The Woman She Was

Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self Portrait With Her Daughter.

She was a woman caught in the cultural contradictions of her time. Born in December 1913, less than a year before the start of what became known as the First World War, she was only eight years old when it ended, too young for it to have mattered much to her. She grew up in unusually happy times as her father achieved success as a building contractor in a big city. As a young teenager, she received an allowance of $1 a week, the equivalent of $15 in 2021 value.

She was only seventeen when the Great Depression began to hit her family. She graduated high school and went on to college on a plan that permitted her to begin working early as a schoolteacher. Her family needed the income.

Soon she met and fell in love with a young man who was soon to be ordained as a minister—an honorable profession, though not a lucrative one. She was slightly horrified to find that his parents still lived on a farm. On her first visit, she couldn’t bring herself to use the outhouse and nearly burst her bladder on the trip back home. She married him anyway. In 1940, it was what young women did. Working as a teacher was only something you did until you married. Until you had a man to look after you.

But… in college, this woman had adored her art history courses, and through all the changes in her life, she held onto the art prints and teaching instructions she accumulated in those classes. She also loved poetry and memorized many lovely verses, although her extreme near-sightedness discouraged her from reading for pleasure.

As the Second World War loomed, her husband tried to volunteer as a chaplain, but was refused because of his poor vision. (In his case, it was a genetic condition that could not be corrected with lenses.) They struggled through together, birthing a daughter a few weeks after D-Day in 1944. A second daughter came along in 1948, three years after the war’s end.

In the small towns where her husband served as pastor, this woman found her teaching credentials in high demand and, as soon as her own two daughters were old enough for school, she went back to work. She always projected an apologetic attitude about working outside the home. She felt that she ought to have preferred focusing exclusively on home and husband and family. But she had a secret: She loved teaching. She couldn’t claim it as a career, because women of her era weren’t supposed to have careers. Just husbands and homes and families.

It’s difficult for a woman to be a good mother when she’s made to feel guilty for wanting more. And she can’t help but be slightly resentful about that. She also can’t help feeling like life has cheated her when she’s raised to have a taste for class and little luxuries and ends up trying to figure out what to do with the sack of onions her dear husband accepted as payment for a wedding ceremony. She was fortunate that the man she married was devoted and adoring, making her feel like a beautiful princess, even though he couldn’t afford the lifestyle.

I know you did your best, Mother. I wish we could have talked about it.

“Motherhood” by Picasso.
Pieter de Hooch, A woman with a child in a basement room,
ca 1656-1660.

Silver for Song of All Songs!

It was such a delightful surprise this week to receive the email informing me that my latest book—Song of All Songs—had won an award! There are some exciting perquisites that Self-Publishing Review offers with this award—including reviews and an interview—and I’ll be posting about those soon enough. For now, I’m just reveling in a sense of accomplishment that’s been rather illusory over the strange year we’ve just been through. I’m energized and eager to move ahead with finishing book two of the EarthCycles Trilogy (Book of All Time) and launching it via some kind of in-person (okay, probably hybrid) event.

What Matters

When I look at the news–the spread of COVID-19, the national and global distribution of vaccine, the violence perpetrated against black and brown bodies, the turmoil at our southern border–I can’t help but return time and time again to Dr. Farmer’s enduring truth.

And no, it isn’t just a matter of saying “all lives matter.” We have to own the fact that our world is currently built on the unsustainable premise that some lives matter less. That is what we have to face up to and work to correct.

That’s all I have for today. I’ll let these children’s faces speak the rest of what needs to be said. Please listen with your heart.

Celebrating Shadow of the Hare

Easter Sunday 2021 turns out to be the publication anniversary of Shadow of the Hare, the second book in my Recall Chronicles series. I’m celebrating by making the book FREE for a limited period. (Click here.)

The series is set in a world where (almost) nobody gets old anymore, and personal memories are conveniently managed by a bizarre collaboration of the pharmaceutical monopoly and the social media giants. But there’s a movement dedicated to bringing down these corporations, a movement known as Recall.

Book one begins with Jenda Swain’s chance encounter with an old woman in a sketchy side-street café, an event that sets Jenda off on a tangled adventure of self-discovery and unanticipated social activism.

The old woman was Malia Poole (the exception to that “nobody gets old” thing) and book two—Shadow of the Hare—is Malia’s story.

Unlike Jenda, Malia is a lifelong dissident, an author and bibliophile in a world where books no longer matter and barely exist. Fearful for her own life, Malia escapes to a sufficiency community called Walden 27, somewhere near Marfa, Texas. But Malia can’t escape herself, and after fifty years of self-exile, she returns to Dallas to pursue the questions that still torment her: What happened during that teenage year that’s totally missing from her memories? Is Lio still alive? What is it that Montagne doesn’t want to tell her? Malia’s quest eventually takes her to India (in the company of Jenda’s daughter-in-law), where the pandemic and the collapse of the world-net catch up with her, and where she finally comes face-to-face with answering the only question that really matters.

Yes, you can read this book without having read book one—but if you HAVE read book one, you’ll enjoy it even more, since many of the characters are the same.

For FIVE DAYS ONLY the Kindle version is FREE! Download it now and celebrate Malia’s pigheaded passion for life and books!

The Burning House

I woke up a couple of days ago dreaming of a burning house. I was inside the house, but I wasn’t trying to get out. I wasn’t even particularly disturbed. I had closed the door to my room, trying to ignore the growing conflagration in the rest of the structure, apparently worried only about the collection of books on my shelves.

My first waking thought was: “My house is burning down with me in it.”

And I knew the dream wasn’t really about a house. It was about me, my aging body, and the fact that there truly is no way to escape. It’s burning down with me in it, and I just ignore it. I close the door and try not to think about it.

The dream may also be about the state of our world. Now that there’s no Donald Trump shenanigans to fixate on and now that COVID-19 is becoming something that is no longer an immediate threat to my life (Yay, vaccine!), I’m seeing more clearly the generally disastrous state of things—the racism and the misogyny and the poverty and the precarious climate and the probability of further pandemics and the belligerent ignorance and all the myriad manifestations of inequality and injustice that cluster on our borders and fester in our cities and towns. Our house is burning down with us in it. And we close the doors and try to pretend it isn’t happening. When some of us shout “fire,” others just look around inside their own rooms and shrug, ignoring the rising heat and all the closed doors.

What to do?

As for my aging body, I intend to pay more attention to exercise and other forms of self-care.

As for the world, I intend to emerge from my COVID isolation and keep saying what I see and what I know and writing stories about it. I may even occasionally shout, “Fire!”

A Little Holiday Gift!

It’s nearly Christmas and, because of the pandemic, they’re urging us to stay home. This is when you need a good book to keep you company! So I’m offering you an eBook for free!

Meet Jenda Swain: She’s 111 years old, but–thanks to the miracle drug Chulel–she looks and feels 22.

Meet Luis-Martín Zenobia: Smart, sexy Luis tells Jenda that she’s not who she thinks she is.

Now Jenda has doubts about those corporate-sponsored spa days with memory “restoration.” Join Jenda as she travels from Dallas, Texas, to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and eventually to a small town in Costa Rica, searching for the woman she used to be. Who will she decide to become once she knows?

Breakthrough/ Brokenness

For all of us who feel as if a four-year log jam has been broken, releasing the waters of American democracy to flow free once again, there are also those who are experiencing their world closing in on them, as its edges collapse and a sense of betrayal gnaws at their hearts. I find myself wanting to reach out to those people, to tell them that it’s not us, but rather the rigid boundaries they’ve set up around themselves that are the true source of their misery—boundaries of gender roles and racialism and religious absolutism. Over the past four or more years during which they’ve learned to deny anything written by professional journalists or attested to by career civil servants, to believe only what one man on Twitter tells them to believe, their world has shrunk smaller and smaller and now…well, what happens next for them?

The deepest misery of my own life has come in moments of betrayal, when a friend accused me of something that only told me how little they knew my true character or when I finally had to acknowledge that a minister I had admired had indeed done something unthinkable. But each time I have rebuilt my life from the brokenness. And this is what I want to tell my Republican friends: Take a minute. Experience the truth of brokenness. Grieve. And then pick yourselves up, look around and begin to believe that those you have demonized and hated stand ready to help you put the world back together again, to build it back into a world we can all live in together. We will never agree on everything, but can’t we at least stop shouting at one another and begin to listen?

Exercise Your Right To Vote!

Can you see the McCarthy bumper sticker in the background? I couldn’t vote, but this “art” project was my manifesto.

On election day 1968, I had recently turned 20—too young to vote at the time. The voting age was not lowered to 18 until 1971. My vote in 1968 would have gone to Hubert Humphrey, although my preference had been the anti-war candidate, Eugene McCarthy. I remember my sadness as I watched election returns rolling in on the TV in the common room of my sorority house at Southern Methodist University. Just in case you’ve forgotten—Richard Nixon won in 1968.

I was assistant editor of the SMU student newspaper that year and, with my press credentials, I had attended a Nixon “speech” (read “rally”) inside our campus coliseum at which the chair of our Board of Regents had controversially served not just as host, but head cheerleader. Faculty members wearing buttons favoring the Democratic candidate were barred entry. We published an irate editorial about the matter. We had also editorialized on the need to lower the voting age to 18, arguing that if we were old enough to be drafted to fight a war in Vietnam, we ought to be allowed to vote.

By 1972 I was 24 and a duly registered voter. I backed the losing candidate, George McGovern. In 1976, when the Democrat Jimmy Carter actually won over Gerald Ford, my vote fell into the losing column again as I voted for Independent Eugene McCarthy. The next three elections went Republican, so I lost again. Long story short? Out of a total of twelve opportunities during my voting life, I’ve only voted for the winner of a presidential election four times—twice each for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

I’m hoping against hope to be in the winning column again this year as I cast my vote for Joe Biden. He wasn’t my first choice as candidate, but he is a good man and he will serve us well.

We ALL need to get out and vote this year, whether the “getting out” is depositing a ballot in a mailbox or showing up in person at a polling place on November 3.

Have you checked to verify your voter registration? Have you filled out the appropriate paperwork to vote by mail if you’re entitled to do that in your state? If you’re voting in person, do you know how to find your polling place? Do you know what ID materials (if any) you’ll need to carry with you? Do you know all the candidates and issues?

DO NOT be misled by memes you see on Facebook or Twitter—voting regulations vary by state and you need to make sure you know what the rules are where you live. Only rely on websites that provide official information for YOUR state, YOUR county, YOUR precinct!

Please vote! Please vote wisely and responsibly.

Win or lose, make your vote count!

Verso

What can one girl do? A lot. Your own thing. Listen, World! People on the way up. A certain kind of girl. Anything can happen. A warm person is a happy person. Should you? Why wait? What the hell are we doing here? A dangerous enthusiasm. It works. (…and more)

Books and Stories

A persistent trope among readers and writers on social media is the debate between those who prefer digital reading devices and those who prefer “real” books. In the last few years, devotees of audio books have also waded into the fray. It amuses me how partisans of each type seem convinced that their preferred format really is the best as they seek to convert or disparage the rest.

The question came up in my novel, Shadow of the Hare. The main character, Malia, is a dissident in the Recall movement and adamant in her devotion to the physically printed word. Her preference emerged in childhood:

“I spent hours not only reading but arranging and rearranging my books on the shelves in my bedroom, finding sensual pleas­ure in the feel and smell and weight of them, the hard squaredness of their corners, the colors and images on their covers, the textures of their papers. The occasional, inevitable paper cut was a blood bond.”

She and other partisans of Recall became fearful of how digital media could be too easily revised and manipulated to suit the politics of the moment. In her world, printed books had become a resource hoarded by dissidents.

They may be onto something there.

Nevertheless, I understand that digital books are much more convenient for travelers and may also have some appeal to those advocating for the trees. You don’t have to cut down any trees to produce and access books on Kindle or Apple. People of a certain age also point out the convenience of being able to create their own LARGE PRINT VERSION of whatever book they like.

My latest book, Song of All Songs, features a main character who can’t read. She belongs to a future version of humanity, people who process the world in such a way that strings of figures printed on pages resist translation into anything meaningful. (They have other remarkable capabilities that far outweigh this seeming disability.) There are people in our own time and place who share this characteristic to some extent, of course. Books read aloud definitely appeal to such individuals. Audio books also appeal to people who want to read on the fly, on the run, on the commute, or while they’re doing other things like cooking dinner or cleaning the house.

All three formats have their place. The question of what constitutes a “real” book disappears when we focus on the stories themselves. Real stories can be written down and printed on paper. They can be composed digitally and accessed through cyberspace. They can be told aloud and listened to. Stories can also be acted out in plays and movies. The stories are what matter. However you choose to produce them and consume them is up to you. Just keep enjoying the stories!

 

NOTE: Song of All Songs is currently available as either a paperback or digital book. The process of producing the audio version begins next week!

What They’re Saying

“When anthropologist Donna Dechen Birdwell turns her keen sense of how societies evolved in the past toward imagining a post-apocalyptic future, the result is a thoughtful, nuanced, intelligent thriller.”   — Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of The Oppenheimer Alternative

Song of All Songs is a beautifully written and richly realized vision of the future, informed by a deep understanding of humanity.” — Christopher Brown, Campbell and World Fantasy Award-nominated author of Tropic of Kansas and Failed State

“Song of All Songs is a lovely book. It is sad and hopeful both, and I thought about it long after I read the last page.” –Patrice Sarath, author of The Sisters Mederos and The Unexpected Miss Bennet

Please join me virtually for the official book launch and conversation with Patrice Sarath, 7 p.m., August 28, via Malvern Books and Zoom! You may pre-order a paperback from Malvern Books and an eBook from Amazon

What is the book about?

Long after the apocalypse, Earth has repeopled itself. Twice.

Despised by her mother’s people and demeaned by her absent father’s legacy, Meridia has one friend—Damon, an eccentric photologist. When Damon shows Meridia a stone he discovered in an old photo bag purchased from a vagrant peddler, she is transfixed. There’s a woman, she says, a dancing woman. And a song. Can a rock hold a song? Can a song contain worlds? Oblivious of mounting political turmoil, the two set out to find the old peddler, to find out what he knows about the stone, the woman, and the song. But marauding zealots attack and take Damon captive, leaving Meridia alone. Desolate. Terrified. Yet determined to carry on, to pursue the stone’s extraordinary song, even as it lures her into a journey that will transform her world.