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.
Woke in the wee hours to total darkness, power loss, Hurricane Isaias smacking the house, tearing at the roof. Isaias is purely physical. He has no voice, unlike the ghost-wind that moaned and mourned for weeks under our eaves with the advent of spring and COVID-19.
Yet somewhere in the darkness, despite the raging gusts, little frogs kept up a cheery chorus.
Not much to do but stay in bed and wait it out.
And fall back asleep. And dream…
I am driving a car that belongs to my father, I think. Except that it doesn’t look like any car he ever owned. Nice little SUV, dark gray. I am coming home from visiting my grandparents in the country. I reach the quaint part of the city where they lived when I was little, before my grandfather retired. I’ve always loved this place… but I realize just now that I can’t turn the car. The steering wheel is gone. How have I managed to come so far without it? The car begins to spin and slide; I’ve lost control of it, I fear it’s going to be hit, but somehow I get it to a safe parking spot by a curb. I will have to backtrack and find that missing steering wheel—how could I have lost it? How is that even possible?
I go (on foot? in the same steerless car?) all the way back to my grandparents’ home. They’re out in the yard, very busy loading and unloading big objects (equipment? furniture?)on some kind of truck. Grandma’s face is serious. She doesn’t have time to talk to me [should have been a major clue that I was dreaming, as this never happened in reality]. When I tell her why I’m back she just says the steering wheel is over there (she points) in the road. Seems I lost it on the very start of my journey home…
I go to reclaim the steering wheel only discover two things: This is a rather large steering mechanism but the actual wheel isn’t there… and the little old road is freshly-tarred and paved. It’s never been paved. It’s supposed to be gravel. Sure, it looks nice, stretching out smooth and black, but why would anyone pave these tiny, meandering back roads where so few people live? This is a lot of work and expense that isn’t really ‘better’, I say to myself. With mounting sadness, I run a short dash on this new pavement to see that my grandmother’s home place—a small, white house with a porch and a tin roof, where Grandma and her seven siblings were born over a hundred years ago—is gone. An expanse of green grass is all there is to see…
And then I wake.
Loving symbolism as I do, I know the dream connects to having little or no control in life. We’re living through a pandemic. A hurricane rages. I work in a school and the return next week will be drastically different. Life plows on despite the loss of the familiar. Nothing looks or feels or works quite like it used to. We travel a strange road interspersed with shadows of the real and surreal. The world, and our existence, have been altered in myriad ways. But… to be without power is not the same as being powerless…
As I write, Isaias has moved on. There is no damage here, no trace of him whatsoever now. I could revel in this glorious day, the azure sky with occasional cottony clouds drifting by, the unidentifiable bird with long wings soaring high, cicadas resuming their buzzing in the still-standing trees from which they were not shaken…that sound being one that connects me more than anything to safety and my grandparents’ home in the eastern North Carolina countryside. I could employ here my one word for the year, reclamation… reclaiming the day, reclaiming life, even my strange dream-attempt at reclaiming that lost steering wheel in a vehicle that wasn’t mine…
But the power came back on and the TV is full of destruction in the northeastern regions of my state. Homes destroyed by tornadoes spawned by Isaias. People dead and missing (some were children, who’ve since been accounted for).
And I think instead that the road to reclamation is so hard, so strange, so littered with precious, scattered fragments of life, obstructed by such mountains to move. We can control so little.
When we find we are unable to steer, perhaps that is when we are being driven most toward one another. Reclamation, then, lies in our responsiveness. In our willingness.
So does, perhaps, our redemption.
Photo: The road back to Stevenage. Peter O’Connor. CCBY-SA
I am from sharp pencils from Ivory soap and Duke’s mayonnaise I am from the secret vault under the concrete back steps (cool, cobwebby, smelling of ghosts) I am from gardenias from towering Eastern pines heavy boughs whispering waving to me like a vertical green sea I’m from storytelling and dogs from Columbus and Ruby I’m from Reader’s Digest and gospel music From “You’re the oldest, set the example” and “take care of your precious self” I’m from Jesus Loves Me, red-letter Bibles, put your offering in the plate I’m from the riverside and the shipyard from collards with hot pepper vinegar and carrot cake from scratch From my father’s crew-cut ever since his head was pierced by a friend’s cleats in a childhood game of deer and dog, from three translucent pink moles on Grandma’s chin. In trunks and in closeted boxes my grandmother’s painstaking albums rest atop layers of loose photos, paper strata of many eras. I am etched deep in this phosphorite, the living reliquary of all the stories.
My love for the sound of cicadas is a recurring motif in my writing.
It stems from childhood summers spent with my grandparents in the country, the most idyllic days of my existence.
In thinking of Earth Day, my first inclination is to write on In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
That verse, Genesis 3:19 in the King James, conjures images from At Home: A Short History of Private Life. Here’s Bill Bryson’s observations of country churchyards in England where churches seem to be sinking into the ground: Think about it. A country parish like this has an average of 250 people in it, which translates into roughly a thousand adults deaths per century, plus a few thousand more poor souls who didn’t make it to maturity. Multiply that by the number of centuries that the church has been here and you can see that what you have here is not eighty or a hundred burials but probably something more on the order of, say, twenty thousand … that’s a lot of mass, needless to say. It’s why the ground has risen three feet.
In other words … we are the earth.
Times being the pandemic they are, death surrounds us. April 22 also marks the anniversary of the sudden passing of my husband’s father at the age of fifty-four. My husband was just twelve.
But I do not wish to turn Earth Day into a death knell.
I write about cicadas today because they lie in the earth and emerge—some after seventeen years—to sing their song of life.
In the thick woods and byways of North Carolina, from May through September, it’s a deafening cacophony; but as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so there is beauty in the ear of the listener.
In honor of Earth Day, a “found poem,” of sorts, from a former blog post I wrote, entitled Cicada Rhythms:
The song of cicadas calls to me from long ago from sultry summers in the country where narrow dirt roads keep an ominous forest from encroaching on rustic homeplaces from tiny cemeteries where baby after baby is buried under white monuments adorned with lambs at the old church just around the bend. The song is of the ages of the rising and falling of generations all of us coming and going in our time a song reverberating from oaks, pines, cypresses across canals teeming with frogs and turtles to white-tailed deer standing along the fields at dusk. It is the bright song of the sun of hope of continuity. It is the dark song of the night oddly comforting— something out in the blackness is vibrant, alive maybe keeping watch while children drift off to sleep. It is the sound of safety of stability of belonging. Calling, calling the crescendo mirrors the rhythm of life brimming with promise echoing eternity. When I hear it I am a child again no matter how many summers have come and gone. Every spring as I mark another year of existence I listen for the first rattle. You’re back! my heart sings. Ah, but we were here all along they might say if cicadas had words. There’s a lot of living and loving yet to do. You have today. Carry on.
The cicada isn’t exactly a beetle, but a “true bug.” They symbolize renewal, rebirth, transformation, change. They can disappear for many years to return en masse. Their buzzing call is made by the males, who begin singing soon after emergence.
A friend wanted to know if my family would like some face masks.
She is making them.
She sent us pictures of the fabric—she has bolts of it—for us to choose the prints.
Yesterday she and her husband pulled up in our driveway to drop off the masks. My husband and I went out to meet our friends, offering our thanks only in words, no hand-grasps or hugs … a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing … a few weeks back, we were all sitting around the dining room table here in the house, laughing and telling stories after a lasagna dinner. It seems long ago.
When will we be able to do so comfortably, again?
When I look at these masks, I see all that they represent. Shields in time of trouble. A friend channeling inertia into something productive, a practical means of battling an unseen enemy. Self-care spreading out like a blanket to cover others. Homemade love. Colorful patterns against the dark backdrop of our days.
These masks are artifacts of our times. Symbols of our story as we live it. And nothing connects humanity as much as story.
As I walked out to the driveway to receive these gifts, my grandmother’s voice echoed from across the years:
You won’t believe it, but where these woods are now used to be houses and farms, up and down this little road … when the Spanish flu came, it hit all but a couple of them … twelve people died in one week … Mama made pots of soup and Papa would carry it to their doors. He wouldn’t go in, of course …
Grandma wouldn’t have had living memory of this. When the influenza pandemic began in January 1918, she was only two. But she knew the stories. If my own memory serves me correctly, as I walked the tiny country cemeteries surrounding her homeplace, listening to her narratives of the people resting there—for she knew all their stories, and how they were connected— there was an unexpected commonality.
A death year. 1917.
That was before the Spanish flu.
Grandma nodded. There was a sickness before: They called it hemorrhagic fever. People would bruise and bleed from their noses and ears and eyes … a lot of people who tried to take care of the sick caught it and died, too …
She was hardly more than a baby then, a girl born and raised in a hard place in hard times, but here she stood, by the weather-worn stones under a cloudless blue sky, telling the stories seven decades later.
Because of story, these events are lodged in my memory a hundred years after they happened.
My father was Grandma’s first child, born during the Great Depression. Flour companies made their sacks with patterns and bright colors so people could make clothes out of them … look at my handmade face masks and tell me they aren’t reminiscent. A second child, my aunt, arrived with the war. Granddaddy moved the family from North Carolina to Virginia; he found work in the shipyard, where production increased to the point of cranking out ships in less than a third of the time it normally took. How can one not compare that to the scramble for mass production of ventilators today …
Grandma said: It was so hot that summer. I was miserable, being pregnant. I’d sit by the upstairs window and watch the iceman delivering blocks of ice to grocers … companies stopped making refrigerators … everything went into the war effort. I just cried. I’d have given anything for some of that ice … then we had ration cards and could only get certain things at certain times … once my sister Jack and her husband pooled their gas ration cards with ours and we all went on a trip to Massachusetts … it was so beautiful and so cool there …
I look at these masks and that is what I see.
The story of overcoming. Of determination. Of resourcefulness in time of scarcity. Of finding a means to be a good neighbor, a good friend, a real and present help in time of need, even if from a safe distance. Sharing so that everyone has enough. Acts of service, gifts of love. Sacrifice.
I love the stillness of the morning, before the dawn, which is presently hours away. I love the silence, the holy hush preceding the coming of the sun. My family, even the new puppy, slumbers on. If I have a word for these moments, it’s expectancy. If I were to step outside now I might hear footsteps in the pine straw beneath trees that border my back fence; I will not yet be able to see which creature is moving there in the dark. A white-tailed deer, perhaps, or a squirrel, which makes an astonishing amount of noise in the straw, much more more than larger creatures. Two mornings ago, in the first light, I glimpsed a huge gray rabbit running to and fro just beyond the fence. And if I wait long enough, I’ll hear my neighbor’s rooster crow. Any time now. He doesn’t wait for actual light that I can see. He’ll proclaim the new day, the continuum of daily living, before it’s set in motion. He’ll stir the goats in various pens throughout the neighborhood (not to be expected in a little subdivision—whatever happened to restrictive covenants?) and their loud chorus of wild baas will back up the rooster’s solo.
It’s life waking up again, claiming the day for its own.
On this new day, of this new year, this new decade, I think about life. The trouble with life, I once read, is that it’s so daily. Not merely being alive but trying to accomplish all that must be (or that we think must be) accomplished in this day, this week, this month … last year I learned a lesson about life on hiatus. When the life of someone you love hangs in the balance, all your best-laid plans disintegrate. Poof.
Moving forward becomes an act of will, a revised determination to do what you can, what’s most important, for that given day. Recovering ground, inch by precious inch.
Whether life is suspended, or stagnant, or spinning out of control, we still have choices. Maybe it’s resting more. Writing more. Reading more, singing more. Praying more. Maybe it’s seeking help. Maybe it’s restoring relationships, or releasing them. Or creating something beautiful, meaningful. What we want to do and what we’re actually able to do in a day, a week, a month, a year, may be vastly different, but reclamation doesn’t happen all at once. It happens in determined, consistent bits by bits. It is deliberate and intentional.
Once I wished for something like parallel lives, a cloning of sorts, with one of me staying home to write all day, one of me getting everything done in the house the way I want it, and another me going to work. I am exacting of myself; I do a thing, I want to do it well, and so I am easily paralyzed by my own standards.
I think of the sea, rolling on and on, its billows and rhythms, its continuity, its fluidity. I contemplate its healing properties, how it is designed to cleanse itself. I look at the photo I included at the top of this post, how, writes the photographer, the cemetery “is being reclaimed by the forest as alders, birch, spruce, fir and a couple apple trees crowd out the dozen or so headstones that stand here.” It’s in Newfoundland and that symbolism strikes right at my writer-heart, new found land.
That’s what reclamation is. Taking back solid ground, or creating new land, from what would submerge it, overtake it. Inch by precious inch, bit by bit. Yesterday I heard a sportscaster speak of Ron Rivera’s move from the Carolina Panthers to the Washington Redskins: “Coach Rivera has been part of a reclamation project before.” It took him four years to take the failing Panthers to the Super Bowl. He’s already begun the work for the Redskins, before he ever gets there … like my rooster here, calling to the dawn before it appears.
It’s hard daily work, reclamation. Progress is slow to see for a time.
But I’ve started.
I pulled the weeds out of the planters on my back deck and planted pansies, a bright bit of welcome on these cold mornings when I take the new puppy out. The puppy is himself an act of reclamation, an affirmation of love my family has always had for dogs (which, I’ve said before, have souls; purer than my own, there in those eyes). He marks a moving forward.
One step at a time, I’ll reclaim the house by many little needed repairs and coats of paint. Patience, endurance …
My writing, my writing. How many stories lay unfinished? Not begun? If I can learn to live nonlinear, to live as fluid as the sea, then anywhere is an entry point. Whenever, wherever, just plunge. The time necessary for writing will come if I just begin the reclamation.
Work. I write this paragraph not only for myself, but for other educators and instructional coaches struggling for clarity and a foothold in an ever-changing, shifting field: Beware the great chasm between theory and application, between programs that are packaged as “the magic bullet” and cost a pretty penny but fail to deliver. Be aware of the great gulf between data that’s visible and the stories of human children, not so visible. Push back all that encroaches on growing the children, that which would inhibit their love of learning. Reclaim that for them. Know them and their families and their stories. Know your colleagues and their stories. Write together, all of you; in this day of restorative practices and social-emotional wellness, why are people not writing more in such settings? We reclaim the very heart of our humanity when we share our stories.
—It is light now. A new day is here; I hear life stirring all around. Forget those restrictive covenants.
I love the two old mules who live down the road and around the bend from me.
They do not know this, of course. They don’t know me at all.
They do not know how they stir my soul when I drive by their pasture, or how the sight of them makes me feel like I just might be, for a few seconds, back in time. They are a brief glimpse of rural life as it was in the 1930s. Or 1920s. Or even long before. They are remnants of a time when man lived closer to the earth and life was hard but somehow better. The mules are reminders of my grandfather; I’ve rhapsodized about that before, having been a little girl who grew up in the city longing for the countryside that my grandfather loved and the past that he lived. All because of the stories. Granddaddy said, “Nobody had any money but everybody looked after each other and we were happy.”
So, I see these old mules several times a week and they never fail to lift my spirits. They fill me with an inexplicable sense of peace and well-being.
One day in the last few weeks when I drove by the pasture, anticipating this little stab of joy that the mules always impart, one of them was lying down on its side.
In all the years I’ve lived here, I have never seen one of the mules lying down.
The next time I drove by, the mule was still lying there in the same place. Completely on its side, motionless, while the other mule grazed close by.
I didn’t like it. Something was wrong.
On the third day when I passed by, that mule was in the very same spot and position.
I started to cry.
It had to be dead. What other reason could there be?
And where was the farmer? Didn’t he KNOW his mule was lying out there? Why would he leave it to die like this?
I came home and told my husband, sniffling: “I think one of those old mules is dead.”
“It’s been lying on its side in the very same spot for three days. It hasn’t moved at all.”
“Hmmm,” my husband mulled. “Did you see any buzzards?”
“Uh, no . . . .”
“All right then. The mule’s not dead.”
His nonchalance irritated me.
And the next day when I drove by the pasture — lo and behold! — the mule was standing!
I drove by several times, rejoicing.
—It is possible that the mules now know my car, even if they don’t know me.
And it occurred to me that I might be developing an obsession so I ceased mule-stalking for a couple of days.
But I asked a friend: “You know those mules who live just up from you? What’s wrong with one of them? I’ve seen it lying down so much I thought it had died. Except that there were no buzzards.”
Yes, my friend knows the mules and the farmer. Yes, that mule is not well and the farmer is quite aware. He’s had these mules for thirty years, since they were three years old. They are sisters, named Penny and Annie. The farmer knows Annie is suffering; she’s old and she now has sores from lying on her side so much. The farmer told my friend that he ought to put her down . . . except that when he does, her sister Penny will grieve herself to death. They have never been apart.
And my soul is stirred, my heart wrenches anew at this love story within a love story within a love story.
I brace myself every time I drive around the familiar bend, as the fencing and the red roof of the dilapidated barn come into view, not knowing what I’ll see. Maybe on a day when the sky is its bluest blue and the grass is its greenest green, Annie will go peacefully. It’s autumn now; as I draw near I see the shadows of the trees dappling the grass, waving to and fro, and little yellow leaves wafting through the air, catching the sunlight like glittering specks of gold. Maybe it will be a day like today. I suddenly worry about the coming frosts and Annie lying out there in the open instead of being warm and safe in the barn with Penny.
I reach the pasture. I slow down.
Annie’s lying on her side.
I come to a stop.
Penny quits grazing, lifts her head, looks at me.
Then Annie raises up to sit and look at me.
We watch each other for a minute.
I wonder what they think.
I can’t stay here in the road, so I drive on.
That was yesterday.
Today, today . . . when I rounded the bend early in the morning . . . they were both lying down.
Sisters to the end.
I will not want to drive this way anymore when the pasture stands empty, but for this moment, the mules live, they love, and their little pasture is a hallowed place.
More so than ever.
I think again of my favorite Shakespearean sonnet, about autumn, about dying, about the coming of night and being consumed by that which once nourished, about loving well that which you must leave . . . if mules had funeral services and if I officiated, that would be my eulogy.
Ah, Penny and Annie, you can’t know that when you go, you’ll take a little part of me with you.
Maybe it’s illogical.
I only know it’s true.
For I love you two old mules who live down the road and around the bend from me.
A hymn, of sorts, on hearing one of my favorite sounds for the last time this year—it echoes from idyllic childhood summers and the country roads of my ancestral homeplace. A strangely sacred sound, it always lifts my spirits and aches in my soul at the same time.
The dogs raced along the backyard fence, barking and growling like fiends at something on the other side. My husband, upon going out to investigate, hollered with equal parts glee and shock: “Come see this! You won’t believe it!”
All I could think was It had better not be a snake.
No, but close.
The dinosaur turtle.
Okay, not really dinosaur, just the biggest snapping turtle I’ve ever seen. In my yard, in the clover. With algae growing on her shell.
And her head.
I am really at a loss for words to describe her. Monumental. In size, and in her likeness to stone.
And tell me this tail does not scream dinosaur to you:
My family gawked, marveled, shuddered until we could gawk, marvel, and shudder no more. We let our visitor be. I went inside the house and watched from the kitchen window. After a few short minutes, she began zipping—okay, not really zipping, but crawling a whole lot faster than I imagined a turtle could—along the outside of our backyard fence. Periodically she stopped, leaned up, put her front feet on the fence, and stretched her neck impossibly long (think brontosaurus). Down she dropped again to resume her steady clip.
She’s trying to get to the woods behind our backyard, I thought. The fence is blocking her.
Yet when I turned away from the window for a moment, she vanished without a trace.
I felt oddly bereft.
I mean, it’s not like she’s a snuggly sort of creature.
Several days later I read in a local news article that a record number of snapping turtles appeared in our area en masse,looking for places to lay their eggs.
Nesting, they were.
Old Serpentina—I don’t even know how old she is, she just looks like the ages, a fossil from the dawn of time—her sense of urgency was real.
Maybe that’s what sort of spoke to me, without words. Mother to mother. Living being to living being. In my recoiling was a stab of appreciation; my sense of wonder overruled my impression of fearsome. And somehow, in all of it, lurked a twinge of sadness for which I have no explanation whatsoever.
When Carol Varsalona extended a recent invitation and challenge to create digital inspirations for her #SpringSplendor gallery, I thought of Serpentina. She came along in spring, all right. She’s not what I had in mind at all. I had a beach sunrise in mind. A sprig of wisteria. Beautiful things.
But Serpentina has, you must admit, a splendor all her own.
So, my tribute:
in algae carapace
seeking with care
to lay new life.
—My best to you and your splendid babies, Serpentina.
During recent professional development sessions on “Coaching the Coach” at Ocracoke Island, the facilitator charged participants with finding a metaphor for coaching.
We were to take a photo. We would write to it.
There were no other parameters.
Ocracoke is a tiny place full of narrow, twisting roads, quaintness, legend, and mystery. It has around a thousand inhabitants. In tourist season one has to drive with extreme care as the streets become clogged with pedestrians, horses, bicyclists, golf carts, and cats (the island has a rampant feral cat population). The word island might as well be a synonym for enchantment or mystical; a sense of these hang in the air along with the salt. Sort of like expectancy.
When I first saw the grove of trees—predominantly live oaks—on the corner lot of a house converted to a bookstore, I thought: What a restful place. It has its own particular allure. While there are larger live oaks, individual, ancient giants, elsewhere on the island, these smaller trees grow together, toward one another. I read somewhere that live oaks focus their energy on growing out, not up; perhaps this is especially important in a place where ocean winds continually carve the landscape. These trees survive hurricanes. They flourish in salty places.
The early May afternoon was hot; the sun blazed overhead. I noted the profuse shade under the trees. They stand leaning inward, reaching to one another, as if intentionally collaborating to benefit all who enter their realm of existence. No one tree stands out. It’s a joint effort. I walked into their proffered coolness, this respite, this shelter, envisioning how their roots are deeply intertwined, that they draw collective strength in their mutuality. They are anchored together. That’s part of how they endure. A foundation from which to grow, branch out, and sustain their own lives and others’.
There is more, there is always more, to a metaphor, for it knows no parameters, either. It can keep on going and going, changing shape, developing new layers in new light. It’s supposed to, just like learning. Like life. I just choose to stop here.