Monday, August 30, 2010



"Cleanliness is next to Godliness." – old proverb

I am someone who, early on, acquired a healthy appreciation for it. Each morning, I am out digging in it, putting my hands into it, forging again an old relationship with dirt, the stuff of terra firma. But a Southern woman's relationship to dirt gets to be a mixed blessing somewhere along the way, especially if that woman happens to also have been raised by devout Southern Baptists for whom "cleanliness is next to Godliness." I have wondered about that alluded-to relationship between being clean and being close to God.

I was baptized in a sanctuary, in a baptismal pool, and the water in it was always clear, faintly blue, and heavily-chlorinated. That water was so clean, you could have drunk it down by the glassful, made sweet tea of it, or lemonade, if only you could get past the fact that so many of us, sinners and all, had tromped down into it and had been dunked good, then raised to a newer, cleaner, more redeemed life in Christ. Or so said Preacher. He said the water was sanctified, made clean by the power of God and faith of the saints. And sure enough, it never seemed to get dirty, not like bathwater did after a good scrubbing. So I thought there must be something strangely holy about it: water purified by the righteousness of God. I thought it must be something like the water-to-wine miracle of the New Testament, knowing nothing back then of the importance of good filtration systems and pumps.

Nothing could grow in that water, my grandmother was fond of saying.

But just how clean is clean? And how does one get to the kind of clean that is close to Godliness? I wondered it often through my childhood – and I wonder about it again today, as I'm digging in the dirt of my own yard.


This northern dirt isn't the dirt of my childhood in the South: that dirt was almost black, a rich loam thick with rolly-pollys and earthworms – those other toilers in dirt and the best natural aerators in all creation. That dirt was the rich dirt given me, happenstance, by those who came before me, by my French ancestors: those who'd come to America to escape the displacements of the poor itinerant farming families who'd worked the lands of the country gentry until the Industrial Revolution had pushed them, finally, to the cobbled, crowded cities and mines that had almost killed them off.

For my French ancestors, the poverty of the cities had been an immense and devastating poverty. Being poor in the countryside had at least afforded them the riches of the natural world: open skies and wide fields, meadows draped in mists, small brooks winding through thickets and trees, a countryside in which they could walk to chapel together on Sunday mornings and through which their children played away their early childhood years. The wives and daughters of those itinerant farmers had spent their days and nights in fine needlework, handling the colored threads and ribbons and working the fine Irish linen into undergarments and corsets, embroidering the stiff collars and cuffs and bonnets that the gentlemen farmers' wives and daughters and infants would wear.

Flowerers, they were called, those women and girls who were my ancestors, those who did fine needlework all day while their husbands worked the fields and gardens of the landed gentry. In that part of France, lavender fields were abundant and the young flowerers were sometimes allowed time off from their needling to go into the fields after a good harvest, to gather the fallen stalks and stems and buds that had been left behind. From the remnants of fine linen and silk, they'd stitched and embroidered little lavender sachets, something to sweeten the rough cotton garments they'd made for themselves and tucked into the trunks they'd carried from farm to farm, something in which even the poorest among them could put away the handmade dresses and gowns and undergarments for the brides they one day hoped to be, or the batiste bonnets and dressing-gowns for the babies they imagined would one day fill their arms and their lives with something like a purpose, something like a life, something like love.


My great-grandmother, Mary Caroline Caston, from her girlhood had loved the clean pungent smell of the lavender fields. Even in her late, invalid years – bedridden – her room smelled faintly of it, as did all her white-worked nightgowns and handkerchiefs. She kept that fragrance of her homeland and her youth near her all her life, thus did it, in turn, become the fragrant undercurrent that ran through the four high-ceilinged rooms of my own early childhood in Shreveport, Louisiana. What I remember now about that house on College Street is that pervasive scent of lavender, that clean, bitten-through smell. It alone could obliterate the damp stench of mildew always lingering behind the wallpapered walls, of rot creeping under the wooden floors, obliterate too the moldy, moth-ball smell of old wool coats and tall chifferobes. It was a smell that I imagined heaven must be full of: like a good strong soap, a scent so strong nothing can prevail against it, not even sin. Not even the devil and all his angels.

It's a fragrance I return to often now in making soap, a fragrance connected to my early love for her, for that bent, crippled, delicate ninety-year-old woman who I only vaguely remember now. Whatever is left, whatever else I know of her story or of her life before she came to America, was handed down to me by her daughters who too are long-gone now, every one of them: Annie Lou, Billie, Callie, Tiny who I never knew, and Fleecy, whose granddaughter I became.


The poverty of the French countryside had been one kind of poverty; the poverty of the cities had been a worse one. The streets and buggies, the horse-droppings and littered streets, the factories and smoke-riddled skies, the rented rooms in which many families lived and slept and ate, the exhausted faces of the fathers, pinched and pale from days in the factories or the mines – those faces which had been ruddy with sun in the country – it was all a dire poverty for them. Where had the wide blue sky gone? Where the good dirt smalls after a hard rain? I once overheard my great-grandmother tell her daughters that the city, after rain, was "like putting one's nose to horse piss."


I made the grave mistake of repeating that once, in Shreveport, after a two-day-long siege of rain had kept my brother and me indoors. We'd had to sit at the windows watching the colored children – that's what we called them back then – squealing and splashing, playing happily in the rain-filled gutters along the street. White children were, as the dear great-aunties reminded us over and over, prone to ringworm so we weren't allowed to play like that in the rain. We were relegated to sitting at the windows all day, longing for that kind of play, that kind of adventure and abandon.

I suspect it was out of some five-year-old sourness or spite in me that I muttered, at the sill, on that second afternoon of rain, "It probably smells just like horse piss out there." The parlor, full of great-aunts drinking their afternoon coffee milk-thick in demitasse cups, came to a standstill and an awkward silence moved in behind me. Then everything broke loose at once and I got a lesson in propriety and Christian piety and a mouth-washing to remember with a rough bar of that strong, homemade lavender soap. Even then the two – righteousness and cleanliness – were inextricably linked.


My French ancestors left those reeking cities eventually, boarding boats which crossed the stormy Atlantic, immigrating to American, and settling in the Louisiana Territory where the women once more resumed their delicate stitchery, their cleaning and scrubbing, their charities and church-going, and where the men and older boys returned, happily, to their hard work in the rich, loamy dirt of Southern fields. The good Christian women and mothers undertook again, with great zeal, their former, greater work: to insure that the men-folk kept the dirt of the fields in the fields and off of their "belongings." And to my eternal good fortune, they – as God had commanded – were fruitful and multiplied. Prolifically. Thus came I, somewhere along the way, into a dirt-digging, God-fearing, cleanliness-riddled family: a girl who would fall, one day, into a mad kind of love with the whole dirty and disorderly world, and, simultaneously, with the whole clean ordering of it.

My grandmother and mom were both meticulous women who kept their houses clean with an almost-religious zeal. Dirt, ash, and dust were the enemies: fine for outdoors, but fatal for carpets, tile, furniture, and walls. And nearly-catastrophic for the man – or child – who unwittingly brought such things inside. Yet these two women also had a great affection for "growing things:" my grandmother kept little pots of blooming snapdragons and pansies on her windowsills which she tended carefully until they were hardy enough to move to the well-tended beds outside. Once, in her late years, a groundskeeper had cut back the English ivy clinging to the brick walls outside her living quarters and she flew at him in such outrage and fury that the neighbors still spoke of that day in awe for many year after she'd passed.

My mom, retired now, has a solarium off the back of her house where she reads her daily devotional and her Bible and prays every morning, a place where exotic potted things thrive under her care: large ferns and dieffenbachia, African violets, orchids, and other climbers whose names I do not know. It's a room which smells, faintly, of rain and potting soil, of sunshine and greenery, a damp and humid place, a place so rich in that good dirt smell it makes me tremble and almost swoon just to be in it. In her yard, the old oak tree stands so tall now and wide, the branches catch in electric lines. Azaleas and camellias bloom each spring across her front lawn, her pride and joy, which send my father into yearly fits of sneezing and allergies. Her yard, like her sunroom, is a testimony to her love for the lushness of the earth, the earth from which all living things come. And to which they will all return.

But I did not learn my love of dirt from either of those good women. From them I learned cleanliness. And godliness. And silence. And forbearance. How to keep a stiff upper lip and a calm demeanor. How to keep putting one tired foot in front of the other, no matter how exhausted you are, no matter what fate God or the devil deals you.

I learned my love of dirt in first grade, in elementary school, where we had been instructed to save our milk cartons from the lunchroom. We had taken the waxy, emptied, half-pint cartons back to our classroom. We'd gathered around the pitted porcelain sink in the back of the room and, two by two, we'd filled the empty cartons with hot-as-we-could-bear-it water and soap suds, gleefully washing the milk-smells form them. Then we'd returned to our desks and had cut off the tops – sawed them off, more accurately – with the blunt safety scissors. So we had our perfect pots for seedlings.

In the South, holidays are taken seriously. Not just the big ones, like Christmas and Thanksgiving, or Easter or Fourth of July. We celebrated Hallowe'en with a devilish fervor, sparing not one of our mothers' half-spent tubes of lipstick or eyebrow pencils or old bed-sheets in our childish attempts at ghoulishness. Each May Day, we dressed in our white shifts and petticoats and we donned our Sunday-best patent-leather shoes and lace-top socks and our mothers curled our stringy hair and braided white ribbons and flowers into it and we danced, wild as heathens, around the Maypole, throwing flower petals at the scowling boys in our class who looked on from the sidelines and muttered and wanted to be anywhere else just then. Fishing, most of all. And then Arbor Day was bearing down upon us, another holiday of sorts, that we could throw ourselves into: we were learning by heart the Johnny Appleseed song and Joyce Kilmer's poem, "Trees." We were preparing the marigold and petunia seedlings for the ceremonial transplanting along the circular drive of Lane Avenue Elementary School while our parents and younger siblings looked on. We'd march in lines, side by side, singing down the sidewalk, circling the flagpole, holding in our cupped hands the bright blooms which we had, with our own hands, planted and watered and raised. Thus we had been excited that day as we filled our seedpots with soil from the schoolyard. . .and "dirty as devils" which was how my grandmother saw the whole ordeal when she saw the dirt crusted under my fingernails and the red clay smudged on my dress.

Devils. A delicious word. A word that hinted at sin, something I was only just then beginning to take an interest in.

How happy I was that whole afternoon, even when I was sent straight to the bath to wash away the evidence of my uncleanness. Dirt was, as I came to understand that day, for boys, along with snips and snails and puppy-dog tails. Girls were to be clean and sweet and nice (not to mention well-mannered and seen-and–not-heard). Even after I'd scrubbed myself, lathering and rinsing head to toe – including even my hair which had NOT been in the dirt – in my grandmother's strong lavender-scented soap, I kept dreaming of that digging I'd done behind the schoolhouse and along the drainage ditches along the sugarcane fields: how I'd dug down with my own hands, doing what I did that day with a fervor that was something like the way I prayed at six years old. I remember this still, also the slimy earthworms that had slithered through the deeper, darker soil where I'd knelt on bare knees on the soft spongy ground and had worked earnestly under the hot Florida sun to find the deepest, richest, moistest dirt with which to fill my waxy seedpot.


There is a smell to the earth when you get down that deep. . .like rainwater and rot mixed up together. Like things fermenting. Or decomposing. It excites and disturbs me, that smell, in a curious way I cannot explain, something like the excitement and agitation I feel when I step close to the precipice edge of a high cliff. A feeling like dread and pleasure, one inextricable from the other. A whiff of near-disaster rising form the heat of any ordinary Southern day.

Those who grow up in the South come to know, sooner or later, that dirt is the final consolation of being mortal. I went to my first funeral when I was seven where I watched a man toss a handful of dirt into an open grave. I didn't know why he did that. Preacher was saying something about "ashes to ashes, dust to dust," and women were weeping openly. The men looked uncomfortable scratching or pulling at their tight stiff collars. Behind us all, in the hot midday sun of Florida in June, two thin Negro men leaned on shovels. The summer air rang with mosquitoes and heat.


And how many handfuls of dirt did I see, in my life, thrown onto the coffins of boys with whom I'd grown up? One by one, two by two, they'd gone off to the war. They'd come home again from Viet Nam, some of them, in wooden crates or body bags, some in pieces so scarce – a jawbone, some teeth, a splintered femur, dog tags – a shoebox would have been sufficient for the burial. Lord only knows why those families paid dear money for the elegant, mahogany, satin-lined caskets. Maybe for the boys they each had been. Maybe for the men they would have become had the war not come for them first. Maybe it was some gesture of consolation. For themselves, perhaps. Or for us. Or maybe it was so that, on that great getting-up morning at the end of time, those boys could blink and sigh and find themselves, for once, in something more extravagant than anything their lives had afforded them.

For the better part of eleven years, I gathered with friends and families at gravesides and stared at my feet, too stunned to cry myself, as the grieving mothers or girlfriends or young widows tossed a rose – white or red – into the open hole in the ground, or as the stoop-shouldered fathers or sad-faced brothers and sons tossed a hand full of dirt into the open grave and crossed themselves after. It was our job then, the job of the survivors, to turn away, to turn back toward our lives. And so we did. But didn't the solid, too-final thud of that thrown clod also follow us away? Didn’t the fragrance of the deep, mossy earth trail behind us at a distance for years, like a last faithful dog, like some ghost of the time-to-come? And wasn't it then that all the old notions of godliness and cleanliness shifted on some axis of loss and sorrow and tilted us toward some fiercer, more desperate love for the earth and our brief lives on it?

Whenever we returned – IF we returned – to those graveyards in the seasons to come, soft grasses shifted in the wind, blurring the hard edges of the dark trenches we'd remembered. Only the markers placed there - the headstones - had let us find our way back to the ones we'd loved and lost. Here lies. . .Beloved son. . .Rest in peace. . . .

My oldest son, Scott, lost his dog some years back, a Sheltie named Lady. She'd lived with him for many years, outlasting several girlfriends, outlasting the roommates who had come and gone, through the campus classes and parties. We'd given her to him when he'd gone to college at Towson, to help stave off the loneliness he sometimes felt being far away from his hometown. She'd died though, of cancer, though he'd spent all of his savings to get her the operation that might save her. Then he'd gone to see her at the vet's that afternoon and she'd seen him and stood, wobbling over to him, wagging her rump and lying down on her back so he could see – and stroke – the long incision where she'd been opened, emptied of the tumor, and sewn shut again. He'd been looking forward to bringing her home again. He'd talked softly to her before he left that afternoon, saying over and over what a good dog she was, assuring her – as if she could understand him – that he'd return on the morrow and take her home again. He'd stroked her shaved belly a last time before he left. That night, she died in her sleep. He's had her cremated and says that one day – when I settle down in one place for good – maybe he'll bury her ashes under the roses in my garden.

Word comes now, from Alaska, that my friend is dying. There is nothing to be done. It is going to happen whether any of us agree to it or not, whether the new drug can stay the ravenous course of the cancer another year or two, or whether the Gleevec, like the Temozolomide, will fail. I try not to think of my friend's family, gathered around an open grave when the ground has thawed sufficiently to allow a burial, his wife holding a thorny rose, his eldest son reaching for a clod of dirt, his youngest son looking down at his feet, lost and emptied of words. I, who am fierce enough to look at almost anything, am not ready, yet, for that. So this morning, I forego the spade and the trowel. I dig way down through the silt, through the damp clay flecked with limestone, through to the layer of rocks ad stones and left-over concrete chunks someone buried here years ago. I dig and dig, until a little dark water pools at the bottom of the hole. I dig until my fingernails break off and my crooked spine throbs and my hands ache, making this plot of dirt amenable, as I've promised, making it a well-turned bed for the roses and peonies, making what might become a suitable resting-place for the ashy remains of my son's dog and the two loved cats who have passed.

I'll tell anyone who stops to ask me this morning that I am preparing to plant roses. And maybe I am. Though it is possible that I am only practicing, after all, edging closer and closer to the old terror of what-comes-after, learning to stomach it, the idea of it, moving relentlessly down through the dirt. Past the cleanliness. Past the godliness. Past the whole crazy way we return to the earth, in the end, whether we want to or not. This morning I am going down deeply into it, leaning into it while I can still smell it, while all my senses can still reel with the heady, dangerous feel of it, whatever the it is. Going bare-handed and dirt-fisted at it while I still can. Before it comes for my friend. Before it comes for anyone else I love. Before it comes for me.

Monday, August 23, 2010


Lives & Half-Lives: A Love Story

I once saw a small boy stop cold on an Alabama sidewalk when he saw a half-brick in his path: just a common red building brick with dirty white mortar still stuck to its sides. He had been chatting about something happily, holding fast to his mother's hand, but when the brick presented itself, he dropped her hand, forgetting her completely, as he was struck by the half-brick there before him on the concrete walkway of the city. He squatted down to look at it more closely.

Huh!? he gasped, expelling all the air in his mouth and lungs quickly like someone who's been sucker-punched. He was in an altered state. State of awe. Or reverence. Or wonder. Whatever it was that so captivated him about that half-brick, his mother had a dickens of a time pulling him off of it. No matter what she said about its worthlessness ("It's just an old brick" and "There are hundreds of them in that building over there") he sat there staring and staring at it, as if it were gold. Finally, though, and because she was growing impatient with him, the boy let her take his hand again and move him on down the sidewalk towards wherever it was they were heading that morning, though the boy continued looking backwards, over his shoulder, at that dislodged, busted brick until the two of them rounded a corner and were no longer in sight.

It occurred to me that the boy had remarkable vision – not sight, mind you, but vision, that seeing-beyond what is visible to the ordinary eye. He was asking the deep questions about what had fallen in his path. He was seeing the possibilities, mulling them over. Wondering.

I taught my first writing class in 1997 at St. Mary's College of Southern Maryland – a workshop of twelve aspiring young writers. After a few weeks of workshop, the students struck me as an unusually uninspired bunch: they disliked the work of writing, though they often spoke dreamily of what it would be like to be published and "famous." And worse, I was beginning to detect traces, in their writings, of boredom with the known world, that old ho-hum of the jaded cynic. In discussions, they mostly complained about the literary canon, mocking what was, claiming they would write and breathe life into the literary world, something radical and "new." They were the self-proclaimed revolutionaries of contemporary American literature. They had adopted, for themselves, dull green and brown t-shirts with the face of Che Guevara on the front and they wore those shirts to campus with great pride, though I doubted they really understood anything about Guevara's revolution. Even then, I knew how easy it is to speak of making a difference in the world from the comfort of an air-conditioned, well-lit, well-appointed corner of academia.

So I thought I'd take them out of that comfortable element one day, that I'd get them out of the classroom with its polished veneer conference table and gray upholstered chairs, and I'd get them - and their backsides - back in touch with the nitty-gritty of the actual world. I wouldn't even have to take them very far: just out into the courtyard, to the bell-tower and brick walkways of the college itself. I borrowed, from a colleague in the sciences, a Geiger-Mueller Detector – colloquially-known as a Geiger Counter – and I led the twelve young writers out into the bright afternoon sun, to the little bricked square under the north clock-tower. It was a warm day in Southern Maryland, but not uncomfortably so. And this wasn't about "comfort" anyway, I reminded myself. I had them sit down on the bricked walks and instructed them to just listen to the bricks around them, to be out there among them, to touch them, to put their ears against the wall and walkways, and to listen to the stories the bricks had to tell. After half an hour or so, we'd gather back under the clock tower and they'd have to tell us all the "story" the bricks had told them.

I saw the side-long glances they threw each other as they turned to walk up and down along the brick walks and walls that made up the little courtyard, that old Oh-my-God-why-does-she-have-us-doing-this look. So the half-hour passed uneventfully and they gathered back under the clock-tower, sitting dutifully down in a circle and leaving a little extra space, for good measure, between me and the ones on either side of me: just like they did each Wednesday afternoon in the classroom. When I asked who wanted to go first, I was surprised to see them pulling sheets of paper from their notebooks and pockets. After all, I'd said we'd tell each other the stories, not write them down. But I kept quiet and let it play itself out, for better or worse.

Then, as one after another read their "stories," I could see they had not only written them down, they'd also been revising them, editing and changing them along the way, scratching out a word here and there, inserting paragraphs in the margins, drawing little arrows so they'd remember the order. All this in half an hour! One brick, it turned out, had a step-mother who rivaled Cinderella's in cruelty. Another had a recent heartache. Another, unrequited love. Another brick spoke only in gerunds, no nouns, no actual verbs. all single words down the left-hand margin of the page, something faintly resembling a poem. One brick was giving the listener the cold shoulder, refusing to talk. Another told a story about a frat party-gone-wrong and all its morning-after regrets.

What a coincidence: the bricks were telling the same stories the young writers had been telling, in obscure poetry or dull prose, for weeks now.

When all the stories had been shared aloud, I stood up. I took the small Geiger Counter out of the brown grocery sack I'd brought out to the courtyard with me. I turned the dial and walked up and down the bricks of the columns, the bricks of the walkways, the bricks of the walled structures. I ran the sensor over the newer bricks of the clock tower. It chattered, sometimes slowly, sometimes a little more quickly. Chattered. It was the only sound around us. For a long time, it seemed, no one spoke. Only the bricks were talking.

I kept my silence too, putting the Geiger Counter back into the sack again and taking my place again among the students. And in the awkward weightiness of my silence - something which they could never bear for long - their questions began: Are bricks radioactive? Why? Is this something to be worried about – after all, the college is mostly brick? What does this have to do with writing? Is this some metaphor?

And so on. And so forth.

When they had ceased their chattering, I took out a cassette player on which I'd recorded what two of my sons and two friends of theirs had said the night before when I'd brought them out there and put them through the exercise as a sort of "test run" for today's lesson. Here's what they'd said:

1. These bricks are foreigners. They don't speak English so they can only talk to the ivy and the gnats. Sure, they might be telling the gnats and mosquitoes their stories, but I can't understand a single word. It's like when my mom and dad fight: I don't know what the words mean. I just wanna get outta there.

2. If I ever do something terrible and it starts to eat me up, I will come out here and tell my horrible secret to these bricks. They keep everybody's secrets. Even their own.

3. Today I have a headache and a sore throat, so I have to whisper. I think I might have an earache too because all I hear when I put my ear against this brick is ticking. Like a little clock. Like a big fat time-bomb ready to go off.

4. My mom's a little nuts. She thinks bricks can tell a story. That just proves how nuts she is. Now all of us guys are starting to act nutty too, because we don't want to hurt her feelings or make her cry. Knowing my mom, I bet she comes out here sometimes and listens to this wall. I bet when nobody is looking, she gets down on her hands and knees and puts her ear down to this brick walk, just like the Indians used to do when they were listening for the calvary [sic] to come riding in. I don't hear a thing, but I bet she does. She's always listening for something. That's how nuts she is.

The boys and I had continued to sit there for a long time in the courtyard, chatting amiably, while the dusk descended and the gnats swarmed and made little tornado shapes in the air around us. We laughed and laughed at each others' stories and we made up a few more just for the fun of it. We were strangely happy. Full of that giddy, silly feeling that comes over you when you just feel the pleasure of playing with words and ideas and you're not being graded for it. When it got dark and the mosquitoes, the little blood-suckers, came out in earnest, we all piled back into my old yellow station wagon and drove into Lexington Park for ice cream sundaes, my treat to them for having helped me out with the lesson. It seemed a fitting ending to a good evening together: something sweet with a lot of calories.

When the sundaes were brought to the table, one of the boys asked the waitress if she could see anything in his ear. Like what? she asked, squinting up her face and peering into his ear canal. Oh, he answered, brick dust. Or gnats. She backed off to a safe distance and the boys laughed at her reaction. Their version of a little inside joke.

But that afternoon on campus, after the actual class lesson was over and the workshop time was up, my undergrads patiently packed their notebooks and folded their notes into their backpacks and book-bags, stood up, and dusted the dirt from their purposely-tattered jeans before stumbling off to their next classes. They seemed unhappy to have been upstaged by four little boys and a Geiger Counter. I felt like the worst teacher ever. What had I been thinking? By the time they get to higher education, students have been too well-schooled to just let go and enjoy anything ever again, in the classroom at least. Grades are at stake here. Scholarships. Degrees. Careers and salaries are attached to everything they are working for. How, by then, can you un-teach them all those well-learned lessons so they can learn how to see something wondrous again in the world and in themselves, and to marvel at it with something akin to pleasure? How can you introduce them to thenew old world all over again, these little self-proclaimed revolutionaries of literature? I didn't know. I still don't know. It's like explaining how to fall in love: it can't be done directly. You have to tell it slant. And my slant on it all had failed so utterly, it hurt a little. From life to half-life, just like that.

In the years since that afternoon, I have wondered often at those students' lack of wonder, their absence of delight. It troubles me. Deeply. What had jaded them so at such a young age, what hurt them so deeply that they had walled off their hearts and couldn't even hear the ticking underneath it all – that little time-bomb of mortality? I wondered what they made of that lesson and the chattering bricks, wondered if it has ever even occurred to them.

Not long ago, a letter arrived in my campus office in Alaska: it was from a young man who'd been in that undergraduate writing workshop. He was writing to tell me that he'd gone on to earn his BA in Language and Literature, a MS in Nuclear Physics and then, later, his Doctor of Divinity degree, that he was married with a son and was working now as a minister for a small church in upper New York State. He wrote that he'd thought about that lesson in the courtyard from time to time and it bothered him that he thought he'd missed something important in it. He'd learned, somewhere along the way, about that radiation in the bricks, about the process of brick-making, and the lives and half-lives of the radioactive ore used to make them. He went on to tell me about how the ore that is used in refractory brick is commonly found alongside the presence of naturally-occurring radioactive elements such as uranium and thorium. These bricks aren't dangerous, he assured me, even though they emit enough of a "pulse" to sometimes send a Geiger Counter chattering. Not dangerous, that is, unless one was to crush the brick into a fine powder and dust and then expose humans to it.

His letter went on to discuss what he'd learned of the lives and half-lives of some common elements:Carbon-14 has a half-life of 5,730 years whereas the half-life of Uranium-230 is somewhere around 4.5 billion years. Imagine that, he wrote, a half-life of four-and-a-half billion years!

I thought I heard, just then, something like wonder creeping into his voice. He'd finally, all these years later, started the conversation I'd hoped to have on that spring afternoon in Southern Maryland. And had I been so inclined, I would have written back to him about my experience with some of the half-lives of medicine's nuclear discoveries, like those which use Iodine-131 which has a half-life of only 8 days: what procedures it is used in and what we can see in its "ghost" as it travels whitely through the human body. But I didn't tell him that story. Anyone could have told him that one. I had a different tale to tell. A story about how the earth was made and how it still ticks wildly with a radioactivity that's been there from its birth. It's a good story, I think, and as plausible as any. It was a story I thought a young minister might appreciate.

I have a story for you too, I wrote back to him yesterday, about the chattering bricks. They have been made, like us, from the earth – the dust and ash and the clay and spittle of it – the earth, which is also made up of naturally-occurring radioactive materials (NORMs, they are called, and how appropros that acronym seems). The bricks' story, I went on, is the story of the earth. Their story begins almost where the dead sea scrolls began their story: " In the beginning, God, the heavens, and the earth. . . ."

It gets me to thinking, today, about how most things seem to retain some of the characteristics of their making, like us, like humans, both those ticking, volatile, detectable elements and the silent mysteries of creation and what things have put us through the fire, have forged us, have made us who we are. We have the imprint of our making all over us, the fingermarks of creation, literal and figurative. So much is still unknown to us, so much still to wonder at and about in the crumbling mortar of our world and ourselves. And what of writers, those of us who tell the stories, compose the poems: who among us can mark the time, the precise moment, when that thing we call our life meets the moment of our half-life, that moment where the steady and precise decline into the final silence begins, that moment when the chatter of our lives grows faint, then fainter, and then is no longer discernible to any listening ear?

photo by Anne Caston, taken in St. Mary's City, Maryland, 2010

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Kitchen Mercies: Remembering the Maker

Today is soap-making day. The kitchen smells bittery and sweet, a mix of the lime and the sugar (I'm making Lime Rickey Goats Milk Soaps) and, smelling that sweet lime fragrance all day, I just want to eat the refrigerator empty again. Something that smells this good ought to be edible. I'm sure something about this fragrance will be deadly for my waistline if I'm not careful.

Today, while I stir soap, I am remembering my grandmother, Fleecy Lavinia Caston, and am grateful for how she passed the old ways down to me when I was a girl: about soap-making, about tatting and sewing, and especially how to take threadbare scraps and bits of fabric and put them together with cotton thread and a silver needle so tiny you could barely see it, all in hopes of making something beautiful and functional as a quilt. One winter afternoon when I was four, she showed me how to make a doll from a cotton diaper, embroidering the face by hand, using yarn for hair, wrapping it all into a blanket remnant so I had a baby doll which, at that age, I wanted very much. I thought it was a miracle. I hope I thanked her for it.

My grandmother never had much, not in the years I knew her anyway, but she certainly knew how to be grateful for the things she did have: for good friends, for a simple home-cooked meal like turnip greens, and for a piece of sweet cornbread crumbled into a cold glass of buttermilk. She saved her pennies and, once a month or so, we'd put on our "walking shoes" and walk to the Woolworth's where she'd buy herself a spool of tatting thread and treat me to rock candy on a stick. She knew the value of a clean conscience and a good night's sleep and a peaceful heart and I think she may have passed a longing for those things along to me, though I admit here to you today that those lessons were slow in coming to me.

Today, I'm recalling that, as much as she taught me how to piece and quilt, how to make soap and "make do," she also taught me about being kind to others, about minding my manners, about being thankful, and about how mercy is sometimes better than justice. It isn't that she talked to me about any of these things directly; rather, I watched her live these things out in front of me as I grew from being a small girl into young womanhood. She was kind to everyone we encountered in our walks and in the stores or at the post office, even kind to people who weren't always so kind to her. She delighted in people, with ALL their quirks. She never forgot to thank the people who held the door for her or bagged her groceries, those who complimented her, or those neighbors who brought her a potted geranium or slice of pie. And she always liberally dished out mercy for me when she might have just as easily judged me. I appreciated that about her most of all, I think. I was awkward, shy, prone to blushing and stammering, easily flustered and frustrated, and she acted as if I were the smartest, most clever, best thing she'd ever had come into her life. Everyone needs someone like that in a childhood, and I was fortunate to have her. I know that now; I knew it then.

It's only natural that I think of her today, here in my old farmhouse kitchen in central Pennsylvania, bare-footed, measuring (haphazardly) the goats milk and the fragrance oils, stirring the hot soap mix in a warped aluminum pan until the soap is smooth and milky and setting up, then pouring it into molds. Even when I am the only one home, I am never alone on days when I make soap: I imagine her back to me as I stir and pour, imagine hearing again her gravelly voice as she leans over the cookstove muttering, Umm-umm. Now THAT'S something to write home about.