Woman in the Wilderness

The “Burnt Over District” is religious historian shorthand for upstate New York.  That particular region, during the “Second Great Awakening,” spawned so many religions and hosted so many revivals that it was difficult to believe anything more could sprout there (thus, “burnt over”).  One of my great fascinations is the origins of religions.  Not only that, but where those religions began.  On a continent-size level, Asia is clearly the champion, with all of the “big five” beginning there.  But religions evolve, sometimes rapidly.  Christianity in Britain gave rise to such groups as Quakers and Anglicans, and, in a post-Christian phase Britain gave the world Wicca.  The Germans were also great religious innovators with Luther and the Pietist and Anabaptist traditions.  Perhaps it’s in the Anglo-Saxon blood to make religions new.

After visiting Ephrata Cloister recently, my mind naturally turned to the “Hermits of the Wissahickon.”  If you’ve not heard of them, you’re not alone.  They, despite being men to a man, preferred the title “Society of the Woman in the Wilderness.”  They were followers of Johannes Kelpius.  Kelpius, like Conrad Beissel after him, was a German mystic, Pietist, and musician, and he also believed the end of the world was imminent.  This was in 1694, just a few years before Beissel laid the foundations for Ephrata Cloister.  Like Beissel, Kelpius decided Pennsylvania was the best place to set up camp.  Although founded by Quakers, Pennsylvania offered something some other colonies didn’t—real religious freedom.  Given that you could be killed for being a Quaker in some of the other colonies, this didn’t seem like a bad idea.  Convinced Jesus would return in 1694, Kelpius and his followers settled into a cave just outside Philadelphia, by the Wissahickon Creek.  They set up a quasi-monastic community to wait out the clock near the city of brotherly love.

It’s difficult to know if Conrad Beissel was consciously imitating the work of Kelpius.  Religious leaders tend to have pretty strong views of their own outlooks.  The draw to Pennsylvania, in those days, was strong.  Interestingly, both Kelpius and Beissel are remembered for their music.  The death of Johannes Kelpius isn’t as well documented as that of Beissel—you can see the latter’s burial place in Ephrata.  Like millions of others, Kelpius lived through the “great disappointment” of not having the Second Coming occur when he supposed it would.  Some suggest Kelpius believed he would be translated after death.  He died in 1708, as his younger colleague was exploring the wilderness several miles to the west.  Keplius’ final resting place is listed, perhaps fittingly, as “unknown in Pennsylvania.”

Beissel’s Grave, Ephrata Cloister

Yep, Nope

I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a movie that starts with a quote from Nahum.  I also honestly admit that Nope left me scratching my head, but very glad to have seen it.  I trust Jordan Peele implicitly as both a screenwriter and a director, and I know I need to see Nope again to make it all fit (if that’s possible).  His movies are the most Twilight Zoneish things out there, and despite Peele’s reported reason for naming the film Nope, I’m going to keep watching the skies.  It’s clear he had done his ufological homework.  Even the idea that—SPOILER ALERT—have you seen it yet?  Are you going to?  You might want to finish this later, if you haven’t—they are biological entities has been widely discussed.  

Although classified as horror, Nope has mercifully few jump startles.  In fact I noticed (there were maybe only 10 of us in the theater) that one couple had brought their kids.  I can imagine they had some interesting discussions on the car ride home.  For me, driving home alone, I felt like I’d watched Close Encounters, Twister, Signs, and Arrival simultaneously.  Peele set out to film a spectacle and he did indeed.  Horror has become more intelligent of late, and there’s so much going on here that I’ll need some time to sort it out.  The online nattering suggests the Nahum quote (“I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile and make you a spectacle”) reflects Peele’s thoughts on the Bible.  A more literal take might see the evacuation of waste creating a spectacle, which it does.  How to explain the angel form of the creature?

Alien horror works.  Alien sees them deep in apace, but many films, such as Fourth Kind, see them closer to home. Fourth Kind, also by an Africa American director (Olatunde Osunsanmi) never received critical acclaim, but I thought the first half was impossibly scary.  It’s natural enough to fear those we don’t understand.  Perhaps that’s one reason we tend to deny their existence.  If we deal with them in fiction we can call it horror and go home happy.  Nope asks us to consider whether our differences matter so much in the face of a non-discriminate predator that eats any human that enters its territory.  Even if they were there first.  I still have a lot of questions about the movie.  Some of them will likely never be answered.  One that will is “Do you plan on seeing it again?”  The answer is yep.

Beyond Natural

I’ve read quite a few books about the supernatural.  Often these books, which are mostly written by scientists, tend to show the problems with supernatural thinking.  Clay Routledge, it seems to me, has a healthier approach.  Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World isn’t an apology for the supernatural.  In fact, Routledge is a psychological scientist.  An open-minded one.  The book isn’t an apology, but it does show how natural supernatural thinking is.  This engagingly written study isn’t always easy to read—you have to be prepared to think about death a lot.  But also meaning.  Routledge makes a good case that the human search for meaning is related to our awareness of our own mortality.  We know we’ll die, and we don’t want to believe our existence has been for naught.  That doesn’t make all of us religious, but it does, perhaps, open us to the supernatural.

One of the main takeaways for me is that people misunderstand the power of religious motivation.  Especially in the context of our current political climate.  Many people can’t believe that supreme court justices would decide against laws that slow global warming.  Survey after survey, however, indicates that strong belief in religion means having little or no concern about the world ending.  In fact, for many it is a culmination devoutly to be attained.  You don’t need surveys to learn this.  You just need to talk to Fundamentalists.  I grew up believing this world was a sinful, corrupt place soon to be destroyed.  Further reflection on religion convinced me that this view was wrong, but I certainly understand it.  Too often those trying to find solutions to such problems simply dismiss religion as a motivating factor.  That’s a fatal error.

This is an insightful book.  Although based on science it is neutral toward religion.  Or I should say, the supernatural.  Routledge demonstrates that even scientists, when tested in controlled circumstances, subscribe to some supernatural beliefs.  They may be more abstract, such as the idea that things happen for a reason, or that we’ve been put here for a purpose (the teleological argument), but they are nevertheless present.  To be human is to be a meaning-seeking creature.  We may not be the only ones.  Whether or not that’s the case, our drive for making sense of all this tends to move us toward the supernatural.  Routledge ends with a plea for us to listen to one another.  Pay attention, and care for, those who believe differently.  We have a lot more in common than we have views that separate us.

Twisted in Knots

Our staycation at the Red Caboose in Ronks brought to mind the Weird Al Yankovic parody of “Amish Paradise.”  Bored-looking tourists in Lancaster County can’t find anything to do.  While it may be true that many big city entertainments are lacking, we had no trouble filling up a day.  We discovered the little town of Lititz.  Just north of the city of Lancaster, it retains several buildings from the eighteenth century along its main street, and the same quaint, boutique feel of Lancaster itself continues.  I have to admire the creativity of shop owners who have to appeal to the varied tastes of the tourist crowd.  Of course there was a bookstore—there are several in this area—and we long ago discovered the dual value of books as souvenirs.

The reason we were in Lititz, however, was the pretzels.  The Julius Sturgis Pretzel House makes the claim of being the oldest commercial pretzel bakery in North America.  Built in 1784, this is one of the early buildings still standing, and they offer brief tours where you’re taught to roll  and knot a pretzel.  Pretzels are, of course, a European invention.  Since they were an avocation of monks, their shapes became imbued with religious symbolism.  The initial U shape was, like a gothic spire, intended to point thoughts upward, toward God.  As I learned, the twist (which was an indication of a handmade pretzel) was symbolic of marriage and “tying the knot.”  This leaves a fish-like shape, and the Icthys moniker for Jesus would’ve been known to monks.  The folding the knot onto the outer loop symbolizes the arms across the chest used in Catholic prayer as a way of embracing the cross.  The resulting twisted breadstick has three holes for the Trinity.

The real innovation in Lititz, however, was the hard pretzel.  If I heard correctly, Julius Sturgis was working at a pretzel bakery in town where he had the duty of cleaning out the ovens.  The hard bits could be used for animal food, but they gave Sturgis the idea of intentionally baking hard pretzels.  This is the most common commercial form sold today, but southeastern Pennsylvania, which produces eighty percent of the pretzels sold in the United States, is still a soft pretzel paradise.  Radiating out from Philadelphia to locations like Lancaster, Reading, and Allentown, pretzels are eaten more frequently in Pennsylvania than elsewhere.  The religious aspect of pilgrimage still exists for those who venture to Lititz to find the birthplace of the hard pretzel, and the opportunity to stick your fingers in the dough.

The Magic of Cairns

They’re one of those things, my daughter explained, that people do that make them so likable.  She was talking about building cairns.  Cairns are piles of stones, but not exactly the kind a farmer might make at the edge of a rocky field.  Cairns are intentionally built.  And they have been for millennia.  The thing is, while people could choose to knock them over, instead most people add to them.  When we’re out hiking we add rocks to cairns, and we’ve started our own from time to time.  I first became conscious of them in Scotland.  While out with some friends we spied a carefully stacked pile of rocks—I think it was at some remote location on the northern Scottish coast—and they told of of the tradition of adding to them.

While recounting this, I also recall seeing a pile of rocks—it wasn’t called a cairn at the time—at Walden Pond.  Some friends from seminary and I went to visit Thoreau’s famous site and although his cabin hadn’t survived, other pilgrims had started a rock pile.  It was, if I correctly recall, conical because the stones weren’t flat.  Most cairns involve the flat kinds of rocks that break off of bedding planes.  They are fairly easily stackable and they quite often tumble due to the forces of nature.  I recall building or adding to cairns in Ithaca, near Ithaca Falls.  Such cairns would be fortunate to survive the harsh winter and torrents of the spring thaw.  And yet still we build them.

While on the red trail at Bushkill Falls, where picking and taking items is forbidden, we found cairns.  There were isolated stacks along the river, dotted here and there.  Then, at about the halfway point we came across a field of cairns.  Alongside the trail, cairn builders had obviously seen the beauty of repeated patterns.  Other hikers were snapping pictures there as well.  It was clear that this was a joint venture that had spanned years of cooperating with strangers.  Nobody asks your race or gender or orientation when you add to a cairn.  In fact, those who start them are unknown and leave them for other strangers to carry on the work.  This is frequently the case with human ventures, but when they involve money we become very specific about who might be considered a proper owner.  Stones are common, and although useful are generally not valuable.  Make them into a stack and they become a symbol.  And that symbol can be a guidepost for future travelers, left in the spirit of cooperation of those we don’t know.

Say It in Poetry

I was listening to some Nick Cave the other day, and, as usual, I was quite taken by his lyrics.  I dusted off my poetry notebook and began to try to forge words into an impossible chain, but without much success.  Yes, I do occasionally write poetry.  I used to write quite a bit more.  There are too many “used tos” in my life, I think.  I grew up with two brothers, and a decade later, three.  (I also have a half-sister, but that’s a long story.)  My brothers have very different lives than mine.  One of them is now posting some of his poetry on a WordPress blog at Poetry Random Ramblings and Rants.  You ought to check it out.  (You might also run into a ramble or rant…)

Photo by Amador Loureiro on Unsplash

One thing I’ve learned from my many editorial board meetings is that successful books are often about the author.  My brother has an interesting life story to tell.  As I’ve noted here before, we grew up in a poverty-level working-class family.  We all found our own ways of coping with the stresses that involves.  Religion was my coping technique that become a strange vocation.  I knew, even as a tween, that whatever job I ended up having it would involve writing.  I learned early on that poetry is difficult to publish, but that never stopped me from writing it.  My brother has always been a much better poet than me, perhaps because of his life.  He’s less inhibited.  An authentic human being.  I don’t want to say too much, since that’s not my place.  Knowing the author, however, I know that he should have readers.

We make our way in the world, and when our parents haven’t really prepared, by example, what a life might be, we’ll you’re left second-guessing everything.  I suspect it drives my wife crazy sometimes.  For me every day is like being in a foreign country, unsure of the language.  Sure, I earned a doctorate but that doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing.  I’ve known medical doctors that were, truth be told, not that smart.  No, life is more of a story we tell about ourselves.  Some of us tell it in poetry, some in song, some in prose.  Some of us tell it nonfiction, and others, well, fictitiously.  A big problem with our world is that we don’t take time to listen to other peoples’ stories.  Their lives.  Those we do listen to (such as television and movie starts, sports players) are often dull.  For my money, there’s more to be learned from poetry, and the life it represents. 

Jekyll and Jekyll

W. E. D. (“Marilyn”) Ross was a journeyman writer.  Prolific, he produced more than 300 pot-boilers, and he only started writing at mid-life, which kind of lends hope to me.  (He, however, didn’t always pay attention to literary niceties.)  I’ve made a determined effort, over the past decade or so, to collect and read all of his Dark Shadows novels.  These aren’t great literature, and I generally have to space them out to recover from them.  I just finished number 27 (of 32), Barnabas, Quentine and Dr. Jekyll’s Son.  Although I watched Dark Shadows as a child, it’s pretty clear that my cosmology of Collinwood was primarily shaped by Ross.  Living in an area without a regular bookstore, and without the cash to regularly buy books, I found what volumes I could at Goodwill and read them avidly.

Barnabas, Quentine and Dr. Jekyll’s Son is now a rather rare item on the used market.  It’s pretty clear that as Ross went on and on in the gothic fiction genre, he tried new things and these generally improved his work.  This story, set in the past, involves Dr. Jekyll’s grown son accompanying Barnabas Collins to Maine in order to escape his father’s reputation and, as a sidebar, to try to cure Barnabas of his vampire curse.  This means that one of the Collins girls, Emily in this instance, falls in love with Jekyll rather than Barnabas.  It also marks the point at which Ross tries to make it clear that both Barnabas and Quentin are good guys, but being under their own curses, they have to follow their vampire and werewolf natures, respectively.

I think I may have read this one as a child.  Although each book was stamped with its number in the series, I was dependent on when my mother decided to go to Goodwill and what they happened to have on hand in their book bin.  Some scenes from this book came back to me in the reading—although it was perhaps forty or more years ago—and one of the most important of these was one where Barnabas and Quentin collaborated on capturing the criminal.  Among the true fans of the series, they are known as the immortals (and Quentin isn’t always a werewolf), and they revisit Collinwood over the centuries.  Quentin can be both good and evil, but Barnabas is generally a sympathetic character.  Dr. Jekyll’s son isn’t such a strange guest at Collinwood, and the stories do seem to have improved over time.  It’s still Ross writing, but this one was more than a surface refinishing of a classic tale.

Nope, Not Yet

It’s perhaps this summer’s most hotly anticipated movie, but I’m not sure when I’ll get to see it.  Jordan Peele’s Nope opened in theaters this weekend but I’ve been busy.  For many Peele may have seemed to come out of left field with his 2017 directorial debut, Get Out (it took me a couple years to see that one), but he’d been working in films prior to that.  Then Us appeared in 2019 and instantly established him as the auteur of black horror films.  Like many in horror, Peele has a strong element of humor as well.  His films feature black actors falling into circumstances that whites have tended to claim for themselves—being the victims of monsters (often human).  I unfortunately missed Peele’s attempted reboot of The Twilight Zone in 2019-20.  Nevertheless, I know he’s a kindred spirit.

I try not to watch trailers before seeing a movie.  They give away too much.  I don’t need any enticement to see a Peele movie.  Even as I await a free weekend, I think about how horror has been a field accepting of auteurial diversity.  Women have directed horror since at least the eighties.  James Wan has been a major player in the genre since the early new millennium.  M. Night Shyamalan had his start shortly before that.  Good horror is good horror.  Often such films are quite smart as well.  Get Out drew attention for its social commentary—something for which Rod Serling was famous, and thus the naturalness of The Twilight Zone.  But when will I have time to get out and see Nope?  Perhaps I need to cash in a personal day so I can take in a matinee.

The trick will be, of course, to be on the internet without reading about it before that can happen.  Taking time off work is punished with skyscrapers of emails when you return.  But when I start having dreams about my boss coming to my messy house and helping me do necessary repairs, I think maybe I’ve been working too hard.  Movies, in such a life, seem like superfluous luxuries.  Of course, I’ve long accepted the thesis that films are our modern mythology.  They are our cultural referents, and not infrequently the source of meaning.  They explain our world.  And they require taking at least an hour-and-a-half out of the mowing, painting, hammering, and hauling that never seem to end.  Nope, I won’t have time to see the movie this weekend.  Yep, I’ll be looking forward to the first opportunity to do so.

Ancient West Asia

You know what they say about old habits.  While various people are protesting things like critical race theory, there are still some scholarly holdouts for colonial terminology.  I know the area of “Ancient Near Eastern” studies fairly well.  The problem is that “Near East” is a comparative term.  Near whom?  Europe, of course.  Long ago scholars stopped using “oriental” to describe East Asia.  “Oriental” means eastern.  East to whom?  Europe.  You see the problem?  These terms assume European centrality, and the entire world can be divided up according to a colonialist perspective, rather like those novelty maps of the United States from a New Yorker’s point of view.  East Asia and South Asia are now in common use, but it’s still “Near East” and even “Middle East.”

What are the alternatives, did I hear you ask?  For decades now there has been a move to use “Ancient West Asia” instead.  It’s descriptive rather than imperial.  There have been objections, mostly from older white men.  It’s disruptive to change names, and besides, “West Asia” isn’t technically correct.  The area under study includes Egypt, and that’s Africa!  As Egyptology has grown, however, Sudan has increasingly entered the picture.  In other words, our picture of the ancient world is changing.  West Asia may not be precise, but it conveys the idea.  Cultures don’t always neatly follow borders, ancient or modern.  The people of ancient Israel borrowed from both Egypt and Mesopotamia.  Is it so wrong to try to use a non-Eurocentric title?

 Also, consider East Asia—it’s a fuzzy descriptor.  As is South Asia.  Although China and India are the largest respective states, these are modern political borders.  Yes, ancient people had borders too, but generally only emperors (men) went to great lengths to take someone else’s land on a large scale.  Terms like “Ancient Near East” perpetuate, often under the radar, this Euro-normativism.  Too much change too fast, I know, creates many problems.  A large part of the Trumpian reactionary mindset is based on fear of too much change.  Still, who pays attention to “Ancient Near Eastern” studies anyway?  It certainly isn’t a growing field.  The area under study is wide and sprawling.  It includes Turkey and stretches down to Yeman.  It can reach over to Iran and Afghanistan—to the very borders of India.  If we were to agree in principle that a Eurocentric term should be avoided, we might consider using Ancient West Asia.  Or we might, like the emperors of old, keep on doing things our own way.  It’s a habit, after all.

Ephrata Cloister

Conrad Beissel isn’t exactly a household name.  I never heard of him until a visit to Ephrata Cloister during a Lancaster staycation.  My wife knew about the Ephrata Cloister due to a music course she took at the University of Michigan; he was influential in developing a distinctive musical style.  Since we were in the area we stopped in for the tour.  Beissel was banished from what would become Germany in the early eighteenth century.  He made his way to America where he established a kind of monastery in south central Pennsylvania in the early 1700s.  Not Catholic, he was inspired by German Pietists, the Anabaptists, and Christian Mysticism.  Not ordained, he established what became a Seventh-Day Baptist association because whenever he tried to settle as a hermit others came to him.

Celibacy has always been a hard sell for religions.  Once his Camp for the Solitary was established, it grew to about 300 members, with only some 80 celibates, or solitaries.  This 80 was half men and half women.  They built around 40 buildings in what was then the frontier and they couldn’t have survived without the 120 or so married people who joined the church but continued to live at home with their families.  Like many separatist groups, the Seventh-Day Baptists were expecting Jesus’ return at any day and lived their lives accordingly.  Not strict about others joining him in this, Beissel was an early vegetarian, eventually becoming primarily a vegan (although that name wouldn’t develop for a couple centuries).  They had midnight worship services since they believed Jesus would return in the middle of the night.  They were, with the supportive families, self-sufficient.  The group established a printing press, and at one time it was possibly the largest printing operation in the colonies.

After Beissel died, the community continued.  They realized that, like all celibate communities, it would be difficult to survive and the celibacy rule was dropped.  The last celibate member died in 1813.  The community by then had taken on the form of an independent church and it survived until the 1930s.  The remaining land—some of it had been sold off over the years as the community shrank—was bought in the early forties to be preserved by the state.  Theirs was never a very large group, but it was significant enough that their memory was felt to be important enough to preserve.  Beissel wasn’t alone in establishing such sects here in Pennsylvania.  The tradition is, interestingly, part of the American heritage and demonstrates how the religious, ordained or not, live in their own worlds.

Not Just Horsemen

With the way they’ve been in the news, UFOs have started to arouse some curiosity.  Since I’ve been reading about the culture of the Hudson, Linda Zimmermann’s Hudson Valley UFOs caught my eye.  I hadn’t realized that the book was essentially self-published.  There are legitimate reasons for self-publishing, primarily that established presses can be quite standoffish.  What you find in book form is largely determined by publishers who decide what will or won’t merit their attention.  Self-publication comes with its own set of problems, including marketing and, as I written before, lack of editing.  Zimmermann’s book is quite interesting but could have used some editorial attention.  It does aid credibility.  Subtitled Startling Eyewitness Accounts from 1909 to the Present, the book is essentially that, collated accounts, some in their own words, some retold.

As became clear shortly after starting the book, this is a second volume for a previous book that I hadn’t heard of.  There is a fascination reading such accounts.  Many can be dismissed and each should be treated with some skepticism.  The thing is, there are so many reports from this area that it’s difficult to jettison the lot.  People with nothing to gain, withholding their names, see things in the sky they can’t explain.  As Zimmermann points out, Project Blue Book didn’t help with its prosaic and often bizarre explanations that are harder to believe than the eyewitness accounts, many of them from Air Force personnel.  What’s emerged in recent years—some would argue since the end of the Second World War—is that the government actively advocated ridicule and intimidation, perhaps because of secret weapons testing.  This policy has made the truth behind UFOs difficult to excavate.

Books like Zimmermann’s have their place in collecting information.  Civilians, however, generally lack the resources necessary for analysis.  Governments worldwide have recently been coming out of the closet.  They too have been treating this seriously while telling everyone simply to ignore it.  People are curious by nature and we live in an apparently infinite universe.  Strange things happen and ridicule is one of the surest ways to shut down serious discussion.  There’s quite a bit of information in this book, and some of it could help point to the long associations of the Hudson Valley with the unusual.  Mainstream publishers are beginning to lose their shyness about the topic and we as a species don’t know as much about this universe as we think we do.  As long as we talk about what we see, this will remain a topic of interest.

Odd Getaway

It’s small.  Almost cramped, you might say.  But then again, a Pennsylvania Railroad caboose wasn’t really designed to be a two-bedroom apartment with en suite bath.  Why the Gideon Bible was laid open to Ezra 2.62–4.19 I couldn’t fathom.  I suppose the story begins in Wisconsin, and ends up with me deep in Trump territory for an overnight getaway.  Let’s start at the Badger State.  I’ve always been a sucker for the unusual.  In that regard, I suppose getting a job at Nashotah House was inevitable.  When I spied Weird Wisconsin in Books & Company in Oconomowoc, it became an obvious birthday ask.  When we moved to New Jersey I learned that Weird NJ was a magazine as well as a book, and I bought, and read, every issue.  I also bought both volumes of the book and those of nearby New York and Pennsylvania.  It was in the latter that I first read about it.

The Red Caboose Motel began as a kind of a lark in the late sixties.  A Lancaster county man bought a bunch of cabooses at an auction and then had to figure out what to do with these tons of steel.  He settled on refurbishing them as individual hotel rooms.  I read about them in Weird Pennsylvania and hoped that someday I might stay in one.  My family, feeling restless after more than two years of pandemic isolation, wanted a short staycation.  Hotels involve corridors and breakfast rooms, often tiny, and too many Americans just won’t get vaccinated.  This seemed an ideal opportunity to spend a night in a discrete, self-contained caboose.  And, I admit, to tick something off my bucket list.

Driving behind Amish buggies to get there after a hot day on the streets of Lancaster—a surprisingly busy and loud city—the Red Caboose felt like a good getaway.  Given the number of cars parked outside cabooses, we weren’t the only ones with this idea.  Lancaster is more than just Witness territory.  Known for its boutique shops and pretzels, as well as its thriving Central Market, it’s a busy place in July.  Bumper stickers and loud, aggressively roaring pickup trucks indicate that outside the city the Trump myth reigns supreme.  In town we visited two independent bookstores, one of them quite large.  With at least seven to choose from, Lancaster feels like a readerly place.  Indeed, I could, had I the money and time, envision renting a caboose for a month or two to do nothing but write.  Why they wanted me to read about rebuilding the Jerusalem temple I just don’t know.  I’ll chalk it up to being weird in Pennsylvania.

Blog Writing

From time to time someone will ask me about my personal writing process.  Those who know that I write at all, primarily, I suspect, think I do mostly blog posts.  I have, however, written five nonfiction books and have completed seven unpublished novels.  Thirty of my short stories, also fiction, have been published.  I also have a few novels and at least four nonfiction books currently underway.  Like other writers, I require quite a lot of alone time.  From at least seminary on, I have carved that out of the early morning hours.  I’ve gone through phases when I slept normal hours like a civilized human being, but when at Nashotah House, where morning chapel was a daily requirement, I began awaking early to write.  When I began commuting into New York City, that writing time got pushed back to 3 a.m., and that is mostly still true today.

It is said that Isaac Asimov had three typewriters in his study, each loaded with a different writing project.  That way he could work on the one he felt like writing when the mood struck.  Yes, we writers use our emotions extensively.  What I work on in the morning depends on which me gets out of bed that day.  Is it the long fiction me?  Is it the nonfiction me?  Is it the short story me?  Is it the academic article me?  Is it the blog post me?  Ah, the blog posts.  They take a lot of time.  And, like most writing, they are driven by my moods.  Sometimes I write about current events, often posted after the fact.  Why?  Because I have other posts that have been waiting to be presented.

There’s a bit of illusion involved in writing.  Apart from the fact that all of my blog posts are written in the early morning, it isn’t evident from the post itself when it was written.  (Unless I refer to something as having happened “yesterday” or “last week.”)  I don’t follow current events closely.  I can get depressed just fine on my own, thank you.  I don’t start out the day with the newspaper.  Writers often live in their own worlds.  Reality intrudes too much, most of the time.  I may never become a bestselling author.  I may never be able to court an agent—believe me, I’ve tried.  I may never have more than a few followers on this blog, but one thing I will do is continue writing.  It wouldn’t surprise me, and in fact I think it would be entirely within character, if I died with my fingers on the keyboard.

Stay Safe

I’m not an impulse buyer.  Having grown up poor, I tend to walk into stores with a list firmly in hand and I don’t deviate from it.  Advertising has virtually no impact.  I don’t pay attention to ads unless they’re for things I know I need, and even then I shut them out most of the time.  I do let my guard down in independent bookstores, however.  So it was that I found in Aaron’s Books in Lititz, Your Guide To Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village.  It was totally an impulse buy, easily read in a sunny afternoon in a caboose motel.  Or a rainy afternoon in an English manor house.  Maureen Johnson and Jay Cooper have produced a wonderfully witty illustrated guide here.  It helps to have lived in the United Kingdom for a few years.

Shelved face out in the thriller section, it’s a great opportunity for murder-mystery, gothic literature, horror movie fan types to laugh at themselves.  Some parts are snort out loud funny.  Okay, so I was on staycation and being a bit free with cash for a change, but I’m sure I will keep this one near my desk and turn back to it from time to time.  Maureen Johnson is known for her young adult novels and Jay Cooper is a children’s book illustrator.  Their talents, however, work together incredibly well for this slightly naughty guilty pleasure read.  The Wicker Man even gets a nod or two.  Something that those who disdain horror don’t often realize is that it quite frequently has its own sense of humor.  It’s an intelligent genre that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  At times it does, of course, but those of us who are fans can tell fantasy from real life.  Maybe.

Independent bookstores are starting to make a comeback.  A significant part of our population isn’t on board with retailers trying to convert everyday life to the metaverse.  We want to hear our music with the occasional pop and microphone hiss.  We want to drive our own cars.  We want to browse in actual bookstores.  Given my buying record online, I have to laugh every time I look at the recommendations.  The electronic world brain doesn’t know me very well at all.  It assumes it knows why I bought that ladder or that round blank four-inch stamped electrical cover.  Some of us play in nontraditional ways with such things.  And we get ideas from wandering into independent bookstores.  As long as they’re not in quaint English villages.

Time Well Spent

If you want a bookstore mostly to yourself, go on a fine, sunny summer weekend.  There will always be those with reading on their minds, of course, but since we’re still dealing with a pandemic, going when it’s quiet feels right.  Having to drop someone off for an event in rural New Jersey, I found myself with a couple of hours and the prospect of sitting in a hot car and trying to read or to find another way to use time productively.  It was a fine, sunny summer weekend day.  I realized the event wasn’t far from Frenchtown.  Now, I’d been through Frenchtown several times, often with my wife on her way to a weekend stint at work.  I’d noticed Frenchtown Bookshop, but since we were always on our way somewhere, we could never stop.

Public parking in Frenchtown is difficult on a fine, sunny summer weekend.  There is a bike and hike trail that passes near the Delaware there, and there’s also the river itself.  Kayaking and rafting on the border between New Jersey and Pennsylvania are popular pastimes.  The mercury was creeping up to 90, so people were out, either sweating on the trail or cooling their heels in the water.  Both public lots in town were full, as was all the on street parking I could find.  A bank tow-away lot—the bank was closed—seemed like the only option.  Independent bookstores are national treasures.  I always carry a list with me since it’s too easy to lose my head when surrounded by print.  If my specialized tastes aren’t represented, I can always find something.

Books are one of the great achievements of humankind.  Although circumstances may have prevented many women from making careers in writing early on—Enheduanna proved even among the Sumerians that women had wisdom to convey.  Once novels came to be written, the form was well populated with female sages.  Reading and writing were kept from slaves for fear of what might happen could they see what the knowledge of humanity really said.  The internet has, of course, become the great democratizer of writing, but has made it more difficult to get a publisher’s attention.  Apart from all that, books laid out on a table, or stacked neatly on shelves, are one of the simple, usually inexpensive, joys of life.  For about the price of a movie you can stretch that entertainment dollar out over several days.  Even when they’re fine, sunny summer weekend days.