Halloween

When I grew up, Halloween was a big deal. I never had a fancy costume, but my mom let me buy a new plastic mask at the dime store each year. I carried my candy in a big plastic jack o’lantern that had a smiley face on one side and a frowny face on the other.

The worst Halloween I ever had was the night my pony escaped. After getting home late from work, my dad had to drop everything to drive out to the farm where we kept him to get him back in the fence. There was no trick-or-treating with my friends that night. (And before you think you I was a spoiled little girl, bear in mind that I saved $25 in pennies, answered a farmer’s ad on Swap and Shop, and arranged for Jerry to be delivered in the back of a ton truck to my grandparent’s house all by myself. I was a determined child. I just didn’t realize then what a sacrifice my father made for me. I realize now.)

Because I was determined, I couldn’t imagine a Halloween without trick or treating, so I found a paper grocery bag, cut out eyes and a mouth, and visited the two neighbors to the left and right of Mom and Pa Bell’s house, which was across the highway from Jerry’s barn. For me, Halloween was never about the candy. I just liked the eerie feeling of the night. I liked the stories. But back then the monsters never really showed up, and there was something cozy about feeling scared and secure at the same time. Now the monsters are much more prevalent. If you don’t believe me, just watch the evening news.

Every Halloween my dad and I picked out a pumpkin, and as I got older, I would draw a face on it and carve it myself. I can still remember laying a newspaper on the rug and scooping out the pumpkin’s insides. Ewww. It was kind of gross and kind of fun at the same time.

Then I would set the pumpkin on our front porch and light a candle to place inside. I never wanted the night to end. I stayed up as late as I could, and my mom would carry the pumpkin from the front porch and put it near my bed for the glow and pumpkin aroma to lull me to sleep. I hated waking up to November 1 because I knew I’d have to wait another year to tell spooky stories and to look for ghosts.

Ghosts have always been my guilty pleasure.

I am an adamant believer in the spirit world, but I don’t believe ghosts are the spirits of the deceased. I used to worry that my ghost stories would offend fellow believers, but then I met Charles K. Wolfe, who was my English professor at MTSU. Thanks to Dr. Wolfe, I realized my love for ghosts was actually my love for storytelling and folklore. He encouraged me to embrace my own family folklore and oral tradition, and as a result, I wrote my first published article while a student in his folklore class. Many years later my story made its way into The Tennessee Folklore Sampler.

When I think about Halloween, I can’t help but think about my mom. Her birthday fell the day before. I always made a point to find her a fun Halloween birthday card because I knew it made her happy, or maybe it just made me happy. I credit my mom for turning me on to storytelling. She and I used to stay up late talking about the Bell Witch, and then she would knock on my bedroom wall when I went to bed later that night. She had a bit of mischief about her, but the joke was on her because I usually ended up wide awake in parents’ bed listening for the slightest noise.

Today I still collect stories—folklore, urban legends, ghost stories, whatever you wish to call them. And I ask my students to collect them. Stories ignite our creativity, preserve our family heritage, and serve as means of social control. Sociologists and folklorists tell us that “scary” stories help keep wayward teenagers in line and curious children from wandering away. Remember what happened to Hansel and Gretal!

In a few hours, I will be on the road to research for my manuscript Crossroads. It’s a dark, perhaps stormy night, and I’ll leave it up to you to guess where I’m headed. You’ll have to check the next blog to find out the details. Until then, happy storytelling.

Polyrhythmic ramblings

Polyrhythmic.

I love that word. I can’t do what the definition suggests, at least not musically, but I like the idea.

Polyrhythm refers to multiple beats or two or more independent rhythms sounding at one time.

I’m not a math person (though I went to a few math contests and took a few courses until I surrendered and they carried me out of analytical geometry on a stretcher.) But the more I get into looking at the creative side of math, the more appreciative I am of the discipline. Kudos to our math teachers. I think your love for numbers is much like the English teacher’s love for words.

Anyway, I am a writer, not a mathematician, but I’m also a fledgling guitar player. Sometimes the wires get crossed in my brain, and I think…differently. I have a “mash up” of my passions, and the result is a blog like this.

For me, creating a polyrhythm on guitar is difficult. But it sounds great. Beautiful. The two rhythms add texture to the song, make it more interesting, and communicate a deeper message, perhaps even on a subconscious level. (Research has shown that listening to music affects blood pressure, emotions, creativity, etc. Look it up. It’s fascinating to discover the creativity God has woven in math through patterns and equations.)

But anyway…on to my analogy and the new phrase I’ve coined. Polyrhythmic writing.

Actually there’s nothing new about it at all. (But if you ever hear that phrase again, tell them I thunk it up. I Googled it and found no reference to what I’m talking about.) Writers have added layers to their writing since the beginning. We comprehend on deeper levels that we realize.

 Jesus spoke in parables.

Shakespeare was the master of penning puns. (Another little nifty thing Shakespeare does in his writing is to switch from verse to prose. When? Why? Usually when the commoners spoke, Shakespeare wrote their words in prose. He save the more eloquent verse for his heroes.)

Edgar Allan Poe created his tour de force, “The Bells,” by layering alliteration, onomatopoeia, and tempo over metaphor and message.

I love writing. I love the rhythm of life that echoes through the words of a poem, a short story, a novel, and the lyrics of a song. But what I really love is polyrhythm in writing—the beautiful creation that occurs when a writer creates two or more distinct rhythms in one piece of writing.

I don’t think most writers set out to do it. I think it just happens. Kind of serendipitiously. God inspired, God driven, God designed. Perhaps.

I’ve heard writers say that after they’ve gone back later to re-read something they had written, only to discover a hidden message or a metaphor that had slipped in. Cool, isn’t it. I think so.

I do a lot of celebrity interviews. What makes my writing a little different is that I weave their story around the theme. It’s as if there are two stories, two rhythms, happening at once.

When I read a novel or watch my favorite show, I’m hooked by realistic characters with whom I can identify. I’ll keep reading if the plot is intriguing. But my overall reading experience can be compared to the way I might enjoy a meal—eating a Raider Rib in my high school cafeteria as opposed to sitting at the Blues City Café on Beale Street, listening to authentic blues and kissing my fingers after downing a half rack of real ribs.

You know what I’m talking about.

When writers play with their words, create texture, layer it with metaphors, or spice it up with subtext—just the right amount of each, too much overwhelms—then the reader can savor all the flavors, not wash it down with a carton of milk that’s pushing the date that’s stamped on the outside. There’s more going on that one simple beat. The mind picks up on the underlying rhythm.

Ever watch Castle? I love the twinkle in his eye when he delivers his one liners that are layered with double meaning. Two messages. Two rhythms occurring at the same time. Adds flavor. Yum.

I’m not sure how I got here–howI jumped from polyrhythms in music to polyrhythmic writing.

It wall started when I was trying to find the words to a song I wanted to write. When I can’t put my feelings into words, I usually put them into song. But I can’t always find the words. Especially if the feelings run too deep. In the words of Sugarland, they’re like “melodies stuck up in [my] head.” (I kind of dig that reggae-rap thing Jennifer Nettles does—kind of catchy.)

The next thing  I knew I was thinking about math. Then I was thinking about polyrhythms. Then I found myself on the Internet, Googling polyrhythms. And then I found Steve Vai’s article.

You remember Steve Vai, right? He’s the great guitar player who was in the 1986 Crossroads movie with Ralph Macchio. He was the devil’s guitar player.

Thinking about the movie made me think about the great blues player Robert Johnson. As the story goes, he made a deal with the devil at the crossroads.

And when I thought about the devil at the crossroads, I thought about teaching English to my eleventh grade students last year. We were studying “The Devil and Tom Walker” by Washington Irving. I wanted to relate the story to something they could understand. I had a guitar player in my class, so I cpmpared the story to the movie Crossroads. “Scratch” was the name of the devil both in the story and the movie. We also compared the story to Charlie Daniel’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”

And thinking about school made me think about what I’m doing right now. Sitting here with a guitar plugged into an amp waiting for me to pick it up and practice again. But the song that I can’t write keeps tugging at my heart. Arggg!

Life can be complicated. Underlying sadness topped with happiness here and there. Dreams mingled with reality. Yearning competing with responsibility. All of it wrapped in joy, though the joy may be tangled and hard to find at times.

Life is complicated. It doesn’t always make sense. But there is a rhythm to it, even if one beat is stacked atop another.

I guess that’s what makes life interesting.