Who’s your Psychopomp?


As for qualifications, I have camped on the south shore of the Gulf of Corinth at the mouth of the River Styx and crossed it several times. So have all the other residents of Akratas. No that won’t do. (The Ancient Greeks believed that Charon, the boatman ferried them across the River Styx to the Underworld. They were buried with coins on their eyelids to pay him for his service.)

As a child, I was shut in boxes. Maybe that was my early training.

At a certain point in my life, the recently dead started turning up, usually sitting in a chair in the corner of my bedroom. Just sitting. Never talking. Or in my dreams, they phoned me, never saying anything sensible and never answering questions. My father’s spirit persistently offers advice such as ‘Buy lottery tickets’. He was a villain on earth, but he has spent 30 years on the other side and seems to be a reformed being. He even shows up at hospital bedsides to comfort those he once harmed. So they tell me.

Somewhere along the line, my family started to assume that I was a conductor of the dead, a psychopomp. They didn’t use that word of course. It is not a role I aspire to. At the moment, for example, I have a recurring image of a man who has passed over, but doesn’t believe in the afterlife. He is huddled in a fetal position with his ears covered, pretending he is not conscious. I repeat the 23rd Psalm to comfort him and, alternately, offer to give him a swift kick.

I’m not religious at this point, but I remembered that comforting song of David, and thought it might help – Josh, let’s call him Josh. If you feel inclined, you could join me in your own way, encouraging him to “Wake up! Wake up! It’s not so bad. You really are forgiven.”

When I uploaded my e-book, Hour of the Hawk, Amazon called ‘psychopomp’ a spelling error. An aberration, a delusion, perhaps, but not a spelling error.

Creating my main character, Joanna Hunter, I saddled her with that ‘ability’ as well as a conscience which speaks to her in her great aunt’s voice, admonishing her to fulfill her duty.

Her first duty is to attend to Tom Braddock who has been mauled to death, in his own backyard, by an angry bear. Well, of course an ‘angry bear’. He would hardly have been killed by a grateful, happy bear, even though he did persist in feeding his bear friends honey in a tire swing. And the bear had good reason for being angry, although not necessarily at Tom.

There are other deaths. It’s a murder mystery after all. But those Departed have enough imagination to manage on their own.

As you will, no doubt, when the time comes. Just be sure to cure yourself of the idea there is a hell. Pretty sure we are doing our stint there, right here on earth. Like my father we may have much to learn in the afterlife, but as a school it’s much more like Play Mountain Place than the boarding school Prince Charles attended. It seems to me, the afterlife can be whatever you think it is. With night school courses in empathy.

For heaven’s sake, don’t call on me to guide you.

To purchase Hour of the Hawk as an e-book go to joycehowe.com. It will be available as a paperback from Amazon in January 2018.



Writer Unblocked




I wrote the blog above last summer after several people suggested I write a mystery. In it I lament my inability to get started. The post is about writer’s block. When I complained to those urging me that I couldn’t come up with an idea, they started brainstorming. Between us, we came up with a series of crimes, involving eco-terrorism, acts of protest or revenge against those who mistreat the environment. I brought the notes home with me when I returned home to Toronto in November. First, I had to catch up on a whole bunch of things after being away for six months – see the doctor and the dentist, that sort of thing. Then my brother visited from Brussels for several weeks and I was immersed in family. All the while I was thinking. By the beginning of January, I was ready to begin.

One morning, I sat down at the computer and bought Microsoft Office. I had found that Pages wasn’t what I wanted, but I had had an older version of Microsoft Word on an earlier computer and knew I would like it. Having done so, I thought, “You can’t waste that money,” and just started writing. The upshot has been that I have neglected this blog. Fortunately, readers have not and the stats have remained what they were when I was posting at least once a week. I thank Eleanor Catton and her book The Luminaries for that in large measure. Readers have helpfully corrected and added to the time line I posted so long ago that they now are closer to the material than I am.


I have over 70,000 words of the mystery written and probably 30,000 more to write. I set it in same sort of the mountain village I spent the summer in in Kern County, California as well as in Bakersfield and Los Angeles. So the setting is in part high desert in a time of drought, which gives scope for ecological angst. It is also home to a newly flourishing flock of giant birds, the reintroduced Californian condor. At the same time, the area is threatened by development, particularly on one of the biggest ranches in North America and ground zero for the endangered condor. Although much of the area is set aside as Los Padres National Forest, the Angeles National Forest and a privately owned wild wolf conservation area, where bears, cougars, deer and mountain lions roam, there is also hunting. A recent regulation prohibits the use of lead shot because the condors, scavengers, die after eating unclaimed creatures killed with lead shot. Since there has been almost no precipitation for over three years, the forest is tinder dry and yet bright sparks (pardon the pun) are still lighting campfires and starting wildfire.

We had come up with six possible crimes and, drawing on my personal history, I created a group of ecological activists, who seem to be responsible as one event succeeds another.

In the beginning, the narration is third person, but soon switches to first person, the narrator, Joanna, a woman of my age -78 – who is more or less stuck in the mountain village with not much to do, except speculate about the ‘crime wave’. She has a companion, who is even older and who has a gift for befriending everyone she meets and the curiosity to gather information.


Chapter One: Too Many Bears

The bear came down from the mountain in late afternoon. She wasn’t hungry. She had eaten well, but she was missing the cub.

 She turned at the bottom along the well-worn path, picking up the scent of honey in the distance, and closer up, traces of many other bears, including the cub. The cub was old enough to manage on her own now and there would be a new cub in late winter. She was almost there when another darker smell stopped her in her tracks. Blood. Bear blood. She took it in. Not just any bear blood, the cub’s blood.)

The first ‘crime’ is committed by a vengeful bear, a bear that shouldn’t be there and may have had a human accomplice.

I haven’t settled on a title. At first I saved it under the heading Bear Mountain Mystery. Now it’s Murder at the Center of the World, which is what the Chumash Indians called the place. Bear Mountain -not its real name- the center of the center and the highest point was where everything was in balance. The bear comes from there and seems intent on restoring balance on the lower slopes.

A good deal of the action, however, occurs in Bakersfield, or Bako, as it is fondly known. The Kern County Sheriff’s Dept is headquartered there and the nearest hospitals. The Bakersfield farmland is part of the Central Valley and produces an astonishing amount of food consumed by North Americans. It also produces Valley Fever spores, that live in desert soil and are released by development. In addition, farmers are draining the aquifers, as irrigation is being cutback by drought regulations. The land is actually sinking in places.

The most surprising thing about writing this is the interesting characters that emerge effortlessly. The main detective, Al Guevara, is not at all the good old boy I expected. His belly doesn’t hang over his belt, he has a sense of humor, he is unusually forthcoming, he is married to a defense lawyer, has five children and has trouble making ends meet. Another surprise was a romance novelist, Arta Dietzen, a best seller in your local drugstore, who is writing her way through the alphabet, beginning with Love at the Aswan Dam. Joanna can’t read these books, but finds herself admiring the writer.

This is not the first book I have written. My memoir Never Tell, an e-book, has a link on my blog’s home page or http://nevertell.ca/.

Here is another except. This part depicts Arta Dietzen at a public meeting which is about the proposed new Condor Ranch Village, which she supports, but which ecologists oppose.

Good evening,” said Arta and she was speaking directly to me, warmly, just short of taking me in her arms. Of course, everyone else was having the same intimate experience. “I’m soo glad you could take some time out of your busy lives to support me here. Thank God for PVR’s.” And we all laughed a little too long.

“Now first thing, I know I’m going to disappoint you. I promised y’all that Oliver my good friend Oliver Warren, the CEO of Condor Ranch, would be here. He isn’t. Just wait till I get my hands on that no-good, low-life critter.” She screwed up her face and hunched over so that she looked like the bad witch in The Wizard of Oz.

Whoops of laughter. Howls of laughter. Tears of laughter. The audience had been well and truly salted with supporters.

She straightened up, did a resigned face and said, “He has sent Roger, dear Roger in his stead, like Abraham sacrificing Isaac. I only hope God and this audience will appreciate his willingness and not demand his head. I give you Roger Smith, Public Relations Officer for Condor Mountain Village. I’m just a shill, a poster girl if you will.” She withdrew to the seat in front of the podium that had been reserved for her.




Bear Alley

bearalley frontSo we moved from the Reality Hotel (see previous posts) to Bear Alley.

Actually, we live on Kodiak, which runs off Aleutian and is next to Klondike, just south of Grizzly Dr, It wasn’t until this morning that we learned that Bear Alley intersects with Kodiak, running below our deck. My first clue was a tall white kitchen garbage bag that had been dismembered there. This was so shocking that I didn’t even take a picture. So against the mountain code! Not quite as bad as actually feeding a bear –a fed bear is a dead bear. (Once a bear has been tamed in that way, habituated to human contact, the rangers have to shoot it.) Leaving garbage accessible is the second most egregious crime.

There are bear safes for garbage costing a thousand or more, so armoured that bears can’t tear into them, the way they can cars. They have destroyed cars for something as small as a burger wrapper or corn-based kitty litter. The people I know up here use trash compactors or sort the smelly stuff and freeze it. Even recycling material is washed and kept in a locked shed. In short, the trash stays inside until it goes to the transfer site. There it gets shut up in a dumpster with a roof and a door. During bear season the site is open late on Thursdays.

Clara and I picked up the garbage. It consisted of a lot of avocado and other fruit shells, a sodden egg box, various boxes -these people didn’t recycle either- and I don’t know what else. I was too disgusted. Clara grabbed her car keys and took the re-bagged trash to the transfer site.

In the old days in Canadian cottage country, people used to drive to the dump and watch the bears feed at dusk. Now all the dumps there are fenced like POW camps. No bear- watching.

I heard voices across the road and left my breakfast to go over to talk. That’s when I learned about Bear Alley.

The woman who lives there said she had been raking her yard, that is the dirt in her yard- no grass grows here at 7 p.m. when a bear sauntered down the alley. She fled to the other side of the house. In the process, a $20 bill fell out of her pocket and is nowhere to be found. (Clara says, “Bears have to shop too.”)

Her visitor, a realtor, said she had seen a bear at 5 p.m. and that air horns were going off all evening. I had come home on the golf cart at 5:45. I think I did hear some of those blasts, but their significance eluded me. Then Clara turned on Jeopardy and in deference to her hearing problems, I took refuge in my iPod.

The realtor said she lived here eight years and never saw a bear, but this year she has seen ten. This is because of the drought. The berries haven’t ripened as a result, so the bears are hungry. They come down to drink at the ponds on the golf course and to forage. They even turn up in groups of five in backyards.

They move very quietly. Another realtor -half the people here seem to be in that business- tells the story of folding laundry in her bedroom while her husband watched a game. She finished and walked back into the kitchen to be greeted by a 300 lb. bear quietly searching for food. She screamed and ran out the front door, leaving it open. Her husband was trapped. The bear was between him and the door. His wife was screaming bloody murder and running to the neighbours. He remembered his gun. The bear ambled out the door. He ran after firing a shot in the air. The bear just kept ambling on, totally oblivious.

Clara and I reconsider the windows we have open in the evening. Several are accessible from the deck and a small bear could get in my bedroom window. Fortunately, cooking gets done at the house in the pines, where they are extra careful about accessible windows.

We are all going to get air horns.

I feel as if I am back on Hereford Hill in Quebec where a pie cooling for supper could win you a smashed-in window or even a door and air horns were all the rage. But never handy when you needed one.

bear alley backThe exit to our secction of Bear Alley.