Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Raft of Inspiration

I knew a man once who was a boat-builder.  He made boats by hand using hand tools only, the way his Greek father and grandfather had built them on the island of Kefalonia.  When I met him first, he was making a boat for his brother who planned to come down to the shore when it was finished, then the two brothers would sail it home again.  I'd never seen anything built like that boat, from the first plank up, so I was curious despite the fact that I'd been wandering that cove looking for a quiet place to read.  Daniel was a man who generally kept to himself, a private man, even among others in that place who loved boats and sailing.  He was always cordial, but he rarely added anything to the conversation when someone happened by and noticed his boat. He seemed wholly unimpressed by the exuberant talk of fiberglass and speed and outboards that riddled the vernacular of other boaters who stopped by.

So why he spoke to me and invited me to "stop by anytime and watch" was a mystery to me for many years. Now, I think it mostly had to do with the book I was carrying around that day – Yehuda Amichai's slender book of poems, An Hour of Grace.  Daniel had noticed it and nodded at it.


He'd said the poet's name as if he were making a statement, not asking a question. As if the name were an acknowledgment of something.  Or an approval. As if he were recalling suddenly the name of a friend.

I explained that I was reading Amachai's work for the first time, that it was a school assignment to read poets from other countries, that I didn't really know his work well yet.

While he straightened his tools and rearranged a pile of dusty wood, he asked me to read something to him I'd liked, just a line or two. So I opened the book to a page and read a line I'd highlighted that morning, out of its context:

      Among the stars you may be right,
          but not here. . .

The man was very still at first, looking out over the water. He nodded and picked up his chisels.

     This is a good place to be alone, he said then. Almost no one comes by. Come here anytime to read your books. And maybe you will read to me again.

I didn't get the significance of that plural – books – at the time but, looking back now, I think he knew, even in those first moments, that I lived in books – more than with just that particular book I was carrying. Maybe he sensed it in the manner in which I'd read that line, which swelled with more than just the saying of the words.  It has always annoyed me how my voice quivers when I read something aloud, something that matters to me deeply.  It has always annoyed me deeply that what I most care for, I give voice to so poorly.


I stopped in many days that late spring and then on deep into the summer – to read for hours in the shade of that giant cypress tree, sitting myself down on the rough, alluvial ground at the water's edge, knowing when I got up again to go, I would be filthy with the grit and dampness of that ground.  For many days, I watched the man work: planing and sanding and bending the boards, nailing them into place, building the hull which I thought was beginning to look  elegant as a well-wrought piece of furniture.  I hadn't known teak could be so pliable, such an amenable medium, until I saw how he worked with it. He didn't master the wood into place so much as he convinced it to doing his bidding.  All day long as he worked, he hummed to himself or spoke softly, his mouth close to the wood as he planed and bent and nailed and sanded, sopping his brow with the back of his sleeves.


The man had names for things that appealed to the poet in me.  The wide, concave braces on which the hull was supported as he built the boat, he called the "angels."  They didn't look like any kind of wings to me, at least not like those feathery contraptions little girls strap on for Christmas pageants and Halloween, and they didn't resemble the angels I'd seen in paintings. But they held the boat up as he composed it, board by board, the way I'd heard, in childhood stories, that angels swaddled the infant world in dark space as God spoke the Everything into being.

Daniel said the angels had to be fiercely solid  as they held the keel – the most significant part of the boat to build precisely, and upon which every other board and bolt and hinge was dependent.  He said the angels were a "necessary evil" as it was important that the wood not rest on the ground: moisture could leach into the wood and rot it before it had a fair chance in water. Early mornings, first thing, he would lie on his back on the ground, edging his shoulders as close to the keel as possible, and he'd run his hands slowly along the keel, cupping its curve, making certain the wood was dry and intact.

     It is not yet time for water, he'd say, as much to the boat as to me.

 He pressed soft, bleached pieces of cheesecloth over the dew-moist keel, absorbing the water, discarding each square of cloth until finally one came up dry.  One morning as he was stretched out like that, daubing the keel with the white cloths, I told him I thought those braces did not seem anything like angels to me.  Even as it came out of my mouth, it sounded peevish.  The man under the boat went still.

Don't rely so wholly on your eyes, Daniel said. The eyes love symmetry and beauty and they will see it even when it isn't there and miss what is there in plain sight; the hands know a thing for how it feels against the bowl of the palm, its shape. The nose can detect first rot.  The skin, well, it has its purpose too and, today, mine is blistered by sun.

I knew what he meant: that stern warning to not rely so wholly on my eyes. Working the graveyard shift, making my rounds in the dim-lit corridors of the pediatric ward years before, I'd relied more on my hands and fingertips to check the brow and pulse of a sleeping infant than I did on how the child appeared to be doing.  A boy's brow looks pacific in deep shadow, but place a cool hand on his forehead and you will know how fever-bright he burns.


Daniel did not speak of the boat's length; he spoke of its longitude – as if the vessel were a world unto itself – with latitudes and longitudes.  I suppose, for him – as it came into being on those long summer days – the boat had become a kind of planet that he was orbiting.  In the worst heat of the afternoons, I'd look up at him, working there, and I would see a heat-haze around the ribbed hull that made it seem to shift its solid wooden shape, to waver at its edges. It seemed not quite a thing of solid earth, as if it were already preparing itself to leave the realm of terra firma and enter a more fluid one.


That afternoon I was reading from Yannis Ritsos' Selected Poems – or, rather, I was reading English translations of his poems. Daniel loaned me the book each day when I came to the shore but I had to give it back each evening because the book belonged to his brother, Dimitri, whose name was scrawled inside the cover in a childish hand.

Because I only had access to the book there, because I could not carry it away, I had taken to bringing my notebook with me, copying out, by hand, passages that I wanted to remember.  I had written RITSOS in black Magic Marker on the cover of the spiral-bound, blue-lined notebook so I would remember, in years to come, whose lines they were.

But all that afternoon, the wavering of that boat in the heat distracted me and I had to force myself to look away from it, had to force myself to go back to copying lines before the afternoon cooled and the coming twilight meant I would have to surrender the book. I read Daniel a passage from the book then, partly to distract myself from the eerie mirage and partly to rouse myself from the sleepy languor that was overtaking me in the late afternoon heat. I asked him to say what he made of the lines:

      Every house has its slain. Behind the windows
          stand those who are missing, and the pitcher with water they never drank.
         And this star that fell at the edge of night
         is like the amputated ear that does not hear the crickets,
         does not hear our excuses. . . .

He stopped sanding and looked at me and I did not understand his look.

     What troubles you about that passage?

I stared down at my notebook again, at the lines I'd copied into it, reluctant to speak my mind and, in doing so, risk insulting the man who'd loaned me the book.

     It's that "amputated ear" part, I said.  Something isn't right about it.

He shrugged. I tried to explain.  

     Four syllables . . . too many . . . too distracting . . . draws attention from the dead at the windows, from the pitcher and its undrunk water, the solitary ear listening but not hearing the crickets and the excuses being made. . .

It was clumsy, that explanation, and I was embarrassed. Sweating. Irritated. I knew I sounded quarrelsome. I gave up, said what I was really thinking.

     I'd have written " severed ear."

Daniel walked over and looked at the passage in the book.  He looked from the right hand page – the translation – to the left-hand page, the poem in Greek. A frown creased his brow.  Then he laughed, a great laugh, and the sound of merriment and delight in that laugh shocked me into silence.

     That is closer to what Ritsos wrote, he said and he went back to his oakum and chisels.  It was the first time I had been made to acknowledge the slight, important distinctions between the poem Ritsos had written and the translation of that poem into my own language.  It was an important lesson for a student of poetry.


I was troubled all that summer by a recurring dream, a dream in which I was building a boat, a fine boat, a well-crafted boat, but each time I looked away from it, it became a pile of sticks.  I built it again and again. I sanded and turned the wood. I planed and nailed things into place.  I varnished the beautiful hull and dried the keel.  But each time I turned my back on it and then turned to it again, what I found was knotted rope and unfinished sticks held up by the rough angels.  Not a boat at all. In no way sea-worthy.  Not even a raft. 


That summer waxed and waned, like a moon filling and emptying, and then one day the boat was complete.  I walked down to the cove to see it a final time, though I was done by then with my summer reading, with my books and notebook of lines.  I was a part of the thing then, that boat and its angels, though I hadn't built it and couldn't sail it and didn't yet even know its name. It had pulled me in somehow, though I hadn't yet even met the man for whom it was being built.  I only barely knew the man who'd built it right in front of me. But I felt connected to it all in some inexplicable way. I wanted to see it, to set it firmly in my memory as the fine craft it was.  I wanted to see it – whatever it was - all the way through to the end, or at least as far as I could.  I was, as my grandmother used to say, invested in the outcome.

I rounded the hill leading to the cove just in time that morning to see Daniel standing with a bent man, a priest in white and gold vestments, who had his hand on the bow of the boat, speaking softly in a language I couldn't understand. I slipped quietly into the cove and stood at the fringe of water, near where the two men stood.

Every boat Daniel's family has built for generations – before it forsakes its angels,  as it surely must, and enters the water – is blessed. In this blessing, it is traditional for the priest to say the boat's name aloud for the first time.  It was the only word I understood in everything he was saying. Dimitri had named his boat:  Magdalena.  His mother's name.

Daniel went inside to pack his suitcase.  He'd already told me he would captain the boat, his brother as his sole passenger, and sail it from this cove out into the wide estuary where the fresh water of the bay meets with the salt water of the sea.  From there, he would continue north, following the shoreline to his brother's home in Delaware.  He would take his brother to see the sea and then see his brother safely home again. That was the map he was following. And though he stopped at that, I imagined from there he would go back to wherever it is he goes when he is not building a boat by hand, back to whatever work he does there, in whatever far city he lives.  At summer's end, I would go back to my studies and my notebooks and poetry and, occasionally, I would look back at that summer spent reading under the cypress while a man I scarcely knew worked in the hot sun, building his brother a boat.  That is how my map looked.

But the two of us were, that morning, still tangled together in the last moments of that waning summer. The ten men he'd hired arrived at noon to lift the boat on their shoulders and to carry it into the water where it would be moored for the rest of the afternoon and evening and through the night, where it would complete its taking-up:  that final, critical stage where the oakum stuffed into the fine separations between the planks of the hull takes up water and expands and makes the boat sea-worthy and safe.  As the men eased out from under the weight of the boat, it rocked and seemed to float from their shoulders. Daniel tied it to the dock where it would remain until Dimitri arrived the following morning. I turned for home again but it troubled me that the exquisitely-made hull was submerged, out of sight.  So much time spent on it, such effort, and who would appreciate it now, who would see its fine beauty and solid craftsmanship?  It seemed a dreadful waste of time to me, all those hours he'd spent sanding the wood, rubbing it, oiling and finishing it until even its small imperfections shone warmly as aged oak. And Daniel's explanation seemed cryptic, insufficient:

      That no one knows it's there, its beauty submerged, is not the point.  That no one sees what I put into the making of it or what drove me to it is not the point.  That it is rugged, that it is stable, that it will hold sway in a strong wind, that it will stay true to the course set – that is all good but also not the point.  There is more to a boat than what you can or cannot see. Remember: do not trust your eyes so much.


All night I turned in my bed, twisting the sheets, throwing them off of me, agitated, waiting for sleep, waiting for the sun, waiting to return early-morning to the shoreline where Dimitri's Magdalena was undergoing its taking-up. What if she took on water?  What if she had to return to shore, unfit to sail?  What if? What if?   Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong – at least in my mind it did.  My crooked mind, my poet's-mind. 

I drifted into and out of fitful sleep. Cricket-song gave way to birdsong and I woke late, threw on my rumpled shirt and jeans, and headed to the cove.  By the time I got near I was winded and had to lean against a tree to catch my breath again. I was trying to steady myself for the rush downhill.  I looked down and I could see Daniel on the dock. He was lifting a slight man from a wheelchair, the man's legs wrapped in a soft gold blanket.  The man's head was angled back, up at the sky, the way a child's head tilts who has cerebral palsy.


Surely Daniel must have wondered why I didn't show up to say goodbye, to see them off that final morning.  He'd hesitated once, looking back at the shore and the cypress after he'd unmoored the boat, his brother propped up next to him.  Such a small hesitation, I wonder sometimes if I didn't just imagine it.  Maybe I had imagined much of that summer's boat-building, caught up as I had been in books and distracted by that mirage of the wavering boat. 

I was standing then, beginning to breathe easily again, just inside the thick copse of junipers uphill, the palm of my left hand against the rough bark, my feet planted wide on the slope so I didn't lose my balance and topple down the hill. I'd caught sight of the two brothers there on the dock, the younger, stronger brother lifting his crippled brother carefully into his arms as if he'd done it for many years, stepping quickly onto the boat, steadying himself as the boat tipped in the water under the shifting weight of them. I don't know now how long I stood like that – watching Daniel lower his fragile brother into place on board the boat, covering his legs again, pulling a windbreaker around his bony shoulders as Dimitri smiled up at him, or at the sky.

I must have known just then that I both was and wasn't really part of that moment, that summer. What city of brotherly love or suffering can any outsider really enter, complex as the gates are, rusty as the locks are?  That moment was theirs.  That beautifully-wrought, hidden hull and the love and sorrow that had built it belonged only to the two of them.

What I did, just then – as I braced myself against that hillside tree, breathing in, breathing out – was what I do best, despite that man's earnest counsel: I trusted my eyes. I took it in, all of it. I stood in my place, out of sight, and let it happen without me. I held to that tree and, as if my life depended upon it, I watched that man take his brother and the Magdalena out of the beautifully-lit cove, into dark water, heading for the estuary, and then out into the great sea. 

Monday, December 16, 2013


Café Franco's is an Italian restaurant which my husband and I frequent here on the island because the atmosphere is pleasant and the food is good.  No; actually, it's great.  Homemade yeast rolls are served hot from the oven alongside a dish of fragrant Italian spices and olive oil.  The dishes of homemade manicotti and ravioli arrive at the table with the hot cheeses still bubbling.  Every meal is served by friendly, smiling wait-staff, some of whom are members of Franco's family.  And Franco?  He is in the kitchen, always, a serious man making from scratch seriously delicious Italian dishes.

Here it is in Franco's own words:  "Café Franco's is a traditional Italian restaurant inspired by the uncomplicated and laid-back lifestyle of the Italian people – good food and a good meal are essential to the human spirit…."

It does seem like that, on days when Ian and I head there with our hunger, putting aside for a moment our busy schedules and allowing ourselves to sink together into a booth, the little café lights shining softly overhead, and the smells of rustic tomato sauce drifting out from the kitchen.  Good food and a good meal DO seem essential to the human spirit on days like that.  And Café Franco's does both exceptionally well.

I could go on raving about the food but the thing that has my attention today is a tall post stuck in a potted plant near the front windows.  On it are five hand-painted lavender planks of wood with the names of cities  – all but one of them in Italy – and the mileage to each from Café Franco's : 

Venice 4671 miles
Rome 4757 miles
Florence 4684 miles
Ocracoke      84 miles
Palermo 4819 miles

The closest city to us is Ocracoke, and it's really more a small village than it is a city.  It's also the only American city named on the sign.  Ocracoke is one of the small islands that make up the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  It's south of here – farther south even than Hatteras Island – and a place only accessible by ferry. The thing I know about Ocracoke is that it houses a remnant of the Banker horses: horses protected and cared for now by the National Park Service.  Seventeen ponies remain today of the herd of small, sturdy horses that arrived sometime in the 16th century with Spanish explorers, seventeen descendents of a herd of unusual horses who are physically-distinct from other wild ponies on the Outer Banks: the ponies bear a different number of vertebrae and ribs and a distinct shape, posture, color, size and weight that sets them apart from other ponies. 

Those Banker ponies?  They are my connection to Ocracoke. What Franco's particular connection to Ocracoke is, I cannot say.  Maybe it is as tenuous a connection as that frail acknowledgment which exists between immigrants, between those who have left the countries of their births and find themselves in a new country.

All the other cities named on the sign-planks are somewhere in Italy. 

Palermo, though, has the distinction of being Franco's hometown.  What I know of Palermo could fit into a thimble: it is situated on the island of Sicily - a large island at the toe of the boot that we identify on maps as "Italy."  I remember something about a general named Garibaldi and his troops known as "The Thousands" who entered the city and took it back from the Bourbons in the 1800s.  I remember that's about the time Palermo became a part of the new Kingdom of Italy. And I know that the Mafia had a big part in the modernization of Palermo.  Or was it that the Mafia was modernized by Palermo?  I'm probably getting some of this wrong.  But I do remember that the city's patron saint is Santa Rosalia, who is said to have freed the city of the Black Death (Black Plague) sometime in the early 1600s and that she is celebrated with a festival every year on July 14th.  That kind of historical information sticks with me: throw in something about a plague or some dirty criminal activity, and I'm unlikely to forget that part.

But Franco? Franco knows where he is, always, in relation to his hometown. He is as tied to that city and its history as he is tied to making good food. He is the center of his own known world, always, but he hasn't forgotten who his people are and from where he has come.  I think it might be important to him – and maybe to his customers – to know how many miles he has traveled to get here. And how many miles it would take to travel back to Palermo, should the need arise. I like that he has journeyed over 4,800 miles from Palermo, Italy, to arrive here, and that he has brought with him the seasonings and the sensibilities of his hometown. There is a reason his good food is so "essential to the human spirit."  My spirit is surely feeling it today.

I hope I always carry with me a sense of who I am and where I have come from - also from whom I have come - so no matter how far I am from my own birthplace, no matter what histories are attached to me, they all contribute to who I am and who I am becoming.  After all, being from the deep south means I have a complicated relationship to almost everything from fried chicken to old hymns to sea-songs to quilts.  I recognize, first-hand, the face of poverty when I see it, and the face of a new mother's exhaustion, and I know what it is to labor under a hot sun, trying to eke something out of hard-scrabble land.  I know what it is to be from the South with its histories of slave-trading and racism and rum-running and carpet-bagging.  I also know what it is to be from honest people who work at being just and merciful, people who fear God and pray daily and are thankful for even the smallest blessings. I'm from people who lived their lives and disappeared again into eternity and whose names are now only listed in old census or employment records.  Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.   

As the wanderer and prodigal that I have been most of my adult life, I haven't stayed in any single place long enough to erect a signpost to anywhere that has been important to me. But on days like this, I feel it there, that signpost erecting itself deep in my heart of hearts, a rough-planked, hand-painted signpost at some crossroads that points the way back, to home, wherever home has been.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Message, sans Bottle

One of the rewards of living on an island is that, come October, the visitors have almost all gone home again and the island is deserted save for the ones of us who live here and are more winter-hardy.  The houses along the beach today are mostly vacant, windows boarded or shuttered, and the balconies wearing, again, their colorful "For Rent" realty signs.  The dunes are being slowly washed inland by the sea's unforgiving hand, back onto the Route 12, where they'll remain until early December when they'll be herded back into dunes by backhoes and shovels when hurricane season is over.
I know this beach now in the way I know by heart old maps, the ones I memorized in childhood so I would know a place for what it was before it changed its shape and spirit. Even as a schoolgirl, I had a sense of how short-lived places could be, how brief any topography is.  How one storm can alter forever a shoreline, or a community, or a dock that had weathered many storms.  I knew first-hand, even then, how a "planned community" could rise where there had once been a vast forest or meadow of wild grasses, how a family's failing dairy farm could be bought and a slaughterhouse/feedlot could be erected quickly so the industry of satisfying America's ravenous appetites could continue.  I learned early how, even with my eyes closed, east it is to distinguish the serene lowing of the dairy cows from the sounds animals make on a crowded feedlot.
I prefer a lonely beachhead, truth be told, the chaos of waves unbroken by human "partying" and vacation noise, the beach unburdened of food wrappers and drink cans.  I walk this deserted shoreline often in the fall and winter.  
Today it IS deserted again:  there's not another soul in sight for as far as I look in either direction.  Even the pelicans aren't flying in formation over the tide-line as they often do.  I came here to clear my head for a while and to let my little dog run free, happily snuffling at whatever tender bits the sea washes her way. . .though she doesn't like the water.  Not one bit.  We are a bit alike in that, the dog and me, her with her love of sand and detritus and small shells emptied of crustaceans, and me with my old terror of drowning, of being utterly washed out of myself, lost.  
I like walking in the sand because, when I do, my gait is like everyone else's along a beach: a crooked heaving, a rocking along back and forth on the feet,  trying to stay upright, lurching around to accommodate the shifting depths of wet sand.  Only the animals seem to manage a beach walk with any real grace.    
As often as I come to the shore these days, I have never seen a bottle wash up on the tide, whole, corked, bearing a message, some letter inside from a stranger whose fate I cannot know. 

Most often, I find instead the smashed-to-bits, tide-polished remains of tossed bottles: those beautiful blue and green shards of sea glass that the tourists valiantly search for every summer and carry home to their jewelry-makers.
I look for one all the time though – a bottle, I mean, with its letter inside.  I don't know why.  Maybe I think something written and sealed away and hurled into the sea would be something important, something I'd want to know, something that might change the way I understand who we humans are when under duress.  Maybe I hope that one message would get through, of all the ones that have surely been thrown into the oceans.  Maybe that dreamy schoolgirl who loved old maps is a woman now still a little in love with the idea that someone wrote an urgent letter, threw it out into the tides, in hopes it would arrive one day, found by some stranger who would happen upon it and read it and be utterly changed by what was written there.  It's the stuff of old movies and romances, really. 
So now, the dog's adventure finished and my search of the tide coming up empty again, I head back over the big dunes to the sea-steps that will take me home again.  That's when I see it: a large, oblong concrete block from the sea-wall, abandoned in the dunes…one of many that must have been brought in for Hurricane Sandy last fall, blocks solid enough to keep the dunes from being wholly eaten by the sea when they were lined up, end to end, with others.  This one still retains the heavy steel loop embedded in the top by which it had been lifted into place, Now there is the distinct, dark mark of mildew along the bottom third of it: where the sea and the shore encountered each other and left a trace of that meeting.

But there's also something more: a message, written by one – or two – travelers who wayfared here last summer and left again for homes elsewhere. Along the back side of the block, someone has written in elegant graffiti, LOVE ME, except that a black heart has replaced the "O" in the word "LOVE." And, on the top of the block – in salmon-colored letters – another, smaller, perhaps more desperate entreaty: Please?
Maybe I never got the message being sent before because I've been looking for it to come to me in the way all the old stories say it will: that corked bottle floating to shore, tangled in seaweed.  Maybe the message about what humans feel in those desperate final hours of a cataclysm – the important message anyway – is written on an abandoned concrete seawall block, tucked out of sight in the dunes, being slowly overtaken by shifting sand.   

And maybe, in the middle of all those the ordinary days that feel like we're being shipwrecked, slowly, certainly, we go in search of the message some wiser, sea-weary person has sent - even if not not wholly-aware that it's what we're looking for - some last, urgent words to remind us what it is we've come here for, a reminder of who and what we are - good-hearted or black-hearted - and what we most long for.  Maybe the message is always the same, no matter how it comes to us:  LOVE ME. Please?

Sunday, September 8, 2013

HOW TO SLICE A RUTABAGA: Lessons in Southern Cooking

Valentine's Day 2013
                    waiting room of Eastern Carolina 

 A woman in the waiting room where I sit asks another woman with a bandaged thumb, "What happened to your thumb, darlin'?"

The wounded woman hoists the gauzy thumb up into view so we can all see it. Great for hitch-hiking, I think to myself, flipping through a back-issue of Country Living while I wait for my husband to get out of his kidney-stone surgery. But this woman doesn't seem the type to go around hitching a ride with strangers.  She seems more the off-white-Cadillac-with-the-gold-hood-ornament-and-leather-seats type.  The Driving-Miss-Daisy type.

The gray-haired woman sighs heavily.  "I was trying to cut up a rutabaga."

A low, appreciative murmur stirs the other women sitting around her.  Something like sympathy. A Southern I've been there and I feel your pain kind of murmur. She has everyone's attention now, even the really elderly lady fighting with her thick blue yarn and long bamboo knitting needles.

Another grandmotherly woman in stretch pants holds up for us her right pointer-finger so we can see the pale white scar running the length of her finger.

"I got this when I was a young thing, just married and pregnant already, learning to cook Horace's favorite food.  He just loved rutabagas" – she dragged out the single syllable of the word: looooved – "and his mama made them for him every Sunday dinner along with the fried chicken.  We'd have to go to church and then go straight over to his mama's house for dinner because she made them rutabagas just for her boy.  That's what she called him - her boy. When his mama died from the sugar diabetes – God rest her soul – I thought I'd try to make them for him.  Sliced my finger straight through to the bone on the first try.  You could hold it under the faucet and pull it open and see the tendons and right on down to the pink bone, if you didn't pass out. Which I almost did."

We all lean in to get a better look at her scar.  Another woman, with dyed orange-red hair, pipes up brightly and says that the doc who stitched it up must-a been real good at stitchin' because you couldn't hardly see it unless you was to know it was there and go looking for it.

The scarred woman shrugs, "Nah. I didn't go.  Just wrapped it in old diaper-cloth and put a fat rubber-band around it.  Horace wouldn't pay for no doctors back then."

A brief reverie crosses her face – Horace must be the one in surgery here today.  The cheap bastard.  Then she snaps back to her story.

"Every day I'd peel off the bloody wrap - and it hurt like the devil had gnawed it  - then I'd stick the cut finger way down in a cup of milk, then wrap it in a fresh piece of diaper-cloth and rubber-band it again.  Like that, for about two weeks or so, until it closed up and scabbed over. Horace didn't get no rutabagas from me again. Ever."

Meanwhile, the gauze-thumbed woman is in her own reverie, probably thinking she wished she had known that little trick about the milk and diaper-cloth before her visit to the E.R., for the two shots it took to numb the sliced thumb, and thirteen stitches to close it up, and a tetanus shot afterwards for good measure.

Another woman, much older than the rest of the grandmothers, says, "I'll tell you how to slice a rutabaga, honey.  You just get you a rubber mallet and you hit it right hard on the stem place about 10 or 11 times. Real hard.  Works for turnips too."

That's when the young woman among us, a quiet little thing sitting with her grandmother, perks up, excitable suddenly to share her secret with these more seasoned kitchen cooks.  She says, "Oh, I just put the whole rutabaga in the microwave on high for 1 to 2 minutes.  It comes out hot though so I use a mitt or silicone mat to hold onto it.  The skin will be real soft, soft as butter, so the knife-tip will just slide right through it."

She is beaming, happy to be a part of these older Southern women talking around her.  But all around us an awkward silence has fallen. The grandmothers exchange a look with the young woman's grandmother who, out of a deep and fervent love for her granddaughter, takes the girl's hand in hers and smiles at the offended women.

"Or, if you don't have – or like – a microwave, you can just slip the rutabaga into a pot of boiling unsalted water and it's just the same."

An appreciative little murmur goes through the older women and they relax again, grateful that any talk of microwaving food is at an end. But now they are fixated on another perplexing thing:

Why unsalted water?

The wise grandmother, still holding onto her granddaughter's hand for consolation, says, "Now, you KNOW why.  Never, ever get salt in a wound.  You boil that rutabaga in salty water and then cut into it. . . ."

She trails off meaningfully and raises her eyebrows.  They all nod then and um-hm-hm and tsk-tsk, even the young wife.

Then they fall back to leafing through their magazines.  The gauze-thumbed woman stares still at her thumb, maybe wondering how she lost her audience and all that sympathy she initially had.

They know something, these older women.  All of them.  Something I cannot figure out.  Long after they leave that day - one by one, two by two, until I am the only woman remaining in the waiting room - I am trying to put all those pieces together, trying to solve the riddle of why the boiling water has to be unsalted. And all the tension that probably could have been cut with a sharp knife when a microwave was mentioned.

A wounded rutabaga. Salted. Pounded on the stem. Torn baby diapers. Bone-cuts dipped into a daily milk-bath. Fat rubber-bands. Kitchen wounds - earned wounds. And scars. And that stingy old Horace who wouldn't take his hurt bride to a doctor. And a modern young woman who microwaves her rutabagas, a shameful thing it seems, for some reason I cannot fathom.

None of this conversation makes any sense to me.  But having just recently moved back into the deep South, I'd better start figuring this kind of stuff out or I'll have to just go on keeping my mouth shut in gatherings like these, lest I too be found to be practicing shameful things – like microwaving fresh vegetables – in my kitchen.

Who's knee-deep in Deep Dixie now?

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Start With A Woman

Start with a woman in a cotton housedress walking away from a house.  Not a remarkable house. A house like every other on the street: concrete block, no insulation, jalousied windows, a brief green lawn, the ratcheting sprinkler dousing it, children running through. A day so hot the tarry street is melting and gooey, shiny as mirage.

That woman. Her name? Flora Lee. Flora Lee Haynes. Her house?  Somewhere far down the city bus-line, waiting – as always – for her return. Children to feed. Laundry to scrub in the wash tub at night. Cracked sidewalks. No grass, the only ratcheting there the ratcheting of her life between that house and its obligations and our house and its obligations.  One of which was me.

Or maybe that house wasn't real.  The children were. I'm certain of that. And the obligations.  Why else would she travel so far on a bus before dawn each weekday morning for such small pay and a bus ticket? Why walk the three hot blocks to our door and back to the bus-stop each evening? 

Nigger maid.

That's what she heard as she walked, smiling, through the children on our block.  Children. By that, I mean Billy Kurtz.  And his younger brother.  Tough Catholic boys in a working-class Baptist neighborhood where everyone was equal in poverty, in the land of opportunity-that-passes-our parents-by.  

And what of the girl I was then, girl who loved her and the fresh-detergent smell of her, girl who stood in the doorway each evening when she left and watched her go, smiling, up the block towards the neighborhood bullies, girl who never uttered one word to them on her behalf.

Not. One. Word.

Monday, July 1, 2013


I am pleased to say that my third collection, Prodigal, is being published by Aldrich Press and will be out sometime early in 2014, thanks to a diligent and hard-working editor, Karen Kelsay.

You can check out Kelsay Books' other recent titles here:

Here, also, is a link to my webpage where I'll be posting updates:

Most of all, my gratitude to all of you who have, over the years, supported writers by reading.

All best,