The next person to cross the yard was a grown man—a parent, perhaps. He wore a plain black mask covering only his eyes and nose. A sparse, scraggly growth of a reddish blonde hue adorned a weak chin. I glanced past him in search of his child, but none was in sight.
I shivered with foreboding, then scoffed at my fear. His kid was probably just lagging behind. A group of children in the next yard laughed and chased after each other, the contents of a small witch’s bag tumbling onto the lawn. None of them appeared to be connected to the masked man.
I shook off my premonition. Surely the general eeriness of the holiday was working on my imagination. When he showed no sign of slowing his pace, I took a step backward and started to close the door. The man caught the door with his foot and shoved it open.
A scream froze in my throat as he pushed inside. He was broad-shouldered and strong. My heart banged in terror. I found a voice, though it didn’t sound much like my own. “What do you want—who are you?”
“I just want to talk to you. Give me a little cooperation and you won’t get hurt.”
Like a nightmare where my feet felt glued to the floor, I found myself unable to move or even scream. The din of happy children sounded farther away.
“All right.” My voice came out in a raspy squeak. “I’ll cooperate. Do you want money? We don’t have much, but—"
“I don’t want your money. I just want you to stay out of my life.”
My husband and I recently watched a TV series about a sociopath. We looked up the distinction between a sociopath and a psychopath. One source tells us that a psychopath has no conscience, while a sociopath has a weak conscience. I don’t find this particularly enlightening, but it does suggest the notion that conscience is, like many conditions, a spectrum.
When I was eight, I was baptized for the remission of my sins. When I was in my thirties, I was baptized again in case I didn’t know what I was doing the first time. But, looking back to remorse I experienced as a young child, I’m pretty sure I knew right from wrong at a very early age. Doesn’t everyone?
We’re not all the same, though we are also all the same in so many ways. We have a tendency to expect others to react as we would in a particular situation. And sometimes they do, which reinforces the notion of sameness. But sometimes they don’t, and we’re stunned, or at least surprised. When we get to know someone intimately—a spouse, a child, a parent—if we have an open mind, we grow to understand those differences, to expect them. Yet not always. We still find ourselves surprised on occasion.
I remember reading Little Women for the first time and being heartbroken by Jo’s rejection of Laurie. “We’re too much the same,” she said, or something to that effect. Having married someone very different from me, I understand what she meant, though I still wonder on occasion. Are we better off, or worse off, when we’re quite similar? We know the adage: opposites attract, but does that lead to a happy forever? Does anything?
In my family, I’ve seen plenty of evidence to the contrary. After being married for well over fifty years, my parents continued to try to change each other to be more like themselves. Did this spring from excessive narcissism, or from a lack of understanding? Both, perhaps, or the former in my mother’s case and the latter in my father’s, though I really don’t know.
Among my earliest memories are those of my parents fighting. Verbal fights mainly, with insults being hurled freely, which occasionally became physical for a moment with my mother striking out and my dad defending himself. Into their eighties, they would visit me and the quarrels would resume. Were they oblivious to my presence, I’d wonder, or did they prefer an audience?
I think of my Uncle Prentice, who has witnessed plenty of their spats, and who is known for his clever country saying. One of them comes to mind: That’s why we have chocolate and vanilla.
When I was a kid, I wrote this poem about spring. Not long after that, I realized I wasn’t a poet and dismissed it as embarrassing and sentimental with its obvious rhymes and optimistic viewpoint. As I looked out at the budding trees and flowers this morning, though, the words of the first verse came back to me and I thought I’d share them. (Keep in mind that I know I’m no poet.)
Spring is an awakening,
An awakening of life.
Spring is a forsakening,
A forsakening of strife.
Spring spreads across the earth,
Bringing joy where e’er she can.
Spring rejoices in her rebirth
In the heart of every man.
As I look back over my past blogs, I found one I wrote one year ago. I’m copying the last bit of that one below, written on March 30, 2020:
By the time we left Auckland on March 22, we knew the virus was indeed serious. Where would it end? What would we find when we arrived in the U.S.? Should we wear masks on the plane even though reports indicate the masks aren’t helpful? Would we be able to buy toilet tissue or hand sanitizer?
We’re here now. We feel safe much of the time. But we are saddened to hear how many people in the world, in the nation, in our state, even in our city, have contracted the virus. When will it end?
My morning walk, despite the absence of people stirring, wasn’t without splendor. Flowers and trees are budding and bursting into full bloom. Spring surges into our world, oblivious to this threat to our health. Let’s enjoy the beauty around us and, yes, let our hearts sing.
I wrote this Valentine to my husband a few years ago. However, in this past year of COVID-19, when we have been shut up together for days on end, we often get on each other’s nerves. It’s easy to forget the bright side, to overlook the qualities we love. So I thought I’d remind myself and share it with you.
I may not always tell you, but I hope you always know.
I love the way:
December has always been a big month in our family. My son was born on December 15; our wedding anniversary is December 19; and Christmas is our favorite holiday. While our kids (adults now) spend Thanksgiving with their in-laws, we’ve been fortunate to have them with us for Christmas. Until this year.
We knew well ahead of time that our son, who lives in Los Angeles, wouldn’t be coming home for his birthday or Christmas. But the rest of our plans remained up in the air until the last minute. My mom and dad, aged 88 and 87, were diagnosed with COVID-19 in November; we had no idea how they got it. By Christmas, thankfully, they were recovering though still fatigued.
Our anniversary tradition for many years has been to spend a few nights in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, or nearby in Pigeon Forge, where we do our last-minute Christmas shopping. I always look forward to the lights in the area, and a favorite restaurant in the Old Mill complex. We rented a cabin for two nights in 2020 in Pigeon Forge, figuring we’d stay inside mostly, and we headed that way. Within an hour, we started getting phone calls from concerned family and friends.
Apparently Tennessee had been listed as the worst state in the U.S. for numbers of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000, and Sevier County (where we were heading) one of the worst counties in the state. After about three such calls, we turned our car around and went home. My husband, knowing I usually order quiche there, promised to bake a special quiche at home.
For the past few years, we have attended a Christmas Eve church service, where my niece sings a solo of Ave Maria. For 2020, the service was to be virtual. But would we have our usual Christmas Eve party? All family members planned to get tested for COVID-19 in time to get the results before Christmas Eve. My daughter and her family were planning to head our way on December 23. Then they got their COVID-19 test results. My daughter had tested positive, and they were all being quarantined.
We told my sister, niece, and parents. If we all wore masks and didn’t serve food, would a small party be safe? We decided it would. We felt blessed to be together and spent much of the party on a zoom call with those who weren’t there in person. Not the same, but special and memorable in its own way.
Sad news about family and friends less fortunate began to drift in. It saddens me too much to share those details, so I won’t.
I left our Christmas decorations and tree up this year until after January 9, when we thought it safe to celebrate our grandson Finn’s ninth birthday (actual birthday January 4). We opened our Christmas gifts that day as well. Christmas in January! How wonderful to see him, his sister Elise (age 5), and their parents in person at last!
I remember meeting a woman many years ago at a writing workshop (or conference of some sort). She struck me as very hippy-dippy at the time. Somehow we got to talking about my mother and my husband. I honestly can’t remember how or why, as that’s not typical for me (even with long-standing friends, much less new acquaintances). What stands out in my memory is that she told me I’d married my mother. I immediately dismissed this as ridiculous, because they are very different people in so many ways.
My mother always expected the worst of any sort of opportunity or scheme that caught Daddy’s eye or ear. My husband Norm is similarly quick to point out the flaws in any idea I present, though in a less judgmental fashion (he claims he’s just being realistic). When my daughter Nikki was planning her wedding, Norm and I visited all the state parks in the area to consider possible venues. He pointed out so many potential problems to the manager at Ken-Lake (the one we chose in the end) that she nicknamed him Mr. Negativity.
In contrast, my dad was such a believer in the power of positive thinking that it was almost annoying at times. He remained consistently optimistic that I could be president of my undergraduate university (or probably the U.S.) if I’d encouraged him, even though I hadn’t an ounce of administrative experience or ambition.
When Nikki was dating a high school boyfriend named Mark, she told us a story one day that has stayed with me. Mark’s parents had been expecting a windfall from their insurance company. They had not received it yet but were already contemplating how they were going to spend it. Nikki didn’t comment to them, but she later confided to us her feeling that they were inviting disappointment. To her surprise, the insurance check came through as they expected. As she told us this story, she said she’d realized to what extent we had trained her to always expect the worst. Until then, I hadn’t realized that both Norm and I were pessimists, though of slightly different types. If being a pessimist protects us from disappointment, it also shields us from joy.
As an academic trying to publish research, the best you can usually hope for when you submit a paper to a journal is a “revise and resubmit” with a list of suggested changes. Often you get another list on the second round and maybe even on the third. If you don’t celebrate on the first, second, or third round, by the time the paper is actually accepted for publication, it feels like old news and you’re starting to get tired of the paper anyway.
I’m trying to learn to celebrate the moments without delay, or I may never truly rejoice. Am I too old to learn?
Thank goodness for my dad’s positivity as he deals every day with my mom’s declining health and constant demands. Would that I become more like him, at least in this respect, as I age.
October 16, 2020
My husband and I were recently trying to recall our earliest childhood memories. It occurred to me that, apart from stories I’ve been told or those imagined from old photos, my earliest memories are of books.
I had four books as a small child, and I memorized them all. I may have had others, but possibly not—my parents did not spend money easily. These four introduced me to the world of books in a myriad of ways. I’m sure that at least one of them was a Little Golden Book, but I don’t think they all were. I know they all had colorful pictures on every page and not too many words. I remember at least one picture vividly from each book.
My parents selected wisely, as the four books fell into very different categories. One was about panda bears. The picture I recall from this one was of the panda bear eating bamboo shoots. This book introduced me to the world of nature and wildlife, and the joy of eating.
The second book was about a little pig who disappeared one day after eating a bunch of donuts. The picture I recall from this one was of the little pig erasing the blackboard for his teacher. Although I had not started school, I longed for the experience with every fiber of my being. This book introduced me to mysteries. I do not write in this genre, but I appreciate an element of mystery in everything I read or write.
The third book was Sleeping Beauty. The picture I remember best is of the lopsided cake the godmothers made before applying their magic. This, of course, introduced me to fairy tales, villains, and romance.
The fourth book, my favorite, was called The Little Ballerina. It was about a little girl who had polio. I remember two illustrations from this one. The first is of the girl looking out her window at the children playing outside and wishing she could join them. The second is at a dance recital after she’s strengthened her legs by taking ballet lessons. I always wanted her to be the lead ballerina in the center. She wasn’t, but she was one of the dancers. This introduced me to the immense potential humans have for overcoming hardships and handicaps, and achieving our goals.
Since I knew all these books by heart at a young age, I could impress visitors by pretending to read. How I longed to read for real! If I had a knack for memorization back then, I’ve long since lost it. I cannot remember any of the books in their entirety, only bits and pieces. I do remember how much I loved them. Imagine my delight when I eventually discovered a library filled with shelf after shelf of books. Still, there aren’t too many I recall as clearly and as fondly as these four.
The Morning After (Hurricane Sally)
Orange Beach, Alabama
September 16, 2020
We bought a 16th floor penthouse in Orange Beach a couple of years ago as a possible retirement home. We went to bed here last night with the wind roaring like a lion. Hurricane Sally was expected to make landfall sometime today most likely west of us, though the exact predicted location kept shifting eastward. At this point I don’t know where it touched down, or even if it has.
It’s about 9:30 AM as I write. Our condo has water standing in virtually every room with the possible exception of one guest bedroom and bath. The sliding door in the living room that faces directly onto the balcony is shattered, and the balcony tiles have flipped up and broken.
Last night before we went to bed we had water standing in the kitchen and dining room, but limited at that point to water from the ice maker (which we had disconnected). This morning the water is coming in through or around all doors, windows, etc. We have the balcony doors open to help dry out the floors and a stiff wind is blowing my papers, pens, throw pillows, and other stuff about.
Norm has spent a lot of time with a mop, but we really need a wet vacuum to suck up the remaining water. We weren’t here when Ivan struck, but know it was worse. Looking down toward the various pools, I see the mushroom waterfall from the kiddie pool lying dismembered inside the pool. The other pools look okay, except dirty and full of debris. The one nearest us now hosts fallen palm trees.
The door to the stairwell kept slamming open and shut last night, sounding like a shotgun. We moved our car to one remaining elevated spot in the parking lot. Most of the cars in the lot are okay, but a few have broken windows.
The Gulf is churning with foam like a giant mug of beer. One electrical outlet cover lies on the floor near the balcony doors. The power and water went out in the early morning, probably between 2 and 4 AM.
Yesterday the fire alarm kept going off every couple of hours, as the flooding would set it off with a corresponding recorded announcement. After the first one, which we obeyed—taking the stairs down 16 flights (15 actually, as there is no 13th floor), waiting for the firemen to check things out, then hiking back up fifteen flights—we ignored the rest. The property manager made an appearance at the first one. Both she and the news media indicated that if we hadn’t voluntarily evacuated by that point, our best course was to remain inside our unit—which we did.
In the middle of the night, I got up to use the toilet, and the commode seemed to be floating in a circle. In fact the entire room was floating, swimming, swaying in the intensity of the air currents.
Two Mornings After
September 17, 2020
We’ve had no power or water for two days. Yesterday we made our way toward Gulf Shores, but a police barricade blocked one side of the road. We had not brought our hurricane stickers for the car. Norm got out to talk to the policeman, who said we might not be allowed into Gulf Shores. We turned around.
Along the way we saw lots of broken, leaning, or sagging power lines. All traffic lights and power were out everywhere we looked. A later email suggested it was likely to be at least two weeks before power would be restored.
Water was flooding one side of the road in places, and some bridges were closed. We could not access news by tv or computer and were worried our cell phones would soon die (as we could not charge them, except in the car). Though tempted to leave, we could not obtain good information about road closures and routes out of Orange Beach. With no elevators, we dreaded hauling luggage; so, once we returned to our condo, we stayed put through another night. Fifteen flights of stairs make me question our decision to buy a condo this high.
Three Mornings After
September 18, 2020
On the way out of Orange Beach, we saw at least three large boats perched on the side of the road. One charter boat had crossed the highway and perched like a massive bird on the opposite side. Possibly the boats had lodged in the road, and someone had moved them to the side to allow traffic to pass. Many gas stations are closed, and we’re having trouble finding a restroom that’s open.
When I was considering the decision to quit my day job, I kept running into retirees who said retiring was the best thing that ever happened to them. They were traveling the world and staying busier than ever. Of course, this was before COVID-19. My decision was also before COVID-19, but not long before.
My husband retired a number of years ago. Over the years I’ve heard accounts of husbands who made a nuisance of themselves after retirement and drove their wives nuts. My husband, in contrast, has always been easily entertained. Riding his tractor, scanning the internet, reading books and news stories … these activities keep him more than content. I worry that we could be the reverse of the norm … that I’ll be the one to drive him crazy.
I had plans, but so many of those plans feel by the wayside when COVID-19 struck. I had intended to travel to Japan in the springtime, join a bus trip to Machu Picchu, visit the south of France, and speak at some writers’ conferences. All canceled. I’ve been the principal bread winner for years, but I’ve never been good at practicalities. At the university I had a staff of people to help out when my computer or overhead projector refused to cooperate. At home I have trouble just navigating the remote controls to the stereo and television.
Look for your strengths, I tell myself, and use those to help others. In this COVID-19 world, however, speaking engagements are drying up, or transitioning to online opportunities for which I feel ill equipped. I’ve always fancied the idea of writing meaningful fiction, but on my darker days, I articulate my fears. What makes me think I have any talent? What in my lifetime has given me insights worth sharing or greater wisdom than anyone else who has lived, loved, and survived?
I grew up with a bipolar mother, so I’m familiar with depression. I know that you can’t overcome depression by simply willing it away or by counting your blessings. Yet, I’ve not often been depressed myself. Until lately. After a few days of the doldrums, my minister brings a YouTube lesson to my aid. He reminds us of Paul’s words, and the familiar message rings true. When we cannot change our circumstances, we must try to change our attitude. I need to learn “in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” (Philippians 4:11)
I also like this quote by Corrie Ten Boom: “When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don’t throw away the ticket and jump off. You sit still and trust the engineer.”
Mainstream is a family suspense drama about three young couples whose five-year-old daughters disappear one August afternoon from a birthday party. Each of the couples wrestles with its own set of issues leading up to the disappearance. Mainstream finds each couple at a pivotal point in relationships and career choices when the disappearance occurs. Barbara has recently found out that her husband, Roy, has embarked upon an extramarital relationship while she’s been grieving a difficult miscarriage. Randa’s husband, Jonathan, has relocated his family to work for Roy, and is disillusioned by Roy’s work tactics and by his affair. Jonathan’s sister, Joella--who quit school years ago and has recently started to college--has just learned that her house is being foreclosed upon. How can she leave Luke, even if he is a liar and cheat, when he is hitting rock bottom?
Mainstream is, at the heart, a novel about marriage and the need for emotional and physical intimacy in marriage. Too often partners look outside their marriage to fill the void when one of these is lacking. I have seen many marriages fail inside the church, and too many betrayals of this nature.
I fear that avoiding the topic of intimacy may contribute to the problem. When people feel a void, they sometimes, sadly, divorce not only their spouse but also their relationship with God. Other couples lead separate, but distant lives within the same house for the sake of their children, finances, or even a misconception that God wants them to do so. I believe there’s a need in Christian literature to face these types of temptations as directly as we face issues like greed, alcohol, or violence. I’d like to think I could take a small step in that direction.
Objective and theme of Mainstream
All three marriages in Mainstream suffer, in one manner or another, from a lack of genuine intimacy, and the individuals within those marriages deal with their issues in different ways. When their daughters disappear one day, the women are forced abruptly to face their priorities and their choices.
The marriage of Randa and Jonathan is the strongest of the three, the one with the greatest promise for survival (not that any is without hope). Still, Randa withholds her deepest being from Jonathan. Even when they are physically intimate, Jonathan senses that Randa is not entirely present emotionally. Because of events in her past—an absent mother, a distant father, and an unfortunate relationship with a man—she believes herself unworthy of Jonathan’s love. Because we know that we are unworthy of God’s love, many of us struggle in the same way to give ourselves fully to him. Randa cannot open herself up emotionally to Jonathan for fear of being hurt or hurting him. Through the course of the novel, Randa comes to terms with what is missing in herself and finally gives herself to the man she so deeply loves.
In the marriage of Barbara and Roy, Barbara, like many women, is uncomfortable with physical intimacy. She tolerates it out of a sense of duty, but Roy senses her distaste and resents her for it. She is just beginning to overcome her discomfort when she suffers a heartbreaking miscarriage. After this, she withholds herself more than ever from Roy, and he turns to another woman. As Barbara recovers from her miscarriage, she grows to understand herself and her issues better than before, and to long for true intimacy with her husband. However, by the time she is ready, Roy’s betrayal may have gone too far. She also grows spiritually through this process.
In the third marriage, Luke and Joella have a solid physical relationship but lack emotional intimacy. As Joella commences to establish her independence as a student and a woman, she finds emotional intimacy with a younger man. As the novel approaches its climax, Joella comes to realize that this form of betrayal is just as serious as physical infidelity. Although Luke has many faults and has betrayed her in the past, can she justify leaving him for another man? First she must make a genuine effort to find the emotional intimacy she craves inside her marriage. She must also come to terms with the role she has played in allowing events to unfold, as well as the seriousness of her commitment to Luke.