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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

"Wild Becomes Us," Chapter Two


By Clai E. Lasher-Sommers

A. "Soul Dancing"

I rise up and I jump
dance, no shoes on my feet,
music rolls down the mountains.

I know this.

I know the sound, old men
singing blue grass. A husky
soprano woman follows their lead.

The music of this mountain
will soon be lost.
I sing alive memories.

I do not walk up the steep
dirt road,
to hear them.

I would miss these sounds.

This time would be gone.
listen closely.
Old voices and old stories.
One harmony slides between middle
high lead, and low undertones.

This is an epigraph to my joy:

It is just like god to let me sit on this land,
in this chair, in this valley,
with birds singing
no one home, just me.

There are children and adults within this story although sometimes it is difficult to know which is which. There is an intertwining of body and voices. There will be no tricksters or shape-shifters. Clai and Gordon have things to say about a time and place in their lives. Each person was disrupted by violence and by silence. One has found a voice again. The voice is the narrator’s and she hopes to transcend language. It is going to take all her courage to transcend language to bring you the reader forward and back into the wildness of place.

A Beginning, setting the scene:

The house set back from the lake road only by twenty feet. Our landlord inhabited the front part of the house. He was a single older man who would enter our part of the house at will. I always wondered if my mother slept with him, and that is why he put up with us. When I think back to some of the things that happened in that house, I can’t believe that he did not hear things that would be cause for some kind of alarm.

Scar One:

The bottom of our glass door was broken and in splinters. My mother broke it and waited too long to get it fixed. One Sunday morning, while she read the paper on the chaise lawn chair, I fell going into the house. I tripped on the first concrete step. Putting my hand up to hold myself, my hand just hit jagged glass. A very jagged edge sliced my third finger wide open. The scar is still on my hand, irregular and still visible, and still it is a numb area of skin.

I do have some happy memories of living there. It was a beginning. It was summer, and perhaps it was 1965. I must have been eight years old. I was in charge of watching my brother Gordon for some of that summer. He was nearly seven. We lived across the street from a golf course, although when I look at it now I can barely believe people play golf on it. There was a small inn at the top of the golf course where people vacationed. I remember swimming every day and being badly sunburned day after day. Next to our house and kitty corner from the edge of our grassy lot was the best place to hang out, eat French fries, and drink soda. It was a summer restaurant named Bud and Dolly’s. The restaurant sat on the water, with boats in the back tied up to a dock. The small dirt road next to the restaurant would take you to the beach.

Gordon and I spent day after day in that place. Dolly laughed a lot, had blond curled hair, and always wore some kind of 1950s-style apron. Bud cooked the food. He was a bit overweight and slapped a white cooking towel over his right shoulder all the time. His front apron was always greasy and he wore pants that had tiny black and white checks and sturdy shoes. He was as much fun as Dolly – swatting his hand towel at us and making us laugh. There was always music blaring from a stand-up jukebox and smoke from cigarettes rising up from ashtrays. People talked and there might have been beer for the adults. I only remember sitting there watching Bud and Dolly and eating a hamburg, having a coke, and then trudging down to the lake. The lake was shallow for a long way out and you could play as well as swim. Bud and Dolly’s opening each year signaled that summer had officially began.

Scar Two:

Leaving Bud and Dolly’s, Gordon and I walk to the water. The day is hot, and I have my every summer sunburn. I dive into the water and float on my back. I look for Gordon and he is skipping stones, and building a damn in the sand. Soon I notice there are lots of boys gathered a little further out. I hear an insult, and my memory sees my brother getting picked on and me getting out of the water. I stand tall, angry and yelling. A rock hits the right side of my forehead and blood spurts out of my face and begins dripping. On the right hand side of my forehead I have a scar from one of the boys throwing a rock at me. There is still a bump there. Isn’t that weird after 45 years?

Scar Three:

I wonder what was going on with my mother. I guess she felt as terrified as I did on some level. She had to leave us sometimes with no sitter. Sometimes we would go to work with her, and then I guess sometimes we couldn’t.

I am barely eight years old and my brother Gordon is six. One day I am in our house and I hear my brother crying and screaming. I run out the side door and into the road. Blood is gushing down his leg and he is holding his fishing pole and box and limping, going slowly, shuffling his feet trying to get home. I take Gordon immediately to the next-door neighbor, who is a large woman. She answers her door as I scream for help. She is visibly upset. She takes us into the bathroom and washes Gordon’s knee and legs and puts bandages on him. She calls my mother who is at work. I remember talking to my mother on the phone, but I cannot remember if she came home.

Before she sent us out back into the world, the neighbor gave us each a sandwich. The tears stopped for a while as I took Gordon home to sit on the couch.

Gordon started to heal, but his leg got very infected and he developed boils. We had to go to the doctor; twice his leg was infected. The office was across from the park in Brattleboro. The floors were hard and stark, and the doctor wore a white coat. The nurse put Gordon on the table, and my mother kept sniffling. Gordon is being held down and a doctor is now leaning against the table with a little knife. The infected boil on the inside of his knee is being lanced. I run to him, he is so little and crying, the lancing stopped and the doctor bandaged him and we were on our way home.

Scar Four:

Some Friday nights my mother would take Gordon and me to the Howard Johnson’s at the round about circle in Brattleboro, Vermont. My brother always sat there, his little body in a chair, his legs dangling, moving up and down. I think he always got a hot dog and French fries, and I cannot remember eating. Sitting in my chair I was small, and yet I was the protector; I watched over things carefully. Grownups were drinking heavily, my mother was still in her work clothes, dress, stockings, and shoes, her camel hair coat on her chair. Gordon and I at some point fell asleep. Late into the night, we are taken outside in the cold air, placed into the car. My mother drove a Chevy corvair.

The next thing I remember, lights are flashing; blood is on the camel hair coat my mother wears, and police cars are all around us. Standing there next to my brother and me are a woman and a man – complete strangers -- who are taking us to to their home. Tension keeps rising, as these people want Gordon and I to leave the scene. My mother is sitting on the ground, with her legs stretched out and blood on her face and she is saying, holding on to my hand, “you are my children, remember you are my children?”

I am detached from her; I am terrified. Gordon has his hand in mine and we are being led away. Perhaps the couple were people my mother knew from work. I do not know. I do not remember their faces except for this details. A small round face for the woman and her husband in a suit. They took us to their home and Gordon and I drank hot chocolate and we were put to bed. Gordon’s eyes would search out mine and I would search out his, and we would hold hands. We wanted to stay in the comfort of this house but we were ushered out the next day and returned to my mother.

Each time we went to Howard Johnson’s I would dread it. After a long time, we leave the restaurant and direct ourselves toward my back. We would find the car, and I would open the back door and help Gordon into the back seat. I would sit in the front scared witless, as I knew something bad would happen. I would have to stay completely alert. There was a different routine since the accident. My mother would drive us across the bridge into New Hampshire, up route 9, and unto the lake road.

Scar Five:

MEMORY: I am yelling: "Straight, straight, you are going into the ditch, mom, mom get out of the ditch."

Our lives were in some balancing act.

I remember driving at different times. I reach far back and see myself driving for a short stretch of road, unsure how I reached the pedals. She would mumble, I would follow some sort of directions about maneuvering the car. How does a little girl in second grade drive a Chevy Corvair one mile? I had to protect Gordon. I could barely see over the steering wheel but it was always so late and no one was not the road but us. I would get us home, get Gordon up if he was asleep, and get him into bed.

Scar Six:

This memory is clear; the why of what happened is not clear. My bedroom was to the right of the stairway. I am in my bed, and it is daytime. My mother has tied my hands to the bottom of the bedposts and my legs to the edges of the bed.
I had an antique rope bed. It had been my grandmother’s and I cherished it. It held me in my sleep.

Surreal: I remember laying there on the bed, my mother drunk beside it. I am tied up and her hands were on my body, and she was attacking my body with her teeth. I remember she was saying things in between biting me. I remember this: I was not all the way there in body and spirit. It is just like I was watching a movie. My mother started at my arms and bit me all the way down the arms with hard bite. Then she started on my legs.

I cringe even now, it hurt so much. She sank her teeth into my skinny legs. She hit the tops of my lower legs. Her teeth met my bone.

Someone must have heard me. I do not remember who it was. Small man, round face, dark eyes. He got my mother away from me and untied me. My legs hurt. A woman as small as he was appeared next to the man. My legs hurt. A woman appeared next to the man. Next memory: I am in my kitchen while the man looked around and saw a bottle of sherry. The man asked me if that is what she had been drinking, and I nodded yes.

I am not going to tell the story slant. There is internal scarring and it is time for a controlled burn.

"Breaking Language"

We need a controlled burn here.
Clear out the valley.
Clear out the underbrush.
Invasive virus.

This is no fairy tale,
I lay out the memory
In an earlier time,

With a nightingale
And a soft wind.

The smoke curls into Spring,
And now we may cry.

The controlled burn has taken
Baby wood ducks and hidden them,
Tree frogs and concealed them.

Given refuge
To are honest memories.

It is all hybrid, in an out, here and there,
And brings the burn
To smoking ashes.

Writer Clai E. Lasher-Sommers, a native of New Hampshire, is writing a memoir about growing up. At age eleven, her father shot her in the back, and she spent a year at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, recovering from her wounds. "Wild Like Us" is a multi-genre piece taken from her memoir.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Chapter Eight, CASTENATA: Renata's Diary, Dr. Astorga Swears By Mercury to Cure Antonie


Renata’s Diary
July 25, 1883

Dr. Astorga swears by mercury. The silvery liquid has helped more of his patients in the late stages of syphilis than any other cure. Or so he claims. For medical reference, he relies, oddly enough, almost exclusively on the writings of two 15th century Spanish physicians. “Is there nothing more...modern?”

I posed that question to Dr. Astorga in the first moments after Señora and I arrived at his elegant Nob Hill office, struggling to hold Antonie upright. All three of us wore the same yellow crust, road dust fixed into our skin, our clothes, and even, our teeth.
I asked my question politely. Or at least, I thought I did. But considering the physician’s reaction, clearly he heard my query as a direct assault on all of his knowledge and competency.

“So you seem to know a thing or two about syphilis, then?” Immediately, I reddened. His lips thinned and then froze in a sneer.

“Oh no, sir, I do not,” I mumbled, dropping my eyes to the polished surface of his desk. “I know nothing at all of this illness.”

Astorga sat behind his grandiose oak desk. He held two fingers together beneath his chin. In everything about him there is an affected air; even his softly drooping eyelids strike me as…dare I say…haughty, and even worse, deceitful. Forgive me Lord, but I did not like this man, not from the very start. But as I sat there, wanting to disappear from the room, I thought to myself, what choice have we got but to stay, no matter what? This doctor was certainly Antonie’s only hope.

I glanced to my cousin, who rested against Señora’s shoulder, the two of them sharing a bench off in one corner. Antonie was tightly bound in Señora’s flowered shawl, but it seemed to make no difference at all. He shook so badly that I could hear his teeth chatter.

Incredibly, Astorga took no notice of that. Instead, he proceeded to give us a long-winded story explaining how one Ruy Diaz de Isla happened to treat the syphilitic sailors of Christopher Columbus’ famed crew in 1493.

“It all began you see, with a rather grimy mistake. Columbus’ sailors, it is believed, chose very unwisely to wash their vermin-infested drawers in a pond of water at Palos, the port from which Columbus sailed, and that water later irrigated the vegetables. The cabbages, it is said, erupted in syphilitic lesions that were frightening to behold.”

Astorga paused, his lips curled in what his authoritative smile, a grin I already considered hateful to behold. I nodded, and it took all my internal force to ignore Antonie’s groaning. The doctor’s face at that moment was abhorrent to me: I still see his large square jaw, the neatly clipped mustache, and all those giant yellow teeth, one of which was capped in gold. The doctor’s black hair was perfectly coifed, but so bizarre: he wore a fairly top heavy pompadour, and on the sides, each oiled wave was pressed close to his skull.

At that moment, Antonie fell into coughing, and I jumped to his side. I thought for sure that Astorga would begin his physical examination of my cousin. But the doctor was ignoring Antonie, choosing instead to continue with his lecture on syphilis. I caught Senora’s eyes, which flared. There was that question: will you say something to him? But I knew I didn’t dare challenge the physician with a question once again.

Leaning back in his grand arm chair, fashioned of rich burgundy leather, and hammered with silver studs, Astorga pointed to his wall. “That tract hanging there is the actual frontispiece taken from Ruy Diaz de Isla’s famous book, Tractado Contra el Mal Serpentino.”

I stared at the yellowing page, framed ornately, the paper decorated in slithering black serpentine figures. The lettering was impossible to read. But Astorga proceeded coolly to explain and all I could do was stare at Antonie and Señora and wring my hands together as the doctor spoke.

“The tract was written in 1539, and still has not been translated into English. Of course I was able to read it in its original Castilian,” Astorga boasted, punctuating his statement with a hatefully patrician gleam. “Without question, Diaz de Isla’s scholarly work provides us proof that the scourge originated in the American equatorial island of Hispaniola.”

I shifted in my chair and thought, Dear God, keep me from tearing at this man’s hair. Antonie had stopped shaking, but he was further collapsed into Senora, his head now resting in her lap, his legs extended well off the chair.

At that moment, Astorga rose, and so did my hopes, thinking yes, yes, he will attend to Antonie now. But instead, Astorga crossed to the other side of the office and reached for a large book on the top shelf of his bookcase. “There is of course a second and quite notable 15th century scholar, poet, philosopher and physician in this field. Francisco Lopez de Villalobos, and he was among the very first to recognize and treat the disease.”

He carried the book around to the front of his desk and sat on one corner, where his leg was only inches from me. “As a young medical student, I traveled in 1862 from Barcelona to London, to the British Museum, where I sat in the stacks and read from cover to cover one of the four remaining copies of Villalobos’ book, this very book you are looking at right now. Remarkably, Villalobos’ work is still in use three centuries later. He was the first, we believe, to introduce the use of mercury and that treatment remains our best defense in the battle against this pernicious disease.
Villalobos wrote his book shortly after the arrival of Columbus, and it contained a lovely poem that I have framed in ebony in the other room…”

While Astorga mused over poetry, Antonie’s breathing was becoming more labored. I shifted uneasily in my chair. Was there nothing I could do to hasten this doctor to perform the business of curing? Did he know nothing but what was between the pages of his dusty old books? In one corner of my eye, I could see Senora struggling desperately to hold onto Antonie as he thrashed to the left and the right. But to Astorga, Antonie might have been invisible.

Astorga flipped through the flimsy pages of the book.

“You know, dear Sister, that both of these fine Spanish doctors of the fifteenth century were of strong religious faith?” He paused and I shook my head slightly.

“I had no idea,” I replied.

“Yes, both doctors were most decidedly religious men,” he continued, examining his well-manicured nails. I watched his lips, and thought for a moment, is that indeed a look of lechery forming there?

“Like all good religious men,” he went on, “both of these fine doctors believed that las bubas, the Spanish name for syphilis, was a scourge delivered on men specifically because of their…” and here he paused, and his voice dropped, and his face came forward toward mine, so that I could see the very pores of his skin, “…because of their carnality, the vile nature of their sins.”
My face colored again, and I was about to reprimand him, for how dare he speak so freely with me about the connection between Antonie’s illness and sexual excess and sin?

My mouth opened, and I heard a scream, and for a fraction of a moment, I thought perhaps it might be my own.

But no. It was Señora. Antonie had rolled from her lap onto the floor. He landed with a loud thump. My cousin’s hat had fallen aside and his long hair was splayed like a dark wedding train. I jumped from my chair and was there at his side in an instant. Without any hesitation, I eyed the doctor, who was still sitting astride the desk.

“My God, will you please come here immediately, my cousin needs you, desperately,” I screamed. And then, perhaps because it had been so many days since I had slept, I seemed to lose all touch with reality. I screamed louder.

“Can’t you see that he has fallen because he is near death? Are you a doctor at all or are you some kind of a librarian? Have we come all this way for nothing, just to listen to you lecture there from that book?”

Thankfully, Señora took hold of my arm, and held me back. I sank, wilted, to the floor.

The doctor rose and his eyes widened and froze as he crossed the room in two large strides. He reached toward me and I thought for sure he would strike me, but I didn’t care. I’d already decided, I was ready for whatever transpired.

Instead, though, Astorga grabbed his black leather bag and kneeled on the floor beside Antonie, who was on his back, his face more grey and sweaty than I’d ever seen before.

“Move aside,” Astorga commanded me. So I settled beside Señora, who was kneeling there, murmuring prayers in Spanish.

The doctor laid the stethoscope on Antonie’s chest, and took my cousin’s pulse. “He is indeed quite ill,” Astorga muttered, and I had all I could do not to strike the doctor with a fist.

At his direction, the three of us -- Astorga, Señora and me -- proceeded to lift my cousin and drag him to an adjacent room, where we hoisted him onto a clean bed. “I will be ready to begin shortly,” Astorga said, and then he left the room for a moment, evidently to prepare the mercury.

And so Señora and I sat with Antonie between us, each of us cushiong his shoulders and head. Almost immediately, I noticed over my cousin’s head, a large ebony frame. And in it, a poem, evidently the one that Astorga described.

As Señora prayed, I read the poem. Curiously, it brought me tender thoughts of the convent. And my heart was squeezed as I realized anew how far I was from home:

“Hatred, strife and combat make man forget his God.
Passion clothed in filth lifts up its noisome head.
Thus is man and mother church trodden in the sod,
And honest men forget their nuptial word
And seek in darkest night the harlot’s golden bed.”



Castenata is the inner "layer" of an on-line book called Sister Mysteries, part of the Albany Times Union's Writing In Motion project, which features seven writers who are committed to completing their books by the end of the year. Castenata -- a book that author Claudia Ricci wrote in 1995 -- is a time-travel murder mystery featuring a nun, Sister Renata. In 1883 the nun was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie. Renata's version of the story is contained within her diaries, all of which can be found on the Castenata site.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Chapter Ten of SISTER MYSTERIES: The Magic of Writing Fiction, The Mysteries of Consciousness

By Claudia Ricci

My friend Dan Beauchamp emailed me the other day, offering his thoughts on the weird but amazing posts that have appeared in this blog in recent days. Dan's thoughtful observations have got me thinking about a book by one of my all-time favorite writers, John Steinbeck.

Dan is a leading national authority in the field of public health; now that he is retired from his academic/university career, he and his wife Carole have taken up residence in a beautiful old mining town in Arizona called Bisbee. It's not far from the Mexican border and when my husband and I visited Bisbee a few years back, Dan drove us to the border for some "authentic" cocina mejicana. For a while, Dan Beauchamp was the Mayor of Bisbee, Arizona.

Besides the academic books he has to his name, Dan is also a prolific writer of essays, memoir and fiction. For the last couple of years he has been keeping a blog called talesofcoppercity.com; his essays about politics and health care, as well as his fabulous writings on spirituality and religion, have appeared here on MyStoryLives. He also dabbles in fiction and recently he has written a memoir using the blog.

After my recent candle post, which is Chapter Nine of this blog-book, Sister Mysteries, Dan wrote me this email:

"Reading the candles story and your musings reminds me of one of my favorite writers, whose fiction constantly breaks out of conventional time and physical law constraints, to show the readers how different we can be if we let ourselves be led into a new reality. I'm sure you have read him and maybe you don't see yourself this way, but Sleeping in Flames is one of my favorite books of the past 10 years or so.

Here's my blog entry on Jonathan Carroll and his response to me from Vienna!"

Then he followed up the first email up with a second:

"Claudia, to put it another way, fiction is not about how the world truly works; it's about how the worlds we create believably work and how that changes us. In magical realism dogs talk to humans and we don't stop to think, "dogs don't talk!", we listen to what they say and wonder if they make sense. If the characters in your novel seem informed by the real world, your fictional world has grown larger. You need to write that in the story. Dan"

Dan's words got me thinking about one of my favorite topics: the power of words. The words we speak to each other. The words we tell ourselves. The words we write down and publish. The words we send to others.

A couple years back, I wrote a Huffington Post column on this topic and a textbook publisher later picked the column up and re-published it in a textbook about writing.

In that post I talked about the fact that words are magical. Say the words "a forest of pine trees" or "palms swaying on a sunny beach," and voila, there you have the reality the words create.

As I wrote in the Huff Po piece,

"There is immense power in words. Whether we hear them as spoken or written messages, words create new states of mind.

What kinds of things do we say to friends and family? What statements or casual comments are empowering, encouraging, supportive, postive and life-giving? What outbursts come from another space, a place of jealousy or envy or anger or resentment?"

In that same post, I encouraged people to rent the movie, "What The Bleep Do We Know?" A wild and quirky documentary, WTBDWK was released in 2004 and became one of the most successful documentaries of all times. I wrote: "It will teach you about Einstein's physics. It opens up a whole new view of that thing we call reality. Each time I watch it, I marvel at the statements made by the physicists and other scientists who are interviewed about quantum mechanics and the puzzling nature of sub-atomic particles. All of these scientists, echoing Einstein, end up saying in one way or another that nothing is fixed until the mind turns its observing consciousness on the matter. In other words, the mind has enormous power; in effect, we create reality by how we think about it. And how we speak of it. What we say "matters," literally. What we say -- I love you, I hate you, you are beautiful, you are stupid -- ends up in someone else's mind, and creates a real emotion. A situation, if you will."

So Dan, I completely agree with you. "Fiction is not about how the world truly works; it's about how the worlds we create believably work and how that changes us."

This world I am creating in Castenata -- the nun accused in 1883 of murdering her lecherous cousin -- is changing me. Dramatically.

I suppose that is the point of writing two books at once: one, Castenata, the novel. And the second, Sister Mysteries, about the way the novel is working its magic on me.

John Steinbeck did this once. He wrote East of Eden, his longest novel, a book about good and evil, and simultaneously, he wrote Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, a set of letters that Steinbeck wrote to his editor, Pascal Covici. He wrote the books literally side by side in pencil; on the left-hand pages he wrote the detailed letters to Covici; on the right-hand pages, he wrote the novel, East of Eden (which was autobiographical, about his family!)

Viking published the Journal the year after the author's death in 1968. The coolest thing about this writing project? Steinbeck actually constructed an amazing wooden box to contain the manuscript, East of Eden. He presented Pascal Covici with the box and the stack of manuscript pages inside. (I wonder who has that box today?)

Anyway, on the cover of the box, Steinbeck chiseled four Hebrew letters which spell out the word "timshel," a word that loosely translates as "thou mayest;" the word suggests that we as humans, with the consciousness we "achieved" by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden, can in every moment CHOOSE our behavior; we can choose between good and evil.

We can also CHOOSE how we speak to people, and how we focus our consciousness in each and every moment we live. This is essential in meditation. We watch our thoughts and we step back from them and let them go. We cultivate "good" or positive thoughts, and we let go of the "bad" or negative thoughts.

We can, through the power of meditation or mindfulness, become happier people. I am convinced of this more and more. Toward this end, I am teaching a class in happiness next semester at SUNY Albany. As part of the class, students will be required to take an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction workshop, a workshop developed three decades ago by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Thousands of people have taken this workshop across the U.S. and have found relief from stress, chronic pain and depression. One of those people is one of my students, Allyson Pashko, who is taking my happiness class this semester, her final semester as a psychology major at SUNY. Read the amazing letter Allyson wrote a couple of weeks ago, about how the mindfulness exercises have made her a healthier, happier person. It really is rather astonishing!

Anyway, back to Steinbeck's books. I have always preferred that second book of Steinbeck's, the Journal about East of Eden, way more than the novel itself (I don't love that novel).

To me, the journey of writing a book is always where the biggest mysteries lie.

Chapter Ten is excerpted from the blog-book Sister Mysteries, which is part of the Albany Times Union's Writing In Motion project. The project features seven writers committed to completing writing projects by the end of the year. Sister Mysteries contains within it a novel called Castenata -- a time-travel murder mystery featuring a nun, Sister Renata, who in 1883 was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie. Renata's version of the story is contained within her diaries on the Castenata site.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Excerpt from Castenata: Renata Writes Her Early History With Antonie



Renata’s Diary
April 5, 1883

In the afternoon, when I got back to the convent after shaving Antonie's face, Teresa and I escaped to the shade of the grape arbor where I let her read Antonie’s tale, "Roseblade." It made me ill to see what he had written.

When Teresa finished, those normally cheerful blue eyes of hers -- the color of a summer sky -- were muddied and solemn.

“Oh my poor Renata.” She took my hand. “He…your cousin will destroy you for sure.”

“Yes, I fear that he will. But what am I to do?”

She gazed out to the golden hillside, still holding onto my hand. And slowly she shook her head.

“I don’t know that there is anything that can possibly help. But one thing you must absolutely do.” The sky color sailed back into her eyes.

“Record everything that happens. Write it all down. Leave out nothing, not a single detail.”

I nodded. “God knows, I am writing in the diary every blessed day.”

“Yes, yes. You must continue.” Teresa stood. “And one other thing you could do. Remember I told you to write the story of how things were when the two of you were growing up?”

“Yes. I remember. And I have considered it. But how is writing such a history going to help?”

“You will see for yourself, and show others too, how the past, your past with Antonie, has shaped things. You will see how things have come to be the way they are.”

I considered her. Usually such a jolly soul, Teresa was wholly serious today.

“Yes, I suppose it can’t hurt,” I said.

“And now Renata, I’ve got to head back. Mother Yolla instructed me at lunch to attend to the henhouse today and I dare not show my face at supper without having done it, or I will pay dearly.”

“Oh yes, of course, and I’ll come, I’ll help,” I said, standing. But she stopped me.

“NO.” She held up one hand in commandment. “You my dear sister, you are going to sit down and write.”

“But it might wait, I could…”

“NO.” Another hand up. “Go fetch the diary now. Go straight to a clean page. And begin. Write about your cousin and you. In the old days, when you first came. Maybe buried in your words you will see, if there were clues, already, back then.”

So I do. I take my diary and a blanket up the golden hillside and decide which live oak I will sit under. And then I close my eyes and try to remember everything. Soon I am writing down all my early memories of my cousin.

This excerpt is taken from Castenata, an on-line novel that is part of the Albany Times Union's Writing In Motion project. The project features seven writers committed to completing writing projects by the end of the year. Castenata is a time-travel murder mystery featuring a nun, Sister Renata, who in 1883 was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie. Renata's version of the story is contained within her diaries on the Castenata site. A companion book, called Sister Mysteries, tells the story of how Castenata came to be, and the mysterious phenomena tied up with the nun story.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Chapter Nine: The channels that fiction opens; the candle that won't stop burning

As I am writing this post, I am sitting in front of my meditation table watching a candle burn. I set it burning about 6:15 or 6:30 a.m. when I sat down to meditate. After my normal 15-20-minute meditation, I decided to stay a bit longer at the table. I decided I would meditate until this particular candle went out. It was just about to go out, or so I thought.

Well, so I sat at the meditation table until my right foot started to go numb.

The candle is sitting below one of my tiny Virgin Mary statues, one that glows in the dark. That may be significant. All I know is that the wick is barely visible, but the flame is there. I keep staring at the candle and I really CANNOT believe it is still burning.

Finally, after about an hour and a half sitting here, I just had to get up.

I decided I would bring my laptop here and write. I would sit right in front of the star-shaped blue candle holder, the candle, and the tiny statue of the Virgin Mary.

OK, so maybe you have been reading the last few posts, including the very bizarre and mysterious story about how this blog turned into a kind of Ouija board on Wednesday, November 24, 2010. Maybe, like me, you are asking, "what is going on? how could anything like this possibly be true?"

In search of an answer, I emailed a couple of writer friends, including my good friend Lori Cullen, the Albany Times Union blogger who launched the Writing in Motion project last month (seven of us are committed to finishing our books by year's end). That "assignment" jumpstarted me finishing a book called Sister Mysteries, and this other book, Castenata, which are connected, and which I've been trying to write since 1995. Lori's Writing in Motion project has sent me into a writing frenzy, and it's also opened some doors into phenomena that I cannot explain, phenomena like a psychic ex-nun in New Jersey who can channel information from dead people (stay tuned, because I have a whole chapter coming on that soon!)

Anyway, the same day that the blog went bananas and turned into a Ouija board, communicating messages from what appeared to be one of my characters (was it Renata? Was it the dastardly Antonie, the cousin she supposedly murdered?) I called Lori. I was still trembling. I asked Lori to read everything. I told her I just needed to talk to somebody "sane." I told her that I needed her to help me think through what was going on.

As always, Lori was reassuring. She said that she too would probably be freaked out about what was happening, if it were happening to her; but she said, just stay focused, and just keep writing.

The next day, I emailed my friend Joshua Powell, who is writing an amazing memoir about his father, a man who was convicted of murder in 1948 and who led police on a notorious cross-country police chase before he was apprehended in San Francisco.

Anyway, I asked Josh what he thought, and this is what he wrote back:

"Hmmm, who is to say if the computer is a postal to people known - it certainly is to places unknown. It [the computer] has eased the way we communicate, so who is to say that this communication ease is not shared by other aspects of the energy world. If all of our lives are links to the past, which they are, there could be a convergence of enough people and thoughts to allow that being to recollect into an energy force with specific direction - who knows? - or it could be a glitch in a computer - who knows? And remember that computers are taking on lives of their own and maybe your writings are part of a computer somewhere learning to be one of your characters and is writing to you based on what it knows of the character and wants to know you because you are the creator of the character.

Who knows."

Who knows.

This morning, I recalled a couple of strange incidents that occurred when I was writing my first book, Dreaming Maples. Nothing over the top, and yet, they both stopped me in my tracks. In the first incident, I had a big party when I had finished the first draft of the novel, which was part of the dissertation for my doctorate in 1996. I invited lots of family and friends to celebrate. I remember going to the door and there was my wonderful Aunt Joyce. I hugged her and then noticed another woman standing beside her. She was an older woman with lovely silver hair.

"Oh, Claudia, this is Audrey," my aunt said, and I almost fell off the porch. The main character of Dreaming Maples was an older woman with silver hair, a character I named Audrey X. It was Audrey X who first appeared to me in February of 1991. I was sitting in my friend Michele's living room, with my son, Noah, on my lap (he was not yet two.) We were drinking tea, and suddenly I stared out the window into the grey maple forest and there in my mind was this wonderful older woman, with a blanket of silver hair. There she was holding two maple sugaring pails, one in either hand. I had NO idea what this vision was, nor did I realize that several months later, Audrey would lead me through my first novel.

Well, so, there at my party to celebrate was Audrey.

"She is my sister," said my Aunt Joyce (who is married to my Uncle Dan.) "I didn't think you'd mind if I brought her along, as she's visiting from West Virginia."

I was thrilled to have "Audrey" at my party, since it was AUDREY X who had started the ball rolling in the first place.

But that wasn't the end of it. I found out a few minutes later that Audrey has a daughter named...Candace. In my novel the character Candace is another central character, she is Audrey X's granddaughter.

Weird. But hey, coincidence, right?

Maybe.

The second weird weird occurrence had to do with how I published Dreaming Maples. When I finished the book in December 1996, I immediately started looking for a literary agent. I had interviewed Joyce Carol Oates for an article I wrote for the University at Albany alumni magazine (Ms. Oates appeared at the New York State Writer's Institute) and she had been very very friendly to me, and she had liked the article I wrote. I dropped Ms. Oates a note and asked if she had any suggestions and she told me to contact her agent in New York. Long story short, her agent loved my book and represented me. She was convinced the book would sell and that I would land a six-figure contract.

That didn't happen. After numerous attempts, and tons of rejections, we gave up. (I did get a Pushcart Prize nomination from Ballantine Books, however.) A second literary agent heard about the book in 1997 and she too was certain she could sell the book. She had me work with a professional editor, shorten and condense the novel, and in the process, change the ending.

Agent number two gave up after the book was rejected.

To say I was dejected and frustrated is an understatement. I was devastated. Authors weren't self-publishing much in those days, but several people encouraged me to think about it.

Still, I was hesitant. It's not the same, I kept saying to my husband.

Well, so, my frustration was growing. One day, driving to work, I decided to do what I often do when I am confused or scared. I decided to pray. I asked the Virgin Mary to let me know, one way or the other, whether I should self-publish Dreaming Maples -- a book set in a maple tree forest, with lots of symbolism connecting the trees with feminine power.

Within two seconds, I looked up from the highway and there was a gigantic billboard sporting a gigantic red maple leaf (an ad for Molson, a Canadian beer.)

I almost went off the road.

A few months later, I launched my own tiny publishing company, Star Root Press. And the miracles continued, as I published Dreaming Maples (I ended up publishing a children's book, On that Day, about the 911 tragedy; the story of how that book "came" to me is a miracle in itself, one that my rabbi said clearly had God's hand in it.)

So I am still sitting here with that candle that is STILL burning. It's now been two hours and I don't see the wick disappearing. I am not sure what is going on here, but the flame is clear, and there is nothing but a puddle of wax at the bottom of the candle holder.

I will keep sitting here until the flame disappears.

I am not saying this is a miracle.

I am just sitting here in front of a candle that should have gone out an hour or two ago.

I know because I meditate in front of about seven candles every day, and I have been meditating this way for at least 16 or 17 years. So I know how long candles burn.

I also know that meditation opens up channels too, just like fiction writing does.

I know this because of something that happened to me, with my friend Lori Cullen, the Times Union blogger.

I have known Lori since the summer of 1998, when she took a class with me, and my friend Peg. The class was called "Writing a Woman's Life," and it was in the English department at SUNY Albany, where Peg and I both got our doctorates.

The moment Lori Cullen walked into that classroom, I knew she was a very special woman. She had a kind of glow about her. A power that was unmistakable (which was why I fashioned a character after her in my on-line novel, Switch!!, a novel I have suspended writing for the time being.)

Anyway, Lori showed up, and she was the star of the class. She had two baby twins, and another child about three years old, but still, she was a brilliant student.

Lori took every class I taught at SUNY, and we grew to be close friends.

And about seven years ago, when she was my TA one semester, a very, very strange thing happened.

I was meditating in the morning. Out of nowhere, I had a vision of Lori's daughter, Allegra, who is now a sophomore in high school (she goes to Milton Academy, like her mother did. All of Lori's kids are off-the-charts brilliant.)

That morning, I had this vision of Allegra, and I thought, what a sweet child she is. I smiled thinking about her, or at least I think I did. After I got up from meditation, I went to my hallway closet. I keep lots of odds and ends gifts there, objects that people have given me or my kids that we never did use.

I pulled down this purse that my generous mother-in-law had bought for one of my daughters on one of her many trips abroad.

"I'm going to bring this purse to Lori, to give to Allegra," I said. I wrapped the gift up and brought it to work and handed it to Lori in my office.

"Oh that is sooo nice of you," Lori said. "Allegra will really appreciate getting this."

"I'm sorry that I don't have anything for Andrew (her twin,)" I said. "No boys' gifts in my closet."

Lori gave me a strange look. "Why would you give Andrew a gift?" she asked.

I gave her a strange look. "Well, I wouldn't want to play favorites, Lor. I mean, I would normally give both your kids gifts, but I just had this very strong image of Allegra in my head this morning."

LORI STARED AT ME. "This is very weird," she said, slowly shaking her head.

"Why?"

"Because I thought you knew what happened to Allegra last night. I thought that's why you gave me the gift for her."

I blinked. "What happened to Allegra last night? I have no idea," I said.

"She almost died in the ER. She accidentally ate a peanut at a school party, and she is violently allergic and we had to rush her to the hospital and she almost died."

I sat there. Bewildered. Completely confused.

Kind of like I am now. Because I am staring at this candle that has been burning for two hours now, and I'm not seeing it go down any. The metal wick holder is there, and there must be a wick although I can't say that I see one, and yet, here it is, burning away, no wick. Below is the photo I am taking of it right now.

How does one explain things that cannot be explained? How did I explain my my medical intuitive reading., for example? How do I explain that a woman who didn't know me at all, a woman who was 3,000 miles away, could tell me precisely where that spot of cancer I had was? How do I explain that?

I can't. I don't. I wasn't ever able to explain that miracle.

And I can't explain anything else. I am not sure what is going on with this new book, Sister Mysteries, but maybe Joshua is right. Maybe some books act like antennas opening us up to powers, energy forces, divine fields of consciousness, that are just out there in the universe.

I don't know. All I know is that I am recording what I am seeing, from now on.

******

It is now almost 10:45 a.m. I am still staring at the burning candle, which has been burning for four and a half hours. I am starving. I have to pee. The flame is smaller, but I still see it.

I started meditating shortly after six a.m. Normally I meditate for 15 or 20 minutes. But today, being a day off from work, I decided I would meditate longer. I decided that I would meditate until the blue star candle went out. I expected that to happen within a couple of minutes. I mean there was no wick left. There was no candle left.

The small round metal wick holder has sunk into the puddle of wax. The wick is not visible. I am not sure what I am staring at. I think I am staring at a burning candle, sitting beneath a tiny statue of the Virgin Mary. A candle that has a flame but no wick. A candle that been burning this way for a long time.

A candle that is some kind of.... miracle?

UPDATE:THE CANDLE FINALLY WENT OUT AT 11:13 a.m., nearly FIVE hours later. It happened while I was on the phone with my friend Lori, telling her I was exhausted waiting for the candle to go out. "I have to pee, I am hungry and my legs are incredibly sore," I told her.

Partly to entertain me, Lori told me how, when she was 14 years old, she and her little brother, who was 9, BOTH saw a ghost. It happened the same day that they went to the funeral for their "Uncle" Leon -- he wasn't technically their uncle, but they had both been very close to him. It was evening and they were alone in the living room, watching TV together. Lori says that she and her brother both saw a "black shadow running up the wall along the stairs." To this day, every single time Lori and her brother speak to each other, they discuss what they saw that night. I asked Lori to write the story, and she said she would think about it.

P.S. Writing this blog post today, and updating it, I was reminded of the days when I worked as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, when I had to phone in stories as they were happening. I would have to stand at a pay phone (no cell phones in those days) and dictate the story, moment by moment. My reportorial skills are coming in handy, now, writing this book.



Sister Mysteries, an on-line book, is part of the Albany Times Union's Writing In Motion project. The project features seven writers committed to completing writing projects by the end of the year. Sister Mysteries contains within it a novel called Castenata -- a time-travel murder mystery featuring a nun, Sister Renata, who in 1883 was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie. Renata's version of the story is contained within her diaries on the Castenata site.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Y? am I writing? To sort out the truth from the fiction!

By Claudia Ricci

So after that wild post yesterday, where I said that this blog, normally known as My Story Lives, had for a short period in the morning turned into a Ouija board where I was communicating with my characters, Antonie and Renata, from somewhere out in the great beyond, there were lots of visitors to the site.

My sister Holly, who has followed the Castenata and Sister Mysteries stories closely over the years, finally got to reading the post just before midnight.

She wrote me this email:

"Is this part of the story???

Seriously??? How do I know this isn't part of the novel????

Can't wait to read more...!!!!!!!

XOXO

That's when it hit me, it's a bit confusing to sort out what parts of this writing project are "fiction" and "novel" and what parts of the project are "reportorial" and "true."

Given my past history blurring the two, and given my penchant for lying, creating fake letters to Random House, for example, I am not surprised that Sister Holly would write what she did.

I am not exactly what we in the world of journalism would call "a reliable source." Nor am I exactly what we in the fiction-writing business call a reliable narrator. Readers may still be wary; My credibility is still up in the air. Or on the line.

Or whatever.

Well, so, I wrote back this short response to Holly: "This is absolutely all the truth. this is what happened. I am not making anything up anymore." In the last week, I have made a clear switch. I have also suspended, at least for now, writing my other on-line novel, called SWITCH!!

I am declaring once and for all that Sister Mysteries is absolutely a true story. Castenata -- the story of the nun, Sister Renata, who is accused of murdering her cousin Antonie -- remains fiction (at least as far as I know, neither character is "real," no matter how "real" the stories feel, no matter how convincing those lies that Antonie tells about Renata seducing him feel. THEY ARE FAKES!)

To summarize, because I realize that it's a little complicated, this book-writing-on-blogs: Castenata is "pure" fiction. Made up out of my imagination.

But the other (related) book, the one that I am calling Sister Mysteries, that one is totally true. Just to show you how serious I am about telling the truth in that book, I will in the next few minutes delete the fake Random House letter. The book will then be completely free of any lies or intentional misrepresentations. Of course you realize that all writing is a kind of "fake," even when you make it your business to stick to the truth. Words distort reality, that's just how it is.

Anyway, despite the inherent and inevitable difficulties of casting reality in the slippery medium of words, I will do my absolute best to be 100 percent honest in Sister Mysteries. That book might be described as the story of how Castenata came to be, and how it has changed me and is continuing to change me, from fiction writer to reporter, from skeptic to believer. I am committed more than ever to report the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so

Help me

God, maybe you will even end up believing what I say? And reading? I hope so.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Chapter Seven: What Happened on this blog yesterday morning is SCARY and VERY unnerving

By Claudia Ricci

I'm still not sure what happened today. I am still trying to piece together how my blog went bananas and started behaving like a Ouija board.

After it was all over, I told my husband -- who witnessed everything -- that it was, without a doubt, definitely THE STRANGEST THING that I have ever ever experienced in almost five years of blogging.

And yes, part of me is convinced that Antonie -- or maybe it was Renata -- was somehow trying to communicate with me from...maybe from the great beyond? I know how crazy this sounds, I do. But you have to experience what happened the way I did, and then maybe you will see.

OK, so here are the facts: I posted Chapter Six of "Castenata" at about 8 or 9 in the morning, here on MyStoryLives. I posted separately on the 'nun" novel that I am calling Castenata -- Castenata tells the story of a nun, Sister Renata, who way back in 1883 was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie.

Renata was sentenced to hang and as far as we know, she did hang. I haven't written the hanging chapter, not yet, but I've written almost everything else. I wrote the bulk of this "novel" ( Castenata) way back in 1995, working in part at two writer's colonies in California. Oddly enough, each of these writer's colonies, Montalvo, and Djerassi, are situated only miles from where Sister Renata's convent was located.

OK, back to today's blog.

After I posted, I clicked as I always do onto "View Blog" to look at MyStoryLives. I noticed something very odd. The title of the blog, My Story Lives, had disappeared. Instead of the title, there was this weird-looking string of gobbledygook letters; some of the symbols weren't even from the English alphabet. They looked like something you'd see in, say, Serbia or Albania or God knows where. And at the end of the string was the at symbol, @ -- suggesting it was perhaps some kind of address?

Øç,ÇÞJJO òùÁÉÓÚÝádfkljeéó^^Â@...

"Wow, that's odd," I said to myself, and clicked into my blogger "Settings" to restore the title.

That's when the second weird thing happened.

The blog title, My Story Lives, was EXACTLY the way it was supposed to be in my Settings. But how could this be, I wondered? How could the title be correct inside the blog settings but end up LOOKING LIKE SUCH A WEIRD STRING OF LETTERS on the blog itself?

I called my husband Richard in to see. He was working in his study, writing his own book on health care reform legislation. I showed him the discrepancy in the blog and he agreed that it was very strange.

"I've been blogging every single day since 2006 and nothing like this has ever ever happened," I said.

"Yeah, well, it's probably some hacker, honey," he mumbled, returning to his own writing project in his study.

Sure enough, when I tried to sign into my gmail account (the one that controls this blog), my password wouldn't work.

So I changed the password, and went back into the MyStoryLives site, and fixed the title.

Everything was alright. My blog title, My Story Lives, was back.

Or so I thought. I got busy doing something with one of the other blogs that make up this new writing project, Sister Mysteries, I have going (part of the Albany Times Union's Writing in Motion project). Seven writers are committed to finishing their books by year's end, and this deadline has sent me into a tizzy of writing.

OK, so there I was, busy writing. After I finished, I went back to MyStoryLives just to have a peek, to make sure everything was in order.

My title was GONE AGAIN. And there again was that same string of foreign-looking symbols, the same gobbledygook as before:

æ,EOIUdoejewr;kJØ ç,ÇÞJJO òùÁÉÓÚÝádfkljeéó^^Â@...

"What the ....what the ????" And why the @ at the end?

I was thoroughly mystified. Had a hacker broken into my account a second time? How could he/she have gotten ahold of my new password so quickly?

That's when things started to go haywire. I tried repeatedly to restore the blog's title, but I couldn't. I typed MY STORY LIVES over and over again, and all I got on the outside of the blog was this same gobbledygook, over and over again, always with the @ sign at the end:

æ,EOIUdoejewr;kJØ ç,ÇÞJJO òùÁÉÓÚÝádfkljeéó^^Â@...

I called to my husband. "Rich, you gotta come here and see this, it's so, so weird," I said. He did; he peered over my shoulder.

"I can't fix my blog title, it's just gone," I said. "No matter what I type on the blog, it comes up this silly gobbledygook."

"Wow," he said. "Somebody must be screwing around big-time with your blog."

"I'll say. This has never ever happened before."

"So why don't you try this: try typing in a different title, just to see if it works," he said.

So I did. With him standing there, and without thinking too much about what I was writing, I typed these words into the title box, "Are You Sister Renata Writing From Beyond the Grave?"

I hit the save button and went to view the blogsite, and where the gobbledygook had been, in the same place that the blog title usually sat, was just this:

ii?

two ii's? what the hell? Was somebody RESPONDING to me? I was starting to get angry. Or maybe it was nervous.

Then I typed, "WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?" Maybe I could appeal to the hacker to cut it out and leave my blog alone!

What came up on the screen was:

y?

I blinked. I blinked. y? What was this? WHO was this? What the hell was going on here?

I sat there staring at the screen. Suddenly I felt like I was sitting in front of a Ouija board communicating with some spirit. I had a Ouija board as a kid but I never did figure out how to use it. And I have never ever thought of myself having any psychic powers. Nor do I really want to have any.

But now, sitting there, I was faced with this question: was someone out there ANSWERING ME?

I went back into blogger and typed another question. "Who are you, please show me a sign."

I hit save and went to the blog and this is what came up:

C

I sat there trembling. C? What the hell was C supposed to be? I mean, it's the first letter of my name so maybe somebody was trying to be funny.

I called my husband in, and showed him. He shook his head. "I don't have any idea what is going on, honey," he said. "I would if I were you just change my password again. Start over."

I sat there. My heart was racing. My hands and arms felt that funny trembly feeling.

I decided to try writing one more time.

Slowly, I typed in one more question: "Are you Antonie, Writing From Beyond the Grave?"

I hit SAVE. I went to "View Blog," and lo and behold, THERE IN GIANT LETTERS, I read the words that I had just typed.

The title of the blog had become "Are you Antonie, Writing From Beyond the Grave?"

"Rich," I screamed, "You have to see what just happened."

He came in. He studied the blog title. "Well that's awfully weird," he said.

"What the hell is going on here?" I whispered. "This is so so strange. Is somebody screwing with my head or what?"

I decided to shut the blog down entirely, and reboot the computer.

And when I turned the computer on again, I was unable to sign into my gmail account at all. I had to file a report on-line and wait an hour or so until Google sent me a link to another email account, thereby enabling me to change the password.

OK. So now you've heard my strange blog story. Maybe you are thinking, this woman is just nuts. This woman needs a life that isn't connected to writing or blogs or the internet. Or stories about dead nuns. Or stories about people who consult psychics who are ex-nuns.

Maybe you are right. Maybe it's all just crazy.

But one thing is certain: after five years of blogging thousands and thousands and thousands of times, in a very calm and rational and straightforward way, I have never once had a day like this. EVER. EVER.

I have no idea if it's a hacker, or if, something ELSE is going on.

And so, now, I am shutting down my computer for the rest of the day. I am going to go brine my turkey for Thanksgiving Dinner. I have a dozen people coming here in less than 24 hours and I need to focus.

I have a whole lot of cooking to do.

And I have a whole lot of thinking to do too.

“Chapter Seven” is taken from Sister Mysteries, an on-line book that is part of the Albany Times Union's Writing In Motion project. The project features seven writers committed to completing writing projects by the end of the year. Sister Mysteries contains within it a novel called Castenata -- a time-travel murder mystery featuring a nun, Sister Renata, who in 1883 was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie. Renata's version of the story is contained within her diaries on the Castenata site.

IS ANTONIE TALKING TO ME ON THIS BLOG FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE?

By Claudia Ricci

No, I haven't lost my mind. I have a witness. I have my husband to confirm what happened on this blog, right before my eyes.

I have my husband, who is a very calm and rational sort of man, to vouch for the fact that something, or some body, or some consciousness, took over this blog for at least a while. And began sending messages to me that were crazy.

I am still sorting it all out. I am still shaking.

All I know is that shortly after I posted "Chapter Six: "Boiling Over," Antonie Writes About Renata From Camp," something incredibly strange and weird happened.

All I know is that I have to write about it, here. And I will, just as soon as I can get my head straight, and my hands to stop shaking and my heart to stop slamming inside my chest.

Before I write the next installment of this very very weird book that I am calling Sister Mysteries, I have to go out for a run.

Because I've begun to think that this book is taking over, in ways that I cannot possibly explain.

Stay tuned.

Sister Mysteries is an on-line book that is part of the Albany Times Union's Writing In Motion project, which features seven writers who are committed to completing their books by the end of the year. Castenata -- a book that author Claudia Ricci wrote in 1995 -- is a time travel murder mystery featuring a nun, Sister Renata. In 1883 the nun was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie. Renata's version of the story is contained within her diaries, the first of which can be found on this site.

CHAPTER SIX of CASTENATA: "Boiling Over," Antonie Writes About Renata at Camp


It was their first night at camp en route to San Francisco. They had been traveling for the better part of one day, all the way from the convent, and shortly before dusk, when the sun's rays had fallen behind the horizon, and the sky was a milky blue, Señora Ramos pulled the wagon up to a stream, where they proceeded to water the horses.

After a simple dinner of corn meal and beans, Renata withdrew from the fire.  She hugged the blue shawl closer around her shoulders, tucking her slender white fingertips protectively into the folds of her elbows on either side. The shawl was satin, and hardly offered protection against the chilly night. A brisk wind lifted the lip of her veil and scooped at the hem of her dress. A tall line of trees made a ragged black silhouette against the dark sky, and tiny stars dotted the sky like diamonds.

Renata's chin dropped to her chest, and she rocked, slightly, with some impatience. The toe of her black shoe was barely visible, but it kept time in the loose gravel where she stood, tapping out the rhythm of some vital internal clock. She avoided Antonie, even managed to ignore the odd collection of noises –wheezing, coughs, congestion, and steady chattering – that rose from him as he lay on blankets on the ground. She had taken her share of the dinner basket – a cold thigh of chicken, a hunk of sourdough bread, a sweet potato baked in the stones of the campfire – and she had eaten the meal on a warm rock, apart from the others.

She faced the steep ridge of the Santa Cruz mountains that they would climb through the following morning, and she watched the last of the sun slip down the western sky, and she wondered how the traveling would go, with Antonie so ill.

Once the sun dropped into a dark pool behind the mountains, though, she put aside her concerns and walked back to the fire. There were more night noises now, and there was no telling what creatures – bobcats, jaguar, bear — roamed the gathering shadows beyond the campfire.

Señora hummed a low wordless melody, huddled over her open-toed leather sandals, her white cotton skirt spread in the powdery dust. Renata listened closely to the tune, but could not identify it nor could she say even whether she had heard it before. She wished then that when Antonie had come to take her from the convent kitchen in the morning, that she had been able to bring her guitar, although under the harried circumstances of her departure, there was no time even to pack a simple change of clothes. She stared at him, and hateful thoughts flooded her.

As if he were reading her mind at that moment, Antonie looked up from his makeshift bed, which Señora had prepared as soon as they had made camp. Antonie had instructed Señora to place his head close toward the fire, so if he woke during the night he might have sufficient light to write "his pages." Señora defied him, however, saying in Spanish that she dare not place his blanket right next to the flames, lest stray sparks set fire to the bedroll or to "el pelo," the long black hair that rippled in waves over Antonie's shoulders.

“I would like it so much if you would sing to me,” he said now to Renata. He lifted one hand in her direction, and spoke slowly but with deliberation. Renata saw that he was shivering, and that his face was wet beneath the brim of his hat. The jumping flames of the fire
licked golden stripes in both his eyes.

“You know I came on this trip only because you forced me to come. I have no intention of singing to you,” Renata responded, lowering her eyes so that the flames could find no reflection there. She was going to add the word ‘ever’ but just then, the coffeepot toppled over and sent boiling liquid into the fire.

Señora rose abruptly, yelling out “Dios mío!” Grabbing at the fiery pot with the bottom of her cotton skirt, Señora managed to lift her dress high enough to show off her brown wiggling thighs. She missed the pot, which hit the ground, discharging sizzling liquid all around. Hot black coffee shot out at Renata’s feet and Antonie’s head. Simultaneously, Antonie turned and the nun jumped away, so that the coffee all but missed her dark skirt and her blue shawl
and his black hair. Señora crossed the distance to where Renata stood gazing at the coffee pot as it roasted in the flames.

Señora began a furious babble of Spanish.

“No, no, Señora, please, don’t worry, I am fine,” Renata said, calmly touching the woman’s thick graying hair. Señora looked up, and shook her head, her eyes large and round. There was contained in those eyes a pleading look that Renata had never seen before.

“You...we...God, I believe, He is telling us that we must be more kind to him,” Señora whispered, at which Renata recoiled, mouth open. She tossed one loose end of the blue shawl across her chest and hurried out of the light of the campfire. For the rest of the evening, until the sky went pitch dark, and the fire settled into glowing red and white coals, and the stars were dull sparks glittering above her head, Renata sat on the same large rock where she had eaten her dinner.

She listened to the coyotes call, and she prayed that she would see no wolves or bobcats. And then she whispered a second prayer asking God that whatever He had in mind for her as they traveled to San Francisco the next day to see the doctor, that all would be well.

“Chapter Six” is taken from Castenata, an on-line book project that is part of the Albany Times Union's Writing In Motion project. The project features seven writers committed to completing writing projects by the end of the year. Castenata is a time-travel murder mystery featuring a nun, Sister Renata, who in 1883 was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie. Renata's version of the story is contained within her diaries on the Castenata site. A companion book, called Sister Mysteries tells the story of how Castenata came to be, and the mysterious phenomena tied up with the nun story.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Aunt Jean Was Judgemental?


By Joshua Powell

When I was in my twenties I learned that my father had moved out of the little house on the little street when I was three. This was temporary and it is not his absence that I remember as much as a nagging feeling that something was remiss about our lives during this period.

I have a whispery memory of him and my sister Lucy when he was leaving. We were in his room sitting on the bed. He was packing, this is all I remember. After all, I was only three.

My mother's brother - my Uncle Jim - showed me a picture of my mother and us kids during this time when my father was gone. My mother had a glazed look to her eyes as if she was a million miles away. But I honestly don't remember all that much about my mother's and father's relationship at this time, but what I do remember was the secret life that we, us three kids, shared in the absence of the grown-ups.

We would get up early in the mornings. There were no gates in the little house like parents use today, so the place was ours to explore if we got up before our mother. Which we often did.

On one of our unsupervised treasure hunts the three of us, Lucy 5, Leah who was 2 and I, three, found a cash of pills in a tall cabinet high up in the kitchen. It should have been out of our reach, but we were like monkeys and we scampered up the counters and found our way to the medicine stash. And of course these were days before they had childproof bottles. We opened the little amber vials and passed them around gobbling up the pills with childlike abandon.

No matter how old I get I will never forget the feeling of having my stomach pumped; the three of us kids on hospital beds like washed out kittens, and emesis basins filled with charcoal, vomit and bile.

I don't remember what the outcome of this was exactly, but we all survived so I would say that it was fairly good.

A person would think that this incident would have been the impetus for more supervision, but I don't think it was, because it was around then that I remember more of my extended family coming around to check on us on the Q tee.

I remember my father's aunt, Jean and her husband Bill driving by in their big Chrysler Newport one day. We kids waved and she waved back, her face a mask of smiles trying to cover what was abject horror. It was as if she never saw three little children playing on a roof before.



Mom always said Aunt Jean was judgmental.


Joshua Powell is a writer who lives in the Albany, New York area. He is completing a memoir about his father, who in 1948 was convicted of murdering a Boston man; subsequently, the elder Powell fled and a cross-country police search ensued. Joshua Powell's blogsite captures the events; read the installment where Powell writes about the murder trial.

Monday, November 22, 2010

THAT RANDOM HOUSE LETTER was a total fake!

By Claudia Ricci

OK, confession time.

I lied.

The letter to Random House that I posted here yesterday, it was a fake. There is no contract. There is no Alison Crandall, well at least, there is no Dr. Alison Crandall who works as an acquisitions editor for Random House. There IS a Random House, but the way things are going in the book publishing business, with books "dying" and all publishers in peril, who knows how long the giant will last?

I want to apologize to the readers of the Sister Mysteries blog. I want to say I'm sorry for lying. I made a promise in Chapter One of Sister Mysteries that I wouldn't lie anymore. "Believe me," I wrote, "because I'm not lying this time." In that chapter I wrote about the fact that I had unsuccessfully tried to write Sister Mysteries as fiction, for a long, long LONG 16 years. It all fell apart. So now I am committed to telling the true story.

So why did I turn around three chapters later and start lying?

I could say that I was just making a point -- showing you how easy it is to fool people with words.

I could say that I can't help myself. That I can't help lying because I am a fiction writer, and lies come easily to me.

I could explain that as a child I lied so well that my parents could never tell what end was up.

I could say that I learned how to lie from my character Antonie, who spends countless hours in his sickbed constructing fabulous lies about his poor cousin, Sister Renata, who in turn writes the truth in her diaries. I could say that as I was posting Antonie's second tale, "Roseblade," -- a story about how Sister Renata shaves his face in a highly-charged, highly-erotic manner -- I just fell into the lying game myself and did the same thing that Antonie did. Constructed a very believable fabrication.

I could say all that, but that still doesn't excuse my lying here, in this blog. It is absolutely ESSENTIAL that I tell the truth in Sister Mysteries, not only because I promised, but because I need the reader's trust. I need the reader to know that everything else I have written so far in this book -- all that about the nun psychic talking to the dead, all that about my cancer being "diagnosed" by a medical intuitive -- all of that, I swear, is absolutely true.

But of course, how can you believe me now that I have lied to you?

I will never lie again, at least not in Sister Mysteries.

When I say that I will never lie again, I think immediately of James Frey (the guy who wrote and sold 8 million copies of A Million Little Pieces, his supposed "memoir" that was faked at least in parts.) Frey has just recently found himself swimming in a whole ocean of new hot water because of the "Fiction Factory" he has launched. Reading about his latest venture in a New York magazine story that a student at Columbia University published earlier this month, about the slippery (and many would say, sleazy) guy that Frey is, I ask myself, Holy COW, how can this guy do what he does and still sleep at night?

Still, Frey brings up important issues, ones we cannot ignore. Speaking in a graduate writing program at Columbia earlier in the year, Frey told students that "there's no difference" between fact and fiction. He also said that truth "doesn’t exist, at least not in the journalistic sense." He's got a point, and it's a point that I was trying to make writing the Random House letter. In that article in New York magazine, author Suzanne Mozes says that Frey's goal in launching his fiction factory is to throw the literary world into upheaval.  Says Mozes: "he’s in it to 'change the game' and 'move the paradigm'."

He's probably also in it to make a lot of money, but hey, who wouldn't want to make a lot of money? I know I would, but I have also made my peace with the idea of giving my work -- or at least this book, Sister Mysteries -- away for free, right here, on a set of blogs. (Not so, though, for my second novel, Seeing Red, which is coming out next week; that book I'm selling the old-fashioned way, in paper, and for real money. Stay tuned!)

To the extent that Frey is telling the truth about wanting to "change the game" and "move the paradigm," I'm on board. That's exactly what I'm trying to do here, in my cluster of blogs known collectively as Sister Mysteries. I am trying to show readers that it is impossible to know exactly what is true and what isn't; Antonie's stories, contained in the "inner story" I call Castenata, paint Sister Renata as a flamenco-dancing seductress in a red satin dress.

Renata's diaries deny every story he tells.

What fiction writers realize perhaps more clearly than anyone else is that truth is all relative; that  "narrative" can have oodles of emotional truth even though the facts might be made up. Writers of journalism traditionally have aspired to "objective" truth, or at least they used to.  But Frey says, and I agree totally, that there is no objective journalistic truth.

Today, there is...chaos.

Today, there is Fox News constantly billing itself as being "fair and balanced," while meanwhile shilling 24-seven for the Republican agenda. Today there is the right-wing demagogue Glenn Beck. Today there is all kinds of crazy commentary coming at us from every direction.

Today's journalism, as my class at Georgetown demonstrated to grad students last year, is totally "UPSIDE DOWN." The Internet is just hurrying the process along: not only is the Internet helping to put newspapers out of business, and forcing drastic changes in HOW they do business, it's also having a fundamentally "game-changing" influence on how we think about news, and stories and everything else.

As blogs and internet sites and cable programming increasingly take over, we are forced to ask, what exactly is news? And, who is a journalist?  Those questions are getting more and more difficult to answer. One of the books we read at Georgetown last year was Scott Gant's We’re All Journalists Now.  While I am firmly behind the training that journalism schools offer, I am also prepared to agree with Gant's premise that anyone can be a journalist today. Of course, that doesn't mean anyone can be a good journalist, or an ethical one. That doesn't mean that today's journalists will be committed to doing lots of careful reporting and fact-checking, or that they will display integrity and a commitment to truth.

What passes for journalism today is often just so much fluff. More and more, the line between news and entertainment has gone fuzzy. Most of the young people I know --including most of my journalism students-- aren't the least bit apologetic or concerned that they get their "news" from those twin comedy giants, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Speaking of Colbert, there are still folks out there who don't really understand that he is faking his conservative views; when my husband, health care activist Richard Kirsch, appeared on his show to discuss health care legislation, several outraged friends and family members called or emailed my husband to say, "How dare Colbert act that way!" or "He was so right-wing, how could you stand it?"

My husband was astonished that these viewers didn't get it -- the fact that Colbert is putting everybody on. (Colbert by the way, according to my hubby, is a terrific guy who seems deeply committed to health care reform and other progressive causes.)

OK, back to my lying.

I apologize for the fake letter, and I make this promise: every single word that you will read henceforth on the Sister Mysteries blog will be absolutely as true as I can make it. I spent years working as a journalist so I do still remember what "facts" are. I know how to present facts in an objective manner.

And I will do that, whenever I am writing as Sister Renata.

Meanwhile, though -- and I do this in the spirit of full disclosure -- I will keep lying as I am writing Antonie's lies in Castenata.

Antonie's lies are so wonderfully convincing. They feel like the truth. And back in 1883, in a crowded courtroom, Antonie's lies actually convince a judge and jury in California to put Renata in prison, and sentence her to hanging.
(Stay tuned to see how she gets free.)

Antonie's lies, while incredible, are deadly. They are like the arms of an evil and insidious octopus, reaching out, grabbing hold of Renata, threatening to sink her. I know exactly what that octopus feels like, because for years, this book was like an octopus trying to sink me.

Not anymore though. Now that I am writing Sister Mysteries, finally I am free.

Sister Mysteries is part of the Albany Times Union's Writing In Motion project, in which several authors are committed to completing their books by the end of the year. Sister Mysteries is contained in a series of interconnected blogs, one of which, Castenata, is a story of a nun, Sister Renata, who in 1883 was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie.