Saturday, October 27, 2012

Halloween in Old Fairhope

This is from my novel That Was Tomorrow, just in time for Halloween 2012.

The school year 1921-22 was moving almost too fast. It was soon time for the big Halloween Party, and, by the second semester, the new folk dance teacher would be on campus. There was much more excitement about folk dancing than Amelia ever would have imagined.
In the meantime, Marietta Johnson had already made one trip to Greenwich, where her summer teacher training school was held, and met in New York City with the “Fairhope Educational Foundation” who gave fund-raisers for her school. When she traveled she was always invited to speak in neighboring towns, and she took the opportunity to encourage them to employ Organic methods in their school systems. She never returned to Fairhope without a family or two following her, to see her demonstration school at work. Most stayed and enrolled their children. There were over 100 students, many of them boarders.
All the students were excited about the Halloween party they would hold in Comings Hall. The older students organized projects to make the party fun—a costume contest, cakewalks, washtubs of water full of apples, and booths surrounding the rim of the hall with games.
Everybody in school would be involved in decorating the big, empty hall. They envisaged the event as a massive fund-raiser, even though little money exchanged hands. They would charge for a wheel of tickets, and every game and contest would cost a certain number of tickets. The parents got involved with refreshments—a bake sale, plates of ham and potato salad, lemonade and punch. A large urn of coffee would be on hand. Mothers baked cakes for the big cakewalks which would be held periodically during the evening. Mordecai Arnold, father of Louisa and five other Organic students, had for several years volunteered for the job of calling the cakewalks, which featured himself standing in the center of the circle while Piney Gaston played her enthusiastic brand of piano, stopping suddenly, and calling a random number for a handful of cards handed him by Mrs. Johnson. Whatever cakewalker—man, woman or child—was standing on the square marked with that number, was the winner of a homemade cake! This age-old party game always had currency in Fairhope.
The school event would be on the Friday of Halloween weekend, meaning that most of that day was taken with preparations for the party. The high school emerged as organizers, painting the floor with the cakewalk circle, putting up posters all around town, and decorating Comings Hall with festoons of crepe paper and huge handmade posters of witches, black cats and jack-o-lanterns they had created in their Arts and Crafts classes. The older boys were in charge of the Fun House, which was set apart on the stage with the curtain drawn. Behind that curtain they had created a maze of reconstructed cardboard cartons, a crazy mirror, the tunnel to a barrel that would roll its occupant some ten feet, and an exit on a slide down the steps to the main floor. The boys guided their charges, mostly kids their age or younger, through the labyrinth to the exit. If a child entered who was clearly not able to make his way, he was given an abbreviated tour.
Five cakewalks were scheduled during the evening, and one big costume parade. Sarah, looked astonishingly beautiful in a gypsy skirt and blouse with golden hoop earrings. Paul Frederick, Jim Gaston and Maxwell Taylor were judging the costumes. This was a wrench for Max, who had a hankering to win with his Mad Hatter costume, but he had recused himself from the competition to lend his expertise as a judge.
All the town, Amelia reckoned, showed up for the party, and in fancy dress too. Captain and Mrs. Cross came as Tweedledum and Tweedledee from Alice in Wonderland; E.B. Gaston came as a wizard in a high pointed hat with stars on it, and his wife came as Mother Goose. Mrs. Johnson felt she should have come as The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, but she didn’t know how to articulate that as a costume, so she settled on a ghost costume, which didn’t fool anybody for long.
The women of Fairhope had spent weeks making these costumes, sometimes going against their better judgment when asked by their children to create such outlandish disguises. One boy gave his mother the task of designing a Headless Horseman costume. She accomplished this by taking a hatbox to cover his head and shoulders, attaching a tin can to the top of it to provide a neck, covering the whole thing with construction paper and cutting slits in the box so he
could see. He made a head for his horse, and the head he would carry under his arm, out of papier-maché in his arts and crafts class. The horse’s body was a broom. Fairhope children rode brooms as horses all the time.
One of the school’s big families, the Arnolds, came as the ragged, shipwrecked Swiss Family Robinson, taking the idea from a book they were reading together. Their oldest four children were boys, with Ezekial (“Zeke”) being a senior in high school, and the other,s stair steps on down in size. The two youngest girls took part with Louisa playing Jenny, the English girl who appears at the end of the book. The toddler Bonnie dressed as Knips, the monkey.
Hal and Martha Etheridge and their daughter Ally came as a family of French poodles.
Avery and Amelia decided not to tell each other what they were working on for costumes. Avery’s was quite unusual, Amelia could see that—at its base a black, body covering leotard, such as worn by circus performers. She peeked one afternoon as Avery assembled all the components of the costume, but Avery shooed her out as soon as she saw her.
“This is ART!” she told her roommate. “I need my solitude to create!”
Amelia stood outside the bedroom door like a curious child. “It doesn’t look like art to me,” she called. “It looks like black underwear!”
But it did look rather like art at that. She knew also that there was a lampshade involved.
Amelia would dress as a scarecrow, in bedraggled men’s clothes with a floppy straw hat and bunches of hay sticking out of her shirt cuffs and pant legs. The girls agreed not to see each other dressed until the party, so Avery put on her costume at the School Home, which was chaotic with children getting into costumes. Amelia dressed at The Sieve, and walked to Comings Hall in full scarecrow attiree. It was still daylight. She might scare a few crows on her way. The party started at 5 P.M. and she didn’t want to be too early or too late.
She was hardly prepared for the pandemonium. She watched in awe as the hall filled up-- little kids were literally climbing in the rafters, and the crush of partygoers in bizarre modes of dress was impressive. Jim Holloway was Abraham Lincoln, and it turned out Avery was a floor lamp, complete with cord and plug. She had cut out eyes in the lampshade so she could see. She was quite a figure. Jim took one look at Amelia in her scarecrow attire and said, “Who are you? Luther Beagle?”
Moments like this made Amelia wish she had the kind of quick wit that Avery did. She said, “Who are you? Charlie Chaplin?” It got a laugh, but she wasn’t sure it was really funny.
She and Jim were having their ham dinners when the first cakewalk was called. They put their plates aside and took part in the walk which was made more fun by the running commentary by Mr. Arnold, describing the costumes and chanting, “One, two, three, four, keep walkin’,” and Piney, in a witch costume with a long black gown and a pointed hat, played a variety of tunes, from “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to John Phillip Sousa marches—and the walkers fairly strutted in time creating a kaleidoscope of color and contrasts.
“And the first cake goes to the gentleman without a head!” he announced as one of the mothers beamingly presented a cake to the headless horseman. The boy had to pass the cake to his parents so he could continue to enjoy the party. Without a head he couldn’t bob for apples, but he remained headless to the costume parade.
This would be the climax of the party. At that moment the milling, chattering crowd of fantastical characters circled the hall in a slow-moving, serpentine extravaganza of color and flash. Disparate characters talked with one another, a circus of incongruity. The four judges, just as extravagantly attired, were making notes and conferring with each other about what they saw. One by one contestants would be tapped on the shoulder by a judge and asked to form a smaller circle in the center. Clearly these were the finalists: The Crosses, the Headless Horseman, the floor lamp, Abraham Lincoln, and one four year old in a fairy costume that looked as if it came from a road company of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Max showed his theatrical side in announcing the inner circle of winning looks. How different he was in his role as a theater director! His voice boomed, and he exuded the confidence
of a circus ringmaster—which he was for the night. His replication of the Mad Hatter in the Tenniel drawing was complete with a lopsided top hat that had a tag tucked into the ribbon, saying In This Style 10/6. He added a dramatic flair to his announcements. Amelia had never noted the rich baritone timbre of his voice before.
“The floor lamp with the astonishing hourglass figure is runner-up Number Two!” Max bellowed. Applause from the crowd. Not that Avery had the kind of figure called an “hourglass” by previous generations, but her female shape definitely showed in the black body stocking. She may have been embarrassed by Max’s description, but if she was blushing it was hidden under a lampshade.
Tweedledum and Tweedledee agreed to have a battle—” he said, “But they won’t have it tonight, because together they are the First Runners Up!”
It was clear how much everybody loved the Crosses. There was a wave of applause and whistles.
“And the winner of this year’s Best Costume Award...” Jim in his Abe Lincoln get-up looked as if he thought he would surely win, and the little girl did a fairy dance in the most modest way she could.
“The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow!”
No one was surprised or disappointed when the headless horseman won the contest. His prize was a handmade pottery jack-o-lantern, made with some artistic flourishes by Miss Kitwell. It had been glazed bright orange in the kiln, and filled by the high school students with homemade fudge.
After the presentation of the prize, the crowd began to mill around, forming random patterns of colors and patterns. There were enough witches to add a dash of black among the contrasting splashes of bright color. The oversized bow around the neck of the mad hatter was blue with big gold polka dots and the Swiss Family Robinson were mostly in white and gray. There was Julian Crane as Father Time, a grim reaper with a sickle and a dingy white robe, accompanied by his wife in sparkling white as the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. Abraham Lincoln had his arm around the waist of a beautiful gypsy girl and was gazing down into her eyes. Mr. Gaston, for the night a wizard, possibly of the dark arts, approached them with his peaked hat—sparkling with moons and stars—slightly askew. Mrs. Johnson, well concealed under a ghostly sheet, strode around the room, as if she assumed she had anonymity in her village for a night. Amelia realized she was truly anonymous; her scarecrow costume included a hooded mask, and she was new, so not that easily recognized. The phantasmagoria of costumes disguised the usually reserved, scholarly reformers, teachers and parents, and it was as if the town had actually become inhabited by their doppelgangers.
The floor lamp came up to her and said, “Well? What do you think? Does this group know how to put on a party or not?”
“I never saw anything quite like it,” Amelia responded. “I’m beginning to understand the concept of the surrealist movement.”
“I think it’s about time to leave this cacophony of color and go home,” Avery said.
The party was indeed winding down as people gathered up their things and told each other goodbye until tomorrow—which would be the day they would get together to take down the decorations.
When they got home Avery went straight upstairs to get ready for bed, but Amelia went to the kitchen to make herself a cup of cocoa. She needed to unwind. When the milk was hot she stirred it into the cocoa powder and sugar, thinking of the party. She heard noise from next door, as if maybe Sam Bradley might be having his own gathering. She walked out to the back porch to see what was happening.
“Hell-FAR and damnation!” came the boom of a man’s voice. A chill went down her spine as she strained to see who making the racket.
It was clear in the dim light from Bradley’s back porch that he was ejecting someone from his house.
“The devil takeem all!” The man was screaming.
Amelia had not heard such language in Fairhope. She was riveted to the spot, squinting to see who it was. Bradley’s voice was low, as if trying to tame a wild beast.
“I know how you feel, but we can’t do nothin’ about this,” Bradley was saying. “It’s time you went home to cool off.”
“They’re all goin’ to HELL anyway.”
Just then the cursing man wheeled away and started to stumble up the path to the street. She had a glimpse of his face, distorted in rage but eerily smiling. After a moment she recognized Curry Cumbie, but Amelia was thunderstruck with remembered fear.
She thought of the wicked witch causing danger to her teddy bear. She heard her own voice warning her cuddly toy of hellfire and damnation. She began to understand the source of her mistrust of this man, and once the connection was made she would carry it with her the rest of her life. Miss Pritchart.
The real Halloween, October 31, was Monday. The date was known as a night of mischief. A few high school boys let livestock loose on the streets, not doing real damage. Some threw a few eggs into the trees on the streets of homes they knew well—basically their own and those of friends.
The big event was taking Luther Beagle, the town drunk, to the bay and giving him his yearly bath. Luther protested, as usual, but he was light in weight, so that two boys were able to subdue and lift him after he realized that fighting was futile. He had gone through this for several years by now, so he knew well that protesting would only postpone the inevitable. Usually he tried to hide from the boys, but his cunning was long gone and he could never successfully avoid his yearly dunk. It was a rite of passage for the older teenaged boys in Fairhope to abduct the old derelict, in his fit of mostly feigned outrage, and haul him off to the big pier, late at night, every Halloween. They claimed it was the only bath he got all year.
If you're interested in learning more about my book--or, better yet, interested in buying it, visit my website my website

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Magical Realism of History

I'm struggling with ambivalence. My eBook is selling everywhere except in Fairhope. I don't get it. I still promote it everywhere I can, including activating my account on a booklovers' site called Goodreads, where I've created a blog and posted the following this morning.

When I revisited Fairhope, the setting for my novel That Was Tomorrow, in my mind, I wanted it to be as I wished it was in 1921, long before I was born. There was something magical about teleporting myself to that time and that particular place, and I hoped to bring readers along.

I grew up in the town in the 1950's, when there were still people around who remembered the halcyon days--I only wish they had still been around to help me fill in the pictures in my mind when I began writing about them. In my childhood and young womanhood, Fairhope's utopian dream was just beginning to fade and I had no way of knowing how much I would miss it the rest of my life. I began writing books with nonfiction, embellished by my own vivid memories, of what the town was like some 50 years before.

I then wanted, through fiction, to explore the magic that happened in Fairhope long before I got there, when the reformers, nonconformists, dreamers and idealists were young and still believed the reality of Fairhope would eventually change the world. These people built a little society on that premise, that the best of people would be borne out in their enclave and, town by town, the rest of the country and eventually the world would see the light and adopt their economic and educational system.
Just as they held their hopes, so did I hope, some 90 years later, that a novel about that magical time would stir excitement about the place and its ideas. The Fairhope of today, it seems, does not need the Fairhope of yesterday. It is populated with those who love the town as it is, a well-manicured, attractive little city with magnificent sunset views and a lot of new houses. Interest in That Was Tomorrow is coming from other places. I hope it will come from lovers of historical novels who want to learn of life in a real-life utopia of hopeful times past.

I also wish for magic. I hope that something happens to ignite interest in That Was Tomorrow in Fairhope. If you'd like to know more, visit my website and see what you think.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Amelia in Fairhope

A couple of years ago I decided to do it. I would write the novel that had been hatching in my mind for years, a novel set in the utopian community of Fairhope when it was at its peak, before modernity caught on, between the world wars of the 20th century when it still seemed that perhaps all was indeed possible. It was such an optimistic time in the country, and Fairhope seemed to hold the secrets of the future itself. I named my novel That Was Tomorrow.

I wanted the historical Fairhope to be a character in the novel, an inescapable paradise setting--where real people struggled with everyday problems, surrounded by the elders of the town, all of whom had moved to Fairhope to live out their personal dreams to improve the world. I wanted the novel to focus on those who were starting out in life, observed some of the flaws in the utopian dream, and learned from the reality of Fairhope. A couple would fall in love and ultimately let go of that particular magic as they left Fairhope to establish their lives in the real world. People would talk international affairs and politics while they took their families to bathe in the nude in Mobile Bay and frolic in the local nudist colony for what was known in the day as “air baths.” Children would climb in the trees, play marbles in the streets, explore the gullies, and, most of all, enjoy their days in the School of Organic Education.

I began the book in Hoboken, where my leading character was born. I would take young Amelia through a privileged childhood with a nanny from hell, a repressed woman with so many hangups that little Amelia’s only refuge was in a game that involved torturing her teddy bear in order to save him. A beloved aunt rescues Amelia and raises her with her own four children in a happy, loving family in Philadelphia, where she is sent to a progressive Quaker school and decides to become a schoolteacher herself.

In Philadephia she hears a talk by a radical education reformer, the visionary Marietta Johnson, who inspires Amelia as much as she did so many young schoolteacher of the day.

Amelia soon packs up for Fairhope, where she will encounter the settlement’s avant garde. They are iconoclasts and idealists who believe their utopia is showing the way for the rest of the world. She meets the stalwarts of the town, including not only Mrs. Johnson but also E.B. Gaston, librarian Marie Howland, and other notables who populate the town. The Fairhope of 1921 has also attracted a number of strays—the outsider fringe, some of whom are amusing, some harboring menace. Amelia is, for the most part, enchanted. She has an affair, works diligently at the new educational theory, until ultimately she moves on and leaves Fairhope to start her own school.

It remains to be seen whether That Was Tomorrow will catch on in Fairhope, or outside it, for that matter. Now available as an e-book only, if my novel develops a buzz in Fairhope I’ll publish it in traditional format and give book talks and signings, promoting it to the hilt. If you’re curious to learn more, visit my website and download the book. As an ebook it's available on amazon, and a few reviews have already appeared there.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Looking Back and Sideways at Fairhope

When you leave a place, that doesn't mean it leaves you. I've been haunted by Fairhope and working it out by writing books about the Fairhope I remember (The Fair Hope of Heaven, Meet Me at The Butterfly Tree) and the Fairhope of the days before I was born (That Was Tomorrow).

There's a new Fairhope now, and I certainly know it. The old one is not quite buried yet, however, with this last trip I for one was able to identify the source of my conflict about the place. When I lived in Fairhope I carved out as my mission the education of the new people about the place; after over 20 years I have realized I was talking to myself. History is not high on the agenda of a town on the move and on the make. New people are not interested in the old ways, even if they were radical and would be avant garde today. The new who have come to Fairhope would be even less interested in the radical and avant garde.

I'm grateful, however, for the magnificent little museum run by my old friend Donnie Barrett, in the heart of town. There are history buffs and Fairhope buffs who congregate there and bask in the weekly teas and talks about the old days. It and the Marietta Johnson Museum, the restored Bell Building on what is now the campus of Faulkner Community College, provide a blanket of psychic warmth and a stimulus of respect for history for the curious

I wrote this several years ago in The Fair Hope of Heaven: "No matter where people move, they look for the tribe they can relate to, and there is a sense of inclusiveness in the many tribes of Fairhope. They are pleased to meet and work with new people. And the tribes reflect a myriad of interests which may catch a person off guard and may trigger new enthusiams."

There is still a chance for me, then, in the new Fairhope. I still have a tribe there, and it is one of writers, artists, and historians, amateur and professional, whom I haven't yet met. There are people I know and trust from years past. And there is always the coastline of Mobile Bay with its spectacular sunsets and instant solitude and peace.

Here's what one writer was inspired to say in a book about Fairhope: "And somewhere in a gully on a particular day in a certain season, the fortunate wanderer will actually find a tree covered in butterflies...It should not be a surprise, even if it is not expected, if a shadow dances among the leaves, a face appears (or seems to), even a community of phantoms from the past. Here you will find answers, questions, and a host of stories."

That writer was me. The book is called Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree. And somewhere in my heart I retain the belief that that magic might happen only in Fairhope.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Have You Ever Been in Love?

A simple enough question, I guess, yes or no. Yet when I man I'd met on an online dating service asked me I was stumped for an answer.

I had never been asked that question before. I've been married three times and was what I would have called in love with all of them at the time we tied the knot. The man asking the question had been married once, for nearly 40 years, to one woman, and had been at her side every day as she suffered from Alzheimer's until she died. That was what he meant by love, and I was not one to argue. It is the stuff fairy tales are made of, and rom-coms from Hollywood, and probably a large percentage of the fiction we read. Happily ever after, and then you close the book and never ask what happens next.

It looks so easy when other people do it, but on the other hand there are many of us who struggle with the concept for our whole lives. It would be so pleasant to have a partner for life, someone to banter with over coffee every morning, some to care for us, observe our triumphs, soothe us through difficulties, be in love with us forever. In my experience marriage itself had something to do with the loss of that "in love" feeling--time, familiarity, a growing awareness of the reality of the other and knowledge that he had the same awareness of you. My dating friend told me that he had been his wife's whole world through their marriage, and in my eyes she was fortunate that he never abused that devotion. He is a wise and courageous person. How do I, who lived a rootless, sometimes reckless, often self-centered, and always questing and questioning existence, respond to a person so sincere, so profound in his conventionality? All I could say was "I've had a different sort of life."

He chooses to believe that my last husband, whom I was with for 25 years and who died of cirhossis of the liver, was the love of my life. I would not say that. So I look back--was there a love of my life at all, or am I still seeking him? There were passionate affairs, complex adjustments, and there was a layer of love over all, but is there one person I would characterize as the love of my life?

Television hotshot Piers Morgan, replacing Larry King as interviewer to the stars, has in his arsenal of pointed questions, "How many times would you say you've really been in love?" Being English, he seems to expect this to be a whammy to the hapless interviewee, and perhaps in England it would be. But in the U.S., interrogating the likes of sophisticated, sarcastic comedian Kathy Griffin, he is answered by an eye-roll and an Is-that-all-ya-got evasive comeback, as if she knows it's a canned question and she ain't gonna talk about this stuff with him. Needless to say, under the circumstances of a TV studio and a million viewers, I would like to be like Kathy and demand the next question. None of your beeswax, you remote, snobbish, self-important English guy.

But this was an intimate friend, a man I respected. How to break it to him, what my life has been, how different the experience of love itself has been from my family of origin on. It's too much to answer lightly. I was in love, but I was in another world. and I don't mean the soap opera either. I was in "The Guiding Light," and in "The Edge of Night," but when I was in love I was in another world.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Fair Hope of Rebirth

This blog has always been about hopes--high hopes, dashed hopes, fair hopes, and just about every kind of hope I could weave into my personal narrative--including a town called Fairhope in the south of Alabama. I lived in Fairhope until December of 2007, and in a sense I expect to live in fair hope of something for the rest of my days.

Today I'm looking at new things for my future. I've written a novel and am publishing it online as a ebook (whatever that is). Ironically it is set in the utopian town of Fairhope in 1921 and will probably find most of its fans in the age range of people who actually don't know what an e-reader is. Well, they'll just have to buy one, because I think they'll love this book. It concerns a young woman who moves from New Jersey to south Alabama to teach in an extraordinary school and live among nonconformists who have an agenda to change the world. I've been researching the time and place for over 20 years, and picked up a zillion anecdotes and tall tales, some of which are in the book.

In those days, Fairhope was populated with idealists who were planning for a better tomorrow for the generations to follow. At some point, my heroine calls into question the very basis of old Fairhope and even the school and her mentor and idol, Marietta Johnson. From this existential doubt comes my title, That Was Tomorrow, but not before we've all had a jolly old time revisiting the Fairhope of the past.

Through the deep investigation of what old Fairhope means to me, and what I have firm hopes that it once actually was, I'm reborn. No longer a concerned citizen of a town whose approach to the 21st century caused me distress, no longer an actress and director of theatre, I'm now an author with not only two non-fiction books to my credit but also one historical novel--with some violence, sex, romance and heart in it. I have a birthday next week, and am looking at life at 72 with fresh, youth-filled eyes. My Organic education has provided me with an optimistic outlook and an awareness that life is what you can make it, and it is full of surprises and adventures. The Internet is a place where infinite changes can happen. I'll revive this blog, and my other two blogs, and this is the place I shall continue to investigate hope, fair and otherwise. I hope you'll bookmark it and revisit it regularly

Maybe you found this blog from my website. If that's the case, I suggest you browse the blog and the many posts over the years. You can do so by clicking the Archive section on any random month or by typing in a subject in the "Search" box in the upper left hand corner. I've dealt with religion, education, politics, and personalities over the years--and probably shall for years to come. Try typing "Searching Our Souls" or "God" if you want something profound and thought-provoking; otherwise try "Fairhope Pier" or some other spot of interest.

And if you didn't find this from my website, I hope you'll go here now and buy my book. Make that plural; buy all of them.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Johnny's Books

A year ago a Facebook friend announced he would be holding a writer's workshop in Minneapolis. He and I--and many others--had built kind of a club-within-a-club on the social network, and I decided to take myself to one of the twin cities and enroll in his class. It was an adventure that meant the world to me, and I'll tell you why.

Jonathan Odell, charming and chatty as he is on Facebook, is a serious man and a first-rate novelist. His class inspired me to keep at the novel I was working on, and he agreed to be one of the first readers of my rough draft when I finished.

At the workshop he announced that his second book, The Healing, had been accepted by a major publisher and we could expect to see it in print by March of 2012. That seemed a long wait to me, but the time is here, and the book is out. I've been to the local bookstore in Fairhope and bought my copy, but first I wanted to read Jon's The View from Delphi, which preceded it. Jon will be talking about The Healing and the process of writing it at a book signing event at the Page & Palette March 15. I'll be there.

At the Minneapolis workshop, Jon told of growing up Johnny Johnson in Mississippi, conflicted and somewhat unhappy, and that he somehow wanted to be a writer in spite of the fact he had never been encouraged by his teachers or anyone else to pursue his creative side. He wanted to be a writer, but wasn't sure he could write. His first mentor was novelist Mary Gardner, who read his work and said, "This little boy in here is so burdened and victimized he doesn't even seem real. Were you like this as a child? Were you aware of yourself as a victim even then?" Jon said his revelation was that he was not--indeed he remembered himself as been a reasonably happy little kid, doing childish things like sneaking treasures out of the family's drawer and burying them in the back yard. "There," Mary said. "You have a start of a real character." She also said to him, "I don't know if you can write or not, but you have great material." From that insight, he was able to go back and rewrite, exploring what made his mother the kind of person she was (and is), and build a dynamic set of stories around his early childhood during the voter registration crisis period in Mississippi.

The View from Delphi has a little boy named Johnny in it, and one of the things Johnny does is steal things from grownups and bury them in the back yard (under the house, actually). It becomes a crucial part of the plot--and Johnny is both observer and actor in the ensemble of diverse characters in the book. I couldn't help picturing Johnny Johnson as the devilish little Johnny Graham, and I suspect I was right in doing so. It's a complicated, engrossing tale of interwoven lives--a black part of town and a white part of town--and the reader is tossed from one side to the other, never landing where he or she expected to go. I relived some of my own experiences as I read, and met a motley band of Mississippi folks on the journey. I loved every minute of it.

The Healing sits on the coffee table in the cottage I'm renting, and I'm raring to get into it before I take it to the reading for Jon to sign. He's left little Johnny far behind him, and if the early reviews of this book mean anything, his new name of Jonathan Odell will be one to conjure with for generations to come. I expect it will overturn a lot of clichés about the South and be another great ride--led by one of the truly original minds of the region.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Old Home--Montrose, Alabama

Montrose used to be a separate entity, some five miles north of Fairhope. It was older, more Southern, more settled, less contentious. It was the place my parents found a home for the family in 1949.

"It's not much of a house, we said," my mother told me some forty years later. "But it's a nice place for a house." The three and a half acres was pretty spectacular, even then. It was dotted with oaks, dripping with Spanish Moss; there was space in the back for a pasture for horses and an area for a nice little chicken house to the north of the house. The house sat on a hill and looked grander from the old highway than it really was, but its interiors held cozy corners and great light and high ceilings (is 14 feet high enough for you?) and was designed in the day when it was important to catch the breezes in summer. It was almost as if it had its own air conditioning system.

Our family owned and treasured the house for some sixty years, by which time our mother, who stayed on there, had allowed much of it to fall into disrepair. To say that she had not updated in on a regular basis would be an understatement. Still, the three adult children, all relocated nearby, visited every day and always felt that sense of joy that is the pride of a home. All three of us love old homes and like nothing more than restoring and refurbishing them. But in our hearts there will always be that certain house, that certain place to which our mind returns. It is a specific, special old house, occupying the crest of a hill in Montrose.

My brother Graham assured me that the family who bought it after our mother died treasured the house just as we did, and wanted to restore it to the best house it could be in today's world.

Today I took the opportunity to visit and my spirits soared. You still enter the house from the kitchen, always awkward, but for the visitor very warm and charming.

The wide center hall is enhanced by the new owners' antiques--and by their good taste in keeping things simple.
They've added a building at the back where they can entertain and just chill out. This is where there was once a chicken house, or a stable, depending on which child tells the story. We had both, at different points in time. Later my father had a carport built, which soon was used for storage and basically became, as Mama would say, a junk pile. It is now cleaned up for useful living space.

I came away from my visit feeling happy and a little nostalgic. But I had long since given the house away in my mind. The property still holds memories, and the new family will build a new life revolving around the heritage of home that shines throughout the simple space. These pictures I shot today give a feeling of what a wonderful house it is for all time.

Monday, February 06, 2012

I Went Somewhere Else

It was overcast and cool, but I had been inside my little cottage most of the day. I knew there was a big football game that would engage the whole country, and if you read yesterday's post you know how I feel about that, so I was looking for something else to do.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy had ended its run at the local cineplex, replaced by Hugo, a fantasy about the early days of motion pictures. In 3-D, no less. It had earned critical praise and not a few awards and nominations for more. There was a showing at 4:40 which would take me away from my TV set for most of the period absorbed by pre-game and post-game conjecture about who was going to do what to whom and what the other side would have to do then.

No question, I was going to see Hugo. There was little traffic on the highways--all those Super Bowl parties, no doubt--and the movie house was all but empty. I took my sunglasses as they were handed to me at the box office and put them on when instructed.

I was enchanted by Hugo. For the first hour, which did move a bit slowly, I worked on suspending disbelief. It was basically a children's movie and I wished I had my grandsons with me and wished they were about six and nine again. I had to settle for my own inner child, who is about five in today's years. She loved it.

My outer adult questioned whether this flick really demanded 3-D, but had to admit it enhanced the show. I literally felt transported to the inside of a clock in a Paris train terminal of long ago, and I marveled at the clarity of the blue eyes of a boy named Asa Butterfield, and soon I was seeing the world through his eyes. In a charming cameo, Jude Law played his father. Ben Kingsley played a villainous old man. A little too cute for words was Chloe Grace Moretz as the well-read smarty pants who accompanies Hugo in his adventures.

I love movies about movies, at least the way they're doing them these days. (On the other hand, I have to say I enjoyed Singin' in the Rain more than The Artist) but I liked Hugo as much as any older film.

Hugo watches the passing scene through the clock in the terminal, where he lives, as one would watch a movie. He tells that he and his father used to go to movies and that his father told him about a movie he'd seen as a child in which a rocket hit the man in the moon right in the eye "And it was as if he was seeing his own dreams." I've seen that ancient bit of movie footage myself and loved the idea of a child in Paris seeing it for the first time. Hugo takes his new friend to her first movie, which shows Harold Lloyd hanging over the city, suspending himself from the hands of a giant clock. This is not the last time we see a scene of someone hanging from a clock in Hugo. I recently saw Tom Cruise hanging off the side of the building in an adventure flick but missed the Harold Lloyd reference. Hugo brings it home.

The experience of Hugo reminded me of a book I read five years ago and wrote a blog post about. My post was called "Dreaming the Movies" and you can find it if you type those words in the search box above. I won't go into all of it here, but the book described the experience of movies compared to the experience of dreams. Hugo captures the experience of both, telling the audience that that is the way it's supposed to work. In Hugo, it worked like a charm for me.

So I escaped the football game, came home to a disappointing episode of Downton Abbey, and climbed into my dreams for a full and pleasant night.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

No to the Super Bowl

It was in the 1950s--probably midway--when I attended my last football game. Fairhope's biggest rival was Foley. It was the biggest game in the season.

In those days I went to Fairhope's "other" school, the little School of Organic Education with an enrollment of about 50 in the high school. My friends and I faithfully went to all the home games of Fairhope High. I sat with five or six lifelong friends (they are til this day) and thrilled to the sound of the bands, the atmosphere charged by the energy of cheerleaders--the smell of autumn in the air and all the trappings of the game. Going to a football game was exciting, and Fairhope always had a good, competitive team. The Foley game was the highlight of the year.

This particular year Fairhope was winning by a big lead. It was several years before Kenny Stabler was on the Foley team. We wouldn't have known his name in those days anyway.

All I know for sure is that Foley was not going to win this one. It was a slaughter, and we knew it was a slaughter before the end of the first half. That was when one of my favorite people on the planet made an astounding suggestion.

"Let's go sit on the Foley side for the second half," he said. "We can boo until they give up!"

I was shocked to hear this. Stunned and heartbroken. "No!"

But I was much more heartbroken at the response. This bright and beautiful young man got the support of all my friends and a few others from the Fairhope side. Double whammy heartbreak for the starry-eyed girl from Montrose (me).

I said, "If you do this, I'm leaving. And I'll never come to another football game." They were incredulous, but nobody supported my action.

At the break, while the bands were playing and the half-time show was going on, a group of about ten youngsters from Fairhope actually traipsed over the Foley side and found front row seats (Foley didn't have many in the stands). When the game started again there they sat, cheering wildly every time Fairhope had a successful play on the field, no matter how small, and jeering at the top of their lungs when someone on the Foley team attempted a counter action. It was a spectacle I have never forgotten.

By then I was ready to walk away from the game. I lived far enough away that I had to await a ride from my mother, who would pick me up by the time the game ended. There was no telephone nearby so I could let her know I was ready to go home early. I stood near the field but out of sight of the game, and heard the roars from the stands when Fairhope made touchdowns and the slight sounds when Foley did something that might make a point.

I knew at that moment I had changed my life with that action. Never again would I see football or any other sport as an innocent, positive aspect of American life. I would see the whole spectrum of competitive athletics as fostering the opposite of "good sportsmanship." I didn't want to learn the finer points of the game. I would never again thrill to joining the cheerleaders in their chants, yelling myself hoarse with the best of them. I would go to the basketball games for my school; I once even attended a local bush league baseball game and was bored to tears after a few innings. I tolerated sports on television when I had to. But for the next fifty years I would like football least of all.

It was a small incident, really. Over the years I've wondered why I allowed it to be so meaningful in my life. With the orgy of emotion in this country over every game--high school, college, and professional--and the obscene amount of money that controls all organized sports, I suspect this may be one of the times I was wrong. Sometimes it seems to me that football is the engine that drives my country, prepares its young men for actual battle and definitely for the hard core workplace. It makes people happy to win and win big. Cheering for the winners is a national pastime. All of this, with my teenaged decision, was lost to me for a lifetime.

Maybe it was destined to happen anyway. There are plenty of people who have things they'd rather do than watch football. Probably I would have become one of them without the scene I witnessed. Clearly I overreacted. Now when I think of the joy of high school football I remember that night and it is like a black hole in my soul. At 71 it's probably time I cleared that hole out and put something in its place. Even now I don't know what, how or even why I would have to do that, and it is a little late.

I'll never be a football fan, but over time I've learned that it's not the game that creates the dark side in otherwise good people. The episode signaled the beginning of my loss of innocence, but it was highly personal and might have ended another way if I had not been so judgmental of those near and dear friends. I shall find other things to do than attend a Super Bowl party this evening. Maybe I'll use the time to work on ways to replace that memory and not hold all of the culture of football responsible for the bad behavior of a few teenagers in a remote utopian enclave of the distant past.

Friday, February 03, 2012

My Portable Life

Here I am in Fairhope again, driving around in a rental car and staying in a sweet one room cottage.It's one room with a little kitchen, a little bathroom--and a lot of charm. It's in a pretty corner of Fairhope, close to town (and to the bay, of course--every property in Fairhope is always advertised as "Walk to town and bay"). I do walk some, and drive some too. I deliberately go out of my way so that I might see what has changed and what has stayed the same. I show up at the door of people I used to know and they are telling me the latest news and gossip.
Above is very close to the center of town, the gaping hole on Fairhope Avenue where the movie house used to be. Soon a new edifice will be erected here for yet another building for gift shops and tourist attractions. It's the way things are going (and have gone for the past 25 years or so).

The weather is pleasant--it'll be 73 degrees today--and birds are singing and people are smiling. All of that is to be expected in Fairhope at this time of year, although I'm told it's been a mild winter, even for here.

I lived here for almost 20 years before I decided to move away in December of 2007--to a more hostile climate and a more confrontational atmosphere. I live in New Jersey, and for the first year, whenever I met someone and said I had just moved there from Alabama, people said, "Oh, you're the one..." I'm close to New York City, where I can go to matinees of first rate productions of first rate plays as often as I can afford it, and where I'm a 20 minute bus ride from a trip to visit my daughter and grandsons.

Whatever I may say about not missing Fairhope, it's always fun to return. We who leave are tempted to quote Thomas Wolfe's famous title You Can't Go Home Again, but I have found it possible and in many ways the best of both worlds.

Most of the time so far on this trip I find I'm still doing what I do in my non-vacation life. I check and write email, go on Facebook and make snarky comments to strangers. Soon I'll resume sending my query letter to agents who may be willing and able to hawk my novel to legitimate publishers. I've gotten two rejections so far after sending the query to ten high-powered agents--I should have a full complement by the time I go home at the end of March.

I'm catching up with friends and relations one by one and observing the changes in all. I think it's going to be a lovely two months--even though I can't say I left to get away from bad weather. I came home for a visit.