Sunday, January 31, 2016

Vindication! Creativity and Clutter

All my life I have had what seemed like a natural propensity for clutter. When I lived in places where I had the luxury of a room just for sewing/knitting/writing/art, I somehow managed to keep the rest of the house relatively tidy while my work room was chaos. Now that my entire living space is used for various projects, the clutter sometimes seems ridiculous but I never do anything about it. Einstein once observed that if a cluttered desk was the sign of a cluttered mind, what was an empty desk the sign of? I love him for that.

Recently, I read an article that vindicated me. There were several points in the article that I could completely relate to—and a couple that it overlooked. The article said that creative people who work in the midst of clutter often think farther outside the box than people who live in tidy environments do. In an experiment in which subjects were asked to think of a creative use for ping-pong balls, the people working amid clutter proved to have more original ideas than those in neat spaces did. This makes sense to me.

Around the desk at which I write I have a seemingly ridiculous collection of things that I like—pictures printed out from the internet, art books, figurines people have given me, rocks and geodes, a few dolls (my favorites are a stuffed doll of retired Pittsburgh Steelers #99 Brett Keisel and an action figure of Sayid Jarrah from the old TV series Lost.) When I am writing I often stare at these things until an idea dawns. It amazes me how often I'll just sit staring for a minute and then something useful will occur to me.
Sayid & Brett

I need the stimulation. I need color. I need textures and things that trigger sensory memories. I need reminders of the things that inspire me. If my desk was tidy and my walls bare I wouldn't have these little triggers to send my mind off on new journeys. Over time, some things will be discarded and new things will be added but some things survive for years and years.

Another thing that I remind myself of is that I am the definition of an out-of-sight-out-of-mind thinker. This is especially true in my sewing room. I have a corkboard over the sewing machine to which I pin swatches of fabric, pictures torn from magazines, patterns, bits of trim and lace. I tend to rummage through my fabric stash and create piles of fabrics that look appealing together. None of it makes sense to anyone else but it all makes sense to me. If I didn't have them in sight, I'm pretty sure I'd forget all about them.

Sayid Caught A Mermaid
The article said that in a study conducted by the University of Minnesota it was found that "disorderly environments encourage breaking with tradition and convention," and this settings can alter preferences, choice, and behavior. I believe this. Every now and then on social media people will post memes with pictures of something that involves a pattern and one element will be out of order—floor tile in which one is a different color, a quilt in which one block is set the wrong way, a bit of architecture in which something does not line up. Most people will respond saying that it drives them crazy. They claim that they are “so OCD that I can't stand that.” I, on the other hand, usually find that to be the most interesting thing about the picture.

The house I live in was built in the early 1700s. There are four units in the main part of the house and I have been in all of them at one time or another. The architecture includes lots and lots of wood details and is typical of the period. A couple years ago one of my neighbors invited a few folks in for tea and, while we were sitting in her living room, I noticed something odd. Most of the rooms in this house have exposed corner posts. There are 3 of them in the room I am sitting in right now. But in one of the corners of her living room there was an exposed post that curved significantly as it neared the ceiling. It looked as though it followed the natural line of the tree from which the lumber was cut. For the rest of the evening I spent more time studying that post than I did talking to people. I came home and did a bunch of Google searches, and I'm still wondering how that happened. I don't have any actual answer but there is one brewing in the back of my mind and a story seems to be forming around it.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Back to Halcyon Beach

As I am waiting for the final edits on The Legend, I have gone back to work on a story I started last summer with plans to finish it by Halloween. I seem to be defective when it comes to making schedules these days. I missed a Halloween release, I missed a Christmas release, and I'm still trying to get the Winter Warmth Contest going. All I can say in my defense is that I've had a few unanticipated challenges in the last couple months. Not the least of these was pulling a muscle in a place where I did not know it was possible to do that. But I digress.
New Bedford Mariner's Home, now closed

So I have gone back to work on the third book in the Halcyon Beach series. This one is called Ghost of a Dancer By Moonlight and in it we meet Cleo Blair, a young journalist and writer who comes to Halcyon Beach to follow up on stories she has heard about the ghosts there. Cleo was working on a story about the historic buildings on New Bedford's Johnny Cake Hill when she met a man named Micah Kane who has just purchased a building on the Promenade in Halcyon Beach that he plans to turn into a coffee shop and wifi cafe.

So far this has been fun to work on. Some of the characters from past Halcyon Beach stories are in it—the Geezers and Darby McMahon. Also, Fleur Laighton, the haunted artist from Ghosts of a Lighthouse in Autumn, is part of the story. But most of all there is Halcyon Beach itself, in all its weird, dilapidated, trashy glory. I love this town—especially in the off-season.

My idea for Halcyon Beach—and the Geezers—all began many years ago when I first moved to Massachusetts. It was a cold and dreary November day and I was still living in Marblehead. I drove up to the outlet malls in Kittery and was on my way back when I decided to stop somewhere for lunch. I was driving Route 1A along the coast through all the beach towns that were pretty much closed up for the season and it took me awhile to find a place that was open.

Eventually I saw a little coffee shop with an Open sign in the window. I parked and went in and the only other customers were four older guys sitting at a table gabbing over coffee. As I waited for my lunch to be served I couldn't help but eaves drop. One of the men in the group had owned a local business which he had sold for a handsome profit a couple years earlier. He had decided to retire and move to Florida but after his first summer there, he hated it and moved back. As I listened, trying not to smile, his buddies gave him a merciless teasing over this. Then they had a long discussion about how the town had changed over the years, crazy things they had done growing up there, and their respective businesses. One of them owned a tattoo parlor and another a bar. I loved all four of those guys and they stayed with me for years. Now they have been reborn as the Geezers in these stories.

When I started writing about Halcyon Beach, I drove back up to the Massachusetts/New Hampshire border and spent a day wandering around photographing some of the businesses and buildings that I wanted to use in my stories. I created a gallery of them on Pinterest and a few of them are here in this post.

So I am happy to be back in Halcyon Beach for awhile. I've found some new legends to build into my story—and ghosts. It wouldn't be Halcyon Beach without some ghosts.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Guest Post by Ray: Checking Out a Marcellus Shale Well Site

Our good buddy Ray Beimel in St. Marys, Pennsylvania, has sent another interesting blog post and, since I tend to be interested in anything related to "Marienstadt," I present it here.

by Ray Beimel

Back just after the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, Kaul and Hall Lumber Company built the St. Marys & Western Railroad to bring logs to their big sawmill in St. Marys. Long
abandoned, it was the easy path into State Game Lands 25 and to what we call “The Rocks.” Starting in 1962, I hiked, biked, and skied that road many times, in every month of the year. It is still a favorite hike as in season it leads me to the place where I can hear the wood thrush sing. No sound in the forest is more appealing except possibly for Bill Gerg arriving and asking “you want a beer?”

In summer I noticed that they were turning that old railroad grade into a serious haul road. Nibbing around, I found a mailbox with maps and binders and drawings. Seneca Resources was going to drill a Marcellus Shale well just beyond the St. Marys City limits. Armed with that knowledge, I hiked out to see what was going on. First thing I saw that was different was the concrete blocks protecting the pipeline junction. I guess they had some notion about their truck drivers’ ability to stay on the wide road.

This is a shallow natural gas well. Far right is the well head. The stuff in the middle takes out the brine which is stored in the white tank. The flow is metered and at far left, it goes into the pipeline. Once the drilling is done, such a well takes up less space than a three bedroom house. There are many of these on the Game Lands. They are quiet, usually don’t smell, and if all the pipes are intact, do not pollute. The brine tank is surrounded by a moat and periodically pumped out. The gas comes out of the ground on it’s own. I was told it comes out at well over 2000 psi. To put that in perspective, a World War 2 steam powered naval destroyer operated on 600 psi. I put all this here to contrast with a Marcellus Shale well. Those wells go down 10,000 and then go sideways. Hard to imagine but that’s what the books say about them.

They take this road building stuff seriously. There are now street signs deep in the game lands. Any of my old Boy Scouts reading this will recognize Seventy One Hollow Road as the way to the campsite we used many years in defiance of the Game Laws. Just doesn’t seem right to put these up to keep the truck drivers going the right way.

In a concession to environmental concerns, they fenced off this little piece of wetlands and surrounded it with sedimentation containment stuff, just in case it started to make an escape.

The old railroad drops down into Powers Run Hollow so the new road turned off and headed west roughly following what we called the road to Duke’s Place. That was just wide enough for one small Jeep to pass. Now it is a limestone chip paved road wide enough for the Army of the Potomac to march six abreast and still leave room for General Grant to pass on horseback. I knew that I had arrived at the site when I saw the sign.

It has a street address, GPS coordinates, and an ashtray. The mailbox holds the required by law information. Among other things, it held instructions about dealing with spillage. Among the substances mentioned were gasoline, diesel fuel, hydraulic oil, and WD 40. It referred to WD 40 stored in 55 gallon drums. I think that if you need that much WD 40, you’ve got some serious problems or your mechanics might not have the knack for the job. 

When they bring out the laser guided bulldozer, you know they are taking their earth moving seriously.

I am not going to address the environmental morality of Marcellus Shale drilling. However the precautions taken with the fuel tank seemed a bit overdone at a place where millions of gallons of water laced with proprietary secret chemicals were going to be pumped into the ground.

The tank has a battery powered pump. The power source is the machine being refueled. Two wires run from the battery on the earth mover to the pump. If you have ever jump started a car, you know what happens when you connect to the positive terminal; sparks. However there were no signs of wildfire so it all worked out.

A well pad has to be dead flat even when it starts out on hilly terrain. There was that much overburden to be removed to get the required flatness. The dirt excavated from under the backhoe was used to make a big moat that surrounded the well pad on the downhill side. I guess this is if there is a spill. Or maybe the moat is to keep the Visigoths out. Hard to say. Anyway, a heap of dirt was moved.

I hiked out there again on January 3. This is the completed pad. I didn’t measure anything but eyeballing suggests about the size of two Nimitz class aircraft carrier flight decks. And the photo only shows about two thirds of the pad. It was too big to fit in one frame. The snow covered stuff in the foreground is limestone chips. Far out there the center is oak planks with steel beams holding them in place.

And thanks for asking, yes, it was very cold and windy out there, kind of like the flight line at NAS Brunswick Maine. This is the wooden planking that surrounds the area where the drilling is done. Out there between the concrete blocks is where the hole will go. There was enough planking laid down to resurface the flight deck of an Essex class carrier. (Why the naval metaphors you might ask. I have friends who “love that kind of talk.” They know who they are. )

The precision involved impressed me. That pad and the planking are dead flat on what was a downhill slope covered with large trees.

I have no idea when drilling will begin. We will know it is started when the endless stream of water hauling trucks returns to downtown St. Marys. For now, the pad is ready. And the road sure makes for easy hiking into the Game Lands where because of all the noise of building the road and pad, there is no longer any game. The only wildlife that I saw or heard on the winter hike was a raven and he did not sound pleased. And one squirrel who didn’t say anything. 

So there’s the road, empty for now excepting the occasional hiker whose curiosity makes him get out there on cold winter days. I know some of you wished you could have joined me. You were in my thoughts when the raven called.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Why I Never Get Any Sewing Done.

I have a really nice sewing room. It has a window and a door overlooking the old cemetery out back. It has two large utility tables with lots of room for my serger and sewing machine, a comfy office-style chair (in purple), lots of baskets filled with notions, boxes of buttons, bags of thread and trim and elastic, a bin full of different kinds of interfacing, and enough fabric to start my own store. Over my sewing table there is a bulletin board hung with pictures that are inspirational. My sewing room has an iron, a CD player (yeah, I know, obsolete but I have a lot of CDs and audio books,) It is across the hall from my bathroom and next to my kitchen. There is no reason on earth that I shouldn't spend blissful hours in there sewing. Except I don't and I blame the Internet and Pinterest.

There was a time when I would stop on the way home from work on Friday, buy a pattern and fabric, spend a happy weekend sewing, and wear a new outfit to work on Monday. Now I don't have to leave the house to go to work, I can wear whatever I like, and I have (theoretically) a lot more time. To waste--spinning my wheels trying to make up my mind. Let me show you why.

1. I see a picture of something I just love and would like to make on the internet. Like this asymmetrical top. I save it to a Pinterest board I have created for Inspirational Sewing Projects. I spend an hour looking at the other things I've pinned and start thinking about them, too.

2. I go through my fabric stash to see if I already have something that I could use. I really like the aqua-colored fabric in the picture above and I certainly have enough of it. But... maybe there's something else out there I'd like better. I spend 2 hours going to my favorite sewing sites--FabricMart. com and, though I don't find anything nicer, I spend $75 on other stuff I have to have.

3. I do not have a pattern for this so I start searching online for a similar pattern. This one is kind of like it except it doesn't have a pattern either. But I love that hood. So I start searching for asymmetrical hooded jackets and wind up pinning ten more things to Pinterest.

4. I find a similar design and it has a downloadable pattern in PDF format. YAY!!!

5. I locate the web site and find the PDF--it's not in English but I can work around that. I spend several hours fiddling around with the pattern, adjusting it to fit me and then think that I love the hood but am not crazy about the sleeves. This goes on all day.

As I am writing this it is 5:10 p.m. on Sunday and I have yet to go into my lovely sewing room. I have everything I need. Except a really cool button. I think this deserves a really cool button. 

I usually find cool buttons on eBay. See you later.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Mardi Gras Was Over: Three Love Stories

Now that the holidays are over it is time to think about what's next in my writing life. Since I can't seem to think of anything to blog about, I decided to share an excerpt from one of the stories in my Mardi Gras Was Over: Three Love Stories collection. I hope you enjoy it!

My husband and our daughter are fighting again. This latest installment of the fight has been going on for three days but they have engaged in an ongoing battle since she was old enough to have an opinion. Our daughter has many opinions.

I concentrate on chopping onions and slicing tomatoes for the salad. The table is set, Byron, our three year old, is in his booster chair wearing a bib. Camille, who is eight and Mommy’s Little Helper, is carefully folding the napkins at the dining room table and keeping a nervous eye on the combatants. Ten-year-old Marcus has vanished.

"You’re afraid of being alive!” Maya screams, her hands on her narrow hips, and all the outrage of her thirteen years of life burning in her bright cheeks.

"You are so boring!”

My husband, his face also red, stares at her. He has never understood his first-born child. "What does that have to do with anything?” he asks. Only I can hear the hurt in his voice.

"You’re jealous,” Maya spits. "I’m young and you’re old and you’ve never done one interesting thing in your whole stupid life so you don’t want me to have fun either.” We’ve heard this complaint before. It is her favorite explanation for why her father and I are so impossible to get along with. She is young, we are old. She wants to have fun, we are stuffy old bores who stand in her way.

My husband turns his back and walks out of the room.

"Maybe so,” he says, "but you’re still not going to Mardi Gras with your friends.” I hear the front door slam. He will be outside on the porch trying to calm down, sneaking one of the cigarettes he is supposed to have quit but which I know are still hidden on a rafter under the porch roof. My husband cannot bear these fights. He will be upset for hours but neither will he change his mind.

"Mo-o-o-m!” Maya pleads.

"You heard your father,” I say keeping my eyes on the tomatoes.

"YOU went to Mardi Gras!” she says.

"I was eighteen,” I say. "Not thirteen.” Maya flings herself into a chair. "That was like a million years ago! It’s different now! Girls are more mature at thirteen than they were back then.”

"You act like this and then you tell me you are more mature?” I turn and stare at her. She is huddled on the chair in the corner by the door, slender arms and legs crossed, fury and outrage clouding her lovely face where the cuteness of the child she once was is transforming daily into the beauty of the woman she will one day be.

"Listen, my darling daughter, you are not going to New Orleans with a bunch of girls I don’t care whose older sister will be going along. You are too young and that is that.”

"I HATE you!” she screams again, "You’re both old and boring and stupid.” She runs out of the room, caroms down the hallway, and slams the bathroom door.

Read the rest....

Sunday, December 27, 2015

My Personal Favorite Reads in 2015

Since everyone seems to be making lists of their favorite books for 2015 I thought I'd list mine. According to Goodreads, I read 42 books in 2015 although there were some that I did not list on Goodreads. Granted, most of these were not written or published in 2015, it's just that that is when I got around to reading them. Neither does it include books that I read as research for my own books. Also, because I spent much of the summer reading books from the Read-the-World Challenge (which I hope to get back to soon) the range of books is more diverse than is my usual. So, in no particular order, here is my list:

  1. The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman – I love Alice Hoffman's writing and this story was no exception. Hoffman often writes about sisters and, because I have four sisters, I usually always relate to her books. This captured the sisterly I-love-you-so-much-I-could-knock-your-block-off feeling that sisters know so well.
  2. The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George – lovely writing and a charming concept. There were a few times, while reading it, I thought the author went in a direction I would not have taken but the imagery lingered in my head long after the story was done and, for me, that makes a good book.
  3. The Drop by Dennis Lehane – to be honest, I've never read a Dennis Lehane book I didn't love but this one stayed with me for a long time. The characters are so tightly constructed and the setting, Boston, so familiar that I felt as though I left my chair and was right there in the mean streets.
  4. Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell – Like Alice Hoffman and Dennis Lehane, Mary Doria Russell is a writer that never disappoints. This sequel to he novel Doc is even more exciting and the Earp brothers seem bigger than the pages that contain them. Good fun and plenty of action.
  5. The Wink of the Mona Lisa and Other Stories from the Gulf by Mohammed al Murr - I found this to be an extremely charming collection of stories. Some were sad (a man on a long flight to Dubai strikes up a conversation with the matron sitting next to him and returns from the restroom to find she has died), some are very funny (a man takes his little girl to the circus and is unprepared for the deluge of questions she asks), and some reflect the trials and tribulations of modern life (a professional young woman in Dubai wants her lover to marry her but keeps forgetting to tell him that.) The title story is hilarious.
  6. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshin Hamid - I did not know what to expect when I began this book but it grabbed my attention from the first page and didn't let up until the last--and what a last page it was. I can honestly say, NOTHING was what I expected.
  7. The Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant – What can I say about this? I never thought I'd read the 800+ pages and yet they seemed to fly by. Grant writes with extraordinary clarity, precision, and no small amount of humor. If it were up to me this would be required reading in all high schools.
  8. The Greenhouse by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir - One of the most beautiful and enthralling books I have read in a very long time. Growing up in Iceland, Lobbi lived with his parents and his handicapped twin brother and worked in his mother's greenhouse. Lobbi, unhappy and desolate, takes a job at a monastery in a remote mountain village that was once famous for its gardens which have now fallen into disrepair. The writing is lovely, the people are touching, and the descriptions of this mysterious land are positively enchanting.
  9. Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose – All I can say is this is my kind of book. Told from multiple perspectives it tells the story of several people but most notable a cross-dressing lesbian race car driver who becomes a Nazi sympathizer. It started out with the feel of my favorite book, A Moveable Feast, and ended up reminding me of the movie Casablanca-LOVED it.
  10. Bone Gap by Laura Ruby – this is a bit of a surprising selection to me because half way through the book, I almost gave up. But when the big reveal came and we found out why Finn O'Sullivan couldn't be more helpful describing the kidnapper of his brother's beloved it was so damn clever it haunted me for weeks—and led me to revisit books by Oliver Sacks. Laura Ruby gets high marks for coming up with a very unique plot twist.

I also want to mention two fabulous cookbooks that I loved. Both are by New England writers, both are packed with recipes I'd love to try some day, and both are just plain interesting to read. In Cod We Trust: From Sea to Shore, the Celebrated Cuisine of Coastal Massachusetts by Heather Atwood is a celebration of all things we love here in New England. Baking with Less Sugar: Recipes for Desserts Using Natural Sweeteners and Little-to-No White Sugar by Joanne Chang is packed with things I want to make. I love reading cookbooks but these are two stand-outs.

Thanks for reading and keep reading!!!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

An unappeasable thirst to know what happens next...

Here's what I want from a book, what I demand, what I pray for when I take up a novel and begin to read the first sentence: I want everything and nothing less, the full measure of a writer's heart. I want a novel so poetic that I do not have to turn to the standby anthologies of poetry to satisfy that itch for music, for perfection and economy of phrasing, for exactness of tone. Then, too, I want a book so filled with story and character that I read page after page without thinking of food or drink because a writer has possessed me, crazed with an unappeasable thirst to know what happens next.”
― Pat Conroy

Ever since I read this quote by the writer Pat Conroy (The Great Santini, Prince of Tides, etc.) I have been thinking about what I want from a book. I've started a lot of books lately and quit after 30 or 50 pages and I hate it when that happens. The first thing I look for in a book is either a setting or a subject matter, or an era that interests me. There are eras that I am drawn to (the Gilded Age, the 1920s in Paris, the Vietnam War era), there are places I am drawn to (South America, Scandinavian countries, islands), and there are nearly too many subject matters to list. Those are the things that will get me to pick up a book in the first place. But to keep me reading I need more. 

Recently I started a book that was recommended to me by several people. It was about a subject matter that interests me—Impressionist art—and it had good reviews. It started out pretty good but has been losing me more and more as I read. I've been trying to figure out why. The writing, while not brilliant, is not bad. But the characters, characters based on real people, are duller than dirt. This seems a little hard to believe because the real characters are not. It has made me wonder if it is a good idea for writers to try to turn historical figures into characters that one might find in any contemporary novel. Some writers can do it, of course, and some absolutely cannot. 

So what does a reader like me do? I guess we give up and move on to the next book. If I read a book a day it would take me over 3 years to finish all the books on my Kindle. All of which leads me to wonder, what do I want from a book? 

I want to be sucked in. I want to meet people that I care about. I want to know how they got into such a circumstance and I want to care how they are going to get back out of it. Ultimately, I want to feel good and feel that, despite having gone through trials and tribulations, there was justice or goodness or satisfaction in the end. I don't want to feel like I've been played for a sucker. 

Someone once said to me, “Sometimes I like to read books about unlikable people.” That has bothered me for a long time. I keep wondering why? Why spend that amount of time reading about people you wouldn't want to spend that time with in real life? It's a mystery to me. So, I ask you, What do you want from a book? And who do you rely on to give it to you? 

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Life Inspires Writing #NunBagsBuck

Recently I blogged about a social media controversy from back in my hometown, St. Marys, Pennsylvania, concerning a nun, Sister John Paul Bauer, who shot a buck during hunting season. I have not been able to stop thinking about the story and today I contacted Sister and asked if she minded if I used what happened in a story. To my delight, she had no problem with it. I have been working on a new Marienstadt novel, The Legend, which is a sequel to The Christmas Daughter. So, since the story opens in Lola's Strudel Shop where some deer hunters are causing trouble I decided to weave Sister's story into the novel. 

The main characters in the story are the Wilde family: brothers Kit and Boone, Boone's daughter Charity, their mother Minnie, and their sister Emily who is now a nun and has changed her name to Sister John-Paul--a name I borrowed from the real Sister John Paul, because I loved it. So here is the first scene in which my fictional Sister John-Paul talks to Sister Ursula about what has happened: 

“Sister John-Paul, are you in there?” Sister Ursula Wolfe turned the door handle of one of St. Joseph’s Convent’s study rooms. Through the frosted glass window she could see the glow of a computer monitor. She opened the door and peeked inside.

“Hi.” Sister John-Paul looked up from the keyboard. “I was just checking social media. You'll be pleased to know you now have your own hashtag—#NunBagsBuck.”

Sister Ursula's face grew pale and she walked around the desk to look at the computer screen. “Does Sister Adelaide know?”

“I haven't told her and I won't if you prefer.”

Sister Ursula let out a slow sigh. “She'll find out soon enough, I suppose. Are the comments horrible?”

“A few of them are. But there are far more positive ones.” She smiled at Sister Ursula. “There are a lot of very positive posts by people from all over the country. You should be pleased that so many people want to support you.”

St. Joseph's Convent had been embroiled in a social media controversy for the last few days all because of a picture that had appeared on St. Walburga Parish's web site. Sister Ursula, who grew up with two brothers and a father who were avid hunters, had taken up hunting some years earlier. She was an excellent shot and the convent was grateful for the venison she added to their larder when her hunt was successful. This year she shot a two hundred pound buck from her tree stand on the first day of the season. She was so pleased with her success she stopped to show it to Father Nicholas Bauer at St. Walburga's, Marienstadt's oldest Catholic Church. The buck had a nearly perfect rack and Father Nick, always eager to share Marienstadt's culture and traditions, had taken her picture with the deer and posted it on both the parish's web site and Facebook page.

Within hours thousands of people had seen it. Some congratulated Sister on her success but quite a few others were outraged that a nun would go hunting, let alone be so successful at it. When the story began to trend on Twitter, Sister Adelaide, the convent's prioress, requested that Father Nick remove the picture from the web sites, but it was too late. Within hours television stations all over the state and blogs all over the country picked up the story and a social media ruckus ensued. Father Nick was apologetic. Sister Adelaide, true to her fiery nature, defended a nun's right to participate in local customs. Sister Ursula was mostly embarrassed.

“When will this stop?” she asked.

“Don't worry,” Sister John-Paul said, “some people have too much time on their hands. People keep asking what happened to your deer.”

“Andy Kneidel's processing the meat at his butcher shop. Some of it will come here to the convent and the rest is going to families that I know can use it.” She glanced at the screen where a news outlet from Philadelphia had the story prominently displayed. “Blaise Hanes is mounting the head although I have no idea where it will hang. I'd offer it to Dad but there are so many of them in the house now Mom wouldn't appreciate it.”

Sister John-Paul thought for a minute then said, “What about asking my brother—asking Boone—if he'd hang it in the Tavern? It would go great with all the wildlife carvings he's been hanging.”

“That's a great idea. I just hope this all dies down soon.”

I hope to have The Legend ready in time for Christmas. Thanks for reading.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Google "nun bags deer"

The nun that this story is about is from my hometown and I actually borrowed her name for one of the characters in my Marienstadt stories. She made quite a big splash on Social Media this week. Some people were upset that she shot a deer but I grew up in a hunting family and I understand that culling is necessary. No matter what some people say, being shot is a better ending for some of these animals than starving to death or being eaten by coyotes.

Sister John Paul Bauer stood over the magnificent, 10-point buck, the largest deer she'd ever seen in the wild in Elk County. The 60-year-old Benedictine nun recalled the events of the past few minutes, savoring a memory that deer hunters will ever experience. Just before 9 a.m., about three hours after first climbing into her tree stand on a friend's land near Weedville on Nov. 30, the first day of the 2015 rifle hunting season for deer, she had finished praying the rosary.

"I always pray the rosary in my tree stand," she explained. "It's a tradition."

Hours in a tree stand are a contemplative time, when a hunter wants to remain as still and quiet as possible. Sister John Paul had then started to pour herself a cup of coffee from her thermos, reinforcement for the leggings and the orange hunting coat she wore under and over her habit against the 23-degree air.

Suddenly a herd of does "came flying up this steep embankment," startling her to the point that she dropped her thermos. Strangely the clatter of the metal cup did not cause the antlerless deer to pause even a moment. Something unusual was pushing those does, she pondered as she studied the scene.

Then she spotted the two bucks sparring behind the does. Her 10-pointer and an eight-point in pitched battle, actually rising on their hind legs, something few will ever witness first-hand. The sound of their rattling antlers came to her ears.

When the bucks backed off one another for a breather about a hundred yards from her stand, Sister John Paul leveled the scope of her Winchester 30-30 on the 10-pointed and triggered off a shot.

The big buck, which was later weighed at about 200 pounds, fell to the forest floor at 9:05 a.m. After making sure of her kill, the theology teacher at Elk County Catholic High School in St. Marys retreated down the mountainside to the home of the landowner, Shirley Burke, for some help in retrieving the heavy animal. They called Sister Jacinta Conklin, another nun at St. Joseph's Monastery in St. Marys who was hunting solo in another location, and together the three woman dragged the deer out of the woods.

Deer hunting has been a tradition among the nuns at the monastery for decades, just as it is with nearly the entire community in St. Marys. Sister John Paul bought her first rifle, the Winchester, soon after she arrived there and has not missed a first day for 15 years or so.

Sister John Paul professed her final vows with the Benedictine Sisters of Elk County in 2002. She earned her nursing degree in 1975, two years after graduating from high school, and then went on to serve as a nurse with the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Growing up in St. Marys, she had watched as her father and brothers ventured out on many a first day, "but I was never invited."

She's bagged a few other bucks along the way, one from that same tree stand near Weedville, as well as a 200-pound bear. Her best buck prior to this year was a six-pointer with a much smaller body.

"You can tell the conservation efforts have paid off, because the deer are getting bigger," she noted.

Antler restrictions imposed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission in recent years encourage hunters to pass up younger bucks, allowing them to gain additional maturity and growth before being harvested. A photo of Sister John Paul on the Facebook page of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Erie went viral, attracting more than a million views and the normal criticisms of anti-hunters. She has taken the attacks in stride, noting, "In this area pretty much everyone hunts. It's good conservation.

"I'm a person first, a normal human being who likes to hunt and happens to be serving God."

On the website of the diocese, she further explained, "You have to maintain the population that can be fed naturally off the land. If you get an overabundance, then the deer starve. Likewise, if you overkill, then that's not good either. So there's a balance."

As a Benedictine, she believes that Christ is in everything, even the hunted. "You don't just hunt for the sake of killing. You are part of nature. You're part of a cycle. You're part of creation."

Most of the venison from the big buck was donated to several local families, including one that has a Christmas tradition of eating deer stew as the main meal that day. The sisters at St. Joseph's share the prized and tender back straps.

Jeff Crawford of Whitetail Taxidermy in St. Marys will mount the 16-inch-spread, almost perfectly symmetrical rack.

Update: This is the response I posted on American News about the controversyI grew up in the same town as Sister John Paul and many members of my family were hunters. What people who are not from rural areas do not understand is that resources are limited and without reasonable hunting seasons to cull the herds, the deer population (and bear, and elk, and turkey, etc.) would soon grow larger than the area has resources to support. This means that the poor animals would begin starving and, mostly likely, be eaten alive by coyotes and other predators. The State of Pennsylvania's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has done a heroic job in reclaiming land ruined by strip mining in the 1950s and 60s. Much of that land is coming back and is home to a flourishing wildlife herd. But, without conscientious management, these herds would grow too fast and the animals would contract and spread diseases as well as starve t death. Sister John Paul is an experienced, responsible hunter, and the deer she shot were used for food by people who appreciate it. I wish there were more hunters who acted as responsibly as she does.

Friday, December 04, 2015

It's Belsnickel Week: Two Belsnickel Stories from My Home Town

I'm on a mission to spread the Belsnickel Love so today I'm asking people to do something nice for someone in secret, don't let them know who their Belsnickel is! Since I wrote the original article I have also published a story about Belsnickel, The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood, a novella about which Book Lover's Alert says: Brew yourself a pot of hot chocolate and curl up with this story. Based in Pennsylvania Dutch folklore, it will renew your faith in Christmas, in love, and in basic human decency.

My friend Terry McMackin sent me the following two stories that were sent to him by his cousin. He does not know the origin of the stories but his grandfather is the "George Wagner" mentioned in them. Terry and I lived in the same neighborhood -- our backyards adjoined -- across the street from Mary Opelt's Woods. This appears to be two separate recollections. Thanks, Terry!

          I have been writing stories to my Grandchildren about my childhood in the City of St. Marys, Pa. One of the subjects concerned the coming of Der Peltznichol (Nicholas in Furs) on December 6th, the Feast Day of St. Nicholas. We, children, were always looking forward to this day, but always with a great deal of trepidation. Der Peltznichol always had an evil henchman who carried switches and lumps of coal. I remember quite vividly having to kneel down and say prayers so that the evil one would be forced to leave, rattling his bells and chains off into the night. Then we got candy and homemade cookies. If we were especially lucky, there would be a small toy included in the package of goodies.
          We were particularly afraid of one Peltznichol who was able to call voices out of the fireplace or from behind chairs or the couch. Long after I stopped believing in Santa Claus, I got in the habit of hanging around the local brick factory. One summer day I was snooping in a kiln that was being loaded with green brick. Suddenly a voice came out of one of the firing holes right beside me. My mind was transported back to a December 6th many years before. I forced myself not to turn and look at the men in the setting crew, but waited for the voice to come again. When it started, I instantly whirled around, searching their faces for any indication or movement of lips. I perceived the slightest movement of the jaw belonging to Mr. George Wagner. I blurted out in exasperation and triumph, "You're the damn Peltznichol". A general uproar broke out among the setting crew, because they had all been treated to stories about the activities of Der Peltznichol.
          I should explain that St. Marys was a sanctuary from persecution of German Catholics in the middle 19th century, and in fact maintained bilingual teaching of German and English in the Catholic schools until World War I. The F.B.I. and government seemed to think that the associations with the Old Country posed a threat to the security of the United States and so the practice of teaching German was quickly abandoned. Even today, a certain group of the Great-Great Grandchildren of the original settlers continue to preserve the tradition of St. Nicholas, but have pretty much eliminated the evil personage and made it more like an early visit by Santa Claus.
- Bill Hoehn

Margie McKelvy:
          Sr. Maureen has sent an e-mail asking if I could send you some things about Bellsnickle and St. Marys when we were growing up in the still much German St. Marys. I have done some research about this, mostly because of several programs on N.P.R. and the fact that my father played Bellsnickle and Santa for many years.
          My research indicated that the Bavarians and the French along the border between Lorraine and Germany in the Rhine Valley and on into the Black Forest have practiced the tradition for over a thousand years. The belief is that Peltznichol (Nicholas in furs) and his evil henchman, Swart Pater (the devil) were characters in Christmas Plays to illustrate and help convert the masses to Christianity. St. Nicholas was first a Good Samaritan, who provided dowries for destitute maidens so that their poor families might get them married to promising young men. Thus the tradition of gift giving and St. Nicholas. (Good - vs. - Evil)
When my father was growing up, and even in the early years of this playing Bellsnickle, he and his friend "Coxy" Sporner always went as the good Bellsnickle and the evil Swartz Pater. By the 1930's things had changed and sometimes there were just two Bellsnickles. Except at those homes where the old traditions still held like the Crawford house where one of the visitors still wore chains and dragged them through the streets from house to house. This brings me to the collective experience of the Crawford kids. I was always invited to Aunt Irene’s on December the 6th, and so got to have the shit scared out of me along with Freddy, Dotty and Puss. (I still can't believe that she became a nun.) Freddy was so frightened of the Bellsnickle that he would hide when we heard the sleigh bells and chains coming down West Mill Street.
           After the pair entered the front room, we kids were assembled in front of them. We all had to be questioned about our behavior for the past year, and sometimes they knew a little bit more about our activities than we wanted to admit to. Several years we got some real shocks, because the voices accusing you of misbehavior would come out of the fake fireplace or out from behind the couch. We were so scared it is a wonder that we didn't all pee our pants. Then it was time to kneel down and say our prayers. If you prayed really well the Swartz Pater would shake his chains and leave, then we would each get a bag of goodies or maybe a toy.  If we were particularly bad or didn't say our prayers just right, Swartz Pater would stay and hand us a switch or worse, the dreaded lump of coal.
           Many years later, I might have been 14 or 15; I was hanging around the Elk Fire Brick Company, just watching what the setting crew was doing inside the kiln, when a voice spoke out of a firing hole right next to me. Instantly I recognized the voice, but didn't see any of the workers looking at me. I tried to see who it was that was throwing his voice, but I couldn't catch any one moving his lips. I half turned to go out the arched opening in the end of the kiln like I hadn't heard anything. Just before I reached the opening I whirled around right in time to see just the slightest movement of one fellow’s lips. I yelled, "You’re the damn Bellsnickle". There was a burst of laughter from the whole crew. One fellow said, "Finally somebody caught you, George". That's how I learned who the Bellsnickle was at Crawford's house so many years before. Old George Wagner was a super ventriloquist and a really nice old guy.
           Ku Shise (Cow Shit) was my father’s nickname, and Ku played Santa Claus many times. Once he was the Bellsnickle at Crawfords (Before I was born). My father had cut off the end of this thumb splitting wood for a fire. Anyway as he and Uncle George Crawford told the story, John was about 3 or 4 this particular time. After the Bellsnickle left, John turned to his father and said, "Ya know, Pop, dat dare one Sanny Claus had a tum off chust like Uncle Ku." After that my dad always had to wear white gloves with the thumb stuffed full of cotton.
          I started out writing about Coxy Sporner being one of the Santa Clauses. He and my dad went to Coxy's brother's house because Coxy's nephew, Hiddy, was about the right age. The Feast of St. Nicholas comes on December the 6th and is always in the middle of hunting season. This particular year Coxy had shot a buck on the first day of the season. The two Santas stood outside the living room window while Mrs. Sporner questioned Hiddy about what he would do if the Santa Clause should come to visit. Hiddy replied, "I have a great club. I would hit him over the head and drive him away." The two Santas let themselves into the through the kitchen door as quietly as they could. Mrs. Sporner, however heard them and told Hiddy to go into the kitchen and bring her a spool of thread. Be sure to turn on the light, she said.
          Hiddy came around the corner, snapped on the light and froze in his tracks. About half a second later he let out a scream, yelling, "Yiiiii! "Ich mus pee." as he tore out the back door and ran for the outhouse. My dad said it took about 20 minutes to get Hiddy to unlock the outhouse and come out. All the while Mrs. Sporner was trying to get Hiddy to come out, the Santas were laughing under their beards. Finally they were able to get him to talk and say his prayers. Suddenly Coxy growled, "I understand you shot one of Sanny Clauses Reindeer." Hiddy replied, "Oh No! Sanny Clause, Honest to God, that was Uncle Soxy!" The two couldn't keep from laughing and so had to beat a hasty retreat back out into the night.
          Such was the goings-on around St. Marys concerning Bellsnickle, and in some quarters it still continues today, but with a lot less scare and a lot more good things. Maybe it is for the best!

I also discovered a very interesting blog post about Belsnickel at: Conjure Cinema. The pictures here are from this blog:

    Today we turn to one of the strangest Christmas traditions I have come across in my research in a long time (and that's saying something), called belsnickeling. It's a holiday practice that stems from the Appalachian Valley area of Virginia and West Virginia - essentially, think "naughty mummers" for lack of a better term. A group of men would dress in outlandish costumes and go door to door, putting on some form of entertainment and demanding payment for their performance (usually food or drink, most often drink) - if the payment wasn't to their liking, then some mischief was performed at the offending house. The belsnickelers would go from house to house continuing their revelry, getting paid off with more drink at each house, until they were fully in their cups and God knows what their act looked like as the evening progressed. As you can see from the photo at left, the belsnickelers were always masked, so if the mischief got out of hand you didn't know WHO to blame for it the next day (the thought of looking for who was the most hungover in the town must not have occurred to the locals back then). Read the rest here

Thanks for the great stories and thanks for reading. Merry Christmas.
Posted in another forum by German author Cora Buhlert"Belsnickling" sounds very like our custom of "Nikolauslaufen", only that here it's children up to approx. 12 who go from door to door, sing a song or recite a poem and receive a treat in return. Nowadays, it's mostly chocolate and sweets (I always give Kinder Surprise Eggs) and tangerines among the more traditionally minded, but my Mom told me that she often got small household items such as shoelaces or matchboxes when she went "Nikolauslaufen" in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

A woman named Cora who lives in the northern part of Germany near the coast read about my new novelette, The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood, and sent me the following:

We don't call him Belsnickel, but I certainly know the character and got presents from him as a child. December 6th is St. Nicholas Day, dedicated to St Nicholas of Myra, a bishop who lived in what is now Turkey in the 4th century.

In the Netherlands and Germany, St. Nicholas has long been associated with gift-giving. I live in North Germany, where the children put out an empty plate or their shoes on the eve of St. Nicholas Day and find that St. Nicholas had brought them treats (tangerines and nuts are traditional, though other candy and bigger presents are given as well) overnight. On the evening of December 6th, there is also the so-called Nikolauslaufen, which is a sort of trick-or-treating with the kids dressing up as St. Nicholas.

The Dutch variation of the tradition is called Sinterklaas. In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas is bigger than Christmas. The American Santa Claus is obviously a variation on St. Nicholas.

St. Nicholas or Sinterklaas also knows if you've been good or bad. If you've been bad, you don't get any presents or treats. Instead you get a bundle of twigs. Originally, St Nicholas probably used the bundle of twigs to spank naughty children - in more politically correct times he just left the twigs behind for naughty children. Sometimes St. Nicholas has a helper who deals with the naughty children instead. In Germany, this helper is called Knecht Ruprecht, in the Netherlands it's the rather politically incorrect figure called Zwaarte Piet (black Peter).

I strongly suspect that your Belsnickel is a regional variation on the St. Nicholas tradition, particularly since Pennsylvania had a lot of German and Dutch settlers.

We have since exchanged a few emails and she said it pleased her to know that people in Pennsylvania were continuing to carry on the tradition. I sent her a copy of the story and she said the explanation of the origin of the name that I put in the story – that “Belsnickel” derived from “Pelz-Nicholas” which is German for “Nicholas in pelts” from the Rhine River Valley – sounded entirely plausible to her because wearing fur in the Rhine Valley would be a very good idea in Winter. I also took note of  “Knecht Ruprecht” because “Ruprecht” is a common name where I come from. 

I'm very happy to have had this correspondence and confirmation. I've also done a little more research and found out some interesting things. “Belsnickel” far pre-dates Santa Claus. Santa Claus only  evolved after the American Civil War but Belsnickel has been around since the eighth century. There is a good article about him on

I also found this curious article on a blog called Appalachian Lifestyles. In this area Belsnickeling is a sort of Christmas time trick-or-treat with grown men dressed up as clowns and going from house-to-house with increasing merriment.

It is rather exciting to hear from people who read the story and have stories of their own to add. There are already 2 5-star reviews on Amazon and a few sales. I hope more people will discover this little story and read more about Belsnickel. It makes me happy to know that the tradition may survive.

Thanks for reading.

I got 13 Nikolaus kids this year, which is about average. Though I've also had more than 20 kids in other years. One year, I opened the door to find an entire girls' basketball team standing outside and singing and had to dig into my own stash of chocolate, because the sweets I'd bought weren't enough for them all.
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