Friday, November 26, 2010

Chapter Nine: The channels that fiction opens; the candle that won't stop burning

As I am writing this post, I am sitting in front of my meditation table watching a candle burn. I set it burning about 6:15 or 6:30 a.m. when I sat down to meditate. After my normal 15-20-minute meditation, I decided to stay a bit longer at the table. I decided I would meditate until this particular candle went out. It was just about to go out, or so I thought.

Well, so I sat at the meditation table until my right foot started to go numb.

The candle is sitting below one of my tiny Virgin Mary statues, one that glows in the dark. That may be significant. All I know is that the wick is barely visible, but the flame is there. I keep staring at the candle and I really CANNOT believe it is still burning.

Finally, after about an hour and a half sitting here, I just had to get up.

I decided I would bring my laptop here and write. I would sit right in front of the star-shaped blue candle holder, the candle, and the tiny statue of the Virgin Mary.

OK, so maybe you have been reading the last few posts, including the very bizarre and mysterious story about how this blog turned into a kind of Ouija board on Wednesday, November 24, 2010. Maybe, like me, you are asking, "what is going on? how could anything like this possibly be true?"

In search of an answer, I emailed a couple of writer friends, including my good friend Lori Cullen, the Albany Times Union blogger who launched the Writing in Motion project last month (seven of us are committed to finishing our books by year's end). That "assignment" jumpstarted me finishing a book called Sister Mysteries, and this other book, Castenata, which are connected, and which I've been trying to write since 1995. Lori's Writing in Motion project has sent me into a writing frenzy, and it's also opened some doors into phenomena that I cannot explain, phenomena like a psychic ex-nun in New Jersey who can channel information from dead people (stay tuned, because I have a whole chapter coming on that soon!)

Anyway, the same day that the blog went bananas and turned into a Ouija board, communicating messages from what appeared to be one of my characters (was it Renata? Was it the dastardly Antonie, the cousin she supposedly murdered?) I called Lori. I was still trembling. I asked Lori to read everything. I told her I just needed to talk to somebody "sane." I told her that I needed her to help me think through what was going on.

As always, Lori was reassuring. She said that she too would probably be freaked out about what was happening, if it were happening to her; but she said, just stay focused, and just keep writing.

The next day, I emailed my friend Joshua Powell, who is writing an amazing memoir about his father, a man who was convicted of murder in 1948 and who led police on a notorious cross-country police chase before he was apprehended in San Francisco.

Anyway, I asked Josh what he thought, and this is what he wrote back:

"Hmmm, who is to say if the computer is a postal to people known - it certainly is to places unknown. It [the computer] has eased the way we communicate, so who is to say that this communication ease is not shared by other aspects of the energy world. If all of our lives are links to the past, which they are, there could be a convergence of enough people and thoughts to allow that being to recollect into an energy force with specific direction - who knows? - or it could be a glitch in a computer - who knows? And remember that computers are taking on lives of their own and maybe your writings are part of a computer somewhere learning to be one of your characters and is writing to you based on what it knows of the character and wants to know you because you are the creator of the character.

Who knows."

Who knows.

This morning, I recalled a couple of strange incidents that occurred when I was writing my first book, Dreaming Maples. Nothing over the top, and yet, they both stopped me in my tracks. In the first incident, I had a big party when I had finished the first draft of the novel, which was part of the dissertation for my doctorate in 1996. I invited lots of family and friends to celebrate. I remember going to the door and there was my wonderful Aunt Joyce. I hugged her and then noticed another woman standing beside her. She was an older woman with lovely silver hair.

"Oh, Claudia, this is Audrey," my aunt said, and I almost fell off the porch. The main character of Dreaming Maples was an older woman with silver hair, a character I named Audrey X. It was Audrey X who first appeared to me in February of 1991. I was sitting in my friend Michele's living room, with my son, Noah, on my lap (he was not yet two.) We were drinking tea, and suddenly I stared out the window into the grey maple forest and there in my mind was this wonderful older woman, with a blanket of silver hair. There she was holding two maple sugaring pails, one in either hand. I had NO idea what this vision was, nor did I realize that several months later, Audrey would lead me through my first novel.

Well, so, there at my party to celebrate was Audrey.

"She is my sister," said my Aunt Joyce (who is married to my Uncle Dan.) "I didn't think you'd mind if I brought her along, as she's visiting from West Virginia."

I was thrilled to have "Audrey" at my party, since it was AUDREY X who had started the ball rolling in the first place.

But that wasn't the end of it. I found out a few minutes later that Audrey has a daughter named...Candace. In my novel the character Candace is another central character, she is Audrey X's granddaughter.

Weird. But hey, coincidence, right?


The second weird weird occurrence had to do with how I published Dreaming Maples. When I finished the book in December 1996, I immediately started looking for a literary agent. I had interviewed Joyce Carol Oates for an article I wrote for the University at Albany alumni magazine (Ms. Oates appeared at the New York State Writer's Institute) and she had been very very friendly to me, and she had liked the article I wrote. I dropped Ms. Oates a note and asked if she had any suggestions and she told me to contact her agent in New York. Long story short, her agent loved my book and represented me. She was convinced the book would sell and that I would land a six-figure contract.

That didn't happen. After numerous attempts, and tons of rejections, we gave up. (I did get a Pushcart Prize nomination from Ballantine Books, however.) A second literary agent heard about the book in 1997 and she too was certain she could sell the book. She had me work with a professional editor, shorten and condense the novel, and in the process, change the ending.

Agent number two gave up after the book was rejected.

To say I was dejected and frustrated is an understatement. I was devastated. Authors weren't self-publishing much in those days, but several people encouraged me to think about it.

Still, I was hesitant. It's not the same, I kept saying to my husband.

Well, so, my frustration was growing. One day, driving to work, I decided to do what I often do when I am confused or scared. I decided to pray. I asked the Virgin Mary to let me know, one way or the other, whether I should self-publish Dreaming Maples -- a book set in a maple tree forest, with lots of symbolism connecting the trees with feminine power.

Within two seconds, I looked up from the highway and there was a gigantic billboard sporting a gigantic red maple leaf (an ad for Molson, a Canadian beer.)

I almost went off the road.

A few months later, I launched my own tiny publishing company, Star Root Press. And the miracles continued, as I published Dreaming Maples (I ended up publishing a children's book, On that Day, about the 911 tragedy; the story of how that book "came" to me is a miracle in itself, one that my rabbi said clearly had God's hand in it.)

So I am still sitting here with that candle that is STILL burning. It's now been two hours and I don't see the wick disappearing. I am not sure what is going on here, but the flame is clear, and there is nothing but a puddle of wax at the bottom of the candle holder.

I will keep sitting here until the flame disappears.

I am not saying this is a miracle.

I am just sitting here in front of a candle that should have gone out an hour or two ago.

I know because I meditate in front of about seven candles every day, and I have been meditating this way for at least 16 or 17 years. So I know how long candles burn.

I also know that meditation opens up channels too, just like fiction writing does.

I know this because of something that happened to me, with my friend Lori Cullen, the Times Union blogger.

I have known Lori since the summer of 1998, when she took a class with me, and my friend Peg. The class was called "Writing a Woman's Life," and it was in the English department at SUNY Albany, where Peg and I both got our doctorates.

The moment Lori Cullen walked into that classroom, I knew she was a very special woman. She had a kind of glow about her. A power that was unmistakable (which was why I fashioned a character after her in my on-line novel, Switch!!, a novel I have suspended writing for the time being.)

Anyway, Lori showed up, and she was the star of the class. She had two baby twins, and another child about three years old, but still, she was a brilliant student.

Lori took every class I taught at SUNY, and we grew to be close friends.

And about seven years ago, when she was my TA one semester, a very, very strange thing happened.

I was meditating in the morning. Out of nowhere, I had a vision of Lori's daughter, Allegra, who is now a sophomore in high school (she goes to Milton Academy, like her mother did. All of Lori's kids are off-the-charts brilliant.)

That morning, I had this vision of Allegra, and I thought, what a sweet child she is. I smiled thinking about her, or at least I think I did. After I got up from meditation, I went to my hallway closet. I keep lots of odds and ends gifts there, objects that people have given me or my kids that we never did use.

I pulled down this purse that my generous mother-in-law had bought for one of my daughters on one of her many trips abroad.

"I'm going to bring this purse to Lori, to give to Allegra," I said. I wrapped the gift up and brought it to work and handed it to Lori in my office.

"Oh that is sooo nice of you," Lori said. "Allegra will really appreciate getting this."

"I'm sorry that I don't have anything for Andrew (her twin,)" I said. "No boys' gifts in my closet."

Lori gave me a strange look. "Why would you give Andrew a gift?" she asked.

I gave her a strange look. "Well, I wouldn't want to play favorites, Lor. I mean, I would normally give both your kids gifts, but I just had this very strong image of Allegra in my head this morning."

LORI STARED AT ME. "This is very weird," she said, slowly shaking her head.


"Because I thought you knew what happened to Allegra last night. I thought that's why you gave me the gift for her."

I blinked. "What happened to Allegra last night? I have no idea," I said.

"She almost died in the ER. She accidentally ate a peanut at a school party, and she is violently allergic and we had to rush her to the hospital and she almost died."

I sat there. Bewildered. Completely confused.

Kind of like I am now. Because I am staring at this candle that has been burning for two hours now, and I'm not seeing it go down any. The metal wick holder is there, and there must be a wick although I can't say that I see one, and yet, here it is, burning away, no wick. Below is the photo I am taking of it right now.

How does one explain things that cannot be explained? How did I explain my my medical intuitive reading., for example? How do I explain that a woman who didn't know me at all, a woman who was 3,000 miles away, could tell me precisely where that spot of cancer I had was? How do I explain that?

I can't. I don't. I wasn't ever able to explain that miracle.

And I can't explain anything else. I am not sure what is going on with this new book, Sister Mysteries, but maybe Joshua is right. Maybe some books act like antennas opening us up to powers, energy forces, divine fields of consciousness, that are just out there in the universe.

I don't know. All I know is that I am recording what I am seeing, from now on.


It is now almost 10:45 a.m. I am still staring at the burning candle, which has been burning for four and a half hours. I am starving. I have to pee. The flame is smaller, but I still see it.

I started meditating shortly after six a.m. Normally I meditate for 15 or 20 minutes. But today, being a day off from work, I decided I would meditate longer. I decided that I would meditate until the blue star candle went out. I expected that to happen within a couple of minutes. I mean there was no wick left. There was no candle left.

The small round metal wick holder has sunk into the puddle of wax. The wick is not visible. I am not sure what I am staring at. I think I am staring at a burning candle, sitting beneath a tiny statue of the Virgin Mary. A candle that has a flame but no wick. A candle that been burning this way for a long time.

A candle that is some kind of.... miracle?

UPDATE:THE CANDLE FINALLY WENT OUT AT 11:13 a.m., nearly FIVE hours later. It happened while I was on the phone with my friend Lori, telling her I was exhausted waiting for the candle to go out. "I have to pee, I am hungry and my legs are incredibly sore," I told her.

Partly to entertain me, Lori told me how, when she was 14 years old, she and her little brother, who was 9, BOTH saw a ghost. It happened the same day that they went to the funeral for their "Uncle" Leon -- he wasn't technically their uncle, but they had both been very close to him. It was evening and they were alone in the living room, watching TV together. Lori says that she and her brother both saw a "black shadow running up the wall along the stairs." To this day, every single time Lori and her brother speak to each other, they discuss what they saw that night. I asked Lori to write the story, and she said she would think about it.

P.S. Writing this blog post today, and updating it, I was reminded of the days when I worked as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, when I had to phone in stories as they were happening. I would have to stand at a pay phone (no cell phones in those days) and dictate the story, moment by moment. My reportorial skills are coming in handy, now, writing this book.

Sister Mysteries, an on-line book, is part of the Albany Times Union's Writing In Motion project. The project features seven writers committed to completing writing projects by the end of the year. Sister Mysteries contains within it a novel called Castenata -- a time-travel murder mystery featuring a nun, Sister Renata, who in 1883 was falsely accused of murdering her cousin Antonie. Renata's version of the story is contained within her diaries on the Castenata site.

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