Embracing Creativity, History and culture, Travels

Explore the mysteries of Mt. Gilead, North Carolina

On a family trip to Lake Tillery this week, we traveled into Mt. Gilead one afternoon to check out a coffee shop. As we got out of the car, the North Carolina August heat rippled up from the sidewalk and silence wrapped us in a blissful blanket of quiet — no constant roar of engines or music blaring from car speakers. A stately red brick Methodist church stood across the street, and a colorful “Welcome to Historic Downtown Mount Gilead” mural hung from a facing wall.

I love murals and street art (check out my Las Vegas post), so I was immediately curious about the town we had stumbled upon.

The first mural …

Next, I saw an old-timey Coca-Cola ad painted on the side of a building. Then, an R.C. Cola one:

We passed a sewing shop, a frame and gift shop, and when we got to the next cross-street, we saw a historical-looking mural:

And opposite this mural, another important-looking one:

A fifth mural up ahead displayed an image of a Native American man. Who were these men, and who commissioned and painted all these murals? We walked back the way we came, crossing the street at the coffee shop, which I later found out had once been a doctor’s office building. I took a photo outside as a record:

Who was Dr. P.R. Rankin? I’m so curious!

Kyle and Myra Poplin own Speckled Paw Coffee and were more than happy to tell us how they started the coffee shop, which is much more than a coffee-and-ice-cream shop. It’s a community center, a place for people to gather and chat. Mt. Gilead didn’t really have a place like that until 2018, when the Poplins bought the old building, which had stood empty for two decades. The Poplins took out the office walls of the main room but kept the original windows (and all the glass except for one pane, which had to be replaced.) Now, it’s an airy, open space with lots of light flowing in.

Guess who Speckled Paw Coffee is named for?

I love mysteries, and Mt. Gilead is full of them. The town is tiny — only about 1000 people — but it has the feel of a place much bigger. The Poplins had the wherewithal to start an online community newsletter to replace the defunct local newspaper, and everyone has jumped on board. Elderly readers often get their children to print out the newsletter so they can read it more easily, Myra says.

The owners of Thistle Ridge Soap just down the street from Speckled Paw, rely on their Internet sales, as well as ones from their brick-and-mortar store. A husband-and-wife team, they make their own soap and sell crafts by local artisans.

Less than 10 miles away stands Town Creek Indian Mound, a State Historic Site. I’ve lived in NC for more than 20 years and have hardly heard anything about this archeological site of the Pee Dee people, other than that it exists. Why? I want to learn more — we arrived about 15 minutes before closing and didn’t have much time to look at the displays inside the museum — so I will need to research this.

Just ten minutes down the road from Mt. Gilead is a North Carolina State Historical Site, the Town Creek Indian Mound. This is the view from atop the mound.

Unlike other places I’ve visited (and lived in), Mt. Gilead seems to peacefully embrace its history and the modern, digital reality forced upon it. The residents I met are friendly and optimistic, proud of the past but also excited about the future. This feels like a healthy place to be!

What’s different about this little town, located near the geographical center of the state, next to the Uwharrie National Forest? Nearby, the bigger towns of Troy and Albemarle get more traffic (and more press), but Mt. Gilead has mysteries to uncover. I’ll be following up with answers to my questions in upcoming posts. If you want to visit Mt. Gilead (and Speckled Paw Coffee), it’s about 90 minutes south of Greensboro, in Montgomery County. And if you live in Mt. Gilead, or know more about this town, please share in the comments!

Author experiences, Embracing Creativity, Fiction, History and culture, Nonfiction, Writing Tips

Digging into your past for relief … and stories!

When I was 16, my grandmother and I had a falling out. She died in 2010, still furious (or perhaps oblivious). I had written to her a year earlier in a final attempt at resolution. But she wasn’t interested and informed me that if I was after her money, she’d already told her lawyers not to give me a dime.

Fast forward to 2021… I see a post on Twitter about a new app that can bring old photographs back to life; I’m not a fan of “deep fake” technology, but I have to admit, I was curious. I tried it on an old photograph of my grandfather (my grandmother’s late husband who died before I was born). His younger self beamed back at me, his smile wide and infectious, eyes twinkling, and I was charmed!

My dad at about four years old.

Right away, I began digging to find out more about my grandfather and my late dad’s side of the family. It turned out my grandfather used to work in a mental health institution, and his dad was a blacksmith. His mother was a school teacher. In the 1950s, he and my grandmother lived in Malaysia, my dad traveling on a troop ship when he was only about seven or eight. The timeline began to shift around, blurred spots becoming clearer, pieces floating into place like a magical jiggle puzzle, and a gap that I hadn’t even realized existed began to fill inside of me.

It turns out, the past takes up a lot of space if it’s not resolved. The unknowns, misunderstandings, and falsehoods hit each other at odd angles, leaving empty pockets. Those “pockets” stick around until you open up the photo albums, read the old letters, study the registers of births, death, and marriages, and have the difficult conversations with family members who don’t really want you to hash it all up again. With dust motes and the bitter scent of dried glue on the backs of black-and-white photographs hovering in the air, that’s the time to talk, cry, think, sigh, take a deep breath, and let it all go.

Two doves from my mom’s garden. Tomorrow is a new day!

Right now, I don’t know where this path is going. But I already have a couple of good ideas for story characters –a mysterious secretary who lopes around a graveyard at night and a proud woman who secretly hates herself for being born a girl. It’s all fodder, after all.

If you have relatives in Great Britain you’d like to research, here are some of the sites I’ve found helpful:

FreeBMD Home Page – this is a great FREE resource to find listings of births, deaths, and marriages in England and Wales.

https://probatesearch.service.gov.uk/ – where you can look up wills and probates of the deceased and purchase a digital copy if you want to.

ancestry.co.uk – you can get a free 14-day trial, and this site will help you build your family tree and keep it organized!

Home | Search the archive | British Newspaper Archive – you can search for free, but if you want to read the actual articles, you have to pay. Still, once you know the name of the newspaper and the date, you can always look the actual paper up through a library or other type of archives.

General Register Office (GRO) – Official information on births, marriages, civil partnerships and deaths – the “biggie,” where to order official certificates, etc…

Embracing Creativity, History and culture, podcasts, politics

Mixing it up!

While my writing has been … a bit slow, I’ve been taking on other creative projects. My podcast, Train Your Brain to be Creative (I know, not a very creative name!), has been really fun to work on. And now, using ideas from my online graphic design classes, I’m creating designs in zazzle.com to put on tee shirts, tote bags, and postcards.

My latest “collection” (sounds fancier than it is!) is of powerful female leaders, inspired by Kamala Harris’s recent win! It’s really fun to take a photograph from the Creative Commons and edit it, adding colors and swirls and all sorts of thing. My goal is to improve my tech skills, have fun, and spread some positive images out there!

Whatever I sell in this collection, I’m going to donate the profits to the Malala Fund, which advocates for girls’ secondary education in Afghanistan, Brazil, India, Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey. Malala Yousafzai is a hero of mine, having survived being shot by the Taliban when she was only 11 years old. She didn’t let that stop her and went on to become the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate!

You can check out my online zazzle store here: https://www.zazzle.com/collections/woman_power-119711412469975520

Author experiences, Book Reviews, Embracing Creativity, Fiction, History and culture, Writing Tips

A Strong Sense of Place — Women Writers, Women’s Books

This is a re-post from the excellent blog, Women Writers, Women’s Books. How do you handle setting in your fiction writing? I admit that setting is sometimes an afterthought for me, and I constantly have to challenge myself to place it up front!

Should I have chosen an exotic location in which to set my new novel?  Research can be done anywhere in the world (or at least, it could, pre-covid).  Armed with a suitcase, laptop and my writing head firmly switched on, I set forth on a magical adventure to research my new book.  But it was…

A Strong Sense of Place — Women Writers, Women’s Books
Author experiences, Embracing Creativity, Fiction, Getting Published, History and culture, Nonfiction, podcasts

Improving Writing Productivity Amid a Pandemic — Women Writers, Women’s Books

This is a re-post from the excellent Women Writers, Women’s Books

Damyanti Biswas lives in Singapore, and supports Delhi’s underprivileged women and children, volunteering with organisations who work for this cause. Her short stories have been published in magazines in the US, UK, and Asia, and she helps edit the Forge Literary Magazine. Her novel You Beneath Your Skin will be free between 7th and 11th August […]

Improving Writing Productivity Amid a Pandemic — Women Writers, Women’s Books
History and culture, politics

Vote by snail mail?

In the United States, our General Election is on November 3, 2020, and as you can imagine, there’s been lots of talk about whether or not it’s safe to go to the polls during the Coronavirus pandemic. The fewer times you have to be around lots of people, the better, right? So, voting by mail is a huge topic of conversation these days.

What is it?

Well, voting by mail is basically the same as absentee voting, which has been around since the Civil War.

” What we in the U.S. now call absentee voting first arose during the Civil War, when both Union and Confederate soldiers were given the opportunity to cast ballots from their battlefield units and have them be counted back home.” (MIT Election Data + Science Lab)

Traditionally, absentee voting was limited to people who were too sick to vote on election day, or who were overseas during the election. Beginning in the 1980s, many states began to allow absentee voting for any reason at all.

This year, due to the pandemic, many states are making it easier to vote by mail. Check your state’s election office to make sure you know what the rules are and so you don’t miss any important deadlines!

How does it work?

Basically, you get an application from your state or county Board of Elections office, fill it out, and a few weeks later (depending on how close to the election it is) they mail you a ballot. You complete your ballot and mail/return it to the Board of Elections no later than 5 p.m. on election day.

In North Carolina, you must have one witness to observe you filling out the ballot (but not observing WHO you vote for). Other states may have different rules about this.

For information about absentee voting in NC, check out the state BOE website.

Is voting by mail reliable?

The short answer is yes. There are very few cases of voter fraud associated with mail-in ballots, and safeguards are in place to help prevent fraud. This article by Bipartisan Policy Center gives a great overview and talks to local and state election officials.

“…  jurisdictions with all-mail elections must constantly update voters’ addresses to ensure that the right voters receive the right ballots. As a result, when a person moves, they are unlikely to get the wrong ballot by mail, whereas an in-person voter with an outdated address could be going to the wrong polling place for years.”

What should you do?

It’s up to you how you will vote in 2020. I’m going to go ahead and fill out the absentee ballot application that a nonprofit sent to me in the mail. That way, it’s done, and no Coronavirus, car breaking down, or other unexpected disaster will stop me from getting to the polls!

Key West Storm GIF

Author experiences, Embracing Creativity, Fiction, History and culture, podcasts

What is authenticity in writing?

Hidden BrainI recently listened to an episode of the excellent podcast Hidden Brain by NPR,  hosted by Shankar Vedantam. This particular episode focused on the author Gail Shepherd (who sadly passed away in February this year) and her novel The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins.

Originally, Shepherd had written her main character as half-Vietnamese, based on the life of a very close friend who is half white and half Vietnamese. But after much research and talking with friends of different races, Shepherd decided to re-write her novel with a white protagonist. Despite already having her good friend’s “blessing” to write the story, Shepherd worried that critics would say she was appropriating another culture.

Listening to the podcast, I remembered that while in graduate school I had written two short stories with Chinese and half-Vietnamese main characters. I wrote the stories based on my own knowledge (my boyfriend and now-husband is Chinese-Vietnamese, and we’d traveled to Vietnam together). I also had Vietnamese friends, so I didn’t think too much about it.

Today, I’m more educated about and aware of white privilege. I understand Shepherd’s decision. She had to consider dynamics of the publishing world, her own feelings about cultural appropriation, and her readers’ feelings. I was pretty much oblivious to all that in graduate school!

But I also agree with a point that host Shankar Vedantam made — Shepherd’s original version of the novel included insights about race and growing up Asian in the American South. Possibly, some American-Asian girls could have benefited from reading this story. While Shepherd was not Asian, she knew her friend’s story very well. She was telling an authentic story. That version could have been very insightful.

Shepherd argued that while people of color are not fairly represented in the publishing world, she didn’t feel comfortable writing as a different race. But if her friend wasn’t a writer and couldn’t tell her story, wasn’t better that someone she loved and trusted did?

It’s the job of fiction writers to tell lies to describe truths about life. Of course, there are some stories we can’t write — I don’t know how to write from a Black character’s point of view. I feel okay about writing from a 3rd person perspective of an Asian American character — but maybe not as much as I used to. If we are creating from a place of honesty and empathy — NOT using cultural stereotypes — I think it can be useful to have these stories told, regardless of the writer’s race.

And as one of the guests on the podcast, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, said a person’s identity is not wholly their race. They are also parents, grandparents, teachers, artists, philosophers, plumbers, athletes, and a multitude of other roles and identities.

But I am a white person and, so, can only see through the lens of a white person. What do you think? Story tellers use their imaginations, but are there some things we just can’t imagine well enough to write about? 

History and culture, Nonfiction, podcasts

Radio Rental and other quality podcasts…

During the “lockdown,” or whatever you want to call it, I’ve continued to listen to podcasts to keep my brain busy! Here’s a rundown of the latest ones I’ve enjoyed. Feel free to add suggestions for podcasts you like in the comments section!

Radio Rental

Hosted by Terry Carnation (a.k.a Dwight from “The Office”), Radio Rental is pure wackiness! The premise is that Terry runs a video rental store (remember those?) and shares real-life “video” stories from listeners that are weird and creepy. My favorite is the one about a doppleganger…

Guru

If you’ve ever been fascinated by self-help books, you might want to listen to Guru by Wondery. (They’re the same folk who produced “Dr. Death” and “The Shrink Next Door.”) James Arthur Ray was big in 2009, touted by Oprah and charging thousands for his so-called “sweat lodge” retreats. The results were tragic, and even scarier, Ray is still out there today.

Uncover

Another podcast by CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), Uncover is an investigative series that uncovers the dirty truth behind botched investigations and unsolved mysteries. Season 7 concerns a man who was wrongly imprisoned for murder. Uncover is gritty and honest, so be forewarned.

To read more about my favorite podcasts, click here and don’t forget to share your own!

History and culture, Nonfiction, podcasts

“Accused” podcast shines bright

accused-300x300

I love listening to podcasts, especially true crimes and cold cases. I’ve listened to a LOT put out by Wondery, “the largest independent podcaster in the world,” according to their website. Wondery is a network, launched by a former FOX CEO, so it’s no small potatoes. They’re responsible for “Dr. Death,” “Over My Dead Body,” “Dirty John,” “The Shrink Next Door,” and the series I’m listening to right now — Accused.

While the other series are, in my opinion, a bit sensational, Accused is much more straightforward. The series is produced by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cincinnati newspaper, The Enquirer and its associated website http://www.cincinnati.com, It was created by Enquirer reporter Amber Hunt and photographer Amanda Rossmann in 2016 and is now on its third season.

Amber Hunt is as sharp as a tack, no-nonsense, and thorough. Accused shines the spotlight on wrongful convictions and cover-ups. I’m listening to Season 3 right now, as Hunt investigates the 1984 disappearance of a man working at the “Fernald Feed Materials Production Center” (A.K.A. a uranium processing plant owned by the government). David Bocks went to work one day and simply vanished. Suspicious remains were found in a vat of molten salt (temperature = 1350 degrees Farenheit). His death was ruled a suicide.

Accused goes after the crimes others have forgotten — or have swept under the rug. I like Hunt and her team’s doggedness to ferret out the facts. They follow a lead to the very end and are a voice for victims and the truth.

Author experiences, Embracing Creativity, Fiction, History and culture, Writing Tips

My Mother’s Blessing To Be A Writer — Women Writers, Women’s Books

This is a re-post from the excellent Women Writers, Women’s Books website… Wonderfully written and, I believe, many writers and artists can relate.

It’s been eleven years since my mother passed away, eleven years since I last heard her voice. She was sixty-three years old, unquestionably too young. After she died, I began paying attention to the experiences friends had with similar losses. Some of them spoke of messages they believed their loved ones had sent – birds…

via My Mother’s Blessing To Be A Writer — Women Writers, Women’s Books