Daisy, a novel

CHAPTER ONE of “DAISY” by Libby Sternberg

(c) Libby Sternberg 2021

Nick made a lot of money off my story. I penned the first words, and we exchanged more in letters back and forth after it was all over, a sort of game we played that helped us massage away the hurt of that wild summer and its consequences, as we compared memories, filling in what each of us didn’t know or had forgotten. So if you’ve read his version of this tale, you’ll find differences in mine, some small and some significant.

He’d been helping me, you see, with some difficulties after the tumult, and we started a long conversation in writing about it all, what happened, and then, before I knew it, the whole thing was published, first in magazines, and then as a book. He had my name on the story, too, but he was the one who got all the fame and most of the money, and eventually my name disappeared altogether from the tale, blown away as if written in sand. So this is my chance to right that wrong, to tell it just from my point of view, how I saw it, and to get credit for the telling.

The afternoon my cousin Nick Carraway came by our East Egg house, I felt as if I could fly on the gauzy breezes blowing our long white curtains in and out of open doors, and I kept glancing out the window for some pure dove to come invite me on a journey across the Sound.

Nick intruded on this dream as he strode into the hall trying so hard to look confident, but he had this way of hesitating, sometimes in speech, sometimes in gait, just the tiniest of moments as he teetered on the edge of choosing between doing what he wanted or doing what he thought others expected of him.

I’d invited him after learning he lived just across Long Island Sound from us in the less fashionable West Egg area. It had been ages since I’d seen him last, and I was in need of good company. I thought of Nick that way—a good man who could see to the core of a matter. He was in bonds then, learning the trade.

Poor, dear Nick. He tried so hard to measure up to my husband, Tom, when in reality he was Tom’s superior just by taking in breath.

A warm wind blew wildly that day, making the curtains dance in the vast parlor that fronted the Sound and my hair a fluttering halo. I thought we were in for one of those exciting storms that sometimes rushed up the coast, whipping the house with rain and making Tom worry about trees falling and the boat going out and not coming back.

When those storms hit, I wished I could be on the boat, just sailing smoothly between big waves and torrents of rain, not touched by them at all but finding the calm, true course in the center away from all this, especially Tom.

No tempests arrived, though, just a luxurious breeze. And Nick, ushered in by Tom in his riding pants, looking like some East Indian company leader about to punish an errant dark-skinned servant.

Jordan, who was staying with us at the time, caught a glimpse of him first and immediately turned her head up and away, a habit of hers when meeting a man for the first time. Makes them nervous, she’d confided to me. She also stayed quiet as a cat, another strategy of hers for setting a man ill at ease, wondering if he’d inadvertently offended and then setting him on a course of talking too much, as if trying to find the precise right thing that would make up for the deficiencies Jordan clearly saw in him with her silence. I could see that concern flicker across Nick’s face.

Of course she knew I had designs on setting them up together, so she was playing a role, one I’d assigned to her and she’d accepted. I had the parts written in my head already, and I immediately stepped into the scene, smiling and offering a greeting, and then some light banter about the longest day of the year – don’t you always wait for it and miss it – something I’d charmed new guests with several times already, and they all thought it so original and somehow bright.

“Nick! I’ve missed you! Come give me a kiss and make Tom jealous!”

He did as instructed, and I could see him eyeing Jordan, so I laughed and introduced them.

“Nick Carraway, dearest cousin, Jordan Baker, dearest friend,” I said, nodding to them both.

“The golfer,” he said with that hesitant timidity again.

“The scandalous one, yes,” Jordan said, finally bestowing on him her sweetest smile that made him think, I’m sure, they shared a secret. That was another skill of hers, to make men feel they knew something only the two of them acknowledged.

Small talk and drinks followed, light talk as light as the air, and soon I floated above everything in that same light air, borne on the wings of a good white wine as we went into dinner and drank and laughed more, Tom presiding at one end of the table like a grand pasha.

When Myrtle called—yes, I knew it was her—I cringed, and the bruise on my finger, where Tom had squeezed my hand so tightly he’d nearly broken a bone, began to throb.

It throbbed more when I heard his hushed tone, but part of me was amused, thinking of how hard Tom was having to work to keep from embarrassing himself in front of our guests. Having a mistress suited him. Having it revealed in front of his wife’s guests did not.

When he didn’t return to the table quickly, Jordan grimaced and said, “You’d think she’d have the good taste not to call during the dinner hour.”

Nick’s head quickly turned to her. “Who?”

But Jordan didn’t answer. And I wasn’t about to say Myrtle’s name and who she was because I’d feel compelled to do it in a clever, amusing way to make my guests comfortable. Neither Tom nor the Wilson woman deserved such good treatment.

As his conversation dragged on, I had the impish desire to add to his suffering, so I wandered inside, pretending to be surprised he was still on the phone, and said,

“Darling, if it’s business, it can wait. We have guests.”

His face reddened, and I made the mistake of smiling, too direct an acknowledgment of the game he was playing. Red turned to purple fury, and he slammed down the phone and came over to me, crushing me to him, his hand behind my neck as he forced a whiskey-flavored kiss on my lips, pushing so strong and hard I felt I couldn’t breathe.

“Make them go away,” he whispered, still holding on to my hair. It hurt.

I murmured something conciliatory to make him let go. But as he walked away and then poured himself another drink, I knew I’d do no such thing. They’d stay until the stars crept into the black void. They’d stay until Thomas Buchanan of the white man’s swagger was too tired to do anything but sleep after they’d left, or, in Jordan’s case, gone up to bed.

I think it was at that moment that the dream began to blow into my heart and mind just like that wild breeze, at first just a thread, joined by another, not knitting together into a full picture yet, just vague outline.

**

I remember that summer as one glorious day after another, most of them sunny and hot, but out there on our water-bordered piece of land, you could always escape the heat by sitting in the shade and waiting for the winds to scour it from sun-baked land.

On one of those fine mornings, I was the only one in the house besides the servants. Even little Pammy was off on a walk with her nanny and would nap soon after. Tom went into town, probably to see that wretched Wilson woman, and he’d taken poor Nick with him. I heard him on the phone make the arrangement. Jordan, too, left the roost, to practice, she said, at a nearby course. She came and went as she pleased, sometimes staying with other friends in town or closer to courses where she played.

I didn’t often have time alone like this, with no one to tend to, no directions to give to the cook, no questions to answer about Pamela, no querulous husband to avoid, so it took me a few minutes to think of how to spend those precious hours before life intruded on my peace.

The day was once again warm, but I hungered for entertainment. I wished I could scurry into town myself to go to the cinema. We’d not been often, but I loved losing myself in those flickering stories.

 I changed into linen sailor pants and blue striped top, grabbed my straw hat and set out on my own walk, following an almost invisible path along the water’s edge where I could enjoy the cooler salt air and see across the Sound to the mansion where nightly parties lit up the sky.

I paused at a promontory and gazed toward the jut of land where the mansion stood, hidden somewhat by towering pines and shorter maples. Nick, in his remembrances, seems to think I knew who lived there, but I didn’t. It never occurred to me to ask because one didn’t envy things in our circle; we created envy, so why should I be curious about parties across the Sound.

Still, it intrigued me, that house. It shouted gaiety, abandon, and unfiltered joy. With a sigh, I realized I’d not felt those things since I was a girl on the cusp of womanhood, when summer presented only effervescent happiness, filled with potential for unbounded pleasure.

The wind shoved at the brim of my hat, and I removed it as I sat on the grass, hands around my knees, staring, wanting something, not knowing what it was, feeling girlish.

I knew I’d been a lucky child with doting parents who’d have given me the world if I’d wanted it. As it was, I’d never lacked for comforts or extravagances. Mother decorated my room in whites and golds, and Father treated me like a princess. My debutante ball had been an exquisite spring evening on the grounds of the country club, with nearly two hundred in attendance, and I wore a dress of the purest white silk embroidered with gold thread that had been ordered from Paris.

I’d never wanted for beaux that summer. A parade of them sought me out at dances and teas, croquet parties, polo matches, strolls along the Ohio River where some stole kisses while others were too cowed by me to even hold my hand.

I didn’t realize it then, but my mother had taken an egalitarian approach to my socializing, something different for the age. She allowed me to be courted by both wealthy heirs and lowly soldiers. With war imminent, she declared that one never knew who would be the best match. By that I took it she meant who would survive and who would flourish was out of our hands, and planning was a fool’s task. I think she worried there’d simply be fewer men to choose from.

That said, she was happy when I abandoned all others and chose Tom, one of our class, maybe even above us in wealth and social status.

Truth be told, I chose him because I became deathly afraid of everything that year, and he offered a safe harbor. Afraid not just of the war, the reports of which I read with horror, but of loss more personal.

Father fell ill, was pale and distant, sometimes sitting alone in his study for hours on end, and forgetting things, appearing confused and distracted, so it was no surprise when she telegrammed to beckon me home shortly after I’d married, because Father had suffered a grievous accident.

He’d fallen, she told me, not looking me in the eye, after tripping on the steps, broken his neck and died instantly.

Mother had once observed, of a woman she knew who’d just lost her husband, that it was good she’d married, even though it had been a bad marriage, and now that she was free of her bad husband, she could perhaps have a good life. She’d been married to a good man, though, and they’d been happy, as far as I could tell. I think she intended that message for me, since rumors had already started about Tom’s wandering eye.

 I later learned Tom ended up helping Mother out considerably after she was forced to sell our beautiful sprawling home above the river, the one with the white-and-gold bedroom for me, and move to a more modest abode with just a cook and day maid. Family finances had apparently dwindled, unbeknownst to her, and that had accounted for my father’s decline.

Movement at the mansion across the way caught my eye. A man of indeterminate age and coloring strode to his dock where a new two-masted cutter rhythmically kissed its moorings in the gentle waves. He unslipped the knots and jumped onboard with the agility of a ballet dancer. Then he hoisted the sail in smooth, muscled motions, one arm over the other, until, with a startling flap, the wind caught it before he was ready. With a quick shake of his head, he corrected the error in judgment and guided the boat away from the pier. Warming with blush, I noticed he looked my way, and his gaze was so long and intense that I swore he was staring only at me and nothing else.

For one breathless moment, I wondered if he’d sail over to me, and I shivered, both tempted and repulsed by that possibility. Ultimately, good sense won out, and I started to rise, to walk away, but just as I unfurled myself, he let the wind pull him on a northerly course, and in moments was gliding over the pulsing waves with a grace and speed I envied.

It was then I realized I wanted to be invited to a party at the house across the way. I wanted to get uproariously drunk and dance until dawn. I wanted to sail as he was doing now, with nothing holding him back and only the wind leading him. I wanted to feel young again.

**

“Teach me how to sail,” I said to Tom a few days later at breakfast. He’d not returned the night before, and looked hollow-eyed and in pain this morning. “You promised when we moved here you would.”

He grimaced, but I knew his aching head from too much whiskey the night before would make him pliable, and sure enough, he muttered a short, “All right.”

“Wonderful!” I continued, moving on. “The cutter is so beautiful, it’s a shame to not use it more, and I love how graceful it looks with the sheets up.”

“It’s a sloop,” he corrected, as I knew he would. “And those are sails, Daisy, not sheets. Good god, don’t you know even that?”

Of course I knew, more than he did. I was an excellent swimmer and diver and longed to be on the water, but I was laying the groundwork for my request to be fulfilled, and I knew if he thought me an absolute dunderhead, he’d have to school me. Tom enjoyed feeling intellectually superior. It was one of his few pleasures these days. Like many young men, something had been cut off in him after the war. He hadn’t served—that’s how we were able to marry—and as the years went on, I think he regretted it, knowing so many others had had their manhood tested while his had been spent on polo fields and in smoke-filled clubs.

“That’s why I count on good instruction,” I cooed. “If you’re too busy, I’m sure we can find someone.”

“No, no. I’ll do it. Let’s go out this afternoon.”

He looked up and squinted as the maid entered the room. “Get me some bicarb, would you? I thought I’d asked for that already.”

Before she skittered away, I asked for more coffee which I knew she’d entered the room to serve, so I made Tom wait while she filled my cup.

The rest of our miserable breakfast was spent in silence.

**

True to his word, Tom met me at the dock at three that afternoon, the hottest time of day, and on this day the breezes off the Sound were strangely calm. It felt as if we were holding our breath before imminent disaster.

I knew it would be a difficult lesson, so I’d prepared myself to be patient, to jolly him when he was snappish, to follow instructions and keep my mouth shut when I disagreed. I’d learned how to do that early in our marriage.

It didn’t take long for me to lose that resolve, though. He’d explained all the names of things, how to tack, how to choose the right sails, and with delight, I realized I instinctually knew how to go with the feel of the boat and not the science of it.

At one point, when we were dead in the water waiting for some errant wind to fill the sails, I pointed at other boats skimming by, and said, “Why don’t we do what they’re doing?” I’d seen Tom surreptitiously glancing at them, evaluating what they were doing right that we were doing wrong, so I knew this thought had crossed his mind, as well.

“Because I’m trying to teach you how to keep the damn boat from sinking!” He muttered a curse then and mopped sweat from his brow before fixing the sails to the positions on those other sloops, and we were soon gliding as smoothly as they were.

“No one likes a pushy woman, you know,” he said after we’d straightened our course.

I bit my tongue to keep from pointing out he’d done what I suggested. Men didn’t like women who were right. I’d learned that early in our marriage, too. It was why my finger had been bruised, during a similar discussion a week or so ago where he squeezed my hand excruciatingly tight to make his point that I was being too “aggressive” by suggesting after dinner that maybe the white man wasn’t oppressed.

Though the first lesson contained this irritation, it didn’t dim my joy, and after that afternoon, we sailed together just three more times before I felt confident piloting the Virginia Marie, named after his mother, on my own, something I did when Tom went into town, so he wouldn’t know.

I sailed around the Sound, never venturing out into the wider sea, though once I was caught in a strong southerly wind I had to fight mightily to get back to our safe harbor. That incident both scared and thrilled me, so I set small challenges for myself after that, deliberately going out in gusty blows, even once when rain threatened. Little by little fear gave way to confidence, and these small escapes made me feel my carefree youth returning. Even Nick, on one of his regular dinner visits, commented on how happy I was looking.

Yes, I found happiness on those afternoon excursions. I found both hard work and time to think. I loved sailing back toward our safe harbor and looking up at the promontory I walked on and wondering how it would feel to dive from there into the sea. Another challenge I set for myself, perhaps on a blistering day.

The movement of the boat made me feel as if I were moving through time, and as I bounced over each wave, a resolution hammered its way into my soul, lit by the dream that had vaguely started to form earlier.

Tom had to go. And so did that Wilson woman.

Note from the author: I’m posting this first chapter for a limited time as I decide whether to self-publish or throw myself into the jaws of the publishing industry. 🙂

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Let Women Sing (like women)!

By Libby Sternberg

During a live-streamed funeral service for a beloved Episcopal minister in our community, two startling voices rang out in the nearly empty church—the voices of women singing. Not just singing but singing as women, with warm tones, even small vibratos.

Listening to those sweet voices felt like a balm during a sorrowful service, and I realized, as I waited for each hymn just to hear them, that the reason it was so refreshing was because the one area where women’s voices continue to be suppressed in the modern church is in music ministry.

Suppressed might seem like a strong word, considering the fact that nearly 40 percent of the ministers in our national church are women now, and women fill many roles on the altar, including singing in praise bands and folk groups.

But in adult choirs, women are still often expected to sing like boys, to use straight tones in adult choral music, even straight tones in solos and small ensembles. The message is clear: If you don’t sound like a boy, or try real hard to sound like one, your mature woman’s voice isn’t so welcome in this space.

I know some choral directors might object and point out that it’s easier for straighter voices to blend. That’s true, but when we’re talking about mature women’s voices, we’re not talking about “warblers,” voices with vibratos so large they could be mistaken for trilling coloraturas. We’re usually talking about a warmer sound with some vibrato, contrasted to one where the singer has to expel all the breath in her lungs to get out just a few straight-sounding notes. That’s not healthy singing.

The mainline Protestant churches trace their musical heritage back to a time centuries ago where male voices dominated, a misogynistic era in church life where women were not just “less than” but one step away from being considered witches.

The male voice was so prized throughout the ages, in fact, and female ones deemed so unworthy, that boys were castrated to retain their pure, otherworldly soprano and contralto tones. Castrati were still alive in the early twentieth century.

If you’ve ever heard a male contralto (or countertenor), you can usually tell immediately it’s not a woman’s voice, even though the vocal range he sings in is the same for the female vocal part. It’s a strangely asexual sound, with virtually no vibrato. A woman singing an alto part would be hard-pressed to emulate it, even if she could rid her voice of any lingering vibrato.

This fetishizing of the boy soprano sound should stop. We’ve kicked out most of the vestiges of the church’s sad sexist history. Let’s get rid of this last bit, too.

While much beautiful music was written for boys and men’s choirs, churches are not museums where art has to be presented in its original form. We use modern instruments, after all, to play old works. Why not use “modern” voices to sing old works? That is, let women sound like women. Stop telling them to sound like boys.

A musical acquaintance of mine who sings in a national choir, one that does residencies in cathedrals all over the world, recounted this story to me:

“After one of our services, the head verger spoke to me and said how delightful it was to hear adult women’s voices. He greatly appreciated the warmth of healthy, mature female voices and felt they added a great deal to the worship experience.”

To that I say: Amen. 

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Our 2020 Holiday Letter

Dear Friends and Family,

This past year, we scaled mountains, swam oceans, ran marathons, skied, skydived, painted masterpieces, composed symphonies, and cooked amazing award-winning dishes using the new fryer/steamer/toaster/blender/artisanal teapot we invented and patented.

Not really.

Actually, we just picked up a bad habit. Zooming.

We started Zooming sometime in March, but over time, the habit grew. We Zoomed with family in groups, with kids alone, with kids with grandkids, with business associates, with choir members, with volunteer boards. There was no Zoom too obscure or no reason for Zooming too outlandish. We even Zoomed wearing…a tiara.

We have become very familiar with the interrupted thought as the mic cuts out when someone else starts speaking. Don’t ask us what we meant to say. We’d already forgotten it by the time we heard the “What?” from other Zoomers. Just assume it was brilliant.

Other than Zooming, we FaceTimed. But only with our kids.

We also went to the beach a few times. We only went when COVID restrictions allowed us. Really.

We bought masks – sequined ones, Penn State and leopard-print ones, and plain ole blue ones. We wore them everywhere.

We bought hand sanitizer in the big containers. Now that it’s available in small containers again, we grumble every time we have to refill one of our small vials from the big bottle.

We bought toilet paper responsibly. We are not hoarders.

We gained a few pounds, but our doctors assure us this is weight from our longer hair since we’ve not been to a salon in months.

We watched some shows on Netflix. Don’t ask what they were. We’ve already forgotten. Maybe that’s what we were trying to talk about during Zoom sessions before being cut off by others talking.

We spent too much money on jigsaw puzzles.

We’ve perfected the lemonade martini, the dirty martini, the raspberry martini, and threw out the lemon/ginger/cayenne martini.

We’ve discovered we like wine in a box.

So, that’s our year! Can’t wait for 2021!

The Sternbergs

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Book Review: “The Order” by Daniel Silva

In Israeli spymaster Gabriel Allon, author Daniel Silva created a highly sympathetic character who is melancholy, strong, unafraid, and defiant. In many ways, he mirrors the Jewish homeland he represents: unwilling to tolerate one more drop of genocidal blood on his watch after the Holocaust and acts of terror have ripped his family apart. Those who follow Allon in the series Silva crafted can’t help admiring and rooting for him as he uncovers and fights everyone from Irish terrorists to radical Islamists bent on destroying what they cannot conquer.

Thus it is a deep disappointment to encounter a book in this series that falters on virtually every level — the mystery is predictable, the thriller elements not at all suspenseful, and even Gabriel Allon’s attractive qualities seem somehow muted by the weak storytelling. Yet that is precisely how I felt after reading The Order, the latest of Allon’s exploits.

A quick summary of the plot: A Jesuit priest contacts Allon to investigate whether the latest pope has been murdered (instead of succumbing to a heart attack). No surprise, he has been. By a fanatical ultra-conservative bishop who heads a fanatical ultra-conservative Catholic group that intends to align with other conservative political forces taking power in Europe, forces that hate Jews and Muslims and immigrants in general, and stir up national pride while not providing good governmental services. By the way, I’m giving nothing away in this summary. You’ll figure all this out pretty quickly since none of it is hidden.

The story feels as if it’s supposed to be a warning to readers that dark forces could overcome the world again if we’re not vigilant. To avoid this fate, we must throw in our lot with the liberation theology Jesuit who, despite his saintly outlook and liberal broadmindedness, isn’t keen on letting priests marry.

If the story was predictable and trite, the writing didn’t always rise above it. It felt rushed at times and imprecise. A woman is described, at one point, as wearing cat’s eye glasses that make her look academic. Um, nope, those glasses would make you look like a fashionista. Horn-rimmed spectacles, maybe a la Harry Potter, might do the trick for the intelligentsia look. I’m surprised an editor didn’t flag that.

What I found most disappointing in the book — even disturbing — was Mr. Silva’s anti-Christian theme. It’s perfectly fine to enumerate the sins of Christianity, especially Catholicism, regarding the treatment of Jews (especially during and after the Holocaust when some church leaders helped Nazi murderers escape to South America). What’s not so fine is devising a plot that seeks to blow up core beliefs of Christianity. Mr. Silva seems bent on saying to Christians: hey, what you believe in? It’s all a lie.

Sorry to say but I’ll give a lot of thought to whether I’ll buy another book in this series.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

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Book Review: “Short Stories by Jesus”

Amy-Jill Levine’s book Short Stories by Jesus is simultaneously a provocative, frustrating, beautiful, tedious, and compelling work.

This analysis of the parables of Jesus by a Bible scholar takes a fresh look at these tales through the minds of those who first heard them. How would Jesus’s first audience react to his narratives about lost sheep, a pearl of great value, a prodigal son and a good Samaritan? What was their understanding of the world and of the people Jesus talks about? Did they see things differently than we do now? Spoiler alert: Yes.

This is why the book is so provocative and beautiful. Levine painstakingly defines words and how they were used throughout the Bible, where similar stories appeared, how certain storytelling devices were common (so many involved two sons, a rich man, vineyards, etc.) in order to help you feel you are there with those first listeners, hearing the stories for the first time with your understanding of what they knew.

Her impressive scholarship leaves you in awe as well as frustrated. As she went through example after example of mentions of the word “merchant” or “pearl” in ancient history and the Bible, I was impatient to move on. A summary would have sufficed for general audiences.

Where Levine shines is in provoking you to consider new looks at these well-worn tales. Her analysis of the parable of the Good Samaritan still has me mulling it, seeing it afresh, understanding that the answer to Jesus’s question– Who is your neighbor?– in that story is much deeper than you might think.

Similarly, her pulling apart of the “lost” parables (lost sheep, lost coins, lost son) forces you to view yourself not just as among the lost but as the seekers — what, she forces you to confront, are you seeking, what have you lost, that you would tear up the world to find?

In the parable of the pearl of great value, you’re left to ponder what is it you want so badly that you’d happily give up all your fortune to own?

Her other great accomplishment in this book is alerting Christian readers to the sad history of parable interpretations that have more than a whiff of anti-Semitism to them by ignoring the rich Old Testament history of messages of love and acting as if Jesus’s parables teaching the “way of love” were explicit rebukes to Jewish law.

“If the interpreter knows nothing about Jesus’s Jewish context other than the stereotype of ‘Jesus came to fix Judaism, so therefore Judaism–whatever it was–must have been bad,’ then the parables will be interpreted in a deformed way.”

Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus

At times, it feels as if Levine strains to look beyond obvious interpretations of the stories as she seeks to find some new view that will turn the parable on its head. That seemed particularly true in the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee and the widow and the judge. Her journey to find something different in these tales had me wondering if Jesus would go to such lengths to obscure a text’s plain meaning. Sometimes the obvious understanding might be the right one.

The merits of this book far outweigh the faults, however, and I heartily recommend it to those interested in Jesus, the Bible, and life in general. The book is available at all major etailers, including Amazon.

The Good Samaritan by Vasily Surikov

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her books can be found here.

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What is Church?

Since the pandemic hit, many churches, including ours, haven’t been fully opened. First, they were closed entirely, and services were only virtual, with a minister praying and preaching to an empty space.

Now, they are sort of, kind of open. Our church hosts two Sunday services, live-streaming one, but everyone wears masks, including the priest when administering communion, and the “music” service consists of a lone cantor singing hymns solo while the congregation is admonished in the printed program not to join in.

I’ve written before about how I missed church during the times it was completely shut down, a surprise to me because I’d contemplated for quite some time how church should be much more than a building. I resisted the notion that organized religion, with its churches and cathedrals, was the true church, and then I discovered, when I couldn’t access those structures, how meaningful they were to me.

Now, however, as our bishops continue to urge us to socially distance and won’t let us completely open the doors to our buildings for all the gatherings churches host, I’m wondering and wandering again, going back to my original thoughts about what church should be. Thanks, bishops, for leading me back to this place of discernment. Or maybe I should say, “be careful what you wish for.”

Wishing for congregations to be ultra-safe means we’re now scattered, connecting with each other through Zoom meetings, newsletters, phone calls, and those live-streaming services. That, in turn, means many people — not just me — might be wondering about the real meaning of church.

Sometimes, I’m clearer on what I think it should not be. I don’t think it should be a political rally or anything like it. I’ve written about that, too, several times. (Here and here.)

I don’t think it should be merely social gatherings for those attending. Yes, I miss the social coffee hours, parish pot lucks and choir dinners and all the rest. But it isn’t just that.

It isn’t just taking canned goods every week to the food drive either, as important as those communal acts of mercy are.

Now I’m back to thinking church is more about all the things we’ve been called to do during this pandemic, the things I mentioned above — the phone calls, the notes, the newsletters, the Zoom meetings, the small but meaningful contacts with each other that lift us up as individuals, make us feel loved.

Because love is what the church is really supposed to be about. Loving our neighbor. Loving God.

As we show our love for one another, I believe it creates ripples in the wider community. So, that person you call to offer an encouraging word to might do the same or help a neighbor and that person, too, might be inspired to pass it on, all unconscious acts of charity started by one little pebble of love tossed into the wider pond.

You don’t need a building for that.

Libby Sternberg writes in a variety of genres, including Christian fiction. Those books include Fall from Grace, In Sickness and in Health, Kit Austen’s Journey, and Mending Ruth’s Heart.

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Book Review: “No Man’s Land” by Wendy Moore

by Libby Sternberg

When I was growing up, all the doctors in my life were men — from our general practitioner to specialists. I first encountered a female physician after having children. Our pediatrician at the time was a wonderful woman who combined medical science with an artful understanding of being a mother herself. She was a blessing.

415uc5fpgTLThe way for her and other women doctors was paved by physicians like Louisa Garrett Anderson and Flora Murray, the two physicians at the center of No Man’s Land, an informative look at how difficult it was for women to be accepted in the fiercely male world of medicine.

The two women came of age during the UK suffragette movement in the early 1900s, with Anderson even serving jail time for some of her protesting activities. This was how these doctors met, in fact, during suffragette meetings and protests. They soon became friends and professional colleagues, eventually living their lives together as a couple.

Because men controlled staff appointments at hospitals, the women doctors were barred from those jobs by small-minded doctors who didn’t want women among their ranks. Murray wrote an article in the New Statesman in 1913, justifiably angry at this practice, especially when men of lesser abilities effortlessly rose in the ranks:

“Staff appointments are professional prizes. They are made by the council or governing body, generally consisting entirely of men, upon the advice of a medical staff composed entirely of men. They are usually given to men.”

Shut out of hospitals, they started their own together, a small facility catering to women and children, an area to which most women doctors at the time were relegated, regardless of their expertise.

Then…World War I began. While the suffragette movement was put on hold during those fearsome years, Murray and Anderson understood that medical care for the wounded would be such a paramount concern that they could finally be accepted by male colleagues and join the fight to save lives.

Still, it wasn’t easy. They had to battle stiff resistance among hidebound medical officers and prove themselves by setting up their own hospitals in France, financed by donations, many of them from sister suffragettes.

They started two such facilities, one in Paris and one closer to the coast where wounded men were eventually transported back to London, and showed they were more than equal to the task. They did so well, in fact, that eventually Alfred Keogh, the most senior physician in the British Army at the time, asked them to set up a military hospital in London to deal with a surge of casualties expected from an upcoming push on the front.

Thus the Endell Street Military Hospital was born. From spring 1915 to the end of the war and beyond, Murray and Anderson ran the hospital with a staff of all women. All employees and volunteers, from physicians to anesthetists to nurses to orderlies, were women. Murray’s organizational skills had the facility humming in record time, and Anderson’s surgical skills meant they operated on a record number of patients per day during high casualty initiatives at the front (think of every battle name of that war, from Ypres to the Somme and more, to imagine the flow of men under their care).

No Man’s Land takes you through this war — military, medical, and societal — in small details. All physicians, including Murray and Anderson, had to grapple with new wounds caused by new killing machines. No clear-through bullet holes but grisly shrapnel injuries resulting in fractured bones, mustard gas burns that scorched lungs, shell shock, and the ever-present infections that might take a life in an era before antibiotics.

No Man’s Land leads the reader up to Armistice and beyond, when the hospital took in civilian patients, too, now sick and dying from the “Spanish flu.”

While women gained a (limited) right to vote during this period, the struggle for female physicians persisted. Men returning from the war eased back into their jobs, pushing out women who’d been handling them. And male doctors’ attitudes about women in their profession rebounded to their original peevishness, shutting out female physicians once again from staff positions.

This lasted a long, long time, as my childhood attests, when almost all doctors were men and women were nurses. Societal change is a long, hard slog, and No Man’s Land demonstrates how difficult it is to change minds and hearts even when evidence of change’s benefits stares one in the face.

 

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Book Review: “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” by Katherine Anne Porter

By Libby Sternberg

The 1918 flu pandemic afflicted 25 percent of the American population, killing 675,000 of them, mostly the young and otherwise healthy. One of the infected survivors was the writer Katherine Anne Porter, a Colorado newspaper reporter. She used her experiences to write the devastatingly evocative novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider.

The tone of this book can be summed up in one word: feverish. At the beginning of the story, the protagonist, Miranda, awakens from a troubled dream in which “Her heart was a stone lying upon her breast outside of her; her pulses lagged and paused, and she knew that something strange was going to happen.” tumblr_n1zvthnTvl1ttt4i5o1_400

This sense of impending doom threads through the episodes of this long short story. After rousing from her confusing dream, she heads to work where she fights off the efforts of an aggressive Liberty Bond salesman. From there she deals with the chauvinism of the time on the job, where she and a fellow reportress are relegated to covering theater and society news—even though a sports writer would prefer reviewing plays in her stead. She keeps her mouth shut about her unpopular anti-war views and her dislike of the stories she’s assigned because of her gender.

The beacon of light in her life is her Texas-born beau, Adam, a strapping young man in uniform, ready to be sent to the front. They meet for meals, go dancing, attend the theater, pause as funerals pass in the street (“’It seems to be a plague,’ said Miranda, ‘something out of the Middle Ages.’”). Miranda wonders why her head aches and nothing seems as real as it should be.

She simultaneously yearns for and is afraid of loving Adam:

There was only the wish to see him and the fear, the present threat, of not seeing him again; for every step they took towards each other seemed perilous, drawing them apart instead of together, as a swimmer in spite of his most determined strokes is yet drawn slowly backward by the tide. “I don’t want to love,” she would think in spite of herself, “not Adam, there is no time and we are not ready for it and yet this is all we have–“

Readers see her delirium slowly wrap her in grim sickness, and one is sometimes confused as to what is happening and what is febrile dream, a technique that makes Porter’s experience of the flu jump off the page to create a lump in one’s throat.

After she finally collapses, Adam tends to her in her boarding house, and they share a tender confession of love.

When Miranda presses Adam to reveal his feelings, he gently puts his face against hers, and then says: “Can you hear what I am saying?…What do you think I have been trying to tell you all this time?”

As he cares for her, they both recall a spiritual:

“‘Pale horse, pale rider,'” said Miranda “(We really need a good banjo) ‘done taken my lover away–‘” Her voice cleared and she said, “But we ought to get on with it. What’s the next line?”

“There’s a lot more to it than that,” said Adam,” about forty verses, the rider done taken away mammy, pappy, brother, sister, the whole family besides the lover–“

An ambulance whisks Miranda to the hospital where she suffers through pain and more nightmares, death a whisper away. During her recovery, she sees fireworks outside the hospital windows. The war is over. As to Adam? His fate is summed up in the spiritual and Biblical passage from which the book’s title comes.

While a melancholy tale, Pale Horse, Pale Rider places the reader in a small microcosm of American history in ways no sterile nonfiction retelling of this period could. The reader learns, for example, that men didn’t like their army-issued wrist watches, thinking only sissies wore them, and that a Liberty Bond cost $50 while a lowly female reporter only earned $18 per week. These details, along with Porter’s haunting fever dream style, bring the past alive for today’s readers.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Visit her website at http://www.LibbySternberg.com 

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Short Story: Love in the time of COVID-19

by Libby Malin Sternberg

Lila would smile at me as if we shared a secret, her dark eyes staring at mine, unblinking, the corners of her rose-pink mouth lifted up just a millimeter, as if to ask, how funny the world is, isn’t it, Rudy?

She was in her twenties, and I was only eighteen, and we did share a secret. My Uncle Pete, owner of four Pizza Rustica shops around town, had come up with a scheme.

“We offer the test for free,” he explained one night. The empty room of his flagship pizzeria on Old Town Road, the one with a bar and a brisk weekend business, smelled of fried food and onions, as he leaned against the countertop. Lila had already cleaned the empty tables, and the cook had left an hour ago. We were only here to count the money and tidy up.

The test he mentioned was the one for the coronavirus or Covid-19 or Chinese flu, as Pete called it. We were shut down for we didn’t know how long, and takeout business might be brisk, but it didn’t pay the salaries of the serving staff. Uncle Pete might be hard-nosed about profits, but he was no villain. He wanted to give some money to his laid-off workers. This restaurant, the only one of his four, accounted for a good 80 percent of Pizza Rustica’s profits, and most of those had been from from the bar.

photo-1515890435782-59a5bb6ec191I followed these things closely. I was going to be a business major at Penn State next year. If I ever got to finish high school. It was shut down along with everything else.

Lila, one of Pete’s servers, hired just before the quarantine, nodded enthusiastically from her perch on a nearby stool. She spoke English with a thick accent, something Slavic, I think. Her hair was a waterfall of auburn ripples that seemed to glow like spun gold in the right light, and every light was the right one around Lila.

“Uncle Pete,” I managed to sputter, “we don’t have no tests. We can’t offer them for free or for sale.”

He just shrugged. “Don’t matter. We take a swab and send them on their way, telling them results aren’t in for another two weeks. By then they know if they have it anyway. No harm, no foul.”

Again, Lila nodded, this time even more enthusiastically. I just shook my head. I was used to my uncle’s schemes by now. I’d been working here since I was twelve, first bussing tables and washing up, then as a cashier, then a deliveryman when I got my license, and most recently as assistant manager. The title was pure b.s., but Uncle Pete didn’t have any kids, and he wanted to help me get ahead. He said it would look good on my resume.

“They’ll know,” I protested. “Somebody’ll tell.”

The fear of the authorities never deterred Uncle Pete. He’d looked the other way when a bookie set up shop in the corner of his place for a year, and police believed him when he said he was as shocked as they were to find a racket in his establishment. He’d also gotten wine from a place in Connecticut for a few years, going around the state’s liquor licensing regulations. He’d not been caught on that game, and had only shut it down when he found a way to get the stuff cheaper legally. I sensed disappointment when that happened.

“I do the swabs,” Lila was now saying. “I did some nursing.”

My eyes widened as I stared at her. All I knew about her was that she had a boyfriend who picked her up every day in his gleaming white Tahoe, and that she was beautiful. As beautiful as an angel.

“Somebody’ll tell,” I repeated, looking at her, hoping she’d see the folly of this. “They’ll know it’s a fake. The news has been talking about how hard it is to get these tests!”

Uncle Pete straightened and crossed his arms. “That’s the point, Rudy. When the market on something is tight like that, you always know somebody somewhere is selling it on the side. We’re just taking advantage of that entrepreneurial spirit.”

Exasperated, I nearly shouted, “But we’re not buying anything. We don’t have the tests! It’s irresponsible! It’s nuts. It’s risky. Someone could get hurt by this.” Met by impassive stares from Pete, I added, “And how’s it going to make you any money if it’s free anyway?”

“You have to order four Specials to get it. And the price of those just went up 20 percent.” After a beat, he went on, as if I wouldn’t get it. “We get all the takeout orders this side of town, and we’re selling our most expensive items.” Specials were things like our lasagna and veal parmesan platters or our largest pizzas plus salads and appetizers.

“Good thinking, boss,” Lila said and stood as well, straightening like a long-legged bird about to take flight. Today she wore skin-tight denim pants and two-inch heels—how did she manage to stay on her feet all night in those—and a red T-shirt with something in Cyrillic across her breasts on it that, to me, seemed to read, “Love me, Rudy.”

I shook my head. Could I even continue to work here? Then she turned to me. And gave me that smile.

****

Uncle Pete s didn’t advertise his testing scheme, but he had an amazing network of people he spread the word to. Within a day of this plan, we had a bustling takeout order business at the flagship site, triple what we usually did, all the high-end orders, four at a time, sometimes double.

I’d ring up the orders and grab their plastic. Lila would take customers into the bar and do the swab. By the time she was done, I’d have their orders on the counter ready to go.

She sported white clothes now for this new job. White skirt and camp shirt or white jeans and tee, her bundle of hair pulled back at the nape of her neck, and oversized glasses I’d never seen her wear before perched on her nose.

The evenings were warm, with spring nipping at our hopes, the scent of hyacinths in the air, and I selected old love songs for the ambient music. Frank Sinatra crooning about seeing you again, Doris Day purring about sentimental journeys, Ella Fitzgerald humming about the man she loves.

The man Lila loved would pick her up every night at midnight, his face as grim as death, his arms muscled and tattooed, his voice a gravel road. “Ready, babe?” he’d say, and it was only the slightest tinge of warmth in his tone that gave away the idea that he might – might – just love her as much as I did.

Every evening when I showed up for work, I cherished two dreams. One, that Uncle Pete would stop this ridiculous plan, and two, that Lila’s boyfriend would not come to pick her up and I’d take her home instead.

I was never quite sure what would happen on that drive home, but was sure it would be something wonderful.

****

A week into this business venture and we were so busy that Uncle Pete brought one of our regular cooks back in part-time to help out the senior one he’d kept onboard during the quarantine. If this fellow, Gus, wondered what was up with “nurse” Lila escorting folks into the bar for a moment, he didn’t let on.

I lived in fear that the authorities would barge in on a raid, some lab-coated, pistol-waving patrol of public health officers, to cart us all off to jail.

But hope tamped down that fear. Hope that Lila would smile at me. Laugh with me. Even – as happened last night as the room emptied – jokingly twirl around in a dance with me to the tune of “I’ve got a crush on you” before Boyfriend arrived, quickly breaking free when his shadow darkened the door.

She smelled of roses, something faint, something I’d never noticed before. Her soap? Perfume?

That night I dreamed of buying her that perfume, even after finding out it would empty my college savings account.

****

The next day, Uncle Pete expanded his venture. For every five Specials, he’d throw in a roll of toilet paper for an extra three bucks, and the test was still free. When I asked him why wasn’t the toilet paper free, too, he looked at me like I was the stupidest man on earth. “I pay for that, Rudy,” he said. He wasn’t paying for any of the “tests.”

As the days wore on, my anxiety crept up, and every time the bells over the door announced another customer, I feared I’d see those uniformed health officers of my nightmares.

They didn’t show up, but more discerning patrons did. Some insisted on knowing why the test results would take so long. I had no answer, but Uncle Pete, always around, quickly responded, “You want fast results, go get those government ones. Half of ’em are no good anyway, you know.”

It was around this time that Lila started wearing a name tag with her white ensembles, which had grown to include a white shirt dress and a white jumpsuit. The tag read: Lila Milchek, O.D.S.

I asked her what the initials stood for and was rewarded with a smile. “Something in my old country,” she said.

Only three days now remained in the quarantine, and as we were about to open for the afternoon, I asked Pete what he’d do about the missing test results at that time.

Without a word, he pulled a typed letter from his pocket and handed it to me.

“Dear Valued Customer,” it read, “By now you should know, if you are symptom-free, that you do not have the Chinese flu. Those of you with symptoms will have gone to the doctor, as we advised. We are happy this quarantine is over, and sad to report that our testing company, Ajax Dynamics, went out of business and absconded with all the swabs. Since the test was free, there is no need for a refund, but we generously offer you a free large soda with every large Special pizza you order…”

“Ajax Dynamics?” I asked, looking at him over the paper. “Absconded with the swabs?”

“I’m going to post that here, on the counter, in laminate. And hand it out to some people I recognize who got the test,” he said, with not a hint of shame or embarrassment.

The bells jangled, and I looked up, expecting to see Lila, wondering if she had a new white outfit to dazzle us with today, but it was a customer.

And another and another and another after that.

Lila didn’t come in that night. Or the one after.

****

Now the ambient music I chose was Puccini, lush arias about death and doomed love. Lila was in the hospital, desperately ill.

Uncle Pete actually closed up shop, worried that she’d contracted the virus, that his scheme had had deadly consequences, the spread of which we’d yet to realize.

The verdict came in a phone call from the boyfriend a couple nights later. His name was Roger, it turned out, he was a car mechanic, and Lila’s real name was Mimi.

“Tuberculosis,” Uncle Pete said in a hushed tone after getting off the phone. “It’s just TB.”

Just TB?

A cascade of events then overtook us. It turned out everyone she’d come into contact with needed to be told and possibly tested. Many of them got the COVID test too, while they were at it, so that special offer of Pete’s turned out to be valid, after all.

Not a one complained or let out a word about Pete’s tests, or if they did, they were dismissed, because we never heard a peep from anyone about it.

As for Lila?

She didn’t make it. She contracted the virus after all, somewhere else since none of the customers tested positive, and her underlying condition meant she was in the at-risk category.

Roger let us know weeks later. He came in for a pizza, his face as grim as death, and now the gravel in his throat seemed real, as he gave us the bad news.

“She tried, you know? Knew she was sick, but she tried to make it here and wanted…” He stopped, choking up, and I never found out what she wanted, but I knew it wasn’t me.

****

That week, I changed my major at Penn State, to undeclared, and began an online Intro writing course, our first assignment an essay about lost love.

“Lila would smile at me as if we shared a secret,” I wrote, “her dark eyes staring at mine, unblinking, the corners of her rose-pink mouth lifted up just a millimeter, as if to ask, how funny the world is, isn’t it, Rudy?

Copyright 2020 Libby Sternberg

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What I miss about Sundays

It’s Palm Sunday 2020, and we celebrated in this coronavirus time of self-isolation by hanging some palm-like flora on our door, and enjoying the glorious sunshine of the afternoon, and checking in with virtual religious celebrations. But it felt a little empty.

In Craig Morgan’s country hit “That’s What I Love About Sunday,” he walks you through the cheerful quiet Sundays of churchgoing people. He describes congregants singing “Amazing Grace,” then later clipping coupons from the newspaper and cat-napping on the porch.

It’s a joyful song that celebrates the experiences of the nearly 40% of Americans who attend religious services every week.

Count me among them. And during these days of social distancing and closed doors, I miss church.

This has come as a surprise to me because for many years now, I’ve embraced the idea that church is something of an artificial construct. We should practice our Christianity, live it, and it shouldn’t require a building, a gathering place, for us to feel at one with God.

I’ve especially contemplated this idea as I watch churches big and small struggling with declining memberships and rising costs. Is it really necessary to maintain all those buildings, all that staff?

Well, yes, it is. That’s the lesson this coronavirus isolation is teaching me.

If I were to rewrite Mr. Morgan’s song, in fact, I’d talk about the things I miss about Sundays. I miss gathering together with like-minded souls. I miss singing hymns with them. I miss the smiles, the catching up on news, the gentle and often unseen gestures of help for those in need.

And, above all, I miss Communion. Not just the “mystic, sweet communion” we sing about in “The Church’s One Foundation.” I miss the sacrament.

No matter how distracted I might be through the readings, the sermon, the prayers, or the announcements, when I kneel at the altar rail for Communion, my mind and heart shift gears. After receiving the host, I experience a peace…that passes all understanding. Sometimes I mentally articulate a prayer of petition. Sometimes, my petitions seem like a cloud of incense floating up to God that require no translation for Him to understand.

Virtual services can capture some of the sense of community lost by actually bestirring ourselves to go to a church building. I’ve particularly enjoyed some Morning Prayer liturgies offered by a Harrisburg church that are intimate and yet inclusive as the officiants read off prayer petitions they are seeing appear on the screen during the service.

While these are wonderful ways to stay in touch with church, even allowing us to sample an array of approaches to liturgies, they always feel to me as if something is missing.

Communion is missing. The actual sacrament and the real gathering of fellow believers.

Our local bishop has reminded us that armed forces personnel might miss the sacrament regularly. She posted a message last week that included the prayer from the Armed Forces’ Prayer Book for when you cannot attend worship. It includes these words:

In union, O Lord, with your faithful people at every altar of your Church, where the Holy Eucharist is now being celebrated…

I desire to offer you praise and thanksgiving.

What a beautiful prayer. I’ll cherish it even as I yearn for the times when we can gather at church.

What I miss about Sundays, though, is that artificial construct, that building where we gather, and the people who work to make communion as special as it should be.

When this period of isolation ends, I hope I never take it for granted again.

 

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