Artwork by Charles G. ("Dan") Bush
This blog post has nothing to do with Saint Maggie. It’s closer to the spirit of HEART SOUL & ROCK’N’ROLL because of where my characters live. But this post isn’t about that book either. It’s about an existential threat posed to my home state.
Many of you know I live in New Jersey, aka the Garden State.
Right about now you are snickering, “Garden State? Where's the garden?”
I’m here to tell you my entire state does not look like what you’ve seen on the NJ Turnpike or the northern stretches of the Garden State Parkway, nor are its people like the folks you’ve seen on “The Sopranos: or “Jersey Shore.” Well, most of them aren’t, anyway.
We do have friendly, kind, and courteous people. Our state also has trees, and streams, and rivers, and fields, not to mention a gorgeous shore. Yeah, that’s right. I said “shore,” not “the beach.” I’m a Jersey girl, for crying out loud.
However, I am resigned to that fact that other people will continue to refer to New Jersey as “The Armpit of the Nation.”
It’s also a given that when I tell people where I’m from they suddenly turn into stand up comedians and make with the New Jersey jokes.
I have life experiences to that effect. Here’s just one of them.
I lived in California for a while and twice a year would fly east to visit my family. So, I arrived at LAX and went to check in for my flight.
“Hi,” the overly-friendly and perky Cali guy behind the counter said. “Where are you headed?”
“Really,” he deadpanned. “Why?”
Everyone’s a comedian.
To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, New Jersey don’t get no respect.
As if encountering insults from others when I am out of state were not enough, this morning I learned that even the universe hates us.
Apparently, a Chinese satellite is expected to crash to earth.
And guess where it’s headed?
I said to Dan, “Just my luck. I’m going to step outside and a flaming piece of space junk the size of a school bus is going to land on me!”
“It won’t land on you.”
“What if it lands on my car?”
“Don’t worry. Your insurance will cover it, and you’ll get a new car.”
“Dan, I still haven’t fixed the scratches on the right side of my car from that little accident I had in October. It’s taking me forever to save up the $500 deductible. The insurance people won’t pay for a new car if they see my old one is still scratched!”
“Boo, the space junk won’t hit your car.”
Really? The man has lived here all his life and still he doesn’t get how it works?
Nobody likes New Jersey!
Even the universe.
My car and even my body have existential targets painted on them. It’s the price we pay – along with high taxes, out of sight housing costs, and ridiculous traffic – for living in the Garden State.
All joking aside, I’m praying China’s rogue satellite will burn up as it enters Earth’s atmosphere and that we in New Jersey (or anywhere else) will suffer no ill effects.
But if it does hit here, look out, China.
I speak Chinese.
Someone’s gonna get a severe tongue-lashing!
That is if I still have a tongue...
I don’t write “paranormal novels,” but the paranormal and supernatural do show up in my historical fiction in a variety of ways.
Saint Maggie, for example, contains a near-death experience. Maggie becomes ill and finds herself “lifted up and taken to another place. A wonderful, warm, peaceful light was all around.” In that place she encounters her late husband, John Blaine. When she indicates that she wants to stay with him, John tells her, no. “You need to care for our girls first, and for Eli.” Then he gives her a mysterious message, “There are troubles, Maggie…. Things are wrong. But with the good Lord’s help, you will persevere. You will make things right.” Just what he means gets played out after she wakes up and finds herself in her own bed.
Walk by Faith has a bit of a ghost story in it. In the opening chapter of the novel, Maggie is standing outside as she watched the boarding house burn down.
Maggie knew what she was referring to. Noises she once had attributed to creaking floorboards and a settling house slowly began to sound like someone pacing the hallways. And then, this morning about one a.m. she had been awakened by an insistent pounding on her door. As she struggled out of bed, Maggie had noticed a glow out her bedroom window. When she parted the curtains, she was horrified to see the Gazette shop engulfed in flames. When she realized that the smell of smoke was coming from within her own house, she understood that the boarding house was afire, too.
Later, she broaches the subject with friends Emily Johnson and Matilda Strong, which launches a discussion about ghosts.
“Do you know, someone knocked on my door and woke me up to warn me about the fire? I thought it was one of you, but you were running down the stairs when I came out of my room.”
“We thought you knocked on our door.” Emily frowned. “It wasn’t you?”
Maggie shook her head.
“Well, I know who it was,” Matilda said with certainty. …
“There are no such things as ghosts.” Despite her words, a chill went up Maggie’s spine.
“Begging your pardon, but there are. I seen ‘em at the plantation. And I seen ‘em and felt ‘em here, too.”
Emily pulled her blanket tightly around her shoulders. “My mama said she saw Granny’s ghost. We were living up here and Granny was in Virginia. She had been sold to another plantation and was working in the house kitchen. But Mama saw her. That’s how she knew Granny had passed.”
“Oh, come now,” Maggie argued. “Shouldn’t we leave such superstition behind?”
“This isn’t superstition,” Emily insisted. “These are just things we can’t understand. Maggie, you can’t deny it. All of us have heard those footsteps. All of us heard someone knocking on our doors tonight – and it wasn’t any of us. We know who it was.”
Who was it? Sorry, I can’t say. “Spoilers, sweetie” (to quote River Song from Doctor Who).
Later Maggie finds her journals mysteriously saved from the fire and hiding under a ceramic bowl in her house’s burned wreckage. Maggie eventually raises the subject with Eli who waves it off, because he adheres to his skepticism about all things supernatural. “You needed to account for the strange occurrences, and you did it to the best of your reckoning.”
Eli, of course, has his own encounters with the supernatural. In Walk by Faith, after witnessing the brutality of a friend’s injury and death in a field hospital, he goes outside and rails at God. At the very end of the book, he disavows the possibility of miracles in a conversation with Maggie. However, God is not easily put off by a mortal’s refusal to accept the miraculous. A few paragraphs later, Eli has an epiphany as he presses his hand to Maggie’s abdomen and for the first time feels the faint movement of their baby.
…suddenly the moment was holy because he loved this child even when it didn’t really know him or him it. And that was holy. Love was holy. His child, living in its little wet, warm, dark world had no idea how much it was loved by its father. It was loved simply because it was there, and it was his. And grace washed over him, and he felt himself sinking beneath its waves
Frankie also has an epiphany in Walk by Faith. When as she is working in a field hospital, she looks at the face of a Confederate soldier. Throughout the book, she wrestles with a dislike and fear of the soldiers of the Confederate States of America. But now, as she gazes upon the injured man, she abruptly sees the face of Jesus, and this has an impact on her compassion. Suddenly she isn’t simply serving injured men, she is serving Christ.
Not many supernatural goings-on happen in A Time to Heal but Seeing the Elephant has a few. An example of this are Eli’s nightmares. First and foremost, they are a symptom of his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But something breaks into them toward the end of the book, something that works to reduce his fear. However, because he is Eli, this also increases our hero's confusion about who or what was speaking to him. He tries to parse the experience with Maggie later:
“It started like all the other nightmares, but then…” He cleared his throat. “Well, then you suddenly weren’t dead. You were alive. You told me you always were alive and I wasn’t mad but rather afraid and confused and I needed to have faith. And…” He sighed. “Maggie, I got this funny feeling I wasn’t talking to you, but to someone else.”
Obviously, Eli is on a spiritual journey throughout the series. And although I’m not sure where he will end up, but I do know there’s a place in God’s heart even for a man who has an armload of questions.
Finally, we have “The Christmas Eve Visitor,” a short story that introduces Ira Strauss, a mysterious Jewish peddler who shows up at Maggie’s door one worried, unhappy Christmas Eve. He brings with him gifts of an unusual sort and then… well, again, spoilers. Bu who is Ira? What is Ira? It depends on which character you ask. Frankly, I’d like to bring him back sometime. I really liked the guy.
Clearly, I enjoy putting supernatural elements into my stories. They add mystery, they can move a plot along, and they can allow a character to wrestle with their faith.
Perhaps someday I’ll write a story that uses the paranormal and supernatural in a larger way. I might make it the main plot. It all depends on how I’m inspired.
By the way, inspiration itself is sort of mysterious. I mean, break the word down. According to dictionary.com, it comes from the Latin word inspirare, which means “to breath into.” The word’s usage circa 1300 ]expressed the “immediate influence of God or a god.” So, there you go: the supernatural colliding with the natural.
Life is quite mysterious, if you take the time to notice.
A number of people I know have had experiences that might be considered “paranormal.” The word para is “a prefix appearing in loanwords from Greek, most often attached to verbs and verbal derivatives, with the meanings “at or to one side of, beside, side by side” (parabola; paragraph; parallel; paralysis), “beyond, past, by” (paradox; paragogue); by extension from these senses, this prefix came to designate objects or activities auxiliary to or derivative of that denoted by the base word (parody; paronomasia), and hence abnormal or defective (paranoia), a sense now common in modern scientific coinages (parageusia; paralexia).” (http://www.dictionary.com/browse/para)
Got it? For something to be “paranormal” it is something to one side of the “normal.” In short, spooky stuff.
I’m familiar with spooky stuff. I’ve lived in a couple of houses where strange stuff had gone on, including a dormitory in which I saw what appeared to be the corner of a chenille bathrobe disappearing down a side hall. It was so real I thought it was one of my friends. When I knocked on her door, nothing happened! No one was home.
Most recently, my grandsons, step-daughter, her husband, and I went on a ghost tour of Breckinridge, Colorado. My grandsons like to think they’re the Ghost Hunters and happily grabbed up an EMF detector when we were given the chance to do a “ghost hunt” in one of the purportedly haunted houses.
While we were listening to the guide describe the phenomena in the building, I found myself standing at the back of the group. The hallway was behind me. Beyond that was the dining room. To my right was the front door and to my left was a hall at the end of which was the kitchen. It was dark, which is kind of creepy, and I decided that I was going to listen to the guide with one ear and stay alert with the other in case something decided to pop up behind me.
A few seconds into the talk, I heard what I can only describe as a footstep coming from the floor above. Seriously, it was a “heel-toe” sound. I thought, “Weird.” Then I heard it again. It was followed by the sounds of someone moving pans in the kitchen. It was as if someone was getting ready to cook. Again, “Weird.”
Then the guide turned us loose. My youngest grandson told me that he was cold. Sometimes feeling cold can mean a ghostly presence. Sometimes it can mean… well, you’re cold. So, I put an arm around him and pulled him close, saying that he was safe with me and that he’d be all right.
When my stepdaughter suggested we check out the bedroom, I gamely went with my family. The boys were checking everything on the EMF meter (the got nothing). Then I decided to be the friendly human to a (hopefully) friendly ghost: “Hi, we’re just here to say hello. You have a lovely room. I’d like to take a picture of it you don’t mind.”
“Thanks,” my stepdaughter said after I was finished. “I’m glad you said that. I wanted to do it but didn’t want to feel like a jerk.”
You gotta love honesty.
We moved back to the parlor, where I decided to take a few more photos.
That’s where something happened that I never had experienced before.
You know how when you take a flash photo in a dark space and your camera phone flashes for a few beats for the photo is taken? Well, as this was happening, I saw this ball of light fly across the room, make a left-hand turn, fly right in front of my camera, and disappear out of frame.
I thought, “What the…?”
When I looked at the photo I didn’t see anything. At first.
My stepdaughter’s husband then proceeded to tease the heck out of me.
When I examined the photo later and saw this:
Look to the left side of the page. The kid in the black hoodie is my youngest grandson (who by the way was the kid who felt cold). Do you see that grey, fuzzy ball by his legs?
Now… we could say this is a bug or a flare or whatever and debunk it. I would love to do that because I’m not a big fan of “orbs.” In fact, I always thought the idea was a lot of nonsense.
Maybe I don’t think that so much anymore.
Anyway, I found the guide and told him about my experiences. He replied the ball might be something. Was it dense? Was it greyish rather than bright white?
When I mentioned the footsteps, he said the people often hear footsteps in the attic (that’s right there was no second floor, but there was an attic). As for the kitchen, he confirmed that had activity, too.
In the end, who knows what all that was?
I like having a healthy skepticism. I certainly don’t go looking for this stuff, aside from the occasional ghost tour with my family. And yet… I also think that maybe there’s more out there than meets the eye.
Besides, all you have to do is mention spooky sounds in an old building and people step up. The other night, my Bible study group got into it when I made an off-hand comment about the noises in our church. They told me they got creeped out when they are alone in the church after dark. One of them said, “I hear people walking around and stuff.” Someone else said she locked herself in the office when she had to be in there alone.
Let’s be honest, it’s a big, old building with an ancient heating system (radiators and a boiler). Having worked in five other churches, I know these old structures creak and groan. So, whenever I’m alone I just say, “that’s the heating system, la-la-la-la” and try to ignore it. As long as nothing walks around the corner, I’m good.
Given all my life experiences (or is that afterlife experiences?) with the paranormal, is it any wonder that the unusual stuff shows up in the Saint Maggie series?
And I’ll be talking about that tomorrow!
No, I’m not crazy. Okay. I am crazy, but that’s beside the point.
Look, I know that those of us in the U.S. Northeast and Midwest have seen enough snow this March to throttle Old Man Winter. But regardless of the weather, be honest. Don’t you love a Christmas story? It can be uplifting, silly, inspiring, sentimental, religious, and/or romantic. The genre has a long tradition. The big one, of course, is the reason behind Christmas, the birth of Jesus. But it has been followed by stories written in the spirit of generosity, kindness, self-sacrifice, miracles, magic, and generally good feelings. We devour Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi.” We love movies like “Holiday Inn,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “Elf.” We queue up television programs like “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” And don’t forget that slew of music and carols that fills the air.
It doesn’t have to be Christmas for us to enjoy a Christmas story. Everyone can use a lift - even on a summer day. The past few days I’ve been tweaking two of my stories. Hey, now that the snow is over (I hope), I don’t have to worry about getting down my driveway or stocking up on milk, bread, and toilet paper. Life is good.
Truthfully, I never thought of writing a Christmas-themed story until one year when I was between books and wanted to give a gift to my Saint Maggie fans. That’s when I came up with “The Christmas Eve Visitor.” The short story takes place during the dreary, snowy Christmas Eve of 1863. Maggie’s family is living in Middletown, Pennsylvania, far from their home in Blaineton and struggling with poverty and a concern over the fever that has struck little Bob, Natey, and five-week-old Faith. The air is full of anxiety, frustration, and gloom. But then an unexpected visitor in the form of a Jewish peddler comes to their door. Ira Strauss exhibits an uncanny understanding of the inner life of each person in Maggie’s family, and give them gifts that symbolically address their need. Expect some miracles to occur before Christmas day dawns. (Those miracles are a challenge to Maggie’s ever-skeptical husband, Eli!) The story echoes the magic and wonder of other Christmas tales. I’m currently doing a small re-edit of the story and will be posting the updated version on Kindle soon.
A few years later, I wrote another Christmas story. Why? I’m not sure. Probably because I could! “The Dundee Cake” takes place in 1852. Maggie has been a widow and bereaved mother for almost three years and is struggling to keep the boarding house going after Aunt Letty’s death earlier in the year. There are two familiar boarders in her house, Chester Carson, and Grandpa O’Reilly; and two unfamiliar ones, lawyer’s apprentices Geoffrey Illington and Lucius Kemp, who are in their late teens. All four boarders are affable but lacking in funds and sporadic with their rent. (What else is new? It’s a given that Maggie’s heart is much greater than her business acumen!) We also meet the childhood versions of Lydia and Frankie whose early personalities are embryonic versions of their older ones. We observe how Maggie and Emily’s friendship develops. And, finally, we encounter the details of how Emily and husband Nate Johnson come to live in the boarding house. The story has an old-fashioned, sentimental feel as Maggie’s compassion for others overrides her holiday pining for John, son Gideon, and Aunty Letty’s. “The Dundee Cake” is available on Kindle for $0.99. It even includes a recipe at the back of the book. Come on! Give it a try. It’s worth $0.99 to get a little uplift. Should you desire, the story also is available for a higher price in paperback at Lulu and the Squeaking Pips Store.
Hmm. You know what? Maybe it’s time to write another Christmas story. Perhaps a HEART SOUL – based tale? Any ideas or preferences? Let me know!
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder