No Words of My Own

My second friend in two years just lost a twenty-something son to an overdose. The young man in question was absolutely a delight, a big teddy bear of a guy that I had known since he was a tiny baby. He fought bravely for a long time with lots of support from his family, including his mother, a woman of no small heart.

In honor of that young man, I’m reposting a blog entry from another mother, Terri Lynne Defino–she lost her son Chris to an overdose in 2015. He, too, was an amazing young man, one that I never had the good fortune to meet. His mother, who happens to be a writer, is also a woman of no small heart, and this post was her “battle cry” after she lost Chris.

All of us need to work harder against the myths that she writes about.

I Almost Called This Post “I Spent The Night in a Haunted House and You Won’t Believe What Happened Next,” But I Didn’t (Call it that, that is)

July 2017–Disclaimer: I wrote this post last year. I’m not going to get to Weymouth this summer, and I miss it. Maybe this fall…

When I got home from Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities this year, there was no unclaimed pig cooker in the driveway. Rather disappointing after last year. Fortunately, my time at Weymouth as part of the Writers in Residence program provided not only quality writing time but some new experiences. This year I

Encountered gravity or ghost (twice). The Friday night before I left Weymouth all other writers had departed and I spent the night alone in the house. The tales of ghosts are a part of Weymouth lore. I don’t get too excited one way or the other because I can generally scare myself quite well without any help, and the house is close to 100 years old. So it creaks.

A lot.

But who among us wouldn’t at that age?

That night the Weymouth Center held a preview party for paintings to be auctioned at the next night’s gala, paintings themed around the history of Weymouth, which includes the founding of a fox hunt club.  The party ended before eight, and I had the house to myself.

I had just settled in for the night when something went thump downstairs. I did not spring “from my bed to see what was the matter.” It’s expressly against my Rules to Live By to unbolt a door and go out alone into a 9,000 square foot house at night after something bumps.

The next morning I went downstairs and found one of the paintings had fallen off the display. Perhaps gravity or perhaps that particular canvas was not the favorite of the house ghost. Gravity is my medium of choice, but whatever, both the painting and I survived unscathed.

My second encounter: I walked out the kitchen door and a pine cone hit me in the head. Gravity.

Saw a fox (twice).  With his tail straight out behind him, he ran across a side yard, down by the riding ring, and out of sight. Then a few minutes later, he ran back across the same yard and headed off into the longleaf pines. I don’t want to speak for the fox but consider the possibility that this was his victory lap. His kin outlasted the hounds.

Heard Matthew Olzmann read his amazing poetry, which reminded me of why I love words.  “Letter Beginning with Two Lines by Czeslaw Milosz” and “Mountain Dew Commercial Disguised as a Love Poem” were two of my favorites.  The first is thought-provoking and poignant (and more). The second is funny and romantic (and more).

Enjoyed the beauty and magic Weymouth radiates. While not new, this experience is different every time I go. Always I meet interesting people. And for the first time, someone from my regular life, my friend (and awesome poet) Beth Copeland  was there for part of the week. She missed the ghosts gravity.

Frequently the writing goes well, and it did this year. I worked on the new book, Snap of the Match, and channeled a short story.

While the spirit of writers past and the writing spirit are pervasive, it is a very real group of hard working staff and volunteers that are the lifeblood of Weymouth. The Center’s calendar is full of events that celebrate and encourage the arts. Many volunteers keep the gardens and yards beautiful. Alex Klalo seems ever present and always helpful.

It was a wonderful experience, creaks and all!

 

 

The Post In Which I Tell The Secret I Found Out About My Aunt Westa

I have promised myself that I will get this post up in September, my Aunt Westa’s birthday month. She’s my mom’s younger sister, and you wouldn’t accuse either of these sisters of being a shrinking violet (and I’m so glad). If I were to go all Biblical about it, I’d say both of them are the best of Martha and Mary with some Queen Esther, and occasionally Lucille Ball, thrown in for good measure. Recently, a cousin recounted how on a long trip to Florida in 1967, Aunt Westa had thrown her legs over the back of the seat and put her head down at the floorboard in an attempt to get comfortable. In the language of the young, “That’s just how she rolls,” not one to stand, or sit, on convention.

My Aunt Westa might have been Beyonce’s model for “Run the World.” She was always working and caring and making stuff happen. In her younger days, limited by the world’s definition of jobs for women, she became a secretary…the sort of secretary that is really the person in charge. She worked for the president of Sampson Tech long before it became Sampson Community College. She ended her career as an executive secretary at The International Pentecostal Holiness Church Headquarters in Falcon, North Carolina. At the same time, she also organized church camps and camp meetings and just about everything else you can think of.

She loved my Uncle Noah and kept him in the road, metaphorically and literally, and her steadfastness allowed him to be the man of music that so many people knew and loved.

She worked outside the home and raised three children, Noah, Jr., Bonita, and Dawn, and was multitasking long before people bragged about doing it. For example, she read my first book Angel’s Aura by putting it above the steering wheel of the car as she drove to and from work on windy country roads, a strategy which makes you think twice about that Carrie Underwood song “Jesus Take the Wheel.”

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The Barefoot bunch in the 70s

Sunday mornings were no less hectic at the Barefoot house. My Aunt Westa and Uncle Noah would hop into separate cars and drive Sampson County roads picking up children, young people, and the elderly to bring them to church. When I was a child, I rode with one or the other of them on more than one Sunday morning, and I have to say those cars were a cross between Noah’s Ark and a circus car. The car doors would pop open in the yard of Peniel Pentecostal Holiness Church, and the multitude of occupants would spill out onto the church grounds.

As is the case in life, Aunt Westa’s not been without her share of sorrows: She buried her oldest child when he was in his forties, my Uncle Noah died in December 2013, and Aunt Westa’s started to have some trouble with memory. Up or down, her solid faith and her two girls see her through.

Last June, Mom and Dad stayed with her for the weekend and I joined them for dinner.

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Dad, Mom, and Aunt Westa at Salem Pizza, a restaurant where ironically we ate seafood.

At her house, I found out something that I never knew, that my mom and dad didn’t know, and that, best I can tell, hardly anyone knew. Things in the house have been rearranged and on the kitchen wall, a framed certificate now hangs. It’s the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, one of the highest honors that a North Carolina governor can award to one of the state’s citizens, and it’s Aunt Westa’s.

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Aunt Westa’s award

Here’s the second amazing, but not surprising thing: how young Aunt Westa was when she got this award. Unless, you’re a celebrity, this award is usually given later in life, near the end of one’s time of service to the community or the state, or possibly at retirement. Aunt Westa’s certificate is signed by Governor Robert Scott, and according to the very helpful Phillip T. Fisher at The Order of the Long Leaf Pine Society, Governor Scott didn’t date his award certificates. However, Bob Scott was North Carolina’s governor from 1969 to 1974, so we know Aunt Westa was at most thirty-four years old when she received this award for her work on a special project to get the Sampson Tech nursing program accredited.  

Had I been given this award, probably fifty percent of my conversations from that point on would have started, “Back when Governor Scott gave me The Order of the Long Leaf Pine,” but I’ve never heard my aunt mention it. However, after dinner that night when my dad teased her about talking a lot, I was pleased that she told him, “Got a lot of work done with this talking.”

Can I get a witness?

Of course, when I asked about the certificate, she just flapped her hand at me and said something like, “Oh, it wasn’t that big a deal.”

That’s just how she rolls.

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Aunt Westa is the youngest child of my grandparents and the smallest subject in this picture.

The North Carolina State Toast

Here’s to the land of the long leaf pine,

The summer land where the sun doth shine,

Where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great,

Here’s to “Down Home,” the Old North State!

Here’s to the land of the cotton bloom white,

Where the scuppernong perfumes the breeze at night,

Where the soft southern moss and jessamine mate,

‘Neath the murmuring pines of the Old North State!

Here’s to the land where the galax grows,

Where the rhododendron’s rosette glows,

Where soars Mount Mitchell’s summit great,

In the “Land of the Sky,” in the Old North State!

Here’s to the land where maidens are fair,

Where friends are true and cold hearts rare,

The near land, the dear land, whatever fate,

The blessed land, the best land, the Old North State!

(from http://ncpedia.org/symbols/toast)

Wearing My Mother’s Dress: Cherished Life Fabric

(This post was written for the Cherished Blogfest. I intend to write one about each of my grandparents in the coming weeks. Click here to find others blogging for the Cherished Blogfest!)

Wedged in a closet tight with clothes, the green linen dress hung on a paper-covered hanger. It was sandwiched between a blue and white floral bathrobe from my junior high years, a robe made from the sort of early polyester that will survive the annihilation of the planet, and a granny (read maxi) dress that my mother made me sometime in the 1970s.

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With just weeks to go before my daughter’s wedding, my mother, sister, and I had come to the closet seeking dresses of weddings past. We’d come to the right place. Artifacts of the decade before I left home were pressed together in my old bedroom’s closet: bridesmaids’ dresses, a prom gown or two, the dresses that my mother wore to both my wedding and my sister’s wedding, and that junior high bathrobe and its classmates.

But there in the middle was a dress I didn’t ever remember seeing–not quite avocado green linen with a matching short sleeve jacket and fabric-covered skinny belt, at once very current and also very Jackie Kennedy and the ’60s.

“Mama made that for me after your brother was born,” my mother said as I reached past her to grab the hanger. I held it up, flipping the jacket onto the bed so that I could size up the dress. My brother was born in February 1962.

“She never used a pattern,” Mama said. “Just looked at a dress and then went home and made it.” So without pattern or live body to fit, my grandmother had created the dress. I’d been looking for something to wear to my daughter’s rehearsal dinner and despite a bit of snugness, the dress was it.

I imagined my grandmother in North Carolina fifty-three years earlier, packing the dress in tissue and mailing it, and my mother in the postwar tract house we lived in in Missouri opening the package–the sight of the dress bridging the 983 miles from one home to the other.

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The amount of handwork in the dress and the fabric belt gave me pause. Granny Hawley would have created the dress in her “spare time” after she had worked a forty-hour week at the cotton mill where she was a spooler, combining thread from ten to fifteen bobbins into one. She’d created the dress during the evenings or Saturdays when she would have sewn. For even after she couldn’t regularly attend church and sing in the choir, she honored that seventh day. Not by resting comfortably, but by doing only that which must be done—cooking and dishes and the like (unless her ox was in a ditch).

The dress was likely among the last things that she made this way. In June 1964, my grandmother suffered a stroke and had to be carried from the mill that she’d worked at for close to forty years. I wasn’t quite five years old. We’d lived halfway across the country for a few years, and the only clear image I have of my grandmother walking comes from a short clip in a family home movie. The stroke paralyzed her left side, and she became wheelchair-bound until her death twenty-nine years later. She persevered despite setbacks that would have stalled a lesser person, and I’m so thankful that I knew her.

I cherish this dress. I cherish the fact that at the rehearsal dinner, my grandmother’s gift and ingenuity became part of that special time. I cherish the memory of the woman who made it and honor the woman who wore it first and who herself made many clothes for me and for my children.

Even though my idea of sewing is reattaching buttons and I’ve been known to scotch tape up the hem of a pair of pants, I hope that I’m cut from the same cloth as my grandmother Mary Lena Hudson Hawley, that among other things I’m steadfast and kind—two ways that my grandmother will always be remembered. I hope that somewhere in my stitching her DNA is strong.

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My grandfather and grandmother–Alonzo and Mary Hawley

The dress in action–

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My mom, my sister Becky, me, my brother Doug–slightly older than the dress, and my daughter, Katherine.
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Here I am chatting with the waiter at The Pit. Those shoes belong to my sister-in-law. You’ll never see me in them IRL.

An Overdue Thank You

I’ve been at Weymouth working on Coming Through the Fire, AKA the pottery book. The story owes its beginning to two articles in The News and Observer—many, many years ago. But after I started writing, my friend Melanie, who knew much more about the world of North Carolina pottery, especially the Seagrove area, took me touring one Saturday.

We stood and talked to Ben Owen III as he turned, walked the grounds of Jugtown, and stood in the sales cabin that Julianna and Jacques Busbee built oh so many years ago. I was hooked. I have all the beautiful pieces that I got that day. And buried somewhere in my world-record-holding-number-of-photographs-piled-into-boxes, I have a picture that she took on that sunny day of me standing beside a groundhog kiln. The kind of picture that makes you smile at the memory of the day.

So Melanie is long overdue a thank you for the wonderful gift of her knowledge and for that glimpse into the world of Seagrove that I needed. She also deserves a big thank you for always cheering me on and for reading and rereading my work, and for asking ever so politely after she read a draft of Every Good and Perfect Gift, “Did Maggie and Alex have sex in Chapter Thirteen because I think that’s what happened, but you given us so little to go on, it’s hard to tell.” I did rewrite that section, but clearly if anyone is reading my books for the sex scenes, I’ve got bad news. However, the good news is that any clear writing is in part a testament to Melanie and her eye.

More recently, I owe her my appreciation for another kind of pottery gift. After the loss of her father, a man she greatly loved and admired, and some health issues of her own, Melanie began the process of cleaning, redoing, and brightening her home to help move past this winter of her life. She decided to downsize her pottery collection, and she gave me this wonderful bag of pots—literally, a paper bag stuffed full of pots wrapped in bubble wrap. Christmas come early!

The pots represent all number of Seagrove area potters, but my two favorite pieces are a vase by Vernon Owens of Jugtown Pottery. He and his wife, fellow potter, Pamela Lorette Owens were incredibly generous with their time as I worked on the book. I love the splash of pink almost red on the throat of the vase. The glaze is so shiny that if the picture were magnified you could see a reflection of me taking the picture.

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The other is a smaller vase from Whynot Pottery in Whynot, North Carolina. It’s a shade that they call cosmic blue. I love the indented sides.

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So Melanie, thanks so much for all you’ve done, but really thanks for being my friend!

Now I’m off to figure out where I can put these pots so they won’t meet the floor should when  the cats attempt to use them as payback for whatever my trespass of the week day.

On Grading

Last weekend, I had three sets of papers to grade. I’d picked them up and put them down for two days. So when I woke up Saturday morning, I knew I could procrastinate no longer. Maybe that’s why this image played over and over in my head.

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That might also be why on the way to the office I stopped at two, yes two, fast food restaurants. White flour and sugar are paper-grading crack. Chocolate is also useful.

Do not judge me.

It was Valentine’s Day, so my first stop netted these. (Yes, those are blueberries and full of antioxidants.)

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I’m pretty sure the hearts didn’t make it past Paper Two.

I’ve tried to think about why I get twitchy when I grade–other than the obvious ingestion of sugar and caffeine. And here’s what I’ve come up with.

The amount of time involved boggles the mind.

I teach English, so I can’t do the standard workaround for not correcting grammar and crappy sentences (technical term) and grade on content alone. Across disciplines, some tireless colleagues also work to correct issues beyond content and I applaud them. I’m not sure that if I could, at least some of the time, I wouldn’t go with the this content looks very good shortcut.

Some people talk about the hours that teachers spend not working. Other people equate my twelve-hour teaching load with the number of hours I work. These people have never prepped a class, worked with students, or tried to grade a paper. At a wedding reception last fall, I sat next to a delightful woman from Chapel Hill. A few years back, she’d left a lucrative and busy career in the sciences to teach literature at the high school level. She taught in what people recognize as one of the best systems in our state, but she left teaching after several years because she could not justify the time that she took from her family life to grade. Weeknights were busy with planning for classes and working through daily issues that come up when you deal with large groups of people. Most of her grading was done on weekends. It never stopped, and it couldn’t be put off. She’s back at that lucrative science career.

It gets personal. 

I ask a student for 11949870361565969806fc17.svg.med

From a number of students, I get

   circle or square

Don’t take it personally a colleague tells me. But I do at some level, especially after hours of grading. When I’m assigning a paper, I do everything except a call and response cheer sequence. (I say word count; you say 750!) I provide sample papers and an assignment that is detailed.

If I get enough misshaped papers, I hear the voice of Charlie Brown’s teacher in my head and imagine that this is what my assignment directions look like to a college freshman.

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It’s only a short synapse snap away from that thinking to falling down the rabbit hole and landing up against this thought.

The weight of our education system’s issues sits on my shoulders.  

At least for a moment during the grading of each set of papers, I’m so aware of the calls to dismantle our public education system and privatize so much and of the  money that has been and is being taken out of the system for the benefit of taxpayers. However, the cost to the taxpayers in terms of their children is incalculable. I say that not because I teach English and not math, but because I believe citizens are not served by even one student that graduates without being able to read well, write well, and choose well.

I don’t blame teachers. A few years ago, Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari wrote a great op-ed piece that explains why not far better than I can:

When we don’t get the results we want in our military endeavors, we don’t blame the soldiers. We don’t say, “It’s these lazy soldiers and their bloated benefits plans! That’s why we haven’t done better in Afghanistan!”

I also don’t blame students for the state of education (even while I hold them accountable for reading directions).

Finally

Often as I’m about to go into a hypoglycemic coma, a wonderful paper comes along, and I put down my Krispy Kreme doughnut, and all is

unicorns.

Now, I’m off to grade quizzes–no sugar required.

Were You Trying To Work?

The new year brought flu to our house. As I moved from couch to bed and back (dragging my quilt with me), I inevitably had to elbow a cat to get some space. After almost a week, we finally have reached detente.

In healthier times, I’ve often I questioned whether Hemingway ever let his felines in the house.

Like many writers, I chart things like character’s timelines or draw my fictional landscape and tack it in front of me as I work. Well, I used to tack it up.

Here’s what happens now, featuring Carlos Ezekiel:

And now I’m off to find a cough drop!