Tag Archives: The Unwritten Chapter

‘Magic of Love’ Reigns in this Retro Halloween Treat

As kids of the ’80s and early ’90s, we didn’t have much in the way of Halloween viewing. Too young for most scary movies, those of us looking for spooky, family-friendly viewing were mainly limited to Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Marc Summers’ Mystery Magical Special. (I seem to remember something about a mime doing card tricks to funky smooth jazz.)

And then 1993 happened. A year in which two Halloween adventures were released — Hocus Pocus, still one of my favorites; and a made-for-TV movie, Double Double Toil and Trouble.

Back then, if it had anything to do with Full House, I was so there, and Double Double Toil and Trouble was no exception. The second of what would become a franchise of films for twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, it capitalized on the twins’ fame portraying youngest daughter Michelle on Full House.

So, if you’re looking to resurrect a cooky, retro piece of your past, give this movie another shot. It’s better than you might think.

Unearthing it recently, I was surprised how much I remembered — but even more how much I had overlooked. There’s more going on with its themes and character development than you’d expect from a TV movie starring two 7-year-olds.

It’s a tale of two sisters who learn their Great Aunt Agatha has trapped her own twin on the other side of a mirror and, on Halloween, set out to save their imprisoned Great Aunt Sophia. But the deeper story is about two sisters who are headed toward disaster and heartbreak, who have a choice to make — choose power or choose each other.

Some spoilers ahead:

Family and Sacrifice

Agatha and Sophia are tragic examples of a sisterhood and friendship torn apart by jealousy, greed, resentment, and spite. And their grandnieces — Lynn and Kelly — are headed down that same road, if something doesn’t set them off course. That something is a visit to Aunt Agatha’s house, and a meeting with a gravedigger.

In the film’s opening scenes, we see Lynn bullying Kelly, as sisters do, first loath to share a toy wand they win at a pumpkin-carving contest, and later suggesting Kelly get a nose job so they won’t look like twins anymore. If you watch, you’ll see how Lynn takes the lead at every opportunity, and Kelly lets her, shyly positioning herself two steps behind Lynn any time they’re on equal footing with the adults of the film. But when the gravedigger tells them how Agatha used to bully Sophia too, and eventually stopped sharing anything with her sister, Lynn makes her first step toward progress — and hands the wand to Kelly.

“Here, you hold this for awhile.”

The wand changes hands at least two more times in the film, symbolic not only of the “magic of love” but also of the magic that threatens to stand between Kelly and Lynn if they end up repeating the fate of their great aunts — who sought to wish away all that made them alike, using a magical Moonstone rumored to be hidden in the depths of their centuries-old home. Agatha finds the Moonstone, but keeps it for herself.

Lynn’s journey toward humility — and humanity — is intriguing, and best illustrated at the climax when she’s confronted with Agatha’s offer to share the Moonstone’s power, in exchange for throwing Kelly into the mirror with Sophia.

Mirrors and Opposites

Normally, when you look at a mirror, you’re confronted with yourself (literally and figuratively), but by banishing her twin into the mirror, Agatha has made it so she never has to confront herself or her evil choices. She might think this is a plus, but instead, whenever she looks in the mirror, she’s confronted with Sophia — a representation of the sort of person Agatha might be, if she were to choose love over power.

Clothing also tells its own story in this film. Agatha and Sophia are dressed as opposites — Agatha in black to reflect her black heart and dark magic, and Sophia in white to reflect her purity. Kelly and Lynn, however, take on mirror images — Kelly with a red shirt and blue jacket, and Lynn with a blue shirt and red jacket. The girls complain their parents dress them “alike,” but when they look at each other, each is confronted with who she might be — as well as what makes each of them different.

It’s the sort of moment of reflection each of us might have anytime we consult a mirror or consider our reflection in the eyes of our friends. We see ourselves for how we are (and maybe wish we weren’t), but also for how we might be.

‘Show me the money’

Wealth and power are clearly motivators throughout this story. In the opening, the twins are accumulating prizes during a Halloween fair. The necessity of money motivates their mother to confront her estranged Aunt Agatha for a loan; it motivates a 50-something homeless man to accompany two 7-year-old girls on a quest; and it certainly motivates Aunt Agatha to hunt down her grandnieces with ideas of potentially murdering them. (Yeah, it’s a family film, but it has its dark moments.)

Everyone in this story is fighting for what they believe to be theirs, like a tug-of-war of assets. The Farmers are fighting the bank for control of their house. The twins fight Agatha for control of the Moonstone. Mr. N. hopes to surreptitiously obtain the Moonstone for himself. (Though it’s unclear how. Maybe he hopes the girls will relinquish it once they save their aunt, or, perhaps in Hans Solo fashion, he hopes for a hefty reward in helping them to their goal.)

Still, the wealth portrayed isn’t only material. It takes on a second meaning in the love and sacrifice the characters show for each other. As Aunt Agatha sneers at one point, it’s “the moral of the story.”

Gravediggers, Peddlers, and Clowns, oh my!

Not a theme, exactly, but it’s clear this movie is based on The Wizard of Oz.

Beware of spoilers:

  • Kelly and Lynn Farmer (Dorothy, the Kansas farm girl.)
  • Aunt Agatha (the Wicked Witch of the West)
  • Aunt Sophia — not apparently a witch, but still representative of “good witch” Glinda
  • Also, since the two are sisters, Agatha’s imprisoning Sophia within the house is like the Wicked Witch dropping a house on her own sister.
  • The girls’ dog, Norman, gets them in trouble with Agatha at the beginning, like Toto gets Dorothy in trouble with the mean old neighbor (whom Dorothy calls a witch.)
  • The girls run away, like Dorothy does.
  • The girls get “help” from a charlatan psychic, as Dorothy meets a traveling mystic. Both use crystal balls.
  • A recession threatens the Farmers’ house and livelihood, as a tornado threatens Dorothy’s.
  • As Dorothy’s house flies her to Oz, the twins’ house “sends” them on their journey, so they can save their house from foreclosure.
  • Dorothy takes a “rainbow” and the Yellow Brick Road to Oz; the girls cross a bridge to start their journey.
  • Mr. N, the first friend the twins meet, has delusions of grandeur (or at least wealth), as the Scarecrow dreams of status gained through knowledge. Mr. N is later transfigured into a crow.
  • Oscar the Clown, their second friend, is searching for acceptance, or “heart.” He lives isolated from society in the middle of the woods, like the Tinman rusting in the forest.
  • Mr. Gravedigger, their third friend, is very much a Cowardly Lion.
  • The girls are seeking Agatha’s Moonstone, as Dorothy is tasked with stealing the witch’s broom.
  • The Moonstone is emerald colored, a shout out to Emerald City.
  • All are seeking their prizes to help (and gain the favor of) a presence not physically present — Sophia on the other side of a mirror, and the Wizard of Oz projected by “the man behind the curtain.”
  • Along the way, Kelly is kidnapped by Agatha and her butler, as Dorothy is taken by flying monkeys to the witch.
  • Agatha also sends her ilk after the girls, as the Wicked Witch sends her soldiers.
  • Sophia tells Lynn the Moonstone will protect her from Agatha’s magic. Like Dorothy’s ruby slippers keep her safe from the Wicked Witch’s magic.
  • There’s a countdown to midnight, when Agatha’s spell on Sophia will become permanent — like how the witch’s hourglass counts down to when Dorothy will die.
  • Once Agatha is defeated, the green Moonstone melts, drained of its magic, like the Wicked Witch melts. And the butler (revealed to be Sophia’s fiance) is freed from his spell, as the Wicked Witch’s soldiers are freed from having to serve her.
  • The girls thank each of their new friends, who are welcomed by Sophia as family — much how Dorothy thanks the Scarecrow, Tinman, and Lion, whose Kansas representatives are later seen crowded around her bed — like extended family.
  • The twins learn they had the “magic words” within them all along, as Dorothy learns she had the power all along to go home.

Renewed in Death

Despite how fun this film is, I think what I like most is what us writers call the false “all is lost” moment, which in this film is at the end of Act II. It’s the hero’s most seemingly desperate moment, when she’s lost everything and is worse off now than at the beginning.

This weight of defeat falls on Lynn when she learns her sister’s been captured. She realizes her faults and becomes willing to change.

“Oscar, I haven’t been very nice to Kelly lately. We’ve never been apart. I bet she’s scared, and I’m not there to tell her it’s OK,” Lynn says.

This moment has all the factors of a good “all is lost” moment — even what screenwriter Blake Snyder called the “black moment,” when someone usually dies, or our hero goes through a “death” of the old way of thinking. This movie has both. Though no one technically dies, Mr. N is made less than human when Agatha transfigures him into a crow.

Here, also, Lynn’s old way of thinking dies: At the beginning, she wanted to be rid of her twin. Now, she’s launching a rescue mission to get her sister back.

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Be someone who’s happy to be

“We are human beings, not human doings,” a friend recently said.

I don’t know about you, but I’m often hung up on what I need to be doing next and if I’m doing enough. So when someone reminded me this week that we’re human beings, not human doings, it made an impact.

If we’re always in our heads harping over details of yesterday or what’s going to happen tomorrow, never enjoying anything as it happens, are we ever really living?

Asking myself this made me realize how much I define myself by what I do — or what I’ve accomplished. I’m a writer and editor. I’m married with two cats, and I’m counting down the days to Season Two of Stranger Things.

But do those things really define me?

Writing and editing are what I do. Cats and a house are what I’ve acquired. TV just fills my time, and my husband is who I hang with. None of this makes me any different from all those other married, literate, TV-watching homeowners perpetually covered in cat hair.

These things categorize me, but I’m not sure they define me.

How would you describe what makes you “you”? Are you defined by what you do, who you’re with, or what you’ve achieved?

Would you instead define yourself by what you feel and how you perceive things? If you were blind or deaf or unable to speak or even move, would that make you any less real? Or any less important?

Makes me wonder if it’s even possible for us to fully define ourselves, or if we need others to fill in the blanks for us. After all, I can believe all I want that I’m a good person, but if no one else sees it, am I really?

I guess what I’m trying to say is that while goals and achievements are important, so is being in the now. Get off your phone, and listen to people. Notice what’s around you, instead of zoning out.

I think what truly defines us is how we interact with what’s around us — people, nature, higher power. And how we let it all change us.

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Author Q&A: For the love of Regency

As a boy, Damon Blackbourne was banished for faults his father failed to beat out of him. But when his father and older brother die in a freak carriage accident, Damon returns home to manage the family estate and introduce his teenage sisters into society, hoping only to keep his family secrets hidden. He isn’t looking for friends or fellowship. But Lady Grace Mattersley might change his mind.

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The Demon Duke will be available online Monday

Today, please welcome author Margaret Locke to discuss her new book, The Demon Duke!

Congrats on your new book! This is your fourth novel, but the first in a new series, right?

Yes, it’s the first in my Put Up Your Dukes series, a Regency romance series without the magical elements present in my first three books. I’d still like to think the stories are quite magical in their own way, however!

For lovers of Regency romance, many of the terms and locales will be familiar, but even for those new to the genre, my hope is the story pulls you in and doesn’t let you go.

Should we read your first three books before this one?

Of course! Ha ha ha, just kidding.

A reader certainly doesn’t have to have read any of the Magic of Love titles to enjoy this romance; The Demon Duke stands alone. However, if people have read my first three books, especially book two – A Matter of Time – many characters will be familiar, as The Demon Duke’s heroine, Grace Mattersley, is the sister of A Matter of Time’s hero, Deveric Mattersley, Duke of Claremont.

I always love seeing some familiar faces with each story, while also getting to know a new hero or heroine. What’s it been like for you?

I love it! I’ve always loved romance series in which sidekicks from one book become the stars of future books. It invests me in the stories from the start, as I already feel acquainted with these people and therefore want to root for them. Plus, it’s fun to learn what characters from previous books are up to now.

As an author, however, ensuring that you get all details consistent across books can be challenging! I’ve created a master spreadsheet for just that purpose, but still managed to make a cousin to The Demon Duke’s hero, Damon Blackbourne, a cousin to Grace as well – until luckily a beta reader caught it. Oops!

Gotta love beta readers! You’ve described your genre as romantic comedy. Tell us about that.

Actually, that’s my descriptor predominantly for A Man of Character, rather than my other two, A Matter of Time and A Scandalous Matter, which are time travel romances (though they’ve got funny parts, too!).

A Man of Character gets the romantic comedy label because it’s not quite as traditional as many romances – and hopefully because it makes people laugh!

“Romantic comedy” in romance has become in many cases a code word for “chick lit” – a genre name that has somewhat fallen out of favor. It refers to stories, usually humorous or “light,” that include romance, yes, but also have jobs or friendships or other elements equally prominent in the story line. A Man of Character has all of that – and more than one possible hero, which is not common in “pure” romance. Hence, romantic comedy!

Do you have a favorite among your characters (or story lines)?

Ooh. Good question. I love A Matter of Time’s Eliza James, because she’s so fun – winsome, bubbly, exuberant. All character traits I see in my daughter and which I try to cultivate in myself.

As far as heroes, I love A Man of Character’s Ben Cooper because, well, he’s essentially my husband. But as for who has my heart and empathy? The Demon Duke’s Damon Blackbourne, hands down. Because I wrote him for my son. No spoilers here, but if readers read The Demon Duke’s author note, they’ll understand.

What was it like to return to the 1800s for this book?

Delightful and challenging at the same time.

Delightful, because I love the Regency period. Regency romance has always been my favorite, so many of the places, events, customs, and much of the terminology is long familiar.

But challenging, because now it’s on me to get those details correct. I’ve definitely learned it’s one thing to read historical romance, but quite another to write it. I’ve turned countless times to the Romance Writers of America’s The Beau Monde, a group of authors specializing in Regency romance, to ensure I’ve gotten the intricacies of titles right, among other things!

When you started your first novel, did you envision the series taking this direction and possibly reproducing into more series?

Nope.

I’d always planned on writing Regency romance, so it was quite the surprise when the first idea that popped in my head and wouldn’t let go was not only a contemporary romance, but also one with paranormal elements. Say what? But that’s how A Man of Character was born.

As I was drafting that story, however, I kept trying to figure out how the heck I was going to get from contemporary to Regency. I wanted to link the stories, because I love series, and so do readers. Enter time travel! Which, ironically, is a subgenre I’ve also loved throughout my romance-reading decades. It seemed a logical step. (I love Lynn Kurland’s time travel romances, and finally read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander for the first time last year – after I wrote my own time travel books.)

When I sketched out details for A Matter of Time, I gave Deveric Mattersley a large family with the clear intention of writing stories for each of the siblings. I assumed they’d all be part of my Magic of Love series – until I realized including Regency romances with no magical elements in a series renowned for them simply wouldn’t work. I needed a new series – and Put Up Your Dukes was born.

However, not all Mattersley siblings are dukes or will marry dukes, so eventually I’ll need another series for the non-ducal stories. Plus, there are contemporary characters from A Man of Character and A Scandalous Matter who’ve been asking for stories, so again, I’ll need something for them that isn’t the Magic of Love moniker.

And hopefully I’ll manage to do this all in ways that make the series enjoyable (and standalone) in their own right, but also delight and tickle readers that choose to follow me through all of them!

Who are your favorite authors, and would you say they’ve influenced your writing and your chosen genre?

One hundred percent, they’ve influenced my writing and genre.

My top four are Julia Quinn, Eloisa James, Sabrina Jeffries, Sarah MacLean. They’re some of the biggest names in Regency historical romance, and I only hope someday to write as well, and with as much wit, as they do. There are so many more – Erin Knightley, Tessa Dare, Grace Burrowes, Lisa Kleypas, Shana Galen. I could go on and on.

Julia Quinn is the author who brought me back to romance after a five-year hiatus (I had this silly notion that as a wife and mom to young children and as a woman in my thirties, it was time to give up my romance addiction. I was so wrong, and am glad I’ve recovered from that misguided notion.) I fell in love with her writing specifically for the witty banter and tension she infuses in each of her novels. Her Bridgerton series is much beloved, and for good reason.

I definitely think the elements I love most about romance – the deep emotionality, the witty banter – influence my own writing, because they’re the two markers I hope stamp my own style. I guess I’ll leave it to readers to tell me if I’ve succeeded.

What’s the most surprising question anyone’s ever asked you about your writing?

Hrm. I’m not sure – though I did have someone suggest once I should write a sequel to A Man of Character in which all of the main characters had aged, maybe gotten beer bellies, cheated on each other, or acquired a number of other less desirable traits. I thought it was quite an odd suggestion, considering I write romance. Let’s just say I’m not keeping that in mind.

What’s next for the series? Can we hope to see more familiar faces in the future?

Next up in the queue is The Legendary Duke, second in the Put Up Your Dukes series, which is a tale loosely based on the Arthurian legend of Gawain and the Green Knight. Its hero is the Duke of Cortleon, referenced briefly in The Demon Duke.

I also want to write the fourth in the Magic of Love series, tentatively titled A Delicate Matter, and then I’ve got The Once and Future Duke, The Irish Duke, and The Angel Duke to write for the Put Up Your Dukes series, plus A Matter of Chance, which is the story of Deveric Mattersley’s younger brother, Chance.

And then there’s The Boy Next Door, which is the story of Matthew Goodson’s sister, Taylor, from A Scandalous Matter. And I’ve one in mind for a key character from A Man of Character, and…and…

Yeah, I’m going to be busy for years. But that’s good, right?

Absolutely! And outside of novel writing, what’s next for you?

This summer I’m attending the Romance Writers of America conference for the first time! I’m super excited – and a bit nervous. I’ll get to see many of the rock stars of the genre and meet a number of authors face-to-face whom I’ve heretofore only met on social media.

I also have two signings coming up: The Fredericksburg Independent Book Festival on September 23, and The Virginia Writers Club Holiday Fest in Charlottesville in November. I’m looking for more opportunities like that – while also trying to balance personal life and personal needs. As are all women, right?


Margaret Locke Headshot

A lover of romance novels since the age of ten (don’t tell her mom!), Margaret Locke declared as a teen she’d write romances when she was older. Once an adult, however, she figured she ought to be doing grownup things, not penning love stories. Thank goodness turning forty cured her of that silly notion. Margaret is now happily ensconced back in the clutches of her first crush, this time as an author as well as a reader. Because love matters.

Margaret lives in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley in Virginia with her fantastic husband, two fabulous kids, and three fat cats. You can usually find her in front of some sort of screen (electronic or window); she’s come to terms with the fact she’s not an outdoors person.

The Demon Duke is available for pre-order at Amazon.

Margaret Locke is on Facebook, GoodReads, Google Plus, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter.

For more info, visit http://margaretlocke.com.

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Inside the Web of Temptation

The temptation to be like God is too great and she [Eve] has not the will to resist, so she eats the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and then gives the fruit to Adam, who neither can resist the temptation, and he eats too. And just like that, so suddenly and so sadly, creation groans and original love is spurned for original sin.

— From a sermon by Tim Hall this past Sunday

The first time I gave up TV for Lent didn’t go well.

It was 1996, I was 16, and I thought after eight years of following my mom’s lead of giving up sugar each spring I would try something else. After all, giving up sugar or anything else you love, even temporarily, isn’t easy, and I didn’t want to do it. But after a day without TV, I embraced the sugar ban.

So last year, when I again considered giving TV the heave ho, I could imagine what I was in for. But I was also 20 years older. I deleted all my shows from the DVR queue, said adieu to Netflix and DVDs, and steered away from any articles or online videos that derived from, talked about, or mimicked TV. It would be tough — Lent fell in the middle of American Idol’s final season — but I also knew any good sacrifice needs to hurt enough to be meaningful. And it turned out to be an incredible experience. Most of the shows I deleted never returned to my queue.

So there was no question I’d do it again this year. But this year offered its own American Idol-esque moment of hesitation: Saturday Night Live.

Sometimes, it really feels like the only thing that keeps me going — and the idea of missing out on what sketches they’ll do next was unthinkable. Only, I was thinking about it. So, as with any other great temptation, I started to reason.

Even without SNL, I would have loads of programs to give up, right? All that other stuff would be enough for Lent, right? It’s still no small sacrifice… It’s only one night a week. I’m still a good person. Good enough. Right?

So it was, that Saturday night found me in front of the TV, and Sunday found me hating myself as I lay on my bed reading the AV Club’s weekly SNL review.

But Sunday also brought change. It brought a well-placed homily on temptation by a wonderful lay minister at my church — probably one of the best homilies I’ve ever heard — and not only because I could especially relate to it. Other church members commented on its impact for them, and the next day he emailed it around to us after getting requests for a copy. (I’ve copied it below, too.)

What struck me the most was realizing my temptation last week wasn’t only similar in character to that of Adam and Eve — that surely eating one little apple (or watching one TV show) wouldn’t diminish all the good things I do and other homages I make to God — it was also how similar my actions were in meaning and consequence.

Because I don’t only want to be entertained by watching SNL. I want the knowledge that comes with watching.

I want to go online Sunday and see which clips the news outlets tout and know I’ve already seen them. I want to know if the reviewers felt as I did about this week’s host. I want to feel as maybe God does in being able to judge who was worthy of praise, and who wasn’t.

Maybe not literally, but certainly symbolically.

And the problem becomes that it’s never enough. Knowledge begets the desire for more knowledge, which can be a good thing, but not in this case. I watch the sketches over again on YouTube, I read more reviews, I start recording CNN during the day to watch late at night — after the late-night shows — because maybe they’ll validate my thoughts, not on SNL necessarily, but on, well, anything.

I’m not saying such programming is bad, of course.  I’m saying temptation comes in many disguises, and it’s the innocent-looking ones that are the most dangerous. Those are the ones that lure you in with “but it’s only a little…” until you start to rationalize anything as “only.”

It’s a web that traps you, pulling you in tighter and tighter until you can’t move anymore. All you can do is waste away in its confines, forgetting what the outside is like until you’re convinced that there’s nothing out there you could want anyway — even though you know, deep down, the inside isn’t right either. And that’s the scariest part. Inside the web of temptation, it’s all about you and what you think you want. Nothing else matters.

Luckily, though, life isn’t about not making mistakes. We have to make mistakes so we can learn from them. And now, having lived through this experience, I know that I can be better.

Now I can do what last week I didn’t think I could.


Creation Rediscovered
by Tim Hall

(Highlighted text is borrowed from other sources — credited at the end with links.)

Temptation and Sin.  They go hand in hand, don’t they?  At least for us mere mortals!  We pray for strength every day… “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  But sometimes it’s just so very hard not to stray.  Thankfully, Jesus shows us another way.  More on that later, but first…

A minister told his congregation, “Next week I plan to preach about the sin of lying. To help you understand my sermon, I want you all to read Mark chapter 17.”

The following Sunday, as he stood to deliver his sermon, the minister asked for a show of hands.  He wanted to know how many had read Mark 17.  Several went up.  The minister smiled and said, “Wonderful!  I will now proceed with my sermon on the sin of lying.  And by the way, Mark has only sixteen chapters.”

In Education for Ministry (EFM) we often studied biblical passages (or even current life situations) in the theological context of Creation, Sin, Judgement, Repentance, and Redemption.  In this homily I’ll be focusing on creation and sin, especially the sin that results from giving into temptation and the creation that results from overcoming temptation.

Why did some of those folks in the story I just told feel the need to lie about reading Mark 17, especially in church!  My word!  Were they trying to avoid embarrassment?  To curry the minister’s favor?  To show off?  Why were other folks content to admit to not reading the passage?  Had they looked it up for themselves and were, with the minister, amused (or shocked) by those that raised their hands?  Perhaps some hadn’t opened the bible at all and were just being truthful.  We can’t see into everyone’s hearts, but we can see into our own hearts.  And that’s where we must begin this journey.

This morning we’re paying another visit to the Garden of Eden, catching up with Adam and his new bride Eve.  Remember them?  Our most ancient ancestors that God created out of the dust?  — After working for five eternal days separating the night from the day and the waters from the land, lighting the skies with the Sun and the Moon and the stars, bringing forth multitudes of plants and fruits and animals, God chooses to create humankind in his own image… to give them dominion over the whole earth, to be fruitful and multiply.  The Lord God himself forms them from the dust of the earth and breathed into their nostrils, even into our own nostrils, the breath of life… an act of original love.

Adam and Eve are happily tending the garden, delighting in God’s favor in paradise, freely eating of the fruit of every tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as God commanded.  Excited to show us the garden, Adam offers stroll through the grounds and we enthusiastically accept his invitation.  Eve tells Adam to give us the best tour ever and off we go.  And there before us are the most wonderful sights… huge varieties of trees filled with magnitudes of birds of every color and size, crystal lakes and tumbling streams where lions and lambs drink shoulder to shoulder, teeming with fish and crabs and salamanders, majestic waterfalls and savannahs of silver and purple and green abounding with herds upon herds of wild animals of every kind, all under a glorious azure sky brushed with deep crimson and dazzling gold where the sun is setting beyond the snow-capped mountain peaks in the distance.  All a gift from God, the wonder of creation freely given to us as its stewards.

Back now at the first family’s abode, Eve is not to be found and so we thank Adam for the wonderful tour and with our best wishes to Eve, bid him adieu.  Unbeknownst to us, while we’ve been away Eve has been tempted by the crafty serpent, Satan in disguise, who convinces her to go against God’s one command, even though she knows better.  The temptation to be like God is too great and she has not the will to resist, so she eats the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and then gives the fruit to Adam, who neither can resist the temptation, and he eats too.  And just like that, so suddenly and so sadly, creation groans and original love is spurned for original sin.

And isn’t that the way temptation is?  We know it’s wrong, that there’s a better way, but temptation can be just so … well … tempting!  Or irresistible.  Sometimes it takes us so quickly we don’t even know it’s happened until it’s too late.  Other times, it just keeps after us.  You’ve heard it said that opportunity only knocks once, but as someone once said, “Opportunity may only knock once, but temptation leans on the doorbell.”  

We make up excuses and justifications, but if you’re like me, it’s a constant struggle.  Why are the devil and the angel sitting on each of my shoulders?  Thank God for the angel.  But why can’t I get the devil to just leave me alone?  I try, believe me I do.  I am so thankful that Lent comes once a year… and often just in the nick of time.  I need the spiritual discipline.  And I need to give up things that are dear to me.  I’m not sure if I’ve found the right stuff over the many Lents that I’ve fasted.  This year it’s alcohol and sweets and pastries.  The discipline of denying myself simple pleasures I truly enjoy is helping me to focus on other pursuits… on reading and praying, and trying to practice and proclaim my faith more outwardly.  

When I was out delivering the mail the other day I stopped in at Phil Bolen Park where I’ve developed a lighthearted relationship with Isabel, the nice lady that works the front desk.  Usually close to lunch time when I stop by, she’s often munching on something.  This day it was cookies and she offered me one.  Girl Scout Samoas… my favorite!  I almost accepted her gift but remembered, just in time, that I was giving up sweets for Lent, which I told her.  “Good for you!” she exclaimed. “I’m giving up liver.”

Jesus told us in our Ash Wednesday readings that where our treasure is there will  our hearts be also.  I hope that what I’m giving up for Lent are not my True Treasures!  I don’t think Liver is Isabel’s treasure either.  As a matter of fact, I bet she doesn’t even like it.  But she did make me laugh, which pleased us both no end.  C.S. Lewis said, “No man knows how bad he is until he has tried very hard to be good.”  Those are the waters I try to ply during Lent.  Struggling to recognize temptation and avoid falling into sin.  Searching for true treasures, my creation rediscovery.  Can we return to the Garden?  I don’t know, but we should never stop trying!

So why does God allow the devil to tempt us?  It may surprise you that God uses the devil.  At any moment God could banish Satan, but he does not do so.  Temptations have a purpose in God’s plan.  Even Jesus experienced temptation.  As we read in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus was “led by the spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.”  That’s an amazing statement…  The Spirit led him – in order for the devil to tempt him.  As St. Augustine of Hippo  wrote, “Christ made us one with him when he chose to be tempted by Satan.”  Temptations must and do have a purpose.  

Jesus was tired and hungry.  Why wouldn’t he be?  After all, he had been traipsing around in this desert place – this wilderness – for who knows how long? Days… Weeks, even. It had been a time of focus, of resolution, of preparation.  It had to be.  He needed to feel isolated from his parents and friends. He had to endure the raw elements of the wild. He must endure the biting hunger from his fasts.  For this isolation, these harsh elements, this hunger would only be a foretaste of the Cross that awaited him.

It was dizzying to consider where he had been just days ago.  Walking gladly into the Jordan, the swirling cool water (water…) enveloping him, as he approached his cousin, John.  John knew him for who he really is.  It was John who questioned if it was even proper that a lowly, disheveled prophet should baptize the Spotless One.  Yes, it must be done.

And then there was The Moment. 

The heavens opened, the Spirit descended and the Voice of the Father was heard.  Affirming.  Reassuring.  Anointing.

Peace.  It was utter Peace.

But now, Jesus heard another voice. And suddenly, the bitter wind, the tearing thorns, the gnawing ache deep in his stomach returned with a vengeance.  With this voice, he was sharply thrust back into the desert.

“If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.”

Surely, you have sacrificed enough, the voice excused. A man has to eat!  It is a trifling act toward a good end.  Eat.  Break your fast.  Sate your appetite.  Allow yourself some pleasure.  You deserve it.

But the God-man responded,

“It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.’”

In a moment, still reeling from the vanishing, unreachable image of bread, he found himself standing atop a perilous Temple parapet.

If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written:
‘He will command his angels concerning you’
and ‘with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”

Clearly, the Tempter assured, the Scripture itself tells us of your power.  Show me.  Prove yourself.  Humble me with your might.  Go on, do it.  Do it.

But the Christ answered,

“Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’”

And then the Great Deceiver sought to stun him.  You Jesus, from that poor, lowly, undignified Galilean slum, you can have all of this: kingdom upon kingdom pledging proud and triumphant allegiance to you.  Imagine the limitless wealth!  Consider the boundless honor!  Isn’t that what you deserve?  Isn’t that the kind of faithfulness you seek?  Isn’t that only fitting for the King that you are?  There is no need to suffer for these people when you can own them, possess their wealth and bask in their accolades… and it is all yours for one small, inconsequential price.

“All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.”

And the Son of God replied,

“Get away, Satan! It is written:
‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.’”

And with that, he was gone.  The one who offered Jesus bread if he would only break his faithful fast to God.  Gone.  The one who offered him the exercise of power if only Jesus would use his Divine Gifts for prideful, self-serving purposes.  Gone.  The one who offered him worldly honor and counterfeit wealth if only Jesus would call Satan “Father”.  Gone.  The Devil offered it all: Pleasure, Power, Wealth and Honor. 

And Christ said no.  He chose God.

Only one man totally resisted temptation.  Jesus alone experienced the full force of temptation.  You and I are like plants that waver according the way the wind blows.  But Jesus is like a mighty Oak.  He alone has withstood the full power of temptation.  The temptations occurred at the inauguration of Jesus public ministry so that – in his humanity – he could take power from those temptations.

We are weak, but each time we stand with Jesus, each time we resist temptation, we gain power.  That power ultimately does not belong to us, but to God.  A Sufi Master (Sufiism is Muslim mysticism), Abdullah Ansari, said, “If thou canst walk on water, thou art no better than a piece of straw.  If thou canst fly in the air, thou art no better than a fly.  But if thou canst resist temptation, thou canst conquer the universe.”  Genuine power, real strength, comes from resisting temptation by God’s grace.

The power is real, but when we think it is our own, we set ourselves up for a big fall.  God allows the devil to tempt us is to expose our real selves, so that we can recognize our own weaknesses. Temptation – especially falling into its sin and suffering its consequences – can be a powerful lesson in humility.  

And when we give in to temptation, when we sin, we go it alone.  We may feel that we are freeing ourselves from restraints, but in fact we are falling into bondage.  The person who recognizes their powerlessness and entrusts themselves to a Higher Power becomes truly free.  Furthermore, when we resist temptation, we gain strength.  

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Roman, 4 BC – AD 65) admired by early Christians, who may himself have been converted by St. Paul, wrote, “We should every night call ourselves to an account: what infirmity have I mastered today? what passions opposed? what temptation resisted? what virtue acquired?  Our vices will abate of themselves if they be brought every day to the shrift.”  

Humility to see our own weaknesses, trusting in God to help us, gaining strength by God’s grace: these are the hallmarks of what we profit by being tempted by the devil.  And Jesus showed us the way to turn this temptation to our advantage, to become true servants and to get one step closer to rediscovering the beauty and love of original creation: “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.”  It doesn’t get much more straightforward than that.  May we have a blessed and holy Lent.

Amen.

Bibliography / Credits:

Red text: “Why Christ Needed the Wilderness (& So Do We)” by Tod Worner, February 10, 2016.  
Full text may be found at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/acatholicthinker/2016/02/why-christ-needed-the-wilderness-so-do-we/   

Green text: “The Purpose of Temptation”, author not given, 2011.  Full text may be found at:
http://stmaryvalleybloom.org/homilyfor1stlent-a.html

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Power of choice, forgiveness at the heart of new novel by Margaret Locke

I’m excited to offer this book review of my friend Margaret Locke’s third novel. A romance author, she writes strong female leads who are hoping for a second chance at love — and in life. Enjoy!


In this third installment of the Magic of Love series, author Margaret Locke continues an epic adventure of love and time travel, made possible through the magic of writing. 

The cover of

The cover of “A Scandalous Matter,” by Margaret Locke

Having read Locke’s first two books, I think this is a fitting third chapter.

In the first one, A Man of Character, bookstore owner Catherine Schreiber discovers she has the power to write real life love connections when she realizes she’s been unknowingly dating men she wrote into existence years ago.

In the second book, A Matter of Time, Cat’s best friend Eliza James has a second chance at love when Cat writes her a love connection with a duke in 1812 England.

The third book, A Scandalous Matter, brings the story full circle by sending Eliza’s new sister-in-law Amara Mattersley to the bookshop to live with Cat and forge a new life for herself in 21st-century America.

Though it isn’t necessary to read the first two books before this one (each book can stand alone as its own story), I think it’s probably more fun reading them in order.

Amara, we learned in Book 2, is quite a spitfire, so it’s fun following her into the future (our present) and watching her discover the wonders of things like indoor plumbing and refrigeration.

But Amara doesn’t come to the future for its technological advances. She comes to escape the oppression of scandal that has ruined her chances at love and happiness in her own era. She wants independence, she wants an education previously reserved only for the men in her life, and most importantly she wants a second chance in a place where society’s cruel expectations aren’t (usually) as damning as they are in Georgian England.

Thankfully, Amara gets all she’s looking for and more as she finds a sympathetic friend in Cat, an unexpected love interest in university professor Matthew Goodson, and a new world of opportunity in Charlottesville, Virginia.

It’s a fun little story of love and independence — but its real magic is in how it actually achieves so much more than that.

This book offers a wonderful social commentary on the way things have — and maybe haven’t —  changed over the last 200 years, but I love its largely optimistic view on life and our seemingly infinite number of opportunities for forgiveness and the chance to make things right.

In the 1800s, Amara made one foolish choice to sleep with a man she thought was going to propose to her — who turned out to be married already — and for years afterward she was slut-shamed by her social circle. Even worse, she can’t forgive herself. But in 2016, Amara learns that mistakes don’t have to define us, and that women, though maybe not as equal to men in society’s view as they would like to be, can still in many ways “have it all.”

This offers a remarkable juxtaposition for the reader to experience through someone like Amara — a forward-thinking young woman who’s just escaped a world that viewed her as little more than property. While we in the 21st century can, reasonably, find ways to mourn how long it’s taken for women to make it this far — earning the right to vote in 1920, but still, nearly 100 years later, unable to secure equity in the workplace — Amara celebrates that here, in contemporary America, she has access to a world-class education; she can choose, without shame, whether or not to marry; and she can be master of her own future — whatever challenges life throws at her.

It’s a refreshing reminder of all we have accomplished, regardless of how far we might still have to go. But maybe most stunning of all is how this novel calls to action any woman who feels pigeonholed into one path in life because of the choices she’s made.

Tomorrow is a new day, Locke tells us through her characters. It may not feel like it now, but the sun will come up. And when it does, we all get to decide what we’re going to do next — who we’re going to be and how we might challenge ourselves on to greater things.

Because here in 2017, women can do anything.

But more importantly, they have the choice.


A Scandalous Matter, by Margaret Locke, is available at Amazon or at www.margaretlocke.com.

My rating: Five Stars

Full disclosure: Margaret Locke and I are members of the Shenandoah Valley Writers, and I was a beta reader for this book before it was published. She gave me a free unedited copy to read, and, in thanks, she also gave me a free published copy. However, I did purchase the Kindle edition. As a beta reader, I offered her edits and opinions I thought would help her in completing her book. After publication, I read the book a second time before reviewing it.

I am planning a second review for Goodreads and Amazon in the next couple days that focuses more on the plot and characters, and less on the book’s themes.

This review is my own opinion of a book that I realized, while attempting to write a review, deserved a deeper look at its themes of love and self-forgiveness, and its commentary on society. I had already, before beginning my review, planned on giving this book five stars based on its plot alone, as I felt this is the best of Locke’s books so far.

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A world of subtext in SNL sketch

I’ve been more than a little obsessed with last Saturday’s SNL sketch depicting Kellyanne Conway and CNN’s Jake Tapper.

Normally I’ll watch a sketch once — or if it’s really good, twice. I think I’ve watched this one 15 or 20 times. So, yeah, not normal.

If you haven’t seen it yet, view it below. If you have seen it, watch it again.

I think what works so well here  – besides the nods to Fatal Attraction and Death Becomes Her – is that the characters’ motivations make the startling escalation so believable.

Kate McKinnon’s Kellyanne is so desperate to get back on the news, she’s willing to up her game each time Beck Bennett’s Jake refuses her – eventually resorting to assault and death threats.

Jake wants her to accept his decision not to allow her on his show, and he’s willing to give her some latitude if it lets her accept the truth on her own without him having to force some sort of result. But reasoning with her is futile, and ultimately he’s forced to give in to her demands.

But that’s only one level of this story. Another level pits them against each other on opposite sides of a public war.

Jake is a journalist and Kellyanne is counselor to the president – and not just any president, but one who’s highly suspicious of the media.

You can see the weight of that truth come into play at minute 1:15, when Jake wants to remove himself from Kellyanne’s grasp. He lifts his right hand but seems to think better of the action. He realizes he can’t place hands on her, even in a defensive move, and risk the possible outcome – like, say, any assault charges she might bring against him should this exchange get any more physical.

Maybe it’s a stretch that Jake considers all the potential outcomes of his actions in the span of a second. And, yes, his hand raise could be merely a gesture of frustration.

But he does it again at minute 2:08, when Kellyanne catches him on his way to the front door and shoves him against the wall in a one-handed choke hold. He lifts his left hand as if to stop her, but resists the urge – at least until she lowers her hand and he can kind of brush her away rather than push or grab at her.

It’s subtle, but it’s there, and it explains why he seemingly lets her get away with so much. She’s a small woman. He could have easily guided her by the shoulders and attempted to shove her out the door. (He doesn’t know she has a second knife hidden on her.)

But he doesn’t throw her out, maybe in part because he’s a decent guy or he’s just so overwhelmed in the moment. But I think it’s also because he can’t risk the possible hellstorm she could rain down on him. She has an office at the White House, and since, with every passing second, she seems to become more and more unhinged, there’s really no telling how she might use her public platform against him.

In the sketch’s final moment, she seals that implication. Unflappable and unbreakable, she can’t be stopped. And now that she’s forced compliance from Jake, she owns him.

I find this whole thing fascinating from a storytelling standpoint. Every line, every action works so well.

At face value, this is stunning, biting, well-crafted satire to rival SNL’s best. But below it all is a world of subtext that I think sets this one apart.

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Loving the life well-lived

“Loving life includes loving the fact that it goes.” – Rick Brookhiser, critic

I came across this remarkable quote while reading about the staying power of the film Groundhog Day – a highly acclaimed movie I watch every year, usually more than once, because it leaves me with a feeling of such inspiration that I immediately want to run out my front door and change the world.

But, in spite of the effect Groundhog Day has on me, that quote is such a foreign idea, I can hardly wrap my mind around it. And considering the popularity of the recent nostalgia boom, I would imagine it’s just as foreign to most other people trying to resurrect wonderful things about the past that they wish were still true today.

I find myself doing that all the time – trying to make aspects of my world today mimick parts of my childhood. Or else longing for the feelings I associate with former times, which I fear aren’t possible anymore.

But that’s a dangerous game, because if you ignore the present to live in the past, then one day you’ll wake up and wonder where in the world the last 15 years went.

Plus, memories are deceptive. We can remember things being better than they were, focusing on the good and glossing over the bad. We start living for the past and ignoring our present, and that gets us in trouble. Because the present can never live up to the past we’ve built in our mind, and dragging the past into the present doesn’t let us live with honesty.

So I think that’s where that quote I mentioned above becomes so important.

If you were truly happy right now, this very moment, would you happily let go of that feeling so that tomorrow you could experience something else? Something new? 

Would you be okay packaging away today’s experiences and leaving them in the past? 

How do we even go about living for the present and not longing for that moment to last forever?

And when it all ends, can we really expect to love “the fact that [life] goes” and embrace death as the next great adventure?

Well, yes, I suppose that’s exactly what we’re meant to expect, isn’t it?

“Don’t be afraid of death,” Natalie Babbitt wrote in her book Tuck Everlasting. “Be afraid of the unlived life. You don’t have to live forever, you just have to live.”

And that’s one of the conclusions of Groundhog Day as well.

Bill Murray’s Phil Connors is a cynical man who doesn’t realize how very stuck he is in life until he gets trapped in a time loop on the worst day of his life. He eventually learns from the experience not only to embrace living, but also to be a hero for others whose misery and pain might have gone unnoticed by others if not for him.

“The curse is lifted when Bill Murray blesses the day he has just lived,” Brookhiser wrote. “And his reward is that the day is taken from him.”

I guess it’s an idea I’ll have to mull over. Because for me, the idea of devoting one’s life to others sounds a whole lot easier than loving the passage of time – and the changes that come with it.

But I don’t suppose great ideas like this are meant to be understood easily. Otherwise they wouldn’t be meaningful.

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