Salve for Souls

Monday, March 30, 2015

Stranger On A Train

At first, he was just a stranger on a train, but things soon got creepy.

Traveling from Florida to New York, we were seated together on the crowded train. The long trip was made longer still, by heavy rain pouring down the windows and flooding the tracks.

To pass the time, The Stranger and I began to talk. This was amid the drone of passengers talking and laughing, their chatter occasionally punctuated by the cries of restless children.

Everything seemed normal as The Stranger told me about his job at a large ministry. He also told me about a near-death experience that had changed his life and inspired his conversion to Christianity.

As a newspaper correspondent and freelance writer, I'm always on the alert for an interesting story. Sometimes this has gotten me into trouble. This would be one of those times.

The Stranger was pleased to hear I'm a writer and I took notes as he spoke. When I told him I would write his story and try to get it published in a magazine, he was thrilled. He would have nothing less than one of the most popular—Guideposts.

Mentioning I had a few stories published in Guideposts, I said I would give them a try. That's when things began to get weird.

With no warning, The Stranger began praying at the top of his lungs.

Not knowing what else to do, I bowed my head. But I realized the train, just seconds before filled with chatter, had become deathly silent. I glanced up to see questioning faces staring our way.

After that, the trip dragged on as The Stranger talked non-stop about himself and the story he was certain would be published in Guideposts.

As the train approached New York City, we exchanged business cards and I told him I'd be in touch if I had any questions or news about the story.

I breathed a sigh of relief when we finally parted ways at Pennsylvania Station. But that would not be the last of The Stranger. No sooner had I unpacked my suitcase, than he began emailing me.

"Did you get it written? Did you send it? Do you have a contract?"

It was obvious this guy thought my entire life revolved around writing his story. Forget about my husband, children, cooking, cleaning and newspaper deadlines.

I imagine he pictured editors at Guideposts on the edge of their seats, waiting for his article to arrive. In reality, it would take its place at the end of a long list of stories vying for attention. The process can drag on for months, even years and ultimately, most are rejected.

Such is the world of publishing.

I was relieved to finally send the story on its way and get it out of my hair—but not the Stranger. His endless messages took on an increasingly creepy tone.

I thought you were going to get my story published. What happened? Did you lie?

When Guideposts rejected it, the messages got creepier still. He began addressing me as "sweetheart, dear" and "darling."

I kept my responses business-like, telling him I would submit the story elsewhere.

During this time, my husband Dan and I attended services at our church. We had a guest speaker that day, a well-known Christian musician and artist, touring churches around the country, mentioning them throughout his talk.

 Hearing the name of the ministry where The Stranger worked, Dan and I looked at each other in surprise. I didn't know, but Dan had hatched a plan.

Following the message, we went up to greet Mr. Famous Guy.

We told him we enjoyed his message, then Dan asked if he knew "so-and-so" (The Stranger) who worked at such-and-such ministry.

A big smile spread over Famous Guy's face. "Oh yes, I often speak at that ministry and I know him very well."

"My wife's a writer," Dan explained. "She's writing about the near-death experience that changed his life."

Famous Guy was familiar with the story. "That's great. It needs to be told.

At home, Dan composed an email to The Stranger. He told him we'd met Mr. Famous Guy and discussed the story I had written.

"And by the way," Dan added. "From now on, I'll be handling my wife's correspondence, so send all your questions and comments to me."

When the message was sent, Dan explained that he was making The Stranger accountable to someone influential, who could make or break his career.

"He probably never expected the connection between his personal life and his work," Dan said.

After that, I never heard from The Stranger, although Dan contacted him when his story was published in a Christian newspaper distributed throughout the nation.

I was glad for that, but the incident left me more wary of strangers. Maybe that's not such a bad thing.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

More Than A Kid

As a shy, overweight child growing up in a working class neighborhood on Staten Island, New York, I always felt like an outsider.  Even in my first-grade class, other children had friends, cliques and little "romances."  Few befriended the unpopular girl they called "fatso."
I remember wishing I could become invisible.  That way the teacher wouldn’t call on me and ask math questions I couldn’t answer.  Classmates would snicker as I struggled and stammered.
After I entered second grade, a new student joined the class.  Our teacher introduced the blond boy with a cherubic face and eyes mature beyond his years.

"This is Michael.  He moved here from California, near Disneyland."

 My classmates and I looked approvingly at each other. Michael seemed to come from some magical, faraway land and we all wanted to be his friend. But he would seek me out, whether in the lunchroom, the schoolyard, or walking me to and from school. 

Michael would also step between taunting classmates and me.  Although gentle, he spoke with authority.  

"Leave her alone!  She’s my girlfriend and she’s pretty and smart."

Pretty and smart—me?

My mother had said those words, but that's what moms are supposed to say.  Michael made me wonder if they might be true.
I began inviting Michael to play at my apartment after school.  Each day, Mom greeted us with milk and cookies.  Despite the treats and good times, Michael would keep glancing at the clock, then suddenly run home. When I asked him why he did this, panic rushed into his voice.
"My daddy wants me home on time! If I'm not there, he'll spank me hard."
One wintry day as Michael and I played outside, my mother made some shocking observations.  Michael wasn’t wearing a coat.  His shoes had holes. Rummaging through our closets, my mother pulled out an old jacket of mine and gave it to Michael.  She also gave him an old, but intact pair of my shoes that didn't look girlish.  I was glad to share what I had. 

The rest of that school year, Michael and I enjoyed each other's company.  And when he visited, my mother watched the time for him.  But when school closed for summer vacation, I lost track of Michael.  When classes resumed in autumn, he wasn't there.

"Where is he?"  I asked several classmates.
"I think he moved back to California to be with his mom," one answered, treating me with new respect.  

This attitude extended to other classmates.  But I started treating myself with respect, too—talking with and befriending other children.  After school, we’d ride bikes, play stick ball and visit each other in our homes.  That year, lasting friendships were made.  No longer did I feel like an outsider.
Even though I continued to struggle with math, I discovered I had other skills, such as reading and writing.  I wished Michael could have shared my joy, especially after I began losing weight.  Although I never saw him again, I knew that even if I remained forever awkward and overweight, Michael would still have been my friend.  He understood my pain, because he knew it so well.  I hoped he was finding a better life and being rewarded for his kindness.

"He was like a little angel," my mother said after he left.
Maybe she was right. Michael came to me just when I needed him and left when his job was done.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

So, you wanna be a writer?

"I've been thinking of you," a woman I barely knew said when we crossed paths at the supermarket.
Her radiant smile told me she had wonderful news.
"I've decided that you can help me write my book!" she exclaimed.
As a newspaper correspondent, I should have known. This has happened before.
My response was probably too abrupt, but it was truthful.
"I'm sorry. I don't have the time."I neglected to say that my fourteen-hour workdays are crammed with rushing to meet writing deadlines, as well as cooking and cleaning for my family.
Her smile now faded, my acquaintance reeled backwards as if she'd been struck. I tried to offer a few pointers, but all she heard was that I could not help her.
It was clear she had no idea about the time-consuming work involved in writing a book, even a short story or a newspaper article.
Ecclesiastes 12:12 says it well. "Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body" (NIV).
Writing a book requires first drafts, second drafts, third drafts and more until we get it right. There is also research, re-writing and editing. The process can take years. Then, once the book is finished, there is no guarantee a publisher will pick it up.
But I can understand my acquaintance's dilemma because I was there myself.
When I asked an English professor to write my book, she offered sage advice.
"No one can put their passion and heart into your book like you can. Maybe it's your life's calling. Just take that first step; write that first word, then keep going, no matter how long it takes, or how many revisions it takes."
I took the good professor's advice, even though my journey to publication would take a dozenyears.
Here are some steps I took along that journey.

  • I attended writers' conferences. Yes, these can be expensive, but they are an investment. Knowledge is gained and valuable connections made.
  • I joined critique groups in which we evaluated each other's work. These are valuable because it is important to get input from those who will tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear. Our spouses and mothers can do that. Information about local critique groups and writers groups can be found at most public libraries, or online. Naturally, there are also online groups. Each has its own flavor and if one does not fit, keep trying.
  • You might want to enroll in a writing class. These are offered at many community colleges and online.                                                

And no matter what, never give up.
As we read in the "Come Away My Beloved" perpetual calendar by Frances J. Roberts.[1]
"Perseverance is to the human spirit what the rudder is to a ship. It will steer the ship dead ahead in spite of the contrary wind. You must have holy determination, pressing on in defiance of all odds."

My ship came into port and yours can too.
Meanwhile, please enjoy a scene from my favorite writing class as seen in "Throw Mama From the Train," with Billy Crystal and Danny Devito.

[1] See February 27 entry.