September in North Carolina means the return of the scuppernong grape.
It’s the state fruit. I first tasted scuppernongs as a child, standing with my grandfather under his arbor, thick leaves waving in the breeze, benevolent sun intermingling with cool shadow. The plain appearance of these grapes is misleading; the taste is divine. Richer than anything on Earth. Those thick, humble hulls contain ambrosia. And seeds; Granddaddy said just spit ’em out. It’s worth it.
Today’s his birthday. He’d be 114. As long as I live, he is, the scuppernong is, inextricable from September…
Every year, I await the return.
And savor it.
September, sovereign whose Crowning glory is not of gilt but of Unassuming mottled orbs, Pendulous bronze-green Pendants strung on knotted vine. Elysian fields, perhaps, this black earth where my Roots run deep, where my ancestors sleep. Noble edict, “Be fruitful and multiply,” Obeyed here to an extent only by divine design. North Carolina’s soil stirred, responded, produced— God alone infused the foretaste of heaven in its grapes.
With deepest thanks to the friends who know and bring me these offerings from their families’ old vines.
Thanks also to the inspirational Poetry Friday gathering at Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme and to Matt for hosting.
As COVID restrictions finally began to lift, my husband and I ventured out to a nice restaurant for lunch. We practically had the place to ourselves. Afterward, as the day was bright and breezy, we decided to walk along the outdoor mall’s trendy shops and boutiques. The sidewalks, normally crowded, were empty, perfect for a promenade… I almost felt as if I should be holding a parasol and that my husband should be wearing a striped jacket, a straw hat, and carrying an ornamental cane…on and on we strolled, aimlessly, just drinking in the glorious early-summer afternoon, temperate and rare.
“Let’s cross over here,” said my husband, grasping my hand, when I looked up to see…
on an otherwise blank, unremarkable wall…
a magical door.
“Oooh! Wait!” I said, dropping my husband’s hand to take a picture: I must write about this…
A painted portal. With light fixtures on either side to illuminate it at night. Even though it isn’t really a door.
—Or is it?
It seems straight out of a fantasy novel: A door to another world, a conspicuous portkey, an enchanted painting like that of the Narnian ship Dawn Treader hanging on a bedroom wall, coming to life as Eustace, Edmund, and Lucy rushed at it and fell through into the ocean…
Standing there on the vacant sidewalk, on that bright, ethereal afternoon so strangely devoid of other people, I could almost believe the portal was real, that it led to… something beyond.
I recognized the depiction, of course—a modified version of one of the best-known works of art in the world. Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night. He painted it in his asylum room. It’s the view from his window, facing east, before the sunrise. He would write to his brother that “the morning star was very large.” The scene is dark. It is blue. At the time, van Gogh’s mind was dark and blue; he was a deeply religious man who’d suffered much mental and emotional pain, who’d sacrificed for his art to his own detriment, though most others found little value in his paintings until after his suicide. The full scope of the village can’t be seen here in the portal on the wall, and it wasn’t a village that van Gogh saw as he painted the original; it was in his mind. Those are cypress trees dominating the foreground—funerary trees, symbols of mourning.
I thought: Is this a portal I’d want to pass through? A place where I really want to find myself?
But then… my husband and I had just come out of a dark place. The COVID stay-at-home order. Shadowy, uncertain days swirling with horror and mourning as the worldwide death toll spiked. Refrigerated trucks needed for storing corpses, images of caskets lined up for burial… which of us ever expected to find ourselves here? Public places closed for the sake of public health, at last re-opening, tentatively, with social distancing requirements… we were still (and still are, even now) unable to return to church where my husband pastors…
—The church. Note how large it is, there in the mysterious doorway. Much larger in proportion to the one van Gogh actually painted. He wanted to be a pastor. He failed the exams. He became a missionary, gave up his own comfort on behalf of the impoverished congregation, and slid deeper into psychosis and poverty.
This artwork hits me anew with its unique, transformative force… for that is what art does. It speaks to the spirit. Van Gogh didn’t paint what he saw; he painted his interpretation of it. The tormented man looked through the asylum window and focused on the stars. A hundred and thirty-one years later I stand on a sidewalk before a quasi-reproduction of his famous work, looking at the enlarged church, with the words of C.S. Lewis echoing in my mind: “At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”
Much gratitude to Margaret Simon for hosting Spiritual Journey Thursday for August on her blog, Reflections on the Teche. Margaret said: “My topic is spiritual art. I often find that art speaks to me in a spiritual way, like poetry.” Sparked by this challenge. my thoughts went straight to the portal, this painting, and van Gogh. Visit Margaret’s post, “Art for the Soul,” for more odysseys.
The C.S. Lewis quote is from The Weight of Glory, a wartime sermon first published in 1941.The title is derived from 2 Corinthians 4:17: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”
Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this sun of York; And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house In the deep bosom of the ocean buried…
Now is 2020: The year of our discontent. Heavy clouds of pain, anger, injustice enshroud our houses, our cities, our minds, our days. COVID-19 cases still spike, yet to reach their peak. Flocking to the oceans no longer makes for a “glorious summer,” with crowded beaches described as ‘Petri dishes’. Many people are still out of work; some have lost their entire livelihood. Stress levels are so high, my dental hygienist tells me, that offices are being flooded with people whose teeth are cracking from grinding and whose joints hurt due to anxiety-induced inflammation. America is a nation, if not indivisible, then certainly fractured, almost soul-split (anyone recall Tom Riddle and his horcruxes?) over the complexities of recognizing and amending institutional racism to something as simple as wearing a mask. We ask: When and how can we go back to school, safely? No one really knows, although plans are being made, submitted, approved. A greater question: How can we go back to school, to life itself, as it was?
We must not.
Now is THE time to be discontent with what was. With what is. A time to break down and a time to build up, to reinvent, redefine, reunite.
In light of everything, a litany:
We can’t go back to what what works for some but not all to ideologies and theories over actual ideas and self-actualization.
We can’t go back to wearing blinders to plowing on in the same mentally-furloughed furrows.
We can’t go back to resurrect what we’ve killed on the altar of systemic oracles on the sudden late revelation therein lies no salvation.
We can’t go back from ages and ages hence to tell the children we’re sorry and to plead for retroactive grace.
We can’t go back to repaint our story. We can only begin, here and now, creating an inviolable mosaic from our broken pieces.
A ‘thought mosaic’ of student reading interests at a Family Literacy Lunch event. Vitally important questions for educators and systems: How are students being honored as individuals? How much learning do students get to “own” vs. what’s delivered to them? Is greater value placed on conformity or creativity? On enduring or endeavoring? On internalizing and imitating, or imagining and innovating? Are students led to believe that their thoughts, ideas, experiences, perspectives, preferences, worries, hopes, and dreams have validity? How often do they get to reflect on these, express these, vs. being confined to and assessed on rubric responses to reading and writing prompts? Now’s the time for examining—microscopically—every standard, curriculum, practice, and program for the seeds they actually are in this organic microcosm of society.
One recent morning, dark and dreary, as I pondered, weak and weary, after binge-watching vintage noir films (as if one needs more psychological drama on top of taking one’s husband for another ER visit due to his sky-high blood pressure and pains in his still-healing heart, rising pandemic numbers and escalating real-life horrors televised nonstop on the news, hurricane-spawned thunderstorms, demon-possessed Internet connectivity, and Election Year), I’d had enough couch-cocooned passivity. I tossed my safe warm blanket aside. I got up, showered, dressed, fixed my hair and makeup even if I wasn’t going to see another person but my husband and son, who’d taken his dad to pick up new prescriptions. I would face the day and whatever it held, head-on.
Having pulled myself together, feeling quite in command for the first time in a while, strolling back through the living room, picking up random bits of fluff from Dennis the dachshund’s destruction of yet another furred squeaky toy (why do we keep buying these), I noted one of my guys sitting on the couch.
Huh. Could’ve sworn they’d already gone to the pharmacy... barely glancing, bent on my fluff-retrieval mission, I said, “Hey, didn’t know you were—”
Whoever it was, sitting there on the couch, wasn’t.
There were no feet on the rug.
No legs, either.
It was the blanket. Sitting on the couch, right where I tossed it.
Now, this is when it either really pays, or really, really, really doesn’t pay to be a reader/writer/film noir binge-watcher.
Because, voilà! A STORY.
And because, Heaven help me, I know too many, truth is stranger than fiction, brains can’t always process what eyes are seeing, I overdosed on ghost stories and tabloids like National Enquirer and Weekly World News as a youngster, watched too many Twilight Zone marathons as an adult, it’s my fault I’m this wired from excessive cups of coffee, that my mind short-circuits with what and why and how, as in: How could the blanket land exactly like that and look so like a person? Albeit a kind of smallish one? Unless… unless it happens to be covering something heretofore invisible… and how long might it have been sitting here without my knowing?
But it’s only the blanket, right?
I check the driveway. Yeah, my guys are gone. No one’s here. Just me and Dennis, who saw me cleaning up his toy-wreckage and promptly took off for the bedroom to hide under the bed.
I eye this blanket. I walk around it.
All those times I told students to think what if? comes back to haunt me… What if the blanket has taken on a life of its own, after I cocooned myself in it for so long? What if my melancholy has taken form, substance, become a Thing, made manifest by the blanket? What if I’m just, like, finally losing it (would that be so terrible)?
I almost come entirely out of my hide to leave it lying beside me as yet another separate Thing. I was beside myself …
It’s just the house popping, does it all the time, you’d think I’d be used to it by now (why is it SO LOUD, it sounds deliberate … what if someone is living in the attic? has been living there for ages and I haven’t known? … don’t be ridiculous, the floor up there is incomplete, no one has fallen through the ceiling… yet…).
The blanket isn’t moving.
It’s just sitting. Rather benignly.
I decide to take a few photos (proof, you know. In case of… whatever).
That’s what I said I was ready to face, right? The day and whatever it held? Head-on?
Be careful what you wish for…
So silly. Absurd. Over it.
Time to reveal what is and isn’t real. I reach for the edge of the blanket and
More of it each day. Driving the darkness away with its gentle appearing, rousing bright-eyed birds earlier and earlier, which respond in uninhibited chirps, songs, chatter. New day new day new day day day …
It’s a beautiful time to be alive. To be reborn. To mark having been born.
“What do you want for your birthday?” asked my husband.
“New rocking chairs.”
I’d been thinking on it.
The old chairs on the front porch are cracked, broken, portions held in place with wood glue. Time for them to go. Time for new ones. I want to sit outside in the light, in the breeze, even though it remains oddly chilly, to hear the birds, to see Papa Finch alight on the roof. I hear him before I see him; I wonder what his loud twitter means but I always answer, “Hi Finch!” Then there he is, tiny brown creature with his chest faintly dusted red, sitting high above the garage against the cloudless blue sky, looking directly at me. The porch is part of his domain. Sometimes from inside the house I hear his loud chirp; looking through the window, I find him sitting on the white porch rail. I suspect he’s eyeing the front door wreath for his bride’s nest. Although I took the wreath down for the winter, I’d left the old nest from last year attached. With the coming of March, and with great care, I put the faded, bird-loved wreath back in hopes that the nest would be reused. It hasn’t. So I removed it to make way for new.
Like my rocking chairs.
When my granddaughter visits now, it’s only on the front steps for a while, until the coronavirus social distancing expires. She comes with eyes full of spring light, as blue as the sky above my finch, who never fails to join our gathering and to add his voice to the conversation.
“That’s a loud bird!” says my granddaughter, age four.
“He is. Look, there he is, on the roof. Hi, Finch!”
And in these bright little moments, I revel in the poetry of life, that this bird (I wonder if he was one of the previous hatchlings from my wreath? ) should be a mainstay. Especially as my granddaughter’s name is Scout. Yes, from To Kill a Mockingbird. Whose last name was … Finch.
I want sturdy chairs on the porch, for resting. As a place to quiet my mind with the greenness of the grass in the yard and over where the path leads round the pond through greener trees. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul … To share with my granddaughter as she grows, to have coffee with my husband who almost didn’t live to see another spring. To celebrate living, being, enduring. To converse with generations of finches who’ve chosen to make my home theirs. To know, as evening falls, and I must go in, that I savored the gifts of that day to their fullest, their deepest.
My husband bought the chairs.
“We’ll put the old ones on the back deck,” he told me.
I wanted to say Why, they’re held together with glue, they’ll last maybe three days out there with no shelter, let’s just throw them away. But I didn’t. He wants to keep them, for some reason …
Truth is, the old chairs look kind of nice on the back deck by the flowerpots. For ever how long they last out there.
It was the rocker nearest the kitchen that made me realize.
Thump thump. Thump thump.
Dennis the dachshund woke from his sleep in a patch of sun-stripes at the back door. Ears perked.
“What is that?” I asked him from my chair at the kitchen table, where I was typing on the laptop.
Rising, looking through the window.
The rocker, rocking all by itself.
Thump thump. Thump thump.
The other rocker opposite sat motionless.
The wind, I thought.
Second thought: Why this rocker and not the other?
Third thought: Is the wind — or something — IN that chair?
It reminded me that I’ve always wanted to write a collection of ghost stories. An incongruous thought on such a bright, gold-green day.
How have I missed it?
For all the weeks—months—of the wind’s extended gusting and moaning under the eaves, unlike I’ve ever heard it before, I failed to notice it had stopped. All through the COVID crisis it’s been a grieved entity, swirling around my house in desperation, haunting my spirit with its voice, agitating the tall pines.
It’s still here, as my rocking chair can attest. But subdued.
Perhaps the wind has decided to sit a spell and rest. Perhaps the rocker was an invitation.
I am not sure we are friendly, yet, the wind and I, but I will offer it hospitality as long as it’s a benevolent guest. Is it taking up residence here, like the finches?
Perhaps I will take my coffee out there one afternoon and ask—begging the wind’s pardon, of course—why it cried so long and so hard.
But as I have no wish to stir anything up, maybe I’ll just let the wind rock to its heart’s content, in peace.
One of my favorite themes in literature—in life—is redemption.
Life’s a complicated adventure. Things happen. We respond to them. Each of us is an individual, complex universe of tangled history, experience, emotion, psyche, and DNA. We make choices and our choices make us … and our story. As Shakespeare would say, “Thereby hangs a tale.”
Since I read The Goldfinch in February, while homebound with snow and a broken foot (which seems an eon ago, now) I’ve thought about how certain choices reveal true character more than others. For all the breathtaking artistry of the author’s craftsmanship, in all the moments I paused to reread passages to absorb more of their glory as the story swept me away, one little, shining nugget wedged itself in my heart deeper than anything else. Perhaps it is strange, I don’t know, and I will try not to be a spoiler here … suffice it to say that the main character, suffering from trauma, descends into self-destructive behavior as a means of coping. As he attempts to escape his circumstances, he takes a little dog with him rather than see it neglected. It’s not his dog and he’s actually embarrassed by its “girlishness” (it’s a Maltese) but his appalled distaste over the treatment of the animal and the conditions in which he first found it motivate him to make a rescue at risk to himself. This I found strikingly heroic. A revelation of the character’s inner wiring working at its best. Redeeming.
Then of course there’s the loving character of the little dog itself and I am quite, quite sure that I would have found that just as poignant if I had not had a little dog curled up in my lap as I read the novel.
I have been wanting to capture these sensations, somehow, ever since. Suddenly, today, it gels. Maybe it’s because the sun dawned so bright this morning on our troubled, changed world as it wobbles on. Maybe because this brightness mingles with a searing sense of grief and apprehension about the days to come. About how much of life as we know it will be lost. Destroyed. I’ve been writing an abnormal amount of poetry so maybe images are standing out with sharper edges and taking clearer form than usual.
At any rate, this is my first attempt at a nonet, inspired by that act of rescue in The Goldfinch. Maybe it’s about wishing for rescue. Or redefining it. Sometimes, in saving another, one is often saving oneself …
Redemption may be life’s greatest theme a sign that all hope is not lost overcoming brokenness in the effort to save another creature not capable of saving itself. =Love.
One of the best books I’ve read in recent years is The Overstory, Richard Powers’ novel of the American chestnut blight that wiped out almost all of those beautiful trees by the end of the 1930s. Powers wraps stories of people’s lives around that core like concentric rings. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction on April 15, 2019, a year ago yesterday. Author Robert Macfarlane’s enthusiastic praise of the book led me to read it and to plunge deep into the secretive, endlessly fascinating world of trees. They communicate with one another. They have memory. Maybe they are whispering their secrets to us … This week Macfarlane shared an article on Twitter about the social distance practice of some trees, the phenomenon known as crown or canopy shyness, their treetops (“overstory”) not touching in order to survive in the competition for resources like sunlight. That was the clarion call to me: Write something. About trees and how they do this. But what? How? Then I stumbled across a different article about the Fibonacci sequence of trees, oaks in particular: as their branches grow, five branches to two spirals, a pattern is formed. Could I combine these ideas, somehow?
Doesn’t poetry always make a way?
A Fibonacci poem on the social distance practices of trees:
Trees keep distance: crown shyness, their overstory, shared but not touching each other.
So far I’ve managed to write a poem a day for National Poetry Month, a feat I’ve never attempted before. All my life I’ve loved rhythm, rhyme, and free verse, but the great fun has been experimenting with form. This is my second completed blitz … how apropos is that name for the times …
Stay at home Stay on track Track the days Track your steps Steps in faith Steps to a better you You should know You aren’t alone Alone in all the world Alone at last Last night Last time Time stands still Time on our hands Hands sanitized Hands not held Held a puppy Held in the heart Heart grows fonder Heart of the matter Matter of fact Matter constitutes the universe Universe pays attention Universe giving gifts Gifts to guide you along the way Gifts of words Words are power Words are magic Magic portals Magic moments Moments too few Moments too short Short on time Short of breath Breath of fresh air Breath on the mirror Mirror image Mirror glass Glass half empty Glass half full Full of sound and fury Full of hope Hope against hope Hope springs eternal Eternal God Eternal love Love like there’s no tomorrow Love your neighbor Neighbor Tomorrow
In case you’re curious: Here’s my first blitz, Signs of Sun.
In late February, we had our only snow this winter.
I woke in the morning to find the sun shining through the crape myrtle I planted when we first moved here. Ice crystals glittered on the tree limbs like a thousand prisms—tiny, brilliant rainbow lights. I took a picture. When I looked at the image, the word that came to mind was holy.
Maybe it was the brightness of the sun. The reaching ray of light. The purity of snow. The hush, the stillness. Just a sense of divine glory, of peace.
And then I noticed where that sunbeam ended.
Oh, how I recalled, in that instant, first reading Where the Red Fern Grows whenI was around ten years old. It tore my heart out. I wept for weeks. A dog story, of course. And hardship, love, and sacrifice. Wilson Rawls wrote:
I had heard the old Indian legend about the red fern. How a little Indian boy and girl were lost in a blizzard and had frozen to death. In the spring, when they were found, a beautiful red fern had grown up between their two bodies. The story went on to say that only an angel could plant the seeds of a red fern, and that they never died; where one grew, that spot was sacred.
That’s when the boy, Billy, finds a red fern growing between the graves of his two dogs.
Look where my sunbeam ends.
Directly over the grave of my family’s little dachshund, Nik, who was with us for sixteen years. That’s his memorial statue rising up from the snow.
I saw his shirt from across the crowded cafeteria:
Writing my OWN story.
I hadn’t seen him before, didn’t know him, but I had to go over and say: “That’s the most awesome shirt! Do you like to write?”
He smiled and nodded, eyes bright and cheerful: “Yes!”
We had a short conversation about reading and writing. He was new to our school. After this initial encounter he was quick to come ask questions if he wasn’t sure about how we do things here, always greeting me with an earnest face and slightly self-conscious smile.
He wasn’t with us long. On his last days, he asked if he could stay after lunch and clean all of the tables as his grade level headed to recess. He wiped every table meticulously, then straightened all of the cardboard trays in the serving line for the classes to follow.
It was something he could control. A positive and productive outlet.
I never got to write with him.
I thought about students over the years and what I learned about their lives from their writing. A girl whose family slept in their car on the journey north to visit relatives for the holidays; how she woke in the morning, shivering, to find frost coating the windows. A teenager whose vivid third-person narrative about a child born in another country, who survives abuse to find a new life and family in America . . . it switches to first person at the end as he rejoices and reveals he was that child. A first-grader who wanted to write about her dog, how the police shot and killed it. Unnerved, I told her teacher, in hopes that this was just a disturbing fabrication. It wasn’t. The child saw it happen.
For all the story-loving writer that I am, I know writing is not a magic cure for the pain and scars of life. It is, however, a real coping mechanism, a positive and productive outlet, a way of seeing and dealing with and finding hope to overcome. Even in the youngest of us, many of whom already know that life doesn’t follow a neat formula, that it seldom follows a clear and sensible series of steps. I often think about what passes for “writing” in schools; it can’t always be a neat response to a text or a prompt. If we are truly to equip children with tools for life, it begins with a real response to their lives in this world. We owe them, for as long as we have them, a place to feel safe, to be loved, a way of having some control in the face of change, to find their own power despite their powerlessness.To write their own lives, even as life is unfolding.
To have hope on the journey as it takes so many twists and turns.
Time is of the essence; we don’t know for how long or short a time they’ll be in our sphere of influence. Good-byes can come without warning.
And so I quickly gathered the best tools I had at my disposal: pencils, notebooks, a couple of favorite books from my shelf. It was my way of saying Godspeed, child. Write your OWN story. Believe. Attend to your heart. Here’s a piece of mine to carry with you.
Edward knew what it was like to say over and over again the names of those you had left behind. He knew what it was like to miss someone. And so he listened. And in his listening, his heart opened wide and then wider still.
You must be filled with expectancy. You must be awash in hope. You must wonder who will love you, whom you will love next.
—excerpts, Kate DiCamillo, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane