Janet R Stafford

Un-Polarizing, Part 2

 

 

Polarization is two people taking opposite opinions and not giving an inch. And, as fellow author EM Kaplan commented on my previous blog, it makes for great drama. And she’s absolutely right! At the very least, a bit of contention adds a dash of tension. So let’s continue looking into how the theme of polarization and un-polarization shows up in my books.

 

Take Lins and Neil from the contemporary romance HEART SOUL & ROCK’N’ROLL. Lins serves a church as an assistant minister and Neil is downright antagonistic towards church. Lins also has a policy of never telling a guy on a first date what she does for a living. When I was dating, I did the same thing. I didn’t want to scare someone away before they got to know me. Given the negative vibe some forms of Christianity has engendered these days, I still am hesitant to tell people what I do. I’m an Assistant Minister/Director of Christian Education/ Communications Director. I know. That’s a whale of a title and a whole lot of slashes. It’s like my churches is trying to see how many jobs I can do in 25-30 hours a week! Let me add that while Lins basically does the same thing I do - no, I never have dated a rocker. An artist and teacher of art and media arts, yes. But a rocker, no.

 

Anyway, things go swimmingly on Lins and Neil’s first date until she almost blows her cover. Fortunately, she manages to give him the impression that she’s a teacher without actually saying it. It is a wee bit dishonest for a church lady and it does complicate things for her.

 

Neil’s eyebrows went up. “Oh! You’re a teacher.”

I cleared my throat as I looked away.

“I knew it!” He chortled and leaned toward me. “You seem like a teacher! So where do you teach? What do you teach?”

“Religion,” I replied, avoiding the first question. It occurred to me that I should own up to my true vocation rather than give him the wrong idea, but it was too late now.

Neil grimaced. “Religion? I expected it to be music or something.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Please tell me you don’t teach in one of those Christian schools.” His body was abruptly tense. I wondered what was up.

“No, I don’t teach in one of those.” Nope. I taught in a Christian church.

Neil relaxed. “But you must have gotten a degree in religion if you teach it. Why? I mean, you’re not a crazy hater. And you like rock too much to be a Bible thumper.”

Uh, oh. I had a Christophobe on my hands. I stayed calm. “Actually, Neil, you’re right on both counts. I’ve got a degree in religion and I love rock.” Even though I was pretty sure what I would hear, I put my arms on the table and leaned toward him. “What have you got against religion?”

“I take it you haven’t seen the crazy haters on TV filling the air with venom,” he replied and, lifting his mug to his mouth, took a quick slug of beer. “They’re against everything – and for nothing, as far as I can tell.”

 

Neil goes on to tell Lins that his mother “fell in with a church full of hypocritical and bigoted people. I don’t think they liked anybody except themselves. Totally fanatical about religious purity. You know, if you don’t toe the party line then you’re going to hell.”

 

Despite their differing viewpoints, not to mention an invasion of their table by Neil’s bandmates, the two manage to salvage the date and a relationship develops. Throughout the novel, Lins patiently allows Neil to express his anger and exasperation with church people and religion. It bothers her, but she listens. Listening is important, especially if you want to find common ground.

 

That said, part of the story in HEART SOUL & ROCK’N’ROLL revolves around how Lins and Neil keep secrets from each other until they can keep them no longer. After an event forces Neil to tell Lins about his sister’s drug problem, Lins in turn confesses that she serves in a church. Each finally is ready to hear the other out. For brevity’s sake, here is the couple’s conversation about Lins’ secret. It starts with Neil finishing his revelation. He's been crying, poor baby. Lots of tears in the scene.

 

“So,” he sniffed, “there it is. That’s it. That’s the big, bad skeleton in my closet.”

I heard myself say, “Wanna see my skeleton now?”

He laughed a little. “What? Don’t tell me you’re an ax murderer or something.”

“Worse than that.” I took a deep breath. “I’m a minister.”

Neil couldn’t quite process the word. “A … what?”

“A minister, as in I work in a church.”

He looked bewildered. “But you told me you were a teacher.”

“Actually, I let you assume I was a teacher. But I might as well have lied to you outright, and I’m sorry for that. When you told me you weren’t into organized religion and I heard all that stuff about your mother and her church … Neil, I was afraid you’d run away if you knew what I did for a living.”

He frowned. “Why would I do that? Cut me some slack, Lins. I’m not a complete asshole. You’re a wonderful woman.”

“I know you’re not a complete asshole.” My eyes filled with tears. “The thing is I should have been honest with you. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me. I never wanted to hurt you.” I choked back a sob. “Damn! I hate crying…”

“Don’t, Lins,” he said softly, putting his hand over mine. “So you’re a minister. So what?” He went into the bathroom and came back with toilet paper for me.

“Thanks.” I blew my nose. “Do you mean that – the so what thing?”

“Of course, I do. I know what kind of woman you are.”

 

Lins’ confession is risky in light of Neil’s anger at religion, but he risked telling her about his sister and she is moved to come clean with him, too. In the end, their mutual risk and vulnerability make for a good relationship.

 

 

One of the most polarizing eras in U.S. history was the Civil War and the period leading up to the war. Perhaps that’s why I have written four historical novels and several short stories set in that time period. Lots of good drama there. (Thanks again, EM!) However, the polarization wasn’t simply a North-South thing. People in both regions were divided to varying degrees over the issue of slavery, what it meant to be a Union, and rights of women, people of color, and employees, as well as other issues. We did not navigate that time period well. Things were so bad we went to war with ourselves. I hope and pray that doesn’t happen again. Ever.

 

In the Saint Maggie series, crusading newspaperman Eli Smith champions the rights of other human beings, many of whom were not considered completely human in his time and place. While trying to find common ground is a worthy endeavor, there are times it just doesn’t happen. Throughout SEEING THE ELEPHANT, Eli and industrialist Josiah Norton develop a contentious relationship. Basically, Eli does not like self-important stuffed shirts and Josiah doesn’t like nosy newspapermen. But by the end of the story, after the two men have gone through a frightening experience together, Eli is hopeful that it will bring Josiah to a kinder understanding of other people.

 

“You saved my life, Mr. Smith.” Josiah stood up. He paced to the window and stared out at Greybeal House’s park-like environment. “It’s strange, isn’t it? Yesterday, my life was saved twice: once by you and then by Miss Stroud. What do you think it means?”

“I think it means you were damn lucky.”

“But Miss Stroud’s part in all this – how could that have happened? She’s a madwoman.

“Perhaps,” Eli commented. “Then again, perhaps the people you view as inferiors are not quite as inferior as you think. Nonetheless, your life was saved twice. That means something.”

“But what?”

“You need to pay attention.”

He scowled. “I beg your pardon?”

“A man would do well to pay attention to strange and mysterious things. Believe me.” Eli met Josiah’s eyes. “Mr. Norton, it is clear that you were saved for something.”

The other man was silent for a moment. “Well, I was moved to return control of the hospital to my cousin.”

“Excellent start!”

“A start?” Josiah indignantly asked. “What the hell do you mean? I gave it all to him!”

“True, but my wife says repentance doesn’t simply entail feeling regret for one’s actions. True repentance requires a change of heart, a change of direction.”

“Surely giving up the hospital is change enough.”

“Surely it is not. If you have to wonder whether the change is ‘enough,’ then perhaps you don’t understand what it means to repent. Mr. Norton, if I may be blunt, can’t you see that which is in front of your own nose? The workers in your mills are living, breathing people, just like you, just like me. They feel, and hurt, and love, and have dreams for their children. And yet they live and work under deplorable conditions. You are able to do something about that.”

Perturbed, Josiah stared at the floor.

“Allow me to suggest, sir, that it’s possible for you to have a successful business and a comfortable life even as you give your workers decent wages and well-cared for mills.”

“That is enough, Mr. Smith! You have no idea what you are saying. It would cost money to do those things. A great deal of money!”

Eli smiled. “Yeah, but you’d sleep a whole lot better. Trust me.”

Josiah snorted. “Funny, but I’ve never had trouble sleeping before.”

 

As I said, sometimes you just can’t come together. Maybe it’s because people don’t listen. Or perhaps it is because they don’t want to or can’t listen. Or maybe one side or the other is not communicating well. I think the latter is what happened above. Frankly, Eli is a bit preachy in this scene. Yet, if Maggie confronted him with it, he probably would be appalled.

 

But does that mean we should give up trying to find that common ground? No way. However, we should accept the fact that sometimes we may just have to agree to disagree, even if it is a cliché.

 

So my characters will continue trying to find the way to that center, common point. Sometimes they will succeed. Sometimes they will fail. I have a feeling that this will continue to be a theme in my work for quite a while.

P.S. Here's a shameless plug for EM Kaplan's work. Since I mentioned her in my blog, I think I owe her this! Try the "un-cozy, un-culinary" (and wonderfully snarky) Josie Tucker Mysteries or for "something completely different," the Rise of the Masks fantasy series with a well-developed world and a plot that kept me guessing.

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