"Alive" - Poem by Sherri Lynn Shumate
(Sherri recently had a bout with a nasty illness. This is her response to feeling better at last).
Sometimes I need to be
Too sick to move
what a gift it is to
Breathe fresh air
And feel my boots sink
in deep dark mud puddles.
Sometimes I have to be forced to
before I learn
To slow down enough
to see the splash of the beaver
and distinguish the birds’ whistling songs
and smile at the wind in my hair
and sun smiling on my face
and touch the plants with my fingertips
while not caring at all
that I’m wearing red heart pajamas
in public in my woods
it’ll make the kids smile
when I leave here to go to work
On pajama day.
I can’t hardly wait for work
because I know it’s a gift
to do something that matters,
and I’m grateful
to have a job
before I even get there
to ask if I’ll stay late
One of the things that drives my character Maggie is love. She truly loves – or tries to love – all those she meets. In my work in progress, THE GOOD COMMUNITY, two orphaned girls, Addie and Mary Brooks, come to Greybeal House, and Maggie and Emily, true to their beliefs, welcome them with open arms.
So far, so good, right?
Maggie and Emily are told that they cannot enroll Addie and Mary Brooks in the Blaineton town school because it no longer accepts black students. Although such a thing would not be unusual, given the time (1864) and place (a town in New Jersey), the two women are furious.
While Emily takes the girls home, Maggie goes to the newspaper office, where her husband Eli serves as Editor-in-Chief. After telling Eli what has happened, she explains that she wants to meet with the school board to plead for a change. Eli produces a list of the three school board members. The board’s chairperson is Josiah Norton, the wealthy industrialist who owns a woolen mill and military uniform factory south of town. Norton recently has erected a new hotel on the lot that once held Maggie’s boarding house.
So, Maggie goes to the hotel, in which Norton currently spends most of his time, to arrange to meet with the school board. While speaking with Norton’s secretary, the man himself enters the office and promptly invites Maggie to tour the building and then have tea with him. Maggie now has the opportunity she needs to speak her mind.
Read the early draft excerpt below to see what happens next.
The hotel tour had been interesting. She visited the administrative rooms, two private dining rooms, and an enormous ballroom. Now she was seated in the public dining room. Everything she saw had been well-designed and beautifully decorated – a far cry from her humble boarding house.
As Josiah poured her a cup of tea, he said, “What do you think of my little hotel?”
“Little?” She chuckled. “Mr. Norton, it is quite large! Larger than anything we ever have had in Blaineton.”
“And I assure you that in a short time it will become well known even beyond our town.” He smiled at her. “Our lodgings are every bit as comfortable and well-appointed as the best of hotels. You and your husband should stay here some time.”
“Mr. Norton, we live only a mile away. I hardly think we would have need to stay here. But I’ll take your word that the rooms are as you say. And I certainly shall recommend it, should anyone ask.”
Satisfied, Josiah sat back in his chair and observed her, which caused Maggie to feel uneasy.
“Mrs. Smith, about what do you wish to address the school board?”
She took a breath. “We have received two girls into our household. They are orphaned and… well, Mrs. Johnson took a liking to them, as have I. But they are illiterate. When we went to the school to register them for the next term, Miss Benny told us that it was impossible. You see, they are colored.”
“That is true, Mrs. Smith. We no longer accept colored children.”
Distressed, Maggie leaned toward him. “But, Mr. Norton, why not?”
“There are few colored children living in the area these days, and those that are here are being educated at a boarding school near Trenton or by their immediate families.”
“But why not educate them at our school?”
Josiah smiled at her as if she were a child. “Many of our families do not wish their children to associate with the Negro.”
Maggie frowned. “Why is that?”
“Oh, come now, Mrs. Smith. Everyone knows the colored race is inferior. They are of lesser intelligence. To have them sitting next to white children would only serve to slow the class down.”
“Indeed? Well, I happen to know that most of the people in Blaineton claim to be Christian. It seems they are conveniently ignoring Saint Paul’s words: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus’.”
He smiled condescendingly. “Ah, but Saint Paul does not mention race, does he?”
“Mr. Norton, were not Jews and Greeks considered races back then?”
“But he makes no mention of color. The majority believe that putting white and black together is impractical. In addition, it would cause unimaginable upheaval.”
Maggie had to use all her strength not to snap at him. She took a sip of tea as she decided what she would say next. “If people do not know each other, how do we know it would cause upheaval? I share a household with colored people: Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, the Register’s reporter Mr. Edward Caldwell, and now Addie and Mary Brooks. Mrs. Matilda Strong and her daughter stayed with us for several years before moving to Canada. Neither my household nor my life have been subject to upheaval by these friends and acquaintances. On the contrary, we live in peace and our lives have been enriched.”
“It must have, otherwise you would not have had a station on the Underground Railroad? Am I correct?”
A flush crept up Maggie’s face. “Mr. Smith, the Johnsons, and I all were – are – abolitionist.”
“Mrs. Smith…” Putting his arms on the edge of the table, Josiah leaned toward her. His tone was low and confidential as he said, “We found the tunnel. on your former property.”
Maggie did not blink. “The tunnel existed between the outbuilding and the main house to facilitate communication during harsh winter weather.”
“And we found the room located in the tunnel.” Norton’s brown eyes glittered at her. “It would be an inopportune time for this information to be made public, as far as your husband and the Register are concerned.”
“Yes, considering the temperature of the town these days.”
“I see.” Maggie folded her napkin and placed it upon her plate. “I thank you for your hospitality, Mr. Norton. However, I am afraid that I must leave. My husband is watching our child and it is time I returned.”
She stood, but before she could walk away, Josiah said, “I don’t believe you need to address the school board now, do you, Mrs. Smith?”
Maggie met his eyes. “No?”
“Now that you know how things are, I mean.”
She just barely was containing her fury. “Yes, I know exactly how things are. Thank you for the tea.”
And, mustering all the dignity she could, Maggie walked out of the hotel.
What will Maggie do next?
Knowing her as I do, she is a determined woman, especially when it comes to matters of justice and love of neighbor.
Look for Maggie to find a solution, which most likely will not sit well with some of the town. Fortunately for her, Eli, Tryphena Moore (the newspaper’s indomitable publisher), and the entire family at Greybeal House will be there to back her up.
A couple of weeks ago, I identified Maggie Blaine Smith as my “altar ego,” someone who I strive to be. But I also mentioned that the character closest to who I am is Lins Mitchell from HEART SOUL & ROCK ‘N’ ROLL. Our similarities mainly stem from the fact that we share a vocation: assistant pastor at a church.
Don’t run away!
I know I mentioned the words “pastor” and “church,” but believe me, I’m not scary. I just want to take you on a little journey to see how art imitates life, or more specifically, my life.
So, read on. Please.
The fictional Church of the Epiphany echoes First United Methodist Church (Somerville, NJ), the real-life congregation I serve. However, to create Epiphany, I also borrowed things from the five other congregations I’ve worked with. So, the portions of the novel that describe Epiphany’s congregation and Lins’ life with it are rooted in my own experiences.
Here’s a prime example. When Lins describes her Sunday morning experience, she is describing what I experience most of the time.
"[Sunday morning] normally consisted of trying to prepare for my ministerial duties and being continuously interrupted. I had developed a habit of getting in early to do the things I needed to do first so I could be available to deal with the questions and problems that arose once parishioners started arriving. The routine required some juggling but it worked."
Most of the time I get to the church before everyone else for the same reason Lins does. How do I describe the Sunday dynamic? Well, think of a normal morning in a home and you’re either mom or dad. Everyone is running around with questions, needs, and things they must tell you. They’re looking for stuff they can’t find, have questions they need answered, and being happy, sad, or “meh.” And everything needs to get resolved or handled before the school bus leaves (or in my case, before worship starts). This is what happens when families are together. And so,, pages 2-5 describe what one Sunday morning in Lins’ life looks like, and echoes what my own Sundays. Art imitating life.
But then there’s this: the congregation I serve does not have a cross-generational worship service like the Epiphany Church. I took the that description from the cross generational movement in general, and from Faith Inkubators and Rich Melheim in particular. But here’s the weird part, I published HEART SOUL in 2015, when my church had all ages worship together for the first fifteen minutes, and then dismissed the children to go to Sunday school. But around 2016, we stopped doing Sunday school and worship at the same time. In fact, we stopped doing Sunday school (gasp!) Now, everyone worships together. This year (2018), we started Sunday school after church for families with preschoolers through 5th grades. Parents, grandparents, and other adults are encouraged to attend with the children because we want adults to know what the children are learning. And -viola! - our reality imitates art!
In Chapter 5, Lins is called to the hospital because a mother and son from the congregation have been in a car accident. Both Lins and I are all too familiar with the pain and anxiety that comes with any kind of injury, illness, or trauma. As Lins says, “Hospital waiting rooms. I hate them. They’re full of uncertainty and fear. They’re full of prayer, too, but it’s usually desperate heart-broken prayer.” So are homes, offices, and church sanctuaries (worship rooms). While I have never experienced the situation described in the book, the feelings resonate with me. I’ve done hospital visits, prayed for and with people in distress, and even officiated at funerals. Painful, heart-rending, and a time when love and support is or can be most tangible. Art imitates life.
Lins and the senior pastor (Drew) work also as a team, not only during worship but in most things. I know from experience the kind of camaraderie that builds among members of a healthy church staff. And I built it into the relationships between Lins and Drew, and Lins and Sue, the church secretary. Working in a church office, like working anywhere can lead to friendships. I have felt close to many of administrative assistants. And with all of them we have shared our highs, our lows, our frustrations, and our hopes. Art imitates life.
I have to say that I never have worked with a pastor who did not respect me or who was threatened by me. I carried this over into Drew’s relationship with Lins, too. He not only serves as her boss, but also is her mentor and friend, which a good senior pastor should be. He wants Lins to be happy with her work at the Church of the Epiphany. Note: being happy does not mean absence of challenges. Rather, it means being content.
But Drew is wise and realistic, because he also tells Lins: “You know… sometimes people change, situations change, callings change. People go from one type of ministry to another.” And this is true! But callings are funny things. They aren’t clear cut. You feel called to “ministry” or “to serve Jesus” but how? There are so many ways to do it! So, we find Lins at age 40 wondering if she should be doing something else and missing her days leading a college rock band. Then Neil comes on the scene and presents her with an opportunity. But what he offers doesn’t look like her understanding of calling or ministry. Art imitates life.
Now, I’ve never been called into a rock band, but I have been called into writing. I’ve been writing all my life, went to seminary because I was called to go deeper to strengthen my writing, and then ended up serving churches for over twenty-five years. Around 2009-2010, I got “smacked upside the head” (sort of) to write stories again.
It’s been seven years since I began self-publishing my novels, and I haven’t left serving the church yet. Someday I might. But then again, I might not. My story isn’t finished yet. Hmm… is life imitating art?
 If you want to know more about cross-generational worship & learning, go to http://www.faithink.com/
I’ve never surfed, but I believe creativity needs to be surfed. It’s often like trying to balance on a little board while you’re out in the middle of an enormous, unpredictable environment. Writing is not sitting down, planning a neat little plot, and inputting it into a computer in an orderly manner. At least, it isn’t for me.
Case in point: this week. I had the plot all figured out for The Good Community. It would revolve around an epidemic striking the town and the struggle to figure out what caused it, how to treat it, and how to stop it. The primary character would be Lydia. I planned to insert the usual secondary story lines – maybe about Frankie’s romance with Patrick, Eli’s continuing head-butting with industrialist Josiah Norton.
And then I remembered another story line that I had deleted from Seeing the Elephant. It was about Maggie, Emily, and Maggie’s sister-in-law Abigail starting a school for maids in response to the presence of Moira and Birgit (already serving as maids-in-training at Greybeal House) and the arrival of two new characters: Addie and Mary Hill. I liked the idea and began inserting this story as a secondary plot.
And that was when I realized something. I was out in the middle of the ocean and this huge wave of creativity and possibility was coming at me.
So, I decided to surf the wave.
Why? Because it promised to be a better story. The original idea of a school for maids got jettisoned along the way. It happened when I realized that Maggie, Emily, and Abigail’s reason for starting a school was not to prepare young women for a career, but a response to a very real problem: racism.
Addie and Mary are black, you see. They have been orphaned, came from an impoverished family, and cannot read or write. So, Maggie and Emily set off to enroll them in the town’s school but are told that they cannot because the school no longer accepts “colored students.”
Legally, New Jersey schools were ordered to be open to all races in 1881. (De facto segregation, however, continued well into the twentieth century due to segregated housing, among other issues.) But my story takes place in 1864.
It was a fractious time in New Jersey. There was anger that citizens were being sent to “fight for the Negro” and fear that a wave of freed slaves would inundate the state, taking jobs and housing from white people. New Jerseyans truly were conflicted about the big issues of their day. Many were “copperheads,” also called “Peace Democrats.” They opposed the war and abolition and supported the idea of a negotiated peace with the South.
The political and social division carried over into the presidential elections. In 1860, Lincoln split the electoral college votes with Stephan A. Douglas. Lincoln walked away with 4 out of 7 electors, while Douglas got 3. Yet, Lincoln lost the popular vote by a small margin. In 1864, Lincoln lost the popular vote by a small margin again, but this time George B. McClellan ended up with all 7 electors.
All that means is Maggie, Emily, and Abigail, have hit the realities of their time face on. In response, they decide to start a school for children of all races and ethnicities.
I’m looking forward to doing more surfing with these amazing women. How they start the school, what it will look like, and what the reaction of the town will be like is yet to be uncovered. But I’m excited.
Our current era contains echoes of the Civil War era, so this is a timely (or is that out-of-timely?) story. The fact that two white characters and one black character are determined to help educate children of any color/ethnicity in a highly divisive environment is a continuation of the Saint Maggie tradition, too, something that makes sense to me.
We’ll see how it goes.
Meanwhile, I’ve got a wave to catch.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder