Janet R Stafford

Un-Polarizing, Part 1

 

I’ve been writing for a while and now that I have a “body of work,” I have noticed an interesting trend. I tend to put people with opposing viewpoints and opinions together.

 

This probably should not be a surprise, given the fact that I live during an era in which we are told over and over again that Americans are “polarized.” It happened during the tumultuous 1960s, and reared its head again during the 1990s. And now it’s completely out of control. Or at least it seems to be that way. Sometimes I wonder if our “polarization” is not the result of being told continuously that we are polarized. Is it a classic case of a self-fulfilling prophecy? Guess I will have to leave that one to future historians.

 

What I started to do was write just one blog on how communication and love operate in my books, but it looks as if it’s going to be two or three. But don’t worry. I’ll stop before it turns into a dissertation.

 

I first noticed that I was connecting my books to my contemporary setting In 2001. After 9/11, I was working on another draft of SAINT MAGGIE. During that time, anger and fear were rife. Nationally, we wanted to strike out and destroy. At the very least, we wanted to circle the wagons. Not surprisingly, I noticed that the church-going characters of SAINT MAGGIE also are feeling betrayed, angered and frightened thanks to the behavior of a trusted member of the town, so much so that they respond in a most un-Christlike manner. Even the analytical Eli gets caught up in it and ends up writing a harsh editorial. Thank goodness he has Maggie. She reads his work and then starts the process of bringing him back to reason by saying…

 

“Very moving, but must you be so harsh?”

He frowned. “Maggie, the man’s a murderer. Justice has to be done.”

“I agree. Justice can and should be done, but must we do it without compassion?”

He stopped what he was doing and walked to where she sat at the little kitchen table. “Sweetheart, he nearly killed you. How do you expect me to feel? I’m happy he’s locked up.  Prison is where he belongs. And, if justice is done, the gallows are where he’ll end.”

“I understand that, but –”

Eli rolled his eyes. “Go ahead. Say it.”

“I think we need to forgive him.”

His response to this was a large sigh. “I’m not so sure I can do that.”

“I’m not so sure I can, either,” she responded. “I am deeply angry with him. But here’s the trouble. We both say we’re Christians. But as Christians, we’re required to forgive. When we pray, we say the words, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’  We’re asking God to forgive us only as we’re able to forgive others. If we do not forgive, then we are hypocrites. Shall we withhold forgiveness in this one case? Don’t we care whether or not God forgives us?”

Eli put his hands on his hips and looked down.

“If we expect God to forgive us, then we need to forgive others.”

“I don’t think I can forget what [he] has done.”

“Nor do I, but perhaps forgetting is not forgiveness. Perhaps forgiveness is the letting go of anger. Look at what it is doing to us. We fuss and we fume and we seethe. Our souls are all stirred up like a thunderstorm. Maybe we need to let the Spirit blow the noise and the lightning away, Eli.”

“I’m so not sure the Spirit is working around here these days,” he told her.

Maggie hesitated a moment, then confessed, “Me, too. The God who was once as close as my very breath is nowhere to be found.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Thank you,” she said, “but I do not want sympathy. Whether I feel God or not, I know what I must do in this case.”

“You’re going to quote scripture now, aren’t you?” he teased.

She blushed.

“Allow me to do it for you. ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’”

Her eyes widened in delight. “That’s part of the Beatitudes!”

He grinned.

“You are so full of surprises, Elijah Smith. What troubles me is that I know Jesus would not have said that had he not expected us to follow his words and his example.”

He winced. “So what you are saying is that you really do expect us to live what we profess.”

“Yes.”

“Damn,” he sighed.

 

Poor Eli, it looks as if he’s going to have to find a way to forgive. Maggie expects nothing less. However, I have to say that I agree with Maggie. Anger and fear solve nothing. Eli is patient with Maggie when she confronts him. At the same time, she does not get angry when he pushes back a bit. They listen to each other. This, I believe, is a better way.

 

Now let’s look at what happens when Maggie and Eli do not communicate effectively. What? They don’t get along? They get angry and hurt? Hello, they’re human! The break takes place in WALK BY FAITH, the second book in the series. In the story, Eli leaves Blaineton to cover the war and Maggie is left at home to keep the boarding house afloat, oversee the printing of the Gazette, and face losing her house and Eli’s business to arson. When Eli learns about the fires, he decides to move everyone to Gettysburg, where his family still retains an old house. Then he returns to Blaineton. However, he is uncharacteristically evasive with Maggie, who wants him to stay in the town and help rebuild their house and the newspaper. Here’s Maggie’s reaction as recorded in her journal when she learns that Eli has other plans.

 

…the reality is sobering. We must move. Now my heart is in great turmoil. I no longer recognize my town nor do I recognize some of its people. Over the past few years, prejudices and anger previously hidden in the shadows are now striding boldly through our streets where everyone can see them. They respect neither common courtesy nor the rule of law but seek to remake things according to their own understanding and image. Those people who embrace anger and prejudice are not rational. It is impossible to speak plainly or logically with them, as they cling desperately to their own fears, their own hatred, and their own anger. They will hear nothing aside from these.

--------------

Then Eli told us about Gettysburg. It was all I could do to keep my mouth from falling open. Apparently, he has known this all along, yet has not seen fit to inform me. Suddenly it made sense why he did not wish to embrace my plan to rebuild on my lot in Blaineton.

What has happened to us, Journal? Eli has always told me everything, even before we were married. Why did he not tell me this? It causes me to wonder how well I know him.

 

Maggie is angry with her husband. In the next scene, they argue with out of their perspective points of view and do not listen to what the other is really saying. Eli ends up resorting to nineteenth-century attitudes regarding male superiority and Maggie resorts to a woman’s revenge that goes all the way back to Greek times, if not further.

 

Maggie stared unblinkingly at him for a moment. She hadn’t intended to do so, but suddenly blurted, “Why did you not tell me about Gettysburg?”

“I didn’t want to worry you.”

“Forgive me, but I fear that is not the truth.”

“In truth, then, I don’t know why I didn’t tell you.”

There was an edge to her voice as she said, “I think you do know, Eli. I think you were planning to have us move all along.”

“Only after I learned about the fire, I promise you. Becky, Sally, and Andrew made the offer while Carson and I were staying at their farm. It’s not as if this has been planned for months.”

Maggie left his arms and crossed the room. “Regardless, Eli, I shan’t move.”

“Why on earth not?”

She turned. “Because you are asking me to leave my home. Because I own a perfectly good piece of property on which we may rebuild.”

“Fine and well, Maggie, but we are in danger as long as we stay in Blaineton. It is my duty to protect you and all the others under our roof.”

She sniffed. “First of all, we no longer have a roof. Secondly, you have a fine way of protecting us, Elijah Smith. You left us and put your life in danger on battlefields.”

“That can’t be helped. It’s my job.”

“It is not your job. You may write your stories from reports that come over the telegraph.”

He sighed. “This is a big story, Maggie. I can’t write it sitting in an office and depending on news from the wire.”

“I don’t want you to go back.” There. She said it.

“And I want you out of Blaineton.”

“Well, I shan’t go.”

His eyes snapped in annoyance. “On the contrary, Maggie, you shall go.”

The tone he used was as close to an order has she had ever heard from him and it stunned her. “I beg your pardon?”

“I said you shall move.”

The room vibrated with tension. Maggie sank into a terrible sense of betrayal. “Elijah! You said we would make this decision together.”

Frustrated, he took a step toward her. “Listen to me, Margaret Smith. It is not safe here. You heard the sheriff. And since I am head of this household –”

“Head of this household? Elijah Amos Smith! I was under the impression that we were partners! I thought we reasoned together and decided together.”

He took a deep breath as he sought to moderate his tone. “Under normal circumstances, yes, but there are times when that cannot be so, and this is one of those times. So understand me: I am the head of our household and it is my duty to make sure that everyone – including you – is safe. We are moving to Gettysburg and that is the end of it.” He stiffened his back as he repeated what Samuel had said earlier to Abigail. “The end of it, understand? I will broach no further argument from you.”

How dare he treat her as if she were somehow less than he? Where had her tender husband gone? What had happened to her understanding Eli? Maggie’s eyes grew narrow. “Ah. So I see how it is now. Well, sir, there is a trundle bed in Bob and Natey’s room and it would be well if you slept there.” With that, she turned on her heel and swept out the door.

 

Their marriage is on rocky ground now and more or less stays that way until the end of the novel. It is at that point and over a cherry pie that they open up to and become vulneerable. They mutually confess and forgive (a process begun a bit earlier but this scene is the culmination).

 

As Eli watched her, it occurred to him that she was changing as the baby grew. He had missed the first few precious months and abruptly felt cheated. In a quiet voice, he said, “Maggie, why didn’t you tell me you were pregnant?”

“I didn’t want you running home. What you were doing was important and I didn’t want to pull you away from it.”

To her surprise – and his – Eli’s eyes filled with tears. “But, Maggie, our baby is important, more important than any dad-blamed story. I am supposed to care for you and protect you. Why didn’t you let me do my job?”

She bit her lip. Now she wanted to cry, too, because the truth of her own behavior cut like a knife. “I was angry, Eli. I was angry that you left me.”

He nodded. “Yeah, I deserved it. I was being selfish.”

“No. No, you weren’t. You were doing what you thought was right. I should have told you about the baby.”

“What’s wrong with us, Maggie?” Eli’s voice broke. “I haven’t told you things and you haven’t told me things. That’s not right. We’re husband and wife.” Frustrated, he wiped his eyes. “Damn! And why am I crying all the time these days?”

“You went through a war.”

“Yeah, well, I feel like a fool. I should be stronger.”

“Strength is not measured by how little one cries, but by the manner in which one perseveres. We have been through terrible times. We will survive, as long as we stand together and not alone.” Maggie rose, went to his side, and put her arms around him.

 

Their journey back to each other takes a while. In fact, I think it takes Eli all the way into the fourth book to sort out his feelings and fears. Once a bond is broken it takes time to knit back together.

 

Let me share one more scene out of WALK BY FAITH. This is one of my favorites. During the battle of Gettysburg, the old Smith house is occupied by Confederate soldiers, in addition to being a hospital for the wounded from both sides. Captain Morrison, the commanding officer in charge of the C.S.A. men at the house, owns three slaves, all bequeathed to him by his late father. He tells Maggie (who is white) and Emily (who is Black) that he really has no need for them. When Emily asks why he doesn’t just free them, Morrison says, “Manumission in Virginia is a tricky thing. I could free them, but they would have to leave the state within the year or be enslaved once more. Two of them are quite old. Where would they go?” To which, the feisty Emily says, “Why don’t you ask them what they want to do?” And so, a Black woman who had been brought north by her self-emancipating mother and a slave-holding white man begin a strange relationship. Despite the war, they manage to listen to each other.

 

During a cataclysmic evening, Emily commits an act for which she could get arrested, if not hanged, but Morrison seems uninterested in pursuing the situation beyond the lie he has been told. Morrison’s attitude to Emily is more deferential, while hers is wary (rightly so), but determined.

 

Emily said, “I’d like to sit with the Captain a bit longer if no one minds.”

“I would be honored,” the man replied.

Once Lydia and Maggie had left, Morrison leaned back in his chair.  “What is your last name, Emily?”

“Johnson.”

“Mrs. Johnson,” he said softly. “Then so you shall be.” His eyes met hers. “Once again, Mrs. Johnson, I am sorry for Private Lemuel Opdyke’s vulgar behavior. His death was brutal, but deserved.”

Emily nodded.

“I thought you would like to know that Opdyke’s brother will not be charged.” He glanced down at his glass then back up at her again. “One needn’t fear it will be otherwise, no matter who shot him, you see.”

Emily did not know what to think. It seemed as though he suspected the truth, if not knew outright. If that were the case then he was exhibiting unexpected kindness. She didn’t understand why he would do such a thing, seeing as how he was a Confederate and she was colored. She thought a moment. “Captain.”

“Yes?”

“How do you see me and folk like me?”

“May I be honest?”

She nodded.

“You were always there when I was growing up. You see, where I come from, if you’re white, you just don’t think about colored folks all that much, unless of course something is wrong.” He sat back in his chair. “Does that offend you?”

“Wouldn’t it offend you?”

“It would, indeed. And I apologize, but I figured the truth was in order.”

“Your apology is accepted.”

“If you don’t mind, Mrs. Johnson, I’d like to hear a little about your life here. What you do, what your family is like, what your hopes are, your dreams, your faith.”

Her amber eyes narrowed. “If I do that, then I’d like to hear about your life. I need to know the truth. I’ve always been of the opinion that you folks were devils.”

He laughed heartily. “Oh, Mrs. Johnson, we are not devils.”

“And we are not property, Captain.” Emily smiled wryly. “I just figured the truth was in order.”

Morrison chuckled and held up his glass in a toast. “Mrs. Johnson, I think maybe God put us together this night for a reason.”

“Maybe so,” Emily replied and lifted her own glass.

 

Booyah! It’s THE opening up of a conversation. We don’t know what passed between them that night, but I suspect it was honest.

 

And so I continue to write these scenes into my novels. I don’t know if any of my work will change anyone’s mind, but I hope and pray it has a small impact. We cannot afford to refuse to listen. We cannot afford to withdraw into our little corners and snarl at anyone who is not “like” us.

 

I’ll have more next time as we move through the Saint Maggie series and HEART SOUL & ROCK’N’ROLL. At the very least, this is giving me a chance to follow this theme throughout all five books.

 

Be strong and courageous, my friends!

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