ON WRITING & BOOKS & THE FRANKLIN BOOK FESTIVAL. I started writing creative nonfiction before I knew what it was. Actually, most of my early essays were inspirational, descriptive, poignant, and lacking in story arc. I published a couple dozen.
Robbie Bryan, CRM at Barnes and Noble 2701, showed me the book Due South by R. Scott Brunner and told me my writing reminded him of Brunner’s, and I should check it out. Brunner wrote essays and read from his collection on Public Radio in Mississippi. Thus, my Pink Butterbeans was born. Essays, but lacking in story.
I started researching the genre, newly coined and rising out of the field of journalism, and came across Lee Gutkind of the University of Pittsburgh. Lee is the so-called godfather of the genre; he set up the first MFA course in creative nonfiction, and even named the genre. And he is editor of the journal of the genre: Creative Nonfiction. My husband, an MBA grad of Pitt, showed me his alumni mag with Lee on the cover. “You should get to know him,” Charlie said. And I did.
It just so happens that in 2007, Lee was bringing the genre to the South. The South is rich in story and storytellers, but there wasn’t much in the field of creative nonfiction being published in the South at that time. In fact, creative nonfiction was the most widely published genre in the world—everywhere but the South! So Lee was leading a one-day workshop in Oxford, Mississippi, on the Ole Miss campus. Susie Dunham and I were the only two from the Nashville area to attend.
Out of that workshop came this blog, First Draft. Blogging is a form of creative nonfiction. Susan Cushman of Memphis was at the workshop and had just started her blog, and is still working it today.
I brought Lee Gutkind to Franklin, Tennessee, for the Williamson County Council for the Written Word’s 15th Annual Fall Workshop in 2008. (I lost Charlie three months before that. How in the world did I have the presence of mind to….)
There were two national conferences—Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference, in Oxford, Mississippi, in 2010 and 2013, and Susan Cushman and I were co-directors under Neil White. Then I directed Creative Nonfiction at the Crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 2012.
I taught the genre in local workshops and classes for ten years, presented at state conferences and literary festivals, including the Southern Festival of Books, and published creative nonfiction in Muscadine Lines, the online journal I maintained for eight years. I still try to study and learn and experiment.
The one big thing I have loved has been studying under the masters: Lee Gutkind, Dinty W. Moore, Lee Martin, and others. And the other big thing is the tribe generated at the gatherings: writers from around the country, who have grown and published. We had a fire in our gut to write our stories and publish them.
And the one thing I never expected was writing a memoir on loss, grief, and healing. It happened. Both. Loss. Writing a memoir. I swore I wouldn’t. And then by all the forces of nature, tribe, God, and the genre, I did. I will be sharing my book Remember the Dragonflies at the FBF. I will talk about the evolution of one blog post and how it reached the pinnacle and then became a book. Come, with questions.
It takes one. Only one. You’ve heard the old saying: One rotten apple spoils the barrel. It’s so true. Look around in your own life.
In your work setting, in your social circle. One “mean girl” or bully, spewing hurtful gossip, just plain making up stories, lies, putting on a show overtly with the intent to hurt, then sitting back folding her hands with a satisfied smirk on her face. And then running to church every time the doors are open and claiming to be a rule-keeper and a Christian, taking in communion—blood of Christ—with all that rotten gossip, trying to mix the ultimate love and ultimate hate.
Okay, you can deal with that. You see through it. You pity the one who has had so much hurt in her own life to make her this way—to have to put down and stomp on others so she can be higher and better. She puts on a show of some good acts to build followship. But then.
What do others in the circle do? Yes. They follow and support the bad apple. They are afraid not to, knowing they will be the next target. So they listen to the gossip; they believe; they look at and treat the target as though it is all true. And then they run to their own churches every Sunday and pretend they believe the Bible, when all they like is the black leather outside and their life actions mock the black words printed inside.
This is our world, macrocosm and microcosm, and I’m talking here about the microcosm, and it is hurtful. And there’s nothing you can do, except come out of it soiled and beaten down and limp in a mean world of mean people who don’t give a damn.
I can see why some just want that pill to end it all.
In my weak moments, I’m there.
“I’ll be going to the poorhouse soon.” I used to hear people say this when some unexpected expense came up. A hardship. An appliance broke, the house needed a new roof, the cost of gas went up. Something they couldn’t readily afford. I even said it myself. When the kids needed braces. When Air Jordan basketball shoes came out. When the baby son wanted guitar lessons and drum lessons at the same time.
If you’re of a certain young age, you may not know about poorhouses. Or what that common expression meant. Counties ran poorhouses, back decades ago, and people down on their luck would have to go and live there and work on the county farm that surrounded the dismal building where they all slept in common quarters. The poor, the old, the young not born normal physically or mentally.
The poorhouse in my county was on Highway 8 going west out of Cleveland toward Rosedale and the Mississippi River. It was set back with cropland around it for the poorhouse folks to work on so they could eat.
The youth group from First Baptist visited the county farm and the poorhouse one Sunday afternoon back in the mid-1960s. We rode out there on our green church bus, in our crisp and clean and neatly ironed cotton dresses and Oxford-cloth shirts and shiny Weejuns and shiny hair. I don’t remember why we went. Maybe it was to see, for educational purposes, how America took care of her poor, as in it was a good thing. We put them away and kept them up on county-run land to live among other hard-pressed souls with nothing and no hope. Or maybe it was to take them an hour of our joy, a smile, and a good word that Jesus loves them, too, and God is good all the time.
I remember two things about that day. One, the common room where these poor folks lived together, families and singles mixed, and the frightful darkness, and all the little beds, and all the blankets turned brown with age or filth. Two, it was not just for old folks left behind, or for middle-aged folks who ran into debt and had no place else to go, but there was a young man not much older than I who lived there. A boy, a kid. Someone’s child. Someone had to put their child there. He didn’t fit in with society. He wasn’t born perfect to the standards of society, mentally or physically. He couldn’t go to school and learn like the other children. His family had to work and couldn’t take care of his needs. Sticking him there was their only choice, where he would live out his days lying in that bed in his own stench with his mouth open, no sunlight, no fresh air to breathe, no one to talk to or care, no future, no hope.
All the years that have gone by since, and I still remember the scene of my young self standing in that dark, dank, dirty, smelly room with low beds and filthy covers, and I can still see that boy lying in bed because he wasn’t like the rest of us and he didn’t fit in. I guess he was considered a burden to society and to his family.
I see commercials on TV now showing dogs neglected and abandoned. They bring tears to our eyes and prompt us to donate for the care of these poor little animals.
I see news on TV now that tells of the coming cuts for services to disabled children, to education and special education, to Special Olympics, Medicaid, and insurance that protects pre-existing conditions. Why does America go after the poor, the ill, the disabled? People, that is. We’ll jump in and take care of dogs. I think of that boy in Bolivar County, Mississippi, and the bleakness and nothingness of his existence back in the time before none of these services were provided in the name of mercy and compassion.
I see a new America now trying hard to be the land for the rich, the healthy, the ones born perfect mentally and physically.
We’re going back to the poorhouse days.
Finished my novel (first draft)
Traveled to the beach four (4) times
Walked in the Nashville Women’s March
Took my granddaughter to a lookout on the Pedestrian Bridge in downtown Nashville and showed her where I made history by participating in the first Women’s March in 2017
Wrote a seven-thousand word essay
Met family in Destin, then spent a day and night there alone with my dog
Planted a butterfly garden, with butterfly lights, a house, a bath
Tried for the first time planting a vegetable garden in containers
Made eggplant parmesan for the first time
Visited the Biltmore in Asheville and attended a lecture by one of the “Hidden Figures”
Took yoga, spin, and barre classes
Provided river tonnage statistics for the governor of Ohio
Wrote a poem for the re-marriage ceremony for my son and daughter-in-law
Hosted a wedding reception for the above two
Went to a Titans game for the first time in a lot of years
Went kayaking on the Duck and hiking at Timberland Park
Went to Art Crawls and book festivals (three!)
Went to a play at Chaffin’s Barn
Chose titers for my dog instead of re-vaccinations
Said goodbye to a longtime friend (and missed our lunches at Chop House and talk about poetry and essays)
Saw my grandson make his first touchdown—a 65-yard run!
Hosted Thanksgiving for seven
Reached a milestone of ten years following the loss of my husband
Stepping into 2019!
I planted my back yard garden in pots this year. This came out of need—out of frustration and despair over the last two seasons’ results. No yield of tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupes. I lost everything I planted to pests, rot, fungus, weeds, and disease. Oftentimes, before those menaces could even get a grip, birds pecked holes and ate the flesh and juice.
I’m a Southern girl. I have to plant things in the dirt and watch them grow. I come from a long line of farmers, from my grandfather back. My father, too, had a garden in his town yard, a yard that was once a fertile Mississippi Delta cotton field before it was a neighborhood. My garden area is small—twelve feet wide and three feet deep, in a corner against the wooden fence.
In the past, come spring, I’d pull weeds, hoe and air the dirt, add some new soil. I’d select my varieties, pick some heirlooms, put in a few cool things like broccoli or Brussels sprouts. I’d water, feed, and wait, and by June, tiny vegetables appeared, and then July brought an onslaught of hundred-degree heat. The plants curled, browned, gave in to it. I gave up, too.
I’ve lived in this house for six gardens. Before I got here, the yard was a pasture, prone to weeds, hard to tame. Beneath the bags of garden soil, conditioner, and humus I’d laid out was clay. There was nothing winning about this combination. The plants growing out of it were small, spindly, and sick.
Pots—my last hope. I bought big plastic terra-cotta-colored ones. Real clay pots were too heavy. I lined them up in my garden space and filled them with new dirt. In the first three, tomatoes. Then cantaloupes, cucumbers, squash, and peppers. I tend them daily, water them, help their vines trail safely. I’ve been blessed with the fruits of their growth.
Having a seasonal garden is like watching before your eyes a sped-up version of life. New tender plants are put in their beds. Watered, fed, watched, fussed over, cared for. Their stalks are straight, leaves green, baby fresh, perfect, no flaws, nothing but potential, a blueprint to fulfill and feel out beyond. Then life comes and brings its good and bad. Plants grow and bloom and produce. Nourished by spring’s sun and rain, they flourish. Then it turns on them and beats them down and rots them out. It’s an all-out attack of the elements and the outside forces that begin to suck the marrow out of life. There’s nothing you can do. You can water with a hose, you can put poison out to kill the bugs, you can cut off the sick and dead parts, but it’s not enough, it’s never enough, and you sit and watch the deterioration, and wait for the decline. Until that once strong and happy life succumbs.
And then in winter you sit on your deck and wonder what else you could have done. Or what you could have done differently to make it work, and last. And the answer is, Nothing. Sometimes things are out of your control.
Last summer my friend Nancy gave me some bean seeds to plant. She’d already planted hers along her white picket fence in downtown Franklin. Before the bean pods came, flowering red blooms would appear against the green bean leaves. We’d watch them grow and have fun comparing our bean blooms during our regular get-togethers at Chop House for lunch and poetry and essay reading. Here’s what she said:
“In South Carolina we always grew Scarlett Runner Beans. They can be put on fences, posts, or anything they can climb on, have beautiful red flowers and tons of runner beans. Lots of foliage also. I went to four places here in the Franklin area and none had ever heard of them, so I ordered packs from Burpees. I planted mine along my picket fence and have a packet left. I want you to have them as I know you love flowers, gardens, and anything that is different. So when we meet I’ll bring your packet. They are so easy. Just drop about eight seeds into about a two-inch hole, cover them, and water. Sprouts start showing in about seven days. When the beans appear in about forty days, if you constantly pick them, they are prolific. I am planning on my little white picket fence having bunches of red flowers this summer!”
The vines grew and trailed. I watered, waited, and we took pictures and compared, and finally I saw maybe a dozen beans. I picked them and steamed them with some carrots. I watched for more. Then I got distracted with work, with writing, and I grew tired of waiting. This spring, a year later, I pulled all the twining vines off the poles and fence and found a hundred or more bean pods. They were hidden inside all the foliage, had ripened, and were waiting attention that never came because I wasn’t patient enough to tend them every day.
* * *
It’s been three weeks since Nancy died. I wish I had another Burpees pack, some red blooms twining up my fence, and some bean pods to look for.
I’m reminded that the season of life may be a season, or it may be years and decades, and it’s never enough, and there’s never enough we can do to sustain it. We just need to remember to always put in all we can, to take hold of all the good we can find, and to get out of life and friendship all we can.
I descend from immigrants.
My fourth great grandfather came here from Ireland. My third great grandfather fought in the resistance and revolution to separate this land from Britain and establish a new country of immigrants. At the end of the war he fought on the frontier, tracking and killing native people, the originals who owned this land.
Two hundred forty years ago today, John Mahaffey signed up to fight for America’s independence.
Here’s what happened to some of America’s first heroes, now rock-stone and dusty bone stiff and piled up in a quiet graveyard of Revolutionary soldiers in Ohio.
Here is the original stone for my Revolutionary era ancestor.
Granted, John Mahaffey did get a new tombstone.
John Mahaffey was born August 31, 1759, in Sussex County, New Jersey, one of seven sons of Scotch-Irish immigrants, Moses and Jennet McIntyre Mahaffey. In the fall of 1774, at the age of 15, John moved with his parents to Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, where they resided two years. In the spring of 1776, near the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in nearby Philadelphia, in his seventeenth year, John accompanied his parents to Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania.
The War of Independence began in 1775. John Mahaffey served four voluntary terms, totaling twenty-five months, during the War of the Revolution.
John was almost nineteen years of age when, on July 3, 1778, he originally enlisted for four months. He volunteered for two seven-month periods in April, 1779, and in April, 1780, serving as a “spy or ranger, watching the Indians and giving the earliest information on the approach of the Indians.” During the year 1779, in the frontier settlements of Pennsylvania, British Loyalists and Indians attacked American settlers. The Loyalists soon were defeated, and Americans destroyed many Indian villages whose residents were fighting on the side of the British. The British surrendered October 19, 1781. America was officially independent.
John Mahaffey’s blood now runs through my veins. I take after him. I stand up for this country. I will resist anything that makes her less and harms her, that which keeps us from worshiping in the religion of our choice, that which makes us less equal and takes us toward authoritarianism.