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There’s another theme hidden amongst the drama of Birthday Dinner ( http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/298240 ), the theme of the merits and effectiveness of church outreach ministries.

Whether you’re a believer or an atheist or somewhere in between, there’s no denying that Christian churches, as well as many other faith-based organizations, spend tens of millions of dollars every year in efforts–churches call them outreach ministries–to help the poor and underprivileged and victims of disasters. Add to these dollars spent/contributed the value of the volunteer hours/labor contributed to these ministries, and you have a collective effort that is very prodigious indeed. The public response to these efforts ranges from unrestrained praise and championing (the Bush administration wanted to transfer many social services currently administered by the government to churches, claiming that they were far more efficient at the task–don’t know how far they got with those plans) to summary dismissal as self-serving, thinly disguised proselytizing. My sense is that, like most things associated with religion, the general public has little understanding of the extent, diversity, and complexity of these programs.

Without turning this post into a treatise on the subject, let me quickly summarize by saying that church-based outreach ministries range in size from a single individual who gives a dollar to the Salvation Army at Christmas because it’s what her faith tells her she should do, to international mobilizations rivaling military campaigns, complete with chartered fleets of transport vehicles, outposts in the field, and real-time computer monitoring. Much of the relief that went into Haiti following the devastating earthquake was church-based, and most of the relief personnel still in Haiti are in one way or another tied to church organizations.

Between those extremes, there are many, many other types of outreach ministries, most of which are local, small-scale, low-budget, community-based efforts. Every church I know of has at least one local outreach ministry, and most have several or more. The next logical question is–how effective are these ministries?  

And that question brings me back around to Birthday Dinner. The outreach ministry question this story explores isn’t so much how effective is it? as how does one measure effectiveness when it comes to an act done out of love? If Becca fails to redirect Jonah’s life away from its current turmoil, are her efforts ineffective? If the Ecumenical Outreach Ministries fail to connect the impoverished with the resources they need, should that organization be scrapped? Or is the very act of trying to make another’s life better effectiveness sufficient? These may sound like rhetorical questions, but really they aren’t. My sincere question, and an open question throughout Birthday Dinner, is: how valid is love–Christian love or any other form of love–as a motivation for intervention in a stranger’s life? A related question is–can love always know what’s right? Or is love always right?

These broad social and ecclesiastical questions get mixed up with the complex needs and expressions of the main characters in the novel, and I don’t think the answers are all simple or self-evident. I believe how one would answer these questions, and how one would see the actions of the characters in this book, would be shaped by one’s ethnic and cultural background–resulting in a wide range of responses.

Or so I hope.

JA

O.K., a little more awake now–

I’d like to continue down the path I started down in the last post–the theme of race relations in the wake of the civil-rights movement as explored in Birthday Dinner (http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/298240). Before writing this novel, I would’ve considered myself one of the last people to explore the subject of race relations. But as the subject arose in Birthday Dinner, I realized that I’d experienced various levels of racial interaction and tension throughout my life, and documented those experiences in my heart and soul; and now they were reappearing, in very different form, in this story. So whether I thought I was qualified to discuss the subject or not, my heart and muse were telling me I needed to follow their lead. So the subject permeates Birthday Dinner.

First, there’s the challenge before Becca as she struggles against their early 80s world’s impediments in trying to help her charges, most of whom are African-American. Here’s a tirade from early in the novel:

    “Maybe I’m not ready for this job, Zach.”
    “Jonah?”
    “Yes, Jonah; but it’s more than just him. It’s the whole system, Zach—these people, most of them anyway, just want a chance at improvement, want a little ray of hope. But they meet roadblocks at every turn. And if you find your way past one, there’s another just around the corner. It’s no wonder they get frustrated and give up and turn to dope or alcohol or welfare. I’m frustrated and I’ve been at it less than a month. I’m used to solving problems, Zach, to putting my head down and figuring something out and fixing it. That’s not an option in the lives of most of these folks. Their lives are unfixable; and it’s not their fault, it’s the system—the way things are set up.”
    “Tell me where things stand with Jonah.”
    “He’s screwed—one more lost soul.”
    “Any details behind that optimistic summary?”
    “The school system’s hands are tied; any actions they could take require time and they’re running up against the summer break. Child Welfare’s hands are tied due to the lack of any verifiable report of abuse. Mrs. Brackett is the only one who could document such abuse, and she’s not going to take any official action against her granddaughter.”
    “Why not?”
    “She’s not going to do it, Zach. She’s lived her whole life being oppressed by the white establishment; she’s not going to join that side now against her own flesh and blood, not even for Jonah.”
    “Have you asked her?”
    “No, and I’m not going to. Jonah means a hell of a lot to me, but I’m not going to throw his great-grandmother into the social services meat grinder in hopes that it might help him. I’d end up destroying two lives rather than watching one fall by the wayside.”
    “Still no word from Latonya?”
    “No word, no sighting, no trail. She’s disappeared into the vast and impenetrable underworld of the Shefford projects, taking Jonah with her. Worst part is, I forced her hand. At least before, we knew where he was—safe with his great-grandmother. Now he’s gone and will remain gone long as she wants him to be.”
    “A little melodramatic, don’t you think?”
    “You want to try to find them? Let’s go right now, drive into East Shefford and start knocking on doors—wonder how long we’ll last? You could turn the National Guard loose down there, and they couldn’t find them if she didn’t want to be found. They call East Beirut a living hell, but it doesn’t have anything on East Shefford.”

But opposite this social intransigence are glimpses of hope, hope that grows directly out of the brave acts of civil rights heroes and martyrs, hope embodied in Solomon Murphy, an old black farmer Becca meets through her outreach ministry. Turns out that Solomon has more to give Becca than she to him. Here’s an excerpt from the middle of the novel:

    Solomon finally spoke, straight ahead to the rows of pale-green plants. “Don’t get folks like you out this way.”
    “Like me?”
    “Young white women.”
    Becca laughed. “Run them all off?”
    Solomon paused to let her laughter fade before responding. “There are men in this county, almost within shouting distance of where we sit, who would put a noose around my neck just for talking to you.”
    Becca met his words head-on. “Mr. Murphy, if my presence is endangering your well-being, I’ll leave this minute and not return, send someone better suited to the task of finding out if the Ministry can help you.”
    This time Solomon could chuckle. “You bold, young lady, I’ll grant you that. But I guess I knew that already, soon as I saw you drive up and get out of that car like you ready to take on the world and all its injustices.”
    “I thank you for that compliment, sir; but you give me too much credit. I’m neither bold nor near ready to take on all the world’s injustices or even a few little ones. I’m just doing my best to try to figure out how I can help a few needful souls. But you don’t appear to need any help, Mr. Murphy. And even if you do, if my presence is of potential harm to you, I should leave.”
    “Stay put, child. I was just telling you the world ain’t near as far along in its changes as some might hope. Hatred dies harder than a kudzu vine. But I stopped living in fear twelve years ago; ain’t going to backslide now.”
    “How’d you stop being afraid?”
    “Not how but when—the day Reverend King was shot. I told Lilith—my wife, may she rest in peace—that if Reverend King could face a white man’s bullet I could stop being scared. And I did.”
    “Just that fast?”
    “Wouldn’t say seventy-seven years to get there is fast.”
    “But the change?”
    “Been building all my life—took Reverend King’s murder to bring it out.”
    “And no problems since?”
    “Not a one. Still knocked up against blind hatred and ignorance now and then. That didn’t suddenly disappear because I changed, or because one good man took a bullet. But now I saw it for what it was—their burden, not mine.”
    “Will it ever change, Mr. Murphy?”
    “Young lady, my father was born into slavery. He shed those chains for the shackles of bigotry and intimidation, died in a bondage not far removed from that into which he was born. But his son was born free and grows freer by the day, thanks in no small part to the courage of many people black and white—people like you brave enough to see a better world.”
    “And like you—strong enough to stop being scared.”
    “I’m just a farmer, child—grow fine tobacco for sale to the white man back since I can remember. I tend my small corner of God’s good earth and let well-educated folk like you save the world.”

Now I certainly wouldn’t claim these characters or my short novel go very far down the road of exploring the complex and ever-evolving subject of race relations. But what I would tentatively assert is that the example of these characters reflects where and how the relationship between different races is being evolved–in the hearts and minds and conversations and humble actions of people like Becca and Zach, Jonah and Mrs. Brackett, Adam Tucker (a young black man paralyzed from the waist down in a drive-by shooting) and Solomon Murphy. The rules might be written in Washington DC or Raleigh NC, but they’re being enacted, or not, in the lives and in the hearts of these people on the ground, in the crucible of the struggle.

JA

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Hi, y’all (bet you don’t know what part of the world I live in)–

Just a quick post to let you know that my short novel, Birthday Dinner, was just published on smashwords.com. (Yay!)

If you’d like to take a look, it can be found at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/298240 . Unlike “Wyoming” and “Whiteout,” this e-book is not free. I’m asking $1.99 (hey, that’s barely $0.01 per page!). Also, you can read the first 30% online for free to see if you like it! So give it a try! What do you have to lose–a few minutes of time to read the free part? And who knows what you might gain–a fun escape into an engaging story, a slow immersion into the world of Zach and Becca, Jonah and Mrs. Brackett, the sinister Snake and the dangerous Latonya. And if you’re willing to support my writing with the price of purchase–well, thank you very much!

I said this will be a quick post, and I intend to keep that promise (need to get to bed so I can go to work in the morning–can’t pay all my bills at $1.99 per e-copy of Birthday Dinner). But just a quick thought that links Birthday Dinner and my casual greeting above. The novel is about more than Zach and Becca, and more than trying to save the eminently salvageable Jonah. It’s also about the upper south in the period immediately following the upheavals of the civil-rights movement. In other words, it’s about a time of critical transition in a region of the country that is becoming increasingly powerful and important. Behind the lives of these characters, and through their lives, we see a society at a crossroads. After centuries of racial segregation and oppression, just where is this society headed under the new, externally imposed rules of integration and equal opportunity? And who will implement these rules? And how? There’s a battle being fought in the trenches of these people’s lives, in the flooded chambers of their hearts, the broad vistas of their hopes–how will it play out? who wins?

It’s late. More on this later.

JA

In a flash, Zach and Becca find themselves in another place and time, perhaps a future life together. It’s summer, Becca has graduated from college, and she’s working as a church social ministry coordinator and liaison, with Zach as a sometimes volunteer helper. Through her work, Becca comes in contact with Jonah, a gifted but at-risk young African-American boy, and his great-grandmother Mrs. Brackett, Jonah’s substitute guardian for his absent mother, Latonya. And one warm Sunday afternoon, Becca and Zach take Jonah and Mrs. Brackett a simple homemade dinner.

The four of them stood around Mrs. Brackett’s long, low, well-worn wood table. When Zach had seen Becca emerge from the bedroom with Jonah following, his hand in hers, he’d gone ahead and taken the lid off the warming tray with the baked beans and fried chicken, and the plastic wrap off the deviled eggs and potato salad. A mix of appetizing odors filled the low ceilinged room, and everyone was suddenly very hungry. But no one moved as they waited around the table with their hunger growing by the second. First Becca then Zach and finally Jonah turned their gaze to the head of this household, the one present far most meriting of deference and respect.

Mrs. Brackett saw their joint attentions and finally nodded, closed her eyes, extended her arms, and held her dark hands with their beige palms up toward the bright sky lurking beyond the shadowed ceiling. “Lord, as we live by your grace alone, we ask that you would sustain us this day and protect us through the coming night. Bless this food, bless the hands and souls of these good people who prepared it, bless us all that eat it, that we might see in this earthly meal a glimpse of the heavenly feast where there will be no more pain only joy in your presence and peace with all people. Amen.”

Zach smiled at Jonah and said to everyone but especially to him, “Good food, good meat, good gosh, let’s eat!”

Jonah hid behind Becca’s legs from the tall white man and his booming voice.

Becca continued to stare at Mrs. Brackett, still mesmerized by the eloquence of her impromptu grace, thinking again that she’d landed in the midst of an elemental struggle between good and evil and somehow found God’s side in this fight.

“Becca?” Zach called.

She looked up at him.

“How about helping Jonah get a plate?”

She laughed sheepishly. “Sorry.”

Behind her, Jonah whispered, “She still at the heavenly feast.”

The other three could laugh then, before digging into the earthly one.

This meal, though less lavish than the restaurant dinner, is perhaps in its way more substantial and every bit as promising–until Latonya shows up:

They ate off their laps sitting on the simple ladder-back chairs lined up along the wall since the table was full. When they’d finished their meals (after Zach and Jonah had each had sizable seconds), Becca collected their paper plates and tossed them in a trash bag she’d brought for the purpose.  Zach covered what food remained and took a large bowl of banana pudding from the cooler and set it on the partially cleared table. He’d just started to uncover the pudding when there was the sound of a key in the lock of the front door. All four turned their attention toward the door, each frozen in place.

A wiry thin black woman with braided hair and bloodshot eyes stood in the doorway, backlit by the bright day. The man from across the road, Snake, looked over her shoulder.

The woman said, “I come to take my son,” directing the words at the blond girl in the room.

This action launches Becca, and by extension Zach, into a life-changing struggle that will imperil their relationship and their lives–God’s high price for this new feast.

I hope to publish Birthday Dinner on smashwords.com in the near future. Check back here, or under my author name on smashwords ( http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/jcafiction ) to see when it’s available.

JA

Birthday Dinner picks up with the characters from “Whiteout” ( http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/291355 ), Zach and Becca, still immersed in their dream of love. Becca is treating Zach to dinner at a fancy restaurant in honor of his twenty-fourth birthday. Zach is appropriately impressed (overwhelmed, really) with the extravagance of the gift–their special table at the restaurant, the abundance of food. In short, everything is going as these young lovers had planned and hoped. Here’s a sample of where they start out, drawn from early in the novel and the dinner:

Try as they might, neither could polish off their mound of greens. Zach wished he could keep his salad to accompany his entrée, but there wouldn’t be enough room on the table for the large bowl and the added plates. So he reluctantly relinquished the bowl to Shelley, their waitress, when she came to clear the table in advance of the next course.

She hadn’t been gone thirty seconds when two servers from the kitchen showed up with their bounteous main course. A smiling gray-haired woman in a red apron set a “petite” filet mignon, twice-stuffed potato, and creamed spinach—all on individual plates—in front of Becca. A large black man in a blue apron (an apprentice chef named Gerald) put Zach’s “King-cut” prime rib (a slab of glistening red meat that extended past the edges of the large oval platter), gargantuan baked potato, and squash casserole to fill his half of the table. After the servers said “Enjoy” and left, Shelley soon followed with a wood cutting board holding a half a loaf of thick slices of fresh-baked bread coated in melting butter. She then offered each of them whipped butter, sour cream, bacon bits, or chives for their potatoes, and horseradish sauce for their beef. After Shelley’d made sure they had everything they wanted or needed and left, the wine steward came by with two large wine glasses generously filled with a dark Cabernet, “Compliments of the hostess.” After depositing the glasses on their table (needing to condense some of their plates to find room), the dignified gentleman leaned close to Zach and whispered, “Happy Birthday,” then put a finger to his lips and slipped away in silence.

Just looking at the feast spread before them made Zach feel full (he already was sort of full from the profuse appetizers and salad). He took a couple deep breaths, like an athlete prepping for a marathon contest, before reaching for his fork and the large, wood-handled steak knife.

Becca watched him the whole time. She’d caught Zach by surprise with the sheer abundance of the meal, her birthday gift to him. She rarely caught Zach by surprise and took a moment to enjoy that reward. Then she cradled the wine glass in her palm and raised it. “To the year ahead, a feast upon this feast.”

Zach lifted his glass. “And in thanks for the gift.”

They tapped glasses over the middle of the table, the crystal glittering, the wine like dark blood held aloft by their young fresh hands.

So all is going as hoped and planned at this birthday dinner–until God, for reasons that are unclear (when are God’s reasons ever clear?) hijacks these ardent youngsters and places them in his dream: a different sort of banquet, a new version of love for them to explore.

Return in a few days for a sample of this alternate dream that Zach and Becca find themselves caught in.

JA

Just so you know–

I’m working on publishing a longer project called Birthday Dinner: A Novel. I label it “a novel” because I think that’s the genre it most closely approximates. (And though I use the term novella in everyday speech, I find it wishy-washy and am reluctant to use it for this or any of my work. Short story and novel are the commonly recognized terms for prose fiction; and of those two, Birthday Dinner is a novel.)

But at 125 manuscript pages, it is certainly short for a novel, long for a short story. I think its best future would be as a stage or screen play, though it is not currently written in drama form and that genre is one with which I have no experience. But Birthday Dinner is highly visual and dramatic, and I think its narrative scope would fit well into a movie or play. In my observation, novels adapted for the screen are often too rushed, or leave out important parts, to fit into a normal movie timeframe. On the other hand, short stories adapted for screen or stage are too brief, or seem too thin from a narrative or character development perspective, or add scenes to the original story to build characters or extend the action. Birthday Dinner, falling between short story and novel in length and content, would fit comfortably into a play or movie. So I’ll hope for that as its eventual destiny.

In the meantime, I plan to make Birthday Dinner available as an e-book on smashwords.com and am looking into print-on-demand hard-copy publishing options. Ideally, I’d like my longer works (including this one) available in both electronic and hard-copy forms. However, the costs–in my limited resources and in the price to the end purchaser–may make such hard-copy publication impractical at this time. But I’m looking into it.

In any case, I expect to publish Birthday Dinner: A Novel in the not too distant future. And just maybe there will be an excerpt or two shared on this website prior to publication.

So keep an eye out for it.

JA

Okay–some of you, maybe most of you, have had the opportunity to read “Whiteout” (if not, here’s the link to download a free copy at smashwords.com: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/291355). I hope you found it to be a well-written, strongly felt story of a special moment in the lives of Zach and Becca. (That’s what I hope–it’s for you to say whether or not I achieved some or all of that goal.)

I also hope the story was engaging enough to make you want to know more about Zach and Becca–the details of their romance and of their lives beyond the romance. Where did these two come from? How did they get together? What happened to them after the “Whiteout” night? The good news, if you have such a curiosity, is that this larger story already exists. “Whiteout” is a chapter from a 180-page fictional romance, and the romance in turn is but one relationship in a 725-page narrative of three years in Zach’s life.

Confused? Me too, and I wrote the stuff!

Let’s break it down. Imagine from your own life a moment of intense feeling in a special relationship. That “moment” might be a few seconds or minutes or hours, or maybe a day or two. A friend of mine wrote a poem of such a moment titled “Best Day.” That “best day” moment is what “Whiteout” is for Zach. Now expand the recall of that special relationship outward to include the whole relationship, the romance, but only the romance–the sum total of all the memorable moments and scenes and exchanges associated with that special relationship. This recall of a relationship is the 180-page romance from Zach’s life. Now expand the memory still further to include all the events and key relationships leading up to and surrounding and following that single romance, the factors contributing to and causing, impacting and impacted by, and resulting from that intense romance. This larger story constitutes the 725-page narrative of three years in Zach’s life. It’s like a set of those Russian nesting dolls (Wikipedia informs me that they are called matryoshka), each opened to reveal a smaller one, except here you’re starting with the smallest doll–the solid one, and the most intricately detailed–and building toward the largest. How does this tiny doll fit inside the next larger one? And that next larger one fit into a still larger one?

Before starting this Zachary Sandstrom saga, I was intrigued by the idea of viewing a romance set off by itself, feeling the intensity of a love unencumbered by anything from outside that love. What does love look like in isolation? What truths (or horrors) might one uncover in looking at only the love? Then, once one has plumbed the depths of the isolated romance, what does that love look like when one adds all the “stuff” going on around it, the other relationships–acquaintances, friendships, families, loves–and obligations and responsibilities and needs and hopes that lie outside the romance but invariably impact and shape that romance, and vice versa? What new truths and understandings are uncovered by adding the “real” world context to the “pure” world oblivion of the romance? This is the outward-building exploration of moving from “Whiteout” to the romance, and from the romance to the fuller narrative.

I mentioned that the romance and the larger narrative of Zach’s life already exist (in fact “Wyoming”–https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/287850–is the first section of that larger narrative). And both will one day be published–the romance first, then the narrative–though it may be awhile before that happens as I investigate the various options for publication and try to determine the one(s) that will reach the broadest audience.

But I realize as I write these words that further contextual spheres exist for Zach’s narrative–ever larger nesting dolls, if you will. What local, national, and global events were occurring at the time that impacted and helped define Zach’s life and this singular romance? In short, how are our lives, down to our loves, our passions, our most intimate and intense moments, impacted by our world, events beyond our direct experience or control but nonetheless shadowing and shaping those experiences? And then outward beyond that sphere–how is any moment in history, and the lives that in aggregate comprise that moment in history, shaped and defined by what came before, what comes after? This journey is kind of the butterfly effect in reverse–if a butterfly flexing its wings (“Whiteout”) somehow ripples outward to affect everything in the universe, how does that universe ripple inward to affect that butterfly, its fleeting movements and fragile life? A cynic might say: “That’s an easy question to answer–the butterfly gets crushed!” A few years ago, I would’ve been that cynic. But today I’m not so sure. I don’t think the butterfly gets crushed. In fact, there may be something about the butterfly that transcends and ultimately redefines the enveloping universe. Maybe.

Well, obviously I’ve not written either of these larger accounts (or any that may lie beyond those) as the prospect just now dawned on me. And, truth be told, I rather doubt I have the energy or the time (Tolstoy was a whole lot younger than I am when he tackled War and Peace) let alone the ability to embrace such a ponderous subject. But then, who knows what the future holds?

Enjoy “Whiteout” and look for more of its Russian nesting-doll “parents” in the future!

JA