On Ethical ELA’s Open Write today, Kim Johnson invites teacher-poets to compose poetry from paint chip colors. She happened to have “Dirt Road” in her own list.
As soon as I saw that name, it was over. I would have to take Dirt Road. Its pull is too strong for me, calling me back to a place I write about often.
So today I write a memoir poem, although I did incorporate a few paint chip names along the dirt road: Oyster Shell, Turtle Green, Pink Blossoms, Dreamy Memory, Forever Fairytale, Summer Sunflower.
Maybe tomorrow I’ll try whole new paint chip poem away from Dirt Road.
This is where the name led me today.
I watch the highway and my heart beats fast when I see it coming just around the bend
old dirt road
off to the right threading through the trees past Miss Etta’s tiny turtle-green screened-porch house where she dips snuff
past the homeplace standing like a dreamy memory white paint faded to tired oyster shell sunlight gleaming on the tin roof
Grandma was born here
past the tangle of sunflowers planted by her brother who still lives here alone something is different about him I don’t know what it’s in his long face he never says much but he did give me some quarters once
just beyond the sunflowers Granddaddy’s garden looks like something an artist painted in watercolor greens in perfect rows he grows collards and little round peppers for his vinegar squash, cantaloupe, snap beans, Silver Queen corn, crowder peas, and butterbeans, speckled pink and white when I help shell them from their furry green pods
then the grape arbor he built laden with scuppernong vines big leaves waving Hey big brown-gold grapes won’t be ready yet and they aren’t even pretty but to me they taste like Heaven itself
then the row of crape myrtles at the curve bright pink blossoms nodding their heads sometimes shedding, rolling on and on smooth forked trunks where I like to climb and sit and make up songs thinking in forever fairytale
the house bright white black shutters
and I can’t think now about the tire swing hanging there in the pecan tree studded with woodpecker holes or the tiny cemetery with its ghosts across the old dirt road
because Grandaddy and Grandma are coming across the yard straw hats shielding faces lit with smiles bright as the summer sunflowers ever turning toward the sun
Daddy pulls off the old dirt road into the yard
we’re here we’re here
I am out of the car before it stops running toward open arms
and I never want to leave.
My grandparents and my oldest boy on the old dirt road, a long time ago
with thanks to Kim Johnson, Ethical ELA, and Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge. Writing is but half the magic. Sharing is the other half.
Let me preface this post with a restated confession: I am not exactly a fan of snakes.
But they, like all of nature, have lessons to teach, if one is willing to learn.
I hope to always be teachable, so…
Early in the summer I found a snakeskin in my garage. Just a little one, but still.
A few weeks later, I found another.
This morning, I found a couple more.
Snakes seem to have been vacationing in my garage. Let us think on that momentarily versus thinking that they’ve taken up permanent residence there.
Here is why I say this: The skins, I’m pretty sure, belong to smooth earth snakes. I’ve seen a couple over the past year or so, which is saying something: These are nonvenomous, shy, fossorial snakes that don’t like to be seen. The first one I saw was dead, lying across my sidewalk after a rainstorm. Pale gray body. I thought it was a worm until I saw the tell-tale scales. The second one was stretched out in my flowerbed mulch, black tongue flickering in and out “smelling” the air, trying to determine what Iwas. That’s it for my lifetime earth snake sightings. Two. They are uncommon, tiny creatures…just the size of these silvery skins left behind.
So they live in the ground around my home, harmless little things, going about their business of eating earthworms and itty bitty snails or whatever.
And coming into my garage to moult.
Which is nevertheless discomfiting. For me, anyway. Not for the bashful snakes.
I don’t especially want one to come all the way inside and hang out or anything.
But they do have me thinking (among many things) about shedding one’s skin. Metaphorically, that is. As in, what sorts of things I wrap around myself and cling to when I could be letting go and growing. Mindsets, habits, beliefs, assumptions, what have you. Which things actually nourish me, and which actually constrain me? Which are beneficial, and which are harmful? What do I need to shed and leave behind, to better move forward?
I suppose this thinking occurs because summer is waning. I return to work next week not knowing what the year ahead will look like, other than back to masked here in my district. I think about the possibility of a full return to virtual learning. It is more than a great many teachers can take. Yet… we got through last year. The children got through. There were good things in spite of the trials; there were surprises. Many from the children and most concerning ourselves. School of 2020-2021 took a toll on everyone. We had to shed quite a bit of familiarity and comfort to get things done. But we did it. We grew.
I don’t wish for a repeat any more than I wish for snakes to be summering in my garage. I cannot ignore the timing of COVID rearing its more-venomous-than-ever head again when we thought it was on its way out, just when we are on our way back into the schools. I now have a granddaughter starting kindergarten. Her little sister will be born this fall. There’s always a lot at stake when it comes to children—in the words of Herbert Hoover (ever how unpopular a president he was in his day): “Children are our most valuable resource.” There’s nothing more precious. They represent our tomorrows; they are the culmination of our yesterdays. We have to shed the fear of failing them. Not assuming the worst, or that “we can’t,” but doing daily, as only that given day dictates, what must be done for their care and nurture as well as for our own. We have to be… well, “as wise as serpents.” When it comes to plans, we have to hold on loosely, ever how painfully contrary it is to our nature.
This summer I had plans for household repairs and updates. That was before the dryer quit working. Followed by the air conditioning during the hottest week of the year (of course). Followed by turning on the water one morning and nothing coming out of the faucet; the pump died.
I did repairs, all right. Just not the ones I planned.
But I got through. I now have a new dryer and water pump. The AC unit didn’t have to be replaced, thank heaven. All is working well. Throughout this whole process I thought about adapting. I dried clothes out in the hot sun. I remembered how my grandparents never owned a dryer. I thought about that one window air conditioner they had (late in their lives) against a sweltering Carolina summer and no AC at all in the old Ford Galaxy 500; I once left a stack of 45 RPM records on its back deck under the windshield. They melted. They warped and ruffled like clam shells. I’ve never had to pump or draw water in my life, but I had plenty of bottled water and didn’t have to miss my morning coffee while waiting on the new pump.
So I attempt to bring the lesson of shed snakeskin to a point here: In the discomfort is growth. Newness lies ahead; it approaches incrementally as we scratch away at the constraints and setbacks of now. Endurance is possible. We certainly know this. Sometimes the thing that needs shedding most is our perspective…
Meanwhile, I go back to cleaning out my garage, another thing I hadn’t planned to do right now, but the snakeskins sparked it. Time to purge what needs to go and put up a shelf to keep everything else off the floor. I am working on it. Hot, tiresome, dusty work, but I can see my progress.
And it feels good.
Thanks to the snakes.
thanks also to the Two Writing Teachers community, where writing our way through is a way of life…courage and strength to all.
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.
“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, likecold 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 anythingalthough 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?”
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 you — G. 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 meas 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.
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:
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
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.
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 makesits 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 practices…and 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.
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
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
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…
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 wasdead, 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?”
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.
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 voicesfor many days to come.
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.
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.
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 faint, feathery swishing against the bedroom windowpanes. A silvery glow at the blinds, beckoning. I crawl out from under the warm coversto 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 CertainExperiences 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.