Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Southern Churches




Summerton United Methodist Church
Don’t you just LOVE Southern Churches? I’m not talking about the monster mega-churches you might find in larger cities. I’m talking about small town churches—you know, the ones that have been there forever and are filled with families who have been attending the same church for generations. These unique places are not only houses of worship—which is their primary and most important function—they are also places that are the social, moral and charitable centers of many areas, villages and towns all over the South.
Taw Caw Missionary Baptist Church
Nathaniel Hawthorn wrote in The Scarlet Letter, “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized that among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” Around these necessary cemeteries, churches were usually built. In later years, churches moved away from that practice; however, small Southern churches remain essential centers of small Southern towns.
Summerton Presbyterian Church
I personally love taking photos of picturesque churches as I travel around the South. I am fascinated with the architecture of them. Some are gleaming white clapboards. Some are red brick monoliths. Some have grand columns. Some have bell towers, and others have steeples. Some have elaborate stained glass windows, and some have artless glass through which the sun streams brilliantly. Some churches are simple, and some are grand. Doors can be doubled or single or even configured with multiple sets of accesses, which I often wonder if they were designed to allow for a rush into or out of a particular church. Perhaps the congregation put them there to accommodate for overzealous preachers stepping on too many toes on Sunday mornings.
The unique architectures do not end on the outsides of those buildings. Inside, distinctive features can be found, as well. Carved wooden alters, elaborate cornice work, old timber floors, curved pews, grand lecterns and clergy chairs and more decorate the interiors. Some have ornate chandeliers, columns, tapestries, statues, and even balconies. Because churches are centers of worship, many are decorated with the very best a congregation can buy; however, do not dismiss the simplistic beauty of humble places of worship because many of them have an allure with which grandeur cannot compare. Sometimes I’d like to think that God may like them best, but, then, this isn’t a discussion about religion.
St. Matthais Episcopal Church
I have particularly fond memories of attending a small, Southern church when I was a child. I loved dressing up in my finery on Sunday mornings with my little patent leather shoes, listening to old hymns echo through a lofty building and being amazed at the way the sun streamed through the textured windows and illuminated all that was around me. The church ladies would comment on my little dresses or bows, and I would run and play with my friends on the grounds after the service had ended. Ah, childhood! But I digress.
Summerton, South Carolina, the small town in which I live now, is populated with varied and beautiful churches of all sorts and all denominations. Taw Caw Missionary Baptist church (which is filled with the most INTERESTING history ever), St. Matthias Episcopal Church, Summerton United Methodist Church, Summerton Baptist Church, Liberty Hill AME Church, St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Summerton Presbyterian Church, Andrews Chapel, Calvary Baptist Church, and believe it or not, many others anchor the extremely small town! Churches are a serious business in the South!
Summerton Baptist Church
One can learn a great deal about a town and its people by attending a small town church. Is the congregation formal or informal? Are the people friendly or aloof? Are they focused on local charity or on missions in foreign counties? All are important elements to consider as far as differences go, but there are some similarities in small Southern churches, as well.
Southern churches are great places to celebrate all of life’s big events: weddings, baptisms, christenings, Christmases and Easters. They are essential to making connections, personal and professional. They are places where you are taught the morals and mores of local society. Some have schools, and many have daycare centers. They are places where you are held to standards, and if you fall away from those standards, there are always the ubiquitous “church ladies” who will try to keep you straight, if they can. Many times churches are places of love and acceptance, and they will be the place from which you’ll receive meals when you are ill, cards or calls when you go missing, invitations to worship at special events, and visits from the minister at your home or in the hospital when you are leaving this earth.
One of the most important social features of Southern churches is the breaking of bread together. Again, I’m not talking about the more reverent “Communion of Saints;” I’m talking about Sunday dinners on special occasions. It is called by many names: homecoming, dinner on the grounds, church suppers, church socials, potluck dinners, fellowship dinners. No matter the name, it involves eating the most delicious food you’ve ever tasted. Why? Because that’s when all the ladies break out their special recipes to show off their cooking skills! And if those ladies have ever gotten together to publish a cookbook, well, you’d better buy one because they are filled with the best recipes in the region!
St. Mary's Catholic Church
I could go on forever—especially about the food—but that would be tedious to readers. In summation, many good things come from Southern churches. They are places to connect, to understand the culture and town, to admire beauty inside and outside the buildings, to learn and to teach, to give and to receive, but no matter the reasons that bring you to the buildings, they are first and foremost places to worship as you choose, if you choose.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Stalked!


Have you ever been stalked? If you have, you know how scary it can be. If you think you haven’t, you may not even know that you have been stalked. Authors love to write about stalking because it adds tension in books, the same as in victims’ lives. People call it stalking because it is what animals do—they quietly, secretly, stealthily creep around looking for its target, at its target, salivating for contact with the target, and the victims (frequently) don’t even know it—until it’s too late! That is why you must be aware of stalkers at all times. Unfortunately, in a way, the victim must be constantly cognizant of her stalker to keep herself safe and informed about what the stalker is up to, planning, thinking, saying, doing. Because there are signs of trouble beforehand, and you must be aware in order to protect yourself.

Unfortunately, I have some experience with this topic. I’ve been stalked by two serial stalkers, upon whom I’ve had to call the police, by two men from previous relationships who didn’t want to let me go, and by a woman (who was married to a different man) who had an agenda to undermine my relationship with her ex-husband from whom she’d been divorced for over ten years. The first two were scary threats, and the last three were simply up to no good. But make no mistake about it, the latter category could always turn South, and that is the reason they should be monitored, too.

I didn’t understand stalking at first because I was a polite Southerner. Why on Earth would one want to be in the company of someone who didn’t want to be with them? Relationships are a two-way street, right? People tell you and give off vibes to let you know they don’t want your company. Stalkers—on the other hand—are socially handicapped and do not “get” those vibes, hints, or words. In fact, you can vehemently tell them to stay away from you, and they won’t because of one universal characteristic: Stalkers do not hear the word “NO”!

In fact, stalkers do not even recognize that they are stalkers. They have NO boundaries. The police can come. You can take out a restraining order. You can say anything to them to show your discomfort or fear of their behaviors, and it doesn’t matter. They are solely focused upon their agendas, unable to admit to themselves that they are, in fact, a stalker. Instead, they say they are around you to help you, to love you, to warn you about dangers, to simply talk to you, to spend time with you. Who wouldn't want that, right? Wrong! They don’t recognize that you didn’t invite them to the movies—and they show up at the movies when you are there (WTFun?). They don’t care that you don’t go to their house to visit them—and they come to your house almost daily. They don’t care that you didn’t invite them to go shopping with you—and they show up at the mall or the grocery store or a restaurant (coincidentally) when you are there. And they ALWAYS have an excuse for their contacts with you and their behaviors toward you.

I also learned firsthand that the police can do little unless the stalker has threatened you. Unfortunately, stalkers are very good at what they do, and with a little information, like where you work, they can make your life a constant anxiety fest. After the initial daily stalking from a man we’ll call…I don’t know, say “Dan”, I would go for relatively long periods of time (a year or more) without ever seeing “Dan.” Then he’d show up in the mall and follow me around while the security guard yelled at him to leave me alone, and then “Dan” disappeared when I heard the police sirens finally arrive. I wouldn’t see him for another year, and then I caught him watching me with steely eyes from across the ice rink at a hockey game. Then I wouldn’t see him again for another year, until he saw in the paper that I was orchestrating the commencement exercises at the high school where I taught. By then, I’d hoped “Dan” was in my rearview mirror, but no. He spotted me at the North Charleston Coliseum at the graduation ceremony, and tried to get to me to through the crowd to “talk.” I had to fight the crowd to get to a security guard who whisked me away under the bowels of the coliseum and out a secret exit and to my car. Though that was now twenty years ago, he recently ran into my sister-in-law, and told her he was still in love with me. I still cannot let my guard down when I am in public.

In the spirit of the Me, Too Movement, where the perpetrator cannot explain away the unwanted, unencouraged sexual behavior, the stalker does NOT get to decide if what they are doing is stalking! Stalking is called by the victim, just like sexual harassment is called by the victim. If any person is showing up in another’s life and it makes the victim feel uncomfortable, she is empowered to call it what it is—stalking!

I said all that to say this: You can never truly let your guard down with a stalker. Be aware of your surroundings and the stalker’s “understandings” about you and his/her intentions toward you because even if you haven’t heard from the stalker in a while, he/she may still be watching you! My husband is a hunter (and yes, “Dan,” he owns LOTS of guns, in case you’re wondering), so I will use his analogy freely. While you are hunting a deer (going about your daily activities), be aware of the bear that has been following you for miles and you’ve never even heard a twig snap. By all means, in order to stay safe, know what your stalker is up to—in essence, stalk your stalker!


Friday, May 25, 2018

Southerners and Our British Roots

Highclere Castle values its gardens as much as its interior.
Recently the royal wedding triggered a line of thought that has been traipsing through my mind for many years, and that is the close connections between Southerners and the British. Of course we know that the South was settled largely by the British. Many of the plantations of the South were originally land grants from the kings of England. But even if you cannot trace your family’s history back to its British roots, you can trace some of the South’s culture back to the United Kingdom and, thereby, explain some of our…tendencies.

When visiting the United Kingdom last year, I was taken aback by the ubiquitous use of the word “proper.” There seemed a proper way of doing everything—as exampled always by the rules of royalty. Though much of the South has taken on a more casual way of living, make no mistake about it, doing things the “proper” way is still the preferred way to many Southerners.

First of all, we (who notice) are like the British in our formal behaviors and manners.  Dining, sitting, introductions, decorating—all have protocol. Though they were too gracious to call us out on our American dining habit of switching our forks and knives when we ate, we caught the way the British looked at us. Though we eat with our forks upturned in our right hands and don’t ascribe to pushing our peas with a knife onto an upside down fork in our left hand, we have our own standards for manners when dining and interacting with others, and like the British, we would never call people out for putting their elbows on the table or for eating and talking at the same time. There is simply a way to behave in “proper” society, and then there is…the improper way. Though our “rules” may differ slightly, propriety is the overarching theme for both cultures.
Proudly on display in the Cotswalds are wool pillows,
throws and upholstered chairs, as well as wool clothing. 

Dressing for the British and for “proper” Southerners is a more formal affair, as well. The British love their tweed and wool from the Cotswalds, and we ladies from the South love our Lilly Pulitzer dresses, but what we both have in common is our united sense of dressing conservatively and well. We have a sense of what is proper to wear where and when. And though it’s not always adhered to, the rule in the South about not wearing white before Memorial Day and after Labor Day is still on the books for many in the old guard. Do I even need to point out our affinity for pearls? And nowhere is the similarity more evident than when dressing our children. We Southerners decorate our young children with smocked dresses, shorts suits and outfits made of heirloom stitching, and we slap bows the size of our little girl’s heads in their hair. We have a sense of fine fabrics, cardigans, and “proper” shoes for our little ones, as well. Just take a look at the royals—if you’re in doubt.

Serving tea is a religion in the South and in Great Britain.
The foods and beverages we consume in the South have British roots, too, though some may not fully understand. Our meat puddings, like liver pudding and hog’s head cheese, have their beginnings in merry old England, where meat pies and puddings are staples. Have you ever eaten black pudding? In the South, we call it blood pudding. And do I even need to mention the connection we have with tea? It is an everyday staple for Southerners and the British. Though we have morphed our consumptions (sweet iced tea for us and cream tea for the UK), the unifying part is the tea.

Where do you think we get our love for hunting? That’s right, Great Britain! The list is long: Fishing is a religion. We look for occasions to pull out and use our best silver. We love our Southern gardens, Southern gates, and Southern architecture—all of which harken to the United Kingdom. Like the British, we go overboard naming our children with family names. Our churches and our faith are serious business. We love to decorate our homes with English antiques or antiques that embody British aesthetics. We name our houses, gardens and lands like the British-Middleton Place Gardens, Charles Towne Landing, and Drayton Hall, just to name a few.

I’m not saying that some of these influences cannot be linked to other regions of America, but the fact that the traditions are magnified tenfold in the South cannot be disputed.
To further my point about our connections, I can direct you to my favorite Southern magazine, Garden and Gun, which is planning a trip for subscribers to Great Britain to celebrate all the things we have in common. The South’s execution of some of these traditions may be slightly different; however, our connection to the British is undeniable. Southerners have British roots that have grown deep and wide in this warm Southern soil!


Saturday, December 2, 2017

The Friendship in Fireflies and Lies

Fireflies and Lies, my latest release, is a story about a woman who is about to lose her family’s plantation and history—unless she can satisfy some antiquated will and trust her long-dead ancestor established during the Revolutionary War. In the story, readers become acquainted with the beauty of Jenna’s parcel of Southern land that borders an ancient river that took her brother’s life. The lies that surrounded that devastating event, the fireflies that had her mesmerized that evening and the friendship that helped her through her grief are a few of the motifs that run through this inspirational story of strength and healing.

In this fast-paced, disposable world, lasting friendships seem to be a casualty. Oh, you can find relationships that are built around a season, for example, you’re friends with the people in your neighborhood because they live on your block, or you’re friends with the other mothers from your son’s little league team, or you’re friends with your co-workers. But if you move, if your son quits little league, or if you lose your job, how many of those people will be your friends in a few short years?

Yes, many friendships fall away and some morph into the casual variety that are so prevalent these days. Few are friendships that last forever—are close forever—are special forever. Such is the bond that I have with my best friend, Joan, who inspired the friendship in this story.
In high school, Joan studied. I did not.
Joan and I became friends in middle school about forty-five years ago. Our friendship continued through high school; she was my maid of honor at my wedding, and she continues to be my best friend to this day. Though we went our separate ways physically in our early twenties, we stayed in touch through the busy years of raising our children, building our careers and beyond. We had few days together in those demanding times; however, as the years afforded more time together, we seized upon those opportunities, and now, we meet regularly, though we live in different states. Our friendship has endured and thrived because the foundation of our friendship had been built on bedrock.
What is the bedrock of friendship, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you. It is loyalty. It is truth. It is honesty. It is love. It is worrying about one another’s health and happiness. It is defending one another. It is having the other’s back when she fails. In the bad times, friends cry together, and in the good times, they celebrate each other’s successes. I have wanted all the best for my friend all my life and have prayed for her many times without her even knowing. 
In Fireflies and Lies, Jenna, who is the heroine, and April, her best friend, have the kind of relationship that I’ve just described—close, fierce, supportive and unwavering. Though the events in the story are completely fictitious, the alliance between Jenna and April is not. It is a mirror of my friendship with Joan.
Friendships that last a lifetime are rare, and I am blessed to have one. I wrote an entire page in my friend’s high school yearbook, recounting some of our antics, hard times and hopes, and I ended it with these prophetic words: “Joan, you and I are going to be friends until we turn gray.” We’ve accomplished that…and so much more. I love you, dear friend!

Joan and I enjoy some time together before one of our high school reunions.


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Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Camp Meeting in Swamps and Soirees


The Camp Meeting in Swamps and Soirees


One of the unifying images and settings in Swamps and Soirees is the idea of Camp Meeting. Camp Meetings were historical gatherings that began in the late 1700’s during the Great Awakening. Francis Asbury, one of the founders of Methodism, travelled and preached at these ad hoc campgrounds as residents in the area gathered for a week-long revival of Christianity.

Through the years, the camp meetings morphed into something more than their strictly religious beginnings. At the inception, tents were erected for local residents to sleep in and rest between the meetings. Later, crude wooden structures were built to replace the fabric tents. These wooden structures were built with only a couple of feet between them, had dirt floors, an open floor plan and a loft for sleeping. Porches extended from the fronts with primitive benches under them, which encouraged folk to sit outside to socialize with their neighbors. Some families have owned these cabins for generations, passing them down to successive generations.

Initially, these “revivals” could occur at most any time of year; however, as they became annual gatherings, the meetings were organized around the harvest in the fall when campers could enjoy the fruits (and vegetables and meats) of their labors. There was always a pig or two sacrificed for the occasion. Many families even hired cooks that had worked the camp meetings for practically their whole lives. Camp meetings are still known for their amazing Southern foods.

At the center of the circle of “tents” an open-sided wooden Tabernacle with simple benches became the central gathering place in the evenings for services. This Tabernacle was physically and symbolically the centralized reason for fellowship and a revival (or rebirth or an awakening) of faith for the entire community.

A fictitious camp meeting is a unifying motif in Swamps and Soirees. Throughout most of the novel, the characters look forward to the meeting, plan for the camp, and enjoy friends and family during the revival. It is also where some very important “events” happen that change the outcome of this inspirational story. I hope you enjoy learning about camp meeting as you read this funny, inspirational story of hope, love and courage!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Beauty...In a Swamp?


Beauty… In a Swamp?

After writing Swamps and Soirees, readers have asked multiple times, “Why did you initially decide to write about a swamp?” Well, there are several answers to that question. Some of the obvious answers involve my proximity to swamps. I was born in a small town that is bordered by a swamp. As a child, I remember my grandparents taking me there frequently to fish or simply for visits to the peculiar wetlands. From my family’s lake house, we accessed the many cypress forests and swamps that bordered the lake upon which we played. And now, when I leave the isolation of my home to go nearly anywhere, I must pass through swampy environs. So, my exposure…my immersion—if you will—is complete, and in them, I find great beauty. But the reason I believe I get asked that question is that many people believe they are filled with great dangers—and they can be—in many ways, but there is also a pristine beauty that pervades those dangers.

If you’ve never been fortunate enough to spend time in a swamp, then you may be unaware of the enchantments they hold. Overhead, the sun gets blocked out by old oaks and tupelo trees, dripping with lacy, gray Spanish moss. Growing from watery foundations are ancient cypress trees with knees that reach up around them, seemingly gasping for breaths. Water lilies and exotic Southern flowers spring from the depths of the black waters below. Shadows and sunshine battle beneath the green canopy above in an attempt to win a war that is unnecessary because both are needed.

And if you’re a wildlife lover and you’ve never been to a swamp, well, you’ve missed the proverbial boat, then, now haven’t you? The first thing that might come to mind is that they are filled with all manner of ancient, dangerous beasts—the first on that list, of course, being the American alligator. And yes, swamps are filled with them…and snakes, and turtles, and eels, and fish, and leeches, and anything else that might find a home under the dark waters. Over the boggy lands around the waters, one can find bears, and boars, and deer, and raccoons, and squirrels, large, wild cats and foxes. With all the wildlife in the waters and on the soggy land surrounding them, we may forget to look up to see the amazing array of bird life—and it is amazing! In addition to the herons and egrets, many other species of birds—too numerous to list—find their home—their refuge—in the swamps that surround me.

Lest I forget, let me mention the history that still echoes though the old trees that emerge through the black water swamps. Our nation’s very freedom and independence was won on these watery battlegrounds. Ever hear of Francis Marion, The Swamp Fox? That whole episode is a book unto itself!

People come from lands far and near to visit our beautiful swamps—to touch their ancient, primordial beauty. Beidler Forest in Dorchester County, South Carolina, has miles of elevated trails through Cypress Swamp. Magnolia Plantation and Gardens has an entire area set aside to preserve these unique wetlands. In Moncks Corner, Cypress Gardens provide beautiful azalea gardens, filled with native species of flowers, trees and plants, interspersed among a Lowcountry swamp in Berkeley County, just outside Charleston, South Carolina. Sparkleberry Swamp, on the upper end of Lake Marion, offers a most picturesque, natural landscape of what a raw, untouched, undeveloped swamp is. Congaree National Forest has numerous canoe trails through its swamplands, and I have only begun to touch the many beautiful swamps that can be found in South Carolina. I shudder to think of the many outside my immediate area!

So, if you’re still asking why set a novel in a swamp, I would have to simply answer that swamps are filled with dark, danger and beguiling beauty, history and myth, and some of the people who live in and around them are unique in their character and appreciation of these special places. Swamps are the perfect places to set a novel about how peace and courage collide.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Jane Austen and Her Southern Sister





















What does Jane Austen have to do with the Deep South? Well, for me, everything! You see, I write Southern women’s fiction with romantic elements. What did Jane Austen write? British women’s fiction with romantic elements.

I fell in love with Austen’s writing many years ago when I was in college, studying to be an English teacher. Well, of course, I wished to teach her novels to the seniors in my British Literature class, and then it was only natural to see her show up again when I retired to write. You see, Jane and I have similar interests. We both write about societies and cultures that wish for its members to…conform…and the heroines who wish to push back on those rigid walls to make a way for themselves to be the individuals that they truly are underneath the facades.

Jane and I concern ourselves with the stories of women, primarily showcasing the friendships and ties women have with their girlfriends and family members. The men in those women’s lives show up, but they are not the stars!

Jane and I love the little things in life. We write about the concerns of an ordinary day for our characters. For Jane, it was “tucking lace” on her sisters’ dresses, “taking a turn” on the dance floor, and finding suitable matches for her friends. For me, it is wearing the right clothes to an event, sharing Southern food with friends and family, and finding success in a career. Neither of us desire big explosions, murders, car chases or improprieties in our novels. They are stories that are slices of our contemporary lives.

Austen's use of biting irony, humor, realism and social commentary are extremely similar to mine—only I apply my wit and wisdom to the South, and she applies hers to England. We both love to slap silly, pretentious characters around and laud the ladies who work hard at being good, solid souls who simultaneously break social barriers while maintaining the greater collective good. Even the titles we use echo one another’s. Hers are Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Love and Friendship, and mine are Bikers and Pearls, Sweet Tea and Time (and coming soon will be Swamps and Soirees and Fireflies and Lies). But don’t place us in a title category because we both break that, as well.

The last similarity is also our biggest difference, and that is our respective culture’s treatment of tea. The British place enormous significance on their tea, but it is served hot (and many times with cream). The South reveres its use of tea, but it is always sweet and iced! So, as I have so clearly explained, Jane and I are sisters in the same writing sorority!