Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Sleep in Peace

This time of year, with troubles piled high and emotions bubbling to a steam, write what is in your heart. It will be best. With that in mind, Happy Holidays, and a fictional tribute to First Church of Christ, Lancaster.   

 "Sleep in Peace/The Bulfinch Mice"

Far below the bell tower in the old town church, the Bulfinch Mice slept, swirled in a heap beneath the stairwell, heads and tails a tangle. Every hour, throughout the night and day, the Paul Revere bell rang out in the sky above Lancaster. When they were resting lightly, the bell's bonging vibration awoke them, like an alarm clock. Each time, Papa Mouse took an inventory: “Thayer?” Here. “Wintle?” Here. “Bart?” Here. “Otto?” Here. “Ivan?” Here. “Little Nattie?” Here, Papa.

Once certain that everyone was safely in the crowded nest, Papa would relax. If it was not time to get up, everyone drifted back to sleep.

During the day, the Bulfinch mice slept or played quietly, since people were often inside the church. They preferred to explore during the evening. “Quiet by day, busy by night,” Papa Mouse said often. “That’s my motto.” Mama Mouse hugged them each, and told them, “Don’t get into trouble.”

In spring and summer, when the air warmed the building around them, the Bulfinch mice roamed the hallways, always hiding, quietly watching the people in the church and listening very especially hard. The Bulfinch mice kept the memories, so listening was important. The tiny family would watch and listen until the long cold winter returned, and then they would snuggle tight in the nest, and share what they’d heard and seen. Next, Mama and Papa would repeat the old stories, memories passed down through the generations of church mice, so that history lived on.

They had lived in First Church for as long as forever—since mice can’t remember very far back. They have short lives and uncommonly short memories, giving them good reason to retell their history each night.

Mice had always lived in Lancaster, running along the Nashua and scurrying through the fields. It was only in recent centuries that they had moved below the church steeple. By now, they had many stories, for they had witnessed the town's history, as well as happenings in the church, silently watching and listening, and remembering. If you are a mouse—a memory mouse, that is—you must keep your eyes and ears open, and notice what is important. When do the people congregate? Where are the cookies stored? Who runs the fastest? And, of course, where are the hidey holes? The smartest mice knew all the answers, which helped them live the longest. Among mice, the Bulfinch memory keepers were smart, which was why they were expected to hand down the town stories.

Uncles and aunties, momma and poppa mice, and many, many cousins lived in the town, and visited the great church on special occasions to share good times and bad with each other. But only the Bulfinch Mice lived there. They were direct descendants of the pioneers—the great Thayer Mouse family. That illustrious family had ten or twenty baby mice, each of whom had long since had ten or twenty or even thirty more babies, who grew up and had more children, who had more children, who had even more children over the many, many, many, many years the Fifth Meeting House had stood on the Town Green. Most of them left the church to live in the Thayer mansions or the Town Hall, and in many of the old houses in town.

But the Bulfinch family stayed put, ready to do their job.   

“Wake up, mousekins!” Thayer mouse’s loud squeal alerted the babies, and their heads popped up. Mama and Papa Mouse sprang up, looking around sharply, and sniffing the air.
“What is it, Thayer? Why did you yell like that? I don’t see anything,” said Papa Mouse.
“It’s time,” said Thayer. “Time to celebrate.”

Thayer was most interested in history. He loved all of the special days when people and children crowded the sanctuary, talking and singing. He kept track of each notable occasion, so that the mice could witness them. “It’s history in the making,” he pronounced, very authoritatively. “We must bear witness.”

But what is today?” the others asked, all at once.

"Is it time to eat?" asked Otto, who mainly thought about food.

“It’s Christmas Eve,” said Thayer. “People will sing carols and hug one another more closely than usual. And they’ll leave plenty of cough drops and cookie crumbs in the pews when they leave.” They knew the children always came to church with their pockets stuffed.

“Oh, goody,” said Little Nattie. “Let the party begin!”

“Not just yet,” Mama Mouse warned. “There are some things we have to talk about first.” The young mice crowded in front of her to listen.

“Can anyone tell me what Christmas is all about?” She nodded to Thayer softly, and said, “Not yet, son; let’s see if someone else knows the answer.”

The little mice looked at each other with questioning faces. “If it’s about food, I’ll be there,” said Otto, wiggling his sensitive nose. “I need to eat.”

“That’s part of it, Otto,” said Mama Mouse. “What else?”

“I think it’s about music!” Bart shouted. “Loud organ music and people singing. Fa-la-la-la,” he sang.

“Well, that’s part of it, too, Bart,” Mama Mouse said, “but what else?”

“It’s an old story,” said Wintle, who loved to tell tales. “And the story is about a Mama and a Papa, and a Baby born outside, with the sheep and the goats around them, and the stars bright in the sky.”

“Very good, Wintle,” Mama Mouse said. “You’re all doing a very good job of remembering. But what else is Christmas about?”

“I know!” said Ivan and Nattie, shouting at once.

“Ivan?” said Mama. “What can you tell us?”

“Christmas is about everyone being happy that the baby is born, and everyone being good to each other, and safe. The mice didn’t need to fear the cat the night the baby was born. And the dogs didn’t bark at the sheep. Everyone stayed friends.”

“And everything was peaceful,” said Nattie. “The stars shone above the baby’s crib, and the moon flooded the land around them. And bird creatures who flew—angels they were called—sang for the baby and his family.”

“Oh, you children are just wonderful at remembering,” Mama said. “Would you like to watch the Christmas Eve service today?”

They yelled their approval—hoorays and cheers that rang through the room until Mama hushed them. “It’s not time yet,” she said. “You must still be quiet.”

So they waited through the long, quiet afternoon, now and then dreaming of doughnut bits and cookies, and hoping the children would leave plenty of crumbs behind. In their sleep, their little noses wiggled with anticipation. When the clock rang three times, and then once more, the children stretched and gathered together. They were going to the Children’s Christmas Eve service in the First Church. Everyone had to look neat and clean.

After the bell tolled four times, children in warm coats and bright, snug caps came up the front steps and into the church with their parents. If they were too loud, their parents shushed them, and if they ran in the aisles, their parents managed to grab them by the elbow and sit them down in a pew, warning looks on their faces.

The Bulfinch mice were quite excited to see the crowd gather—it wasn’t often there was a service just for children, and they were glad to be part of it. They watched as the families sang Christmas carols, loudly and partly off-key. Bart, who loved music, sang right along—his voice a squeal, but in tune. Upstairs, near where the mice were hiding, the organist played along with the children and their parents. They sang “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” and Papa Mouse said, “Remember, mousekins. This was written by a minister of this church. His name was Pastor Sears, and the mice back then loved him for his kindness.”
“Yes, Papa, we will,” they whispered, almost all at the same time, smiling happily at the beautiful song.

Later, the mice listened as the pastor told the children the legend of the first Christmas. “Remember this story,” Mama Mouse said. “It’s part of their history here.” “Yes, Mama, we will,” they whispered, nodding their heads and twitching their ears.

The children sang other hymns—“Angels we Have Heard on High,” “Joy to the World” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” They even sang “Frosty the Snowman,” which the mice children had never heard, but liked very much. And as the service ended, everyone, including Bart, sang “Silent Night,” the Bulfinch Mouse family’s favorite hymn. “It reminds me of snow, and happiness,” said Bart. “It reminds me of snowflakes,” said Nattie. “It reminds me of starry nights,” said Ivan. “And dinner!” shouted Otto, always thinking about food.
“It reminds me of families,” said Wintle.

“And what do you think of when you hear ‘Silent Night,’ Thayer?” asked Mama Mouse.
“I think about how much we love each other, Mama,” Thayer said. “And about how much all the animals and children loved the baby born on Christmas. And it makes me happy inside.”
Mama smiled, and Papa patted Thayer on the ears. They were proud of their little family.
“It’s time for us to go downstairs, children,” he said. “With any luck, there’ll be some food left in the pews. But we must hurry. There’ll be another service later on.”

They scuttled through the church, squeaking softly when they did find a few crumbs left by a hurried child. Ivan collected his favorite, sugar cookie pieces, and Nattie waved a sparkly hair bow in her tail, so happy to have found a treasure.

Later, the children heard the hymns once more as people gathered for the late service—a large crowd this time, singing and holding candles in the dark as the voices of “Silent Night” filled the room. Mama and Papa hurried the children back to the nest, to rest before they, too, nibbled on a Christmas meal.

Outside First Church, snow fell, softly fell, to the tree tops, and the roof tops, and then covered the Town Green. Far below the snow-draped bell tower and the snow-covered eaves, out of sight and out of hearing, the Bulfinch mice stirred as the Paul Revere bell pealed—12 times for midnight—and the people left the church, wishing each other a “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas to you, children,” said Mama Mouse, kissing each of their little heads.
“And sleep in peace,” said Papa. With a loud yawn, he curled around them and drifted off to sleep.

The stories were saved for another telling.

Ann Connery Frantz

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Trap Door

On November 22, 2013, I rolled into the same parking space I had been sitting in fifty years ago when an announcer crackled and hissed through an eight-year old car radio that the president was dead. 

I sat in my car and looked across the campus where I had attended school decades before. The school had changed radically: the campus was bare, not only because of the tundra-like landscape, but also because no one was there—no students, no teachers, only a single groundskeeper.  But the "place in itself"—the locus—remained the same:  The air was as cold as it had been, global warming, notwithstanding; the odor of early winter was still in the air, the ground frigid but not frozen; the sky was overcast.  I could smell November—the end of the year, but not quite.

That sense of place is not so much a combination of memories and retrofitted significance as it is a sensibility, a re-creation of a moment that carries odor and temperature, texture, and a light peculiar to that place, regardless of what might have happened there.  Sometimes, these sensory flashbacks come to us uninvited; sometimes, as I did last month, we can encourage them.  But we have little control over what they do with us.

I have had my grandmother follow me around, long after she was no longer on this planet, while I walked past a bakery in Prague; my mother was at my shoulder when I sat by a wood fire in New Hampshire and caught a whiff of reheated coffee rooms away; damp straw almost always takes me back to the Orient.  A mouthful of that salty, mono textured foodstuff we consumed in our high school cafeteria takes me to my algebra class and Mr. Whateverhiznamewuz.  And the boy whose name I’ll never forget who sat close by, reeking of Jade East and failing the course. 

Sometimes, the sting of those tiny, icy snowflakes typical of New England winters remind me that I’m old and tired and send me back into the house; but sometimes they invite me back into my childhood, and for a few moments, depending on half a dozen other impressions, I have all the energy in the world.  On that day in November last month, I admit that I thought little of the president or Dallas, or The Bay of Pigs; on that day in November last month, I was sixteen.

This is what a writer must open herself to—to that immediate moment that speaks for itself, that place whose concrete information opens a trap door into that messy accumulation of sensory memories that make up who we are. 

That “end of the year, but not quite” moment took me to that time when I could anticipate new beginnings and the possibilities of assessing the immediate future in a new way, including the possibility of cutting English class.  That November 22 fifty years ago was a sad and confusing time. But the significance of the date had less to say to me than the significance of that place.

As you move into this holiday season, allow those trap doors to open and be wiling to take a free-fall.  Spend some time writing about where those combinations of senses take you and less time trying to recall your best holiday or ski trip or visit to the city: Starting with an idea is going about your writing project backwards.

Winona Wendth

A World of Stories

Human beings are storytellers.  It is how we communicate. It is how we make sense of our world.  As Peter Turchi writes, in Maps of The Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, "A great deal of what we know, we know only through our imaginations, and that knowledge is crucial to our lives." More than that, stories document our cultural and political lives, revealing the human journey through time and change, thereby rescuing history, as Don DeLillo observes, from its confusion. 

In early December, Harvard University hosted Tell Me A Story a panel discussion of the value of storytellers and storytelling as part of the their Scholars at Risk program. The panel was was moderated by Stephen Greenblatt and included Robert Pinsky, Kimberly Theidon, Tracy Kidder, Jill Lapore Birtukan Midedekssa.

Please visit the Harvard Gazette article for a full look at the day's events.

Hollis Shore

The Chosen Road

 The world has a way of categorizing people as either writers or poets, as if a poet is not a writer or a writer cannot be a poet.  While it’s true that some may predominantly produce one over the other, experience reveals that many authors write both prose and poetry over the course of their writing careers.  The author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien, wrote narrative poetry.  Maya Angelou, who wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published numerous poems.  Even the famous thriller author, Stephen King, submitted many a poem to The Devil’s Wine Anthology.

Poems are usually written in a more organized pattern of verse, but both poetry and prose are vehicles by which writers share their thoughts.  Prose is sometimes more straight-forward and poems more lyrically nuanced, but both convey stories.  Many times poems are a bit more subjective than prose, but both can include key elements of good writing:  voice, point of view, significant sensory details, sense of place, and more.

 Several years ago, as I reflected upon some recent deaths in my family, I decided I wanted to let the people in my life know what they’ve meant to me.  First I composed a letter.  Then, I wrote a story.  Neither seemed just right.  Finally, I decided to try a poem.  Several lines quickly popped into my mind as I began to write.  They came easily and readily, and the entire piece flowed within minutes from my mind to computer.  92 lines and 838 words later The Chosen Road was ready to be sent.  Not only did it convey my sincerest thoughts of appreciation, it revealed a story – a story about my life and about the people who have been a part of it. 

Sometimes as writers we can believe we’re a certain “type” of author, but I challenge folks to rethink what you’re writing.  What makes writing so exciting and wonderful and challenging is that we have so many choices, not just about what we write, but the manner in which we choose to write.  Maybe today is the day that you will try something new and different.

Paula Castner