One year ago today, June 28, 2008, I sat in a waiting room at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and heard those brief urgent words “I’m going, I’m going” — a moment of grace, a meeting of the minds, my husband’s and mine — and then a half hour later the surgeon rushed in and said, “We’re losing ground. Come now.” I’d asked to see my husband one last time, and that request was honored as I was hurried down flights of stairs and into the operating room, placed on a stool, and pushed up to the back of his head.
Arriving home an hour later, it hit me strongly. “Go read the story.” He wrote it two months earlier and put it on his blog, and it was slated to be published in my online journal in two days. I ran straight upstairs, pulled it up on the computer, and read the story of the styrofoam cup that was tossed about in traffic until it found its resting place. I knew immediately that this would be used in the funeral service, as it had dual meanings — consolation that he had found his resting place and some assurance to those of us left behind.
I read the story again yesterday. I understood, after a year’s groping at life, surviving, existing, pressing onward, trying to find me and meaning, that in the hours after his death, he was speaking to me. . . because I am the cup.
I found my peace at the Tennessee River across from Neyland Stadium yesterday as I released him into the current — freeing him, freeing me. And then an added perk as the stadium, under construction, was open, and I walked in and down steps to a goalpost, threw up my arms and shouted “GO VOLS” and left him there, where there will be cheers and rejoicing and hopefully touchdowns, and I could see and feel him laughing . . . laughing.
And now in celebration of the life of Winston Rand / Charlie Rhodes, I share the story again for me and for all who seek peace.
“Trudging through life, coping with the day-to-day challenges and turmoil, we sometimes need a reminder that we too can survive, even beyond all odds. Those little reminders come in various packages. Sometimes it’s a child with a serious affliction who is happy and smiling; other times, a warm, frisky puppy that has not a care in the world except to please you; and occasionally, it will be the totally unexpected. Such was the case one day last week.
Arriving back at the office in late afternoon, something caught my eye as I walked from the car to the office entrance. It took a few seconds for it to register that I was seeing an empty styrofoam cup in the center turn lane of the busy street out front. There was a push of air from heavy traffic in both directions, causing the little truncated cone to roll in an arc first one way, then the other. The occasional draft of a larger vehicle would move it up and down its chosen lane a few feet. Then more rolling in arcs around its new pivot point until another large draft moved it a few feet forward or backward.
Becoming quickly mesmerized, I stood for perhaps fifteen minutes watching the struggle, the close misses, the movement to and fro. At some point I realized I was cheering the little cup onward in its quest to survive against the impossible odds of the multi-ton monsters bearing down on it from every side. And then it occurred to me how much like life that is. Wishing the dancing traveler well, I went on into the office. Half an hour later after checking email, washing up, and shutting down for the evening, I emerged to find the cup still at it. It had moved about 20 or 30 feet down the turn lane and seemed to be slightly damaged, but not enough to keep it from rolling and arcing, performing its death defying dance. After watching a few more minutes, I had to leave the cup to its unique brand of madness, knowing full well that it would be flattened or completely gone come morning.
Imagine my surprise and delight to arrive back at the office the following morning to find the cup, not squashed by one of the many behemoths that passed this way during the night, but intact, resting gently on the grass a few feet from the street. It had a nick, but was otherwise alive and well. I thought of placing the cup back in the middle of the turn lane for another go, but decided it may prefer the resting place it had chosen and worked so hard to reach. Then I was tempted to take it in and leave it sitting on my credenza as a reminder. But such an adventurer needs freedom and would not fare well in captivity. So I left it where it was, and carried away the memory of its struggles and the lesson of perseverance it taught.”
Landmark Booksellers in historic downtown Franklin hosted yesterday’s booksigning for local author Bill Peach. It was a mid-afternoon wine and cheese-and-crackers event, with Bill sharing the highlights of his writing career, his continuing education legacy — six decades in institutions of higher learning, and his use of “triliteration.”
Bill has been part of the literary community since long before I moved to Franklin in 1988. He was the owner of Pigg & Peach menswear on Main Street, and every time I went downtown I’d see Bill standing in the door of the store or standing by a lightpost at the corner of 4th and Main. He was a big presence in downtown Franklin, he is a big presence in the literary community, and he’s a big presence to all who know and love and respect him.
Bill shared a humorous story about getting a blurb for his book from Marsha Blackburn. He shared how Tom T. Hall called him a philosopher. And he shared his views on religion — something denomination leaders would be wise to listen to. Bill is a man of strong faith, and he shared openly and from deep within his soul. He experiences his faith in the quiet starlit night on his patio, in a bookstore, and in the laughter of his children and grandchildren. It doesn’t necessarily happen during the Sunday morning traditional worship hour.
Bill’s fourth book is Politics, Preaching & Philosophy. This is a compilation of articles he wrote for the Williamson Herald — many of them he shared with his vast e-mail blast list, which I am on. I particularly like what Will Berger, co-pastor of the Historic Franklin Presbyterian Church, wrote as a blurb in the opening section of the book: “Not many can write interestingly and thoughtfully about topics as broad-ranging as politics, preaching, and philosophy, but Bill Peach does just that in these essays. Bill has a gentle humor that allows even those who disagree, to profit from what he writes…”
Bill is always ready and eager to talk about politics, preaching, and philosophy and does so on occasion at Merridee’s in downtown Franklin, where he sets up a time and invites friends to join him for a casual meeting of the minds. Bill is a big supporter of education and a lover of the written word.
He is often (or always?) seen wearing a tie with books on it.
And as for triliteration, you’ll have to ask Bill what it means.
(This event was sponsored by the Council for the Written Word of which Bill is Chairman of the Board Emeritus.)
Lee Gutkind’s The Best of Creative Nonfiction, Volume 3 recently got a glowing review in Publisher’s Weekly. This is the volume my story “An Open Letter” is in! Exciting!
Nonfiction Reviews: Week of 5/25/2009
— Publishers Weekly, 5/25/2009
The Best Creative Nonfiction: Volume 3 Edited by Lee Gutkind. Norton, $16.95 paper (272p) ISBN 978-0-393-33025-0
With the big subjects of life and death framing the smaller frustrations of everyday existence, this third volume in the Creative Nonfiction series showcases a type of journalism that in many ways is informed by cutting-edge media. Indeed, of the 25 essays reprinted, one-quarter first appeared on the Web. As diverse as the subjects are, so are the writers represented. Likewise, there is a range in length, from blogs under one page to 20-page narratives. Predictably, the essays also display varying levels of inspiration and sparkle. Among the standouts is five-time Pushcart winner Brenda Miller on a girl’s changing relationship with her body as she grows into womanhood; Edwidge Danticat on an uncle’s love of the ultimate expletive; an emotional “Letter from a Japanese Crematorium” by Marie Mutsuki Mockett; a family car deal gone awry by Margaret Conway; an exploration of the meaning of the mass murders at Virginia Tech through the sad eyes of gunman Seung-Hui Cho by Wesley Yang. The energetic Gutkind (Almost Human) edits his lean anthology with panache and gusto. (Aug.)
I told my co-editors yesterday that I feel as though I am eleven months pregnant, and I am so ready to deliver this baby!
To the right is the fetus, uh, manuscript, Gathering: Writers of Williamson County — the final pdf for approval. I requested 4 final tweaks today, and they were applied. To the left is the release form I signed this morning with my late husband’s orange UT pen. I wrote my name in fancy script on the line above CWW President. Then I faxed it to the publisher and walked back to my desk coolly, but what I really wanted to do was rip my clothes off and yell “Hallelujah!”
Now the manuscript is off to Lightning Source to be printed and bound. In 3 weeks, we will have a book in hand…or 500 books or maybe 1,000. Haven’t had time to question that yet. We quickly move to the next phase of book publishing — marketing and publicity. And sales!
But now, for me, to quote a famous American: “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I am free at last.”
The book is finished.
I have my life back.
WordFest 2009 of the Tennessee Writers Alliance is now one for the history books. June 12-13, 2009, the conference took place at beautiful Cumberland University in Lebanon. There were day sessions on fiction, nonfiction, songwriting, poetry, and journalism. Authors William Gay and J. Wes Yoder did readings and signings at Sherlock’s Book Emporium during a Friday night reception.
J. T. Ellison, author of the critically acclaimed Taylor Jackson series and Best Mystery/Thriller writer of 2008 according to the Nashville Scene, led a session titled “Creating Compelling Characters.”
Eric Wilson, author of a supernatural suspense trilogy, led a session on conflict. I first met Eric at our local Barnes and Noble writers group before he published his first novel. It was good to reconnect.
Eric Wilson was also keynote speaker during Saturday’s lunch of fried chicken, green beans, oven-baked potato wedges, and apple pie.
Wyatt Prunty, founder and director of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, taught a class on poetry and read some of his favorites and some of his own.
It was a good weekend of mingling and networking with other writers and sharpening skills.
We stopped at Subway for sandwiches, put them in the cooler, then drove out Lewisburg Pike, or Highway 431, rural countryside — pasturelands with horses and cows and old, rickety barns — until it intersected with Highway 99. There was River Rats, where we put in. We, ten of us, paddled nine miles, four hours, down a gentle stretch of the Duck River that flows between lush tree-lined banks, tall bluffs, and rocky cliffs in Maury County. We rolled down the river in three canoes and three kayaks.
This is part of a 37-mile stretch of the river that was recently designated a State Scenic River, beginning at Iron Bridge Road near Columbia and extending upstream to the Maury/Marshall County line. The Duck is one of the most biologically rich and diverse rivers in North America. It has over 500 documented species, including aquatic plants, fish, and invertebrates. It contains 39 muscle and 84 fish species.
All sorts of shells line the bank and fill the bottom of the river. We saw two snakes, one curled up along a thin branch of a little tree at the water’s edge. Leah commented that their defense mechanism was to jump in the boat if it came close. “Don’t paddle close to little trees on the bank,” I replied. We saw wildflowers such as foamflower and bamboo grass, we noted caves in the limestone bluffs, and there were sycamores and rope swings along the way. We stopped halfway down our course and ate a picnic lunch on the stony banks.
The Duck is 270 miles long, the longest river contained entirely within the borders of Tennessee.
Toward the end of our nine-mile trip, I was tired from the sun beating down on me and my arms were aching. We were all looking for Carpenter Bridge just around every bend.
It was an awesome day on the water!
Five words. They stayed with me all day.
I bought the inaugural issue of Memoir (and) magazine one year ago, but I haven’t had a chance to look at it until this morning.
I opened to the middle, page 93, an essay by Karen Weil titled “The Year Bess Truman Died.” Good honest memoir writing. But I stopped on a paragraph on page 98, just to savor it for a while.
“I have fallen…someplace soft. Snoopy sheets, army blankets…I don’t know how it happened, but it did: We are at Abby and Annie’s, our old friends’ house, all of us together in blankets and sleeping bags on the great room floor. The feel of fleece on my fingertips tells me this is no dream. This sleepover almost didn’t happen. ‘Karen’s outgrown her Mickey Mouse sleeping bag,’ Mother said as soon as Mrs. Weissenborn proposed the idea. ‘We have plenty of blankets,’ Mrs. Weissenborn had said. Sure enough, she did. I am under three layers of them right now, and I am as warm as winter oatmeal.”
...as warm as winter oatmeal.
Not warm like oatmeal or as warm as oatmeal, but as warm as WINTER oatmeal, because winter oatmeal is different from summer oatmeal. Think about it. I can see it, feel it, taste it, experience it. Winter oatmeal. Steamy, warm all the way down.
I like it.
I wonder if I can get away with using those five words in my memoir. Surely there was a time when I was as warm as winter oatmeal.
The spring of 1995 my husband installed a new computer server in his business and named it “Damn Pond.” Odd name for a server, you say, but it was right on target for the mantra he was uttering all day long as he complained to employees.
He didn’t want the pond, but I was hell-bent on digging a hole in the backyard at the edge of the patio and filling it with water and fish. I saw the end. He saw the means. I’ll do all the work, I told him. You won’t have to do a thing. So I hooked a son who’d gotten himself into debt with his first credit card to do the hard manual labor in exchange for payment on the account. Son dug the hole and hauled all the dirt to the back corner of the yard and built a tiered flowerbed. Husband, electrical engineer, then just couldn’t stand it and had to get involved to make sure we got the liner in correctly, got it all level, and got the pump installed properly, seeing that no money was wasted in the process. Then came water irises and lily pads and eleven goldfish and koi. It was beautiful, and the sound of the trickling waterfall over huge stones, engineered by Husband, was soothing and mesmerizing.
Together Husband and I kept the entire water environment alive and balanced; we named the fish; we watched the pond level out to what it could maintain. Seven. Baby fish were born, older ones died. We kept seven until 2006, when some type of ick killed them all.
Every spring I re-learned why Husband didn’t want a pond. It is work! Every spring we drained it, we scooped decayed matter from the bottom, scrubbed the sides, ridded it of the horrors of algae, and cussed together through the process.
Yesterday, I cleaned it for the first time since Husband died. I hadn’t planned on it, but the pump quit last week. I knew it was coming, it was consumed by algae. The pond was nothing but still, dark water, manufacturing mosquitoes and producing a crop of thick green scum. A son and his girlfriend were home for a visit, and I enlisted some help getting the pump out of the water and getting it cleaned. It was a smelly, nasty mess of thick black sludge, but he got it fresh again. Leah worried about putting a clean pump back into the debris-filled water, so she began digging out the old wet leaves and twigs that had accumulated over a few seasons. I saw an opportunity and jumped in, too.
I didn’t know how to reverse the pump and drain the water, so I dipped — bucket after bucket. The pond was half full of matter and filthy with black thick sludge. It was back-breaking work. Literally.
“You’ll never get it all out,” Son encouraged.
I was determined to do so at that point. “Watch me.”
Toward the bottom, I found a fish. Leah put it in a bucket of fresh water and we wondered how it got in the pond.
It all ended with me sitting in the pond on the first level, scooping and wiping the sides of an empty hole…and them sitting on the couch watching TV until it was time to refill with fresh, clean water. Somehow I knew Husband was sitting somewhere with his arms crossed, laughing, muttering “damn pond.”
“We all have our own life to pursue, our own kind of dream to be weaving, and we all have the power to make wishes come true, as long as we keep believing.”
Louisa May Alcott