Image from http://clipart-library.com/
I haven’t been anywhere actually. Aside from a weekly trip to get groceries and a weekly visit with the man in my life, I live a semi-quarantine existence. But here's where I've "been" nonetheless.
I count myself fortunate because I still have my job and the church has the funds to pay my salary.
To say that COVID-19 has changed everything else for me is of course a huge understatement. Doing my job now means I spend a fair amount of time on my laptop doing things like writing a weekly family devotional, leading a Bible study, participating in leading our worship services, updating the church website and Facebook page, and working on fall planning like trying to figure out how to do an at-home Sunday school and how to do a workable youth group without getting us all sick.
In July our pastor finally went on a much-needed vacation. I’m pretty sure he was just lurking around his house for three weeks, kind of like I’m doing now. While he was away, I was responsible for leading worship and doing the preaching. Worship for us at First United Methodist (Somerville) is on Zoom. While everything is done live and therefore subject to all the hazards of live streaming, our parishioners are overjoyed to see one another’s faces and hear their voices. Zoom also allows those who do not have the internet to phone in and listen to the service, and permits people who have moved away from the area to Zoom in.
No, I'm not robbing my church in this photo. I was getting ready to lead a Zoom worship service. There were only 2-3 other people in the building with me: the organist and our cantor, who sings the hymns so people at home know what verse they're on. As I said, the congregation are at home. It's a good thing, too, because it was hotter than the hinges of Hades the three weeks I preached. We're economizing on the air conditioning.
Anyway, the experience of Zooming worship has led us to two huge "ah-ha's": 1) The internet plus the phone-in option makes us accessible to a greater number of people; and 2) we’re going to continue live streaming even after we re-open the building (which might not be until 2021). The challenges are the need for updated and new equipment including powerful Wi-Fi, volunteers trained to work the new equipment, and getting the leadership team up to speed because we’re a bunch of aging weirdos… I mean, churchy-types. All right… we’re weirdos. But this weirdness is exactly why I have stayed on staff with First UMC for twelve years.
Neglecting My Book Business
It’s been a struggle to keep up with the writing and blogging. However, one thing I did do was close Squeaking Pips Press, Inc. in June and start a DBA called Squeaking Pips Books. This has simplified my life greatly as I only need to report my income and expenses regarding Squeaking Pips Books as part of my personal income rather than deal with all the nonsense of being a corporation. Huge sigh of relief.
Dan's son-in-law splashing around with our grandsons.
With My Family
On the upside, I have been able to kick back and spend weekends at Dan’s house, where we have started a tradition of small family gatherings at his pool on Sunday evenings. It’s a small group: just Dan, me, his daughter, two grandsons, and sometimes his son-in-law. Rest assured, everyone is appropriately physically distanced, and if anyone goes in the house, they wear a mask. But Sunday evenings have been a genuine blessing. I think Vida has enjoyed them, too. She appears to like visiting with Dan’s cat, Pantera, and our “grand dog” Snowfie, a little Shih Tzu with a big personality. (A small dog with a big personality. Are you surprised? Of course not.)
Vida with Pantera Snowfie "Strike a Pose, Girl!"
So, I have been juggling the above, leading worship and preaching the last two weeks of July and the first week of August, and pre-prepping all the stuff I usually do each week so I could take something resembling a vacation.
To put it bluntly, I’m pooped. Just like everyone else, I’ve dealt with the stress of life during COVID, the need to change how I do my work, and all the rest. So I need the break – even if “break” means finally catching up on blogging and doing all the other work that comes with being an indie author.
Meeting Tenacious D
One other odd little thing. I had the pleasure of hanging out with a couple of celebrities the evening of August 7. Let me come out of the closet right now and say that I am one of the moderators for a Facebook fan group called All Things Jables and Kage (Jack Black and Tenacious D). Regardless of how you might feel about Tenacious D (and sometimes how I feel about them), the group is fun. Also, our little admin team is fantastic. The four of us are tight considering I live in New Jersey, and the other three are in Chicago, Turkey, and Germany. After much haranguing by one of the group’s administrators, I gave in and joined her in a little online meet and greet. Part of my “job” with the team is to be an ad hoc pastor and advisor. So, I was doing some virtual handholding for my German friend that evening.
But I did get to visit with Jack Black and Kyle Gass. Check out the screenshot. Notice I’ve got my mouth open. I was talking as usual.
Jack and Kyle are very personable guys. I didn’t feel as if I was chatting with celebs. More like two guys who were comfortable to talk to and sometimes like annoying buddies. For instance, when I entered the chat room, they both shouted, “Janet!” That was followed by “Dammit, Janet” (yes, the song of the same name from the Rocky Horror Picture Show). And they concluded by singing the obligatory “I loooove you.”
I wanted to slug them. In sisterly love, of course. Because of all the songs dedicated to females out there, “Dammit, Janet” seems to be the only dang song in the world for my name. Naturally, that launched the three of us into a conversation about Rocky Horror – and then sadly, something went wrong with the system and the chat shut down at my end before our time was up.
I wish I had had a little more time to tell those two guys that in my head they are cast as two characters in the Saint Maggie series. It’s no secret that I picture and hear Jack when I write Eli. A little bit of Black edge really has helped my character’s development. And now – thanks to pressure from my lovely friends on the admin team – I have been forced to give Eli a new friend by the name of Shelby, who looks and sounds like Kyle. Shelby is a traveling musician (guitar and voice) and is still in the process of developing in the new novel. And yet, he somehow has managed to get himself a girlfriend who plays a mean fiddle. Characters… go figure.
So that’s what I’ve been up to. I plan to get myself back into the discipline of blogging, not to mention regular writing, during my vacation. Keep a prayer in and your fingers crossed that I’ll be able to continue when my workload resumes.
Meanwhile, stay well and stay safe, my friends.
Janet R. Stafford
Image from: https://constitutingamerica.org/march-14-1794-eli-whitney-receives-a-patent-for-his-invention-of-the-cotton-gin-guest-essayist-joshua-schmid/
I posted this originally in April 2018 and under a different title, but it bears reprinting with changes (because I can’t let things just sit). So here we go.
First of all, let me start with my characters. Emily and Nate Johnson, who are part of the Saint Maggie series, are Black. Nate is a freeman, born and raised in New Jersey. Emily was born enslaved in Maryland but brought to New Jersey by her mother. The other characters are a mix of self-emancipators and freeborn: Matilda Strong and her daughter Chloe (Saint Maggie through A Time To Heal), Anna and Pete Wilson and Moses Galloway (Walk by Faith); Edward Caldwell (Seeing the Elephant and The Good Community); Joe (Seeing the Elephant), Rosa Hamilton (The Enlistment and The Good Community); and Mary and Addie Brooks (The Good Community).
However, the shadow of slavery is not far from any of them, even those who are freeborn. Up until war broke out between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America, people of color would be wary of men traveling north in search of self-emancipators. These “slave catchers” were empowered to go into northern states to seek out self-emancipators, kidnap them, and return them to slavery because it was permitted by the Fugitive Slave Acts.
The Fugitive Slave Acts were a pair of federal laws that allowed for the capture and return of runaway enslaved people within the territory of the United States. Enacted by Congress in 1793, the first Fugitive Slave Act authorized local governments to seize and return escapees to their owners and imposed penalties on anyone who aided in their flight. Widespread resistance to the 1793 law led to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which added more provisions regarding runaways and levied even harsher punishments for interfering in their capture. The Fugitive Slave Acts were among the most controversial laws of the early 19th century. (from History.com, https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/fugitive-slave-acts#section_1)
But this isn’t just a southern thing. Institutionalized racism was alive and well in the northern states. Lack of educational and career opportunities for Black people and segregation in living accommodations, work, and just about everything else were the norm. Black people were enslaved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in northern states. And in the case of New Jersey, slavery was not abolished until 1804. It also was a gradual emancipation, to the point that some people were still enslaved by 1860. This form of “emancipation” was accompanied by harsh laws that restricted the opportunities and movement of people of color.
I try to make sure that real history lies behind my stories and characters and that plots and subplots are plausible. I’m also curious. So, I began to wonder why slavery was so entrenched, considered to be “essential” in pre-Civil War United States, and why the South was willing secede and go to war in order to maintain it. My answer is that part of all that may be due to one particular invention.
In the late 1700s, England was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution and had become capable of producing cheap cotton textiles. This capability created an enormous market for cotton.
American cotton producers would have been delighted to fill the British demand, but one thing stood in their way: upland or short-staple cotton, the cotton that provided the greatest yield per acre, was seedy. Those seeds clung so stubbornly to its fiber that pulling them out by hand was a time-consuming activity. One worker could remove only about one pound of seeds per day. That meant if cotton producers wanted to take advantage of British demand for their crop then something needed to change.
That change arrived in 1792 in the form of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. The genius of the cotton “gin,” or cotton engine, was that it had a roller studded with metal teeth. The teeth picked the cotton up and carried it to a metal grill. And the grill scraped the cotton off the teeth, simultaneously loosening the seeds and causing them to drop away.
Amazingly efficient, one cotton gin cranked by one slave could do the work of twelve slaves. When a water wheel powered the cotton gin, it could do the work of hundreds of slaves.
The invention caused American cotton exports to explode. The amount of cotton shipped to England jumped from almost nothing in the early 1790s to twenty million pounds by 1801.
Now, one might be tempted to think that this invention would reduce the need for slave labor. That was not the case. The need for enslaved peoples’ labor increased as the cotton economy spread from the coastal states to the Mississippi Territory and all the way to Texas. Many workers were needed to plant, tend, harvest all that cotton in order to meet British demand. This fully entrenched slavery within the Southern economy, as the total number of slaves nearly quadrupled from 1800 to 1860. By 1860, thirteen percent of the population of the United States (or 395,538 human beings total) was enslaved and owned by eight percent of the families.
I believe that the cotton gin was the mechanism by which slavery became a “necessary evil” for southern planters. While I agree that the Civil War was indeed over states’ rights, I will argue that the right most important to southern planters was the ability to spread the institution of slavery outside of the states. They wanted the “right” to bring their enslaved workers with them and to buy more human beings to work fields in new (to them) territories.
So it should be no surprise then that the original sin of slavery and its sibling racism is very much present in the Saint Maggie series and that the Underground Railroad, abolition, and issues like education, employment, and housing are a part of my characters’ lives. And that the Black characters are the ones who speak most clearly for justice, abolition, and equal rights.
Image from http://clipart-library.com/
Have you noticed it on my blog? If you haven’t, then you aren’t paying attention! Anyway, as most of you know, I serve in a church as assistant minister, director of Christian education, and communications director. I’ve been working in United Methodist Churches for, oh, I don’t know… let’s see: Norton (2 years), Bel Air (5 years), Little River (4 years), Sergeantsville (3 years), Manasquan (2 years), the Greater NJ United Methodist Conference Center (not a church, but the Annual Conference offices,1 Year), and First UMC Somerville (12 years next month). Eek! That equals 29 years.
One of the things I do is step in when the pastor is on vacation or out for other reasons. So, inasmuch, as my senior pastor will be on a well-deserved vacation for the next three weeks, I’ll be leading worship as well as preaching. On Zoom.
This Sunday also will be the first week for our substitute organist. And we don’t know how that is going to sound on Zoom because our regular organist, who is in Germany caring for her aging mom, had recorded a couple hundred hymns (I might be exaggerating here) so we could play them during our services. The substitute organist plans to play the hymns live. The unknown quantity is Zoom. It is kind of weird about music and can distort the sound as it goes from Point A to Point B. So, we’ll be seeing how worried we should be about that tomorrow during a “rehearsal.”
Another thing: I’ve never preached on Zoom. Oh, I’ve been doing a Bible study and several other meetings on Zoom. No problem there. But preaching is a whole different animal. Thank goodness a church member will be handling the technology for me once I appoint him as host on my Zoom site. With any luck, that will mean I won’t have to do this, “Friends, my point is that God wants us to… oh, hold on a second, someone’s in the Waiting Room…I have to click them in…”
It also promises to be hot and humid on Sunday. Since we do not meet in the building at the moment, the Trustees have turned off the air conditioning in our worship space (the technical, churchy name for it is “sanctuary”). So the organist and I will look forward to sweating up a storm and relying on fans, just like we did in the old days.
Seriously, I think Maggie and her crew from the 1860s had it easier. Is it hot? Of course it is, it’s summer. Here, use a hand fan. No organist? No problem! We sing a cappella. Everyone knows the hymns anyway. No preacher? Someone can get up and say a few words without it being a big deal. No church building in which to hold the service? Hey, kids, let put on a worship service right here in the barn, yeah!
That said, I am now inspired to put up a few blogs about how Maggie and her crew get their religion on.
To start with (just briefly), not everyone in the series is Methodist Episcopal (MEC). Nate and Emily Johnson, for instance, worship with the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC).
The what? Aren’t you all just sort of Methodists? In a word, no. Here’s the story of the AMEC: In the 1700s, Black members within the Methodist Episcopal Church of Philadelphia had a mutual aid society called the Free African Society (FAS), formed in 1787. One day, while Black parishioners were praying at the altar at St. George’s MEC, some of the white parishioners thought they were taking too long and pulled them off their knees. Really impolite. Also racist. The FAS decided enough was enough and left that church. Most went over to the Protestant Episcopal Church, but a smaller group, led by Richard Allen went on to found Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1794.
There is a lot more to the story, and I encourage you discover it by going to https://www.ame-church.com/our-church/our-history/.
However, Emily and Maggie are friends, so there is no denominational tension between them. In fact, Maggie has worshiped with the AMEC on at least two occasions throughout the series. One of them occurs in my work-in-progress (WIP), when she becomes fed up with a group of annoying people at the Methodist Episcopal Church who enjoy nagging her about her “unusual” attitudes and behavior toward those “other” people. So she pulls up roots and starts attending the little AME Church that meets in the front parlor of Greybeal House.
Other religious affiliations within the household include Grandpa O’Reilly and the Birgit and Moira Brennan (governess and cook respectively) who are Roman Catholic. That’s all well and good, but then this scene intruded into my WIP:
After hurrying down the hall, Eli threw open the huge front door. When his eyes landed on who was standing outside, he nearly did a double take.
A red-haired, freckle-faced young man was facing him. What set him apart from anyone Eli would have expected as a visitor to Greybeal House, was the man’s long, black cassock and white clerical collar.
“Good morrow to ya,” the stranger said.
“Good morning,” Eli replied. “What can I do for you?”
“I’m here to see a Mr. James O’Reilly. Would you be he, sir?”
“Um… no. No, I’m not. My name is Smith, but please come in… Mr… Reverend…uh… sir.
“Father,” the young man corrected. “I’m Father Donald McLennon.” He grinned as Eli shut the door behind them. “I take it you’re not a Catholic.”
No. Eli definitely is not a Roman Catholic. His family belonged a meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers. And, although Eli had a falling out with his childhood religion, he isn’t free of God, who seems to enjoy busting into his life at inconvenient moments. But that’s God for you.
So now you know why there’s this overarching spiritual theme in my books and how it manifests in my characters.
Stay well, my friends.
See you next week,
Janet R. Stafford
All Images by Janet R. Stafford
As long as I’m blogging about fairs, I might as well bring us into the twenty-first century. For the past eleven years, I have been a participant, along with members of my church, at the Somerset 4-H Fair. Sadly, like many events, this has been cancelled this year due to the coronavirus.
It feels weird not to have the fair. This would have been my twelfth year working at our sausage, peppers, and onion sandwich booth. It takes amazing effort and coordination to pull it off, and it is a significant event for my church and for me. Not having the fair feels decidedly weird.
At the same time, it is nice not to undertake such an enormous effort this summer. Selling sausage, peppers, and onion sandwiches sounds so simple. But it isn't.
All the prep work and cooking is done in the church kitchen. Hot food is packed in full trays and half trays, which are put in big, white, insulated containers and sent by pickup truck to the fair. Then the containers are transferred into a cart and taken to the food tent. (No cars are allowed on the fairgrounds once the fair opens.)
The prep and cooking begins on Tuesday when green bell peppers and onions are cut.
Above: Cooking and cutting in the church kitchen.
Below: building the booth at the fairgrounds
The booth is stored in the garage of the house where I live, which is owned by the church and referred to as a "parsonage." We pack that thing up and take it over to the fair grounds, where we literally reconstruct the booth.
When the fair is over, we deconstruct it the next day, take it back my house, and stow it in the garage, where it sits to this day.
Our booth has a floor, which helps when it rains. Otherwise we would be standing in puddles. This is a real issue. We’ve had some giant downpours over the years and a major lake forms in the food tent in front of the ice cream-and-popcorn booth and our own booth. The 4-H workers come by and throw straw over the lake to sop up the soup, and this kind of helps for a while. Then it morphs into soggy straw.
And yet, people put up with the muddy straw just to get their hands on a sausage sandwich. They often tell us that they’ve been looking forward to our little masterpiece all year.
Serious-looking storm clouds The soggy aftermath
The fair starts on Thursday, runs through Saturday, and is open from 10 am to 10 pm. We work the booth in shifts to keep people from burning out, Predictably, we have lunch and dinner rushes and need to stay in communication with the church kitchen to make sure we have what we need to make those sales. (The money is split between the church and the youth group.)
I will miss the fun of working with our great team. But I’ll miss other things, too, like hearing the cows. They usually are shown in the tent across the road from us and when that happens we are serenaded with choruses of loud mooing. I’ll also miss checking out the other animals raised by 4-H kids - the llamas, goats, alpacas, and dogs, to name a few.
The fair’s food tent is the old-fashioned kind where various groups sell all manner of things to tempt your taste buds in order to raise funds for their church, synagogue, scouting, cultural, or other organization. That means you can find falafel, Chinese food, Greek salads, milk shakes, hamburgers, hot dogs, homemade lemonade, bubble tea, barbecue pork, and… oh my gosh I’m starting to drool.
Our fair does not have rides. However, it does have a stage, and on this stage every aspiring rock band and singing group in the county perform throughout the day. It adds to the general cacophony. I’ll have the Rock’n’Roll with a side of moo's and food tent roar please.
Even though we are far into the future as far as my character Maggie is concerned, I think she would recognize most of what goes on at the Somerset County 4-H Fair, excluding our modern conveniences and… well, the rock music. I know she certainly would appreciate the teamwork that goes into our church’s sausage, peppers, and onion booth. And I imagine she might like getting behind the booth and waiting - very politely of course – on customers, although I’m not sure she’d understand why we wear gloves and hair nets. Historically, she is located just before germ theory made its entry into the world. “Germs? What are those?” And then I’d have to say, “Never mind, Maggie. I’ll explain later.”
Like all of us, I don’t know what things will look like once we have emerged from this pandemic, but I do know this: the 4-H Fair has left me with many and well-loved memories. I also know that everyone (that includes you and me) will find ways to create new memories. Because that is what people do.
Stay safe and well, friends.
Janet R. Stafford
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder