Member Monday: Why We Look and What We Hope to Find by Jennifer Phelps

Welcome back to Member Monday.  As the holiday season presses forth, it’s a pleasure to welcome back Jennifer Phelps, who always writes with stark honesty about love and loss.  Welcome, Jen.

Why We Look and What We Hope to Find

by: Jennifer Phelps

This morning I am walking the dogs.  I take a different route, just a small deviation from my regular lopsided figure eight, a short trip down a side street.  I want to walk past the house where the murder took place last week.

We’re all rubber neckers, I think as I wind my way down the mossy sidewalk beside the pink and white oleanders that bloom in front of the house.  These are actually theiroleanders, trimmed before ithappened. There is a crime scene inside, and outside the grass is cut and the sprinklers are going on timers. As if its inhabitants went to the store, or to the lake for a day of boating.

I question my own motives – why do I detour down the street to see the quiet house where something awful took place?  Will someone notice me strolling by, a way I usually don’t go? People might think I have an unnatural interest in the misfortune of others.  Do I?

I don’t think so. I think I’m like everyone else, wanting to catch of glimpse of that place.  It is the place where what we think we know and what we believe we understand meets the unknown, the unfamiliar. It’s the departure point, the place where the ocean meets the sand. There’s some overlap in that moment when the surf slides up the beach, some commingling. A little sand gets caught up in the ocean; a little salt water sinks into the sand. But then the ocean retracts, pulls back into itself. The beach is still there, but it’s different. It looks the same, but microscopically it’s changed.

That’s how it is with a murder, or a car accident, or someone who has fallen grievously ill. They are on that shore, touching that deep unknown. It’s lapping at their feet, or maybe they’re already deep in it, caught in the undertow. And we want to see it, as if witnessing their struggle, their transition could help us understand.

It doesn’t. What we are left with is only our perceptions, which defy understanding and utterly confound us when we try to express them with language. We are left saying absurd, typical things like, “I just can’t believe it,” and, “How can things like that happen to such nice people?” As if there is some moral balance sheet in the universe; I have decided that if there is, it doesn’t follow our logic.

My mom recently died. I feel the urge to attenuate that statement because it seems to shock people. They want to hear softer terms, like “she passed away,” or my least favorite, “she passed.” The truth, to me, is better, however stark it sounds. She died.  She was alive, and now she isn’t.

The first thing I wanted after my mother’s death was the shirt she was wearing when she died, soft and worn like only an old T-shirt can be.  It had been washed along with the bedclothes.  I found it and brought it home.  First I put it on, but that didn’t feel right, either.  I just wanted to be close to where she is now, wherever that is.  The shirt held her body as she made that transition.  Maybe somewhere in that shirt, I felt, was the answer.  That place we want to witness.

Mom’s shirt hangs in my closet.  I don’t want to wear it, but I do want to see it.  “Mom died in that shirt,” I tell myself when I look at it.  It’s still just a shirt. I could give it to someone and they could wear it, never knowing it held her last breaths, never knowing that shirt is my shore, beyond it the ocean, never knowing that is the shirt that bore her out on heaving waves.

I don’t know where she is, but I know where she departed from. I guess that’ll have to be enough.

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A Message from the President: December, 2012

Phew…another very successful Authors Fair is under our belts. Or, to keep it in a Writers Forum vein, “on the bookshelf.” We had fewer authors than last year, but more full tables and more all day sign ups. Books were sold; one table sold out of what they brought (18!). Hailing from Chico to Lookout (in Modoc County), they networked and made friends with other authors.

We ran the popular First Sentence Contest again this year with two categories.  There were 14 adult entries and 4 child entries. A remote panel of judges picked their top three favorites, and the votes were tabulated electronically.

The winning adult author was one of the presenting authors, member Janice Austin Bates, with “If it hadn’t been for the terrible burn scars on Emily’s face, most people wouldn’t have noticed her.”  The winning child author was Betsy Allred, age 7, with “On one sunny day there were two girls who became best friends while playing hide and go seek.” Each wins a $25 Gift Card from Barnes & Noble.  Congratulations, Janice and Betsy!

The December meeting is one of our semi-annual gatherings where members do 5-minute readings of their work; either past, published or in work, as long as it is yours, you can read it.

I have some tips.

  • It is not a contest to see how much you can read in 5 minutes. Slow down, and enjoy it. Put some feeling in to it. This would be an excellent time to put to voice what you gleaned from Robb Lightfoot’s excellent presentation in October.
  • Practice your selected reading. Time yourself. Remember, 5 minutes only, including introduction or scene-setting. No “just another few sentences” allowed. When time has elapsed, everybody starts clapping. And remember, if you are cut off before you finished your reading, take heart in that you can submit it in its entirety to our Newsletter Editor, Ed Sulpice, at This is where no time limit applies.
  • This is also our annual holiday potluck; finger foods are recommended, but if you do bring non-finger food, please ensure it is not sloppy. No BBQ ribs!

One more note: Our Scholarship Fundraiser buyout of Riverfront Playhouse for Leading Ladies by Ken Ludwig is Thursday, February 7, 2013. Tickets are only $15.00.  This farce centers on two down-on-their-luck Shakespearean actors, Leo Clark and Jack Gable. The pair discovers that Florence, an older ailing woman, has been unable to find Max and Steve to include them in her multi-million dollar inheritance. They decide to pose as Max and Steve only to discover that “Max” and “Steve” are actually “Maxine” and “Stephanie.” Undaunted, they continue on in drag. Tickets will be on sale at meetings, or contact any board member.

Meanwhile, between the sugar plums dancing in your head, and the seven swans a’swimming, have a blessed holiday season, and keep the fingers to the keyboard.

Larry Watters, Writers Forum President