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Joseph E Bird

Let's talk about reading, writing and the arts.

church

Just a closer walk with Thee.
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea.

Darnell downstairs, singing. The clang of the skillet on the stove. Breakfast on a Sunday morning.

Daily walking close to Thee
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

She closed her eyes, tried to find more sleep, but the sun was lighting the room and Darnell wouldn’t stop singing, though he just kept repeating the same refrain, and the banging pots were like an alarm set to repeat every two minutes. So she got up and put on her clothes from the day before and made her way downstairs to the kitchen.

I come to the garden alone.

At least he had changed songs.

Her father sat at the kitchen table, a cup of coffee in front of him. She went straight to the counter and poured herself a cup.

Darnell still hadn’t noticed her.

While the dew is still on the roses.

She went back to the table and pulled out a chair and sat with her father.

“You boys are up early.”

Darnell turned around.

“This is the day that the Lord hath made. I will be rejoice and be glad in it.”

“Sure.”

“Scrambled eggs?”

“Sure.”

He pulled three plates from the cabinet and dished out eggs on each one, then two strips of bacon, then toast.

“You’re going to make someone a happy wife someday, Darnell.”

He laughed and took his place at the table.

“Bow your head, Pops.”

And he did, as did Heather, but she didn’t close her eyes.

“Dear Lord, thank you for another day of life, another Lord’s day, and for this wonderful food you have provided. Be with our family, Lord, and bless us and draw us closer to you. Amen.”

She looked up. Her father’s head was still bowed. Maybe he was praying.

“Ok, Pops. You can eat now.”

He looked up, first at Darnell, then at Heather.

“Pip.”

“Good morning, Daddy.”

And they ate.

Her right arm felt funny. Under the table, her right leg twitched. She switched to her left hand.

“You prayed for your family. Back in Texas?”

Darnell was about to take a bite of his toast, but stopped and put it back on his plate.

“No, ma’am. I don’t have family in Texas. I mean I have relatives, but no family.” He held his hands out over the table. “This family. Us.” He picked up his toast and took a bite.

There’s different kinds of family.

So said the roughneck-turned-tackle shop owner.. The full-time philosopher and quiz show aficionado. Lucas.

Well, this one was different, for sure.

“What constitutes a family, Darnell?”

He took another bite of toast and studied on an answer.

“I don’t know if I can proper answer that. It’s not like I been studying on the situation and come to a conscious conclusion. It just feels like family. You’re like a sister. Maybe a little like a Mom. And Pops is Pops.” He shrugged. “Family.”

Part of her wanted to argue. This was no family, despite the fact that there was a biological link sitting right across the table, staring at his eggs, chewing on a strip of bacon, completely unaware of the conversation going on right in front of him. Her father? No. At best an empty shell. Worse, a selfish, uncaring man who took away her mother. Her father was just a dusty memory. And Darnell a brother? Just because he takes care of her father and helps around the house and runs errands for her and cooks breakfast, doesn’t mean he’s family. She could get the same service from a temp agency. And besides, it was all temporary. They’d both be going back to Texas before too long. House guests was more like it. And guests was being generous.

Still, the eggs were good, and the morning was peaceful. And if she were being truthful, it beat having a bowl of cold cereal by herself.

Darnell was humming Just a Closer Walk with Thee.

“Wish I could remember the words. All I know is the chorus.”

“Can’t help you there.”

She knew the hymn. At least it was familiar. Maybe from the times she went to church with her mother as a child. Maybe from the radio or television or a scene in a movie. The tune was easy and soothing and the kind of melody that would find a home in the mind and drift to the heart and grow into the soul and become a part of the collective memory that would come forth unexpectedly and bring with it a wash of sentimentality.

The smell of bacon would linger as the eggs disappeared and the coffee cooled. The last bite of toast with strawberry jam. The quiet clinking of silverware on the plates ceased and all was quiet. Soon the day would begin in earnest. Even if this were Darnell’s contrived family, it was nice.

Let it be, dear Lord, let it be.

“Thanks, Darnell.”

“You’re welcome. Me and Pops are going to church this morning. You should come with us.”

And there was the other aspect of her unknown father she hadn’t taken the time or made the effort to reconcile. He had never been a church-going man. He was, at first, her good father, always there for her, always including her and making her feel special. He just didn’t go to church. That was her mother’s thing. And their family had been just fine without church. Although looking back she wasn’t sure how true that was. Then he murdered her mother, went to prison, and found religion. It was a cliché that hardly warranted consideration. And it wasn’t like she could have a conversation about it even if she wanted to. His mind was gone, and with it, all memories, logic, reason, and explanations of anything that would make sense of his life, or his life with her mother, or his role as a father. If it was all incomprehensible to him, how could she ever understand?


copyright 2018, joseph e bird; from the novel Heather Girl

coincidence and cats

cat-1st-place

The other day I wrote a piece about coincidence (and how to resolve the unbelievable coincidences that hinder good story telling).

A couple of days later I tossed up a kind of random post about running hills.  I was just feeling good about still being able to challenge myself as I hobble into old man territory.  I directed the post to my New York friend, Cat Bradley, who is also a runner.  Little did I know that Cat was also doing hill repeats, and that even as I posted the photo of the hill I had just run, Cat was writing a post about her experience in forcing herself to run the hills.

Simply a coincidence of two people with similar interests having a similar experience at the same time?

Yeah, probably.

But while Cat’s story is ostensibly about running, you’ll see that it’s much more than that. It’s about what it takes to move forward in life. Click here.


Footnote:  The kitty in the photo is actually the First Place Prize I won in the Old Man Division of the Itty Bitty Kitty Committee 2 Miler a couple of years ago.  As you can imagine, the competition in the Old Man Division was very light that day.  Still, it took everything I had to get past the guy with the walker.

yo, cat

hill sprints!

please observe the speed limit.

I wanna be a cowboy.

Sunset panorama in Durban

Are you a surfer or a cowboy?

What?

Are you a surfer or a cowboy?

Uh…cowboy?

Loaded question. Especially for me as a fifth grader from West Virginia, living in Houston, Texas. The wrong answer gets you in trouble. Gets you beat up.

Not really. At least not in the fifth grade. It was more of a starting point for a friendly argument. But what the heck did I know about being a cowboy or a surfer?

Cowboys are tough guys. Wear hats and boots. Eat beans by the campfire. Drink coffee in a tin cup. Ride the range on a horse.

Surfers are hip. Catch the wave and hang ten. Get all the cool girls. Tool around the beach in a dune buggy.

But in the fifth grade, I’d never ridden a surfboard.  Still haven’t. I had a cowboy hat and boots.  So yeah, I was a cowboy.

Tribalism. Even back then.

But there’s something about the cowboy lifestyle that’s still appealing to me. It’s simple.  Not a lot of flash. Lots of time for thinking things out as you do your job.  It’s the kind of life suited for someone who doesn’t mind being alone now and then. And the hats. Yeah, pull the brim down when you ride into town. And for the cowboy, love is strong and forever.

The fire had burned to coals and he lay looking up at the stars in their places and the hot belt of matter that ran the chord of the dark vault overhead and he put his hands on the ground at either side of him and pressed them against the earth and in that coldly burning canopy of black he slowly turned dead center to the world, all of it taut and trembling and moving enormous and alive under his hands.

What’s her name? said Rawlins in the darkness.

Alejandra. Her name is Alejandra.

— Cormac McCarthy, from All the Pretty Horses

photo credit: iStock Photography

Writing Tip – Coincidence?

Is there such a thing as coincidence?

Of course.  Or not.  It all depends on your philosophical or religious leanings.

The truth is, they happen all the time.  Explain them as you wish.

Example:

Heather is on her way to Houston to see her father.  She happens to stop at Galveston on her way.  She happens to take a walk on a fishing pier.  She happens to meet the very guy who was working at the pier when her mother was killed there ten years earlier.

Wow.  That’s a big coincidence.  Almost unbelievable.

But what if you knew early in the story that Heather knew that her mother was killed on a fishing pier in Galveston.  And that there are only two fishing piers in all of Galveston.  And that she stopped in Galveston for the very purpose of finding that pier. It goes from coincidence to purposeful event.  What about the guy at the pier?  Well, Heather knew his name because he provided eye-witness testimony ten years earlier.  He didn’t just work at the pier, he owned the tackle shop that operated on the pier.  An internet search told her he was still alive living in Galveston.  The odds of him working at the pier on the day she shows up?  Yeah, that takes a little fortuitous timing.  But stranger things happen all the time.

The key is foreshadowing and structuring the story in a way that dumb luck is taken out of the equation.  Be careful with coincidence.  Your credibility is on the line.

 

 

Writing Tip: Talk it Out

writing

I’m fortunate to belong to the Shelton College Review, a small group of writers who gather once a week to offer critique and encouragement – both are enormously important for writers – on our works in progress.

In reviewing one of my recent submittals, Larry was saying that he had been so caught up in the narrative, that he forgot that he was critiquing and was simply enjoying the story.  Until, that is, I threw in heaping helping of backstory.  His engagement came to a screeching halt.

I know better than to do that.  It’s one thing to sprinkle in a paragraph or two of backstory, but I took the reader out of a dramatic moment – in the back of an ambulance! – to tell about Heather’s life in high school.  Duh.

Thanks, Larry, for pointing that out. And as painful as that was to hear (that I could be so dumb), it was even harder to fix.  I’ve spent several hours setting things right, hours that I could have been using to write something new.

How did I fix it?

First, I spread it around a little.  Backstory in small doses (a couple of sentences) is acceptable.

Then I let the dramatic scene in the ambulance play out.  After things had calmed down, I worked some of the backstory into dialogue.  Things are still happening.  There’s still tension. There’s still character development as Heather and Lucas talk.  And the reader learns a little bit more about Heather and why she is the way she is.

And then there’s the little problem about coincidences.  More on that later.

 

chipping a channel out of bedrock

Long time writing friend, Elizabeth Gaucher, posted an essay by Loren Eaton, wherein he posits that writing is sometimes like “chipping a channel out of bedrock with a pen.”  You can’t expect the initial passion of a project to propel you to 80,000 words.  It takes hard work.  A little every day.  Especially if your writing involves something more than a Tweet or a Facebook post.

You don’t wake up on a Saturday morning and decide to run a marathon.  You’ve got to put in the miles.  Every day.

You don’t pick up a guitar for the first time and play Classical Gas.  You’ve got to practice.  Every day.

Don’t make excuses.

Write a sentence today.  It will likely turn into a paragraph.  And a page.  And a chapter.

Keep chipping at the bedrock.

 

zeb

This, my friends from around the world, is what Appalachian music is all about.  Not that I don’t love other music.  Just check out my Music page.  (Note to self:  Post some Foo Fighters, man.)  But everything about this video speaks to my world.  Zeb in his ball cap and his very non-millennial, non-hipster, Appalachian beard. The sled leaning against the wall.  The wood-burning stove.  Even the name.  Zeb.

And how can he be so good?  So easy?

The best part is Zeb Snyder and the Snyder Family Band is coming to my little town of St. Albans in June for the first ever YakFest.  Can’t wait.

the long walk

pier for web

There were a few people on the beach, walking slowly, their heads down, scanning the sand for surprises from the deep that always appeared after a storm. A yellow umbrella pitched in the sand near the surf caught her eye and though she couldn’t see, she knew there was an old man underneath, his skin dark and leathery from his years in the sun, his shirt – a short-sleeved button-up, despite the cool weather – bleached a pale blue. There was a tackle box by his side and an always empty creel, though surely he would catch something sometime. Surely. He would sit in his beach chair and smile anyway, as if he knew he were part of the scene, part of what the people from the city expected to see when they came with their pale flesh, soon to be pink flesh, to walk on the hard, grainy sands and evaluate their lives and make big plans that would carry them back to their tedious jobs and their monotonous neighborhoods with a feeling of hope that would last a couple of weeks, maybe three, before comfortable complacency engulfed them once again and relieved them of any responsibility of living a more meaningful life. And it always happened on days like this one, not in the bright of a too hot day where the heat and lotions and kids crying in the distance worked to produce nothing better than a brief nap, followed by a short walk to the water to cool the feet, maybe venture in up to the knees, but never farther. No, the deep contemplation happened on the overcast days where the obligatory roasting in the sun was excused and those with no inclination for inner reflection went to the mall, while those who still had hope went on the long walk to the pier.


copyright 2018, joseph e bird, from the novel Heather Girl.

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