Life and Death and Why

“Think about it: One moment, you’re a sexually spent adult; the next, you’re a budding youth about to enjoy life all over again.”

Virginia Morell’s brilliant essay, which you can read by clicking the graphic above, perfectly fit my mood this week. A week from last Sunday, my fourteen-year-old grandson was killed in a car crash in Kansas. If you have read my previous post, you know that. What Morell made me think about is a portrait of a family in grief and why we want to be remembered when we’re gone.

Not everybody does want to be immortalized in some way. Some people fade away, alone and unnoticed, but they may wish it were otherwise. On the other hand, some affect (I think it’s an attitude born of resignation mixed with fear?) a cavalier attitude.

“I don’t care where you put me,” said my mother, not wanting to discuss arrangements near the end.

Others, like my husband’s wonderful Aunt Rosemary, met her end with joy. ”I’ll see my husband and Mama and Daddy again.” Her faith in an immortal afterlife was strong.

Yet when we are faced with an unexpected, untimely death, something in many of us rebels. My grandson, yet to live his life in full bloom. The Ukrainian victims of Russia’s hellish thermobaric bombs, their lungs suddenly collapsed mid-step. All those many young Black men and women killed in our streets. The Native women who are simply vanished, too often unsought. And, of course, recently we have all seen or read about so many untimely deaths in the Covid pandemic. If any of these things or something like them has happened to you, I am very sorry for the wounds you have suffered.

I am old enough to regret the misspent hours of my youth. Not the time spent socializing with friends or even a few misdirected acts of mischief. No, it’s the self-denials I regret: the opportunities I passed up out of fear of rejection, the degrees I didn’t get, the the times I didn’t take a chance on love. Still, I did tend to dive in now and then, I did find true love, I did learn a lot, and, okay, I didn’t achieve my goal of being a dedicated scholar, but I did all right and so I have no lasting agonies of remembrance.

Except for one: My nineteen-year-old son killed himself. His was a unique, difficult personality, and I gave birth to him much too young to know how to cope with parenting well. I was still learning about that when he died. The logical part of me knows that he was bipolar and unmedicated by choice and that he refused the psychiatric help I arranged for him. The part of me that is a mother, that had, I thought, an unbreakable bond with him, still chafes and struggles at the unbinding, still wonders why he didn’t let me help him more. Still regrets his absence from our lives. Wonders, now and then, what he would have said about—something, anything. Sees him in every Christmas ornament, every place set at the table, every glimpse of a young man in a hoodie.

That part of me spools a thread between my own heart and that of any parent who loses a child. Recognizes that expression of sudden, desperate acknowledgment of what has happened. It’s that part of me that led me to go to a wake for my young optical technician, whom I barely knew, to hug her father tight and whisper assurances that one day the pain would not be so acute. It’s that part of me that would crawl over hot coals to get to the mothers of Ukraine and Chicago and Los Angeles and Myanmar and Sudan, to hold them and whisper whatever may help.

One of the persons I admire most is Fred Guttenberg, who has turned his grief over the death of his daughter, Jaime, in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting, into a public reckoning with the reality of losing thousands of children each year to gun violence. He does not hide his tears or his agony while he demonstrates that one can make the end of violence a mission that is not impaired by mourning. And then there is Wanda Cooper-Jones, mother of Ahmaud Arbery, who has sat through hour after agonizing hour of court trials, of watching that video of her son’s last moments over and over again. Who refused the Justice Department’s shameful plea bargain agreement and insisted on a full trial, which ended in the world seeing what the consequences of racial hatred should be.

Truly, I never wanted any immortality except my children. In my Romani-Native, deeply Scottish mountain community, children are everything, our life’s blood, the consequence that must be considered before we spend any resource, make any move, take any decision. All of our lives are about them. Without them, our lives have no lasting purpose, no matter who we are or what we achieve personally. It is not about blood, but about community: our children belong to all of us, and all of us must take care with them. They will carry forth the meaning of our lives and braid something new with our strands.

As I read Morell, I thought that perhaps we humans can only achieve immortality by eschewing violence, by giving up our right to defend resources to the point of war, by putting our children’s lives above all other motives. Maybe her jellyfish and other examples have somehow achieved more than we, with our larger brains and volatile weapons.

When You Cannot Say a Word

let your work speak for you

Weaver’s Knot is going dark today due to the death of my grandson in a car crash. But we cannot be silenced! I am thinking of words to contain all this grief. What do you need to spill onto the page? Be well and love well until I’m back. As always, I want to hear from you—please leave a comment below.

Study Hall, Tuesday February 15: My Book Shelf

What’s on your imaginary bookshelf?

Connie May Fowler has several volumes on my Inspiration Shelf.

I have several special bookshelves in my office. One holds my inspiration books, volumes by writers I admire, whom I turn to now and then to figure out a writing issue or to get ginned up on words in preparation for a writing marathon. Another special shelf holds all the lit mags and anthologies where my work has been published. One very special shelf is part reality, part imaginary—the place where my own books, those I’ve already written and published, and those I hope to publish in the future, reside. However, all those volumes have names:

My book shelf:

Eve’s Garden

Sa-co-in-ge/blue smoke: Poems from the Southern Appalachians

Bird Talk

Chocolate and Roses (also known as The Man Who Loved Chocolate)

The Fruit of Queens

Provenance

A Journey of Moths

Weed Sugar and Other Stories

A Gypsy Poet Walked into a Coffeeshop

Mountain Girls Play Jazz

They’re not wholly imaginary. The first three are reality, already in print. Each of the others have at least an outline, while the last two are collections of poems ive published separately over the years, for which I’m now seeking a publisher. Weed Sugar is, similarly, a collection of short stories and hybrid forms.

I really want to know what’s on your bookshelves. Do you also keep an inspiration shelf? What’s on your future dream shelf?

This one’s a reality.

Study Hall, Tuesday, February 8: Writing While “Gypsy”

What are your building blocks?

I’m always going to prefer bright colors and a little bling. My characters will likely always be dancing and singing and maybe making a stew. There will be romance and adventures and a touch of magic.

Sure, some of these things are stereotypes, or representations of some vitsae (clans) and not others. But they are my reality.

Every woman I know is not going to be thrown out of her clan for being educated and writing, like Zola in the book of that title by Colum McCann, which is a thinly disguised portrait of Bronislawa Wajs, or Papusza, as she is known familiarly—a famous and somewhat tragic Romani poet. (One agent told me my characters weren’t Roma enough, like the ones she read about by McCann, who is not Roma, but did a hell of a lot of research, so respect to him. Still . . . No, the Scottish and English Roma with whom I’m familiar are not the same as the Roma who live in Poland, in several ways.) No, some of my characters will be treasured daughters and will get in entirely different kinds of trouble. We are not all tragic or have to leave our families in disgrace for beings ourselves.

Some, like the character Ruth in my second novel (yet to be published) will be the children of Holocaust survivors who lived through the most harrowing circumstances, but still know how to dance, and laugh, and love. This experience is not one the world wants to allot to Roma, as our recent experience with Whoopi Goldberg showed, since she and her network left us out of her apology and apparently still fails to recognize that we are not white. A streaming service, Netflix, chooses still to air comedian Jimmy Carr’s special, His Dark Material, in which he calls the Nazi genocide against Roma and Sinti a ”positive”—that is, justified. Roma and our friends are calling and cancelling our Net flix subscriptions. Will it help? Will they pull his show? We’ll see. In the meantime, I will write Ruth as true to the life of those I know as possible.

My point is that we are all working within a set of societal expectations, and as writers we can show the people behind myths like dancing ”Gypsies” or tell real though fictional stories based on history, like Ruth in the Holocaust, or we can break out of those expectations altogether and write something entirely new to us, or about people the likes of which we’ve never met, like the wonderful science fiction characters in books by the incredibly talented Caren Gussof Sumption, who happens to be Roma. Would that video game makers and other speculative fiction writers would consult her about being ”Gypsy” while morphing into other life forms.

Whatever we do, whatever we say, we are accountable for it to ourselves and our readers.

What realities or rebellion against reality are you working with or againt?

And if you’re so inclined, the number for Netflix is on the image above.

Study Hall, Tuesday, February 1

Write with an aim, I tell myself nearly every day. I am mostly past the point of needing prompts, because I have so many projects on deck. (However, I think prompts are a great idea to generate new work, and even to plumb the depths of what genius ideas might be lurking back there in the semiconscious mind.)


Above: The cover of my first chapbook, Bird Talk (Wild Dove, 1998)

Today, though, I’d like to recommend a different idea: Write for a project. Let me show you what I mean.

Chapbooks are, of course, small books or “booklets,” traditionally put together to showcase a portion of a poets work, sometimes while we’re on the way to amass enough work for a longer volume. However, these days chapbooks have branched out to include “hybrid” forms that may include poetry, but also short or micro fiction pieces. This is a great way to put together many short pieces and get them into print, extending your published work, and giving new circulation to short pieces or poetry already in print. Also, there are many chapbook contests now that might give you an in at a press that otherwise may be difficult to break into, or a first book that moves you up the writing ladder toward a full collection or volume.

So, today, here’s a thought: Do you have a small body of work, say, 30-50 pages, that might go well together in a chapbook, perhaps with a common theme or genre or point of view? Maybe you have that little cache of horror or fantasy or “space” items that hovers in the back of your mind. Or perhaps you write often about your garden and could easily pull together a collection based on season turnings and work based on garden observations. Or maybe you live baseball and have been writing about it for a time. All could work well in a chapbook. Maybe you need to add one or two new pieces to an otherwise stellar collection?

There are many chapbook publishers and contests. You can find them on Submittable.com. Here’s one that’s open now. Got anything to send?

New Delta Review is thrilled to announce our eleventh annual chapbook competition. For this contest, we’re looking for manuscripts of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, or hybrid work. We’re particularly interested in works that challenge traditional understandings of genre and form, though exceptional work of any aesthetic tilt are absolutely of interest.


Entry fee: $8

Final Judge: Dorothy Chan

About the judge: Dorothy Chan (she/they) is the author of most recently, BABE (Diode Editions 2021), in addition to Revenge of the Asian Woman (Diode Editions, 2019), Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018), and the chapbook Chinatown Sonnets(New Delta Review, 2017). They were a 2020 and 2014 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship finalist, a 2020 finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Bisexual Poetry for Revenge of the Asian Woman, and a 2019 recipient of the Philip Freund Prize in Creative Writing from Cornell University. Their work has appeared in POETRYThe American Poetry ReviewAcademy of American Poets, and elsewhere. Chan is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Editor Emeritus of Hobart, Book Reviews Co-Editor of Pleiades, and Co-Founder and Editor in Chief of Honey Literary Inc., a 501(c)(3) literary arts organization. They are this year’s Resident Artist for Toward One Wisconsin. Visit their website at dorothypoetry.com.


Grand Prize:

  • Publication of chapbook, 25 author copies, and feature in New Delta Review issue 
  • $250



Eligibility: 

  • All manuscripts must be received by March 3, 2022.
  • All submissions require an $8 entry fee and must be entered as .pdf, .doc., or .docx, through Submittable.
  • Manuscripts should be 20-35 pages in length and should include a title page with contact information. While individual pieces within the manuscript may be published elsewhere, the manuscript must be unpublished as a whole. If individual pieces have been published, writers can include an acknowledgments page at the end of the manuscript.
  • Multiple submissions are allowed but require separate entry fees. Simultaneous submissions are welcome on the condition that writers notify NDR of another acceptance as soon as possible.
  • Current students and faculty of LSU are ineligible.

Treason, Reparations, and Other Just Ends

How Arlington Cemetery Came to be and Why Reparations are a Good Idea.

From History.com comes this information about one consequence of the Civil War:

Robert E. Lee’s Virginia estate was confiscated by the Union and turned into a cemetery during the war.
As war descended on Virginia, Lee and his wife Mary fled their 1,100-acre Virginia estate, known as Arlington, which overlooked Washington, D.C. In 1863 the U.S. government confiscated it for nonpayment of $92.07 in taxes. Meanwhile, Lincoln gave permission for a cemetery to be built on the property, including a burial vault on the estate’s former rose garden. The idea was that, should Lee ever return, he would “have to look at these graves and see the carnage that he had created,” according to his biographer Elizabeth Brown Pryor. After the war, the Lees quietly looked into reclaiming Arlington but took no action before they died. In 1877 their oldest son, George Washington Custis Lee, sued the federal government for confiscating Arlington illegally; the Supreme Court agreed and gave it back to him. But what could the Lee family do with an estate littered with corpses? George Lee sold it back to the government for $150,000. Over time, 250,000 soldiers would be buried in what is now Arlington National Cemetery.

I’m betting most of us have never known this whole story. When coupled with the general knowledge that Lincoln, like Jefferson and Madison and others, thought that freed slaves should be sent back to Africa, or, in Lincoln’s case, perhaps to a colony in South America funded by the federal government, it prompts some thought.

What is revenge and what is mercy, and how are they connected?

A view of Robert E. Lee’s statue being removed from public view in Charlottesville, VA in 2019. Photo by NBC News.


I have no tears for Robert E. Lee. His own diary entries show that he knew he was committing treason and would be punished. The fact that he did not try to regain his plantation shows, perhaps, that he accepted the punishment of confiscation. Also, I would imagine that a man who knew the full weight of treason and exactly how he led so many troops to slaughter by dastardly attacks could not face the prospect of looking at the graves of men who died as a consequence of his actions.

As to sending freed African Americans to another continent, one has only to think of the limits to empathy of even brave and intelligent men. Why did they never think to ask the people what they wanted? Why, if the government could fund a colony, did they not think of confiscating more plantations and redistributing the land to those who had built the plantations and worked them? Not even minimal reparation payments?

What this shows me is that the trouble we have with punishing treason may be our wish to wipe away the guilt so that we don’t have to punish people with whom we otherwise agree. Also, that our empathy may still lie with those who commit the act rather than with those who are its victims. Do we empathize with those whose feelings we can fathom rather than with those we see as fundamentally different from us, having survived almost unimaginable horrors?

This past week included Holocaust Remembrance Day. The German government paid reparations for Nazis confiscations and murders to many Jewish families who suffered. It took that same government several decades after the war to admit that Roma and Sinti were also targeted for genocide rather than being the ”asocials” the general society considered them to be, people who perhaps deserved what they got. Roma and Sinti still have not received reparations for Nazi acts during the war. Could it be that White Germans still cannot empathize with an Indic people whose history was impacted greatly by past and present acts of oppression?

I have no trouble with severely punishing those who committed violent acts on January 6, and giving punishments severe enough to cause second thoughts in those who “only” trespassed into the Capitol. Even though they had to have seen violent acts committed to give them entry, they weren’t caught participating in any. Maybe they were there for show, enjoying the drama. Maybe they thought their side would prevail and there would be no consequences. A good story to tell your kids on the porch some summer day—“I was there when the rebellion began.”

What about the officers and their families who suffered from the violence of January 6? Do they not deserve some compensation for the bravery that prevented the mob from overrunning our Capitol?

We trivialize treason and cruelty at our peril. We can see this in the aftermath of the Civil War, when the potential political power and prosperity of many freed slaves was wiped out for generations by Klan acts of barbarity that backed up the Jim Crow laws, and in continued hatred aimed at Black people. I can see it today in the casual acts of racism I witness often in my home state of South Carolina. A place that could be so beautiful, a paradise, but it won’t. At least, not for those who weren’t born into opportunity.

I believe in reparations for horrible systems that citizens allow to exist. I believe that treason should be punished as much because we don’t want future monuments to the perpetrators as because they threatened our safety and wellbeing. And I believe that mercy should go only to those who truly repent, the bulk of our empathy going to those who suffered unjustly.

Punishing traitors and making reparations often go hand in hand.

Study Hall, January 25, 2022

For those of you who are new, welcome! If you’ve been with me a while, you know that I have health problems. Wow, did they tank my ability to keep up this blog since late fall. But I’m back, thanks to physical therapy. Join me in a writing assignment for this week. Let’s see if I can make a few connections that might help you as they have me.

Sandwiches. Today I’ve been thinking about sandwiches and that always leads me to think about my dad, who worked as loom fixer in a textile mill. Dad always wanted sandwiches for his lunch, and I often made them for him. All of us kids knew we were not allowed to touch certain items that were reserved for Dad’s lunch: we were not to take the last four slices of bread, ever, or his jar of dried beef, or the lunch meat—usually baloney or olive loaf—that Mom bought for him. If we had recently cooked a ham, for Easter, maybe, then a certain portion of the ham was set aside for him. Untouchable, all of it.

Sandwiches, anyone?

This has me thinking of the items or actions that we reserve in fiction for certain characters, and also of the “ecology” of our stories that revolve around those actions or items. For video game players, this might be a bit like available tools in a game. For fantasy writers, action might revolve around a sacred or desired item, whether a magic cup or a throne. For crime or mystery, many scenes revolved around a dead body or a place of last sightings. Do you see where I’m going?

What if we tried to write a story around, for example, a sandwich. The story’s ecology, depending on the end goal in sight, might revolve around a family making lunches as they get ready and discuss their day’s problems or events. Or it might revolve around the lonely lunch room in a hospital where a nurse munches and considers her patients’ needs.

The object works a bit like a talisman around which we cast spells.

Pick an object that speaks somehow to one or more of your characters, maybe one that will display your character’s longing or desire. Write a scene around that object without making IT the point. What is your story’s ecology in reference to that object? As always, think setting, character, and begin at a point of action.

Feel free to post a snippet of your work below, or just describe how this exercise worked for you.

Happy writing!

Study Hall, October 26, 2021

Today I’m going to try drafting a piece of flash fiction with a historical content, similar to this piece by Laura Besley:


https://sites.google.com/view/sundial-magazine/curios/a-common-enemy

I love the way she begins at a point of tension and turns the story at the end with the briefest of very emotional vignettes. Smashing, and so economical! But what I love most is that she uses history and family history, at that, to illustrate very human conditions. I love history and I have learned a lot about it by exploring my own family’s stories. So this is a great example for me.

Do you have informing texts you want to emulate? Please share, if you do!

Have fun, and let’s check in with each other! Catch me by twitter @gbaileymershon or on Facebook/glendabaileymershon! See you in print!

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Study Hall: Write with Us

Hi! For those of you who haven’t joined us before, the concept is simple:

I issue this reminder.

You choose your time if necessary, but, if possible, do it now.

Write whatever you like. (If you’re stuck, go to the Jane’s Stories Book Buzz page on Facebook and scroll down till you find a prompt that suits you––they’re posted frequently by our prompt guru, Judy Goodman.)

Leave us a note here about your intention, whatever you want to say about your writing plans and your goal for the day, whether it’s a certain number of words, a good beginning, to finish a piece, whatever.

On Friday, come to the Book Buzz and let us know how you did under the prompt that says “Check In.”

That’s it! Bon voyage on your writing journey, and, remember, you’re never alone. Reach out to me or other writers if you need a hand.

Today is Not in the Mood Day!

Imagine a photo of Grumpy Cat here. Nonetheless, I will be putting hands on the novel and maybe taking a leap to submit a poetry book manuscript, because I believe in the BUTT IN THE SEAT school of writing. #NoIDontWanna

What are you working on today? Leave me a note and cheer me up. If you do, here’s how I’ll look then:

Photo by Onur Binay
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