Sundays with George

Civil War Field Hospital  Tennessee (Tennessee Historical Commission)

Civil War Field Hospital
Tennessee
(Tennessee Historical Commission)

On Sundays, I like to spend time with my dead grandfather. He died in 1930 and was born in 1843. He survived the Civil War and the very beginnings of the Dust Bowl in Texas. He served in the American Civil War,for the Confederacy, like all my great great great grandfathers (except for the Orthodox Jewish one who lived in Poland or Ukraine, whatever border covered his shtetl at the time).

George is special to me, because his story is a rich one and an unbelievably miraculous one. I spend my weekdays working on the rewrites of my upcoming novel, All This Time, and it is stretching and challenging me as a writer in very exciting ways, but I spend each Sunday studying the life and times of George Washington Gifford Lock. One day, George’s story will be The Great American Novel. It will be the one that people tell me “changed them,” and not because I am great, but because George was.

I can’t tell you now why George was great, because then you wouldn’t read the book, but his life was one huge beautiful contradiction. He was continuously forced to stand before the things he hated and told to engage in what he considered morally reprehensible – like war and slavery. But what is so fascinating to me about George, is that he always prayed his way out. His convictions were such that he would take a bullet to the head before firing upon a Yankee (though they were charging straight for him), and he would tirelessly work his own field without indentured servants or slaves even when he had lost the use of his right side and really could have used the help. No one would have condemned him for such an action, but he had convictions and he did not cross them for any man or any threat.

Though I am not insane and I don’t talk to the dead (except the Saints, so maybe I am a touch weird), I believe George speaks. I picture him as kind of hovering in the sky looking down at me and saying, “Do it. Write it. It’s important what you mean to say about that awful war, about what good can come of evil.”

And so on Sundays, I follow George through the Library of Congress files I have on him, the copies of old tintype photos, the stack of musty books I have on the War Between the States. And I interview modern day veterans, like my two fathers and my father-in-law, carefully approaching the subject of Post-Traumatic-Stress and how a good man integrates himself back into society after he has been forced to kill men face-to-face. I don’t, yet, know for sure that George never killed, but his service records kind of indicate that he did not, that he was shot well before he could even pull the trigger on his musket. Interesting, because he was one of the “Wild Boys of Tennessee,” but he was also a closet Quaker and ran away to a Mississippi riverboat in order to avoid service through warfare even though conscription caught up with him in the end.

I know why George’s story sticks to me, presses against my heart like heavy midnight dream, but I also know that I don’t know his whole story and that there is more there to be discovered and told. I know I talk about him a lot, dear reader, but trust me, you’ll love him as I do one day. Not everyone who goes to war is a hero, but George was, because he hated warring, and that’s something that needs to be repeated.

So, next Sunday, I am going to investigate the social temperature of Jackson County Alabama/Franklin County, Tennessee, where the borders of my family’s land (now partially Cumberland Mountain State Park) crossed and twisted through the mountainous landscape. I know he played in caves with the brother who would eventually murder their parents, and he fell in love with his sweetheart at the little country school he attended a few years until his father needed his help on the farm. I know he voted and that he sometimes helped out at the post office. I don’t know why though. And I know that there were slave riots (completely conjured up by the hill billy locals, so they could shoot people on long hot boring summer nights), and I know that at the end of the war, people starved to death and ran from their burning homes to the nearby caves in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

That’s why I spend time with George. He led the interesting life my novel brain can only dream of unfolding.

The Things They Still Carry

My Stepfather( front center, with camera in hand) in Vietnam.

My Stepfather( front center, with camera in hand) in Vietnam.

Originally posted on my Facebook page, 7/13/14 -

I spent the afternoon talking to my stepdad about Vietnam. He talked about fear and dying and watching men die and how his father’s generation taught him that he was never allowed to show the dark emotion that he felt. He talked about hating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial when it was first erected, “because it made no sense,” until he said he realized that it made perfect sense, “because Vietnam made no sense”. And I tried to simply listen and let him speak until the words caught in his throat and he just looked up at the sky and said, “Well, sh*t” and wiped quickly at his eyes with the back of his hand. After that, we talked about my mother’s father and how he was a “rounder” and then, I came home and I was assigned this story about Vietnam for my fiction class and it was called The Things They Carried, and this passage struck me deeply and made me think of my stepdad.

“…they carried it all on their backs and their shoulders – and for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry” (O’Brien).

And this made me think that we Americans demand that our soldiers, our young men and women, carry a lot and forever in the name of freedom or politics or whatever is most convincing at election time. This is not right, and it makes me angry for my fathers, that they have had so much to carry from the moment they stepped into adulthood, and they carry it still and it gets heavier, not lighter, the older they grow.

Works Cited:

Williford, Lex, Michael Martone, and Tim O’Brien. “”The Things They Carried”.” <i>The Scribner anthology of contemporary short fiction: fifty North American stories since 1970</i>. 2nd Edition ed. New York: Scibner, 2007. Print

Desert Fathers

St. Macarius the Great

St. Macarius the Great

Posted from my Facebook page on July 18, 2014 -

Growing up Roman Catholic, I always wondered about the usefulness of being a Desert Father, a hermit tucked far into the dry caves of Syria or northern Africa, living on bugs and sparse water-storing plants or drying animal carcasses, or whatever was available. I always imagined them praying and rocking grumpily in their tattered sackcloth rags and weather-beaten sandals occasionally dispensing wisdom from a revelation or a starvation induced holy vision. And it always shocks me how much their words are like a fresh spring, a burst of cooling air even to this day, no matter how many times I read them.

But still, what if they had ministered at a parish, instead of focusing solely on years of silent, solitary prayer under the stars?Might they have served a greater purpose casting out demons, absolving sins daily, blessing marriages, baptizing babies, feeding the poor with their own busy hands? Couldn’t they have reached more people, gotten more done with actual movement? But then, I turned on the news this morning and heard about Gaza and Syria, Egypt and Israel, and about innocents and terrorists dying in the same horrible manner as though no one there is important and no one is a singular soul; every child is just a blur with only a country’s name and not their own. They are Israeli Soldier, Teenager from Gaza, and Syrian Toddler Found in the Rubble. And I thought this is why there were Desert Fathers all those centuries ago, and thank God prayers are eternal and far reaching. That combustible patch of earth and sand needs more steadily praying hermits and less politicians, especially now, and maybe these old men from a thousand years ago really saw the future.

When I was a child, every night before bed, my mother would come into my room with holy water and a blessing and say, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, because if you pray for her, you pray for everyone, and if there is peace in Jerusalem there is peace in the whole world.”

My ethnically Jewish father, of course, echoed these intentions as well. I think, however, that the rise and fall of bad news from that region makes people forget the collective power of such prayers.

My Writing Process Blog Tour

Microsoft Office Clipart

Microsoft Office Clipart

Years ago, while trying to distract myself from a sudden kidney illness, I asked one of my good librarian pals to find me a book that would kill some of the pain. A few hours later, my friend showed up at my front door with The Diplomat’s Wife. It is a brilliant and fast-paced World War II era romance novel written by bestselling author, Pam Jenoff. I was so impressed with the novel, I read it twice, and I marveled at her ability to weave an eloquent and intelligent romance into a WWII novel about the Polish resistance, Nazi death camps, and the Cold War. If you’ve never read Pam Jenoff, I can truly say that you are missing something. She inspires me to write better every time I read her work. 

Today, I have the pleasure of being part of a blog tour with her (aka: she kindly allowed me to tag along). We both have books coming out this year. Her’s is The Winter Guest and mine is All This Time from Booktrope in the fall of 2014. Below, are the questions Pam passed on to me in regards to my writing process. I hope that you find them helpful, My Dear Readers, especially the ones who are also writers.

1. What am I working on?

Currently, I am doing some heavy edits of All This Time, a contemporary women’s fiction novel about a young woman named Lydia who has lost her fiance’, Thomas, to the war in Afghanistan. But before Thomas dies, he abruptly breaks off their engagement. Like all people who grieve, she finds that there is no right or wrong way, no set time or appropriate period of mourning, but her friends and family want her to move on. She finds, however, that she cannot do this until she meets Marcus, a long lost love from adolescence, who also happens to be a veteran and her fiance’s cousin. Their love kindles amid some terrible allegations and several hurdles…you’ll just have to read further to find out what happens, My Dear Readers.

I am also halfway done with the second book in that series, the Rose River Series. The title is not finalized yet. It takes place in the same region of eastern Pennsylvania, but a little more south in the Lehigh Valley. The main character, Yekaterina Federova (named after one of my great great grandmothers), a Ukrainian immigrant, is pregnant and alone in America, after her boyfriend (a dangerous revolutionary who is too busy saving Ukraine to support a wife and child) rejects her. The only connection (legal and otherwise) that she has in this country is an aging aunt who dies one month after her arrival. She has nowhere to go, except, a bankrupt horse farm in Pennsylvania. The owner used to take in immigrants to help with the working of the farm, and in return, she would sponsor them and help them find legal residency. Though Katia is referred here, the old woman who runs it does not want her, because she is leery of Eastern Europeans, and Ukrainians in particular. Katia forges ahead anyway, promising hard work for room and board. She does not reveal her pregnancy. Can’t tell you everything that happens, because the characters are still working themselves out, but we know that after a labyrinth of conflicts and trials, Katia will find her way to lasting love and security.

I recently had a piece of flash fiction, Seven Pines, published in Toe Good Poetry, and I have a short story, Genevieve, being reviewed at another literary magazine and my WWII novella, A Berlin Story, is still waiting to be tackled by editor, and the like. In short, I am always working.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Well, for starters, my work carries my voice, which no other books on Earth do. I weave a lot of cultural and naturalistic elements into my contemporary and historical women’s fiction. I consider myself an armchair anthropologist (I take pilgrimages to The James A. Michener Art Museum about an hour away from house), so I fall in love with characters based on where they are from, what they believe, who they worship, etc…I love to incorporate their cultures and their experiences into the story. I, also, tend to interweave a lot of natural elements into the fiction, and even non-fiction. There are always trees, thunderstorms, crunchy autumn leaves, sweet-smelling spring rains, sun burnt summer afternoons, etc…, in my work. I take a copy of Leaves of Grass with me whenever I leave home and I read Walden every spring. I grew up out West. We native Westerners are deeply connected to our natural surroundings.

3. WHY DO I WRITE WHAT I DO?

I love to watch history unfold. Even if the historical moment is taking place right now, when I see history happening, I want to talk to talk about it. In each of my novels, novellas, and short stories, there is some connection to a past event of worldwide, or American, significance. In A Berlin Story, Annalise Bergen is surviving the Fall of Berlin, 1945. In Budapest, Anna Laszlo is looking for the pre-Holocaust home of her great grandmother. In All This Time, Lydia Hawthorne is dealing with the effects of PTSD on the veterans she loves, in the second Rose River book, Katia Federova is left homeless and pregnant because of the present political instability in Ukraine, in Genevieve, a nursing student discovers that the old man she is caring for might be a Nazi war criminal. I write to work out the crazy headlines on CNN and the unbelievable chapter headings of history books. I always think that if I am shocked or horrified or moved by a headline, others must be as well. I write to workout some of those feelings, and I think readers read to do the same.

4. HOW DOES MY WRITING PROCESS WORK?

I tend to do as Natalie Goldberg suggests and I “write down the bones”, creating a skeleton of a story before I flesh it all out. I kind of tell myself the story, first, and then I go back and edit, letting the characters show me the story. Skeleton or frame first, then the flesh and the dressing. I do a lot of research during this part of the writing as well. I interviewed Holocaust survivors and people who endured the Fall of Berlin, when creating the various novellas for The Embers of War novella series (which includes A Berlin Story). I read survivor testimony as well. I have spent a lot of time talking to Ukrainian and Russian friends about the current political crisis effecting their two beautiful countries. I read a lot of books and ask a lot of questions and try to connect with my characters in these particular situations during this part of the writing process. I sharpen and refine the story after I write down the frame.

 

5. AND THE OTHER PART OF THIS QUESTION, HOW DOES MY WRITING PROCESS NOT WORK?

I don’t share my pre-published manuscript with anyone, except, my editor and publisher and a couple very close friends who are not writers, but who are excellent readers. I don’t participate in critique groups. I don’t find them helpful at all for me. For some people, they are. I just find them to be a chaotic waste of my time. I do find writers groups helpful. They are encouraging and one can talk about new writing strategies and work out plot problems, etc…but this is more of a”you can do it!” sort of group, where everyone chats and then writes. I have found such groups to be extremely helpful over the years.

Writing at random times does not help. I write at the same time every day. Lack of discipline will kill a great story before it begins. It will never leave the idea stage if I do not sit down at the same time every day to write it out.

I don’t talk about my WIP with a lot of people. Talking it out seems to leave less room for writing it down.

PASSING THE TORCH, OR WHO’S NEXT:

I am privileged to pass this blog tour along to Steven Jay Griffel, an experienced author and journalist who has written several outstanding novels (one of which is a favorite of my spring reads so far). His wit and humor are timeless, and from the very moment I picked up Forty Years Later (Stay Thirsty Publishing, 2009), I fell in love with his writing style. Once you begin one of his books, you will want to read the others immediately. I promise. If you are also a writer, you will want to learn about his writing process as well.

From the Stay Thirsty Publishing Website:

Steven Jay Griffel has a distinguished career as an Editor, Publisher, and Writer in the educational publishing field. His work has contributed to many important textbooks and learning tools used in middle schools and high schools throughout the United States during the last two decades. He received a B.A. in Creative Writing from Queens College and an M.A. in American Literature from Fordham University.

“I share some flaws with the main character of my novel FORTY YEARS LATER. We are both capable of keeping a regret alive by continually picking at its scab. The lesson we both learned is worth sharing, especially with my fellow Baby Boomers: Live it! No regrets.”
– Steven Jay Griffel

In July 2012, Steven Jay Griffel’s second novel, THE DEADLINE, was published by Stay Thirsty Press.

In June 2013, Steven Jay Griffel’s third novel, GRAND VIEW in his acclaimed David Grossman Series, was published by Stay Thirsty Press.

 

Dear Grandpa, a love story.

Confederate Soldiers from Tennessee, Wikipedia

Confederate Soldiers from Tennessee, Wikipedia

In the midst of working some hard, but thoroughly enjoyable edits (no, really) for my upcoming novel, All This Time, being published by Booktrope in the fall of 2014, I am still receiving acceptances and acknowledgements from literary journals I have submitted to in the recent past. All This Time is contemporary women’s fiction, but if y’all remember, I enjoy writing the past as much as the present. Thus, A Berlin Story and even Budapest, where Anna Laszlo “leaves the New World for the Old”. All This Time is a series of three novels that take place now, but rest assured, My Dear Readers, there are historical works and even creepy stuff coming.

Yesterday, a piece of flash fiction that I wrote about my Great Great Great Grandfather, George W. Gifford’s, experience in the American Civil War, at the Battle of Seven Pines, was presented in Toe Good Poetry. It’s a vibrant and shocking piece, raw in imagery and fear and acceptance, all those things war creates for the dying. You can read the piece here, and do check out some of the other poets and writers featured there. It is a tremendous journal. I read it every week. I find that, sometimes, I am completely distracted by it and I don’t return to my work after having read it. I just ponder and ponder some more; it’s what good poetry does to a brain.

I wanted to write something about how this piece, Seven Pines, sort of just fell out of my heart, a love poem to my ancestor who survived a horrendous American tragedy, head wound and all, to survive the death of two wives, father several children, witness his parents violent murder by his younger brother, and head west to Missouri, to literally carve out the town in which he would die as an old man on the edge of the First World War.

His family owned much of Cumberland Mountain in Tennessee, a beautiful stretch of God’s country (that I would head off and retire to in a half second if I could), but he gave it up to the state after his parents died. There was simply no ties left there for him, and my writer’s brain imagines that he was deeply saddened by the lifetime of memories created on that Appalachian plateau and cut short by an unspeakable and evil passion.

Gen. Robert E. Lee personally wrote a letter of commendation for him towards the end of the war, because he served valiantly as a nurse after he was shot in the head and left for dead in the Chickahominy River. He was one of famed and feared “Wild Boys of Tennessee”, but all evidence suggests that he was born a Quaker and came from a long line of pacifists. His story is my story is your story. Expect the novel to come in time. And because his tale is beautiful and tragic and makes my heart hurt with love whenever I study it, I wrote him a letter a couple of years ago when I first discovered his story. It’s what we writers do. It was what I needed to begin researching his story.

October 10, 2012

Dear Great Grandfather Gifford,

I realize that you have been dead for 112 years now, but I have some questions to ask of you. I realize, also, that you are three times great and that your last name went from “Gifford” to “Lock” shortly after your service in the American Civil War. I know several other things about you as well.

I know that you served with Turney’s Tennessee Infantry, and that you received a severe head wound in the Battle of Seven Pines on May 1, 1862. You should know, about me, that I was not cognitively aware of your existence until earlier this year, or maybe late last year, when I renewed my Ancestry.com membership and after my great Uncle John Lock told me of your existence. Forgive me for this oversight, but I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I knew that I came from deep Southern roots, but the only connection I could personally find were some vaguely recited tales of a Texas sharpshooter named Burnett. He was, obviously,  not you, though he was also just as real and fought shoeless and starving at Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg.

I feel like all those years thinking and rethinking the details of his sketchy story, I was really searching for yours. I know some things about you now, about your silent bravery, about your exhilarating and agonizing experience. It was you who kept calling to me after the crowd had left Gettysburg, when all the tourists had skipped out of town. It was you who crept into my dreams at night and tried to tell me that you had a tale to tell, a story to be shared with the America of today. And I heard you and I looked for you, like Samuel looked for God when he called to him. Though not as holy, it is true, and you are not God and I am no prophet, but I do know something of the Civil War and I do feel your stirrings deep within my own soul. You should know that many Americans do. And the smart ones are sad for it, terrified, and regretful. The stupid ones want more of it.

I realized, only a few weeks ago, that you are actually the man in the pictured who is labeled, “AC Locke, Sr.” You have a droopy left sided face and a peculiar cock to your head. Your surgeons at General Hospital No. 9, said that you had sustained a terrible blow to your right parietal bone during battle and that you had combat fatigue, were prone to extreme bouts of deep depression, and that you were haunted by nighttime anxiety. Today, we would say that you were suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We are again at war, as we have been many times since you took yours wounds deep in the Virginia pine country. Like you, our boys have lost. There is no victory here, no matter what the wealthy politicians say. It is still a rich man’s fight and a poor man’s war.

In the picture, your left side is sort of thrown against the chair, as though half of you had been propped into the regal parlor chair in which you were posed. By the way, I am quite fond of your cowboy hat. I come from a long and winding line of cowboy hat-wearing good ole boys and even better women, most of whom you produced. And though your service during the Civil War was not as lengthy as my three times great grandfather’s from Texas was, it was a million times more violent, and it has moved me beyond words and I find it hard to let go of you.

In fact, I find myself performing ordinary household chores, and wondering if I closed my eyes a certain way, might I see you? Today, in fact, I was hanging out the clothes to dry, it was just such a fall day, when I caught sight of a clean bright sheet flapping wildly to the sway of the wind and I wondered if your flag flew in this same way above your encampment at Yorktown. Records tell me that this is where you enlisted with the Army of Northern Virginia, with your Regiment – the 1st Tennessee, Co. F.

Now, it may surprise you to learn that I am no fan of the Confederacy. I think it was a grand stupid idea to attempt a splitting of the Union and the enslavement of your fellow human beings. I do not believe that state’s rights should trump federal laws.

That being said, I realize that you are my three times great grandfather, and so I will refrain from insulting you further. I think you are a saint. A human being with a godlike heart ( I read the accounts of how you cared for your fellow soldiers while they healed from the loss of sanity and limb and you sang to them ‘Psalms and spiritual hymns of encouragement’, much like Walt Whitman did only a few miles north in Washington D.C.) And I know that the kind of tenacity you had does not come by men so easily, not in your day and not in mine. I have known many men, but not many like you.

I should mention that I am a writer, a freelance writer, if it is not already obvious that I express myself best through words. My work has appeared in literally hundreds of newspapers and magazines all over the United States. And until I realized you had existed, I thought I wanted to write about Russians. Now I know that my own winding family tree has as much triumph and drama, tragedy and miracles, as any Dostoyevsky novel. He was your contemporary, so perhaps, this is why your life carried as much parallels to The Brothers Karamazov as it does with Huckleberry Finn.

With that, I begin this journey to find you, and I sincerely hope that you will be found as much as you wish to be. If you were to read this from your lofty place in the heavens, I would ask that you look down upon my efforts and bless them with your prayers. 

I will write this book through as many of your words as I can dig up. I will utilize your pictures and historical documents and books. I will be following you from home to war and back again and then on to Missouri, where you finally settled after two wives and a bunch of children.

I kindly ask for your patience. I am an excellent investigator and a good writer, and I have a fairly good feeling in my gut, that you and I already kind of know each other. By the last page, I want you to know what legacy you have left your country, your children, and your children’s children. I want you to see that because you hung on at Seven Pines, you gave life to one who would fight Adolph Hitler less than 100 years later. And I want you, most of all, to see the beautiful great great great great grandchildren your dedication to life, in the midst of war, helped to create.

So, with this in mind, I begin a long walk with my grandfather. I will hold your hand if you will hold mine. You, the brave soldier, and me the writer with a burning set of questions on the brain. We can be each other’s better angels.

Lovingly,

Your Great Great Great Granddaughter, Tiffani Burnett-Velez

“When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry is to take over God’s business.” Flannery O’Connor

A Kitchen Conversation Between Mother and Son

Mother asks, Does she talk about God?

Son says,  Not so much anymore.

Do you talk about God?

Sometimes.

What do you say?

Things.

What things?

Son pauses, scoops his ice cream full, and studies the light overhead.

We talk about how to apply various aspects of The Ideals to our lives.

What are those? asks mother

You know. The Ideals.

There is crashing and clanging in the kitchen where Papi washes the dishes, a Spanish curse on the edge of his lips. Son walks away into the dim light of the living room and begins some school related activity.

Mother says after him, This was a poem, you know?

What?

Our conversation.

Oh. Which one?

The one about God.

How so?

You just talk like a poet and I write things down.

Tapping away to the beat of his own silent composition, he wanders off again.

Mother says, “You should talk about God.”

I do. I play music. He’s in that. He’s here. Son taps his heart. He’s here. Son taps his composition book. He’s here. Son taps his foot. He’s here. Son hums frailach in d.

So you do talk about God?

Yes, but not in the way you do, because He doesn’t talk to me.

Yes, He does.

No, He doesn’t.

Son shakes his finger back and forth.He sings and I strain to hear His melody.