Jun. 28, 2009

The VCCA Fellows Visit the Holiness Baptist Church, Amherst, Virginia

by Barbara Crooker

We are the only light faces in a sea of mahogany,
tobacco, almond, and this is not the only way
we are different. We've come in late, the choir
already singing, swaying to the music, moving
in the spirit. When I was down, Lord, when
I was down, Jesus lifted me
. And, for a few minutes,
we are raised up, out of our own skepticism
and doubts, rising on the swell of their voices.
The singers sit, and we pass the peace, wrapped
in thick arms, ample bosoms, and I start to think
maybe God is a woman of color, and that She loves
us, in spite of our pale selves, so far away
from who we should really be. Parishioners
give testimonials, a deacon speaks of his sister,
who's "gone home," and I realize he doesn't mean
back to Georgia, but that she's passed over. I float
on this sweet certainty, of a return not to the bland
confection of wispy clouds and angels in nightshirts,
but to childhood's kitchen, a dew-drenched June
morning, roses tumbling by the back porch.
The preacher mounts the lectern, tells us he's been
up since four working at his other job, the one
that pays the bills, and he delivers a sermon
that lightens the heart, unencumbered by dogma
and theology. For the benediction, we all join hands,
visitors and strangers enfolded in the whole,
like raisins in sweet batter. We step through the door
into the stunning sunshine, and our hearts
lift out of our chests, tiny birds flying off to light
in the redbuds, to sing and sing and sing.

"The VCCA Fellows Visit the Holiness Baptist Church, Amherst, Virginia" by Barbara Crooker, from Line Dance. © Word Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of short-story writer and novelist Aimee Bender, (books by this author) born in Los Angeles in 1969. Her uncle was a basketball coach who was also a gifted storyteller, and the whole family would gather around the table to listen to his stories. She's written a novel, An Invisible Sign of My Own (2000), and two books of short stories, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (1998) and Willful Creatures (2005), all contemporary magical realism. In her fiction, there are boys born with keys for fingers that can unlock any door; people with pumpkins for heads; men who return from the war without their lips; and women give birth to their own mothers.

Her short story "The Rememberer" begins:
My lover is experiencing reverse evolution. I tell no one. I don't know how it happened, only that one day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape. It's been a month and now he's a sea turtle.

I keep him on the counter, in a glass baking pan filled with salt water.

It's the birthday of philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (books by this author) born on this day in Geneva (1712). In 1749, the Academy of Dijon sponsored an essay contest, and the question was: "Has the revival of the arts and sciences done more to corrupt or to purify morals?" Rousseau was delighted by the question, and he said that his head was so full of ideas he was unable to breathe. He said, "And that is how I became a writer almost against my will. … The remainder of my life and all my subsequent misfortunes were the inevitable result of this moment of aberration." He was normally a lazy man, but he worked feverishly on his essay, "A Discourse on the Arts and Sciences."He argued that the advances of science and art had been harmful to humanity by consolidating power in the hands of governments and creating an atmosphere of competition and fear between citizens. His essay won first prize, and he went on to write many more philosophical works, including his most famous, The Social Contract (1762), in which he said that the natural condition of humanity is to be brutal and lawless, and that it is through an agreed "social contract" of what constitutes a good society that humans are able to rise above their base nature.

It's the birthday of novelist Mark Helprin, (books by this author) born on this day in 1947, who wrote short stories and novels that won all sorts of awards, including Ellis Island and Other Stories (1981), Winter's Tale (1983), and Freddy and Fredericka (2005). He also wrote three books for children, all illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg: Swan Lake (1989), A City in Winter (1996), and The Veil of Snows (1997).

It's the birthday of Eric Ambler, (books by this author) born on this day in London (1909). Both his parents were entertainers — they gave puppet shows and acted as living marionettes. Eric wanted to follow in their footsteps, but they insisted on sending him to school so he could have a more stable career. He was a good student, studied electrical engineering, but he hated school, and he still wanted to be an entertainer. So he started touring as a comedian and songwriter, but he didn't like life on the road, and he only lasted a year. He liked to write, though, so he took a job writing advertising copy, and on the side he continued to write songs and also plays and novels. He couldn't get anything published, and he showed one of his novels to a literary agent, who suggested that Ambler choose another line of work. But he wasn't discouraged, and he kept writing. He hated the boring life of London business, but he was actually much better at business than he was at creative writing, and by 1937, before he turned 30, he was the director of a large ad agency.

But he still wanted to write literature, and he said: "What happened was simply having failed at playwriting, having failed as a songwriter, failed as an engineer, I looked around for something I could change and decided it was the thriller-spy story. The detective story genre has been worked over and worked over, but no one had looked at the thriller. It was still a dirty word. So I decided to intellectualize it, insofar as I was able." He wanted to write thrillers that were actually based in reality, with plots that could actually happen, instead of stories about superheroes. And he featured ordinary people as protagonists, instead of professional spies.

He wrote his first thriller, The Dark Frontier (1936), and he got an advance on the book that was larger than all his other earnings from writing put together. He went on to write many popular thrillers, including The Mask of Dimitrios (1939), Journey Into Fear (1940), and The Light of Day (1962).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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