Serpent Blog

I am going back to Nebraska. I was there one time, on my second journey cross country. I had with me then my dog and two cats.

I pulled over at a truck-stop off of I-80, probably just inside Kimball County. I remember it was a Sunday morning but the place was packed. I sat alone of course, but I was the only one doing so. Whole families had gathered here for what seemed a weekly tradition. Mostly the folks were older. They looked to be sturdy people. The men were likely farmers, their wives hard-working mother’s. The men wore foam ball-caps and chewed toothpicks. I could see their hands were broken, their joints swollen. They walked hunched over, nursing various ailments of the back and hips.

The restaurant was a bustling hive of chatter and joy. I had eggs and bacon and coffee and juice, and they were fine. I was treated well and served fast and finished before I wanted to, because in this little corner of nowhere was where I wished to stay.

The men and women I watched were animated in their gestures and interested in each other’s words. Their were children there – young men and young women, and babies and all wore smiles beneath a veneer of resolve.

Why can I not forget this, my first moment in Nebraska? I know it had something to do with the people. They were alive in ways I don’t observe in other places. Not a single one of them looked angry, lonely, stressed, bitter or concerned with anything at all that was not occurring right in front of their eyes at their table. The place had the feeling of some bingo night gathering, with all camaraderie and personality of a church picnic.

Why do I remember this? Because these folks cared about each other. They were, clearly, a community. They enjoyed being together. And for thirty minutes they made me feel, not so much a part of them, but certainly welcome.

I can still remember the color of the sky and the color of the surrounding fields that morning. It was a slate-gray snow sky. The fields were a rich kelpy green. It was a chilly morning when I stepped back outside to continue with my journey east. I turned up the collar of my coat and moved on.

This Sunday I go back to Nebraska, with my heart as wide open as the plain…

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Being BEA 
Imagine being surrounded by thousands and thousands of books. Envision yourself browsing through books that nobody has seen yet – novels, art books, books of gorgeous photographs and prints. There are dictionaries and encyclopedias, Bibles and Koran’s, books on comic art and movie art and cooking and crafts. The smell of new books. The feel of them. And all around you are people like you, people who love books, people willing to talk about books for as long as you want. It’s Heaven. A world of books, many given away for free (the novels, not the expensive picture books). What is this place I speak of? Is it a land? A dream? No, it’s BEA.

BEA stands for Book Expo America, and it’s the big, must-attend, trade show for book publishing and buying professionals. It was held last week on Los Angeles and on a whim I went. I was not featured in my publisher’s vast booth. I did not have a signing set up. I had no meetings arranged and no one to see. I went simply to learn about the business of selling books, and unlike a sausage factory, this is a process you do want to see.

I wandered the halls like a ghost with my purple-coded badge, a badge that signifies me as one of the unwashed, the untouchables – a writer. No one wants to talk to writers at BEA. They all want to talk to buyers, and they are ever on the lookout for their blue-coded badges. They, being the publishers and book marketeers. They treat them like royalty and lavish upon them free books and gifts. There is tons of schwag at BEA, the most popular being the shoulder-bags these buyers use to carry their piles of free books. The most sought after item was the huge McGraw-Hill shoulder bag – a giant crimson sack big enough to hold a child. The Mcgraw-Hill toadies handing out these bags would only give them to book buyers or librarians, so when I queued up to try and get one I was told by a mean McGraw-Hill lady I’d not get one because I was a writer. Thank God for John, a very nice librarian ahead of me in line. He helped mask my badge and planned to vouch for me should I be queried by the booth-Nazis as to my lack of status. But I got a bag without so much as a glance at my badge.

I saw all around me not just books, but book people, and book marketing campaigns and the amount of money spent to promote certain books. You’d think that I’d be depressed, but I’m not. You’d think that NOT seeing Serpent Box anywhere would bring me down. No. I am filled with joy. That’s right, joy. The HarperCollins booth was one of the big ones, and there was a ton of promotion given to books coming out this Fall and I couldn’t help but think that if only Serpent Box could get some of this push, some of this visibility, then people might actually know it exists and pick it up. I admit, I was jealous and a little angry at first. But then I spoke to two people at HarperPerennial who really helped me to gain a new perspective. Carl Lennertz and Cal Morgan took the time to tell me how much they liked Serpent Box and Cal especially gave me a wonderful and much-needed boost of confidence. All it really takes is a few kind words, you know? All it really takes is one person reaching out to help another. And that’s what the book itself is all about.

So I left BEA feeling like I remember why it is I wrote Serpent Box and why it is I have dedicated myself to this mostly thankless often brutal task of putting my heart on paper for you to see.

My good friend, the talented writer Bob Thurber sent me this today. It is a quote I used to have posted about my writing desk when I had an office. It is worth posting here, now, because it is what I believe above all other reasons to write and I will close with it.

“From things that had happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of.” Hemingway

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Who Are We, Really? 

We are told that terror is something beyond us. Something outside us, waiting to enter. Terror is a plane. Terror is a bomb. Terror, we believe, comes unexpectedly, and from far away. Terror is a mystery - an angry Jihadist in a ski-mask, a band of bearded men hidden in a mountain cave. They show us grainy videos to bolster such perceptions. They play crackling audio tapes. The Arabic language has become terrifying. We feel terror in the ghostly reverb of the daily call-to-prayer. Islam has fused with terror. Muslim, for many, means terror. Kill them there or kill them here.

But here has never been a refuge from terror. Not so long ago men were routinely dragged from their beds at night, grabbed off the streets or abducted from jails without trials. They were tortured, mutilated and killed. They were strung up like cuts of meat in public places and burned alive before ecstatic crowds, with children in attendance, and ladies in summer hats. Their body parts were sold as souvenirs. Terror is not an import.

Let us speak now of our terror - the American holocaust - the hundred years’ war against those of us who are black. Thousands of men and women, murdered for perceived offenses against a white illusion of superiority. Slavery and the systematic subjugation of black peoples did not simply end with Lincoln’s proclamation of freedom, it just took on a different form, a new and jagged texture. Five thousand documented lynchings in that time alone. Uncounted were the beatings, mutilations and dismemberments, the rapes and the burnings that sought to cauterize the spirit of Africans forced to live as second-class Americans. Terror is homegrown.

Our reign of domestic terror against dark-skinned people reinforced psychologically that which slavery could no longer accomplish legally. Slavery, sometimes referred to as our great shame, was the first act of American terror and Jim Crow gave it a Christian name. But is it a shame or is it a symptom? Historians euphemistically call slavery our original sin thus participating in a sort of rhetorical revision, and weaving terror into the idealized poetic fabric of our savage beginnings. As if slavery, and not our inherent violence, racism and materialism were all that stood between a nation and a notion.

We were never innocent. Though we are, each of us, a child of God, the name of that child is Cain. Remember, we were born in an uprising. To arms! To arms! is a call to kill. Our collective soul was forged in the fires of violent revolution and tempered in a great and tragic civil war. We glorify our westward expansion, proclaiming it manifest and sanctifying it destiny. We celebrate the rugged individualism of the pioneers who decimated the natives of a land we conquered by force. We idolize the cowboy, the outlaw and the gun, that demonic technology, refined and perfected for the rapid expulsion and accurate delivery of flesh piercing metal, designed to kill human beings. Our formative history has acquainted us well with terror.

We are, at our core, killers. We justify killing in the name of stopping killing. We kill to preserve order and peace. We kill to promote democracy. We kill terrorists and anyone who gets in the way of killing terrorists. We kill criminals, who are mostly black men who’ve killed other black men. We kill the president and we kill the man who killed the president, and we kill the president’s brother, and we kill our greatest preacher of non-violence. No wonder our children, when angered, and armed with weapons designed for efficient mass-murder, kill their teachers, their bullies and themselves. Violence is not just ingrained, it is continually reinforced. The actions and policies of our government and our system of justice, condone and perpetuate killing as a practical solution to our vexing problems. The news and entertainment media, to which we are addicted, thrives upon violent imagery, elevating it to an exalted status, creating a powerful form of subconscious propaganda continually renewing the call to violent conflict resolution. Terror is home-brewed.

We tolerate murder and violence, daily drive-by shootings and street-corner homicides in our own cities. So why would the genocide in Rwanda phase us? How could the campaign of amputations in Darfur shock us? Why would systematic mass rape in the Congo horrify us, let alone register on our consciences? These brutal acts of terror are reduced to imperceptible headline crawls below our latest celebrity scandals. They scroll by faster than the legal disclaimers in the ads for our luxury cars. We consider ourselves lucky that our murders and our rapes occur on a much smaller scale. Here, it’s controlled, zoned-in and manageable. There, it’s safely distant. We don’t have to think about it because they, those people over there, are poor, and dark and not as civilized as we are. We believe we’ve got terror contained in all those far-flung theres, but we’ve got our own strategic reserves right here.

There is no here or there. Such a concept is a conceit. The world is flat. Physical borders hinder, at best, human passage not information or ideas. Here or there embodies one dimension in this new age of connectivity – place, geography, nation. There is no longer a time or a cultural component to there. What is there? Iraq? Afghanistan? There is amorphous. There, is the Middle East. “Fight them there or fight them here” is a tacit acceptance of destruction and violence outside our borders. It permits suicide bombers and roadside explosives, as long as they are there. It allows for acceptable levels of wounded and dead American soldiers – who are our children, our fathers and our mothers. The word terror, and the catch phrase here or there creates, in the minds of soldiers and their families, a logical framework for another catch phrase - the ultimate sacrifice. We accept that some of us must be sacrificed to keep the there there and the here clear – clear for business as usual, clear for the politics of division, clear of the terror of a sudden , violent, unjustifiable death; which was always here.

We train young people to kill in the service of a flag bearing thirteen stripes of revolt and fifty stars of union, a union won with bullets and held together with hair and bone and blood. Liberty, our founding fathers told us, comes at a price. Freedom, must be fought for and won. Thomas Jefferson, to whom we credit the eloquent language of our declaration of freedom and our basic human rights wrote: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” “Blood”, he says, “is a natural manure”. So, when the great father of our democracy, a slave-owner and author of all men are created equal baptizes the essential idea of America with blood, our very foundation is then built upon the premise that we must kill in order to be free. The freedom to kill, then, is the purest of our freedoms. We reserve the right to kill if one of us is killed or if we believe there is a credible possibility we may be killed. We won this right at Lexington and Bunker Hill and upheld it at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Dresden and Mai-Lai. Now that’s terror.

We, as a nation, and we as members of a living species on this planet, are caught in a cycle of ‘preventive’ violence and violent reprisal. Violence, which will always breed bitterness and contempt, perpetuates itself. Violence is a virus that has invaded our souls, tricking our minds into believing in its own necessity and thus replicating itself over and over again. We have become the hosts for this virus. And the relationship between this virus and its host has become symbiotic in that our government and our rampant corporate greed benefits from the illusion that violence and killing and war seem natural and unstoppable and thus go on. And that is because we have allowed it to be unstoppable. Terror is not the use or threat of violence to achieve a political end. Terror is violence and violence, in all forms and for all reasons, is terror.

We must end it. We must live by a code of peace and non-violence that is reinforced by the policies of our government, the practices of our media and the conduct of our people. My must stop executing men who are prisoners of the economic conditions and hopelessness created by the system that incarcerated them. We must stop killing those we call terrorists and address the conditions that created them in the first place. We must stop celebrating violence by broadcasting it and glorifying it.

“Only a refusal to hate and kill can put an end to the chain of violence in the world and lead us toward a community where men can live together without fear”.

These are the words of a man who preached non-violence, practiced non-violence and died violently because of it. Martin King uses the word fear, but fear of violence is terror.

Until we stop the rampant killing that plagues our inner cities, and address the conditions that beget drug use and street gangs and school shooters, until we admit the 2nd Amendment was right then but wrong now, and that a Government, if feared enough to warrant preparations against itself is inherently flawed, we are doomed, and will continue to send our children to die in places like Afghanistan and Iraq and on the streets of America. We must resurrect the spirits and ideas of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The time for Doctor King was certainly then, but is definitely now. These are the times for real choices and not false ones. The war is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit. Is our nation planning to build on political myth again and then shore it up with the power of new violence? A time comes when silence is betrayal. These words spoken by Martin King are not just prescient, they are universal truths.

“The virtues of love, mercy and forgiveness should stand at the center of our lives…We must blot out the hate and injustice of the old age with the love and justice of the new. That is why I believe so firmly in nonviolence.”

The terror we fear so much is not far away, or foreign, or unique to a time or a people. The terror of an unearned, undeserved, cruel and violent death is ubiquitous and local and entirely man-made. And there is a way to stop it. That way lies in our wills and in our hearts, where actions and ideas are sprung.

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The Serpent Box Back-Story 
The story behind the story of how I first began to write Serpent Box, and more importantly I think, WHY I wrote it, has been posted today on the blog of M.J. Rose, who has been a wonderful adviser to me in this struggle I am dealing with to promote the book.

Please take a look... ... uis-c.html

I will not repeat here what I say in this essay, but I will tell you this, the journey that began with a single photograph is the journey of my life.

I hope that one day, I can thank Shelby Lee Adams in person.

(original photo removed at the request of Mr. Adams)

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Winners Announced! 
Dear Readers,

I am pleased to announce the winners of the Serpent Box “Box & Book Contest”.

Nancy Meach, of Warren, Ohio, is our grand prize winner. Nancy won an authentic, hand-made Tennessee serpent box made by folk artist Eric Cunningham.

The following readers have won autographed copies of Serpent Box the novel:

Connie Brand, Tolano, IL
Sheila True, Antioch, TN
Frances Woodall, Glen Burnie, MD
Susan Herkowitz

I’d like to thank everyone who entered, many of whom passed on some very kind words and good wishes.

This has been a remarkable journey. As Serpent Box begins to make its way into the hands of readers like you, the message of hope, love and belief in goodness begins to spread. I am reminded once again why I wrote this book by all of you, and I thank you for being readers and lovers of words.

“…if I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a word or song, if I can show somebody he’s travelling wrong, then my living will not be in vain.”

Be well, read much, give back.

Vincent Louis Carrella

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