The Space Available

Stuff expands to fit the space available – plus two boxes.

That’s what my cousin says.

I have lived in my condo for over 20 years. When I first looked at the place, it was empty. One of the things that sold me, in addition to the location and the large patio with space to garden, was the closet space.

Lots of closet space – large closets in each of the two bedrooms, two hall closets, a linen closet in the bathroom, and a walk-in closet off the living room.

All those closets are full now. My stuff has expanded to fit the space available, and then some.

This is why I periodically go into decluttering mode. My available space, all 860 square feet of it, would be a lot more livable if I didn’t have so much stuff.

Getting a larger place, with the cost of real estate in the Bay Area, is not an option. Besides, as I get older, I’m not sure I want to take care of a larger place. It’s all I can do to keep up with this one.

Besides, it’s just me and a bunch of cats. How much space do I need?

Well, it’s more than that. There are the books, the papers, the collections, the furniture. I’m not a hoarder. Believe me, I’ve seen hoarders and I don’t belong in that group. But I will admit to some pack rat tendencies.

I’m a writer, a paper magnet. If I ever had an idea for a novel or story and wrote it down, I have that piece of paper. Who knows, I might use that idea some day. That’s not like saving yogurt containers because I might use them again. At least I don’t think so.

There are fewer books than there used to be, but still a lot. I go through the books regularly. I’ve even shed several bookcases.

Sometimes it’s hard to part with books, but I ask myself: Will I read this again? Do I need it for research? Do I keep this for sentimental or emotional reasons? Depending on those answers, the book goes into the box that’s destined for the Friends of the Library book sale. I tell myself, I read that book, I enjoyed it, and now it’s time to pass it on to another reader.

The latest iteration of my decluttering derby involves clothing and shoes. It’s been two years since I retired. I don’t dress up to work outside my home any more. I never dressed up that much anyway, since my day jobs were on the casual side when it came to work attire. But since I retired, I can work at my computer in anything I please.

I’ve been meaning to tackle my overstuffed clothes closet for months. I finally got to it this weekend. After several hours’ work, I have three large shopping bags full of clothing, ready to be donated. Much of what is going hasn’t been worn for quite a while. Many items no longer fit my body, or my lifestyle.

So it’s time to pass that clothing on to someone else who will enjoy it.

Next up, the coat closet and the chest of drawers. At the end of my labors, my available space will be much more livable.

Religion and Politics; Oil and Water

Religion first intruded into presidential politics in a big way in 1960, when John Kennedy, a Catholic, became the Democratic candidate. He wasn’t the first Catholic to run for the office, but Al Smith, the Democratic nominee in 1928, never raised enough of a challenge to Herbert Hoover for his religion to become a major issue. In that year the US was at peace and the economy was booming. Smith lost, 444 electoral votes to 77. In 1960 JFK—young, popular, and rich—posed a greater threat to an uncharismatic Richard Nixon and faced far more media scrutiny than Smith had. My grandfather, a yellow-dog South Carolina Democrat and a Baptist deacon, told me he was going to “hold my nose and vote for Nixon.”

Today religion impinges on the presidential nomination process, especially among Republicans, in a way that causes me increasing concern because it shouldn’t be an issue at all. Religion and politics don’t mix, any more than oil and water, if you’ll pardon the cliche. Article VI, paragraph 3, of the Constitution says, “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” And, of course, the first amendment prohibits the establishment of any official religion. That should be the end of the discussion.

But we have one candidate who says he couldn’t support a Muslim as president and we have others who seem to want us to vote for them because of their religious views. We are in danger, I fear, of losing sight of one of the fundamental principles upon which this nation was founded: freedom from any form of religion imposed or supported by the government.

That freedom can be seen as one side of a coin. The other side is the freedom of all religions to practice openly. Even before the Constitution was written, that principle was enunciated in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson in 1777 but not passed by the state legislature until 1786. Jefferson considered the statute one of his three accomplishments worth mentioning on his tombstone. (Being President of the United States didn’t make the cut.)jeffersontomb The document contains some striking passages which ought to be required reading for all sides in the current debate.

Remember that Jefferson and many of his contemporaries were Deists, who had little use for Christianity or any other religion. That’s why they could say “. . . the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil and ecclesiastical . . . setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time.”

Or how about this zinger: “. . . to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty . . . .”

In the final clause the statute grants that “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.”

In sum, everyone should be free to believe what they want. But what if they believe in, and advocate, violence or aggression against others? The statute does provide that “it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order.” So, no one has the right to kill someone else in the name of their religion.

Jefferson was writing, of course, against the backdrop of state-supported religions in Europe. The founders of this country were determined to free themselves of that oppression. But, like freedom of speech, freedom of religion is a tricky proposition. To insure it for myself, I have to guarantee it for everybody, even if I don’t agree with them. That is what we’ve tried to do in this country for over two hundred years. In his autobiography Jefferson wrote that the statute was “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”

So why are we having some of the discussions we’re having today about political candidates’ religious views? Or about whether the US is “a Christian nation”? The founders intended for it to be a secular nation where all religions could be freely practiced. But they lived in an isolated world. There probably weren’t a hundred “Mohammedans” or “Hindoos” in the entire country at that time. They could not foresee a day when 30% of the population of a city like Dearborn, Michigan, would be Arab. In 1750 the Jewish population of New York City was 300; in 2012 it was over 1,500,000. In that same year the Jewish population of Jerusalem was 497,000.

I believe we’ve taken the right stance on this issue. Freedom for anyone requires freedom for everyone. Unfortunately, other countries and other religions don’t share that philosophy. Muslims can come to this country and build mosques and demand that their employers provide accommodations for their daily prayers. In most Muslim countries, however, the public expression of any religion other than Islam is strictly forbidden, under Sharia law. Muslims who convert to another religion, and the people who persuade them to convert, are guilty of apostasy and are subject to severe penalties, including death in Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and the Sudan. In Saudi Arabia you can’t even display a Valentine’s Day decoration because it’s considered a Christian holiday. Several international bodies acknowledge that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world today.

This is an insoluble problem, I’m afraid. We must remain who we are and guarantee freedom of religion to everyone, but we now live in closer and closer contact with people who look at the world quite differently. Europe is already seeing an influx of tens of thousands of non-Europeans from the war-torn Middle East. No one can accurately predict its long-term impact. I think much of our political discourse about religion is a reaction to a perceived threat that is only going to increase over the next couple of decades.

The Police Blotter

Wendy Hornsby

One day, when my husband and I were out exploring our new neighborhood, we came across an old cemetery tucked into a dense wood, and went in for look. There were graves that dated from early 1850s—during the Gold Rush—and some that were less than a year old. Among the elaborate memorials and simple stones, there was one that caught our attention, and my imagination. There was a ten-year-old handmade wooden memorial that did not mark a grave, but instead the spot where someone was shot, and died.

Intrigued by this discovery, when we got home I set about researching who did what to whom, and what the repercussions were, and are. The further I got into the details, the more interesting the story became. I had been thinking about writing a stand-alone mystery set in our new community, and now I had a poignant story that belongs to this place and its people around which to spin a set of fictional events and characters. Which leads to a bit of conundrum. We live in a small town. Many of the people who were involved in the event are still around. The question is, how much do I need to fictionalize an actual event, and how much may I keep before the locals come after me with pitchforks and torches?

I’ve talked this over with friends here, some of whom remember the event, and some who know a person or two who was caught up in it. The consensus is, write the story, and of course, I will. In fact, I’m already several chapters in. I like the this book, so far, though now and then I still have qualms because, unlike the big city we fled, in our small town, like most small towns, very little happens that isn’t widely noticed and discussed.

Generally, this is a peaceful, low-crime place. And when anything happens, everyone hears about it. Every morning when I pick up the local newspaper from the end of the driveway, I turn first to the police blotter column to see what sorts of bucolic mischief has occurred. The majority of calls seem to have something to do with alcohol, drugs, and/or disappointed love; domestic disputes abound. There are transients who set up camp in private woods and make a mess or set a fire or break into something. Bears get hit by cars or won’t leave a swimming pool. Herds of goats, random horses, cows, and llamas get loose and wander into someone’s field or stray down the road, or look neglected. Cars and trucks go over the edge and down into canyons or get wrapped around trees. But shootings? Very rare.

I have a fair idea what happened in the cemetery one night. And a vivid imagination. Qualms or not, when I put them together, I have a story too good not to tell.

Fall, Beginning Again

Lea Wait, here. And today is the first full day of Fall. Or Autumn. Or (in my part of the world, northern New England) Leaf Peeping Season.

This past summer was much warmer than usual here, and, although we tried not to complain (with visions of last winter’s record snowfall in our collective brains,) temperatures in the 80s and humidity almost to match, although considered comfortable in many parts of the country, were difficult to deal with in a world where fans, not air conditioners, are the norm for warm days in all but the newest buildings. Since my house was built in 1774, we depend on open windows for our cool air, and when nature doesn’t provide … we drink a lot of iced water.

So, fall is most welcome. The summer tourists, most of them families with children, have left. Our current visitors from away are what many here call (quietly) “the newly wed and the nearly dead.”  People for whom back-to-school only means having to brake for school buses. For many Maine stores and restaurants and motels, it also means people who have more cash to spend on themselves, on their homes, and on gifts for others. (Christmas can be a year-round season in galleries and craft shops.)

As a writer, I’m glad I have a book with “Maine Christmas ” in the title; local book stores are stocking it.

People who visit Maine in the summer may think life here stops at Labor Day, but, instead, in many ways it speeds up then. Of courses, schools and all their activities are back in force, from kindergartens to high school  to colleges to adult education.  Other organizations start planning their fall activities.  Last weekend I was part of a mystery writers’ conference in Bar Harbor, and tomorrow night will speak at a library in Rangeley. Later this week I’ll do a signing at a bookstore in Bath. And in October there’s a children’s literature conference, and a craft festival I’ve been invited to be part of, and by November, besides Crime Bake, a major mystery conference in the northeast, I’ll be signings at galleries and antique malls, hoping to attract book buyers to get their Christmas gifts early.

And – oh, yes. There are new books to be written.

The colors of trees along roads and rivers are getting more dramatic every day. They’re beautiful, and tempt me to stop, and exclaim, and inhale and relax. In many ways, this is the best part  of Maine’s year: neither too hot nor too cold; visitors in smaller, quieter, numbers; and time to prepare for what we know will be coming.

By the end of November it will be time to hunker down, put wood in the woodstove, and enjoy the books and movies we missed during the rest of the year.

But, for now, I’ll just enjoy the seasonal colors. The calm before the storms.

I Like Ike

Just before I sat back down again at my computer a minute ago, I stepped into the kitchen where the TV was tuned to the republican second string, about to begin their debate. I had the misfortune to come in on Santorum’s introduction of himself.

The things these people brag about.

Seven children? Gee, congratulations.

I fled down the hall to my office.

I will certainly be watching when the varsity hits the field in an hour and a half. I know they will enrage me. I know they will say indefensible and terrifyingly stupid things. I wish I could at least have some respect for number eleven, the lone woman. But I know she’s a republican of the usual variety. Not a raving fascist, not a jabbering lunatic egotist—that would be the front runner—and not a strange, soft-spoken doctor who is creepy-scary.

No, the sole woman up there is just unlikeable and dragging a ruthless business past.

So why will I watch them? Because they’re there. Because I’ve been fascinated by politics all my life, a little in love with Adlai Stevenson as a kid. I read his biography and made a speech to my parents hoping to steal their votes away from Ike. They never voted republican, but who didn’t like Ike?

Eleven of them, and that still won’t be the whole babbling bunch. I wouldn’t mind them so much if they were just dumb. But dumb and mean? I learned early that’s a combination that leads to everything bad—up to and including hate and violence. The candidate I’ve loved for years hasn’t been handling things very well and may not be the democratic nominee after all. So I have to think more about my vote.

Why do I care so much? Because if I don’t, who will? How many of us will use the crappy excuse, they’re all the same, why bother? That scares me to death. And it’s just plain wrong. They’re not at all the same.

I much prefer my chances with Hillary, Joe or Bernie. Stack them up against Huckabee or Santorum or Cruz. I can’t bear to think about it. And I can’t bear not to.






The Swift Days of Summer, or What’s in Your DNA?

As I write this, it’s the last full week in August and September is staring me in the face. It seems like Memorial Day wasn’t that long ago. Now Labor Day looms on the horizon.

Summer has passed on swift feet.

I did have some travels, including day trips for birding. I’ve been camping, on the coast, up in Oregon and in Northern California. I’ve been to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, where I saw a terrific production of Guys and Dolls. Fabulous music and a wonderful cast. How can you go wrong with Damon Runyan and Frank Loesser?

The big out-of-town, get-on-an-airplane trip was to a family reunion, on my mother’s side. My paternal great-grandfather married three times and had a herd of kids from two of those marriages, so I have lots of relatives sprouting from that particular branch of my family tree.

It all makes sense to me but I’ve had outsiders get that deer-in-the-headlights look when I try to explain how this or that cousin is related to me. It’s just easier to say they’re all cousins.

Anyway, the reunion was great. I saw cousins I hadn’t seen in a long time and some I’d never met. It was fun to be in a room full of people, all related to some degree. Photographs were displayed and put into a huge PowerPoint show, as we gathered around computers identifying long-ago relatives and guessing when and where the pictures were taken.

One cousin showed up looking quite dapper in his kilt with the family tartan. He talked about his research into the family genealogy. He’s traced us all back to a boy and his mother in Baltimore, circa 1746. He knows they were there because he’s found a piece of paper with their names on it, but he hasn’t been able to figure out when or how mother and son got to this country.

This prompted me to take one of those DNA tests from Once upon a time my maternal grandmother told me her mother was part Native American. I’ve always been curious about that particular family story. So I figured I’d finally investigate.

Sorry, Grandma. Less than one percent Native American in the family bloodline.

Which goes with the less than one percent from West Asia, the Caucasus region.

As for the larger percentages, no surprises there. I’ve always known I am a British Isles mix. The family last names tell that story, which was why that cousin at the reunion was wearing a kilt. More than 60 percent of my genes are from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

About 30% or my genes are Northern European, with soupçon from Scandinavia. My paternal grandmother’s birth name is German. A cousin on that side of the family told me that she’d heard a story that one of our ancestors was a Hessian soldier who came to this country to fight on the British side, then stayed. That makes for another intriguing family tale.

Maybe there’s a book in that.

Unresolved Murders: Grist for the Writer’s Mill?

Beginning with King William of England in the year 1100, shot through the heart by an arrow, law enforcement records are crammed with unresolved murders—along with the books, plays, and ballads they inspired. To this day the 15th- century deaths of two young princes remain unsolved. 19th-century Lizzie Borden, unknown until her parents’ axe murders, is now infamous in stories and verse, but the case has never been proven. And in the 20th-century Edgar Allen Poe wrote “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” inspired by a young cigar girl whose body in 1841 was found floating in the Hudson River. He re-imagined the scene in Paris, turned Marie into a perfume shop employee who was killed and dumped into the Seine River, and “solved” the crime through the ratiocination of his canny detective Auguste Dupin. He claimed he used newspaper reports “to get into the mind of the murderer.”

Much has been written about six-year-old child-beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, found strangled in the basement of her Colorado home. Her parents were suspects, but subsequently cleared. In 1947 the horribly mutilated body of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short, known as the “black Dahlia,” was found in a vacant lot in Los Angeles—and became the subject of books and films. Marilyn Monroe’s 1962 “suicide by overdose” has been overdone by writers, as has Elvis Presley’s death, still questioned by autopsy experts.

Thousands of murders have occurred through the decades in small country towns. Only this spring my Middlebury, Vermont newspaper published a photo of two women—one a police detective and one a victim’s advocate–laying flowers on the gravesite of an unknown woman and two children who were killed sometime in the early 1930s. Their remains were discovered in 1935, the police have published simulated drawings of their faces, but to this day there have been no clues to their identities.

On December 31, 1957, in Newbury, Vermont, police pulled the bound body of a cantankerous dairy farmer, Orville Gibson, from the Connecticut River. Rumor had it that Gibson had just beaten his old hired man and that angry neighbors had lynched him. The story even reached the pages of Life magazine. Months after the crime, a local doctor told police he’d seen a car with two men he recognized driving past the farm on the day of the disappearance. But there wasn’t enough evidence to detain the men. And some wonder why the doctor waited so long to come to the police?

Retired Judge Stephen Martin, who in 1960 represented one of the two men accused, has recently published a book, Orville’s Revenge,” in which he calls the death a suicide, a desperate attempt to pin the blame on his accusatory neighbors. Gibson, the judge argues, climbed out on a pier, bound his ankles, tied his hands behind his own knees, and rolled into the water.

Neighbors who knew Gibson don’t agree. They speak of threats to keep people quiet, a note stuck to a tree with a knife at the home of a witness. Investigators take note of the fellow’s wealth and snobbery, the cruelty toward his hired men. How, early on, he surreptitiously beat out more established townsfolk for the land and farm he purchased. On the day of his death a neighbor saw drag marks on the barn floor, a crushed milk pail. Some still insist it was a vigilante-type killing by a small mob of townspeople, full of drink, who kidnapped and tied him up, then tossed him in the river. The death certificate reads “suffocation by means unknown.”

Still, Gibson’s niece would “like to know the answers” to her uncle’s death, and is glad to hear people, including the retired judge, once again writing and speculating. But she feels “there’s no purpose in trying to arrest anyone. It’s way past time for that.” Is it ever too late? Even if most of the original players are dead, including Gibson’s wife, who died in 1973? Gibson’s death remains an open question. A question, perhaps, that a writer like Poe, or any living novelist reading this post, might try to “resolve.”


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