Wow, young me had no idea what she was doing.

A week ago I posted Walker Tale #2 and that younger me published before thinking it through. Now that I am oh-so-much older I’m thinking I do not know the first thing about serious writing!

I have been working on my story arc and thought I had it worked out. Boy goes on journey, has lots of episodes that each connect to a truth, and ultimately discovers…well, wait to see what. I present these every two weeks, so I have plenty of time to work out the next story and maybe even get ahead. I can do this, I thought.

So, the first thing that ran my train off the rails was reading a book on the craft of storytelling, Saves the Cat! Writes a Novel. (That’s meant to be read as “The screenwriting concept marketed as ‘Save the Cat!'” –referring to the need to create sympathy for a flawed main character by having him rescue a cat early in the story– “now turns its attention to writing a novel.” Make sense? Took me a while.) The book makes a case for hitting the essential ’15 beats’ of a compelling story. I learned a lot. I tried to apply it to the Walker Tales, and have spent more than a week falling over my feet and getting pretty depressed about my prospects as a writer.

But then I wondered, Does this story arc apply to children’s stories? If I have a long “bad guys are closing in” in the second half of Act II, am I going to alarm my young audience and their mothers? (The fathers might really like fight scenes with a gruesome enemy.) Keep in mind I present a new chapter every other week and end on a cliffhanger. I can just imagine disturbing the sleep of my innocent charges.

So, I pulled some picture books from my Grandma shelf and noticed that at least three beats were missing. The build-up of tension is not the same and the tone is lighter. So, I am going to archive the ’15 beats’ format, which I do admire, for another writing project. After all, this Tales of Walker project was my idea of a series of simple writing assignments that would help me learn the questions of writing so I will eventually be ready to hear some solutions in future writing classes. Oh, and serve the families of the church as well.

The second thing that broke down my train was the way I presented the gospel in Walker #2. It was embarrassingly sloppy. I have stewed over it for days and finally rewrote it. [I have replaced the post with the new version.] There is no way I am going to send Walker on his journey without a clear understanding that the King, Christ, died for his sins–they are that bad and He is that holy. The “Westminster Confession” of this scene needed to be trimmed to the max because this story is meant to show and not tell. I needed to show how the gospel looks in this world and that meant a certain amount of telling.

Well. Today I have made changes, printed out my copy and re-posted it here, and I am moving on. I still need to sketch an illustration and play with watercolors. If only I knew an illustrator with a sense of humor in her lines. If only I had sent one of the kids to art school for illustration… Oh, wait.

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How dare you?

I look forward to dinner because it is where the three-ring circus of our home intersects. My daughter Molly lives upstairs but works at a machine museum. My husband works in the woods. I do stuff and I write. We get to tell the stories we have collected over the course of the day.

One day I shared my idea of The Walker Tales with them and Molly questioned my choice of having a male hero. Why did I not try to balance out the predominance of male leads with a female? I am a woman. I should write what I know. What qualifies me to get in the head of a boy?

Good questions. My immediate reaction was to say I didn’t want to add to the plethera of warrior girl leads. I think, ultimately, women don’t want to live as warriors, though they can fight when they need to and provide for themselves if they have to. What a girl wants is to be a princess and then a queen. Beauty with power, complementing a good king.

But I have better reasons.

I think my 63 years of observation about boys and men, 58 years of reading all sorts of fiction, 35 years of marriage, 33 years of being a mother of sons, and 21 years of teaching other children give me some insight into how a fellow might behave.

But honestly, I didn’t even think of having a girl walk through the journey I had in mind. And this is my reasoning:

  • my character is learning to fight battles and will become a warrior
  • the theme is learning to walk by faith and not by sight, in trust and not in strength, and while girls need to learn it too, it is going to be a lot more fun to watch a boy fumble with this
  • he’s the clueless idiot and the girl who will join him will be a voice of reason and grace

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

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Walker Tale #2 He Answers Questions and Gets a Gift

Walker walked for hours down the lane. The sun rose in the sky and the sparkling drops of dew dried as the day warmed. He walked in and out of the dappled shade and the sun shone through the fresh young leaves. He felt good to be out of his house and his heart was light. Sometimes he threw his arms wide and laughed for joy.

As he walked beside a field where sheep were peacefully grazing he became aware he was not alone. The sheep-herder sat in the shade of a maple, watching him curiously. When he saw Walker had noticed him he closed his book and waved Walker over with a smile. Walker climbed the stone wall and plopped down beside the shepherd to rest in the cool grass.

“Hi, my name is Walker,” he said. “What’s yours?”

“I’m Westminster. I was just stopping for lunch,” he said. “Join me!” From his leather bag he pulled a slender loaf of bread, the kind that is chewy on the outside and soft in the middle. He brought out a jar of fresh butter and a hunk of cheddar to go with it. They each tore off a chunk of bread and ate it with a smear of butter and a slice of cheese.

Westminster said, “I see you are traveling the king’s highway. How long have you been on it?”

“I started just this morning,” said Walker.

“Aren’t you the boy called Blind Bill?”

“I was Blind Bill, but now I see, so I have a new name.”

“I see you are carrying the King’s letter. Have you read it?”

“Oh, not all of it, no. Just parts, so far. Enough to get me started on the road.”

“Who opened your eyes?”

“The one who made eyes, I think! He gave me sight so that I was able to understand his letter and believe.”

Westminster handed him another piece of bread and cheese. “What did you read?”

“I read that Maker created the world and the people in it, but the people sinned against him. Maker loved the people so much he came into the world as the King to live among them. He lived, he died in judgment for the sins of his people, and he lives again. He sent the Companion to live in us, guide us, and give us power to obey.”

“Are you one of his people?”

“If I trust in him and obey I am one of his people and he sends the Companion to live in me.”

“Do you trust in him?”

Walker smiled. “Yes, I trust he is who he says he is.”

“Will you obey?”

“Yes, if the Companion helps me.”

Westminster pulled red grapes from his bag with a satisfied sigh. “You do know the King’s message,” he said.

The shepherd offered the cluster to Walker and they each ate juicy grapes that quenched their thirst. Then the shepherd said softly, “He knows your dark secret.”

Walker hung his head. “I know he does,” he said.

“Does he condemn you?”

“No, because he judged my sins too and removed them as far as east is from west.”

“Well, Walker,” said the shepherd with a warm smile as they rose and brushed the crumbs and ants from their clothing, “I have something for you. It is a gift of the King for all travelers.” He reached into a bed of lily-of-the-valley and retrieved a new leather bag.

It was a haversack, a bag with a long leather strap. It was just like the shepherd’s. Westminster helped Walker place it on his left shoulder so the bag hung at his right hip.

“You can carry your letter in there,” the shepherd said.

Walker opened the flap and was about to drop the book in when he saw the bag was not empty.

“Oh!” he said. “What’s in the bag?”

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Walker Tales #1 Blind Bill Becomes Walker

Once upon a time, there was a young man called Blind Bill.  He was short and chubby, with dark curly hair that hung down to his nose. He wore jeans and a faded green t-shirt with a tear on the sleeve. His eyes were closed because he was blind.

Day after day he sat slumped in a blue armchair by the woodstove in his gloomy cottage. Outside, the wind pried at the windows and rattled the door. He kept a fire going but he always felt cold.

Mrs. Johnson, a gruff old Yankee who lived next door, brought him two hot meals every day. For breakfast, he made himself oatmeal sweetened with raisins.

One day, Mrs. Johnson knocked on the door and came right in, as she always did. She carried a steaming dinner basket that smelled like fried chicken and maple-baked beans. She put down it down on the kitchen table, pulled something else from her bag, and carried it over to where he sat. She held it as she stood a moment looking down at him.

“Hi, Mrs. Johnson,” Blind Bill finally said in a dull voice. “Thank you for supper.”

“Billy boy, what are you doing?” said she.

“Just sitting.”

“Are you happy?”

“Can’t say as I am.”

“Bill, what do you really want?”

Well, he had been thinking about this recently so he ticked them off on three fingers:

“I want to have adventure. I want to know what’s real. I want to feel alive.”

“Well then, child, you need this.” She handed him something fairly heavy.

“What is it?”

“It’s a letter.”

“Feels like a book,” he said.

“It’s a very long letter. So long, it is bound up like a book.”

“It would take a lifetime to read this!”

“It’ll give you a life.”

“But I’m blind, Mrs. Johnson! I can’t read it.”

“Open the book,” she said.

“But I can’t—”

“Just open the book,” she said, as she patted his face affectionately and left. And then he was alone.

He idly flipped it open and found to his surprise there was a dim light on the page. He could see enough to read some of the words. It only happened when the book was open, though, so all day long he kept picking up the letter to read a little. Day after day he was able to read some, but it was tough going. After a while he found his eyes got red and swollen and leaked tears.

One morning he woke and opened his eyes. He could see! His room was bathed in sunlight that came in through the windows. He jumped out of bed and his heart beat fast in astonishment. He picked up the book from his bedside table and opened it. He read what was on the page. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father but through me.”

Suddenly a gust of wind blew open the door and flipped the pages. Sunlight fell on the words, “I will instruct you in the way you should go. I will counsel you with My eye upon you.”

Again the gust, again the pages moved, and now the golden letters said: “Come, follow Me.”

So, he got dressed and with the book under his arm he left his kitchen and strode out the door. He walked out to the dirt lane, where he looked left, and he looked right, and he looked left again. Then he heard a voice behind him, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”

So he turned toward the morning sun and began to walk.

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Once Upon a Time

This Sunday I launch The Walker Tales on my church when I do my third Children’s message. The Walker Tales is a series of stories that follow Blind Bill who becomes Walker on his journey to become a servant in the King’s court. I’m telling a fictional story because I believe children absorb a lot more from storytelling than from preaching. Rather than follow an argument for the wisdom of doing such-and-so behavior, they experience vicariously the choices and consequences of a person who does or does not make the wise choice.

They intuit the moral blueprint of the world, those universal truths that seem to run through civilization:

  • Human life is precious beyond price so one should treat all people with honor, especially the weak
  • Work for justice
  • Show mercy
  • Nurture and protect the ones you promise to love, through hard times and good
  • Don’t murder
  • Don’t steal
  • Don’t lie
  • Give thanks to your Creator
  • Do your work to the best of your ability

As Walker travels he learns to love the King of the land and know him intimately. He learns to trust him. Every week Walker has an episode which unpacks some truth about his world and ours.

I am not writing parables, though. Jesus spoke in parables a lot but the disciples needed them to be explained in order to understand them. Jesus says at one point that he speaks in parables to a deaf people who are not able to hear the truth (Matthew 13:10f) but that the parables reveal truth to those that can hear.

I am telling a story in which my audience walks along with the hero and learns vicariously what he learns. I think this could be called allegorical fiction, in company with Chronicles of Narnia or that forthright allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress. The Bible has a few examples, such as where Jotham tells a fiction of talking trees that parallels what the leadership of Israel had done, and where Nathan breaks through David’s defenses with the story of the greedy rich man. This last one is particularly interesting because by it is telling fiction and not by direct preaching that Nathan was able to convince David his behavior was repugnant. David had no doubt justified to himself his actions with Bathsheba and Uriah but when he heard the same framework sideways he was able to judge the rich man’s sin and therefore his own. Art, whether a story, a song, or an image has the capacity to bypass the gate-keeper, Reason, and penetrate the heart directly.

I still remember the story and the impact of a Children’s Message delivered by a young and experimenting pastor when I was nine.

Here at home, I write in isolation. I would love to have feedback on these stories! I need beta readers, if you will. My husband loves everything I write but he has learned it is better to encourage me than to tell me something looks/sounds awful. I wonder if any of my readers would care to read and react? I would love that.

I’ll publish Walker Tale #1 tomorrow.

I have to say, now that I have determined to work as a writer I feel much more settled. When I write out an idea I feel satisfied, as though I ate a rich meal. On the days when I do administrative tasks instead of writing I feel restless. I have rescheduled my days so appointments and housecleaning fall in the afternoons, most days.

So that, my friends, is where my head is these days.

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Why I Love Calling a Community Dance

Like every other elementary school student who grew up in the 1960s I first learned of square dancing in Phys Ed. I rather liked dancing with some of the boys but I understand if their memories of dancing with me are not so fond. It’s the cootie thing; it takes a few years for boys and girls to outgrow the fear of the opposite. I really liked dancing.

When I was a single woman in my twenties in the Washington, DC area I discovered Irish dancing as I walked by an evening dance class in progress in a school. Hooked by the music, I joined the class (of step dancing) and later switched to a class of social dancing for the fleet of foot and strong of heart. An Irish social dance is called a ceili (KAY-lee) and the dance figures are the same I call in New England today, with the addition of constant footwork. There are two basic steps, a 7-step sideways move that, with a one-beat rest to change direction fills a 4-beat phrase, and a 3-step move for going forward, back, or pausing in place. Sevens and threes. They build terrific ankles and give the heart a workout. Irish dancing demands that excellent upright posture we all know so well from Riverdance.

In the autumn of 1987 I came to Vermont to visit my old friend, Robbo, and he took me to my first contra dance in Greenfield MA. I loved it! In contrast to the ceilis I knew, this only offered one kind of dance so I learned very quickly about lining up with ladies facing gents, dancing in groups of four, how to progress to the next couple, and the change from inactive couple to active during the wait-out on the end of the line. (That’s back before dances with inactive couples became old-style.) As soon as I got home I looked up contra dances in the metro area and went to my first, at Glen Echo Spanish Ballroom. I started dancing contras.

So, when Robbo and I married we attended every dance we could for the first two years and on the 11th day after the birth of my firstborn (that was a little too ambitious.) After that, we rarely went out until the older ones were teens. Then we danced at Nelson several times, when Bob McQuillen was on the keyboard and Don Primrose and Lisa Sieverts called.

Elsewhere I tell the story of how I first jumped into calling at a wedding and how we hosted the annual SnowBall at Holleran Hall every winter until Covid. We resumed at Christmas 2021 and since then I’ve been calling monthly at two halls. During this time I realized that I prefer this kind of social dancing, in contrast to modern contras where a high degree of skill (and energy!) is expected. I like watching reluctant men with no positive dance background whatsoever catch the bug and come back each month for more. I like the variety of dances I can call–circles, longways sets, scatters, squares (coming soon!), and contras. I like being able to match dances to whatever dancers I find at my event so that everyone feels included.

After all we’ve experienced in the past three years, we sure need to reconnect to our community and see in our neighbors what we share in common. Dancing is a step in the right direction.

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Too Many Choices

written November 2022; update will follow

So, it turns out that when you leave a job and end a career, you have a lot more decisions to make about how to spend time! And it turns out I am the kind of person who wants to start on a bunch of things at once. I just may be overextended.

But when has that not been true for me? My Classical Conversations decade was characterized by being stretched in many new learning and service activities, and my career as a Music teacher had challenges of its own. I am glad today for all the experience I have accrued through necessity. But now I feel like a hound following intriguing scents in this direction and that.

Time to breathe deeply and calm down.

These seem important to me right now:

  • Working for the forester one day a week.
  • Taking Grandpa for errands and lunch at the diner on another day.
  • Remodeling the grown kids’ rooms into guest rooms for when I get visits from…the grown kids.
  • Making a calendar at Shutterfly in order to keep my account active, so I can make that last child’s life photo album!
  • Tracking more Holleran ancestors in Ancestry.com while we still have Grandpa Holleran.
  • Prepping a quilt project for a Quilting retreat in mid-November.
  • Prepping a small college project for friends so they can do a sampler while at the retreat.
  • Quilting the 20″ x 20″ collage I made.
  • Having people over for dinner and games.
  • Developing as a dance caller for community dances.
  • Learning new dances, writing up index cards, and practicing them.
  • Running my two dances.
  • Meeting regularly with a couple who needs someone to talk to.
  • Once a week rehearsing two songs for the church Vespers concert/worship service.
  • Practicing for the church worship band.
  • Meeting up with dear ones at Panera for coffee and very long updates. (Teaching Music for these five years squashed my social life.)
  • Keeping up with my kids on our Discord server.

Yes, I may be overextended.

Right now it feels like my big project, my calling as it were, is to develop as a community dance caller and continue to hold dances in two village halls so people can build community again. Those who come leave happy and satisfied. An evening of dancing together is just what the doctor ordered!

I feel privileged to have so many options at this point in my life. I think I am learning what interests will be hobbies I dabble in and what skills I should invest in more seriously. How can I serve with them?

I have to say, many days feel like a teacher’s Snow Day, a day I can plan as I like. It is exhilarating!

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The ebbing tide has drained the ocean floor,
a flat expanse of glistening, naked sand;
its sheen reflects a sullen overcast,
the white above, a silver film beneath.
The summer boarding houses past the dunes
have porches facing east, and now in dusk
a man with tripod sets his camera there;
his lens records the figures on the beach.

Three barefoot women holding flip-flops walk
immersed in conversation. Just beyond
A father romps while circling with his son;
his wife, who holds a snuggled sleeping child,
the shining star about which they revolve. 
A woman trains her lively limber dog
to sit and stand and fetch on her command.
A shaft of orange sunlight flanks the rank 
of clouds, and warms the supple skin of man 
and bride who walk beside the breathing sea;
they see each other only, holding hands.
An older woman, frowning, stands alone.

Aware but caring not I stand and stare
at sea and sky, the shining sheet below, 
the slowly moving ceiling overhead.
The overcast is pierced by setting sun
which dyes the quiet surface of the sea.
I see it, but it doesn’t enter me;
it has no life to offer, nothing warm,
no loving, secret message for my heart.
God, remote, inactive, passive, cold,
uncaring, watching from a distance,  gone—
Where are you?  Do you care? My aching need
exposed to empty space, I stand alone.

The waves caress her feet with kiss on kiss;
the wind enwraps her skirts in folds about
and gently dries the burning tears that spill
From eyes too full to see the seeing I.

Side note: I began that poem in 2007 and finished it this week (2023). I am not depressed! But oh, I was; I was. 2004 was a terrible year and three years later I was still in deep pain. Life is good now!

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Reflections on the Sea from Wells Beach, Maine

I have just returned from a spring break vacation along the coast of Maine. It was early spring so the trees were still bare and few people were on the beach. From the table in my room I was able to watch the sunrise, see lobster boats drop their traps, and hear the rising tide eat up the beach to finally assault the granite boulders below. I walked at low tide.

To stand before the sea is to feel the immensity of creation. Man did not make this. The ocean covers the earth and defines the blue-green marble seen from space. It sloshes from continent to continent as it is provoked by rotation and tugged by the moon. Who made this planet?

It breathes, sighing at my feet in the sand. I breathe too, a slow deep inhale of salty air, exhaling stale air of home and highway, my shoulders relaxing. Breathing in and out. I am aware of my breathing, quicker than the rhythm of the wave-beats but with a regular swell and fall. As long as I repose by the sea it is so.

At low tide the waves lap the wet sand in delicate lacy swirls, wetting my shoes. The scent of seaweed lying in the sun evokes my childhood in a coastal town. Snails cling tightly to wrinkles in the rocks until the incoming tide gives them cover from the hungry gull. The seagulls cry as they rise in the strong breeze blowing onto land or from land out to sea.

I heard a songbird on a powerline singing an intricate and hopeful song, out of place, far from some orchard or woodland. I imagine that he left it behind in order to live at the edge of the wild. I wish I could, too.

The vast mirror of the sea reflects the vaulted sky above. But the color is neither water nor sky – some blend of both. I’ve seen it jade green, opal, azurite, pure quartz-white in the breaking waves, midnight-blue flashing with diamond sparkles. I’ve seen an ocean of fluid mercury when the sky reflects the dull light of the sun below the horizon. The endless variety fascinates me. It is the light at the sea I love. At the ocean’s edge eternity cracks and leaks the glory of heaven.

The sea, filling the shallows with the swiftly incoming tide, rises high in rearing waves, white spray trailing like the mane of unicorns endlessly running to shore. High tide pulls on the cobbles at the seawall with a peculiar tuddle-duddle, tumbling and tugging asunder what man has built to protect the houses by the sea. The high tide is powerful, no longer delicate in its reach. No beach walker challenges the authority of high tide at the seawall. The ocean advances; we retreat. As the tide withdraws we emerge and claim territory.

Walkers pass, eyes on the sand pretending to look for shells but asking to be alone. Each stands for long moments at the water’s edge and takes in the peace of its breathing, the still horizon, the gemstone hues. The sea moves endlessly in faceted planes that swell and fall. She reflects light and we reflect upon her.

My multifaceted life reflects the light that falls on me, my soul sometimes lapping in quiet humility or rising in power, singing or crying, sparkling or dull, moving under the governance of my Creator.

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A Big Ol’ Texas Palm Sunday

Children’s message for April 2, 2023

Imagine the State of Texas gets so big and powerful that it conquers Vermont and sets up an occupation. Texans flock up to pretty little Vermont and build big houses and hire Vermonters to be their servants. There’d be BBQ trucks in every village, only hot salsa on the store shelves, and no more sugar shacks because the only thing that sells is maple-flavored high fructose corn syrup for their flapjacks. Vermonters would be as angry as a yellow jacket’s nest under a noisy lawnmower.

That’s what it was like for the Jews at the time of the story we tell on Palm Sunday. Palestine had been conquered by the mighty Roman nation 90 years before. The Jews really wanted the Romans to go home and take their army with them! Some of them thought that maybe God sent Jesus to make Israel great again.

Jesus and his disciples came up the road to Jerusalem for the annual celebration of the Passover. Jewish families packed the city from all over the region. Some of them had seen or heard about the miracles of Jesus. He healed the blind and the lame, and rumor had it he even brought a girl back from the dead. He would be the one to overturn Roman rule, for sure!

Now, here’s the thing. Jesus came into town riding on a young donkey. Not on a big horse, not in armor, not with an army. It was a strange way for a king to present himself but people remembered the prophecy:

“Your king comes, riding on a young donkey.”

They knew the nation was saved spectacularly many times by the weak: remember how Gideon’s puny army of 300 scared away the powerful Midianite army? So the people thought, “Here is God’s answer at last! He’s the king of Judah!”

The crowd he encountered on the ride up to the Temple treated him like a king. They covered the road in palm leaves to keep the dust from rising and making him dirty. And they were shouting out the words of prophecy:

“Hosanna!” –which means ‘Paise God, who saves us!’– “Hosanna to the son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

But the problem with all of this is that the people got it wrong. They thought he would be Israel’s king. But the Lord Jesus came to be King of all kings and Lord over all masters.

He is the “King of kings and Lord of lords”. [Cue song with that clap in the second line.]

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