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.

What’s in a name poem

I love the mid-monthly Ethical ELA Open Write for educators. The kickoff for July is hosted today by Mo Daley, who offers the invitation to explore your name, and who you are, through poetry.

I happened to write a post about my name in March: Frances. This morning I rework it here, with a few more layers of meaning…

Early morning
before the dawn
as first birds begin to sing

I light a candle
on my table

I sit
by its wavering halo
to write
about my name.

In the beginning
I didn’t even know
it was my name.

My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Brown, 
called the roll: 
Frances?…Frances?

She finally narrowed her eyes at me: 
Aren’t you Frances?

Sitting before her at a tiny table, I blinked: 
No. I’m Fran.

An inauspicious start
to my academic career.

The first shaky foot
on the lifepath
of learning who I am.

I didn’t love it at first,
my name.

Early on
(sometime after kindergarten,
that is)
Daddy told me
it was after his mother,
Ruby Frances

Grandma

my consummate storyteller
avid letter-writer
daily diarist
devout reader
tireless defender-angel
Grandma

On the day you were born
I stood at the nursery window

and cried.

You looked
like a little angel.

Grandma

My life’s memories
begin in her arms
on her lap
being rocked
in time to the beating of her heart
and the cadence of her voice
singing
Jesus loves me, this I know
or reading reading reading
until I could recite
the rhyming stories
by heart, page by page
long before I went to school

Grandma

who read the entire Bible aloud
several times over
to Granddaddy
who could not read it 
for himself

Grandma

who was named
after her beloved Papa,
Francis

a very religious man

who nevertheless hung himself
on a tree in the woods
in front of her childhood home
when she was just sixteen

Grandma,

I asked, when I was around sixteen,

did you know
that the name Frances
means ‘free’

or ‘one who is from France?’

We talked about it in French class
today

—Does it? I didn’t know.
I loved taking French

—You took French? Really?

—Yes. Such a beautiful language

I didn’t tell her
we got to choose French names
for class
and I chose to be Renée 
without realizing 
that it means born again

or that the kids back in elementary school
could never get our name right:
Hi, France! they’d cheerfully greet me.

I’d grit my teeth:
It is Fran
or Frances.
Not ‘France’.
I am not
a country.

No one else in school
had my name.

It wasn’t cute or popular
since maybe 1886

not to mention
the spelling problem
such as on labels
from the pharmacy:
Francis

Does the world at large
not understand
or care
that the feminine spelling
is with an e?

I wanted to hurl
those little orange bottles
through the window

along with my problematic name

until the day I was teaching
a group of little Spanish-speaking girls
how to read English
and one of them grabbed my badge
to decode my name:
Fran

Very good! That’s really my nickname.
It’s short for Frances.

Ooooo, breathed my little student.
That sounds just like ‘princess’.

In all my years
I’d never thought of that

even though Princess Diana’s middle name
was Frances

and I have to laugh a little now
because Daddy always said
You ought to take Spanish instead of French,
it would be more useful.

He couldn’t have been more right, alas.
He usually was.

I wonder what he’d say now
if he knew my DNA tests
reveal a dollop of French ancestry
that he very likely
passed down…

and as I’ve been writing
the sun has risen
bright and ever-new

a red dragonfly
lands on the little statue of Saint Francis
by my front steps

never minding that I’m not Catholic

nesting birds find sanctuary here
on my porch
along with a host of small creatures
seeking a resting place
even the occasional stray cat in need
for whom I leave fresh water.

The candle’s wavering halo
is invisible now
in the sunlight spilling
through the windows

as I write about my name
this inheritance
I’ve come to treasure
at last

and it just so happens
that the candle’s fancy label says
chèvrefeuille
French for “honeysuckle”

the flower and scent
of happiness
of hardiness
of devotion
and everlasting bonds

like a legacy of love

and unseen angels

that are
always near.

Note on red dragonflies, mentioned also in my most recent post: I’ve seen them for the first time this summer. They’re stunning and in some cultures, considered a sign of the sacred.

Out of the water

Summer storm passes
leaving debris in its wake.
I open the door

to investigate
and discover a creature
there on the threshold

Dragonfly resting
weary, heavy-laden wings
—what ARE those patches?

Curiosity
drives me to investigate.
I learn that your name

comes from your luggage:
Carolina Saddlebags.
What do you carry?

Ancient traditions
abundant superstitions
folklore taking flight.

Symbol of wisdom
messenger between the worlds

born underwater

to rise new, transformed.
Your stories go on and on,
tired traveler.

My phone’s search engine
resolves one more mystery
from a day ago:


That red dragonfly
—the first one I’ve ever seen—

may have been your mate.

So otherworldly,
that darting scarlet body.
I caught just glimpses

for it never stilled.
Now I learn red dragonflies
are believed sacred.

A slight fluttering
of your strange saddlebag wings
seems to validate.

To me, you are rare.
Pleased to make your acquaintance
here on this portal

this dividing line
between shelter and tempest,
living and dying.

Take your repose, then.
I ponder birth and rebirth
as I close the door

where I discover
my husband’s baptismal robe
hanging up to dry
.

*******

My pastor husband doesn’t like to dry his robe in the dryer. After a recent baptism, he happened to hang it here on the door where the sidelight flooded it.

I’ve seen many dragonflies in my life, but this is the first Carolina Saddlebag. I hope to get a photo of the male, which has a brilliant red body and a violet head. That might be a feat; I read that they don’t land often. The female on my threshold soon regained her strength and flew away.

The sightings on each side of the portal filled me with awe—the word that chose me this year. More reminders to stay open to it every single day, not to miss it.

As a lover of symbolism…well, there’s enough here to last me pretty much forever…

The post is written in haiku, as dragonflies have spawned infinite haiku and inspiration in Japan where they are considered harbingers of life, prosperity, courage, happiness, strength. They have also represented the emperor and immortality. In Native American tradition, the dragonfly is a symbol of resurrection.

Special thanks to the Slice of Life community at Two Writing Teachers for also spawning courage, inspiration, and strength through the writing and sharing of stories. To teach young writers how to write, we must write, and by writing we discover infinitely more about the world and ourselves.

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.

Just a little spirit poem

inspired by Denise Krebs on today’s Ethical ELA Open Write, after teacher-poet Stacey L. Joy. Stacey’s original simile poem centered on the word love. Denise’s, on the word alcohol.

Mine, on the word spirit.

Perhaps you know someone with this kind of everlasting joie de vivre…

Spirit…
Your spirit is bright
radiating like a summer campfire
popping, sparking, illuminating the night
Exhilarating spirit infused with silver starlight
Effervescent spirit of a child’s Christmas morning delight
Freewheeling spirit like an eagle in flight
An encompassing kind of spirit.

King’s Highway, Kissimmee. R9 Studios FL. CC BY

Prosody of life: Revisiting awe

A Slice of Life doubling as a Spiritual Journey offering later this week, on the first Thursday of the month (thanks to Ruth for hosting). The SJT participants are revisiting the “one little word” each of us chose at the beginning of the year. At that time, I wasn’t in the frame of mind to choose a defining word for the year…but “awe” chose me, in spite of myself. Also practicing a bit for my poetry course this week; we are writing prose poems. Priming the pump, if you will…

Where am I now in relation to awe?

Perhaps more in tune to its vibrations each day…

Late in the evenings, a whipporwhill sings, three notes repeated over and over in the dark; yet it is the brightest of songs, summoning summer, beckoning life, new life in the making, love echoing from the treetops. Whipporwhills are seldom seen and their numbers are declining, yet the song illuminates the night, vibrant, rising and falling, going on and on, like rhythmic patterns of life itself…my granddaughter comes to visit with a book she’s reading, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and I say, “Oh, I love that book! It was my favorite when I was little,” except that I was ten when I first read it and she is five. Five. And she laughs when I tell her that I’ve dubbed her bedroom here in my house the “Spare Oom” in honor of the faun, Mr. Tumnus. She reads to me, her little voice rising and falling in all the right places; I marvel that she’s been in the world so short a time…I recall my son telling me how she stood on a box at the pulpit with him on Easter Sunday to read the Scriptures, the story of life overcoming death; images of trees crowd into my mind, for around this part of the country storms swept through as winter gave way to spring, snapping off the top-heavy crowns of young trees. Their crowns are still lying dead where they fell but on the broken tree trunks, new shoots are already growing tall, reaching their green arms skyward, waving in the breeze, new life from old, wholeness and healing springing from broken places… meanwhile, my son’s wife cradles her belly, just beginning to swell with my new grandchild; at the end of this this week we will get to see the pictures, and will learn if it’s a boy or a girl, and the naming process will be solidified…my younger son comes in from his work at the funeral home and speaks of birds, barn swallows with basket-like nests tucked at the tops of columns in the entryway, hatching brood after brood as the bereaved pass by to mourn beside the caskets of their loved ones awaiting burial, and how one of the funeral directors who lives alone in the apartment above likes to open the windows on pretty days to toss bread crumbs to the birds on the rooftop, taking pleasure in watching them eat…in it all I find a rhythm, a song, the prosody of life, awe flickering like flame in the shadows, whipporwhill, whipporwhill, whipporwhill…

Reading the old, old story

Earth-keeper poem

For the final Day of National Poetry Month, with thanks to Susie Morice, who encouraged poets to write of their favorite earth-keepers on yesterday’s #verselove at Ethical ELA. She suggested using a quote from an environmentalist to build the poem.

My quote is excerpted from a favorite novel:

“We found that trees could communicate, over the air and through their roots…We found that trees take care of each other…seeds remember the seasons of their childhood and set buds accordingly…trees sense the presence of other nearby life…a tree learns to save water…trees feed their young and synchronize their masts and bank resources and warn kin and send out signals to wasps to come and save them from attacks.” —Richard Powers, The Overstory

Understory Haiku
(for Granddaddy)

Once upon a time
my grandfather dug a well
in the earth he loved

he never said why
or who needed that water
maybe his neighbors

farm communities
did that; they worked together
for the common good

down deep in that hole
his shoveling uncovered 
a fully-formed tree

never saw the likes
he said, and I never asked
what became of it

but I imagine
it still lives, long after him
my understory

My grandfather, walking the land he loved most, his childhood farm. He told me where the house stood, and all the old barns…at the time of this photo, nothing remained but a wide field still in cultivation, bordered by trees. That’s my shadow at the bottom, taking his picture.

A bit of legacy poem

For Day Twenty-Six of National Poetry Month

Testament 

I cannot measure
how much time remains
in the hourglass
of my days

sand grains
steadily trickling
more than half
already gone

yet still refining
polishing
my existence

with words

let them be
the worry-stone
worn smooth
slid into the pockets
of those I encounter
a cool indented
presence of calm
for the holding

let them be a beckoning
a turning inward
toward crystals
forming in the geode void
the amelioration
of hollow places

let them be
like the curious folk remedy
of my childhood
jars of strange white peach rings
with heart-colored centers
floating in witch hazel
(which has nothing to do
with magic; the etymology of the name is
pliable)
cure for bruises and
what ails you

let my words be
a gauge for life-giving rain
collected
yet flowing on
and on
a good measure
pressed and shaken
poured out

a testament of love
for the new life

coming

Hope quatrain

with thanks to Dr. Padma Venkatraman and the Ethical ELA #VerseLove invitation to write a quatrain today on hope, especially, hope overcoming hate: What does hope mean to me? How do I see it? She suggested using a metaphor.

I see hope is as vital to our existence as humans. When I started this blog, I wanted it it to be uplifting and hopeful. The world already has far too much anger and hatred. I struggled with condensing a metaphor for hope that would fit in four lines! I finally settled on a sunflower. It’s too big for all I would say here in regard to hope overcoming hate. Maybe I will try it in another form later. Part of my inspiration comes from sunflowers being planted to absorb radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Technically lines one and three should rhyme but I claim poetic license.

For Day Fourteen of National Poetry Month

Hope Perpetuates

Hope turns its face to the sun
Warming its myriad seeds
Hope’s roots absorb toxins
Cleansing each soul that it feeds.

Sunflower. metin.gul. CC BY

Abundance acrostic

The acrostic is an ancient poetic form, appearing in Scripture and as prayers in medieval literature. On Day Five of National Poetry Month, I use it to announce a family celebration…with a little wordplay…

Although I planned to resume writing of Easter’s
Bounty in the nest on the front door wreath,
Unprecedented number of little blue eggs—five!—
Now, instead, I ask you to picture my family
Doing a bun dance over the holiday,
At least in our hearts, at this
New-life announcement on
Cookies and a special T-shirt:
Expecting! —Exponential Easter joy!

First, the finch eggs in the nest on the front door.
The fifth egg appeared this morning.
We usually get three or four. Abundance!

Now for the cookies:
My daughter-in-law and granddaughter made them
to announce the special news to my husband and me
over Easter weekend
…aBUNdance!

My granddaughter’s face was radiant,
delivering those cookies at our family dinner.
In this photo she is crying on first hearing the news.
She threw herself into my son’s arms.
The desire of her little heart, granted; abundant joy.

—A-bun-dance, indeed!