Sidewalk angels

Asheville, North Carolina.

First vacation in two years, owing to my husband’s cardiac surgeries and the pandemic. He wants to see the mountains. They remind him of his childhood. They’re in his blood, like rivers and bays are in mine.

We’re not campers, though. We stay in town.

Late arrival, chilly summer rain, deserted city streets. Apparently everything closes early on a Sunday night. Downtown is eerily vacant, as if we’ve landed in a time warp or the Twilight Zone. Where have all the people gone? We walk in the desolation, huddled under our umbrellas.

On the sidewalks, random pink granite squares bear strange designs of some secret code: a feather, a horseshoe…

“Did you see that angel?” I ask my husband. I think I recall seeing this here before, on a previous visit.

“No. Where?”

“Back there, on the sidewalk. An angel pointing up, with a star on its head. We just passed it. I’m sure it has something to do with Thomas Wolfe. You know, ‘Look Homeward, Angel’…”

“Oh yeah, I bet it does.”

The rain slacks off. We round a corner to discover people dining under a café awning. A stocky, stubble-faced man lurches along the sidewalk from the opposite direction; his countenance lights up when he sees my husband: “Kris Kristofferson! Jerry Garcia! Can I get your autograph?” He fairly ripples with his own merriment.

Aside from the mountain panorama, this may well be the highlight of the trip for my hoary-curled, gray-bearded husband. Never mind that he’s a Baptist preacher. He’s a lifelong fan of these artists. He laughs: “My autograph won’t get you very far, brother.”

As we press on, trying to determine if any other restaurants are open, I glimpse blanketed bodies nestled in recessed shop doorways. The homeless, sheltered from the weather, settling in for the night ahead. Disparity, like cold mountain rain in midsummer, seeps all the way to my bones. I shiver.

They are still cocooned there the next morning when my husband and I hunt for coffee and bookstores, navigating around other vacationers who are now out and about, pushing their dogs in strollers. One lady on the sidewalk has risen and is sitting by her rolled blankets with a small basket by her side and a little black dog in her lap. Over the course of the next two days, as we try to decipher the odd hours of stores and restaurants (we discover that some are closed on Mondays, others on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and that some don’t open even when their signs said they will; how apropos is the ‘Stay weird, Asheville’ slogan?) —we see this petite lady several times. She remains there on the sidewalk by the same shop while other people of the street come and go, apparently checking in with one another. She is of indeterminate age. Slight wrinkles, blondish hair pinned up. Blue eyes. The little black dog stays right with her, cuddled close, never making a peep, watching the world walk by. I note that they get visitors. Some bring food. As my husband and I wait for the walk signal to cross the street, a young man from the Ben & Jerry’s shop comes out with a tiny cup of ice cream for the dog. I wonder how often he does this, how many other shopkeepers share in this caring…

I wonder how long this lady has been here, what her story is, if she has any family, if she’s ever stayed at a shelter. Not all shelters are safer than being on the street, especially with COVID. I find myself trying to imagine her daily life, her subsistence, the haunting freedom of living on the street; in the lyrics of Kristofferson: “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” She doesn’t appear to ask anyone for anything although she has a red plastic container sitting out for donations. I begin to worry about someone taking it from her…

On our last day, as my husband and I approach, she greets us: “Good morning.” She smiles. I know she’s recognized us as having passed this way before. It’s a familiar, familial tone. Full of warmth, the way a mother speaks to her waking children.

We respond in unison: “Good morning!”

“Your little dog is precious,” I say. “And so good.”

“Thank you.” Her voice is raspy but pleasant. “She’s a girl.”

“Such a sweet girl! What’s her name?”

“Raspberry.”

My husband and I learn the woman’s name, too. We chat with her for a moment. My husband takes some cash from his wallet and puts it in the red tub where the woman has an inconspicuous cardboard sign with the words ‘Thank you and God bless youG. and Raspberry’ written in red marker, accompanied by a small drawing of a cross.

We say our goodbyes. The image of Raspberry’s moist dark eyes stays with me as my husband and I walk our last through this beautiful city of Look Homeward, Angel: The Story of a Buried Life. Wolfe set the novel in a fictionalized version of Asheville, his hometown, to explore the “strange and bitter magic of life.

G. and Raspberry remain on my mind as we head homeward through the majestic blue-shadowed mountains. What is homeward if you have no home? Which way do you look then?

I have infinite questions, but this I know: there’s more than one sidewalk angel in Asheville.

*******

It is estimated that over half a million people in the United States experience homelessness. This includes those in shelters, transitional housing, and hotels and motels paid for by charities or government programs as well as those who sleep in cars, parks, camps, and places not meant for human habitation. While many misconceptions persist, among the the primary causes are lack of affordable housing, poverty, disabilities, and domestic violence.

The pink granite squares with designs in Asheville’s sidewalks are part of the Urban Trail, comprised of thirty different stations with sculptures representing historical periods. The Trail tells the story of the city’s past. The angel represents The Times of Thomas Wolfe, 1900-1938.

Right now, as the sun rises in my part of North Carolina, it’s raining again; I wonder how G. and Raspberry are faring this morning.

with special thanks to Two Writing Teachers for providing a venue for sharing Slices of Life.

Apothecary of the soul

Today, the first Thursday of the month, my Spiritual Journey gathering writes around the theme of “Nurturing Our Summer Souls.” Deepest thanks to my friend, teacher-poet-artist Carol Varsalona, for hosting.

Summer itself is about journeys, is it not

In my previous post, A walk back in time, I told of a long-awaited trip to the Country Doctor Museum in the small town of Bailey, NC. I expected to learn about rural physicians and their practices in the 19th to early 20th centuries. I didn’t expect to be mesmerized by the first exhibit, a reproduction apothecary shop replete with show globes (which became the official symbol for pharmacies), exquisite leech jars, real live leeches, rows of dried herbs and powders displayed in large glass jars bearing labels of names so poetic and compelling I itched to look them all up right there on the spot, and black pills made in the shape of tiny coffins because they contain a measure of poisons like mercury, so an illiterate population would be mindful not to overdose.

I certainly wasn’t expecting the large painting on the wall behind the counter…

Apothecary of the soul painting, circa 1700-1750. Artist unknown.
Image: Joyner Library, East Carolina University.

It dominated the wall—the whole room.

“These ‘apothecary of the soul’ paintings are rare,” the docent told our tiny tour group of four, one other couple plus my husband and I. “Most come from Germany. You can see here that Christ is the apothecary. He’s holding the scales, weighing his Crucifixion against the weight of a man’s soul… behind them, jars are labeled with the virtues…we’ve had visitors who are fluent in German and they tell us that this is an old form of the language, much of it is complicated to translate…”

I can make out two Bible references, though. Here’s the King James translation:

Matthew 11:28:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Isaiah 55:1:

Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

My tour group moved on too soon. I couldn’t linger to study the work at length, to grasp more of its symbolism, so I’ve since visited the Museum’s website for more information. There I learned that an apothecary may have commissioned the painting. Apothecaries wanted to draw people to their shops; they sought to be alluring, to the point of extravagance (hence the elaborate show globe towers and gilded leech jars). But imagine the effect on the ordinary townsperson, in need of help, relief, comfort, entering the shop to find Christ adorning the wall. If customers weren’t able to read the verses (from Luther’s 1545 translation of the Bible, I wonder?), they could see that Christ’s right hand holds the scales and that his sacrifice outweighs the man’s sins, represented by a horned beast. The man holds a banner reading My sins are heavy and overwhelming and grieve me from the heart.* Christ’s left hand rests on what appears to be crosswort, a plant often used to treat wounds, headaches, and other ailments, possibly representing a cure-all from the hands of the Great Physician (or Apothecary) himself: the dispensation of spiritual healing as well as physical, “without money and without price.”

I left the shop thinking about the level of trust one must have in the apothecary, and feeling as if I’d been on a pilgrimage versus a museum tour. This happened to be my first journey of summer, which has come at last, bright and beckoning, as the world strives to heal from the COVID-19 pandemic…

Here is to rest, ongoing spiritual journeys, and nurturing the soul.

*******

*Source: Apothecary of the Soul video, ECU Digital Collections, via the Country Doctor Museum website (see Learning). The Museum belongs to the Medical Foundation of East Carolina University, under the management of the Laupus Health Sciences Library.

Other Apothecary of the Soul paintings can be found online; they contain much of the same symbolism.

A walk back in time

After many years of mentioning it, my husband and I finally visited the Country Doctor Museum. Off the beaten path in a nearby town, the museum consists of three small buildings, one of which is a combination of two actual 19th century doctors’ offices. The museum began as a memorial to rural physicians, expanding over time to include the nursing profession, home remedies, and the apothecary. It now houses an impressive collection of artifacts from the 18th to early 20th centuries.

I expected to learn things. I didn’t know, for example, that this is the oldest museum in the United States dedicated to the history of rural healthcare, or that it’s been taken over by my alma mater, East Carolina University. The docent said: “That saved us during COVID. We had the funding to reopen. Many private-funded museums could not.”

I mourned the loss of museums that had to close for good as we crossed the threshold of the apothecary… where an otherworldly, unanticipated, delicious strangeness awaited on that side of the portal…

A mammoth cabinet of gleaming cherry wood with ornate scrollwork, sunbursts, and Victorian spindles runs the length of the left wall. On its shelves, behind glass doors, stand hundreds of large jars bearing white labels and names of their contents—assorted dried herbs, powders, and liquids—in large black script: Crocus, Cloves, Mace, Valeria, Aq. Rosa., Pond’s Ext., Sol. Benedict Quantitative, Lotio Pilocart Morrow, Pepsengia. Some labels look new; others appear to be timeworn, the lettering nearly illegible. The docent speaks in a low, unmodulated voice about paregoric, opium, mercury, and poisons that were often part of remedies mixed by the apothecary, dispensed to a largely illiterate population which couldn’t read labels. In order to prevent overdose, some of the pills were fashioned into tiny black coffins.

As I look at these coffin-pills, trying to imagine ingesting such a thing, the docent points to the show globes in the cabinet. Tall, decanter-like vessels of different-colored liquids—green, yellow, blue, red—stacked upon each other in rounded triple towers. They seem art deco or like something from the 1960s. “Show globes are an official symbol, like the striped pole is to the barber,” says the docent. “People entering a town would know this is where to find the apothecary. The show globes were displayed in the shop’s front window, and every color had a meaning. The apothecary kept a recipe for mixing dye in water and a guide for when to display certain colors. Red, for example, would warn travelers that there’s widespread sickness in this town, an epidemic…”

I turn to see a large, single-tier show globe with antique bronze trim sitting alone on a pedestal behind me. Full to the brim with bright red, transparent liquid.

Of course, I think. The docent is wearing a mask. I wonder if the all the museum guides came by cover of night in March of 2020 to mix this red solution. And if it will remain red until COVID-19 makes its full departure.

Hanging show globes were sometimes mounted in the apothecary’s shop window.

The docent is now speaking of bloodletting and leeches.

There are, in fact, live leeches on display. They’re floating contentedly in a clear glass bowl of water beside a large vase decorated with a delicate floral pattern…along with the word LEECHES in utterly incongruous, glorious gilt adorning a black banner.

The museum’s leech jar is very similar to this, only with a sweet pattern of tiny pink flowers and vines.

“The apothecary kept leeches in leech jars such as this…” the docent is saying. “It was advertising. The fancier the jar, the better the quality, people believed…”

I’m awed by the jar, that it was designed solely to hold worms. Albeit important ones… and I read once, somewhere, that leeches are amazing escape artists: A more recent druggist had a leech that chewed through a modest gauze lid covering; he found the escapee several days later, lounging on the turntable of his record player.

The docent continues: “Leeches are still in use today. We had a plastic surgeon visit once. He told us of reattaching someone’s ear and using a leech there to increase the blood flow for healing…leeches are often used when fingers are reattached…you don’t feel the leech, of course…”

We are about to move into the next room where there’s a real human skull and kits of amputation tools from the Civil War era, but I want to linger here, I have a thousand questions about the tinctures and remedies and practicesand I want to study the magnificent 1700s era painting on the right wall, above the counter where the apothecary would make pills by mixing powders and dough, rolling and cutting with a pill-roller. The artwork depicts Christ as an apothecary, with elaborate calligraphy in old German. It presides over the whole room.

But time does not wait; it moves on and so must I… prying myself away from the painting and jars and show globes, I content myself with the knowledge that a healing-herb garden waits at the end of the tour. I hurry into the next room just to make the intriguing discovery that I am now standing in the office of a Victorian doctor whose not-very-common surname is my own maiden name.

What a peculiar sense of belonging…and, I think, beginning, of something I’ve yet to name.

*******

I plan to write more about the painting on Thursday.

You can visit the Country Doctor Museum online to learn more and to view many fascinating artifacts.

Summertime poem

with thanks to Abigail, Betsy, and Soshi for the invitation to write on this topic for #verselove at Ethical ELA today (who’s not longing for summer right now?!).

Here’s why summer has such a special pull for me.

For Day Nineteen of National Poetry Month

Summer Second

Sunny afternoon
blue sky
bit of breeze
faint sound of a radio
from a neighbor’s yard
I can’t discern the song
it just sends me into 
reverie
for a second
conjuring
hot sand
under my bare feet
Coppertone in my nose
salt on my tongue
If everybody had an ocean
across the USA
then everybody’d be surfin’
like Californ-i-ay…

snatches of conversation
cresting and dipping
on the breeze
mighty waves of memory
crashing on the shore
my father’s big black sandals
flip-flopping to the old navy-blue Ford
the battered brown Samsonite
suitcase in his hand
the ride is so long
so long
the city gives way
to pastures, meadows
horses
fields
that go on and on, forever
plowed furrows running
like long crazy legs
to keep up 
with the Ford
as we zoom past
until at last
the lonesome highway
comes to a fork
on the left,
the tiny church
where my ancestors
sleep under stones
we veer to the right
turning 
onto the dirt road
my heart beats faster
Daddy drives slower
stirring clouds of dust
and I am already
grabbing the door handle
as Granddaddy’s lush garden 
comes into view
with just a glimpse of 
Grandma’s white angel birdbath
circled by orange marigolds
through the laundry 
lazily flapping
on the clothesline
and there they are, 
walking across
the green, green grass
and I am out of the Ford
before it’s hardly stopped
and in their arms
in the blinding sun
as the forest stands tall
all around
with its cool
dark mysteries
where the rattling cicadas
crescendo
vibrating on and on and on
through my soul
I can’t discern the song
it just carries me
through eternity
in this one
bright second

April in North Carolina haiku

For Day Ten of National Poetry Month

blossoms hang like grapes
wisteria decadence
threaded through the trees

finches chirruping
five pale blue eggs in the nest
on the front door wreath

grass, fresh-cut fragrance
green carpet for morning sun
not yet grown brutal

Wisteria decadence. Took this photo four days ago. I love wisteria and its whispers of bygone days. I have even written a short story in the voice of a wisteria vine, set in rural NC in the early part of the 20th century. Plants, after all, are said to have memory and feelings…

Magnolia

Next-to-the last day of March. Early morning. Still dark. Chilly.

I sit at my laptop, sipping coffee, catching up on my Slice of Life blog comments. The neighborhood rooster across the street crows for all he’s worth.

My husband comes into the kitchen: “Is she up yet?” he whispers.

He means our granddaughter. She spent the night. We stayed up way late watching Frozen II (again). We watched her dancing to the ending credits soundtrack, performing her own astoundingly artistic interpretation, cheeks pink, blue eyes glowing…followed by punchy laughter before the crashing.

“Not yet,” I whisper back. He retreats to his study to work on sermons.

Shortly, though, she here she comes, a gift of the dawn, Aurora’s child, barefoot in a blue flannel gown, cloaked in long, disheveled hair, ethereal smile of joy illuminating the semi-dark kitchen. Favorite lines of a Billy Collins poem come to life:

But tomorrow dawn will come the way I picture her,

barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window
in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor.
She will look in at me with her thin arms extended,
offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.

My radiant dawn-child climbs into my lap. I let her read my post about Dennis the dachshund and his toy moose. At five, she reads with exactly the right inflection in exactly the right places, decoding beyootiful without batting an eye.

“That rascally Dennis!” She laughs aloud.

My husband returns, his own face alight at sight of her. “There she is!” he exclaims. “I’ve been waiting for you, Sugar Magnolia.”

He sings the opening line of the Grateful Dead song:

Sugar Magnolia blossom’s blooming

Just so happens that our granddaughter’s middle name is Magnolia. A nod to her Louisiana heritage. A native tree here in North Carolina, too.

I think how, less than two years ago, my husband was dead, until EMS and CPR brought him back. I think of all he’d have missed…

What matters is that we’re here together now, today, in this moment. The Grateful Alive.

Sugar Magnolia, in one of Grandpa’s hats

When we are dressed for the day, she asks: “Can I pick out your earrings? And your necklace?”

“Certainly.”

She picks the magnolia. She and my son gave it to me for my birthday last year.

She hands me the necklace, watches me clasp it, smiles with satisfaction.

She will look in at me with her thin arms extended,
offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light

Just beyond the bedroom door, from the windows in the foyer, birdsong.

The finches.

I waited for them all of March, in vain. Then, here at the very end, within the space of these last twenty-four hours, a nearly-complete nest rests on my front door wreath. More on this tomorrow, when I write with the Spiritual Journey gathering on the first Thursday in April…for now all that needs to be said is that the finches always come to my door, every year except this last one. They vanished without warning, without a trace, during COVID-19. Now they’re back, making their home in the wreath.

The magnolia wreath.

Front door wreath and nest-in-progress

Magnolias, magnolias, everywhere…

They are tougher than they look. The oldest flowering plants on Earth. A symbol of love, longevity, perseverance, endurance.

It’s that word that captures me: Endurance.

It is the end of March.

We’ve endured the COVID pandemic for a whole year.

We’ve endured the reinvention of life as we knew it, school as we knew it, teaching as we knew it.

My family has endured distance, isolation, individual private battles…and we all get our second round of vaccinations over these next two days.

My husband has endured. He is alive.

My granddaughter has endured. She is the light of our days.

The finches have endured. They have returned to resume nesting.

This is my last post for the Slice of Life Story Challenge; for thirty-one consecutive days, I’ve endured. My writing has endured.

I wrote a lot of memoir in the Challenge, for memories endure. I wrote of a walled garden and roots and the need to get out of the comfort zone; I did that with some of my writing. I think now of my magnolia metaphor and look back at its deep roots in my childhood. Southern heritage. My grandmothers, steel magnolias (although they wouldn’t have thought it of themselves). Women who endured wars, deprivation, unspeakable losses. The stand over the landscape of my life like the old magnolia trees near their homes, their churches. They were the encompassing, protective shadows against the burning sun and sweltering heat, the solid coolness of the earth under my feet, where lie the curious, fuzzy seedpods of my existence, my remembering, my gratitude, my faith. From these branches waft the eternal fragrance of sacrificial love and forgiveness; nothing on God’s Earth smells as sweet.

One final curious image—it persists, so I have to figure out if and how it will fit here: When I was very small, I spent a lot of time with Grandma, Daddy’s mother. She and Granddaddy lived nearby in city apartments until he retired and they moved back home to the country when I was six. In this scene, I am around four, I think:

I am waiting in the hall for Grandma. She’s turning the lights out; we are getting ready to go. She calls my name from another room. I call back: “I am here.” My voice keeps bouncing, off the walls, off the stairs going down, down, down, into the darkness; we have to go through it before we can get to the door and the sidewalks and the sunlight outside.

“Grandma!” I cry. More bouncing voice, hollow, strange.

She’s there in an instant. “What’s the matter?”

“What is that sound?”

Oh, honey, that’s just your echo.”

She calls out, “Hello”…her voice bounces, just like mine.

“Echoooo…” I call. Echooo-ooo-ooo, says the shadow of my voice, rolling down the stairwell.

And I am no longer scared, because now I know.

What does this have to do with magnolias?

Only that we are on our way to the park, where she would offer me bread to feed the ducks, which would come to eat from my hands, from my little extended arms…and where the magnolias still grow in abundance. The memory is a cup of light I carry with me, just as the echo of her voice remains, just as I find myself echoing her, for we are always echoes of the ones we love most. As blood circulates in our veins, so do remembered light and beloved voices, long past shadows and silence. These are things that endure.

Grandma’s homeplace was named for the dawn, by the way. She’s literally Aurora’s child.

But tomorrow dawn will come the way I picture her

“Stand right there, honey. Let me get your picture by that tree,” I tell my granddaughter, on our first trip to the park.

It’s a different park. A different tree.

But still, and always, a magnolia.

Our Sugar Magnolia, by “her” tree.

*******

With abiding gratitude to the community at Two Writing Teachers during the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, which concludes today. It was a joy to write alongside you every day in the month of March. Thank you for every cup of light you offered; I will savor the echo of your voices for many days to come.

Cry

Originally composed and posted as “The cry” on Saturday, February 27, with thanks to Ruth at SOS – Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog for the initial inspiration to “write fast.” Reposted here today as a reminder that revision is also writing…

I heard it again. It stirred me from my luxurious Saturday-drowse. A loud cryyyy cryyy cryyy from the backyard, or very nearby. I threw off the blankets and ran out on the deck, promptly soaking my socks in the day-old rainwater.

I dreamt, once, that I was standing here exactly like this, looking up at the northwestern sky, when an eagle flew by. Bald eagles do live around here. I have seen them on occasion. I’m convinced that an eagle’s (big, sloppy) nest is on the top of a water tower on the highway around the bend. In my dream, I was awed by the eagle and knew it portended something good.

But eagles don’t have the beautiful, poignant cryyy cryyy cryyy I am hearing on this early, pearl-sky morning. All other life seems to be slumbering but for this phantom bird, the lusty rooster across the street, and me. Day is just barely fading in.

It cries again, in the stillness. The air rings with its sharpness, with the curve and edge of it.

It’s a hawk. It has to be. I’ve seen several in recent weeks, since the turn of the year. During an icy spell in January, when I went for a short walk in thin winter sunlight that gilded the bare trees and glittered on the grass, I watched a hawk gliding low overheard, never flapping its wings, staying aloft as if by magic.

Returning to the warmth of the house in my sodden socks, I make coffee and settle at my laptop to search.

Definitely not an eagle. That call is feeble in comparison to the one I just heard. I know hawks’ voices are dubbed for eagles’ in movies.

Not a red-tailed hawk, though. What a hair-raising, harrowing scream.

Then… yes!

A red-shouldered hawk. Fluid, syllabic, downward inflection. Exactly what I heard from somewhere over in the smattering of pines between my neighbor’s house and mine, where I dreamed the eagle flew. I’d rather hear this cry even if I cannot see the hawk. The sound scrapes against my heart. 

It has something to do with the aching aliveness of things, despite the hawk being a predator. If I want to focus on symbolism, there’s a lot: intuition, spirituality, power…

But now, now, as the rooster picks back up with his daylong rusty-bugle solo (that’s one vigorous creature!), there’s a familiar cheep cheep warble at the front door, so happy and so loud that it seems almost to be in my house.

The finches! They made their annual nest in my door wreath last spring but didn’t lay eggs as in previous years, when I held my granddaughter up to see the nestlings. For some reason, they disappeared. And left me bereft. One more little layer of heartache in a deeply heartrending year. When I took the wreath down in the fall, I mourned over the perfect, unused nest.

I saved it. I couldn’t toss such artistry away.

I put my spring wreath up early. Like, at the end of January.

When I went to look for the chattering finches just now, I couldn’t see them any more than I could see that hawk this morning; I believe the little birds were sitting in the wreath, voicing (to me) their delight. 

There’s likely to be babies at my door by Easter.

And, I hope, somewhere high in the lonesome pines.

Red-shouldered hawk. Don Miller. CC B

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year. I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 3, I am writing around a word beginning with letter c.

A bowl of snow

Deep in the night, it came.

I wake to the sound of it falling.

A faint, feathery swishing against the bedroom windowpanes. A silvery glow at the blinds, beckoning. I crawl out from under the warm covers to peer through.

It’s a different world. Softer. Purer. At peace in its perfect winter-white blanket, illuminated by the full moon. Big flakes descend to the ethereal stirring of wind chimes.

I imagine animals curled in their cozy dark burrows.

In the spirit of affinity, I return to mine.

I waited well into the morning before texting my son: Is she so excited?

His daughter, age five, has been longing for snow. Some winters pass without it here in central North Carolina.

He texted right back: She’s so wound up. We have already been out to play. We made snow cream. Put sprinkles on it and ate it for breakfast.

How awesome is that, I thought. She will remember it all of her life, this snow, getting to eat it for breakfast.

Magical moments. They will be stored away, deep in the hallowed halls of her mind.

I was just rereading The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. They explore moments we remember and revere the most. Some are tied to great emotion or to shared meaningful experiences. Others transcend “the normal course of events; they are literally extraordinary.”

The authors write: “The most precious moments are often the ones that cost the least.” They relate the story of a three-year-old who succumbed to a severe E. coli infection. They describe (brace yourself) her kidney failure, horrible pain, portions of her colon being removed twice, her heart failure and resuscitation; she desperately needed a kidney transplant and a compatible donor could not be found. At Halloween, her costume had to be laid on top of her because of all the tubes. She was still in the hospital as Christmas neared, and it began to snow:

For a child from Vermont, it was cruel, having to watch the snow through the windows. Wendy loved to make snowmen, to go sleigh riding. She hadn’t been outside for two months. Her lead nurse, Cori Fogarty, and and patient care associate Jessica Marsh hatched a plan. If Wendy couldn’t play in the snow, they would bring the snow to her. But it was more complicated than that. Because of Wendy’s heart condition, the staff was monitoring every milliliter of water that she consumed. So Jessica went and filled an emesis bucket with snow, weighed it, let it melt, and poured it into a graduated cylinder. Now they knew how to translate the weight of snow into its volume of water. So they went and filled the bucket with exactly the right amount of snow so that if Wendy ate it all — as three-year-olds are prone to do — she’d be just fine.

Can you see them, bringing the bowl of snow into the hospital room? Can you see that little girl’s expression when she saw it? Jessica Marsh said: “I have never seen such joy and pure innocence on a child’s face.” Wendy’s mother: “It was bliss, it was joy.” Many years later she would write: “It’s easy to forget the monotony of the endless days that stretched together during her recovery. But that one moment of brightness, that is one moment we will never forget.”*

Perhaps that is just the image we need right now, as COVID-19 drags on. A bowl of snow for a child…a bit of magic to escape the moment, maybe to carry us through.

As parents, as teachers, as writers, compassionate human beings, we have this power within us to imagine such moments, to make them happen. The most precious moments are the ones that cost the least…

Just so happens that as I write these words on this new, dark morning, flurries have started falling again.

Let us go and seek our bowl of snow. And where we might share it.

Maybe even for breakfast, with sprinkles.

*******

*Wendy’s story is from the chapter “Making Moments Matter” in The Power of Moments by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2017, 263-265). You might like to know that she did receive a transplant and went on to be an athlete.

Thanks to all at Two Writing Teachers for the power of your shared stories. Where there’s writing, there’s a way.

On September and scuppernongs

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.

The steering wheel

This is not the post I might have written today.

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 placea 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. CC BY-SA