Unkind Words — a Fable for Fools

The Gossips

“And, though they never stopped trying, the only words they could make always sounded like the rustling of leaves.”

The thing I am about to tell you might have happened once upon a time. It could have been last week. It makes no difference, the truth is truth no matter when it happens.

In the place where my mother used to live, there were three tongues, each in a different mouth, and of all the tongues that resided in this particular place, these three were the most slithering and maleficent. Not one, but three serpents in the Garden of Eden.

The first tongue belonged to a woman named Helen. Helen was a person who lived on a high moral ground in a great house she richly deserved.  She lived alone. Her husband had been a fisherman who fell (some thought dove) from his boat one stormy afternoon and was never seen again. There were three daughters, but each had left to marry, one after the other and all of them lived very far away.

The second tongue belonged to a woman who never married, never gave birth, never so much as cared for a cat because she simply did not have time. Her job, she believed, was to mind the lives of others, and she did so with a ferocity few could circumvent. Her name was Agnes.

The last tongue belonged to a man named Thomas. He also lived alone, unable ever to settle on a wife. Though there were many fine women in the area, none had ever quite suited him. His standards were much too high. Eventually, no one tried anymore to leap the hurdles he had set.

Communities generally have a way of getting along.  They mind their own business, or they help when they are able.  They offer comfort as needed, a joke, a helping hand, or even silent company when silence is the only thing that will do.  In the place where my mother lived all of these things were true.  It was also true that there was often anger and resentment that when allowed to fester would erupt in a cataclysm of bitter words and flying fists.  Sometimes people broke the law.  When that happened there was a price they would have to pay.

What is the price to pay for unrelenting meanness?

In this case, that price began to be tallied up with a wish made by a child.  A young boy who delivered eggs to the owners of those sharp tongues.  One day, after enduring yet another round of, you clumsy dolt, mind those eggs, and, took you long enough you lazy baboon, and, don’t look at me like that, you rude brat, the boy returned home and wrote: I wish THEY would disappear on a piece of paper. His mother found the paper and asked him what he meant.  When he told her she did not scold him. Later, she told her husband what the boy had wished. The next day he told a co-worker about it. The co-worker nodded.

“Yes,” said the co-worker, a man who lived across the street from Helen and had gone to school with Agnes and Thomas. “That is a good wish.”

The co-worker told his wife about the boy’s wish. Three afternoons each week, the man’s wife scrubbed Helen’s kitchen and bathrooms, dusted furniture, and washed windows all while listening to Helen rant. You can’t clean spit, my kitchen is too filthy to use, and if I didn’t follow you around the house, you’d probably rob me blind.  I only keep you on because that’s the kind of person I am. Too nice for my own good.

The co-worker’s wife made a wish, too.

When Agnes railed at the woman who cut her hair, I should sue you for incompetence you imbecile, the hairdresser made a wish.

Thomas screamed at a teacher and her fifth-grade class for raking and pulling up weeds in the lot next to his house.  You and your brats are getting dirt in my yard.  I should have you fired, you’re too stupid to be in charge of kids.  Later that day the teacher and her students each went home and made a wish.

For weeks, people wished and wished. Almost always the same wish. I wish THEY would disappear. Except for one. Feeling ashamed of making such a dire wish and being caught out, the little boy who delivered eggs had amended his wish. I wish THEY couldn’t speak he wrote instead. He kept wishing it every day.

Somewhere all those wishes were being tallied. And when there were at last enough of them, something happened.

One morning the sun rose high in the sky over the river that ran through that place. People went about their business not noticing at first, how much lighter the air felt, how warm and inviting the sun was. People smiled and said hello to one another and it wasn’t until a few hours later that they realized the lightness came from the fact that no one had heard the three awful tongues. The bravest in the place went to check.  First to Helen’s house. Then to Agnes’s. Finally Thomas’s. No one was there. In fact, it looked as though no one had lived for a very long time at any of those three homes.

But, where three people had vanished from their homes, it also happened that at a lonely spot along the river there suddenly appeared three magnificent trees in a cluster, heads bowed, whispering together as if trying to make sense of how they came to be there.

Let this be fair warning to you: Do not use words to inflict pain. There is no reward waiting — in this world or others — for sharp tongues and wicked minds.

This is not a lesson easily learned.

On the other hand, the trees would be lovely for a long time to come. The town set out picnic tables by the river so that people could sit and watch the water and time drift leisurely past. And where the only sound they heard (besides their own voices) came from the gentle rustle of leaves above them.

The End

n.b. The photo is a picture of the trees along the St. Lawerence River in Akwesasne where my mother lives. This is the view from her window. I’ve had this photo and the idea that these trees were gossiping mulling around in my brain for awhile. A long time ago my mother told me a story from when she was a little girl living at Akwesasne, about an old woman who was thought to be able to transmute herself at will into a pig. That’s where the idea of transmutation came from. And these days there seem to be so many people speaking such unkind words, I thought a cautionary tale was in order.

All the words that fit

WP 15 table 2

The two women on the left thought a small retreat for writers of Kid Lit would be a good idea. Laurie Smith Murphy in the foreground, and just behind her, Linda Crotta Brennan. We owe them BIG TIME for their genius.

You see those people talking?  The woman laughing?  The lamp-lit snow in the window behind her?  Dim light and intimacy in a rustic setting; words shared in the middle of nowhere.  This was opening night at the SCBWI Whispering Pines Writer’s Retreat last weekend, and I was there.

I have been lucky enough to have attended this event for thirteen years, the last four of which I had a hand in running with the amazing Lynda Mullaly Hunt.  Five years ago I wrote here about the anticipation I felt beforehand. This year was even more special.  It was both the 20th Anniversary of the retreat, and my last as acting Co-Director. There were more attendees than ever before, more mentors (three editors: Sylvie Frank, Kendra Levin, and Mallory Kass; three agents: John Cusick, Erin Murphy, Ammi-Joan Paquette), more words.  More fun.

I wish though, I would have taken more photos.  Talked to more people than I did.  I wish it would not have gone by in such a blur — good things always happen that way. And, yet, when words abound and fill the space you occupy, when ideas flit like birds, some will linger long enough to feel true.

These were some of the words that spoke the loudest truth for me:

  • I will wear a vest (more likely a sweater) of invisibility when I leave my room momentarily so that my husband knows not to talk to me.  I’m not actually in the kitchen pouring tea or water in my cup, I’m still at my desk. I’m still writing.  He will know that my head is filled with all the words that fit.  It cannot handle more at that time.
  • I will call my inner critic Velveeta.  Because how can you listen to, or believe in a critic with a cheesy name like that?
  • Without motivation, there is no story.
  • Writing is good for the soul.

To that last I would add that writing retreats in general are also good for the soul. It takes me days to process what I learned, which in turn improves my writing.  And it gladdens my heart to think of the kind and lovely people I have newly met and added to the list of names that I call friend.

It’s such a corny thing to say (Oh, shut up Velveeta I’m going to say it anyway), but I have drunk from the well of inspiration, and it was good.

It will sustain me for a while.

WP 15 Table 2

At this table more smiles and conversation. In the center, directly in front of the window, is my partner-in-crime, Lynda. She is the Energizer Bunny of organizing magic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My man, Wilkie . . . .

It may be possible in novel-writing to present characters successfully without telling a story; but it is not possible to tell a story successfully without presenting characters.

                                                                    — Wilkie Collins

This is what it says in my Booklover’s Birthday Book for today.  On this day in 1824, the British author, Wilkie Collins was born.  I think it’s still a pretty apt quote for a guy who would be 189 years old were he still around.

The first time I heard the name Wilkie Collins it made me think of Wee Willie Winkie running around in his nightgown, yelling about kids being in bed by eight o’clock.  Then I read his book, The Woman in White.  I was a teenager by that time, and I thought his story was way better and eerier than any of the Nancy Drew mysteries I’d read earlier.  It was my stepping stone to the mysteries of Agatha Christie (who, in turn, was my stepping stone to John D. MacDonald; I spent my early 20s a little in love with Travis McGee).  Eventually, my mystery-reading phase was supplanted by my great American novel-reading phase and on and on until I outgrew reading phases entirely.

His life was fascinating, as real lives often are.  He was born with a bulge on the right side of his forehead which he never tried to hide, he studied Law (because his father thought it best), was called to the bar but never actually practiced.  He was also unconventional for his time, wrote prolifically, was friends with Charles Dickens, published with him, wrote plays with him and acted in Dickens’ amateur theatrical troupe.  All while supporting two families in two separate households (one under an assumed name), and suffering from gout and a laudanum addiction.  He died of a stroke at the age of sixty-five.

I think I’m going to have to go find me some Wilkie Collins books, because I do like characters.

Happy Birthday, Wilkie.  Here’s to you.  Your books are back in print and you’re looking pretty good for your age.

Wilkie Collins photo from Wikipedia.  You barely notice his forehead protuberance in it.  Or his laudanum addiction.

Wilkie Collins photo from Wikipedia. You barely notice his forehead protuberance. Or his laudanum addiction.

End-of-year salmagundi . . . .

Bird on saucer pm 2 signed

The picture has nothing to do with the post, but I like the insouciance of the little bird eating off the plate. I’m also a painter who doesn’t paint anymore because of the chemicals, and I like that I can take a photograph and manipulate it to look ‘kinda’ like a painting.

I am not a resolution person – I am a word person.  Word.  (Used by itself, word becomes an affirmation, which means I effectively just agreed with myself.)  I don’t believe in starting a new year with self-promises of giving up chocolate or swearing, or that I will exercise more, write more, and generally be a better person than I was the previous year.  Not that there’s anything wrong with people who do want to begin anew that way.  It’s just not for me.   So I was thrilled last week to read a blog post (by the lovely Jennifer Flint) that offered something different:  instead of making resolutions, choose a word.  The idea being that you think about what you would like to change in your life and find a fitting word that will inspire.   It’s not about trying and maybe failing, it’s about having a consistent source of inspiration.  I like that idea.  A lot.  And so, after careful consideration, my word for 2013 is:  RISE.  I’ll let you know next year how it worked out for me.

I liked this year.  Sure there was a lot of no-good-horrible stuff that happened in the world, but sadly, that’s always going to be the case, and you try to keep your head above it and do what you can to make it better or more bearable.  On a personal level, though, my son graduated college, found a job he really likes; my husband is finally able to drive the 1936 Dodge he’s worked so lovingly on restoring for that last decade-and-a-half; and I learned some important things about myself.  I also got an iPhone, which brought me back to photography.  And I’ve been writing.

One of the things I like about this time of year is looking over all the best-of lists, and the year-end round-ups in various magazines.  I have a terrible memory for events in time as it happens, but I find that if I look back at it in photos and/or read about it, things stick better in my head.  Someone recently pointed me to Google’s zeitgeist site.  God, I love the internet.  My only wish is that Al Gore would have invented it sooner.  It would have made homeschooling my son a lot easier and cheaper.

And what of the salmagundi?  Like revenge, it’s a dish best served cold.  It also means mixture or miscellany, like hodgepodge, which is the word I originally intended to use as a means of corralling my thoughts for this post.  But salmagundi is cooler.  Don’t you think?

My wish for today and tomorrow, is that we go fearlessly into the new year with spectacular results. Happy 2013, y’all.

Christmas Kindness: a Story

bag of gold small

Image futzed with using a photo by JWP.

Like the best stories, this one begins, once upon a time . . . .

There was a father, a mother, and a baby boy who was born in the dead of winter on a very cold day.  (I should warn you that if you think you know where this story is going, you are wrong.  This is not THAT Christmas story.  This is a different story entirely.)

The father and mother had little money, but they had a warm home, and their boy was exceedingly healthy, so they believed they had exactly what they needed.  The father worked at building machines and the mother worked at building the boy.  The boy was full of light and laughter and curiosity.  He had a mischievous sense of humor, a powerful imagination, and above all, he was persistent.  (A quality some people call stubborn, but those people are wrong.)

Years passed as years do.  The boy grew and grew.  People began to ask – what do you want to do with your life, boy?  What would you like to be?  But the boy didn’t know, for he was still a boy (albeit taller).  His parents said, be happy.  And he was.

The boy grew a little older, a little taller still.  He went to college and his head filled up with words and ideas; his heart filled with passion.  One morning he awoke to find that it was time to graduate.  A degree was bestowed upon him and there was much rejoicing by his family and his friends.

He found a job that he liked very much, but it was temporary.  He could have worried about what he would do when the job ended, but he chose to remain positive as he had always been, and to do and learn all that he could.  Happily, this strategy paid off.  The job became permanent.  (It’s called persistence, people.)

Christmas came.  The boy got his first Christmas bonus.  But this was no ordinary bonus.  This was merry Mr. Fezziwig extending joy and Christmas kindness.  This was a bag of gold coins.  So happy was the boy at this surprising presentation, that he laughed for a full minute.  The kind of sustained laugh his mother had marveled at throughout his childhood.  A laugh that began in his heart and rippled through his body until he looked ready to burst with the energy of it.

When he stopped laughing the boy knew what he would do.  He would carry the bonus around the city and give it away, coin by coin, to people who could use a dollar or two and a happy surprise.  So that he could share with others a moment of joy like the one he had felt in receiving the coins.

And that is exactly what he did.

Not The End

P.S.  If you like this story, feel free to share a kindness or two with someone, anyone, even by way of a smile.  It will make you feel good.  I promise.

P.P.S. This story was written for The BOY by his mother who is proud beyond measure of the superlative person he has become.  And also the mother is a tiny bit smug because she knew what his true worth was all along.  (She hopes to be forgiven of this.)

A story for Sunday . . . .

A story to ponder on a Sunday afternoon busy with holiday preparations.  Take a break.  Sit down and watch; it’s short — have a cup of tea why don’t you?  Listen to the words, to the lovely melody.

This is one of my favorite videos.  I’m a sucker for puppets, and there’s the whole archeological thing going on.  I haven’t thought about it in a while, and then a search for something unrelated, reminded me.  The song is by Josh Ritter.  The video by Liam Hurley.

There are different takes on the song’s meaning.  Being an optimist on matters of the heart, I prefer to think that the story is about boundless, never-ending love.

What do you think?