How Mama Remembered Christmas

In her old age, Mama surprised us all with a memoir she’d typed on a second hand manual typewriter picked up at a yard sale.  I hand-bound a few copies for the family and Mrs. McGehee printed an excerpt in the Fluvanna County Historical Society Bulletin.  On this Christmas Eve, thought I’d share a brief chapter:

These were the Depression years and times were hard for everyone, but especially difficult for my parents as my father being a sharecropper worked the farm and received only two-thirds of the crops he raised, but we were furnished with the house in which we lived.  No potpourri was needed in this farm house.  An apple orchard grew on the farm and the aroma of ripening Winesaps scented the entire house from several barrels of apples kept in the attic bedroom for our consumption during the winter months.  Peaches, berries, grapes and cherries grown on the farm along with the apples provided the fruit for the family needs.

Today being blessed with four grown children and six grandchildren (now eight) and enjoying being in their homes especially at Christmas and watching them enjoy the many toys they find beneath the tree, I am happy for them, and my mind goes back to other years long ago and Christmases in my home when I was a child.  Stockings were not hung at our house.  Instead we selected shoe boxes during the year that were placed in special corners awaiting Santa’s arrival.  This remained the custom in my home while celebrating Christmas in later years with my own children and what a happy and special time this was for me.  We never decorated a tree at the old farm, but it was Christmas nevertheless, and we knew we were celebrating Christ’s birthday.  I still recall the feeling of anticipation on Christmas Eve and the excitement of Christmas morning as we rushed down the narrow stairs to find what was in our boxes.

There was always one special toy in each, a handful of hard candy, a few nuts and an orange.  This was the only time of year when we saw an orange, as they were not in the store except at Christmas.  The toy we received was the only one we had from one Christmas to the next.  I never remember having a birthday cake or getting a gift on that day until after I left home.  But at Christmas, my mother always baked chocolate, coconut and caramel cakes for us to enjoy during the holidays.

One Christmas stands out in my memory.  I found a small brown teddy bear in my box.  For some reason, I didn’t like the fuzzy toy with the bead eyes.  I tossed it under a chair and never touched it again.  Now I know how badly my parents must have felt when I rejected the toy they had chosen and sacrificed getting for me.  Today I have a similar one sitting in a rocker in my living room that I cherish.

Prologue to my Novel The Coal Tower

My debut novel The Coal Tower is available now in paperback or Kindle versions (you can request the book at your bookstore, too).   Here’s the prologue:

Every town has a place like this.  In Charlottesville, Virginia, it’s the coal tower.  A squat, concrete bunker roughly the shape of an enormous thermos bottle, it stands shaggy with kudzu on six ponderous concrete legs next to the train tracks that run east and west through downtown. A few coal and gas trains still run along these tracks, rumbling between mines up in the mountains and power plants dotted around the Virginia Piedmont, but now that all the revamped warehouses have gone electric or solar, the tower serves no purpose.  Its steel-reinforced walls are too sturdy to dynamite, and so far no developer has imagined a way to turn it into condos.  At one point, years ago, a sculptor built a 20-foot tall dress frame atop the tower, then draped a giant’s white cotton dress on it, naming the work in honor of Thomas Jefferson’s slave mistress Sally Hemings.  He meant it to be a thought-provoking, lovely memorial and provocation, and it did serve — if nothing else —  as a middle finger aimed at Monticello, the Founding Father’s hilltop home.

            The artist was surprised, however, to learn that the dress would not stay on.  He’d get a call at his studio in Staunton and drive over the mountain to find the yards of fabric that made up the sculpture’s dress stretched across the honeysuckle thickets, torn and dirty, as if blown off by the wind.  He’d unstitch it into washable sections, have it laundered and resewn, then spend a whole day with ladders, tools and a couple university students precariously fitting the dress back onto the frame.  Two days later, he’d get the call again.  This happened three times.  After that, he bought a thermos of coffee and parked his pickup behind some scrap lumber by the tracks and waited.  Woke up with a start to find the dress gone again, but this time it was nowhere to be found.  He looked everywhere it could have blown, then noticed something, a crack in the coal chute door.  The door was carved into the face of the tower ten feet off the ground, but he was able to straddle a rail siding in his pickup and hoist himself up from the cabtop.  To his surprise, the door was not sealed at all, just blocked by a flap of plywood that he easily pushed aside.  You couldn’t see much in there, but his flashlight revealed that someone had found a use for the coal tower after all.  A rusty ladder bolted onto the interior wall stretched down to a circular room littered with squatter’s treasure:  blankets, pans, an old mattress and piles of other debris.  Crumpled in one corner, like a deflated hot air balloon, lay the torn and coal-streaked dress.

            The artist climbed down inside the tower and retrieved the dress.  He then notified the police and personally sealed the coal chute door with an old oaken tabletop that he bolted into the concrete.  But he gave up on the dress, leaving the skeletal frame atop the tower, having convinced himself that the sculpture was more interesting that way.  But really, it would have been such a hassle to dismantle it, and nobody cared anyway.  When he left, as far as anybody knew, the kudzu took over.  The sturdy monstrosity squatted ugly and forgotten along the tracks.

            Except not really.  It had taken all of five minutes to pop the door bolts with a crowbar.  The squatter’s camp was back in business in a week.  A seasonal refuge, largely abandoned in the summer and winter, but cozy during the rains of spring and fall, it serves a transient population that the proud, go-getter town does not even imagine. 

 

Fave Books of 2018

Here’s my Top Ten list of favorite books read in 2018 (all are in paperback and only one was actually first published this year).  I’d love to see your list!

The Cartel by Don Winslow.  If you read his Mexican drug war novel The Power of the Dog, then you probably waited in line for this sequel, a brutal masterpiece that continues Winslow’s take- no-prisoners unmasking of the real culprits (allow me to name check the late first President Bush) in the ongoing narcotics apocalypse of North America.  This trilogy concludes with The Border, due out in February, and I’ve pre-ordered that, too.

The New Valley by Josh Weil – A debut novel (really three novellas) set in rural Southwest Virginia, its chiseled sentences and hard scrabble situations spark like a hoe striking stone.  Sent a copy to my friend in prison and he has not stopped asking me for more like it.  Sadly, haven’t found one.

Chattahoochee by Patrick Phillips.  I attended this serious young poet’s affecting reading at St. Phillips Church here in Richmond, then spent a week poring over his rich cycle of poems about growing up alert, hurt, and in wonder at the world about you.

This Young Monster by Charlie Fox.  Fierce, loving essays about monsters that had me rethinking prejudice, disability, my face in the mirror, and all the Others that scare and fascinate us.  Sent me back to Shelley’s Frankenstein, to Diane Arbus’ photographs, to David Lynch’s whole oeuvre with woke eyes.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather.  Catching up on the classics, read this feet on the ground/head in the sky epic during a beach week.  Don’t think I’ll ever appreciate an Outer Banks sunrise more.

Walking on Alligators by Susan Shaughnessy.  Inspirational quotes by writers for writers, one to a page, glossed by short essay prompts.  Reading a page each morning became an essential element of my preparatory routine for writing.  Lacking a sequel, I’m starting over at page one now.

The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder.  The great beat poet is a leader of the Deep Ecology movement, and these essays may change how you walk in the world.  My favorite quote:  “An ethical life is one that is mindful, mannerly, and has style.  Of all moral failings and flaws of character, the worst is stinginess of thought, which includes meanness in all its forms.”

Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac.  Snyder the young zen acolyte, woodsman and poet is the star of this novel, which to my mind rivals On the Road.  Somehow had never read it before.  Here’s my take on the book from an earlier blog post:  On Reading a Worn Copy of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums at 62.

Collected Essays by James Baldwin.  A favorite birthday gift last year, this book burned up my bedside table.  No one has ever written with this intensity and rue about inequality in America.  Start with The Fire Next Time, a time capsule from the 1960s that speaks directly to now.

A Short History of the World by E. H. Gombrich – Yes, this is a children’s history book, and it has you feeling like a child again, sitting on your wise old uncle’s knee as he recounts a life well-lived.  Pipe ash flits onto your p.j.’s, but you don’t care, because the tale he tells has never been expressed so well.  Dare you to find another children’s book that risks a quote this profound:  We are like that.  Each one of us no more than a tiny glimmering thing, a sparkling droplet on the waves of time which flow past beneath us into an unknown, misty future.  We leap up, look around us and, before we know it, we vanish again.  We can hardly be seen in the great river of time.  New drops keep rising to the surface.  And what we call our fate is no more than our struggle in that great multitude of droplets in the rise and fall of one wave.  But we must make use of that moment.  It is worth the effort.

That’s it!  Tag you’re it!  In 2019, stay calm and read on!

 

 

 

Forgetting

“They tell me I shot myself in the chin, shot somebody else, too, but I don’t think that’s right.  What happened was I fell off a fruit wagon.”

That’s Dr. Wagner.  He’s a pharmacist, had his own small town pharmacy out in the Valley for years, seemed fine they say, until this happened.  I’m his occupational therapist.  It’s my job to determine how well he can perform his activities of daily living, things like brushing his teeth, making out a checkbook, but right now I’m conducting a cognitive screening called the O-Log.  Checking for orientation to place, time, person, and situation.  He’s not doing too well.  Problem is he’s lobotomized himself with an old German Luger and can’t recall that two weeks ago he shot his wife and their twelve-year old daughter, then turned the gun on himself.  So he does what they call confabulation, makes up something that seems probable in the moment, and even believes it.  Would be funny except.

Race home from work and get dressed for my brother’s birthday celebration at our sister’s house.  Leave in a huff halfway through after getting into an argument over the Confederate statues, which he has decided he worships now.  Where did that come from?  Out in the driveway, our sister wags her finger along the lines of,  “You don’t remember much of when we were kids do you?  You messed with him relentlessly and now you think he’s going to listen to your shit?”

“What are you talking about?” I ask.

“You know,” she replies, with that drum roll of the eyes sisters are so good at.

Next morning at the hospital I monitor the old pharmacist dressing and grooming.  He manages fine, functioning on remote control, stuff he’s done without thinking his whole life.  There’ll be an ugly court fight about this.  The cops stationed outside his door may lead him to jail or to a mental hospital or maybe even just to a nursing home and none of it will matter a whit to him.  He’s got a confabulous new story for every situation and it’s all just a walk in the park no matter what, which I guess is the beauty of blowing out your frontal lobes.  If you don’t remember it, did it ever even happen?  And if it never happened, what can you make up that might have, that at least for the moment anyway explains it all?

Space Aliens Come Upon the Dictionary Page that Starts with Colonel Blimpism and Ends with Colorway

Discovering that

a phenomenon

of light or perception

may distinguish

otherwise identical

things, and that this

flourish named

color is often used

among humans

in that way.

 

Though some are

color-blind, it seems

and others call others

colored, and those

without color – because

the definition of color

excludes the phenomenon

of light we call white

these whites block

those with color

(But why? And how?)

from participating

in various activities.

 

Color bar/color line.

 

Why would the

colorless — ie,

pallid, blanched,

dull, uninteresting

do such a thing?

What activities, exactly?

 

And how do they

distinguish anyway?

Is that what this thing

a colorimeter is for?

Are there colorists

who decide?  Do they

fear those with something

called color temperature?

Blackbodies that can emit

radiant energy to

evoke color?

 

That’s it!  (They say.)

We’ve got it.  The key’s

right here on this page.

Now we know what moves

them.  And the word we’ll

use when we go down

to colonize.

This Poetry Thang

Last Summer, I was grateful to learn that a pair of my poems had placed in a competition held by the Virginia Poetry Society.  A few weeks later my award, a check for $50, arrived in the mail.  This stunned me.  Over the past 40 years or so, I’ve written hundreds of things that I call poems, attempting to articulate nuggets of insight or awareness with an accessible line that yet rewards rereading.  It’s a fine line to walk, especially nowadays, when the poetry in journals seems divided between the warring camps of confessional blatherers and hermetically sealed puzzle makers.  Of course, the very  idea of spending time writing poetry is absurd, unless you may be one of the English professors who rely on occasional publication to keep your job.  So for me a passionate hobby, I guess you’d call it.  Sometimes I’d send out a batch (this has become easier over the years, thanks to online submissions), and occasionally one would get published.  But getting a check came as such a surprise!  Who knew that a lifetime of scribbling poems could be so lucrative!

But that’s a snide thing to say.  Millions of people write poems, fretting and sweating over the right word placed just so inside a matrix that doesn’t quite mesh, but let me try this.  When they could be binging Netflix!  Some of this work sees the light of day, so to speak, in journals nobody reads, but most of it collects on laptops or in little notebooks, destined for the dust bin.  A check for $50 would surprise these poets, my kin, as much as it did me.  It’s an odd cult, isn’t it?  At St. Phillips Church here in Richmond, sometimes hundreds turn out for readings by laureates.  In the past year, sitting on a pew at some of these events, I’ve been moved as much by the communal leaning in with ears perked as by the regally intoned prosody.

Then this.  One of my poems “Immigrant Reflection” piqued the attention of the judge in this year’s James River Writers/Richmond Magazine Shann Palmer Poetry Contest.  She’s a well-known, well-published poet, a person who can make a living doing this, a VCU graduate by the name of Tarfia Faizullah.  And what she wrote about my poem when it was (amazingly!) published this month in Richmond magazine touched me profoundly, as if I had been grokked:

I love the lucidity of voice in “Immigrant Reflection.” This poem showed me worlds that I’ve never visited but found warmly drawn and happily familiar.  It reminds me that life is both grand and quotidian at once:  “We never learned much,” the speaker recalls nonchalantly, before stating a number of life’s largest and most crucial lessons:  “How to catch a fish./How to dip in dance.”  The conclusion astounded me in its wisdom, and awareness of every immigrant’s strange inheritance: to be always both there and here.  This poem made me think “Yes, it is like that, isn’t it?”  And that is a very good thing.  The ending slayed me with its casual tenderness.  The narrower lines made for a very satisfying tempo.  I beamed!  Thank you for taking the time to reflect.

No, thank you, Ms. Faizullah.  I share your comment shamelessly, because it seems like such a miracle, and I can’t expect that it will happen again.  On behalf of all of us scribblers who yearn all but hopelessly for such a generous and attentive reading someday, thank you.  We should all be so lucky.

By the way, just learned that the winning poems from the contest are available to read online here:  https://richmondmagazine.com/news/features/2018-shann-palmer-poetry-contest/.  Enjoy!

On Reading a Worn Copy of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums at 62

Finished Dharma Bums, its final rapturous rush as Kerouac’s protagonist (clearly and baldly autobiographical) packed a Summer on a Cascades Mountains (Desolation Peak) fire lookout into half a dozen pages; the final page as innocently exalted as I have felt in my epiphanies, so many of them nature-driven, and heartbreaking since we know how his short life will devolve into alcoholism (his drinking a recurrent theme in the book, the Gary Snyder character deriding him for always needing a drink) and a sequestered death at his mother’s house in Florida. Coming off the mountain, believing he’s learned an ultimate truth through a Buddhist filter, all is right; he fears and yearns for the tumult of the cities, suggests that the lessons of his mountaintop solitary Summer will carry him through. I have felt exactly that, and wondered if I was the only one who had walked that path. Kerouac says, no, this is not an uncommon thing, it’s open to anyone; just let yourself turn towards that edge of madness depth perception, check your everyday cynicism at the door, and grin.

Can’t believe I’ve never read this book before. It sums up so beautifully a path I’ve trod (and you have to think this book influenced the music and literature and the whole cultural gestalt that led me along all these years – it certainly had to up the ante for the coming youth movement, almost seems a blueprint for hippiedom and its many offshoots, in ways that On the Road was not) (that classic almost a cautionary tale about the dread of aimlessness, whereas Dharma Bums, with its hilariously ham-handed and dilettantish Buddhistic flourishes, points the callow reader towards inward-seeking life goals Thoreau or Muir would have appreciated).

The woodsy parties sound like Electric Kool Aid Acid Test fests, minus the LSD (not yet invented), no doubt emulated by all the hippie communes to come. I’ve been to parties like that – I’m thinking especially of weekends at Nora’s rundown Mississippi plantation. Young people at play with flowers in our hair, skinny dipping in the creek, at the cusp of some sort of revelation, and holding it there like a glow of pot smoke swelling our lungs. Those weekends, probably every day of my wild oats years in New Orleans, too, just another On the RoadDharma Bums derivative. And not just then and not just me, of course. Think of their influence on the searching, fulfillment-yearning, meandering way we have all lived in the sixty-plus years since their publication! Even if you never read them, they signified.  What culture shaking power Kerouac’s two great novels unleashed!

A Thing They Call a House

I came back to this box

where we I almost said live.

That’s what they are, of course,

with holes in the side,

through which we sieve.

 

Has the foundation gone off plumb?

Something shuffles in the attic,

shadows dart at the edge of my eye.

Stale breath from the vents,

flits of static. . .

 

And now it’s too big or

probably maybe I’ve shrunk.

Imagine the moment you notice

the echo your own feet make

on the stairs, that hollow thunk.

 

When do you start to pare it down,

put all but one placemat away?

When do you leave the shutters drawn

and forget the mail and fry an egg for dinner

and wear your slippers all day?

 

Or maybe you think it’s time

to leave this box behind and see if you

can find one more compact,

carpeted, cozy, without all the ghosting

features that make you fear for your mind.

 

I’m sure you never dreamed that I would

run into this wall; but then you never

had to watch you go then turn and

lift the lock to this maze of

mocking rooms and narrow halls.

 

This box so empty it rattles, and blinks

and leaks and moans. Weird as a museum

when all the crowds have gone,

a thing they call a house

we used to call a home.

3:30 am

Ginny’s gone, but here’s a pome from before all that, in commiseration with all my Facebook friends who post in the middle of the night.

3:30 am

the witching hour

right?

 

Get up to pee

take my thyroid pill

 

tuck myself back in

with three pillows

 

Chris and our dog Ginny

snuffling and puffing

 

in their dreams. All is right

in this best of all possible worlds.

 

Maybe you know what comes next:

You’re out there like me

 

in your warm bed but the swarm

arises in your head and

 

all the tricks you try only

stir the frenzied buzz.

 

Who batted the hive

between your ears?

 

Regrets are the worst:

How could I have done that?

 

What was I thinking?

OMG, what an ass.

 

So then at 4:30 am

maybe you get up again

 

go to the window

where a full moon throws

 

tree-wide stripes

across the lawn and an owl

 

swoops past like some

cowled and fretful wraith.

 

Go downstairs

pick up a book

 

a diversion in hopes

the hornets will gentle

 

which they sort of do. But now

it’s dawn. Chris is up

 

and in the shower, coffee’s on,

Ginny stretches and yawns

 

and finds you lifting a heavy head

to the new day with gratitude

 

for sunlight, for imposition,

for all the honeyed routines that keep

 

things humming. The hours

unwind with things to do with

 

effort this time to do better

maybe learn from past mistakes

 

then fall to your pillows

and let it all flee

 

until at 3:30 am

you get up to pee.