Skip to content

Well-Behaved Women Often Make History – Guest Post by Deborah Hining

Summer Kinard

From time to time, I ask another writing mother to join my blog with a guest post. Today I welcome my friend Deborah Hining, award-winning author of A Sinner in Paradise andA Saint in Graceland, to tell her truth about an insidious lie we see almost every time we drive.

***

"Well-Behaved Women Often Make History" Don’t believe everything you read on a bumper sticker. Deborah Hining talks about what it takes to be memorable.

Usually I take bumper stickers in the spirit they were intended, especially those that are sassy or exceptionally geeky, but occasionally one that probably is intended to be funny will rub me the wrong way. The one that is currently on my “It disturbs me to see” list reads, “Well-Behaved Women Rarely Make History.”

I find it irksome because, for one, it is not true.

Think hard. How many badly behaved women can you think of who have…

View original post 1,088 more words

Part 3 of our Viking River Cruise: The Blue Danube, Austria, and Hungary

 

bishops palace.jpgJust to set things straight, the Danube is not really blue: it’s just your typical brown river, albeit through some of the world’s most gorgeous landscapes, towns and cities. It came to be called “Blue” because when Napoleon attacked with his blue-uniformed army, the Austrians handily defeated them, forcing them en masse into the river. On that fateful day, the water looked blue because of all the floating dead soldiers. Every town we visited in Austria made the claim to be the town that whooped Napoleon, but they all agreed that’s how the name came about.

Both Austria and Hungary have interesting histories that are intertwined, having enjoyed the reign of the extraordinarily wealthy and powerful Hapsburg family, who not only ruled the Holy Roman Empire between 1438 and 1740, but also ruled Spain and most of central Europe up through the 19th century. The Hapsburgs were unique among the royals of Europe because they figured out that the best way for the dynasty to increase their holdings and power was not by waging war, but by systematically marrying their children into other royal households. Their motto was, “Leave the waging of wars to others! But you, happy Austria, marry; for the realms which Mars awards to others, Venus transfers  to you.”

They were so successful in inserting themselves into the ruling elite of all of Europe that the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa became known as the “Great-Grandmother of Europe.” There was an eventual drawback to this marrying and breeding strategy, however, for by the late 19th century, Hapsburg blood ran through the veins of so many of Europe’s rulers that there was nobody but their own left to marry. “The best spouse for a Hapsburg is another Hapsburg.” became the new family motto, and excessive inbreeding resulted in the eventual extinction of the family.

By the early 20th century, Austria had shrunk from being a major European power to the tiny nation it is today. But thanks to the reign of the Hapsburgs, their money, power, and their artistic sensibilities, Austria’s cities remain among of the most glorious of Europe. Our first stop, Melk, boasts Melk Abbey, which is even more beautiful than the Bishop’s Palace of Wurzburg. It has a library I could live in forever.

melk-abbey

Melk Abbey

spiral ceiling

Melk Abbey interior stairwell

 

 

melk-abbey-library

My future home, the Library at Melk Abbey

From Melk, we sailed on to Vienna, home of Strauss and Mozart, mouth-watering chocolate, and architecture that was designed to be jaw dropping. Forget the expression, “less is more.” In Vienna, MORE is more! Driving around the Ringstrasse, the wide boulevard encircling the inner City, is like driving around in a wedding cake competition. Each building is a work of art, and graceful statues cavort on every corner.

vienna-statue2

vienna-downtown

 

 

The main market is a wonder. It looked and smelled so good, all I wanted to do was walk up and down the place, sniffing, gazing and smiling.

vienna market.jpg

After Vienna, continuing along the Danube, we crossed over into Hungary, and immediately we noticed a difference, not so much in the architecture, but in the people. In Austria, everyone is blonde, blue-eyed, and large. In Hungary, they are all small, brunette, and brown-eyed. Amazing, especially since Hungary and Austria were once all a part of the same empire, and one would think, all a part of the same extended family. However, the small, dark strains of the original Celts are still dominant.

Vienna intended itself to be a lavish confection, but it seems that Budapest decided to pile it on even more. I believe that surely Walt Disney used Budapest as the inspiration for his theme parks. The place is a wonderland of whimsy. We had been to Budapest about 15 years ago, and at that time, it was barely out from under Soviet rule. Then, the people had a hard edge to them, nobody smiled, and the city seemed unkempt and noisy. We enjoyed it, but we did not fully appreciate its splendor. Now, it feels as if it is breathing again, the people are happy, the city is clean and vibrant.

budapest-marvel

budapest-disneyland

The people seem almost giddy, and for good reason. It has been an independent, free county only for about 25 years, for throughout its history, it has always been under the thumb of another occupying power. Because Hungary is smack in the middle of Europe, everybody wanted it for their own, and everybody invaded it. It was founded by the Celts,  but it did not stay in their hands for long. Rome took it over in the first century; they were followed by the Huns, the Bulgarians, the French and Germans, the Mongols, and the Turks. Finally, in the 18th century, the Hapsburgs grabbed it, controlling it from Vienna. Under their rule, Budapest became one of the most beautiful and important cultural city in Europe, even through the various occupations after the First World War

Germany took Hungary again during their invasion of Europe, then decimated the cities as they fled the advancing Soviet Army at the end of World War II. By the time the Soviets laid claim to it in 1945, it was devastated, poor, hungry, and demoralized. Hungarians never stopped hoping for their independence, however, and kept a steady spirit of hope and resistance until at last the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. Now, finally, they are free and independent, and very, very happy about it. As I mentioned earlier in this post, they are gradually beginning to understand the joys of freedom, and as they do, they look back, remember, and honor their slain.

Prior to WWII, Hungary was a safe haven for Jews, but the Nazis decimated the Jewish population during the years between 1939 and 1945. One of the most moving and meaningful places I saw was the memorial of the shoes. One night in December, 1944, the Nazi army captured several Jews and anyone they could find who had sheltered. They marched them to the banks of the Danube, forced them to take off their shoes, and then they shot them. The bodies fell into the river, but their shoes remained for some days afterward. The memorial, made of iron reproductions of the shoes left along the riverbank, is a solemn reminder of only one of many tragic incidents in Hungary’s history.

shoes The shoe memorial.

Now, the city is beautiful and happy. Our strolls around during the day were breathtaking, but in the evening, our last night on the boat, we were treated to nighttime views as we sailed up and down the Danube, under the magnificent bridges. Oh my! As we stood up on the sundeck in the cool night, every bridge and building was lit up. Statues leaped out from the shadows. Hillsides bloomed with beautiful hidden alcoves, and the water shimmered with sparkling lights. Pomp combined with whimsy was everywhere! It was a night to remember—bittersweet, as we gazed in wonder and said our goodbyes to the friends we had made along the way.

budapest-parlaimant-at-night

Budapest Parliament

 

We were sad to part company with our fellow passangers, but Budapest was our last stop, and the end of the day meant the end of our trip. The ship left the next morning to continue its journey to the Black Sea. Some of our lucky shipmates were continuing on, but we sadly had to say goodbye to one of the best vacations we have ever had. You can bet that if we are ever in a position to do this again, we will jump on it. I hope someday to sail thriough Russia and the Scandanavian countries. Fingers are crossed!

greg-and-deb-farewell

A farewell serenade from our friends who were lucky enough to continue to the Black Sea

 

Our Masterpiece Theatre River Cruise Part 2: Germany The Rhine, Main, and Danube Rivers, and the Main-Danube Canal.

castles on the rhine

I had been looking forward to this part of the journey because I am thinking of setting a future novel in WWII Germany. It was all I had hoped it would be. Not only did I get a marvelous history lesson that I would have not have gotten if I had not come here, but it was also a feast for the senses. The stretch of Germany we saw along the Rhine, Main, and Danube Rivers is breathtaking, the towns are straight out of fairy tales, and the people are beautiful and kind.

halftimbered

One of many half-timbered wonders

 

Cologne was our first German town, home of the world’s first eau de Cologne, Roman ruins that have been beautifully preserved and restored, Northern Europe’s largest cathedral (a Gothic wonder that was mercifully spared by Allied bombers), plenty of brauhauses, and best of all, a chocolate museum (a living museum, of course, with plenty of samples!).

After that, we were treated to Koblenz, a veritable fairy tale, and nearby, in Marksburg there is a well-preserved castle high on a hill, complete with a torture chamber and an array of well-dressed knights representing the styles of that brotherhood from the 11th century through the age of chivalry. It also has a view to die for.

my favorite guy

One of my favorite knights in shining armor

chastity belt

This was not one of the torture devices, although  it should have been. It is a medieval chastity belt. Yep. They really existed!

We had lunch in the market square, where they show us what a European farmer’s market is like.  The 12 varieties of  mushrooms alone made me stand and drool for several minutes, and within 10 minutes, my hands were pleasantly sticky with the juice of gorgeous cherries.

After that I walked up a very big hill to the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress with some newfound friends for another fantastic view of the day. When we were walking back down, we came across a group of young people from Madrid, singing and  dancing with Spanish flags in front of a church. When I stopped to admire them, they drew me into the dance and showered me with happiness. One of the boys, who must have been about 14 or 15 spoke to me in very broken English that I could not really decipher, and gave me a gift–a leather bracelet with a dangling cross that looked like a rosary, except instead of beads, there were knots tied along the length. You are, according to them, as they ticked off the knots, to say, “Ave Maria, Ave Maria, Ave Maria, pray for the war.” I had no idea which war they were referring to, but they were so precious and so eager to share with me, I was beguiled by them. The boy who had given me the bracelet looked at me like he missed his mama, and I so wanted to gather him in my arms and cuddle for a minute, but I was afraid that might seem weird, so I held back.

Now I am sorry, I did. All of these babies and their desire to connect made me realize that this is why we travel. They were away from home, probably for the first time, on their way to see the Pope in Budapest, and they were a shining example of tomorrow’s hope. My arms still ache for the memory of the hugs I did not hand out.

By now, we passengers were getting to know each other pretty well. Meals and afternoon happy hours were spent in easy conversation as we floated along past castles, cathedrals, and vineyards, while sipping the excellent local wines. Most of the people on the trip were, like us, experiencing their first river cruise, and considered it the trip of a lifetime. Most were Americans and Canadians, but we also met some darlings from Australia, Barbados, and Norway. One Australian friend was a musician, and in the evenings, he and the ship musician treated us to impromptu, rousing rock and roll concerts. Of course, we all joined in the chorus.  As good as the trip was, the experience was made better by these delightful people. All of the crew were from exotic countries, and they vied among themselves to give every passenger the best experience imaginable. The young woman who cleaned the cabins on our deck played practical jokes on me and laughed at me when I fell for them. I miss her.

dinner

Just your typical supper on the boat

 

Sailing through the Rhine Valley, chock full of castles and more fairy tale scenery, we stopped at the charming medieval town of Miltenburg, full of crooked, cobblestone lanes and half-timbered houses, most of them sagging in the middle or leaning at interesting angles. That was followed by Wurzburg, famed for its Baroque masterpiece, the Bishop’s Residence palace, which is about the biggest box of eye candy I have ever seen.

 

The intimate chapel at The Prince Bishop’s Palace

Next came Bamberg, another medieval charmer, which features an old town hall built on a tiny island in the middle of the Regnitz River. In the cathedral, there is a mysterious statue of a man on horseback. He’s very old, perhaps from the early 13th century, and time has worn off all his paint. Nobody knows who it is, but the Nazis thought he was so magnificent they used him as an emblem of Nazism, floating his image on banners all over Germany. They painted him blonde and blue-eyed because, of course, he had to be representative of the great Aryan race. The beautiful irony here is that recently, new technology has been able to deduce the color of pigment that had been on the stature originally. He was swarthy.

Because of my interest in Hitler’s regime, I was anxious to get to Nuremburg to see the where the infamous Nazi rallies took place and the site of the war crimes trials at the Palace of Justice. It was fascinating, not just because of its historical significance, but also because of the role the place has played and is still playing in the lives of Germans. You have seen pictures of the Zeppelin Field where Hitler (and Charlie Chaplin doing his famous imitation) held forth. In these pictures, it looks spiffy, with roaring crowds, manicured grounds and soaring monuments. Today, it is a sad, derelict place, ignored and shamed.  As soon as the war ended and war crimes came to light, the German people were deeply disturbed at what had happened right under their noses, and wanting to distance themselves from the events of the 30s and 40s,  they just walked away, locked up their memories and their parade grounds, and tried their best to rebuild their lives. They were so closed to the idea of reliving the history of the war that they would not even speak to their children about it. The Nazi Regime was not written about in the history books. A whole generation of children grew up, unable to even ask questions about what happened in the years between 1930 and 1945.

I understand why this happened. Although many Germans did not know what was happening to the Jews, communists, homosexuals, and outspoken opponents of Nazi crimes, they surely had more than an inkling that the regime was not as glorious as it pretended to be. Most were terrified of what might happen to them if they did not bow to the rules of the times, and even though they were aware that their friends were disappearing, most of them hoped that officials were beingn truthful when they told them those friends were just being relocated to safer, or more industrial areas where they could find jobs. As Albert Speers confessed in his book, Inside the Third Reich, he didn’t want to know what was happening, so he made every effort not to know. He ignored the signs. He turned his eyes when he was confronted by a horrible truth. He “knew” even though that “knowledge” was not confirmed until he saw the evidence in the Nuremburg trials.

What would you do if you were living through a repressive regime, with the fear that government agents might come banging on your door in the middle of the night if you aided and abetted “terrorists?” In the airport, I see signs posted, “If you see something suspicious, report it!” We do what we think is patriotic and right if we see someone who looks like a bad guy. How do we know who is bad? The media tells us. We rely on honest reporting to tell us whom we should and should not trust. In Nazi Germany, the only information broadcast was written by Nazis strictly to advance the Nazi cause. It was fed to the people in carefully controlled ways that did not allow them to form opinions on their own. I can see why the people buried their heads, and I can understand why they were so horrified when the truth came out. The mayor of a town near one of the Jewish death camps and his wife went to tour the camps shortly after the liberation, and afterwards, they came home and hanged themselves. It is understandable that the whole nation did not want their children to be exposed to their shame.

parade grounds

Hitler’s beloved Zeppelin Field, now with weeds growing in the stands. The huge  Eagles are gone, the concrete is cracked.

Now, things are changing. The Germans are requiring that all schoolchildren visit sites connected with the war, that they understand why it is so important to keep their democracy robust and vital. I wish we Americans were so in love with liberty that we required our own schoolchildren to understand how precious it is, how important truth, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of the mind are.

Leaving Nuremburg sobered and a bit frightened, we came on to Regensburg, where we were plunged back into the beauty of Medieval Europe. The oldest city along the Danube, Regensburg boasts a gorgeous old Stone Bridge, constructed in the 12th century, and now a place to buy a glass of their famous Riesling wine to sip above the beautiful old arches. Regensburg also is the major site of Nazi book burnings. It’s hard to imagine pogroms and book burnings in this sleepy, friendly little village.

One of the surprising things about Germany was the number of locks we had to go through. I think there was something like 69 of them. Fortunately, we went through most of them at night, and sometimes we were dropped off at one location where we spent the morning, then drove on to meet the ship at another town, which had gone through a few locks without us. Since the ship traveled at only about 8 miles per hour, we were able to zip around to a lot of different places on comfortable buses, then return to the ship a few miles upriver in time for lunch or dinner.

Finally, we came to Passau, where we got to spend a little extra time because the ship needed some unexpected repairs, and would that all of my days dedicated to vehicle repairs were like this! We were treated to the most fabulous organ concert in a church with no few than 7 sets of organ pipes, all played at once. You could feel the music in your bones, literally. I can see why Medieval Europeans thought that the cathedrals were the closest thing they could see of heaven. Between the music, the soaring architecture, and the art, there were moments when I thought I was there. What a magnificent end to our cruise through Germany! I now am officially in love with this beautiful country.

organs

The music from these babies will rattle your bones and send your spirit soaring

In my next blog post, we will move on to Austria and jump into the history of the Hapsburgs, the most influential family of Europe’s history. They were rock stars, so stay tuned for Part 3 and beautiful Bavarian Austria.

 

 

Rolling Up and Down the River, Masterpiece Theatre Style

Viking will take delivery of 12 new river cruise ships in 2015, including two "Longship-esque" vessels along the Elbe River. Rendering courtesy of Viking.

After years of lusting after one of those Viking cruises I see in the commercials on PBS, I finally scored one at a price we almost could afford. I think they realized we were never going to take them up on their occasional “specials,” so they just quit fooling around and made us a last minute offer we couldn’t refuse. Before we could think much about it, Mike and I, along with our best buddies, found ourselves slinging clothes into suitcases, preparing to cruise through The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and Hungary on one of those sleek, beautiful vessels you see during the breaks of Masterpiece Theatre, drifting through dramatic valleys lined with castles and cathedrals. A dream comes true!

Sailing on a Viking ship is a whole different, more wonderful experience than what we are used to, being as how all our past trips to Europe have been of the budget variety. Yes, it’s everything it’s cracked up to be, and more. PBS doesn’t lie! Although our cabin, being the cheapest accommodations available, was in the bowels of the ship (one passenger called us “bilge swillers”), we did not mind that it was small and practically below the waterline. We only needed to sleep there. The rest on the time on board, we were free to hang out in the cozy lounge or the sun decks and pretend to be members of the idle rich. The meals were sumptuous and delicious, the wine flowed, we were treated like royalty, we met a lot of really nice and interesting people, and we learned a lot. Pretty much a perfect vacation.

This the first of several installments that will give you the lowdown on what it is like to make the grand tour through central Europe on a riverboat cruise.

Part One: The Netherlands.

canal bridge

We spent only 2 1/2 days here, but there was much to see and do, and I learned more interesting things here than I did anywhere else. Amsterdam was far more beautiful than I thought it would be. The light, even in midsummer, has that magical quality captured so beautifully by the old masters, and everywhere we looked, we saw water, light, and space. After the narrow medieval streets of most of Europe, it was surprising to see how much room Amsterdam has for wide streets, tram tracks, bicycle lanes, canals, and foot traffic. Later, I discovered that the streets are extra wide because there used to be more canals, and wider ones. Many have been filled in now, leaving lots of luxurious space

Amsterdam 1

The Van Gogh museum is full of wonderful art, and it also featured exhibits regarding the artist’s life: his gentle personality, his madness and death. Interested in the ear incident? Here’s what I learned: He really did chop off his whole ear. Not just a little bit of it, but somehow hacked off the whole thing off right up against his head, leaving only the little piece at the bottom with the earlobe attached.

This event marked the beginning of his madness—not just depression and acting a little weird, but stark raving lunacy, which lasted off and on for about a year and a half before his death. There were periods of lucidity, but the poor man was tortured for most of that time, finding a little peace here and there only when he was painting. While his doctor at the time was able to bring him some relief, the specific name for his illness has never been determined conclusively.

You might be interested to know  that there is also a debate about whether Van Gogh really killed himself. There is some evidence to suggest that he was accidentally shot by some boys who were nearby fooling around with a pistol. He told his brother he did it himself, but he may have said that to keep the boys from getting into trouble. That version is very compelling to me because it is in keeping with the personality of the kind and compassionate man we got to know that afternoon in the museum.

Van Gogh

Me and two of my main men, Mike and Vincent

I am researching the underground resistance movement of WWII, so was keen to visit the Dutch Resistance Museum. Even though they had almost no help from the Allies, since the Nazis had pretty much had buttoned everything up by 1940, The Dutch ran a very robust Resistance movement. Not only did these brave citizens aggressively fight the Germans by killing Nazis and blowing up bridges and factories, they also used other, less dramatic tactics to thwart the invaders. They forged documents for Jews, trapped Allies, and Resistance fighters, and burned down registry offices so that the Germans could not check the legitimacy of these forged papers. They developed underground railroads to smuggle Jews and downed Allied pilots to safety. They made sure plenty of “accidents” happened at the factories where they worked and managed to slow production by strikes or by producing armaments and explosives that were faulty and worthless. One woman who was arrested for being a constant monkey wrench in the works was put in jail and told to darn the officer’s socks. She still did her part. Pretending to be simple minded, she sewed them all shut.

They paid for their resistance with terrible retributions. They were starved, murdered, and put into brutal camps. During our trip, I met some people who had been children in the country at that time. They still remember how hungry they were and what a celebration they had when the Allied planes came flying overheard in 1945, dropping food supplies, which saved them from certain starvation.

I came away humbled, grateful, and terrified. We Americans are blessed, but the luxury of the precious democracy we enjoy is fragile and so vulnerable that it would be shockingly easy to lose it if we aren’t vigilant, if we don’t take our responsibilities of self-government seriously. When Hitler first started campaigning, nobody took this ranting nutcase seriously, even when he started amassing a large following. When he was elected Chancellor (equivalent to our President) in an official, national election, people were shocked that he actually had convinced enough people to vote him into office. But they felt they did not need to worry. Germany was a democratic republic, full of checks and balances, and besides, they reasoned, there were enough other decent people in government who could hold him in check. They were wrong. It took Hitler under three months to destroy the democracy and establish himself as Dictator.

I also met a man whose grandfather had been a member of the Resistance. He had worked for Coca Cola, driving a delivery truck. The Germans, being fans of Coke themselves, did not think to check for guns and ammunition to supply Resistance fighters hidden underneath the cases of Cokes.

I’d like to buy the world a Coke right now.

Of course, we visited the Red light district, which was surprisingly civilized, more genteel than The French Quarter on a Saturday night. Yes, there were lots of bars, crowds, and “coffee shops” on every corner where you can buy pot either in tidy cigarette form, or in cookies or brownies. There also are nearly naked girls standing or dancing behind big, bright, storefront windows hawking their wares. But oddly, the scene seemed less sleazy than Bourbon Street where the fully dressed hookers hide behind curtains. There were no aggressive hawkers or tough bouncers in the bars, no blaring music or that frantic atmosphere you see when people are out to see how much trouble they can find. No one was drunk, rowdy, or itching for a fight; everyone was chill and smiling, just strolling around enjoying the atmosphere. The prostitutes, all confined to their bright display cases, were just young women, not exactly looking like fresh-faced UNC freshmen rushees, but not depraved looking, either. They looked like your typical secretary or computer programmer, not miserable, not overly happy, maybe a little bored, just girls doing their job. Nobody seemed interested in them except a couple of ladies working for the Salvation Army who made their rounds to each of the girls, handing out tea, coffee and the occasional sandwich. They were greeted like old friends, with hugs and laughter.

I talked to the Salvation Army ladies, who told me that the girls do not consider prostitution a degrading profession. They are protected, closely monitored by the government, and are given free education and medical services. If they want to get out of the sex trade, they can, and the Salvation Army ladies and the government help them retool themselves for a different career. It was a far cry from the image that comes to mind when we think of prostitutes in the US, and it makes me rethink the way we do things in America.

We sailed during the night and woke up to a cheerful drizzle at the quintessential Netherland village of Kinderdjik, with 19 functioning 18th century windmills and canals that date back to the 13th century. The workings of the dykes and canals, and windmills to keep the water pumping away from the land is amazing. I found it interesting that the Dutch wrested 60% of their land from below the sea by engineering genius during the same time my own ancestors thought the best way to get their hands on a bigger chunk of land was to go hack their kinsmen and neighbors to bits, then move in.

windmill

We got to go into one of the working windmills and to talk to the miller. Although we think that a “miller” is someone who grinds corn or flour, to the Dutch, he is someone who takes care of the windmills. Back in the day, the miller lived in these 5 story buildings with a tiny footprint with his whole family, usually of a dozen children or so. He was not allowed to leave the mill at any time. No vacations. 365 days a year spent right there on the spot so that he could quickly change the angle of the sails anytime the wind shifted. But it was and is considered a very prestigious occupation.

miller family

A miller and his family who all lived together in a windmill back in the day. Note the bald heads of the children except the oldest girl. She was of marrying age, and thus needed to be pretty to enhance her prospects. The others no doubt are fighting lice.

windmill interior

Here are some interesting bits of fact I picked up in Kinderdijk:

  1. The country is called The Netherlands, not Holland. North Holland and South Holland are merely provinces. There are actually 12 provinces, but since North and South Holland border the sea, most of the sailors who came from the region came from one of the Hollands. When people asked, “Where do you come from?” the answer was always “Holland.” That gave the impression that the whole country was named such.
  2. How Americans (especially those from the New England region) came to be called “Yankees:”Two common Dutch boys’ are Jan and Kees. The Dutch pronounce them “Yan” (short a) and “Case,” but the English pronounced them “Yan,” with a long a, and “Keys.” Thus “Yankees.

After our windmill tour, we ate lunch on the ship and set sail, watching the gorgeous landscapes along the Rhine River from the sun deck. The weather was beautiful, the wine was plentiful. I got used to it in a hurry. Dinner was a glorious affair, and we began to meet gracious and interesting people who would soon become friends. No idle rich here! Everyone seemed just like us–excited and happy to be here, interested in everything and everybody they met.

We spent the night still drifting upriver until we passed into Germany, docking the next morning in Cologne, the home of Roman ruins, a spectacular cathedral, plenty of brauhauses, and first eau de Cologne ever made. The Netherlands was a success, and we looked forward to the rest of it! Stay tuned for Germany.

Deadheading on the Fourth of July

There is a kind of pleasure in gardening on a hot, steamy day after a week of rain, not because the body is comfortable, but because once you get past the sauna-like atmosphere as you wade into a sea of daylilies to weed and deadhead, you find a kind of glory in playing God. In your primeval, swampy, steamy garden, you begin to believe you have complete control to change the world. Reaching down into the earth, you experience the rare pleasure of feeling the tenacious roots of weeds yielding easily. The clinging, red, North Carolina clay even gives up Bermuda grass roots after several days of soaking rains—a miracle if ever I saw one.

Gardening time means thinking time. It is best not to contemplate the slushy mud at your feet or the mosquitoes feasting on your flesh, but on the world you are creating and re-creating. Chopping off a spent daylily bloom suddenly brightens the garden, pulling out a clump of crabgrass reveals a lovely chocolaty backdrop for your Shasta Daisies to shine. You see the asters begin to breathe as you clear away the suffocating pigweed. Yes, that must be what God feels like when He looks down and sees what He has set in motion.

There is a difference between us and God. When we plant a garden, we do not set things to spinning and then step back to observe how free will might play out. No, we keep our hands right down in that mud, moving our creation around, changing, pruning, thinning, deadheading. We can’t leave well enough alone and let our garden get itself into a right proper mess, with plants stepping out of their boundaries, taking over more vulnerable beauties, crowding, littering, running rampant, out of control. We determinedly pull and pluck, dig and plant, convinced that we eventually will eradicate all the weeds, we will keep the verbena to a respectable height and the black-eyed Susans vertical. Once we get the right combination of nutrition, nothing will flop over, sprawling into the pathways. Disease and pests will find an impermeable barrier at the edge of our yards. Bunnies are allowed, but they can’t eat the phlox. Or the hosta.  We strive for perfection, even when we prefer our perfection to look untamed. I like a riot of colors, a variety of heights and breadths, a garden that looks wild and exuberant, but is weed-free, disease-free, flop free, and not too rambunctious. In other words, I tell it: be wild and full of abandon, but mind your manners. Constrain your enthusiasm. Don’t elbow your neighbors. You know, that kind of wild and full of abandon. Messy, but pretty, like Julia Robert’s hair the morning after.

As I clip, pull, and sweat, I find myself wishing that God would come garden in us more. It seems He has wantonly scattered Life without even looking to see where things landed. He sends the rain and the sunshine at sometimes-odd intervals, enough to generally sustain the Life He began, but even those are capricious, sometimes as destructive as they are nourishing. It’s as if He just threw everything, the robust and the delicate, the beautiful and the vile, the mannerly and the boorish onto the empty field, then stood back, keeping His hands off to let us run amuck as we choose. I am reminded of the parable about the seeds falling on good ground, on hard ground, and amid the weeds. Only the seeds that fall on good, clean, fertile ground take root and bear fruit. The unlucky ones are doomed to wither without ever fulfilling their destiny. Why? Is this a form of predestination? Or is it a parable of how our reckless exercise of free will lands us in a barren and desolate place?

I can’t answer those theological questions. I can only ask them as I ponder whether or not to dig out the excess daylilies now or wait until the fall, or if I should go ahead and chop down those stalks that still have one unopened bud on them, knowing that tomorrow it will be completely spent and I will have to brave the mosquitoes and spiders to wade back into the mass to do it then. (Always, I decide to let the last bloom have its day. It kills me to waste a single day of daylily glory. Roses, too. I can’t bring myself to lop off a huge mass of spent blooms if there is a single unopened bud left in the middle.)

So, in the cauldron of summer, when it is hot, muggy, mosquito infested, and squishy underfoot, I weed and deadhead and ponder the mysteries of life and eternity, and become the kind of god I wish Our God would be sometimes—controlling His Creation, making it nicer, cleaner, tidier, but with the illusion that we are completely free to live as we choose. I impose my will on my subjects, for a little while, at least, telling myself that it is getting closer to perfection because of my hard work. And then I step away for a moment. When I look again, I see that, in fact, I have not succeeded at all. Nature is nothing, if not Free Will. I suppose that God, in His wisdom, has set Free Will as one of the laws of the universe. It also seems that we humans want free will all to ourselves. I want to do what I want to do, but I also want others to do what I want them to do. The madness of it is, I actually believe that eventually, I will be able to impose my will on my creation, and my little Eden will bow to it.

I would write more, but I see that the beautyberry bush has grown so big that it is crowding out the rose beside it. That’s just as well. The rose would look better if I move it between the birdbath and the purple irises. Time to go play god again.

‘Why the Words Come’ with Deborah Hining

Friend and fellow writer Elizabeth Hein is hosting me on her blog this week. Here is the text of my guest blog appearance:

People sometimes tell me that they would like to be a writer, but they can’t get it together enough to sit down and write: they have ideas but lack the discipline to put them down. Or they know what they want to say, but they can’t find the words to say it. I know exactly what they mean. I, too, lack discipline. I have few ideas and my thoughts are fuzzy. I am a dullard of the first order.

Most of my writer friends are disciplined and smart. Their thoughts are clear. They can express an idea lucidly, easily, without having to write and rewrite dozens of times. They find a story, and they go to the trouble to outline it, paying attention to plot and structure before they even begin the real writing. They consistently sit down every day and do not get up again until at least a thousand words have graced the page. I admire these writers and envy their clarity, talent, and discipline.

Yet, somehow, I do manage to get a book written now and then, and in the end, I am always pleased with what I have written. My secret? It’s the same, simple secret of everyone who  “somehow” makes it happen. I pay attention to my muse. I let it have its way with me. I let it take over and tell the story it wants to tell, and despite my lack of discipline, my fuzzy thoughts, my laziness, I am a writer because I give in to the impulse to write.

According to Elizabeth Gilbert in her book, Big Magic, a genius is not a person who is  especially gifted, but rather it is a (non-human) being, a muse, if you will, that literally brings a gift of vision. When people have a creative idea, they have been gifted that idea by a muse. If a person cooperates and allows his or her muse to bring the idea to fruition, then that person becomes an artist. That means that an artist is really nothing special, but merely a cooperative facilitator of the creative process. No matter how talented, educated, or disciplined a writer is, in reality, she might be little more than a secretary, taking notes dictated by her muse.

I think everybody’s muse is different. Mine is a little wild, definitely untamed, for it runs roughshod over me. That is probably because it is a lot smarter than I am, and I have little to offer as a collaborator. I have few ideas of my own, and even when I do, I express them badly. I suffer from lack of concentration. I sit and stare at a blank screen for long periods where nothing of note rises to the surface of my mind. Then, my muse rushes in, all big ideas and harrowing situations, and then the words come, but they hardly seem like my own. Many times when I write, I literally do not know what is coming next. A character stands up to speak, and I have no idea what she will say until the words are spoken. A character finds herself in a prickly situation, and I do not know how she will get out of it until suddenly she has, and I almost have to go back and read what I have written in order to discover it. When I wrote A Sinner in Paradise, I thought Geneva would fall in love with one man, a perfectly wonderful guy, but my muse shoved him aside and lured her into the arms of a different one. I think had a little more control with my most recent release, A Saint in Graceland. I knew who Sally Beth would love, and how she would fail, but I did not know how she would overcome her troubles. My muse had to prod me through a labyrinth of traumatic situations until I arrived, breathless and terrified at the final Happy Ever After ending.

A seasoned, disciplined writer who can summon a muse at will, get it to do its work in a short amount of time, without a lot of fuss is gifted indeed. Such a writer has learned to work with her muse, exercising control and imposing certain standards. Their muses rarely run amuck, and they do not have to go back and straighten out all the havoc their muses have made.

I cannot claim any control over mine. It comes to me only every once in a while, in a rush, from an outside source beyond my control. And when it does, it is overwhelming. Words come faster than I can write them; ideas spill out and throw themselves on my computer screen, taking shape and a life of their own. I work, not in small segments, like my disciplined friends who faithfully sit down for an hour or two every day and write carefully crafted prose, but in long, sustained torrents, hours and hours where I pound the keyboard, forget to eat or drink, and finally glance up when my bladder is screaming at me, my parched mouth begs for water, and my hands are shaking from hunger.

And when the words are quieted, I look back to read what I have written, and I wonder where on earth it came from.

All this makes me believe that the Bible is, indeed, the inspired Word of God. I believe that when St. Paul, James, John, or Abraham sat down with their parchments, they did not completely understand the Divine secrets that flowed from their sharpened reeds. They did not know that the words of many writers, weighty with multifaceted, incomprehensible Truths, would join with theirs to ring in complex, intertwined chords throughout all of Scripture. They wrote the literal as they saw it, perhaps unaware that they also wrote metaphor and poetry because the words did yet not exist to describe what would be revealed slowly, over centuries, and be completely illuminated only at the very end of time. No, I am sure they just plodded along, writing prose and fact, catching only glimpses of the Reality just beyond.

The Holy Spirit is not the Muse for most of us. The ones we have been given are smaller beings, perhaps cousins to angels, gifts, perhaps from the hand of God, sent out to place an idea, enlighten, entertain, astonish, break and mend hearts. I wait for mine while I dig in the garden, change a diaper, make the bed, or stare at the computer screen. When it comes to invade me, I become more than myself, I rise above my inadequacies, and the filling that has come so fully, so excessively bursts out of me. There is nothing to do but write, write it all down as it comes flowing through.

It is imperfect when it comes. No, not imperfect. A mess. The words convey the ideas, but they are clumsy, inexact, and must be tweaked and mended. I stand amid the wreckage of ideas that have been tossed upon the pages without regard to plot or structure and have to make some sense of them. Information must be filled in with the help of research and thought. There are rewrites and then more rewrites and edits and more rewrites still. Half of what has been written must be excised, and what is left is sloppy and incomplete. But it is there, the gift that has come, rarely summoned, usually unbidden. It needs to be smoothed and polished and loved until it is ready to meet the world. After that, I pick myself up, exhausted, dust myself off, and, from the empty void that follows, beg for it to come fill me again.

Maybe someday I will tame it and get it to work for me on sane and temperate terms. Some days I want to. Other days, I’m not so sure.

Elizabeth Hein - Scribbling In The Storage Room

Today it is my pleasure to host Deborah Hining in the Storage Room. Deborah and I met several years ago through our editor, and I am continually impressed by Deborah’s talent as an author and her generosity as a human being. The thing I like best about her novels is the way she seamlessly incorporates faith into the story and leaves the reader feeling enriched by the experience. Without further ado, here is Deborah Hining with some thoughts about why the words come…..

People sometimes tell me that they would like to be a writer, but they can’t get it together enough to sit down and write: they have ideas but lack the discipline to put them down. Or they know what they want to say, but they can’t find the words to say it. I know exactly what they mean. I, too, lack discipline. I have few ideas and my thoughts…

View original post 1,398 more words

Cuba, Final Days

SC gazebo

Day 8, February 13, 2016

My stomach prevented me from enjoying the day to the fullest. No breakfast, white rice for lunch, while everyone else was enjoying a spectacular meal in an open-air restaurant. I was glad to crawl on the bus and sleep for a long road trip to the southern coast. Our destination was Cienfuegos, where we would stay for the next 2 days. On the way, we stopped at the museum commemorating the Bay of Pigs invasion, a collection of rather sad looking artifacts of war and many enlarged photographs of the battle that took place.

Cubans have not learned the art of subtlety. Every display contains phrases along the lines of: “Cowardly American Imperialists and their Traitorous Puppets,” and “Brave Patriots who stood victorious against the aggressors.” You get the picture.

bay of pigs

The Bay of Pigs Museum. Not much here except some pictures, posters, and Revolution slogans

 

Cienfuegos is a fairly new, beautiful town situated on a beautiful bay. Settled by the French in the 1890s, it is called “The Pearl of Cuba” for good reason. The thing that impressed me most about this town, aside from the long boardwalk along the bay where everybody congregates, is the incredible midcentury modern architecture of most of the houses there.

CF 1.jpg

House that looks like a boat. Notice how the people use their roofs

 

When I think of midcentury modern residences, I tend to think of cheap derivatives of Frank Lloyd Wright’s style, the kind of low slung tract houses that sprang up all over the United States after World War II. Those homes have never appealed to me, but the houses all over Cienfuegos are simply beautiful, whimsical, clean, and decorative.

There also is a good deal of beautiful French Colonial style architecture here. Obviously, this town has been inhabited by some very wealthy people. They did not mess around with cheap design.

 

blue house

love the colors

 

cienfuego town

Downtown Cienfuegos

 

I was curious about the fact that there are so many single family homes in Cienfuegos. People own their houses here, but ownership can be precarious. After the Revolution, Castro nationalized all property owned by foreigners, supporters of Batista, and anyone just too wealthy for the good of the cause. This might have been a problem for his brother, Raul, who happened to own a great deal of property. According to local legend, Raul balked at the plan to dispossess the wealthy (which would include him), until Fidel reminded him that, being the leaders of the government, they both would be better off because they would own ALL of the property they confiscated. I don’t know if that is a joke or not, but it does have some substance. I heard a sad story from one of the locals about a family who owned a beautiful house in Cienfuegos. It had been in the family for generations, but the family was not particularly gung-ho about the Communist party. A high-ranking Communist official decided he liked the house, and the next thing you know, the original owners were out in the street, and the government official owned it. This happened, not just after the Revolution when things were topsy-turvy and everything was shaken up, but only about 10 years ago. My advice to you is, don’t go trying to find a way to buy property in Cuba, even when trade restrictions are lifted. Any purchase may not “take.”

green domes.jpg

You have to wonder who owned this before the Revolution. It now belongs to the government

 

So who does own these beautiful middle class midcentury modern houses? Native Cubans whose families who did not get in Castro’s way, were wealthy enough to own a home prior to the Revolution, but not so wealthy as to spark any suspicions (Raul and Fidel excluded, of course).

Now that Raul Castro is running things, his pro-business sensibilities means that the Cuban people are able to turn their residences into Bed and Breakfasts. Many have added rooms onto their houses so they can rent out several rooms. It’s a good thing for us because we had hit yet another snag: the hotel where we had reserved rooms suddenly announced that the 3rd and 4th floors (the floors where we would be staying) had no water and they therefore could not accommodate us. By now, of course, our guides were used to being in crisis mode, and after a mad scramble, arranged for us to stay in private residences. It turned out to be one of the nicest parts of the trip. Our hosts were kind, thoughtful, and very happy that we were sharing their home. They brought out the best they had to offer, including some wonderful sparkling cider to toast the occasion of our visit.

Even nicer was the fact that dinner our first night in town was hosted by Alicia and Felix, the parents of Roberto, who live in Cienfuegos. It was a treat to be invited into their home for a wonderful rooftop dinner. Roberto had been buying up fresh produce from the farms we visited, and this night he pulled everything together into an amazing paella. Since it contained seafood, thus making it off-limits for me, Roberto’s sweet stepmother, Alicia, cooked arroz con pollo especially for me. Mindful of my still delicate stomach, she was careful to make it mild and soothing.

Roberto cooking.jpg

Roberto cooking up a storm at Alicia and Felix’s house in Cienfuegos

 

It was a lovely evening of friendship and family. We gathered on the rooftop under the stars, met Roberto’s friend, internationally known artist Richar (like Sting, he goes by a single name), and had the opportunity to buy one of his amazing paintings. Leyte and Saul had brought their children with them on the trip, and those of us missing our grandbabies passed them around for snuggles. Alicia, Felix, (I call them Alicia and Felix the joyful) and Roberto’s stepsister treated us like family. It was a wonderful experience—something I never expected to happen when I signed up for a 10 day visit to Cuba.

Completely worn out by the time we arrived back to the B & B at 11 pm, it did not matter that our room faced the street, just opposite a nightclub. I fell asleep to the pulsing rhythm of salsa. It might have seemed loud to less tired people, but it just rocked me right off to dreamland

Day 9. February 14, 2016

This was yet another jam-packed day. We drove to Trinidad, one of the oldest cities in Cuba. Established in 1514, it has aged gently and charmingly. The streets are paved with mismatched cobblestones that started life as ships’ ballast from that early time. The architecture is clean and simple. The people, like all Cubans, are friendly.

This was the first town we found to be suitable for shopping. I had seen very little shopping areas in any of the cities we had been to prior to Trinidad. Other than the occasional gift shop attached to a restaurant, I did not see a single place to buy anything in all of Cuba. There were drugstores, no grocery stores, no clothing shops, or department stores anywhere. Apparently, nobody buys much in Cuba, probably because there is very little to buy. In fact, some things are in such short supply that people sometimes prefer that visitors tip in basics like soap, shampoo, and toothpaste rather than money. Trinidad is the one town we visited that is geared toward tourism, with shops and restaurants, although I still did not see a single drugstore or grocery store—just places to buy handcrafted items like linens, jewelry, hats, and art. The little embroidered dresses that were made by a medical doctor (mentioned in a prior blog entry) were purchased here, as was a beautiful linen scarf made by craftswomen who are reviving the old, lost techniques of needlework.

trindad 3.jpg

trinidad

Mike stumbled upon an old fellow who surreptitiously sold some handmade cigars to him, cautioning, “Quick! Put them in your pocket!” The government owns all the legitimate cigar factories and 90% of the tobacco harvest. The 10% left to the farmers cannot be sold in the cities where “official” cigars are sold, so if you buy a cigar on the street, you most likely are taking part in an illegal activity. The government warns people not to buy “fakes.”

Interestingly, an illegal “fake” cigar is probably much better than an official Cohiba. In the sanctioned cigar factories, chemical additives adulterate the product. If you buy one from a tobacco farmer, you get an organic, hand rolled, unadulterated cigar, and for a whole lot less money. Mike thought he was just doing the guy a favor, but as it turned out, the so-called “fake” cigars he bought for our son-in-law are better than the official ones. They were much cheaper, too!

We had lunch at a nice place, but my stomach still was not cooperating. During the course of lunch, however, I made a surprising discovery: papaya contains a substance that settles the stomach. It is the go-to remedy for Cuban mothers when their children have a tummyache. I am not wild about them, especially since I had been subject to them at every meal since we hit the island, but when I ate some on this day and found my nausea lessening, I became quite a fan! I still did not eat much lunch, consisting of the usual heavy fare, but looked longingly at the avocados growing on the tree right above our heads. Why, oh why were we not served a single avocado on the entire trip? It was all I could do to keep from standing on the table, reaching up, and picking one of those huge, tasty-looking fruits right off the branch.

avacados.jpg

Leaving Trinidad, we went to El valle do los ingenios, the Valley of the Sugar Mills, stopping at an old plantation where we drank some delicious sugar cane juice (sans rum for me, thanks), and browsed along a street full of vendors. It was interesting, but I was saddened by what I saw and heard. The plantation had been farmed by slaves, and the evidence of their hardship was everywhere, from the poor descendants selling goods in the street to the picture of the slave mistress hanging on the wall in the front room, to the worn floor where slaves squeezed the juice from the cane by trudging around and around, pushing a heavy wooden pole. I grappled with the long pole, pushing it around to get a sense of what it felt like to have to work the cane. It was not easy.

plantation tower

The plantation tower. The view from the top is magnificient. Note the linens for sale

from the tower 3

View from the top of the tower.

 

I decided not to post most of the pictures we took of the plantation. They were too depressing.

We had dinner back in Cienfuegos, which I did not enjoy due to the smokiness of the restaurant and the heavy food going into my sensitive tummy, but I found out some interesting information about the Santeria religion while we were there. When slaves were imported from Africa, they were deprived of their religious heritage. They ostensibly embraced Catholicism, but in reality used it to camouflage the continuation of their own by blending the two. One of the African dieties is Chango, the god of of fire, lightning, and thunder. He wears red and carries a knife or a hatchet. Saint Barbara also wears red, carries a knife, and is associated with lightening and fire. In the restaurant where we ate this evening, there were paintings of a, large, mucscular African man wearing a red loincloth, wielding a sword  and a statue of pale Saint Barbara, holding her knife, wearing a read sash. She also had visited a pedicurist who had painted her toenails red. The two images standing side by side are a reflection of the hidden religion of Cuba.

Chango. Here he carries an ax. Below is Saint Barbara. Can you see the resemblance? They both  carry sharp objects and wear red. They also both like lightening and thunder.

And because I found this and couldn’t resist:

 

Day 10, February 16, 2016

Our last day. We hurried out in the morning for one last walk around the block in this lovely town before we got back on the bus and headed to the airport at Santa Clara. The drive took us through the poorest areas we had seen on the trip—this was the first time we had seen shantytowns and ramshackle houses.

shacks

They aren’t in great shape, but they are  painted in nice colors

 

Santa Clara is an interesting mix of old, colonial architecture and not so beautiful  midcentury modern buildings like the ones in Havana that were built when Batista had decided to “modernize” the country. One of the biggest battles of the Revolution took place here. Che Guevara, one of the leaders of the Revolution did a dandy job of shooting the place up. Bullet holes adorn several of the buildings around the square.

bullet holes

See the bullet holes especially in the upper right. Che shot up the town pretty good

 

I got the feeling that Santa Clara was economically depressed, even though there were plenty of indicators of past wealth.

SC gazebo

Sweet Gazebo built in the glory days

 

There were a few beggars, a rarity in Cuba, although they were not obnoxious. Richar the artist gave us a tour of the square, and we were intrigued by two women who stealthily followed us for the entire time. They never bothered us, but it felt a little odd, being so obviously followed. Unfortunately, I did not think to snap a picture of them. They haunt my memories.

After our tour, we went to lunch at an open-air restaurant, where we were served the usual heavy food. I had about three bites of shredded beef, which was not bad, just more than I wanted. For dessert, they served an excellent flan, along with the oddest thing: Milk balls. These were a concoction made of milk and sugar boiled down to a gooey consistency. It was about as tasty as it sounds.

And then, it was time to go. We were dropped off at the airport, which was nicer and much newer than the Havana airport. They actually had a snack bar and comfortable places to sit, and Hallelujah! The bathrooms were clean, the toilets flushed, and there was plenty of running water in the sinks! Our last visit to the loo in Cuba was far superior to our first (and all the ones in between). We all had a nice time visiting with each other one last time before we boarded our plane and headed for Miami and home.

It was a great trip, an adventure that we are very glad we took. We may have been coddled more than the average tourist, and for that I am grateful. The fact that Roberto, Elizabeth, Leyte, and Saul worked so hard to keep us comfortable and fed with the very best Cuba had to offer did not diminish the authenticity of the experience. I still got to drive a rattling Russian car through the back country, ride a sweet ox, drink sugar care juice at the source, toy with the idea of smoking a hand rolled cigar, swim in a crystal pool and many other, delightful adventures.

I came away feeling both better and worse about the country, the people, the Socialist government, the Revolution. There is no doubt that Cuba is a hard country, and the plight of the people is not good. But it has always been a hard country for the people who live there. Before the Revolution, there was slavery, then near-slavery under the heavy thumb of foreign ownership and a dictator who cared little for his people. After the Revolution—well, people are living under an equally ruthless dictatorship, and while they are poor and oppressed, I believe that the average citizen is better off now. They may not have internet or shopping malls or. . . oh, yes. . . that little thing called freedom. They may live in starving conditions at times, but they do have free medical care and educational opportunities, and they are finding ways to make their lives better. Resourceful, kind, and hopeful, the Cuban people were inspirational to me. I am glad I have the privilege to know a few: Roberto and Leyte, now both American citizens, and Alicia and Felix, along with all the other generous souls we came across: our hosts at the B & B in Cienfuegos, the hardworking farmers, the students and young people who look forward to a brighter future, the artists and artisans who toil long hours to make a better life. Although Mike and I have visited some of the old Soviet bloc nations that are still struggling with the legacy of Communist oppression, Cuba was our first “practicing” Socialist country. We came back richer for the experience, with an appreciation for differences of political opinions, and for the fact that we live in a free society. I am grateful for the opportunity to travel, and the opportunity to come home to a safe, comfortable, beautiful environment, and I am grateful for friendship that transcends political boundaries. God bless Cuba. May she and her people live long, live up to their potential, and someday, live free.

target

1963

 

 

FullSizeRender (1)

2016, With our hosts, Felix and Alicia the joyful