Friday, September 25, 2015

Weather or not, autumn is coming

PANAMA CITY BEACH — The turning of the season has brought its share of miseries. A death in the family. Illness. Calamity on the road. The first anniversary of another death in the family.

And yet, impossibly, this remains my favorite time of year.

It’s the month my sister was born, and her first son as well. The month I was married (three decades ago, now). The month I mark “Breakaway Day” (40 years, as of Sept. 13).

After a summer of heat and humidity that sapped the will and stifled activity, the world feels ready to be lived in again. The morning sky is a featureless dome of pastel blue when it isn’t filled by fluffy white cumulous clouds. The air feels crisp, smells clean, and makes me feel alive.

Yes, there’s a strong undercurrent of nostalgia — but the best kind. Time collides with recollection on the wake of a passing cold front, stirring echoes of past autumns.

In the misty distance are hints of football Friday nights in the 1970s and ’80s, hanging out with my buddies, driving my first car (a Ford Galaxy 500) with the windows down. From almost as far back comes the reminder of a being newly-wed college student and stopping to enjoy the sunshine between classes at Lake Alice. And later, standing with the kids on early school mornings to wait for the bus. My daughter’s Halloween birthdays.

More recently, the scent of fall in the atmosphere or tumble of positive ions on the breeze bring alive the months we rented a home a few blocks from the Gulf and spent our evenings walking the shoreline.

So yes, there is much joy in the memories that September fosters. But it has been a bad month, too. One in which the hits keep coming. One of those times when all you can do is hunch your shoulders, keep your head down, and just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

I have held people while they cried. Helped to carry a coffin. Given bad news over a phone. Stood by, helpless. Tried to solve problems. Gotten sick and gotten better. Suffered a surreal moment in an old church in my hometown.

And just the other night, back home and back in my routine, I stood in the dark under a crescent moon while the dogs sniffed and circled and looked for places to do their thing, and I looked at the stars. Sometimes I can fool myself into thinking it’s a different year, a different place — the stars are the same, after all, and the air is perfect.

But not this time. This time, despite the energy of the sky and atmosphere, it was all too much.

I saw chain lightning threaten in distant clouds, silent and ominous. The rain never came, the storm never materialized. And yet, it continues to feel like the bottom could drop out, lightning strike, rain pummel, and darkness fall.

Me? I’m holding out hope for October.


Friday, September 11, 2015

Visiting author shares secrets of story

Kathy Bennett, me, & Lisa Wingate
PANAMA CITY — Most of Lisa Wingate’s novels develop as she discovers an untold story that piques her imagination. Her new novel, “The Sea Keeper’s Daughters,” began with a tale related by a reader.

“A woman was traveling with her father, driving through the mountains of Appalachia, and she saw these doorways in the sides of the mountains,” Lisa said. “He told her that, during the Depression when families would lose their farms, they would move into the caves and scrap the house for doors and other things to outfit the caves.”

Intrigued, Lisa started looking for documentation about the anecdote, but she found something else instead: The Federal Writers Project, an all but forgotten Depression-era program in which some 5,600 people produced 300,000 documents — millions of pages of poetry, essays, novels and journalism.

Created in 1935 as part of the U.S. Work Progress Administration, the project provided employment for historians, teachers, writers, librarians and other white-collar workers. The original purpose was to produce a series of sectional guide books focusing on the nation’s scenic, historical, cultural and economic resources.

However, most of it was filed away in vaults during the Red Scare, and stayed there for 80 years. Recently, the Library of Congress began putting the documents online. (Link to the documents here<<)

“There’s an unpublished play by Zora Neale Hurston, slave narratives — I could read them all day,” Lisa said. “I’ve been to school, you know, been in the business a long time — this is my 25th novel — and I had never heard of it. It’s sort of sad. ... It’s amazing to me all of this exists and no one knows about it.”

According to her online bio at, Lisa was inspired to become a writer by a first-grade teacher who said she expected to see Lisa’s name in a magazine one day. She also entertained childhood dreams of being an Olympic gymnast and winning the National Finals Rodeo “but was stalled by a mental block against backflips on the balance beam and by parents who stubbornly refused to finance a rodeo career.”

A born storyteller, Lisa equated the hidden stories of Depression-era America to the untold tales of families. It’s an important link to her, as her first novel was inspired by life stories her grandmother told. The tales changed her opinion of her grandmother, who she had regarded as a hard-edged woman.

“Sometimes there are things you don’t like about someone, but it’s because you don’t understand where they’re coming from,” Lisa said. “Ordinary stories can teach you, inform your life.”

That first mainstream novel, “Tending Roses,” is still in print after 15 years, and Lisa still hears from readers who were inspired by it. Most of them tell her they wish they had gotten their grandparents to open up and tell their stories. That’s why she shares “ice-breaking” techniques when she meets with readers, such as her visits this week to the St. Andrews Coffee House & Bistro on Tuesday and the Blountstown Library on Wednesday.

(You can also find a great list of story catalysts and interview techniques at her website under the heading “Storytelling forFamilies.”)

“People get intimidated. There needs to be a catalyst to get the stories flowing,” she said. “I worry sometimes where the next storytellers will come from.”

Probably, they will be inspired by storytellers like her.


Friday, September 04, 2015

Best-selling author shares new novel

Lisa Wingate
PANAMA CITY — “Stories beget stories,” said best-selling author Lisa Wingate, who will share the sources of her inspirations with local readers Tuesday and Wednesday.

Wingate’s latest novel, “The Sea Keeper’s Daughters,” begins in 1935, as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt cajoles her husband into signing an executive order creating what will become Federal Project Number One. The results will touch every corner of a vast but struggling country — yet, 80 years later, will be virtually forgotten.

“Those involved in Federal One were far ahead of their time,” Wingate said. “They were the beginning of the Civil Rights movement before there was a Civil Rights movement. They pushed toward equality for women before anyone was talking about equal opportunity.”

Her new novel.
The new novel follows the struggles of a young woman hired into the Federal Writer’s Project, a subdivision of Federal One.

“Roosevelt’s Federal Writers faced incredible challenges,” Wingate said. “They were told to document the stories of real lives and real people struggling to survive the Depression. Their mandate was to be all-inclusive, to break down hard and fast societal boundaries, much like Kathryn Sockett’s character does in ‘The Help,’ when she interviews black maids in the South.”

The Federal Writers not only documented the natural wonders of the country, but the hidden lives of minorities, working women, immigrant laborers, sharecroppers and others typically ignored by the history books. While Wingate’s tale is fictional, it brings to life the experiences of a Federal Writer when a modern-day woman discovers the letters of a great aunt who was disowned by her wealthy family after signing on with the WPA.

The tale explores the experiences of a woman traveling into the unknown, all for the sake of a story. The Federal Writers often found themselves on the wrong sides of local powerbrokers, special interest groups, and eventually Congressional committees hunting for communists at the dawn of the Red Scare.

The shifting of political fortunes meant the thousands of stories documented by the Federal Writers were quietly hidden away in filing vaults. Only now, as the Library of Congress begins posting the documents online, many of those narratives are being made available for the first time since they were written.

“These stories show us where we come from as a country and as a people,” Wingate said. “They inspired novels like Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ yet so many of us know little about the Federal Writers themselves. I wrote ‘The Sea Keeper’s Daughters’ to bring to light not only the lives of the people on the pages, but the lives of the people behind the pens.”

The Federal Writers is a forgotten part of American cultural history in much the same way as family stories are lost between the generations, simply because someone felt uncomfortable or unappreciated and kept their mouths shut.

Wingate will speak on the importance of preserving our stories — including unobtrusive techniques one can employ to get still tongues wagging and record your own family narratives — during her appearances next week. Besides addressing the Panama City Rotary early Tuesday, she will have two signing and speaking events open to the general public.

She will be at St. Andrews Coffee House & Bistro, 1006 Beck Ave., in Panama City from 5-7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 8; and at the Blountstown Public Library from 4-5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

“The Blountstown visit is special to me because my grandmother started that library,” said Kathie Bennett, Wingate’s publicist and the daughter of former Panama City mayor Gerry Clemons.

And one would be correct to suspect there’s an untold story waiting to be shared in that anecdote as well.