In the “Old Country”

About to land in Scotland, I realize that a part of me is expecting the Scotland of the 17thcentury. A tempestuous and romantic place, with wild-haired men on horseback raging through the countryside brandishing swords and scalps…

The plane touches down at Glasgow airport, and I’m back in the 21stcentury. Now I picture a scene from an Ian Rankin novel with tough blokes speaking unintelligible street patois and brandishing switchblades.

Are there side effects from reading too many novels? Or from writing one? I’ve been immersed in the world of the 1660s Highlands for the past few years, and now that I am actually going there, I need to work on unscrambling my realities.

But first, Glasgow. No switchblades evident, and the people look just like the people in Vermont. I’m staying in the West End, a vibrant area full of international restaurants, free museums, and picturesque old buildings.

After an overnight flight, on my first night in Glasgow I sleep for almost twelve hours, and today I feel better than I have in years. The power of sleep – definitely underrated. Wandering around the city, I have brunch in a café called Little Italy, with delicious coffee latté,and visit the Kelvingrove Art Museum, the Glasgow Cathedral, and the St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art – which says nothing about my famous witch, Isobel Gowdie. But the cathedral does commemorate her persecutors, the Covenanters, who, after the witch hunts, became martyrs for their own brand of zealous Presbyterianism.

I’m reflecting on the ways we know reality, the things we know in our hearts to be the truth, and how we shape our world view around that. How very different those constructions can be between people and across time. Sometimes we move from one reality to another, like flying into a different time zone, and then the mind and body need to shift and reorient. Like Margaret in my novel, BITTER MAGIC, a young girl who is a Covenanter but entranced by magic and folk healing.

Tomorrow off to Nairn, the scene of the crime.

On the trail of a witch

Morayshire, Scotland: golf links, 2018, farm town 1660

 

On the trail of a witch

Leafing through my grandfather’s book about the Presbyterian ministers in our family, I came across some “Covenanters.” Who/what were Covenanters? I found that in 17thcentury Scotland they were key players in the fight for religious freedom and against the notion of king as head of church.

And then I discovered that the area in Scotland where the Covenanters were most concentrated, in Morayshire, was also where the most witch trials were held. And it so happened that one of the best-known witches in Scottish history, Isobel Gowdie, lived on the estate of John Hay (my birth name, Hayes, was originally Hay.)

Whoee!… Presbyterians and a witch. This was my kind of story. I was a Starhawk (a Wiccan) fan in the 70s and became a Presbyterian minister in the 80s. I hadn’t thought I’d write a historical novel, much less one about a 17thcentury witch in Scotland, but I was drawn in to the story of Isobel.

Just think. Here, where people play golf today, Isobel, a peasant woman, lived in a mud hut, concocted magical potions, and communicated with fairies, all in the face of my zealous Presbyterian ancestors.

I’m off to Scotland next week to get a feel for the land, talk with local historians, and flesh out the first draft of my novel, BITTER MAGIC.

Follow my blog to come with me!

 

I write to discover what I know

 

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Poppies on a June morning

Flannery O’Conner said it and got to the heart of what is rewarding about writing. Writing about relationships, I discover new insights about relationships. Writing about spirituality, I discover spirit. And sometimes the greatest reward comes in what someone else discovers. A book club member found herself in tears recognizing her deceased husband in the depiction of Frank in WILD MOUNTAIN. And then I got tearful discovering something about a character I created.

Spring in Vermont

 

Two weeks ago in Hawaii and today in Vermont. In Kauai we were surrounded by tropical beauty and growth, nectar to the soul. But here in Vermont, the day after Easter, there are signs of resurrection in the garden. Daffodils and delphiniums popping up, and lots of other little shoots and sprouts. In me, too, the parts that died back in winter are being pruned away to make room for new growth. More light and new energy. As we sang yesterday, Allelujah!

A Book About Love?

 

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Hey, it’s Valentine’s Day, and we really OTTER think about love!

One of the wonders of writing a novel is finding out what readers see in it. When the reviews started coming in for Wild Mountain, I was surprised when more than one person said that the book was about love. Wow, I had never thought of it that way. There is a love story, and there is reconciliation across the aisles of the gay marriage conflict, but a book about love? I was thrilled to see a new way of understanding the story I had written.

In Wild Mountain two middle-aged people fall in love (and then things get rocky,) but when my publisher suggested that I look into the Romance Writers Association, I was doubly surprised. I’ve always thought of romance novels as simplistic, overdrawn, and superficial, and I’d shudder if anyone thought of my book that way. But that is no doubt an old prejudice of mine about badly-written bodice-rippers and melodramas, so I looked up the definition of “romance novel” on the Romance Writers website: “Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.” Well, I suppose Wild Mountain does fit that definition. But, as reviewers pointed out, it’s not just about romantic love.

Here’s one of the reviews that I love:

“This book is at its heart, all about love. The good kind of love that develops between a man and a woman. Then there is the kind of emotion that simmers in a man who has mental health issues. A location can engender very strong feelings of love. Our friends and family fall under the umbrella of love and we will collectively fight for and support a cause we strongly believe in – this is yet another type of love. This book pulls all of these types of love into a delightful tale of small-town Vermont.” (P. Woodland on the Broken Teepee blog.)

It may be cold and icy in Vermont right now, but it’s Valentine’s Day and love is in the air!

Wild Mountain

 

 

 

Writing as Therapy

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Probably from time immemorial writers have found that writing, creative writing in particular, is healing to the soul. When I express in words something that has been vague and unnamed within me, an experience I remember, or something I make up (and fiction is always something within me, something that comes from my imagination, my mind, my body,) then I am feeling more alive. Life is changing and growing within me in that act of creation. Creative writing, or any creative art, is a way of participating in creation itself. So creative expression is a way of being more alive and thus healing to the sick parts of our lives.

As I was writing my first novel, Sea Level, I began to feel elated. Wow, I thought, I can make a story, I can create a scene, I can say something that has never been said before. But suddenly I came to a point in the story where I felt blocked. My main character, Brigid, had come to a crisis in her life, and I couldn’t think how to write her through it. Brigid was the first woman minister in an isolated small town in 1980. Her latent feminism had emerged, people were furious, and now she had to face a meeting of her whole congregation who would vote on whether to fire her.

When I got to this scene, I sat down at my desk to write and nothing came. I let it go for weeks, months, then came back to it. Still nothing. Finally I recognized that I was anxious. And that the anxiety was not only about how to get Brigid through this crucial scene, but it was about me. Brigid’s story was set in an earlier time, she had a very different history and character than I, and I had never faced this situation. But I had been, as she was, the first woman minister in several small churches at a time when there was widespread discrimination and disapprobation of women clergy.

What would it be like, I thought, to face this kind of public disapproval and shaming? It wasn’t so unusual for a woman minister in 1980. Public figures, whether ministers, politicians, or celebrities, are easy targets, and in that era and even now, clergy often have to walk a fine line between maintaining their own integrity and not offending their congregation. I recognized that the fear, the feeling of being vulnerable as a public figure, had been an underlying anxiety in my own time as a parish pastor.

Finally, I sat down determined to plow through this scene. I imagined Brigid’s feelings, the other people, the church, the different speakers, a new crisis that emerged, and finished the scene with a great sigh of relief. Brigid was okay. And I felt better.

In psychology James Pennebaker was the first to study the healing effects of writing. In the 1980s he had students and other groups write personal stories about traumas or the difficult times in their lives. He developed a method where each person would write for twenty minutes, and only twenty minutes, a day, describing some crisis in their life. He discovered that not only did they feel better afterward, but there were positive changes in heart rate, blood pressure and the immune system. His premise was that it is the inhibited, avoided parts of ourselves that bock our life energy, and when we allow what has been suppressed or inhibited to come out, put it in words, we begin to see an order in our lives, a meaning, and thus find a new perspective.

As Pennybaker discovered, too, the kind of writing makes a difference. I have a friend who wrote journals where he listed all the things he was angry about and all the criticisms his wife had aimed at him. Needless to say, that made him feel worse.

But both Pennybaker and creative writers throughout history have known that the most life-giving writing, even journal writing, is what one of my first writing teachers called “rendering.” When you render a scene, you remember or imagine not only what you feel, but what you (or your character) see, hear, smell. The anger, the fear, can be a part of it, but in the process of rendering it becomes transformed.

I love what Alice Walker said about the creative process: “In Native American cultures, when you feel sick at heart, sick in your soul, you do sand paintings. Or you make a basket. The thing is that you are focused on creating something. And while you’re doing that, there’s a kind of spiritual alchemy that happens, and you turn that bad feeling into something that becomes a golden light. It’s all because you are intensely creating something that is beautiful. And…by the time you’ve finished the sand painting, you’re well. The point is to heal yourself.”

 

 

O, Christmas Tree

This year I was not looking forward to the Christmas tree. An old friend had just died, my brother died last Christmas, and I’m getting to the age where my generation is slowly expiring. Well, that’s a depressing thought, but, according to one study, people with depression see the world more realistically. Yes, life ends, that’s reality.

So my husband and my granddaughter decorated the tree. The tree stands in front of my comfy chair, the one I sit in to read and/or write. I couldn’t help but see the tree. And the other day, just as I sat gazing at the tree in my usual habit of being lost in thoughts, I began to actually see the tree. It was beautiful. I saw the tiny lights, the glass balls, the chains of antique glass beads from my husband’s family, the ornaments with all their memories: of my mother, who loved the crocheted snowflakes, my first mother-in-law, who made so many of them, of my daughter’s childhood when we picked them out together, the grandchildren, my old friend who made the quirkiest ornaments.

I saw the sparkle, the magic, like a summer night filled with fireflies. Light in the darkness, love in the midst of sadness, life in the midst of death. So this December I wish you light: Christmas tree lights, Hanukkah candles, a bonfire for Solstice. The lights of hope.