down the side of the bridge and disappeared into the greening grass. Let the birds have them.
For a moment, I did feel guilty and nearly went to pick them up, but I stopped myself. I want nothing to do with this town and the people in it, especially Miss Webster. What I want is to get away from everything and everyone as far and as fast as possible. I have tried my whole life to deny my innermost urges, all because of these people. In one moment at that very spot on the bridge, there was nothing to see but emptiness. But in the next moment, for whatever reason, I saw something different. The emptiness transformed into freedom.
Immediately I took the folds of my skirts, held them high at my sides, and began to run. I quickened until I was going as fast as my legs could take me. I admit I stumbled now and then over the uneven land as I made my way toward the fence that, once on the other side, meant home. Safety. Familiarity. That is where I was headed, anyway. But why? And who cared if I stumbled? Why had it been so long since I’d run like this? Giddily I raced onward, laughing aloud maniacally, no doubt looking like the hysteric everyone thinks I am.
Just then, the sudden thought of Junie Ladley burst into mind and gave me pause. My feet, however, did not stop; rather, an urge struck inside my chest like the peal of a bell. I found myself no longer running homeward but eastward.
The indigenous folk believe running east is good luck, but only if one does it at sunrise. I felt myself going against the sun’s path in the sky, not toward the light but to the darkness, hurrying it along as the earth spun me toward what seemed a razor’s edge. The distance between me and that edge was the only thing separating me from oblivion, but I did not care. I wanted it. I wanted it and whatever came after.
I would have welcomed it, had it come. . . .