An Unexpected Dream Come True

It’s not something I talk much about, but for many years I was in the closet as a writer. I collected so many rejections, I could have wallpapered my house with them, or at least, my bedroom. Everyone said short stories were the way to break in, but my stories kept getting turned down.  If I dared admit I was a writer to anyone, their next question dashed me down—”Oh, what have you published?” I could only imagine what it would be like to be a real author, signing books for my fans, having a best seller.  I felt like a failure, but I’m pretty stubborn, and I just kept writing and submitting. I wrote five novels before one was published.

When I held that first book in my hands, I cried tears of joy.

My fourth book recently came out and it was still exciting to open that box and hold it in my hand.

Then a few days later, it made its debut at an elegant downtown Victorian mansion. I signed copies read from the book, and shared my big night with friends. A dream come true.

Hassinger Danies Mansion B&B, Birmingham, AL

While I was signing books, something else was on my mind. Earlier that day, I had taught a creative writing class (as a volunteer) at Maranathan Academy, a non-profit school that takes “critically at-risk students from a variety of challenging circumstances—bullying and abuse victims, juvenile offenders, poor academic performers, and the health challenged/chronically ill. Students enter Maranathan wounded and looking for a place to belong.” [MA website]

I started the class three months prior, nervous, afraid I’d just taken on something else to fail at, and that I had nothing to offer these kids. I’d never taught poetry, never taught youth, let alone students with the kind of challenges these faced. That first day was hell, and I almost quit. But something made me go back. The students had no idea how to express themselves or even how to sit still. Every class was a struggle, but, gradually, they  started listening and participating.

Something amazing had happened in class the day of my signing. The students had written poems that touched on their deepest pain, something I could not have imagined them doing when I started.  Nor, I believe, could they have imagined doing so, much less sharing it with the other students and faculty. Not only had they learned to write poetry, but they felt safe enough to open the door to their true selves.

It was wonderful to be at my long-planned book launch party, don’t get me wrong, but my mind kept drifting back to the classroom and those kids.  Then I looked up and saw three members of the school faculty in line with books and one of my students!  I jumped up and hugged her.  “You’re my inspiration,” she whispered in my ear.

That gave me more joy than signing my books or making a best seller list or winning writing awards. That was a dream come true that I hadn’t even known to dream.

Chinese proverb:

“If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.”

T.K. Thorne’s childhood passion for storytelling deepened when she became a police officer in Birmingham, Alabama.  “It was a crash course in life and what motivated and mattered to people.” In her newest novel, HOUSE OF ROSE, murder and mayhem mix with a little magic when a police officer discovers she’s a witch. 

Both her award-winning debut historical novels, NOAH’S WIFE and ANGELS AT THE GATE, tell the stories of unknown women in famous biblical tales—the wife of Noah and the wife of Lot. Her first non-fiction book, LAST CHANCE FOR JUSTICE, the inside story of the investigation and trials of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, was featured on the New York Post’s “Books You Should Be Reading” list. 

T.K. loves traveling and speaking about her books and life lessons. She writes at her mountaintop home near Birmingham, often with two dogs and a cat vying for her lap. 

 More info at TKThorne.com. Join her private newsletter email list and receive a two free short stories at “TK’s Korner.

 

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Murder, Mayhem . . . and a little Magic

When Officer Rose Brighton chased a suspect down an alley in Birmingham, Alabama, she had no idea the next few minutes would land her in the middle of every cop’s nightmare—looking down at the body of someone she shot . . . in the back. He’s dead and she’s alive, and now she has to explain it, which is going to be a problem because what happened was so strange, she doesn’t understand it herself.  It challenged her definition of reality and her conception of who she was. In the next few days, she would learn that she was a witch of one of three ancient Houses, the prey of one and the pawn of another.

Let’s get something straight—this happens in my new novel, and I’m a retired police captain, but I’m not a witch . . .  at least on my good days.

black cat, House of Rose, Magic City Story

Courtesy of Hannah Troupe on Unsplash

I don’t remember who first said this about writing, but the words have stuck and provide comfort during those days where plots are elusive and the end of the writing tunnel is dark—“You never know what a story is really about until you finish it.”

Does that sound odd? I think most people have the concept that a writer knows what she’s doing from the get-go. I’ll be honest, when it hit me that I wanted to write about a police woman who finds herself in the above situation, I had no idea what the story would entail or where I was going with it.

For me, writing—and reading for that matter—is about the character. I will never forget Harry Potter, Paul Atreides, and Bilbo Baggins, but I’d be challenged to recall all the things that happened to them. Both of the women in my previous novels—Noah’s Wife and Angels at the Gate were so real to me, I went into a little funk when I finished their stories. I missed their voices. Rose was the same way. It felt as if she wrote her own story. I was a side-kick figuring out what kind of trouble to put her in, but she responded on her own.

The sensation of being co-pilot is not limited to writing.  An athlete feels it when she is “in the groove” or “in the zone,” where all cylinders are firing and she is so focused, she can’t miss a shot. An artist feels it, lost in her project. It happens in all our endeavors where we are truly engaged. Time warps. Hours feel like minutes. This is a real physiological state, as measured by fMRI (functional MRI scans) where the resources of the brain are so dedicated to whatever we are doing, there’s not enough processing power in the conscious mind to deal with things like perception of time, discomfort, anxiety, or energy levels.

As I wrote in “3 Steps to Engage the Secret Smartest Part of Your Brain,” our conscious minds are infantile in terms of processing ability compared to our subconscious, what I term our “deep intelligence.” It’s our common perception that our conscious mind (the “I”) generates thoughts. Science, however, is discovering that is an illusion.  Thoughts arise from different modules of the brain before they register in the area associated with consciousness.

This is a little unsettling. If “I” am not thinking thoughts, who is? Like Rose, this fact challenges our conception of reality and who we think we are. The conscious mind evolved, at least in part, out of a need to conceptualize the future and make a plan, so it does have some control functions. What consciousness actually is and how it works, however, is still one of the mysteries of existence. But science is pecking away at it. (Both of these great books talk about consciousness, how it evolved and what we know about it: Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Enlightenment by Robert Wright and The Big Picture: On the origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself by Sean Carroll.)

So science may actually support the statement that we writers don’t know what we’ve written until it is finished. Perhaps the same can be said of our lives, although that is a scary thought. When I think about what my life has meant and what I have touched that might endure beyond me, I flash to my children and my books. I hope there are more ways I will have left the world a little better, but those two things are more than likely what I will think about when I am taking my last breaths. So what I’m writing about means something.

I’ve just finished the third book in Rose’s trilogy. I thought I was writing a fun, intense story about a cop in a deep South city—about murder, mayhem, and a little magic. But stepping back, I realize there is more. As someone who discovers she is “different,” Rose has the opportunity to explore just what being human means, what we are capable of—the darkness and the light.

Maybe that is what all books are ultimately about.  Maybe that is what life is about.

House of Rose, A Magic City Story, T.K. Thorne

Click to order on Amazon.com

House of Rose is now available for preorder at online retailers and from bookstores. If you would like a to write a review, send me an email at tk@tkthorne.com

You can read a short excerpt at The Stilletto Gang where I post on the 4th Fridays with a group of terrific writers.

You are also, of course, invited to the book launch party!

 

 

 

 

2 Ways to Stay in Touch

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10 Words in April – Violins of Hope

April is my birthday month. We’re not going to talk about exactly which one. It’s been a hectic month that included working with my editor on my new police witch book, House of Rose. April also is the month for Holocaust Remembrance Day, and in between working on my book, I had the privilege of playing a small role in helping to host “Violins of Hope” in my city of Birmingham, Alabama. It was a unique and amazing experience.

Amnon Weinstein, a violin maker in Israel came to Birmingham this month with his family for a week of concerts and educational programs. Like his father, Weinstein dedicated his life to making and repairing violins. As a child, Amnon never heard his parents speak much about the Holocaust. The trauma of losing hundreds of their extended family was too overwhelming to give it voice, but one day after Amnon’s father had died, a woman came into his shop with a violin that had been through the Holocaust. When he opened it, there were ashes inside. The woman explained that it’s owner had been forced to play it inside a concentration camp while prisoners were marched to their deaths.

Amnon in his workshop with a restored violin Photo courtesy of AICE

Shaken, Ammon looked with new eyes at the numerous violins that had been brought to his father in Israel after WWII because people didn’t want anything that was made in Germany or associated with that country, and he decided those violins had voices that needed to speak and stories that needed to be told.  Some of the instruments, he learned, had kept people alive during the Holocaust, others brought the beauty of music into a dark place and time, and so, they were not just violins of tragedy but violins of hope.

Many Jews in Eastern Europe played the violin, as reflected in the movie Fiddler on the Roof. It is said that the violin is the closest instrument to the human voice and also that it is the easiest instrument to pick up and run with. Professional musicians, called klezmers, traveled from village to village playing for weddings and other events.

Amnon and his family came to Birmingham, a city with its own story of violence and repression of a people who loved music. In April—the season of azalea, dogwood and redwood blooms—the restored violins were displayed and played by students and professional musicians. Youth who had been studying the Holocaust heard Amnon speak and the violins sing. Their voices honored those before, those who who had held them and loved them and drew beautiful music from them, those who had lived and those who had died. I expected to be touched by the music of the violins, and I was, but it was the words that gave shape to the music’s power—that explained the unexplainable.

Amnon’s wife, Assiel Weinstein, spoke at the commemoration of Yom Ha Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Though she did not play the violin, with ten words, Assi changed my understanding of the meaning of Israel. Assi’s father had been a partisan in Eastern Europe during the war, one of the famous Bielski brothers who escaped to the surrounding forest and waged guerrilla warfare against the Germans who were murdering the Jews of the villages and taking them away to death camps. At the same time, the Bielski brothers established a refugee camp deep in the woods, harboring those fleeing the Nazis, many of whom were old, weak and sick. Assi’s father, who was in charge of food and raiding parties said, “Let the Russian partisans do the fighting. It is more important to save one old Jewish woman than to kill ten Germans.” Hungry, sick, clinging to survival through harsh winters, the group became a community and kept their humanity. The movie Defiance was based on this historical event.

Assi speaking to students Courtesy of Joyce Spielberger Birmingham Holocaust Center

Toward the end of the war, in August of 1943, the Germans gathered enough soldiers to surround the forest, determined to flush out the partisans, the Bielski brothers and their camp of refugees.  Inexorably, they closed in. There was no escape. “All the people wanted to run in different directions,” but Tuvia Bielski, their leader said, “No we stay together. If we die, then we will die fighting, but we’ll do it together.”

Miraculously, two Jews, a forester and a peddler told the brothers that they knew a path through the swamp to an island. Hundreds of men, women and children followed them, as their ancestors had followed Moses, through the swamp to a small island where they hunkered down in absolute silence, waiting while the Nazis came closer and closer. For hours, they were still and quiet, even the children. Assi’s mother was among those who huddled, terrified, on the island, listening to the sounds of shouted orders and bullets flying overhead as the Germans searched all around them, certain they would be discovered and killed at any moment. But they weren’t. At the war’s end, 1,200 Jews walked out of that forest.

After the war, Assi’s mother insisted on immigrating to Israel. She told her daughter, “I came to Israel because I will never run again.”

I knew, of course, that people fled to Israel for safety, but those words were not those of a woman seeking shelter, but a place to fight from and to fight for. She would take her stand there. And with those ten words, I realized that is what Israel is, not a safe haven to hide, but a place to make a stand and a home for Jews, so they never have to run again.

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Remembering the Birmingham Church Bombing

Today is the 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?

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 that remembering one incident 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.

A chance encounter made me think about this:

I’m in beautiful Charleston, SC and stop at a shoe store. Great shoes in this city! Am wearing a hot pink US Marine tee shirt (yes, really) that matches my toenails. An African American sales lady approaches and, noting my tee shirt, 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, she asks where I’m from.

“Birmingham, Alabama,” I say.

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

I give her my “author” postcard, 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 (me) was once a police officer.

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

Click image for more info on book

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?

“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, we had launched the book at the church.

T.K. with investigators Ben Herren and Bill Fleming at 16th Street Church 2013

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 really saying sinks in, and then I feel like crying too. I almost didn’t write this book. There were lots of reasons not to, 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.

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The Eye of The Beholder

Some things have confused me for a long time, such as why flowers are beautiful and spiders are not. What is beauty anyway? And is there any importance in asking or answering that question?

Obviously, there are some people who find spiders beautiful (yes, really), so the quality is not inherent in the object. I lost my father after a long illness and was thinking about my loss while walking to the mailbox. A crop of slender blue wildflowers on the road’s edge, caught my eye, their beauty an instantaneous salve to my grief.

How? Why?

Somewhere in the heart of a forest, an exquisite orchid is blooming, and no one is there to see it. Is it beautiful? No. Beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder. Without the eye, it does not exist. The orchid exists, of course, but it is not “beauty” to the creatures that see or smell it, even those insects that it is meant to attract. (I should caveat with “as far as we know,” because we are learning that our ideas of awareness and even intelligence may extend in some manner to the plant world and certainly to the animal world, but most likely the concept of “beauty” is a human construct.)

This means if no human notices the wildflowers and deems them beautiful, they are just wildflowers doing their thing.  Without a human observer, there is no “beauty.’

A sense of responsibility follows this thought. Nature is harsh, relentless change. It is “eat and be eaten.” A frog makes no distinction between a caterpillar and a butterfly as far as lunch is concerned. In our stellar neighborhood, two galaxies are colliding, gravitational forces ripping apart whatever life may have painstakingly evolved. Our own galaxy is destined to collide with another, our sun to die, our loved ones, ourselves.

We may learn that whales or elephants or other animals share our awareness of mortality, but, as far as we know now, people are the only creatures to seek meaning to life, perhaps because of that awareness. It is a burden. It is a privilege. In this chaos of change we call life, humans seek meaning, personal meaning.

The concept of beauty may be one of the unique perceptual structures of the human brain. Why did it evolve? Of what evolutionary value is it? Is it just that spiders pose a threat, so we instinctively recoil from them, while flowers pose no threat and may signal a source of food? Perhaps, but some people truly find spiders fascinating and beautiful. There are spider enthusiast groups. Honest. And I have to admit, I found one that gleamed with sparkly gold sitting on a fabulously complex web yesterday.  So beauty is a learned thing.

Perhaps the concept of beauty is just an odd byproduct of the complexity of our minds, our thought processes. Or perhaps not. Perhaps it came into being to give us something we crave—meaning. I have  been told that my book, Noah’s Wife, was “beautifully written.”

This was welcome feedback, but puzzling. The story is told from the unique perspective of a young woman with what we now call Asperger’s Syndrome. She sees the world in literal terms. Looking at her straightforward words on the pages, I was befuddled at how they could be considered “beautiful.”

Le Rêve- Picasso
Woman with Mandolin-Picasso

But perhaps it is not the words themselves, but the fact that they create meaning for some readers, truths about being human, and that renders them beautiful, in the same way that Picasso’s art is beautiful to some eyes. His paintings force us out of our typical perceptions, whispers in ways we may not be able to voice, even disturbs, but speaks the language of meaning and (some) find that beautiful, even in the harshness or starkness of his lines, just as some find beauty in abstract art or different types of music . . . or spiders.

Beauty is observable by all our senses, including our ability to see a beautiful act of kindness or a beautiful scientific formula. If we are uniquely capable of determining beauty, then we have a responsibility to see it, to open our eyes to it, to find meaning in it, our uniquely human meaning.

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One Simple, Life-Changing Thought

Have you ever tossed and turned in bed, unable to sleep because your mind was wildly bouncing from thought to thought? One of those thoughts being, Why can’t I stop thinking? What an interesting thought, your mind says. How can “I” stop thinking? Am I not my thoughts?

I’ll skip to the answer:  No. “You” are not your thoughts.

The way to that conclusion is deceptively simple, yet life changing.

I wonder if the whole practice of meditation came about because of some woman’s difficulty sleeping thousands of years ago. Yes, I know men take credit, but, according to the latest science, women’s brains are more active than men’s. Women multitask and use more parts of the brain, leading, interestingly enough, to the fact that they need more sleep than men. Their brains get more tired.

They can also get stuck in thought buzz-land. Men too, of course.

Meditation is a practice of being still physically and watching mentally. It is becoming deliberately aware of the “I” observing the thoughts. Each time one arises, you recognize it and put it aside. You are not so much stilling the thoughts as finding the Watcher. She is elusive. If you stop paying attention, she slips away and seems to loose herself in the thought, to become the thought.

What is the point?

Just as in sports, you train muscles, in meditation practice, you are training the muscle of your mind. Don’t get me wrong. The thoughts that arise are not unimportant. Your subconscious is a power house that you can channel, something I wrote about in 3 Steps To Engage The Secret Smartest Part of Your Brain. What arises from your subconscious can be significant and powerful or it can be trivial. It can be contradictory, emotionally loaded, or an idle worry. Your subconscious is as much a part of you as your lungs or heart, but a thought is its product. It is not “you” the watcher, you the decider. It is not “thinking” that distinguishes us from most of the other life on this planet, it is the awareness of thinking.

In our culture, we are not taught to distinguish between the thought and the watcher-decider.

So what?

Here’s what. If we think—I am the worst wife/mother/sister that ever was—and make no distinction between the thought and the watcher-decider, we give that thought enormous power. It is just a thought! You could have also have thought—I am a big banana.

big-banana

 

What is the difference?

Vive la différence, my friend. You are not a big banana. Or a little one, for that matter. Thoughts populate for many reasons. There is a lot of electrical activity going on in the brain. Our brain developed, not to be the most precise or effective instrument for many tasks, but to be creative. Our success in survival is an outgrowth of that ability:

Nut in hard shell=no food. Nut + stone + smash=food.

The possibility of creativity (which meant survival in evolutionary terms) arises when two or multiple disparate ideas collide, i.e., our subconscious brain is designed to be a high-energy-let’s-try-this-and-that-together, kind of place. It is such a wild environment (pay attention to your dreams if you don’t believe this) that an “I” monitor arose to make decisions. This “I” can get in the way sometimes. It is not needed so much when a tiger appears. Decision to Get Out of Dodge is made on a more basic level. The being who stops to ponder about tigers and life gets eaten.

But the “I”-monitor/watcher-decider, plays an extraordinarily important role. As a writer, what I do with a creative idea is as critical as having one. Some ideas need to be discarded. An idea is not sacred. A thought is not necessarily true. You are not a big banana. You are probably not the worst person on the planet either. It is just a thought and you are free to have another one, such as, I am the best that I can be at the moment. Or I made a mistake. It’s not the end of the world. Or I wonder why I am beating myself up over something stupid?

You can let go of anger because you can have angry (or whatever) thoughts, but you don’t have to keep them. You can even change them, because they are not “you.” They are just thoughts. This tiny, subtle distinction can literally change your life.

And maybe help you sleep.

For-free-story-and-newsletter

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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?

4-little-girls-statue

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

IMG_0527

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 original 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) a story about the wife of Lot. 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 we 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. I politely mention that the boxes totally block his vision on one side. As he pulls out into the rain and jam-packed Chicago airport traffic, he nonchalantly replies, “I’m used to it. ”

[The “it” he is used to, I presume, is not being able to see . . . omg!)

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

Miraculously, Bob gets us 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 forgo a taxi because we are so far away, but 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  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 Chicago Transit Authority 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.

Whoops, sandals not going to work. 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, and I am running after her trying to catch her before she crashes at the other end.

A second angel jumps up from her seat and shows us how to lock in the wheel chair. Who knew? We are from Alabama. We are set, but the 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 train (subway above ground for you Alabamians) 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 (again, 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.

I am pushing as fast as I can until we hit a crack in the sidewalk that stops us dead, shoving the wheelchair handles into me and nearly dumping Laura onto the sidewalk into a puddle because, yes, of course, it is raining.

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 awards 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 because cover design and layout are also considered, along with the story and writing.

While waiting for her, I notice we are sort of “back stage” to the awards announcer, and a beautiful young woman is standing (on stage) 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 oft-repeated 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 or how many she actually read, but that’s a lot of books, even if she meant in my category. 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 too. And I have the book in hand! Success! Photo snaps.

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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. In addition to the transit guy named Angel, another “angel” (whose friend is Angela) shows me how to use Uber (yea! no more wheeling for blocks to the train station); 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 seat belt. 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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