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What We Keep

The Day of the Dead

The Day of the Dead is nearly here. Ordinarily I would be getting out the decorations, bringing Catrina and El Jefe up from the cellar and dressing them in their party clothes. This year, no. No party and less incentive to decorate. The decorations are just fluff anyway; the heart of the Day of the Dead is the ofrenda, the altar with pictures of our lost loved ones, and little gifts for them to enjoy: gin and poker chips for my father, chocolate and a china dog for my mother, brandy for my father-in-law, and his slide rule from the corner cabinet in the living room.

 

There is something about late October that pulls the curtains apart and leaves us staring into mystery, more than a little afraid. The leaves whirl around our heads in a mindless dance, carried on a wind that electrifies the cats' fur so that they also run a little mad. No wonder so many different cultures marked this cross-quarter day, midway between the fall equinox and the winter solstice, as a hinge point in the year, when anything might visit from the other side.

 

The Day of the Dead has its origins among the Aztecs. It has some things in common with Celtic Samhain, that other end-of-October cross-quarter-day marker long ago coopted by the church to serve Christianity instead of the old gods. As on Samhain (pronounced sow-in) the veils between the worlds are thought to be thin and permeable, so that spirits may come drifting on the late October winds. At Samhain no one wants to meet them, and doors are closed and fires lit against anything riding that storm. But the Day of the Dead welcomes returning souls, says to them, "Come in, have a drink, smoke a cigar, remember how we still love you. You are our own. Who are you that we should fear you?"

 

So we'll set up the ofrenda, and maybe we'll put a picture of last year's party on it too, just to stay in touch. I've always thought of this party as a living entity, a hive spirit composed of the rotating cast of friends who come each year, bringing marigolds and bottles of wine and pictures of their own for remembrance. Then we'll stand on the front porch and admire the full moon and pay our respects to whatever comes to call.

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Twenty-first century thoughts in a first-century head

The Appian Way in 2020.

I've been thinking lately that one of the ongoing problems for a historical novelist is putting twenty-first-century thoughts in a first-century head.

 

The temptation is strong. After all, we want these people to seem sympathetic to a twenty-first century reader. And the reader wants them to be good people too. Thus the very bad review I once got on a romance website where a reader complained that Aphrodite kept sleeping with men who weren't her husband. But when a first-century hero lectures Augustus on abolishing arena games, you know that someone hasn't done their research.

 

The treatment of women and the practice of slavery are particularly thorny. Your first-century hero isn't going to be a feminist. And your first-century heroine is unlikely to be either. Does he beat his wife? No? Good. A lot of men did, and he probably disapproves but it won't occur to him to give women equal legal standing. Does the beaten wife put up with it? She probably has to, but she may well hate his guts. Some things aren't different. But she's not launching a crusade for women's rights. She may be wondering how to poison him.

 

Those arena games entertained the mob and the aristocracy alike. Only Seneca came close to condemning them and that only because they damaged a man's inner fiber, not because of their intrinsic cruelty. I've had to tread lightly with those, mostly for my own stomach's sake. I imagine there were many who didn't care for them, but none who suggested abolishing them. They may be an order of magnitude higher than dog fights and cockfights, if you count animals souls as always lesser, but certainly on a par with the gleeful, hungry crowds who watched lynchings not all that long ago, and would do it again if given the chance. The games trouble me the most of the things that fall into the Acceptable-then-but-now-oh-my-god category, more than slavery or the status of women.

 

But it is the issue of slavery that seems to be the hardest for modern readers, and you can't write about the ancient world and ignore it. A great part of the economy ran on slaves in that pre-industrial empire. Because the subject is so fraught with anger and guilt and willful ignorance in our current world, ancient world slavery is the subject of recurring comment wars on every social media platform where someone mentions it. An argument between an archaeologist and a poster who wanted to insist that an iron collar from a burial site was for a dog and not a slave went on for days. Yet ancient world slavery was a different institution from the horrors of American slavery. Most importantly to my mind, it was not race-based. You could be born of a slave mother, or become a slave because you were captured in a war, or fell into debt, or were sold by your parents. Not a happy life generally, but not dependent on your skin color. Slaves might be highly educated, the better to serve their masters.  Many tutors, secretaries, accountants and so on were slaves. Furthermore, a slave could buy their freedom, and many did, and numerous freedmen became wealthy and powerful. Your first-century hero is going to own slaves unless he is one himself, if he has any social standing and means at all. He is not going to ponder the injustice of slavery in general, although he may free some of his slaves for services rendered and dislike the master who mistreats his own.

 

Writing about the past requires an honesty, I think, that precludes trying to give people who lived two thousand years ago the sensibilities of the progressive first world of 2020. The best you can do is to realize that for your characters, the first century is what they have to work with. It is what they do with it that matters.

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De-bugging

There was an orb weaver's web in the herb pots this morning, strung between the mint and the lemon grass, and herself clinging to the zigzag lightning bolt than ran down the center of it. I applaud her efforts and those of her sisters, but perhaps not in my mint where I am bound to come upon her unexpectedly before morning coffee, which is when I wander about vaguely thinking of ways to fill in looming plot holes, or alternatively what to fix for dinner, which is occasionally the more pressing problem. So I hired the Husbandly Spider Removal Service to transfer her to the back forty under the willow tree. Nonetheless she is an elegant creature, all legs and black-and-yellow jacket, a predatory sleekness about her. It's been a strange season, bugwise. I found a large beetle in the bedclothes, which must have hitchhiked in on the dog. And the sunroom has been invaded by lizards, which strictly speaking aren't bugs, but have the buglike ability to materialize inside the house from heaven knows where.

     The natural world is flourishing while we have been hiding in our houses, and it probably wishes we would stay there. The garden had its loveliest spring this year when I couldn't invite anybody over to see it. Roses are like that, I suspect, and tend to be a little spiteful. The feral tomatoes, children of last year's crop, have sprung up everywhere, producing handfuls of tiny red fruit with wonderful flavor. Fred Undershed, the groundhog from next door, has eaten all the nasturtiums and gnaws the big tomatoes as they ripen. The sparrows have set up an entire bird village in the trumpet vine over the pergola, and the starlings line up at the birdbath, little towels under their arms, and splash all the water out with their mad flapping. None of them care that we are all afraid to come out of our own burrows.

     I suspect we had best remember that.

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By any other name

The rumors that Elvis is still alive have a little extra fascination for me currently, since I've been working on a book that includes the Nero Redivivus cult. Gullibility being nothing new, it was as dismayingly easy then as now to convince a group of people not adept at critical thought that a man who has been seen to die and be buried by several people has not actually died at all, and has been hiding in disguise all this time. The plebeians loved Nero since he was openhanded with them, and they strewed flowers on his tomb for years, so it isn't surprising that there were at least three manifestations of opportunists claiming to be Nero, tenuously based on resemblance to the late emperor and ability to play the lyre, in the twenty years after his suicide had forestalled an outright assassination.

     This book, a project I never expected, has reminded me once again why I love the Romans—they are so appallingly like us. Writing is a weird business, but since it's all I know how to do, I have made my living thereby all my life, in one way or another, either the doing or the teaching. Now, unexpectedly, the Romans have showed up again.

     My first novel, The Legions of the Mist, was set in Roman Britain, and my next three, The Centurions series, in Britain and Germany and Rome. Those were written for a book packager under the pseudonym of Damion Hunter, since the packager had been burned once by a writer who wrote a million-selling series under his own name and then got bored and quit. Any future series, it was decreed, went under pseudonyms so that other writers could be assigned. Alas, my series never even went to the contracted four books since the publisher was swallowed up by a different house which promptly killed all its current projects.

     Now a UK publisher, Canelo, has contacted me out of the blue and, hot damn, has republished those old Roman books, and even suggested I write new ones. I had got so tired of explaining, while I was writing things for the book packager, that all those names were really me, that I had sworn I wouldn't use a pseudonym again. Maddeningly, but fortuitously, we discovered that the old pseudonym has a small cult following among Roman reenactors and some recognition among Roman history buffs, and you don't want to waste that sort of thing. So we have compromised, and all my old Roman novels are out again as "Amanda Cockrell writing as Damion Hunter," which seems reasonable.

     Better yet, I have written a sequel to Legions, called The Wall at the End of the World, which is out now, and am writing that long-delayed fourth book in the Centurions series. I feel rather like Nero, except that I am actually me and definitely not dead.

 

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Thanksgiving

In junior high school we were made, every November, to write an essay on what exactly we were thankful for. This required careful tailoring, as you absolutely could not tell the truth and be thankful that [name redacted] who tripped you into a mud puddle had got a concussion that morning. Or that your [relationship redacted] who wet the bed wasn’t coming for Christmas after all and sleeping in your room. And particularly not that the headmaster had just missed catching you smoking pot behind the dining hall.

Instead there was a good deal of mush about being thankful for family, whether you were or not (I generally was but that sentiment lasted all year), and for the chance to do Good Works to Help the Poor.

Now that people who were idiots in junior high school generally aren’t anymore, or are in Texas, my relatives have bladder control, and I can misbehave in private, I find that I do have a list after all.

My niece who recently got her learner’s permit will be driving the family to Roanoke for Thanksgiving. I will be thankful when they get here.

I ordered four angel Christmas tree ornaments for presents and World Market sent me four knitted frog hats instead. I am thankful for the opportunity to show them to my husband and son, while saying brightly, “Look! I got us all matching hats for the holidays!” and see what they do.

I am thankful that my husband finally found something he actually wanted for his birthday, even if it was another dog. Who has an ear infection. (There is no free dog.) The vet gave him a prescription for Rusty, to take to our pharmacy, where they carefully labeled it “Rusty Dog Neuron (Canine)” just in case anyone thought that someone already afflicted with a last name like Neuron would name his kid Rusty Dog.

We were told that Rusty, having been abused early in life, did not bark because he had been beaten for it. We were also told that he was terrified of wearing a collar and of being up on the furniture. As I write, he is snoring on the bed in his new collar, and we heard a small woof at the postman the other day and another at the prospect of bites of a cheese sandwich. We are thankful that Rusty is getting his bark back. Read More 
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The Day of the Dead

It’s October again, and I start to think of the Ancestors, and those more recently lost, still beloved, still remembered.

The Day of the Dead is near, and I start thinking what they would like. Chocolate and gin for my mother. Bourbon for my father, and a good poker game with old pals. For my daughter, maybe the fourth pug we just adopted. The pugs are her fault, sort of. She longed for one and we finally gave in. We still have that one, elderly and imperious, and a bit deaf. The other three accreted somehow, so I’ll put their pictures and some dog biscuits on the altar for her, beside the miniature purse I bought at Target.

Time to bake, for the dead and for our friends, and the annual party we throw to remember our dead and theirs. Tamales, and empanadas, and Pan de Muertos and chocolate skulls, because the Day of the Dead isn’t a timid holiday. It’s the day we remember that we are all bones under the skin, all dancing into the next world.

The leaves are turning, scuttering across the yard with the wind behind them, and the borders between the worlds are transparent at this hinge point of the year. The kitchen is full of chilies, and beer to go with it while we stir. Coriander for healing, and cinnamon for love and lust. Chilies are a charm against spells, important when the doors stand open to other worlds, but also for fidelity.

We’ll fill vases with marigolds, little bright flowers of the dead, and calla lilies for the Virgin and for rebirth. We’ll unpack the sugar skulls and art accumulated through the years; put the skeletons on the porch, satin finery over their papier maché bones so the spirits know they’re welcome. No one is sure when the dead arrive at the party, but they do, unseen, in a breath of ginger cologne, a rustle of silk, a small warm wind.


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When I Was a Dog

Last week we met our creative writing tutorial students, always a dicey proposition: will they decide I am nuts, incompetent, otherwise peculiar? I never ask if they will be normal. They never are; writers just aren’t. And as always they prove to be a charming bunch, frighteningly talented, and seem to find me acceptable.

We began the evening with introductions: all grad students and tutorial faculty were instructed to tell one thing about themselves that no one knew. Well, that’s an invitation to...something. I cast about for something not too intimate, not likely to get anyone arrested, not too braggy. Free association led to the student from last summer whose daughter claimed to have been a rabbit, and then I remembered that I was once a dog.

I was four or thereabouts and my role model was our Dalmatian. I had my own collar, and a tail made from a ribbon. I had a leash too, which I insisted on wearing when my mother took us shopping. That got her yelled at in public a lot, but she was an indulgent mother and just smiled sweetly at the horrified shoppers. “She likes being a dog,” she said in that disarming Birmingham accent. I would pant happily and they would edge away.

I don’t remember how long I was a dog, but I do remember that there was enormous satisfaction in the companionship of our Dalmatian. I would nap on the living room rug curled against his warm flank, listening to his breath rise and fall. I was an only child and I think I sensed the need of a pack.

It wasn’t until I got to college and fell in with the students in my first creative writing class that I found a pack again. At Opening Convocation last week, the president quoted Oscar Wilde in her address to the newest students: “Be yourself,” Wilde is supposed to have said. “Everyone else is taken.” The academic in me can’t keep from noting that he probably didn’t say that, but it’s a fine sentiment anyway, if difficult to do. I think that until I was around forty, the strongest sense of being myself that I had was when I was a dog, except for those hours in writing workshop when we could come at it sideways, be ourselves by being someone else. To this day my writer friends are all a little mad. I have one who says her spirit animal is a buzzard. When we write we are allowed to be dogs and we will wear our tails proudly. Read More 
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In a manner of speaking...

Every so often there’s this voice you hear. It’s your mother, it’s your aunt, it’s your cousin, the one from Little Rock. It never really is, but you could swear…

Once I thought I heard my mother (who was in California at the time) outside a Roanoke, Virginia, shoe store. Even my children thought it was her. They looked up at me from the pile of sensible shoes they had been firmly rejecting, wide-eyed. “Is that Mama Mouse?” It wasn’t of course, it was an enormous woman in a lavender velour track suit, but when she opened her mouth to ask the clerk for support stockings, out came my mother’s voice.

It’s the accent really, the one I didn’t sufficiently absorb because I didn’t grow up in Birmingham like my mother, or Arkansas like my cousins, or the Delta like my grandmother, ancestress of us all. A touch of it and I am 12 years old again, climbing down tree wells in my grandmother’s front yard to retrieve the badminton bird that we have knocked down there again, or flopping out of the country club swimming pool when the afternoon thundershower rolls in, or sleeping five cousins to a room on an 80-degree night with all the windows open, while the parents and aunts and uncles drink bourbon and branch water downstairs and laugh hysterically over things they won’t tell us about.

It showed up this summer in my Magical Realism class, appropriately enough. I have read that spirits respond to certain harmonics, and mine like a Delta accent. We did cold reads the first class, and when she spoke she hit the note square on the head. I could swear the ancestors (mine and maybe hers) stopped by to listen. It happens often enough that my students give me stories, but this one gave me something else, something I have heard only infrequently from cousins since Mama died, and the aunts and uncles. A voice that moves with the shape-shifting ability of the South itself from humor to tragedy, and is the language to tell them both in.  Read More 
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That Old Academic Feeling

Spring is here, the daffodils are up, and my college class is having its 45th reunion next month. So naturally I am re-reading Gaudy Night in preparation.

One of my favorite books about the joys (and occasional ghastliness) of the academic life, it’s set at a women’s college in Oxford and is the only one of Dorothy Sayers’ mystery novels that doesn’t have a corpse. Instead it has a seriously creepy somebody with a grudge against women dons. Or maybe a woman don herself. That’s the trick, because it’s not that easy to figure out.

It’s an excellent book for those pondering whether you can have a life of the heart and a life of the mind. To write well must one be an alcoholic/drug addicted male with serial wives or a depressed female with head in the oven? Or is it possible to balance, if only precariously, on that angelic pinhead and have both work that matters and a love life that matters, without one being the servant of the other?

An awful lot of people have said no, or otherwise proven its impossibility through bad behavior, neuroses, psychoses, depression, and generally going up in flames. And it may be that one has less to write about, or make art from, lacking the flaming rows and institutionalizations of the notorious. But Gaudy Night is such a sensible and convincing blueprint, and Sayers herself was reputed to have achieved it.  Read More 
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Snowy day...

The critics
Classes are cancelled so I am at a loose end, and ought to be industriously writing. I am not. I am watching robins out the window. They have arrived from whatever southern clime they winter in, little suitcases in hand, ready for spring in Virginia, and it has snowed on them. They look disgruntled rummaging around in the snow and I feel as if I should put out a bowl of worms.

The dogs are reluctant to go outside, preferring to line up on the sofa and wait for me to come sit with them, where we can bark at the mailman together. I don’t even have to cook tonight since I made two dinners last night in anticipation of my Monday night class.

So why am I not writing? The farthest I have got is to re-read (for the twentieth time) a short story that needs something. I discover upon re-reading that I still don’t know what it needs. It has dogs in it. Perhaps I should consult the pugs. Alas, they will just assure me that they like it very much, the best thing I have ever done, and how about a dog biscuit since they are worn out with literary criticism.

It should be so easy to write just now. No need to leave the house, a handy computer, a story that needs work. And so easy to revise – just delete, insert, cut and paste, move the first scene to the middle, drag and drop. Like magic. No retyping, no correcting with white-out, no renumbering pages. Technology at my fingertips.

Instead, I start making a list of things that technology has made it impossible to do. Person-to-person calls on the telephone, for instance. When I was growing up, my family developed an excellent system for not paying for long distance calls at all. If you called person-to-person and the person wasn’t there, you didn’t have to pay for the call. But you could hear everything the operator said to whoever answered the phone, and they could hear you. When I was in college, a person-to-person call home for myself meant that I had made my standby flight. When I missed it, I called for Mr. Charleston DeLay or Mr. L. A. Sunday, and told the operator that I would try again about 6:00, thus announcing my new arrival time. My favorite was a call made by my father to a friend who was hosting that week’s poker game, just outside the local rate area. The friend was notorious for forgetting to take the chicken meant for the the players’ dinner out of the freezer until they arrived and reminded her to. Thus a person-to-person call for Mme. Poulet deFrost.

You can’t kite a check anymore either. When banks did their business by mail, a check for $50 from Person A to Person B could be deposited and used before it cleared. All Person B had to do was mail a check in return to Person A, who deposited it to cover the first check. You kept that up until someone actually laid their hands on $50 and put a stop to the whole thing. I learned that from my father too. Lest I seem to have come from criminal stock, someone always did eventually cover the check. And he considered a poke in the eye to the phone company (there was just one, and it otherwise did pretty much what it pleased) to be a noble goal.

He was a working writer all his life, but there were days when he said it just wasn’t there and went out to prune the pear trees instead. I miss him dreadfully. I think I will take a page from his book and watch robins. Read More 
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