Browsing "Writer’s Life"
Jun 6, 2016 - Writer's Life    Comments Off on Mountains of Memory and a Gunny Sack

Mountains of Memory and a Gunny Sack

IMG_4906Our recollections of what happened when, and how, may seem dim as dusky shadows that sink below the vague outlines of our memories. That’s partly because we view those memories as mountains, as opposed to, say, a cat in a bag.

So, one night your sophomore year in college, your roommate found a kitten by the dumpster behind the dorm. Cute, completely black, he seemed like a little sinister, fun magic to keep in your room, totally against the rules. Then there was a dorm party and a couple of 6-packs in a large brown paper sack which the wiry-haired little monster got into while you were recovering from your hangovers in class. He fought so hard he managed to roll himself up into a giant brown spitball yowling and screaming until the RA let herself in because someone was being murdered. The RA found the cat, freed him, and the frightened little devil planted its teeth in the soft web between thumb and forefinger as she tried to capture “kitty-kitty” who shit, spit, and ran tracks around the walls of your room.

The devil’s in the details, and so is the art of the story, whether it’s fiction or fact. If you are working on a memoir, you spend a lot of time walking around your own mountains of memory with a gunny sack trying to snag a snipe. Which recollection to leave in and which to leave out? Which event tells the greatest story in its smallest detail?

I am telling you this because I am spending my time snipe hunting at the moment. Of the “one or two things I know for sure,” one of them is you cannot learn to be a writer. You can only read and practice. Read a LOT and practice everyday. There’s your formula. Like it or leave it. It’s the writing life. And you thought it would be easy.

Right now I’m doing a lot of both. It’s a lot like wandering, but as the maxim goes: All who wander are not lost. I have not yet reached the heights from which I can envision my text. I’m not sure what to leave in and what to leave out. For a small town kid who spent a long time lost as a cat in a paper bag–in a wad, so to speak–it still seems I’ve led a pretty darn interesting life. Furthermore, it’s a story I think worth telling for the hope it may bring kids, young adults and (gr)own-ups who find they are a lot like me.

I have an idea and detailed memories and a therapist at this point. It’s a start. All are vital, but I still get balled up and yowl and bawl with frustration. As I read essays on writing memoir, particularly Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, and a great little book of individual essays by 6 writers on memory and writing called Inventing the Truth, edited by William Zinsser, I glimpse the snipe in the bushes once in awhile. (Karr’s book is new and Zinsser’s copyright is 1987. Thank you Jane Voorhees, sister artist and bookseller, for gifting me with these monumental books.)

All of Karr’s book is vital to the process. If you haven’t read Liar’s Club, do so and you’ll know why I say this. You will also know why she recommends a therapist on call, as her story requires a lot of teeth-clenching, nail-biting, heartbreaking honesty. You may say you want to write a memoir, but take my advice and write up a couple of your worst memories ever, the ones you tell nobody and have kept carefully closeted. Do it in detail, with gusto. Make yourself moan. Not that you will ever use these, but this may help you be prepared to bleed. If you aren’t willing to get gritty, forget about it.

Inventing the Truth has a lot to recommend it. Two of it’s essayists are Annie Dillard and Toni Morrison. “But Toni is a novelist!” purists will cry. Read the essay. There are reasons she’s in this book. Included is the following quote:

“You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that; remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place. It is emotional memory–what the nerves and the skin remember as well as how it appeared. And a rush of imagination is our ‘flooding.’ ”

Water as metaphor for memory and dreams and the subconscious is certainly one of those Jungian things; a universal, metaphysical something-or-other. Just hours before I read that passage from Toni, I wrote in my journal: I feel my life like trying to hold water in my hand. It slips through my fingers and evaporates into thin air, as we all must one day. Small comfort. I want to believe in Wayne the ghost of the Jewel Box, and seeing the breath of the Walnut tree in winter, and watching the Busick valley spirit rise in the dawn with the light, then settle down to bed between the hills come night. It’s all water.

 

Mar 7, 2016 - Writer's Life    Comments Off on Prince of Tides

Prince of Tides

IMG_4565Author Pat Conroy died last week, a sentence which is almost more than I can bear to repeat. He was a Southerner’s writer, beginning to end. A true Carolinian (although he was born in Atlanta), he loved the mountains of North Carolina nearly as much as he loved his life among the islands of South Carolina, where he lived from the age of fifteen.

He was married 3 times, loved good food, drank too much, enjoyed sitting around telling stories and talking books. He wrote beautifully of place, time, and family. He was unafraid of the truth, risking ostracism from his people practically every time he published. His first wife’s family picketed signings for The Water is Wide, really one of the less revealing of his great books. Sound like a Southern writer to you? It does to me.

This is not a review of Conroy’s books. You can find those most anywhere online. Wikipedia has a comprehensive list. Instead, this post is meant to be an eulogy for the writer and the man himself. Consider it a kind of confession about how he reached in and touched my life at a time when I was picking up the pen seriously for the first time. Lucky for me, I read Prince of Tides first. When I finished, all I wanted was to be able to write a sentence like Pat Conroy. A single sentence, mind you, and I would be happy.

Now, I was a literature major in college. More, I was a bookseller for over 10 years. Plus, I’ve been a big reader all my life. I’ve read the writings of many, many excellent authors. Do not let my distinct preference for Southern writers fool you. I read a lot of Yankees, too. (smiling) But there is something about a writer who can speak with eloquence about your place and your people that simply resonates not only in your mind, but in your very bones. Pat Conroy was that kind of author.

He and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel kept me busy for the first couple of years I lived in Asheville; the years I began writing seriously. Although I wrote almost exclusively poetry at the time, their novels were written like prose poems–rife with sensual imagery, amazing characters, storytelling, and truth. These were attributes I wanted in my poetry. In the sense a poet can learn from great novelists, their language formed a basis for my own.

When Pat came to Asheville, he liked to hang out with Matt and Marsha Walpole, often among the shelves at Captain’s Book Shop. I heard him speak at a library event, I believe–you must know this was a long time ago–and he praised the teacher who had put Look Homeward Angel into his hands saying, “Here, read this, if you want to write.” He gave credit to that teacher and to Thomas Wolfe for teaching him to love the written word. Conroy’s teacher was in the auditorium, had come to hear him, and I remember Conroy called them up on stage and thanked them, thanked all teachers everywhere, for what they were trying to do for the students who sat in front of them every day.

I remember thinking, although he was gracious and funny, “Well, he’s not all that impressive to look at.” Then I thought about all the other Southern writers I had met, and reconsidered. He looked like most of them: overweight, gray and balding, and a bit harried. What he looked like was completely unimportant. He was as beautiful as his many works. Pat Conroy was exquisite, writing royalty, a prince among men.

Prince of Tides.

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Jan 16, 2016 - Writer's Life    3 Comments

Pentaculum 2016 (Part 1): Artwork IS Work

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Welcome to Arrowmont’s Pentaculum 2016, located in, but not part of, Gatlinburg, TN.

In the ceramicists’ studio, feel the sensuality of artwork created in clay, cool and waiting for the kiln. Watch a potter’s wheel spin through muddy fingers until a graceful vase or plate emerges. Hear the tapping of strong, tapered fingers shaping metal with tiny tools, squeezing exactly where that link should be closed for the coveted earrings or the silver chain.

Wander past long tables and dip a finger in paint, as men’s large hands work beside women’s smaller ones. All hold brushes that drip red, blue, orange, green, and yellow as they hand paint signs, an art that, sadly, may soon go the way of letter writing. Inhale the liquid color, turpentine, and sealant until you’re high on art.

In 2-D, men and women work pencils like wands. Behind the lead, intricate drawings follow. Fabric artists turn needle and thread into delicate beauty, pictures that move gracefully with the cloth. These fanciful illusions are fantastic to a kid who nearly failed the only thing she ever sewed, a straight waist apron in home economics. (Actually, I got a C.)

Photo by Darla Biel

Photo by Darla Biel

Then there are the writers, my pod, often invisible behind closed doors. Their heads are bent over desks, minds stretching, hearts breaking over ideas they recreate in paragraphs or lines. They pick through their brains for the perfect image: a peeled apple becomes a full moon; dryer sheets can never soften the blow of bad news. Lights glow on faces concentrated on screens. Fingers pause over notebooks, waiting. Writers’ hands that work to shape words into essays, stories, or poems fairly fly when they are “deep in the work.”

This “carnality,” as Mary Karr calls sensory detail in The Art of Memoir, is palpable on campus. To see with vision, touch with creative power, hear the pounding of hammers and hearts, feel the shapes becoming whole, listen to the stories and poems as they rise like Lazarus from alphabet to life–this is why we are here. We are here to make magic, and for every artist that means to work, and work hard.

Ordinarily a “neatnik,” by the third day my writing room made up of desk, chair, bed, a chest and closet, is wrecked. Clothes drape the backs of chairs and hang from half-open drawers. There’s a bag of snacks and coffee in the far corner. A hot pot to boil water for said coffee occupies an opposite corner on the floor. Books, computer, pens, notebooks and iPhone are scattered across the desk which I use as a table top. Power cords tangle beside my bed like snakes mating.

A “bed buddy” or “husband” is propped at the head of my unmade bed. More pillows surround that. I balance one on my lap as my desk. I hail from a long and honorable tradition of bed-writers, which includes Capote, Proust, Wordsworth and Edith Wharton.

Many of these authors were hesitant to admit they wrote in bed, horizontally, for fear people would think they were “lazy.” Ah, here’s the rub—this accusation is a lie with which all artists must come to terms. “How come you don’t work?” “Why can’t you______? You don’t have anything else to do!” Don’t you believe it. Ask them to write a short story, throw a pot, paint a watercolor. See how long even bad art takes.

Suzi Banks, writer, reading her work.

For those unfamiliar with artwork, do not be fooled into thinking this is simply play. This is not the third grade. We were invited to this Pentaculum to work. We work our art, often through creative drought and financially hard times, because we desire to be the best we can be at what we do. We continue despite the obstacles and doubts of others because we are passionate about the work. 

So my friends, when you get home, hang out your (handmade) sign:

Do not disturb. Artist at work.

 

 

Dec 31, 2015 - Writer's Life    Comments Off on The Un-Rain Dance (cont..)

The Un-Rain Dance (cont..)


IMG_4312“How do you do a dance to make the rain stop?” I ask, not only for myself, but thinking of friends in AR, TX, and MO who are literally underwater right now. Leigh said, “Do it backwards.”  Immediately I had a thought about the un-rain dance as it applies to “un-stuffing.” Leigh kept talking, driving home a point which began as a joke, while I was already writing about the un-rain dance in my head.

She said, “Don’t laugh, but I was making one of my elderberry-honey health remedies for our friends the other day. You know, as a cold preventative. I was stirring that beautiful dark purple potion clockwise, with intention, with some protective thoughts, hoping that would help. It was pretty hypnotic, really. Well, I’d heard in biodynamics that one should balance the mixing by stirring herbal mixtures counter-clockwise, as well. So I reversed my spoon and as soon as I did, I felt this kind of energy shift and some unseen potency enter the mix. I know that sounds weird, but I did. This is all a little woo-woo, I know.”

I get it, though. You don’t want to cure the cold once your friend has it (although that’s helpful in some cases), which would be stirring the elderberry clockwise. You want to prevent the cold from ever catching hold so you move the spoon counter clockwise. In my creative and somewhat strange universe, it makes perfect sense. It’s like dancing backwards to stop the rain, doing the un-rain dance, which I think we might all try in an attempt to save several states, even countries. I’m starting to wonder if the rainbow might have been a promise God made a bit hastily.

Doing the un-rain dance paralleled my need for doing the un-stuffing dance. I mean, I got all this stuff living my life forward, so surely I could un-stuff it by simply looking at all of it, remembering how I came by it, and letting it go. The actual process of un-stuffing could even help with writing my memoir as pictures and keepsakes stirred memories from my past. Counter-clockwise. Deconstructing life in order to understand, then open up to new possibilities.

I have never liked the word “decluttering,” if it actually is a word. To me, it’s a cluttery word and implies you’ve messed your nest with all this stuff that had no meaning but were mere acquisitions bought for no good reason. People with kids know what I mean. I’m not talking your TV horders here. Leigh’s friend Cheri echoed a belief I have when she discovered that her young son’s closet, which she had cleaned a few months earlier, was once again packed with toys, books, games. New stuff. She moaned, “I swear, this stuff breeds.”

I spent a large portion of my life acquiring this stuff, and it all had meaning for me at one time. But the importance of things changes with the years–the energy shifts in other words–and a new empowering needs to occur. I can recapture the meaning this stuff once held for me by writing it if I want, and then dance it backwards out of my life again, leaving all that empty space for new ideas and creativity to fill. Some of this stuff I can even pay forward to Goodwill, Salvation Army, or the Habitat Store. Some will need to be burned or trashed. I know it sounds scary but it actually feels pretty good. I love to burn old papers, even journals in which I mostly bitched and moaned about life. Good riddance! Fire is cleansing!IMG_4307

In 2016, “I will do one thing today_____,” will always, first and foremost, be working on my memoir. But a close second will be my un-stuffing dance. You have to un-stuff the turkey in order to slice it and consume the stuffing, right? In order for it to be useful, our lives occasionally need de-constructing. Ask any lit major. This is how it breaks down. This is how we make sense of it all. Get rid of what is extraneous and see what is left. What is significant, what truly has meaning for you, will be the stripped down remains. This applies to how we spend our time as well as the stuff we have accumulated that stands in the way of the space we long to create.

So, even if I can spend four hours doing my one thing, the memoir, I still have a lot of hours left in a day (especially a winter’s day, should it arrive) to do my un-stuff dance. Even if I only do 30 minutes or an hour a day, space will begin to open up and I will breathe easier, move more freely. Interestingly, rainy days are actually perfect for both my number one (writing) and number two (un-stuffing) priorities! Lucky for me!

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

 

(If you missed part one of this post, click here.) 

 

“I can recapture the meaning this stuff once held for me by writing it if I want, and then dance it backwards out of my life again, leaving all that empty space for new ideas and creativity to fill.”

Dec 11, 2015 - Writer's Life    3 Comments

Family Matters Part II: Solitude

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Lately I’ve been working on my values. You think you know what they are, and you pretty much do, if you’re a thoughtful person in a chaotic world trying to live a decent life. But something happens when you start to write things down. I decided to follow the exercises in a book called things might go terribly, horribly wrong by Kelly G. Wilson and Troy Dufrene. It helps with anxiety. You can tell by the title.

I wrote down 10 values. At the last minute I added an 11th. Then I was to hone them by importance; 5,3,1. As it turned out, my afterthought value was the lynchpin, the one upon which all my other values depended. I scrawled it in at the bottom of the page: Solitude/Silence. A lot of people might not consider this a value. For me, solitude is crucial to what the Buddhists call “skillful living.” I just call it “acting right.”

After I found my #1 value, I was suppose to write a letter to a pretend child. Easy, since I have none. So I wrote the child who was part me and part the child in you, and part the child out there who has no one to say this to them.

Dear Stella(r),

When your parents tell you, “Go to your room and don’t come out!”, don’t think of it as punishment. Listen to the little voice inside you crying out in the craziness that is your mother and father arguing about the bills, a bullying brother, the tattletale lady next door.

Your ability to be alone is how you will deal with boys trying to feel you up, overcrowded schools, more bullies, apathetic teachers, and the need to make straight A’s. Finding someplace quiet is how you cope with the insanity of large families, piano lessons, homework, no dates, holidays, and lots and lots of church.

Stay in your room for 2 or 3 hours, even if they say you can come out now. Don’t talk on the phone to your dramatic friends. Stay off the internet. No TV or games. Play a little music, but not so loud that someone comes in to turn it down. Open a text book and make it look like your studying, just in case. Then dance. Practice the guitar. Sing. Look in the mirror and get used to yourself. You are Stella(r). Shine.

Get a pen and paper. Pretend you are writing to a prisoner on death row. Write your MaMaw, even if she died last spring (especially if she died). Tell them everything. Make this letter your talisman. Tear it up if anyone tries to read it. Write a story, a poem, a song. Read a book dramatically out loud to yourself. Be all the characters. Memorize your favorite lyrics. Draw. Stare out a window. Daydream. Night dream.

Don’t believe anyone who tells you it’s weird to want to be alone. Take off quickly then. Go outside. Climb a tree and spy on everyone. Make a fort in a hedgerow or in the hollow circle formed around the trunk of the big magnolia.

At night, stay up reading beneath the covers. Then tiptoe out into your silent house. Taste your solitude in a stolen cookie and a swig of milk straight from the jug. Drink cold water from the faucet.

Listen closely to the ticking, creaking, unexplainable bumps that happen as your house settles. A car passes with the bass thumping; a siren howls on Main Street. Closer, there’s an owl calling “Who, who, who cooks for you?” Does the kitchen still smell like the red beans and rice you had for supper? Or ground coffee in the pot, ready for morning? Rain through a screen? Your wet dog or cat?

Slip out the door. Even in the city, look up. There are lights of every color and trees that have not been cut. Sit beneath one. Count your lucky stars. After all, you are Stella(r). Wrap your aloneness around your shoulders like a warm blanket or an Indian medicine robe. It’s magic. Cherish it.deer1

Learn to love the quiet of no one talking. Your own imagination has so much to say. Let solitude be your sanctuary. It will protect and sustain you. It could be your favorite food, your finest hour. Keep this note close until you have it memorized.

“Go to your room and don’t come out!”

This command, spoken in anger, could just prove to be your saving grace.

 

Sep 14, 2015 - Writer's Life    1 Comment

Friends Who Write

Kingsolver & Patchett - photo by Michele M. Williams

What a delight, what a phenomena for so many writers who have never had such a privilege, although they may have attended dozens, even hundreds of author events! I’m talking about the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival and the finale which for all the world felt like peering in the window at a fireside chat between two old friends, who just happened to be Barbara Kingsolver and Ann Patchett.

When asked to attend our relatively small literary festival in Burnsville, NC, Kingsolver, who is famous for refusing public readings, said that if she could bring her friend Ann Patchett along, then she would come. Well, hello? Sure, bring whatever famous author/great writer you would like Ms. Kingsolver. We will be happy to have her. As Patchett said onstage, “For you this is a literary happening, for us it’s a playdate.”

The stage was set for an evening none present is likely to forget. Two comfortable wingback chairs sat on a spread of beautiful carpet. The two writerly friends came out and sans script or book simply talked to one another about what they were doing right now, their home lives, when and where and how they went about writing. They talked about developing characters—did you need to love every character in a book, even if they were villains, or not? Ann said that perhaps this was why she had such a difficult time writing villains. She loved her characters too much.

The difference in their writing processes was fascinating. Both writers said they faced down fear every time they sat before the blank page. Kingsolver told us that at some point, she would rise from her desk, stare out the window, and say to herself, “It’s okay to write a bad book this time. Nobody ever has to see it. It’s just you and the screen and your ideas here in your study alone. You can delete the whole thing if you want to, any day or everyday.” The truth of these words would free her to begin writing. And how’s that working out for you, Barbara? Most likely you’ve read the results.

Ann, with her witty and incisive descriptions, said that beginning a novel for her was like walking around Fort Knox with an emery board, trying to break in. There was Fort Knox (her great idea) and here was the emery board (her pen, perhaps) and she would just circle and circle until she found the place where her tool would gain her the access she needed to begin. She decided to become part owner of an independent bookstore in Nashville, TN, because she says it grounds her in everyday life and has the added effect of inspiring her to write better books. (Is this even possible?)

The difference in their writing styles was fascinating and, strangely enough, something they had never talked about despite their shared history. It was fun to see two authors surprise one  another on stage. Kingsolver writes and writes and deletes and deletes in a style with which I am most familiar. Then there’s the editing process which she loves. Me, not so much. This makes her incredibly prolific and able to reap large novels in a single bound…edition.

On the other hand, Patchett writes like the old masters; one great sentence at a time. She does not revise by draft, but as in the olden days of typewriters, creates a completed page, sentence building on sentence, before moving on to the next page. This style makes for compressed and eloquent work, if you’re pretty much a genius, anyway. It would be more difficult for me, but I sure would love to give up the revision. To me, Patchett’s style indicates her vision is complete from the beginning and what she is doing as she writes is creating the reality, one word at a time. Wow!

I learned so much from them in that brief hour. I could have listened to them for days. Actually, it seemed like I had. Without a tape recorder, or even a camera, I gleaned as much as I could from the two of them and their often hilarious repartee back and forth from wingback to wingback; two friends simply discussing their writing. Beautiful.

*Note: Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible will be coming out as a movie before too long—she has been working on the screenplay. And Patchett is in the final pages of a new book. I can barely wait.

 

(Kingsolver & Patchett – photo by Michele M. Williams)

Jul 31, 2015 - Writer's Life    2 Comments

Landscapes of Love

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I return to John Fox and his book, Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making. As I work this book, I continue to find much that needs reviewing in my life. The reward for doing the work is usually a poem I either need to write or that I actually like having written. One does not necessarily follow the other.

Fox’s chapter “Landscapes of Relationship” is taking me a spectacularly long time to get through. I underline. I read the sample poems repeatedly. I reflect on whether his words speak true to my life. Although I am married, I believe Fox intends this chapter to apply to a large field of relationships.

What I found interesting is that Fox doesn’t begin the chapter with all the complaints you might have in any given relationship. You don’t just sit down and write a rant and get it all out of your system. No, he actually asks you to do something more complex, even difficult, depending on where you are in your relationship.

Fox asks you to write a praise poem for your beloved; a love poem. If you’ve been married awhile and what he calls “everyday residue” is making love murky, perhaps you’ve forgotten what’s in your significant other that attracted you in the first place. For those of us who’ve been together awhile, we’ve grown and changed since that first long kiss. What is there in the immediate present that you love and admire about him or her? Fox asks you to write this whether you are in the midst of a fight, living through grief, or concealing what most needs to be said. Write the poem. Praise your lover. That’s the work.

One of his examples is a poem by Judy Grahn (one of the truly under-valued poets of our time). I want you to have it in front of you. Because of this, my post may seem long but try to stay with me here.

Paris and Helen

He called her: golden dawn
She called him: the wind whistles
He called her: heart of the sky
She called him: message bringer

He called her: mother of pearl,
barley woman, rice provider,
miller basket, corn maid,
flax princess, all-maker, weef

She called him: fawn, roebuck,
stag, courage, thunderman,
all-in-green, mountain strider,
keeper of forests, my-love-rides

He called her: the tree is
She called him: bird dancing

He called her: who stands,
has stood, will always stand
She called him: arriver

He called her: the heart and the womb
are similar
She called him: arrow in my heart
Judy Grahn

As many poets do, especially if they admire a particular poet (it’s great practice), I copied Judy’s style, trying to capture in my words the beautiful naming that sounds Native American in nature. Reading this, I feel as if I’ve been granted an intimate glimpse into the lives of these two lovers.

As I began to write, I immediately fell across a stumbling block. She was writing this in third person about other people. If I wanted to make it a personal love poem, I needed to write it in first person. What this meant was, I had to write as if I knew what my beloved would call me. And that meant I had to praise myself as well. As usual, I had set a harder task than was asked of me. If one must love themselves to truly love another, then I was setting out to prove that with a poem.

Despite how daunting the exercise seemed, below you can read my effort to complete this self-imposed challenge. Afterwards, I asked Leigh if the names rang true to her. She agreed, although she seemed surprised by a few. She was quite sweet on me the rest of the day. Such is the power of poetry. And love “that stands, has stood, will always stand.”

How We Call Each Other

I call her: queen of bees
She calls me: poem maker
I call her: feet planted in earth
She calls me: lightning strikes

I call her: bringer of honey,
strong body, another new supper,
hands-like-white-doves-landing,
healer, inventor, evergreen

She calls me: stands-the-watch,
broken heart, innocence,
fire fighter, laughs out loud,
bird lover, blue

I call her: tall grass bends
She calls me: swims with waves

I call her: has many lives,
has many gifts, has hidden her sorrow
She calls me: always the same

I call her: this is home
She calls me: I belong here

Jul 14, 2015 - Writer's Life    1 Comment

For the Love of Words

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My father wrote a sermon a week for over 50 years. Fifty-two weeks in a year, well, you do the math. That’s not counting funerals, weddings, memorial services and the interim preaching he did until he was 80. This is a major accomplishment, a passionate act of dedication and commitment. I attribute these traits, my love of words and a commitment to writing, to my dad. I’m also surprisingly comfortable in a pulpit, onstage, or anywhere I’m asked to stand and deliver. Before Dad became a minister, he wanted to be an actor. It must be in the blood. My brother is a preacher, too.

My dad has been diagnosed with vascular dementia. Luckily for those of us who love him, his disease progressed slowly. Until his early 80’s, he could hold his own in an argument and was still teaching a weekly Sunday school class. Now his dementia has progressed to the point where daily life is difficult for him; even more so for my mom as his primary caregiver.

Still in fair physical condition, Dad has lost perhaps the most painful things a person can lose: his memories, his understanding and retention of written language, his own vocabulary. For a man who spent his whole life deriving meaning from language–through his reading and research, his writing, his listening ear, even his daily prayers and scripture–all are lost to him now.

Since I can remember, my dad led us in a “devotional” time each morning after breakfast. In order to make the Word accessible to his young children, he purchased and read children’s bible stories with large colored illustrations, as well as morality tales we could understand. My favorite book was “Bird Life in Wington” by John Calvin Reid. These were moral parables or fables whose main characters were owls and bluejays, robins and sparrows. All the birds were members (or their membership was eminent) at the First Birderian Church of Wington. They weren’t perfect, either. They made foolish mistakes like we did. I gasped. I cried. I was completely caught up in their avian drama. And I loved the First Birderians long after I was “too old” to hear about them at devotional.

I loved the classic Bible stories, too. I never tired of the miracles, the romance and violence, the poetry of a gigantic book written primarily in iambic pentameter. David and Goliath. Jesus. Lazarus. Wild John the Baptist whose head ended up on a platter. The prostitute Mary Magdalene. Moses and the Israelites looking for a land of milk and honey. Fishermen.

In the end, I have my dad to thank for my love of words. We may have stuck to a handful of books, and only one carried any real significance in his eyes. but it was chock full of beautiful images and language. I was encouraged to read it all, even the songs of Solomon, because, hey, they were in the bible!

The poetry of the Psalms proved some of my favorites. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For Thou art with me.” The 23rd Psalm comforts me in times of fear, of loss. I pray these words are still alive somewhere inside the man who first taught me to love them, my dad.

Jul 2, 2015 - Writer's Life    1 Comment

Green as Grief

IMG_3262Nothing but green in the garden now, if you don’t count the sleek black and white ducks asleep beneath the collards. I am relieved when they curl into a downy patchwork quilt there. In my mind they are safe and unseen from both land and sky. They seem comfortable hidden under thick wide leaves, stretched out in the rich, damp soil.

Having spent some time in Texas recently, I grew accustomed to sky, giant clouds, sunsets. Now I know what visitors to our mountains mean when they say, “Everything is so close.” I feel a bit claustrophobic on my porch where two great maples join limbs and hold leafy hands overhead in our front yard. They reach toward the roof and mix it up with the small red maple below them. When I left for Dallas, the Blacks had not been fully leafed. Now the parkway views puff with giants rounded by twenty shades of green.

In the garden, the lacy hair of carrots droops and drags the ground like willow trees while peas rise into a tangled mass of green. Tomatoes hug their stakes, form hard little balls that have yet to ripen into red, orange, or yellow juiciness. Strawberries, picked, eaten or frozen, leave green and brown patches of ragged leaves in an unmade bed. Asparagus waves from stringed captivity and long, dark stalks of garlic begin to curl but are not quite ready to be unearthed. Even our five apple trees groan beneath the weight of apples much too green to eat.

I admit, summer has never been my favorite season. When I was a teen, I spent June, July, and August lifeguarding long, blue pools of cool from daylight until after dark. I fled to those oasis as soon as I could, running from my mother’s garden which burst with life in the surly Mississippi humidity. I see us together still, she demonstrating repeatedly how to “get the root out” and make sure we shook the clinging clods back into the bed–as if somewhere in that rich Southern soil there might be a deficit of dirt. It was a jungle, green and fecund, itchy to every inch of my fair, sensitive skin.

I know I need all this green to breathe and shade me, it’s true. I am not an ocean, plains, or desert person. But like words, the thick woods and clusters of leaves can become claustrophobic. There must be more Texan in me than I thought. I dream of wide open spaces with nothing to confuse the line of sight or to hide behind; where the pitfalls are obvious and the snake is visible coiled beside the path. Unfortunately, a lot of open spaces also boast a burning sun, with quickening breezes more like a blast from an open oven with no green to filter and cool.

My wordless mind remains stuffed with images I can’t separate into ideas, dreams I can’t see for all the thick life around me. I pretend I am weeding out what is useless, pray that what I pile into the compost wasn’t something I needed. I feel lost in all this green, needing a clear, deep pool in which to baptize myself anew. I know grief is like this; disorderly, chaotic, claustrophobic. I need to, but would rather not, write it out. Metaphor is as close as I can come to the real thing.

Perhaps I simply need to reconcile myself with the knowledge that what dies creates all this new growth. If only there was a collard large enough for me to curl beneath; where I could fall asleep beside the ducks, in the moist earth with the smell of iron and musty leaf rising in my nostrils, healing me back to ground again.

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Mar 6, 2015 - Writer's Life    1 Comment

A Clock, A Bottle, A Matchstick Holder

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“Every picture tells a story, don’t it?” Rod Stewart’s single line in a long song is profound. He had a way of painting with lyrics so that we could see the places he’d been and the things he’d done. I think every picture, especially one you paint or draw yourself, tells a story.  I find that drawing objects in a room–really, any room of my house or that of a friend’s–brings memories surrounding back to life. In this drawing, for instance, of a clock, a bottle, and a matchstick holder, there are dozens of related stories; not only mine but those of people I love. As I sketch each item, I revisit those memories and my drawing becomes something more profound and meaningful to me.

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The clock was built by Leigh’s Uncle Howard. It no longer works, so in its world, the time is always 4:48. Everyone should have at least one clock that doesn’t work in their house because that time tells a story all its own. Uncle Howard was a wonderful male role model in Leigh’s life. As an accomplished carpenter, he showed her how to work with her hands. If Leigh said, “I want to build some hutches for my rabbits”, he would show her how, then step back and let her do the work. They might not be the most beautiful hutches, but they were functional and built to last. Leigh builds many things we need on the farm, and I thank Uncle Howard often for his early encouragement and instruction.

In the process of telling me about his building skills, I also learned that Uncle Howard raised a baby blue jay as a pet that would sit on his shoulder and come and go as he pleased. Beside the point? I think not. This is all part of the story of the clock which he built for her out of love with his own hands. Although it quit working some time ago, she has moved it everywhere she has lived since she left home. Uncle Howard is gone to a timeless place now, but his clock lives on; an intimate object which is part of my beloved’s life.

The old Sprite bottle which dates back to the 60’s or early 70’s was the first thing I found on this land we now call home. Standing on the bridge, looking down at the creek with Leigh, I spotted the open end of the bottle sticking out of the mud bank just above the water. I scrambled down the rocks and dug it out. It was completely preserved with the SPRITE label intact and the dark green bumps which used to be an identifying feature of Sprite. How many times as a kid did I run my fingers over those bumps never realizing they were there because it made the bottle easy to hold, especially with hands wet from a swimming pool.

We found the turkey feathers on our next trip to the land we now call 5 Apple Farm. As we wandered through the Indian field with Jane, we found a bouquet of huge turkey feathers. Later, we saw the entire troop head-bobbng their way across the field to drink from the stream. I put the feathers in the Sprite bottle for luck, in hopes of making the dream of our land come true, and there they have remained ever since.

The matchstick box I found out junking with my friend, Trudy, at an antique store called Menagerie in our little town of Burnsville. If you wander the booths and look closely, you’ll often find some authentic old pieces from the mountain people who have lived here so long. I loved this particular matchbox holder because the tin is painted like a coop complete with chicken and rooster on the front. Best of all Trudy pointed out, there is a striker opening on the side. Not all of these old boxes have those cuts. The box sits on the mantel where it is used daily during the long winter months when we start fires in our wood stove.

If you can sketch a keepsake or a wildflower, tell a story about it, or write a poem using the images it conjures up for you, then you understand art on a most personal level. In my book, if you can do any one of these;  even better, if you have the chutzpa to do all three, you can call yourself an artist.

mendy and turkey feather

 

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