Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Rediscovering Bliss--At The Library

The other day I rode an escalator to the seventh floor, literature and fiction, at the Harold Washington Public Library in Chicago and felt bliss. It was the second time in as many weeks I'd visited there. This made me happier than I can say because that's more visits to a public library in two weeks than I've made in the entire last decade.

For as long as I can remember, I've loved libraries. At five years old, I got my pinkish orange children's card at the Brookfield Public Library. I was so excited at the idea of this giant (as it appeared to me then) room full of books. My mom set a limit of five at a time, probably the most she figured I could carry home or possibly keep track of. It was not cheap to pay for lost library books.

The Winter Garden at the Harold Washington Public Library
Back then, the Brookfield library had two levels. You walked up concrete steps outside into the main library, then down carpeted stairs to the basement children's library. I loved the children's librarian and talked with her every time I went in. The first time I returned books I thought I should put them back where I’d found them, so I dutifully reshelved them. Mrs. Peters explained that they needed to be checked back in. (I like to think she was pleased that I had placed them on the correct shelves.) You got your white adult card when you turned twelve. Graduating to the main library floor was both exciting and sad. I'd visited the children's library once or twice a week all throughout grade school. In sixth grade, I'd moved on to the young adult books shelves, which were still in the basement. I suspect many of those now would be considered middle grade books, because the subject matters were fairly tame. Much of what was truly young adult literature was classified as adult literature at the time, including Judy Bloom’s novel Forever. (It was controversial because it showed an eighteen-year-old woman having sex for the first time without suffering negative consequences. Books where teenagers got pregnant and had to go away somewhere and have the baby in secret were allowed on the young adult shelves.) In the main library, I discovered my first Mary Higgins Clark novel on the paperback racks. That in itself was new to me, because all the children's books were in hard cover.

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About six or seven years later, the library was torn down. A new one, all on one level and wheelchair accessible, was built. The projected cost of putting in the elevators and ramps had almost matched building anew, which is why the original library wasn't preserved. The new one was clean and modern, but I missed the old worn carpets and the feeling of descending into an enchanted world when going down the narrow stairs to the basement. The new children's section, where I occasionally checked out old favorites, was just another room, which was made even clearer when Mrs. Peters retired. Still, in my mid-twenties, one of the more difficult times in my life, I visited the library often. I had been working at temp and secretarial jobs, as I was a good typist, and writing fiction and playing guitar on the side. I developed a repetitive stress injury in my wrists and hands. The surgical options were not good. I stopped working and moved back in with my parents, feeling like a failure. Bouncing back to mom and dad was fairly unusual at that time, unlike now. In the evenings, I paged through career books in the library searching for something else I was qualified to do that didn't require a lot of keyboarding and that called for a bachelors degree in Writing/English. (Eventually, I attended a graduate program to earn a paralegal certificate. That later led to my becoming a lawyer.)

During that same decade, I lived on and off in another near west suburb that had a beautiful old library overlooking the Des Plaines river. Its enclosed three-season porch became my favorite place to read in the summer and spring. In the winter and fall, I researched at library carrels in front of leaded glass windows overlooking the river. I discovered some new favorite authors as I wandered the stacks. Since most of the books were hardcover library editions, I pulled them based solely on title. It is there I found my first Sara Paretsky book about female private eye V.I. Warshawski. I've read every one since. (For why, see Why I Love VI.)

Right before I started law school, I moved to downtown Chicago. For four years, I worked full time while attending school at night. I had little chance to read fiction, but I visited the Harold Washington Public Library once or twice for research. I found it cavernous and without warmth. Built from 1988 through 1991 and designed by architect Thomas Beeby, the Harold Washington is the largest public library in the world. It houses over six million books plus historical collections of Chicago artifacts. Its top floor is the Winter Garden, with a skylight and lots of marble. For all that, I've never loved the library as a whole. Its double high ceilings and sprawling undivided floors make the number of books look skimpy, and I've yet to find a cozy place to read. On most floors, the lighting is harsh, and there are long library tables with wooden chairs, but no arm chairs or couches.

Partly because of that, even after finishing law school, I rarely went there. I worked so many hours that the few times I borrowed books, I returned them late because it was hard to find time to walk the eight blocks there and back. And I didn’t always finish the books. I actually read much faster than I had before law school, but in a good week I’d have 10-15 minutes to read at night before I went to sleep. At the same time, I suddenly could afford to buy the books I wanted. Some new lawyers at large firms drastically increase their spending on clothes or cars or buy larger homes. I bought books.

That trend mostly continued when I started my own law firm. Though I went on my own to have more time to write, I quickly became nearly as busy as I had been when I was employed at Sonneschein (now Dentons US LLP). I enjoyed my practice more, because I liked running my own business and having a wider variety of responsibilities. How busy I was had more ups and downs, though. Which meant that while I had a little more time to read, that time was less predictable. I might have one or two weeks when I would get home from the office by 6 p.m. each night, so I read for twenty minutes or or so after I finished my evening’s fiction writing. There were other months when I more or less lived at my office. The receptionist used to joke that she was sure I had a cot under my desk. So my visits to the public library were still few and far between.

Then, last spring, after spending about two years gradually slowing down my law practice, I flipped my work life so that I now focus about three-quarters of my work week on writing and one-quarter on law, with lots of what I’d call writing adjacent activities, such as reading, in my free time. (I also now actually cook and eat at home fairly often rather than eating out or at my office, which has felt very nice.) So recently it occurred to me that I had time to go to the library. I remembered the Harold Washington as rather cold, too big, and not inviting. No doubt, all those things are still true, as it has not been significantly remodeled. Yet, as I rode up the escalator for the second time in two weeks, the smell of paper and aging book covers made me feel like I had come home. The rows of stacks once again offered worlds of possibility. I'd forgotten how much I loved meandering shelves perusing different titles. Now I can try authors I've never read before, because my reading isn't limited to fifteen minutes snatches in between other work. Instead, I can read uninterrupted for an hour or more sipping a cup of Earl Grey tea or a glass of Pinot Noir.

No doubt my next visit to the library and the next after that will seem less novel and amazing, and eventually it will be routine. And that in itself is wonderful. In this country more books than any one person could read in a lifetime are available for free. And while libraries have expanded to provide access to the Internet, ebooks, and numerous other services, those rows of books remain, for me, a huge part of what magic and joy are all about.
Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. If you'd like to be notified of new releases and read reviews of M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller) books and movies, click here to join her email list and receive free a short horror story, Ninevah, published exclusively to M.O.S.T. subscribers.


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Trouble With Karma

The concept of karma has been around for thousands of years. I confess to having mixed feelings about it. In eastern religions, it refers to the idea that what a person does in past lives and in the present affects the quality of her or his life or perhaps determines certain aspects of it. This concept is summed up in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad statement that whatsoever deed a man does, "that he will reap." A similar sentiment appears in Christian gospels, including in Galatians 6:7: "...whatsoever a man soweth, that he also shall reap." Today people in the western world often say "what goes around comes around."

Karma offers a sense of fairness to life. It is an attempt to explain why some people’s circumstances are so different from others'. In some countries, those differences include into what caste a person is born. In the United States, too, there are vast differences in how much wealth people have, how happy they are, and how much good fortune or misfortune comes their way. These differences seem random and inequitable.

My statue of Quan Yin, the goddess of compassion.
For instance, one of my friends is an attorney who started his career as a cop, and his wife is a teacher. They have three adult children. One is an attorney, one is a detective, and one is a teacher. On the flipside, in his criminal defense practice, that same friend often represents more than one generation of a family. He gets referrals from clients he defended of their children, brothers, and cousins when they are arrested. Certainly some of the differences between his grown children and those of some of his clients are due to choices all the people involved made. But it's hard to imagine that it had nothing to do with the families into which those people happened to be born. My friend's experience, both personal and professional, is not unique. According to a recent New York Times analysis reported by The Atlantic, sons of senators are about "8,500 times more likely to become senators than the average American man." Also, while the United States is wonderful country for many reasons, including that people can move between income levels and social classes, most people earn $1.33 for every dollar their parents earned, so having high or low earning parents has a significant effect on a person's economic well-being. (Business Insider, 2014.) Karma proposes a way that all these differences make sense. It also allows a greater feeling of control over life. If what we do has specific and predictable effects, we can make better decisions and achieve more. We won't feel so blown about by each random wind.

The trouble with karma, though—or at least one problem I have with the concept—is that it can feel a lot like blaming the victim and can lead to a lack of compassion for yourself and others. If you are diagnosed with cancer, or your spouse dies, or you suffer from depression, it’s easy to start feeling you must have done something wrong to deserve it. Often other people and our culture reinforce this idea. There are tons of books out there on positive thinking, choosing and directing our thoughts, and positive energy. I’ve found many of them extremely helpful, including Think and Grow Rich and Awaken the Giant Within. But the idea that we always get what we deserve or even that we draw everything around us into our lives can be hurtful. We all know people who help others, have good values, and generally have a positive attitude about life who still have awful things happen to them. In my own life, I think of my mom and dad. All their lives they volunteered with organizations, including ones that aided veterans, tutored recent immigrants, and provided financial help to people in difficult circumstances. They did their best to treat others well and donated to several charities each month despite having limited finances themselves. Yet they died in a violent, tragic way because one evening as they crossed the street on their way into church, they were hit by a drunk driver. I can’t imagine anything they did to deserve that. Nor can I imagine what children with cancer did to deserve it in this life or any other.

Which brings me to another issue I have with the way karma is often thought of. It can undercut the concept of responsibility. If my parents’ deaths were due to karma, or to “God’s plan,” for that matter, then the man who drove drunk is absolved of responsibility. That’s especially disturbing to me because he had two prior DUIs. Further, if we believe that people who are poor or uninsured or ill are that way due to karma, we as a society might be less motivated to change circumstances that contribute to that. After all, it’s all their own fault, right?

For these reasons, I am not a fan of the idea that we always get what we deserve, that good is always rewarded with good, and that people who have bad things to happen to them have always brought that into their lives in one way or another.

Despite all that, in a certain way, I do believe in karma. I believe that on an emotional level, to some extent what goes around comes around. It seems to me that the people who, for the most part, treat others well and try to be fair and kind are usually happier than those who spend a lot of time talking and thinking about how to one up others, or undermine them, or get revenge on them. For one thing, how we treat others often dictates how they treat us. In all my jobs, from working as a cashier at a discount store to representing large corporations in lawsuits, when I’m courteous and treat people with respect, nearly all of them eventually respond in kind, even the ones who started out rude and belligerent. Of course there are a few exceptions, but they really have been few.

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In contrast, in my first year as a lawyer, I worked with a more senior attorney who held grudges. If anyone slighted him, and he often felt slighted, he went out of his way to make their lives difficult. Though he was smart and a good lawyer, he found it hard to get enough work because people didn’t like being around him and so didn’t tend to ask him to be a part of their cases. He also had trouble getting much work done because he spent so much time fuming and plotting. Both meant he was always on the edge of losing his job. That fear reinforced all his negative feelings, creating a vicious cycle of unhappiness and insecurity.

Being kind to and caring about others also makes it easier to have friends and close family-like relationships. There are studies showing that the more friends and close ties people have following heart surgery, the better their recoveries, regardless of other health factors. And while behaving in a positive way toward others doesn’t guarantee us good health or good fortune, it does affect how we deal with difficulties and how much we enjoy the good times in life. So my conclusion is that karma is less of an actual force or a determiner of the events outside our control, such as accidents, serious illnesses, and death, than it is simply a cause and effect in personal relationships.

What about you? Have you seen karma operate in your life?


Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears andTwo Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. If you'd like to be notified of new releases and read reviews of M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller) books and movies, click here to join her email list and receive free a short horror story, Ninevah, published exclusively to M.O.S.T. subscribers.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Second Mr. de Winter: What If Genders Were Reversed In Rebecca?

My lawyer book group (read more about the lawyer book group here) recently read Daphne Du Maurier’s classic, Rebecca. The book is a suspense/thriller about a young woman who marries a widower whose first wife was lost at sea. After the narrator marries Max de Winter, she becomes mistress of Manderley, a mansion in an isolated area. Roughly twenty years younger than her husband and of a different social class, she feels constantly overshadowed by her predecessor, Rebecca, and nervous around his family and staff. She is constantly told how beautiful, engaging, and personable the first Mrs. De Winter (Rebecca) was. Her husband is distant, and the narrator becomes convinced that Max never loved her but married her as a balm for his grief. The mood darkens as questions about Rebecca’s character and death emerge.

After discussing the book, I started  thinking about whether the story would change were the characters’ genders reversed. I've tried not to include too many spoilers in my thoughts below, but if you haven't read Rebecca, proceed with caution.

  • The age difference between the narrator and de Winter would be a more pivotal part of the story and would be addressed directly if Maggie de Winter, a fortyish widow, married a young male about twenty years old. As written, while a few comments are made about Max marrying a “young bride,” and the narrator’s youth combined with her social class makes her uncomfortable running Manderley, the age difference is rarely remarked upon. Further, no one questions that the narrator in Rebecca truly loves with Max de Winter. Understanding her actions at the end of the book turns on that. Readers might speculate far more about whether a young male narrator with no resources of his own married Maggie de Winter solely for her money.
  • If the first spouse were named Reginald rather than Rebecca, he might never have married. We eventually learn that Max de Winter was shocked and revolted when soon after their marriage Rebecca told him of horrible things she had done and expected to continue to do. While not spelled out, her “awful” behavior is that she was sexually active. Given the desire to continue to have multiple sexual partners, a man in the 1930s would be more likely to be able to support himself or to have inherited money or property, making it less likely that he would choose to enter a relationship that is by definition monogamous. Also, it seems more likely Reginald’s sexual exploits would have been forgiven or at least tolerated even after marriage, thus avoiding the central conflict between de Winter and Spouse No. 1. 

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  • The issue that most enrages de Winter—that Rebecca might have a baby that is not his who would then inherit his estate—also would disappear for biological reasons. If Reginald had sex resulting in progeny, Maggie de Winter would know the child was not hers, nor would the child inherit from Maggie.
  • The underlying premise of the book would fail. Next to the opening line about Manderley, the most well-known aspect of Rebecca is that the reader never learns the narrator’s name. When she is named at all, she is the "second Mrs. De Winter." (Rebecca at least gets a first name, as well as having the novel named after her, though we don't know what her last name was before de Winter.) One of the most striking scenes to me is when the narrator answers her first call at Manderley and, when the caller asks for Mrs. de Winter, says in confusion that Mrs. de Winter is dead. All of that changes if a male narrator marries Maggie de Winter, whose first spouse was named Reginald. First, “de Winter” probably wasn’t Maggie’s name, as she no doubt changed hers to her husband’s when she married the first time. So Reginald’s first and last name become known, and Maggie’s original last name is unknown. Second, when Maggie married again, she almost certainly would have changed her last name to the male narrator’s. And if she didn’t, it’s highly unlikely the male narrator would change his to match hers. Even today, 70-80% of women in the U.S. take their husband’s last name on marriage, and I could not find statistics on how many men take their wives’ last names (so I’m guessing not many). In short, a book about a "second Mr. de Winter" would be far more likely to be about, say, the son of a president than the second spouse of an older, well-to-do woman. 
  • Finally, were the book named Reginald rather than Rebecca and the protagonist male, the book might have gotten a better reception from critics. Critics dismissed Rebecca as a romance and of no consequence. Happily for du Maurier, readers loved it, and Alfred Hitchcock, master of suspense, made it into a movie. Published in 1938, the book is considered a classic and has never gone out of print. As I write this, out of over 20 million paperback books on Amazon, Rebecca’s Amazon Best Seller rank is 4,248.

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Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Not To Unite But To Divide - Are Religious Disagreements Inevitable?

When I was in junior high, one of my friends had very strict parents. Because I didn't share her Christian denomination (Pentecostal), her parents didn't want her to spend time with me. I decided to join my friend's church youth group. My mom worried about that. When she'd grown up, Catholics were prohibited from attending services at other churches. It was thought that learning too much about other religions would be damaging to their Catholic faith. My mom eventually agreed I could join the youth group, but she never felt quite comfortable with it.

After hearing about my mother's concerns, the youth group leader pointed me to a section of the New Testament, which I'd also heard quoted in Catholic mass, where Jesus says basically that he comes not to unite but to divide:
"Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; ....They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."
Years later, I shared a draft of a supernatural thriller chapter with my writers' group. In it, a character quoted part of the above language. A group member who was Christian said I should not make up Bible verses. He didn't believe me that the gospel of Luke included this section. When I showed him the source of the quote at our next meeting, he suggested I include the citation in the dialogue. I did. (Luke 12:52-53.) I figured if my friend didn't believe this statement was in the Bible, readers might not either.

I've been thinking about that quote a lot lately with all the publicity about the clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, an elected official, refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. According to a Wall Street Journal article I read, one of her reasons is that gay marriage is against her religion, and she does not want her signature on a certificate allowing it. According to the Journal, she also rejected a proposed compromise where a deputy who was willing to do so would sign in her place. The clerk is Apostolic Christian.

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In the Chicago area, which is where I grew up, Catholicism is a fairly common Christian denomination. In 2014, according to Sperling's BestPlaces, 38% of Chicago residents were Catholic compared to 19% in the rest of the country. Catholicism prohibits divorce, as well as remarriage after divorce. Yet I am not aware of any Catholic Cook County clerks or judges refusing to sign orders granting divorces or refusing to sign marriage licenses for people who, like the clerk in Kentucky, have previously been married and divorced.

There could be a few reasons for that. For one thing, right now at least, divorce is more common than gay marriage. Even Pope Francis recently tacitly recognized that. And the Cook County clerk's office and court system are extremely busy. So perhaps Catholic clerks and judges would simply find it too difficult to refuse to sign every single order allowing a divorce or license for remarriage that comes before them. Also, many Catholics don't follow that particular rule of their own church, so perhaps they feel it is impractical to expect people who don't share their religion to follow it. Or it could be that Catholicism as a whole is more open to the idea that not everyone subscribes to every church rule. There is even a name for people who profess to be Catholics but reject the Church's teachings on numerous points, from attending mass every Sunday to eschewing artificial birth control to remarrying after a divorce: "cafeteria Catholics." Perhaps the Apostolic Christian church is more hard line about members adhering to all the rules, and so members also feel more obligated to not appear to condone non-members living by different rules.

The Richard J. Daley Center plaza in downtown Chicago.
Finally, Rowan County had about 23,000 people in 2013, while Cook County had about 5.24 million. The larger county makes it easier to recognize something that seems lost in the current debate. An order issued by a court or a certificate issued by a clerk's office are exactly that. They are documents issued by a government office, not by a person. As a lawyer, when I file a motion asking the court to issue a certain order, I file the motion with the court itself, despite that it will be heard by a particular judge. And though a particular judge signs an order to grant a divorce or dismiss a case, the judge rules not based on her personal beliefs about questions such as abortion, sentencing of juveniles, divorce, or birth control but based on the law. Likewise, the person who holds the office of Cook County Clerk changes, but whoever holds the office must follow the same laws. Cook County Clerk David Orr's signature appears on both my parents' death certificates. But that doesn't make me think he knows anything about how they died or that he could testify one way or another based on personal knowledge whether they are living or deceased. This sounds obvious in a county of over five million people. In a county with 23,000, it's probably much easier to forget that the person holding an office is not acting as himself or herself but as the government office. This may be the most important reason that I've never heard of officials in Cook County who happen to be Catholic refusing to appear to take part in divorces or in divorcees remarrying.

I haven't read most of the web traffic about the issue of the county clerk in Kentucky, and I've been avoiding the comments from political candidates. If I read everything, though, I'm sure it would show strong feelings on every side, including differences among those who belong to Christian churches. Whether you think Jesus was a real historical figure or not or whether you think he was quoted accurately if he was, the statement about religion dividing people was perceptive. It holds as true today as it did two thousand years ago.

Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. If you'd like to be notified of new releases and read reviews of M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller) books and movies, click here to join her email list.