Why Today Matters

Today is the 53rd anniversary of the 16th St Church bombing. In light of all the terrorism in the world, is it still relevant to remember this event? Many more than 4 young girls have been killed in school massacres, movie theaters, the Twin Towers. What about that particular bomb planted in the dead of night at a black church in 1963 makes us pause in our busy days . . . and remember?

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I’m not sure I can answer this fully. I do know that it is important to remember the awful cost of hate in any form it manifests and remembering one does not mean forgetting others. But that said, this bombing symbolized the cost of hatred in a way that brought to light how it had festered in our midst for so long and made us face that as a nation, opening a path for real change.

Below is something I wrote earlier this year, a chance encounter that made me think about this:

Another hot pink toenail story.

I’m in beautiful Charleston, SC and stop at a shoe store. Great shoes in this city! Am wearing a matching hot pink US Marine tee shirt (yes, really). An African American sales lady approaches and tells me about all of her many family members who are in the armed forces, though she stayed home to raise her children. As we chat (and I try on shoes, hence the toes get a part in this story), she asks where I’m from.

“Birmingham.”

“Oh my father went to Birmingham a few years ago,” she says. “My brother’s school also went.”

I give her my “author” card, and she wrinkles her forehead. “You’re T.K. Thorne?”

I nod. This is a fun part for me, as people seem astonished at meeting an author. I get the same reaction when they find out this little silver-haired lady was a police officer.

But she surprises me when she says, “I know your name!”

Sometimes people think they’ve heard of you, so I didn’t think much about it, but she pointed to LAST CHANCE FOR JUSTICE on my card. “You wrote this book? Last-Chance-for-Justice for web

“I did.”

“My father went to B’ham for the 50th anniversary and bought two copies of this book! The author was signing them at the 16th Street Church.”

In fact, I was.

We chat a bit more and then she looks at me and says, “I feel like crying. Thank you for writing this book.”

I smile.

“No, THANK YOU for writing this book.”

She repeats this twice more before what she is saying sinks in and then I feel like crying too. I almost didn’t write this book. There were lots of reasons not to write this book, but I am so thankful that I did. The words “honor” and “privilege” sometimes get bantered about, but at this moment, they really hit me. It was an honor and a privilege, and I will be grateful for having told this story and written this book for the rest of my life.

Last Chance For Justice: How Relentless Investigators Uncovered New Evidence Convicting The Birmingham Church Bombers

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Chicago Angels

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My adventure in the Windy City began with hot pink toenails. (Stay with me.) Sister Laura, who has worked so hard with little credit—editing, designing the awesome cover, marketing, and supporting me every step—really wanted us to go to Chicago to receive one of the awards for my latest novel (Angels at the Gate). I should say “our” novel. She also wanted us to attend the BEA (Book Expo America).

Pedicure, at least, called for, right?

But a few days before our flight, Laura fell and hurt her ankle. BEA requires lots of walking about, so she borrowed a wheelchair from a thrift store. It was old, heavy and squeaky, and not knowing its history, she cleaned it with Lysol, which set off the explosive substance detector at the airport. So wheelchair and Laura and all of her stuff had to be searched. After that,no problem, other than the wheelchair not showing up at the gate as promised. Eventually found it in baggage. Piece of cake. We are over the hump. All we have to do is get outside the terminal because Laura has arranged for her friend Bob to pick us up. Bob, it turns out, is 82 years old and doesn’t see well. (Really?) His car is about the same age and smells strongly of gasoline. (Really? Are we going to explode? I have visions of someone in front of us throwing out a lit cigarette.) Bob piles empty boxes on top of the luggage in the back where, I politely mention, they totally block his vision on one side. As he pulls out into the rain and jam-packed traffic–he nonchalantly says, “I’m used to it. ”

[‘It,’ I presume, being not being able to see . . . omg.)

I text our hostess. *If we survive Bob, will be there soon.*

Miraculously, Bob gets us to where we are going, an area several miles north of Chicago in Edgewater, where we have rooms at a friend’s cousin’s lovely condo.

That night is the award event. We leave the condo early, me pushing the squeaky, cumbersome wheelchair that randomly applies its own brakes down the sidewalk. Laura has called the Chicago Transit Authority, who assured her that ALL the metro train stations are handicap accessible. And, indeed, when we arrive at the nearest station, we find out there is a way to get a wheelchair into the station. But “handicap accessible” does not stretch to having an elevator to get up the many stairs to the subway platform.

Reversing course, we head to next station down the line which has an elevator where we meet a nice young man with the CTA who helps us up to the platform. I ask his name.

“Angel,” he says.

My first thought is how appropriate, the name of my book, and he was indeed an angel. WAIT. The name of my book. OMG, I have forgotten a copy of my book (necessary to hold when getting picture taken at awards. The last thing our publicist said was, “Don’t forget a copy of the book for the photo.”) I leave Laura on platform with Angel, hurrying back to the condo. By this time, my feet are aching in my boots (which I am wearing because my skirt rises too far in front for knee-high stockings, and I will die before pantyhose.)

toesI grab a copy of my book and switch my boots for sandals. Still have on black socks, because this is Chicago, not Birmingham. I look down to see two bright pink big toes peeking out through holes in the socks.

I grab boots for later donning. By the time I get back, we are pretty late. Angel gets us on the subway, but fails to show us how to lock in the wheelchair. Although she has the brakes on, they are not that spiffy. At first lurch, Laura rolls down the aisle.

 

A second angel jumps up from her seat and shows us how to lock in the wheel chair. We are set, but clock is ticking. The whole purpose of the event is to get that photo op. We are a long way from our stop, the closest one to the (Sears) Willis Tower with an elevator.

As we are discussing strategy for when we exit, a third angel pops up from her seat and plops next to me. “You’re going to Willis Tower? I work near there.” And she kindly explains which way to walk from our next stop. We are so late now, we must take a cab.

Holding our breath against the olfactory assault in the elevator (and wishing for my boots which are in Laura’s lap); we descend to the street. I step out into the roadway and hail a cab for first time in my life (hey, I live in Alabama; a household is incomplete without two cars and a pickup truck). Cab stops, but this is no angel; he shakes his head at the wheelchair, which even folded up, he says will not fit in his cab. Doesn’t even try. We go on. I hail another cab, who also shakes his head at the wheelchair. We push on to Willis Tower afoot and a-roll through the puddles and treachery of cracked sidewalks. We are now very late.

Willis (Sears) Tower is massive. We enter and proceed via elevator to a winding corridor down to the security station, surely close to our goal, only to find we are at the wrong door and have to be escorted through the labyrinth of the Tower to the service elevators in order to reach 99th floor and the Independent Publisher’s party and award announcement. We are finally here! We register, pick up our ID’s and a program . . . from which we learn “Historical Fiction” is #15 on the list and they are now announcing #26. We missed it. All the way from Alabama to Chicago . . . and WE MISSED IT!

I wheel Laura to the bathroom. I feel worse for her, since she really wanted this, and it is as much her award as mine.

While waiting for her, I notice we are sort of “back stage” to the awards announcer, and a beautiful young woman is standing with her back to me, so close I can touch her with one step. She is obviously connected to the proceedings. Hearing one of my father’s lesson’s in my head (Only the squeaky wheel gets the oil.), I take that step and tap her shoulder, whispering that we had difficulties and just arrived, and is there any way we could go out of order? She steps out of the big room where we both can hear each other, and consulting a list, asks my name.

“T.K. Thorne.”

She brightens. “Oh, you are T.K. Thorne? I LOVED your book!”

“You read it?”

“Yes, I really loved it; it was my favorite book out of all of them.”

There are 80 national categories. No idea how many submissions in each category, but that’s a lot of books. As far as I am concerned, I am happy. Dianu. (Hebrew for “it is enough.”)

But she graciously arranged for us to get called up, Laura hobbling at my side. They put a huge medal worthy of the Olympics around my neck and, to my delight, around Laura’s. Photo snaps.

Ben Franklin Award Acceptance in Chicago copy

Then we head to the bar.

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View out the Willis Tower, drink in hand

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View out the Willis Tower, second drink in hand

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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View from Willis Tower . . . no comment.

 

Over the next several days we encounter angels and references to them in rather odd ways. One “angel” (whose friend is Angela) shows me how to use Uber (yea!); the Egyptian uber driver mentions his son’s name is translated as “Angel in Heaven”; a book publicist at the Book Expo America (BEA) advises me to “listen to my angel.”  I keep looking for a flutter of wings out of the corner of my eye!

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Laura at BEA

 

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At the IPPY award display

On our last day, Bob picks us up, and we load wheelchair and baggage. After bungee cording his trunk down (not because of our luggage, just normal procedure), we are off to the airport with an extra hour, just in case. It is bitter cold, but I roll down the windows because I can’t afford losing any more brain cells from the fumes. There is so much stuff in this car, it is unidentifiable. I try not to figure out what it is and just hope there are no rodents that live near my feet. I am in the back seat and I reach for the seatbelt. Actually find one, but there’s no buckle, so I just loop it around one shoulder. There’s a chance if we hit something at just the right angle, it might help. Laura is in the front seat. “What’s that noise?” she asks, forehead wrinkled in concern. Is it the engine?

“I don’t know,” Bob says. “Haven’t heard that one before.”

Laura: “Sounds bad.”

Bob: “Unless the wheels fall off, I usually just turn up the radio.”

I couldn’t make this up.

Postscript:  Despite appearances, Bob was one of the many Chicago angels, for sure. He has spent most of his life traveling around the world helping people in disasters, which is how he and Laura met. I really wish I could spend more time with him and hear his stories . . .  just not in his car.

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Laura and Bob

 

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3 Steps to Engage the Secret Smartest Part of Your Brain

 

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The dumbest part of your brain is the part you think you think with—the conscious brain, that elusive whatever-it-is that feels like the control room housing the “I.” Surprisingly, that “I” part can actually only process a tiny amount of information, only .0000045% of what the rest of your brain is doing every second!

“Psychologists agree that only one to four ‘items,’ either thoughts or sensations, can be held in the mind, immediately available to consciousness, at the same time.”

[This explains why multi-tasking can lead to disaster!]

 “According to the work of Manfred Zimmerman of Germany’s Heidelberg University, only a woeful fifty bits of information per second make their way into the conscious brain, while an estimated eleven million bits of data flow [in] from the senses every second . . . .” –Stephen Baker, author of Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything

Noted philosopher Alan Watts compared the conscious brain to a flashlight in a dark room, only illuminating a small section of the contents at time.flashlight in dark room

All the sensory input your body is receiving at this moment is way too much for your conscious brain to handle, so the rest of your brain feeds it to you in screened or summarized chunks, sometimes calling on memories to fill in the gaps.  As an example, at this moment, you are probably unaware of the pressure of your bottom in the chair (until I mentioned it), and the thousands of other inputs your mind is receiving via your eyes, ears, skin, taste, smell and other senses (and yes there are others) in order to focus on reading this article. Nor are you conscious of the millions of “decisions” you are making regarding your physical state—your heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, digestion, hormone and enzyme regulation, etc.  In an odd way, those things don’t feel like you. Only the “I” feels real.

Your subconscious, however, is you, as much as your arms or eyes or heart.  Its power is yours and available to you. But how do you access it?

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While talking with a group of book club readers about my writing process, I realized that, research aside, I actually began both of my novels from a scary blank place. The concepts were there—a feminist, realistic take on the stories of two unnamed women who each only got one line in the biblical text—but I had no idea about the shape of the story or where it would go.

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The flashlight in the room felt like a penlight!

Both of those ideas and women became fully fleshed out novels. How? In both cases I wrote a first sentence with absolutely no idea what words would come next. (Some writers are proponents of having an outline before starting a book, but I contend that the ideas for the outline have to come from somewhere too, and so those writers must go through a creative process, although the product, an outline, may be different from my organic building of plot and character.)

For example, in researching my first novel, Noah’s Wife, I read that the traditional Jewish name for Noah’s wife was Na’amah and that the name meant beautiful or pleasant.  Clueless how that was to become a book, “I” wrote the first sentence—“My name, Na’amah, means beautiful or pleasant.”  [Creative, huh?]  But the very next sentence my fingers typed, seemingly on their own, was “I am not always pleasant, but I am beautiful.”  From there the character came alive and felt as real as if she were whispering the words in my ear.  It felt as though Na’amah “took over” most of the process.  The “I” part was relegated to figuring out what happened to her next. She reacted to it “on her own.”

The same thing happened with Lot’s wife in her own subsequent book, Angels At The Gate. Again, having no idea about her or her life, other than the clue that she might have a little problem with obedience, I gave her a name and wrote, “I am Adira. . . .” On cue, she responded with two unexpected sentences that took me totally by surprise and framed the remainder of the book.

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Where did those characters and their strong voices come from? For me, writing can feel like the ancients must have felt when they ascribed their creativity to the Muses, the Greek and Roman goddesses who presided over the arts and sciences.  It seems to come from an “outside” source, that is somewhere separate and different from the “I.”

But I believe the words actually come from the dark room. My brain, the part I am unaware of, has a deep, deep intelligence, the product of millions of years of evolution and problem-solving.  It is not an aspect unique to me, although I have spent thousands of hours feeding it and drawing on it for the purpose of telling stories.

You have the same deep intelligence. Your entire mind is there; you just can’t perceive it with the conscious “I” part.  The secret to accessing it is an act of trust. You trust it to monitor your heartbeat, to digest your food, and to tell you when you’re in love, but it’s hard to consciously hand the reins over to what is essentially a dark zone. Maybe in prehistoric times we were more attuned to that aspect of ourselves.  Maybe the price of self-consciousness is a kind of disconnection from the subconscious. Or perhaps as children we connected intuitively and effortlessly to that part of ourselves through the paths of play and imagination. Somehow—through evolutional processes or by growing up—we have lost how to listen to the deeper, hidden part of our minds.

“Sleep on it” is a common advice for a perplexing problem. But giving up a problem to the subconscious is as difficult to do as trying to relax.  The harder you try, the more unrelaxed you are. Similarly, you can’t make yourself go to sleep. You have to give up on that and let it happen. It is not something the “I” controls. An exception may be found with a few Yogi masters who have, after long years of practice, found ways to access the autonomic systems of their bodies unavailable consciously to most of us, but they can do it because they tap into the dark room. Their particular technique (which might be accomplished with biofeedback as well) is meditation. Meditation, the act of being “thought-less,” is really a state where the “I” brain gets out of the way, but remains observant (to some degree) of the deep intelligence that arises.

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The knowledge that your perceptions and thoughts are only a tiny bit of light in a dark room full of wonder and power is the first step to accessing that part of yourself more fully. The second step is to help yourself accept that emotionally and to feed the dark room with reading, music, meditation, workouts, long walks in silence, or whatever works for you. This is not wasted time; it is essential time. The third step is to step aside, to let go . . . to trust the hidden deep intelligence that is an integral part of you.

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T.K. Thorne is an author whose award-winning novels are Noah’s Wife and Angels at the Gate. Her nonfiction book Last Chance for Justice: How Relentless Investigators Uncovered New Evidence in the Birmingham Church Bombing was listed on the New York Post’s “Books You Should Be Reading.”

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Rosa Parks & Corn Creek

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Rosa Parks in 1955; Martin Luther King in background

When I met Rosa Parks, I was too young to have much perspective on anything, but I did realize that I was meeting someone famous. I sat on the front porch of Virginia and Clifford Durr’s farm at “Pea Level” in Wetumpka, Alabama. Sandwiched between my mother and Ms. Parks, I perspired and fretted silently. There was no air conditioning, so the porch was the place to sit and drink iced tea and hope for a breeze.

Normally, I would have immediately run off down the well-worn path to Corn Creek in the woods behind the Durr’s cabin, built a section at a time, for the most part, with Cliff Durr’s own hands. But today, my mother—no doubt knowing this an educational opportunity not to be missed—had insisted I stay with the adults and meet Ms. Parks.

Clifford Durr often left the conversations up to Virginia, making himself scarce by fixing something, tending the pump or mysterious things that needed taking care of in the barn. I knew vaguely he had been an important man in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration and in the Civil Rights battles, a person who had affected history in many ways. But to me, he was the kind, gentle man who showed me how to negotiate the steep path down to the creek and patiently led me, perched atop his black horse, Nikki, through the woods, so I wouldn’t get lost. We always wound up at the far end of his pasture where he would turn us both loose to gallop home. Later, he bragged to everyone that I was the only person who could make old Nikki run. I suspected this was not true, as I didn’t “make” Nikki do anything. Like most horses, he was happy to run back to the barn, and I just held on, but I beamed with pride, anyway, at Cliff’s praise.

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The Durrs,*, Courtesy of Birmingham Public Library Archives

Virginia was what we Southerners would call “a piece of work, ” a complex, eccentric woman who became close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and a “den mother” hosting civil rights activists from across the country. She had worked tirelessly against the poll tax levied on black voters and equally hard for the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act. She employed Rosa Parks as a seamstress, but they soon became close friends. Virginia obtained a scholarship for Rosa Parks to attend the Highlander Folk School where the young black woman learned about equality and became passionate about civil rights. At the time of her arrest, she was the secretary of the Montgomery NAACP.

At her farm in Wetumpka, Virginia entertained—or interrogated—visitors from around the world. She had earned the right to do so, apparently, because no one ever crossed her or denied her even the most intimate questions. I recall one young man in his twenties who had made the pilgrimage to her door being asked (after the obligatory demand, “Who are your people?”) whether he had a girlfriend, and then, to my adolescent horror, whether they had had sex yet. Hence, I normally fled to the creek.

But all this was far from my mind that summer afternoon when I sat with Rosa Parks, Virginia Durr, and my mother on the Durr’s porch. Grownup talk buzzed around me, and I was quiet for a while, itching to get released to play at the creek. Then my mother invited me to ask a question of Ms. Parks. To my surprise, I found I did have a question about what happened that day on the bus when she refused to give up her seat, that moment on December 1, 1955 that sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, pushing Martin Luther King into a national leadership role and igniting the Civil Rights Movement. What I wanted to know was this: Had that moment been a spontaneous act or a planned one?

“What really happened that day on the bus?” I ventured of Ms. Parks, curiosity spiked by the conversation’s implication that it had been orchestrated in some way, which was not what I had learned in school. “Were you really just tired and didn’t want to get up?”

Rosa Parks turned to me with a good-natured chuckle, and said, “Oh, it was planned, child. I’d never have done it if I didn’t know that Mr. Durr and Mr. [E.D.] Nixon were there to bail me out.”

The moment burned itself into my memory because I felt betrayed and a bit angry. My teachers had taught something completely different, and, apparently, Ms. Parks had gone along with the tale. Why didn’t she correct them and tell the truth? Were they all using the “I was too tired to get up” story to somehow gain an advantage? And worse, Rosa Parks suddenly didn’t seem like the hero she had been, but a woman who knew she had a safely net all along.

It took many years before I realized my naivety and regained the respect due this brave woman. Having attorneys behind her guaranteed nothing in a world where the claws of the Ku Klux Klan reached deep into every institution, including law enforcement, jail guards, and even beneath the black robes of the judiciary. She knew very well what she was up against. It was a far more courageous act than it would have been had she simply acted out of a spontaneous, contrary urge. Indeed, her action had come with a cost that changed her life forever—she was fired from her job and could not find employment, and for many years afterward, she received death threats. Eventually, she had to leave the South.

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T.K. at Corn Creek circa 1970; Photo by David Kerns

I regret I did not spend more time with Rosa Parks or listening to Virginia Durr at Pea Level as she “held court” with the movers and shakers of the civil rights era or with the people who came to pay their respects and hear what it had been like “in the day.” My memories of Pea Level are more tied to hours spent riding old Niki or jumping barefoot from boulder to boulder, exploring the endlessly fascinating meanderings of Corn Creek in a haze of uncomplicated joy.

But those memories are precious; they live somewhere in the core of who I am. I like to hope, as well, that the air of civil and human rights I was privileged to breath in my youth—though I didn’t have the perspective to treasure—also helped shape and define who I am.

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*  AUM (Auburn University in Montgomery) sponsors the Durr Lectures every spring in honor of Virginia and Clifford Durr and their contribution to civil rights.

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T.K. Thorne is a retired police captain (Birmingham, Alabama) and retired director of City Action Partnership, and an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction.

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A Passion for Pluto

For ten years I have waited for TUESDAY.

A decade ago, I read about New Horizons, a planned space probe launch to the strange dwarf-planet with an erratic 248-year orbit that defines the edge of our solar system and the beginning of the vast and lonely reaches of interstellar space.  A probe to Pluto!

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Artist conception of sun and Charon moon from Pluto https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Southern_Observatory

Ten years was a long time to wait, so I didn’t. Calling on the power of the pen, I wrote a short story about a woman, a survivor of a crash of the first manned mission to Pluto. In a bold moment, I sent the manuscript to Marc Buie, one of the mission’s experts, and he was gracious enough to take the time to edit it for accuracy.Pluto

Although I have now published historical novels and non-fiction, this story became my first published piece, finding a home in Aeoff’s Kiss, a small magazine (and netting me $8.97 and much pride over my long-sought elevation to “professional” writer).  Accompanying my check was the editor’s kind note that this was “one of the best stories his magazine had ever accepted” –words that kept the spark of my writer’s soul alive through many dark nights.

Over the years, I followed the scientific discoveries and mysteries about Pluto, updating my story with newly discovered information.  I never dreamed I would have a personal connection, but my brother, Dan Katz, (an Alabama boy) has just joined the Space Exploration Sector of the Applied Physics Lab at John Hopkins. That’s the group (with Southwest Research Institute) that originally put together the probe for NASA and has been shepherding it on its long journey.  I’m sure he was sweating along with the team on July 4th when the probe “got too excited and passed out.

It will take 16 months for all the data to get in, but Tuesday (7/14/15) New Horizons is scheduled to start sending the closest-ever photos and data about this mysterious planet, named after the mythological Greek god of the underworld who stole the maiden Persephone from her mother, dragging her to his kingdom beneath the earth and bringing winter to the world.

To celebrate, I’d like to share my story with you.

Pluto’s Chrysalis
by T.K. Thorne

Eternity is subjective. I’m spending mine clawing into nitrogen-methane snow and dragging my body by painful centimeters from the ship’s wreckage. My helmet monitor lists internal bleeding, spinal injury, and two fractured ribs. Legs don’t work. Breathing hurts. Easier to just let the cold take me or for a piece of the ship to fall on my head and end it, but I’m a stubborn woman, as my father would attest, were he not three billion miles away.

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T.K. Thorne is a retired police captain (Birmingham, Alabama), director of City Action Partnership, and an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction.

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The Word That Led To The Charleston Church Massacre: A Thin Line Crossed With A Mental Step

 

Emanuel_African_Methodist_Episcopal_(AME)_Church_CorrectedWhat happened in the mind of a man who walked into a church bible study and killed nine people? How did things get so twisted in that mind? Does society have any role or responsibility? Do I?

The tragedy in Charleston is unprecedented only in the number of people killed. From the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, to the beating of parishioners in a Mississippi church, to multiple arsons from Louisiana to Michigan (both past and current), acts of racial violence and terrorism have not been strangers on sacred ground or anywhere else.

As a retired law enforcement professional, I’ve encountered the dark side of humanity up close and on more occasions than I could have ever imagined. Here is what I have learned: the line between good and evil, citizenship and chaos, sanity and insanity is far thinner and more fragile than we imagine.

Two things motivate the human mind: 1) what we need and 2) what we believe. What we need is basic and universal. Beyond food, water, and shelter, we need to feel that our life has meaning and significance. For people who have a mental break from reality and hear voices, the voice they hear is most often not the grocer down the street—it is “God’s.” For the paranoid, they are the object of focused governmental attention, the center of a conspiracy. Our earliest motivators are to have our parent’s approval at best and, at the least, their attention. We need to feel that we matter.

What we believe and remember is shaped by many factors and subject to change over time. Reality is a subjective function of the brain and mind, which take input and then reorganize and interpret it. For example, the actual visual image that enters our eyes is upside down, but our brain flips it so we “see” it right side up. How often do we “flip” ideas and information so it fits into our world-view?

We don’t perceive the atoms in the chair on which we sit or the vast spaces between them; it all appears solid, though, in reality, it is not. But it works to see it that way, therefore, as far as our minds are concerned, it is solid and we can sit in it. How often do we ignore ideas and information that don’t fit into our world-view?

To external eyes, the shooter at the Charleston church had quit his job and was living a pretty aimless existence, but what was churning in his mind? At some point, he began to filter reality, to form, see, and hear only what fit into his world-view.

“‘Y’all are raping our women and taking over the country,” he said to the people at the Bible study. “This [killing] must be done.”  In his mind, he was acting logically, even heroically, in accordance to what he believed and what he needed, i.e., to feel that his life was meaningful and significant. And that required the incorporation of a concept that can be expressed as “other.”

The distinction between “us” and “them” is a basic human value, perhaps shaped by evolution, certainly by culture. “Us” is first our family, then our clan, our tribe, our region, our nation. “Other” is whatever is not “us.” This belief is the foundation of all prejudice, hate and radicalism, as well as the foundation of love. “They” are not “us.” “They” might not even be human. In WWII, the allies’ enemies were “Japs” and “Krauts,” not human beings. Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan defined Jews, Catholics, and blacks as less than human, and once that is believed, it is not a long jump to justifying anything, from snobbery to bullying to genocide. It is a thin line that can be crossed with a mental step.

On the other hand, when compassion and wisdom make “them” a part of “us,” interesting things happen. Kindness and respect born of embracing otherness is a language understood across the world and across worlds. So how do we keep our children and ourselves wary of strangers (“There is a time for war and a time for peace. . . .”) and yet open to strangeness?

It is neither possible nor desirable to do away with distinctions or diversity. The bonds of family will always be unique. We naturally tend to spend time with those we perceive share our values and culture or history. There is nothing wrong with that, but the more positive contact with have with “others,” the less real their otherness becomes and the more possibilities exist to connect and include differences in the “us.” We cannot be held hostage by awful acts of hatred. Positive contact is our responsibility. We must seek it and teach it to our children—by traveling, by reading, by reaching out to “others,” by listening, by cultivating an openness of mind that is also critical and questioning. We must make conscious choices whether to remain in our conclaves of “us vs. them” or to expand our world.

 

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T.K. Thorne is a retired police captain (Birmingham, Alabama), director of City Action Partnership, and an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction.

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The Honeysuckle War: A Survival Story

Pink_roses_in_the_bush_gardenA one-armed elderly man I knew long ago gave me a rosebush. To call it a bush was a stretch—-three thorny sticks attached to a ball of dirt. I planted it in the yard along the pasture fence and forgot about it.

It grew. I was hardly a good shepherd, basically leaving it to live or die on its own. Profusions of delicate pink blossoms rewarded my neglect. The rosebush and I did our own thing as the years passed, unaware of a growing menace. It crept from the pasture, just a green background at first and then suddenly, without warning, the honeysuckle vines invaded, wrapping over and around the rosebush, smothering it. There was little I could do, as the other side of the fence was a hillside too steep to bush hog, protected by masses of thorny blackberry bushes.

It saddened me to see the roses smothered. I felt helpless. What kind of person was I to let my roses die? Yet, I like honeysuckle too. To breath in its presence is to inhale the summer’s prelude; to pull a drop of nectar onto my tongue sweeps me back to barefoot wanderings, to days of magic unraveling without care of time. It wasn’t the honeysuckle’s fault; it was just doing what honeysuckle vines do. The world is like that.

For a couple of years, I missed seeing the rich fountain of spring and summer roses and figured the rosebush was dead. It had its day, as do we all.

Then one year, I noticed a thorny spike thrusting through the mass of honeysuckle like a drowning man raising one arm above the water. Not dead. But no flowers. I’d almost rather it just went down and stayed down than to have to watch this.

The next year, a few more spikes appeared.

Well, good for you, stubborn old rose bush. Never give up. Who knows? Maybe it doesn’t have to be roses vs. honeysuckle; maybe they can coexist, find a peaceful way to drink the same sunlight and flourish.

Indeed they did. Not only is my fence line a mass of intoxicating blooming roses and honeysuckle this spring, but the strangest thing has happened. There, in the the sea of satin pink and honeysuckle gold, thrusting up and over in a delicate arch is a tendril of blood red roses! What? I never planted red roses there. Did a bird drop a seed into the dark mass of honeysuckle vines? Did a section of my pink bush somehow revert genetically?

Rose bush

I don’t know. I’m treating it as sort of a miracle, a message—maybe from my one-armed friend—to never give up, to remember that out of darkness and conflict and not having things come easily, a beautiful, unexpected thing can happen.

*This year (2018) a hot pink rose was added to the mix! Recently read about mosaicism or “bud sports” which says that we may all have variant DNA in different cells and might explain this.

T.K. Thorne is a retired police captain (Birmingham, Alabama), director of City Action Partnership, and an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction.

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The Old Man and The Girl With A Red Hat

"Girl with a Red Hat" Johannes Vermeer c. 1665-1667

“Girl with a Red Hat”
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1665-1667

The girl in the red-feathered hat got all the attention. She was striking—ice-white shock of lace at her throat; gleam of pearl earings; her head turned in startlement or perhaps a coy version of same; cheek and parted lips grazed by sunlight slipping into the dreary room. Vermeer’s tiny lady was no great beauty, but worthy of the attention.

Still, it was the old man who drew me. He was just an old man, but I was transfixed. It was not his unreadable eyes, but his demeanor that captured me, his downcast, somber gaze, fixed on distant memory.

In his mottled and grooved skin, I saw myself, not yet maybe, but soon, so soon. Time has tucked me into the folds of its whirlwind cloak, and I have but to blink to be the old man in that picture. We are kin, he and I, though yesterday I climbed my tree and dreamed of flying like Wonder Woman.

"Old Man With A Beard" Rembrandt van Rijn c. 1630

“Old Man With A Beard”
Rembrandt van Rijn
c. 1630

 

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T.K. Thorne is a retired police captain (Birmingham, Alabama), director of City Action Partnership, and an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction.

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The Secret Behind the Art of Painting the Past

Painters employ color, light, and shadow. Writers use small, standardized black marks set against a white background. Yet these marks can inspire, condemn, evoke tears, laughter, anger, or regret. They can sweep a reader into a different reality, even bring a vanished time to life. What is the secret of their power?

Claude Monet

Claude Monet

All the elements of writing well and writing good fiction apply to writing the historical novel: characterization, voice, plot, theme, and solid research about the time period. But what makes a good historical novel—a novel that uncorks the magic of historical fiction, engrossing the reader in a story that transforms the past from a misty construct into something “real”?

To do that, there must be an authoritative voice that makes the characters and the historical setting believable and allows the reader to “suspend belief.” Part of establishing that voice is found in the advice to writers that characters in historical fiction need to think/speak/act as they would in the era we are writing about, as they are products of their time and upbringing. And we can aim for that. We can put effort into thinking about the words and phrases we use in order to avoid the anachronisms that pull a reader out of the story, and we can season the story with the spices of our careful research. But in reality, we can’t really accomplish it; it’s all anachronism—our very language is different from the language of the past in many ways.

Remember your high school Chaucer?

Chaucer

WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne is swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour:

Obviously, if you wrote a story in the real style of that time, it might be authentic, but who would, or could, read it? Structure can also be an issue. You might write a Moby Dick or Ivanhoe, but no modern day publisher (and very few readers) would put up with such meandering beginnings. The secret is to write a story structured in a way that is understandable and engaging to the modern reader, yet creates an illusion of being an accurate reflection of the past.

Art, even a photograph, is a symbolic representation of what the artist wishes to communicate. It is the same for writers. Good dialogue, for example, is no more a true replication of how people speak to one another, than a brush stroke of green paint is actually grass. Well written dialogue is condensed, shaped, and structured to accomplish the writer’s goals—to reveal character, forward the plot, or build atmosphere. It creates the illusion of real dialogue. In the same vein, use of dialect can help create the illusion. Applied too thickly, however, even though it might be more accurate, it can bog down or confuse the reader. Even information—the historical novelist’s primary tool—must not overwhelm the story, but enhance the suspension of belief.

How much is too much? There is not a definitive answer to that question. It is a matter of what works. M. T. Anderson pushed the envelope in incorporating the style of a time period in the structure of his language, writing of events in 1770’s in his novel, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing:

 Some few months later, a mob assembled in Old South Meeting House, and, after a rousing word by Mr. Adams, some habited themselves as Mohawk Indians and repaired to the wharves where they dumped tea.

I did not hear of this charade until the next day, and did not understand its purport; rather thinking it a pleasant interlude from the more brutal games of the Sons of Liberty. There was something almost gentlemanly about it, a hint of sport. Dr. Trefusis and I walked along the wharves and spake of disguise, color, substance, and the solidity of matter.

Far out in the harbor, tea clotted the brilliancy of sun upon the water. Men thin as insects rowed scows between the clumps, shepherding them with paddles, pressing down upon them, dousing them, drowning them, so that light might play unimpeded upon the winter sea.

In his notes, Anderson explained that he used selected words and phrasings to create the sense of the time period and style of writing, but had to temper it significantly in order to make it understandable for the modern reader. I believe Anderson spent as much time studying the words and phrasing of writing in the 1700’s as he did historical facts. What he did was daring and not for beginners, but it worked, beautifully.

On the other hand, my debut novel, Noah’s Wife, was set several thousand years in the past. No one knows what language was spoken in ancient Turkey in 5500 BCE. It was impossible to have “authentic” dialogue or duplicate the accurate structure of the language (writing having not been invented yet). Similarly, in Angels at the Gate—the story of Lot’s wife set in the time of Abraham—the spoken languages were a mixture of Akkadian, Egyptian, and Canaanite. Attempting anything like what Anderson did would have been ludicrous and would have had the opposite effect of the one intended.

In both books, avoiding the use of words or metaphors that would not have been part of the characters’ worlds and using slightly different sentence structures than those expected by the modern ear helped create the subtle illusion of an older time. And of course, utilizing information and extrapolations about the culture and environment of the time periods in a way that flowed naturally from the story deepened the illusion. From my novel Angels At The Gate:

 If the path of obedience is the path of wisdom, it is one not well worn by my feet. I am Adira, daughter of the caravan, daughter of the wind, and daughter of the famed merchant, Zakiti. That I am his daughter, not his son, is a secret between my father and myself. This is a fine arrangement, as I prefer the freedoms of being a boy.

At the head of our caravan, my father and I walk together beside our pack donkeys, the late day sun casting stubby shadows before us. Our sandaled feet raise a cloud of dust along the dry path that winds through Canaan’s white-and-taupe hills, studded with shrubs and spring flowers. We are taking a gift of sheep to our tribe’s elder, along with a portion of our recent purchase of olive oil and wine. I am less than enthusiastic.

Father sees this in my face. He reads me well—often, too well. “You are not happy to see Abram and Sarai?” he says, giving my donkey a pat. “Why not, Adir?” He always uses the masculine form of my name, even when we are alone. He is afraid if he does not, he will forget one day when he is angry or tired.

I shrug. “I am happy to visit with my cousin, Ishmael, but Abram is old and likes to talk.”

“He is a wise and learned man,” my father says, resting a hand on my shoulder. “You should listen to him.”

I should do many things I do not . . . .

The Impressionists often painted with thin brush lines that individually seem chaotic, but together (and at the right distance) transforms and suspends belief, so that the viewer “sees” what was intended. So too does the novelist, and the historical novelist does so with both the additional challenge and the additional tools of rich information about the past. It is all illusion, but then science tells us that what we think of as reality is also an illusion, a reconstruction created by our minds. This reconstructed “truth” of our perceptions is no less beautiful, tragic, or engaging . . . like a good story.

 

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T.K. Thorne is a retired police captain (Birmingham, Alabama), director of City Action Partnership, and an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction.

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What No One is Talking About

9506791-largeTwo of New York’s police officers are dead, executed by a gunman. I can’t seem to find the words to express my sorrow for the families, my gratitude to the officers who put their lives on the line for us all every day, and my desire to find some meaning in all this. Perhaps in a few weeks, I can write about it, but for now, I’ll post the thoughts I had about the Ferguson incident and a viewpoint no one was talking about.

As a police officer for over two decades, I have walked in the shoes of the officers who daily take risks that most people can’t begin to imagine unless they have served as a law enforcement officer or in military combat duty. While thousands of voices are raised in protest against police, we have heard little from their perspective.

Police officers rarely volunteer to talk to the media. Why? To start with, the perception of their job makes public relations difficult. Their focus is on preventing or solving a crime, not PR. Also, for many, experience has given them a cynical belief that their words or meaning may be twisted or taken out of context. For the same reason, they are suspicious of civilian review panels, which officers believe do not and cannot understand the dangers and expectations of carrying a gun and badge and going boldly where others do not wish to tread.

So as a general rule, (there are, of course, exceptions), police officers are not comfortable with articulating their feelings and viewpoints to anyone outside of the “brotherhood.” Talking to a civilian, even in a social setting, about police work is a sure path to engendering a litany about that person’s past “wrongs” at the hands of police.

Another problem is that the media usually wants to talk about an ongoing criminal investigation. In the recent Ferguson case, for example, the public was outraged that the police department did not share details of the case. Regardless of whether the department handled everything in the best manner, officers risk the investigation when they give out information. Many witnesses have to be uncovered. For a variety of reasons, witnesses don’t necessarily step forward and their veracity is compromised if details are made public. Even if law enforcement hears misinformation from the media, they are very circumspect about responding. An investigation takes time and in our 24-7 news-and-talking-heads world, people want answers now.

There is no doubt that in places people’s civil rights are being abused or not appropriately respected. There are examples of horrendous acts by a minority of law enforcement, abuses of power that should not and cannot be allowed. As a resident of Birmingham, Alabama and a student of civil rights history, I know great sacrifices were made to establish civil rights in this country, and I understand that although we have come a long way, we have not accomplished the healing we would hope for.

But Michael Brown is no Rosa Parks, whose agenda was to peacefully protest an unjust law. There is no doubt that, in the early part of the encounter with Officer Wilson, Brown attacked the police officer. For those who find this hard to fathom, in 2013, officers were the victims of almost 50,000 on-duty assaults. “Of the 27 officers feloniously killed (47 died in line of duty), six were killed in arrest situations, five were investigating suspicious persons or circumstances, five were ambushed, four were involved in tactical situations, four were answering disturbance calls, and two were conducting traffic pursuits/stops. One was conducting an investigative activity, such as surveillance, a search, or an interview.” (FBI Statistics 2013).

These were officers involved in carrying out their everyday duties. Where is the outcry over that? You will not hear it, and officers know that. The responsibility for protecting themselves falls on their shoulders, and they know that too.

Something else they know: According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report, “Firearms claimed the lives of 92% of the officers killed in the line of duty from 1976 to 1998. The officer’s own gun was used in 12% of all murders of police officers.” [Italics mine.]

Put yourself for a moment in an officer’s shoes. What do you suppose your chances of survival are if an assailant gets your gun? They are slim. What happens to other people who are now subject to violence at the hands of a criminal with your gun? You must guard that gun at all costs. That includes an unarmed assailant with the intent to get it. You can’t wait for him to get close enough to take that decision away from you. At a certain point, when you have reasonable fear that a person’s approach is with the intent to assault you and take your weapon—demonstrated in this instance by the prior attack and the fact that a man you have ordered to stop and have even shot is continuing toward you—you must act. Gunshots do not always stop an assailant. That is why police are trained to aim for center mass—their best chance of stopping someone. Officer Wilson was backing away when he fired. No training made him do that. He was in fear for his life.

I am not black. I have not walked in those shoes. I am asked, however, to understand or try to understand the perspective of the black community who feel that they are not seen as human beings worthy of respect or treated equally by the criminal justice system. That is hugely important and there are certainly steps we should take and support to get there, but it is a two-way street. One of the first things I learned in law enforcement was to recognize the ongoing balance between freedom (civil rights) and security. We often gain one at the risk of losing the other. What would happen if we took guns away from police officers? On the other hand, if car and body cameras help reduce law enforcement abuses, we should use them. If we need to reinvigorate the concept of community policing, we should go there. If we need to address poverty and the relationship between education and school dropout rates and crime, we must do that. All parents, black and white, should instruct their children how to behave when interacting with law enforcement, understanding that police officers are never sure who or what they are dealing with.

We may never have a perfect world, but as Gloria Steinem once said, the answers for our society are “not about a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It’s about baking a new pie.” The primary ingredients of that pie must include mutual respect and understanding.

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T.K. Thorne is a retired police captain (Birmingham, Alabama), director of City Action Partnership, and an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction.

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