I grew up in the Mississippi Delta. There were no hills in that flat land. The incline of the railroad track that ran through my hometown of Cleveland was the closest thing we had to a hill. We had trees in town, but out in the rural areas between hamlets, there was nothing but flat fields. All cotton when I grew up there way back in the day. Yet south of town stood a little patch of woods I could see off in the distance. It was fascinating to see those trees–thick as hairs on a dog’s back–stand tall above the cotton. Years ago, I wrote a story about those woods. It was eventually published in a few venues over the years. Below is the original (unedited) version.
The Big Woods
I lived four blocks from the edge of town. It was 1960, I was a kid, and my life played out in the city block around my white house in the 800 block of Deering.
On hot Delta days, I stayed under the stream of cold air from the window unit in the living room, cutting out paper doll clothes, playing jacks, or reading a library book—one of those blue pioneer biographies with a yellow ribbon around the title. Or I rode my bicycle, aqua with cream stripes and a tan vinyl seat, up and down Deering, pretending to be on a Wild West adventure, letting my imagination run wild, but stopping now and then to pop bubbles in the boiling black tar between sections of concrete in the street.
Occasionally, I ventured out, exploring, expanding my horizons. I went to the corner and rode my bike down Fifth Avenue’s cracked sidewalk until it dead-ended at Yale Street. Yale defined the southern edge of town. A two-pump Standard Oil station stood there, backed up to a cottonfield. Beside the station, John Deere tractors, plows, and other implements lined up in a row, Johnson grass growing up around them.
I crossed Yale Street at the three-way stop and parked my bike under the canopy of the full-service station. Full service meant the owner filled up each car with gas, checked the tires and oil, and washed bugs off the windshield. I went inside, where it was dark and smelled like rubber tires. There was a tall rack of comic books inside the door—Archie, Betty and Veronica; Little Lulu; Tweety and Sylvester. Next to it were displays of Double Bubble gum, red jawbreakers, Moon Pies, and candy bars.
A two-rut dirt road, used as a tractor turnrow, ran beside the Standard station, cutting down the middle of the cottonfield. In summer, lush green cotton plants bloomed pink and then burst open with white bolls of cotton. By the end of summer, the field was white. White under a dome of blue sky, white pressed out for miles across flat Deltaland.
Sometimes I rode bikes with my friend Nancy to the service station. We parked at the end of the turnrow and looked south, the dusty trail narrowing as it got further away and the defined leaves of early cotton blurring into walls of green.
The flat, open field stretched out as far as the eye could see—except for one thing. A patch of woods a mile or two down the road. One circular structure of trees rising up out of the cotton. We called it The Big Woods.
It was mysterious. It was out of place. It was far away. Yet, it beckoned, its wailing sweetness sliding across waves of heat, wrapping around us, pulling us like it knew us well and we knew it.
I’d learned the word oasis in geography class. A refreshing, green, fertile spot in an arid region. I liked that word and always thought of it when I looked at The Big Woods.
Nancy and I often tested the dusty turnrow toward The Big Woods, the heat parching us, our tires sinking in soft dirt. We always turned back after a short piece, wondering what it would be like to go there. We had a yearning.
One day we did it. Like pioneers taking off across the desert with full canteens, we each bought a Coca Cola at the Standard station and struck out into the frontier. We must have heard the same voice that cried out to our ancestors, calling them to explore new land. We forged down the trail, dust flying behind us. If we hit a hole and slowed, we caught a mouthful. Onward, ho! To The Big Woods.
The crop rows ended abruptly at the bases of gigantic, ancient trees like logged walls of a blockade. As we stepped into the forest, we entered a whole new world. It was the difference between summer and winter, light and dark. Sunlight couldn’t penetrate the thick vegetation, making it damp and cool. It was like Tarzan and Jane’s jungle we’d seen on TV. Virgin forest. Vines hanging, twisted and tangled, much bigger around than my arm. Screeching wildlife. Wet pools of swampy water on the ground, stagnant with circles of colors—spring green, lavender, and pale yellow florescent. A lush tropical forest, it was pure and pristine. An oasis.
We swung on vines. We hiked through marshes, stepping through painted pools, getting our white Keds wet and muddy. We pushed through low-hanging branches, brush, vines, tripped over tree roots, and explored the jungle. Tropical dampness curled our hair. Mosquitoes stung our legs, leaving little red bumps. We slapped and scratched. We marveled at nature’s playhouse—this place that seemed to belong to us alone. What an adventure! What an oasis!
We were pioneers. We invaded the silence of the jungle, disturbing native creatures who’d had it to themselves. We left our footprints in this new land.
I wondered how The Big Woods got there. How could a jungle be sitting in the middle of a wide-open cottonfield in my Mississippi Delta homeland? Who planted all those trees? Why was the ground at the end of the dry, dusty turnrow muddy and marshy? How long did it take all the heavy vines to grow?
A few years down the road, my questions were answered. Once upon a time, the whole entire Delta was a jungle, covered with a lush blanket of vegetation, filled with virgin forests, thick vines, and wet marshes, all nurtured by a humid subtropical climate. It was all pure and pristine.
Pioneers cleared swamps, felled forests, and tamed the wild Delta. They changed the face of the land, stirring and plowing, awakening a fertile earth to progress. They planted cotton.
I’m glad someone left a small patch of forest for me to experience. Glad I listened to the mysterious voice, heeded the call, and returned to the loins of Delta jungleland, satisfying the longing deep within.
In German, there’s a word: Fernweh. There’s no English equivalent. Translated, it means “a longing for, or a need to return to, a place you’ve never been.”
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.
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.
A few years ago, an old-man preacher asked me, “Do you find that men are intimidated by you?” The words slammed against me cold and hard. I started to stammer out an answer. “I mean,” he interrupted, “because you’ve written a book.” I was floored, and that wasn’t a good thing because I was driving at the time.
He’d bought my book after a loss of his own, we’d talked by phone a few times, and he asked me to have dinner with him as he was traveling through my town. So I’d picked him up at his hotel, and we were driving down Murfreesboro Road at the time, the blue lights from my Subaru’s dash filling the front seat.
How do you answer a question like that?
I was just living my life and my calling and passion to put words down on paper, to write things as I see them and feel them, hopefully helping someone sometimes, living in all my own doubts and flaws and imperfections and questions and trying to do it all right for myself. Not for anyone else. I’d had a husband who respected that, supported me, got into deep conversations with me about books, words, and writing before he died. At the time of this incident, I was dating someone, a professor and lover of English, who also respected me for what I did, supported me, read and picked apart essays with me, and shared a critique group with me.
And then, that question. “Do you find that men are intimidated by you?”
It’s not something I would have ever considered. I didn’t even know it was a possibility. I wish I had lived my whole life without hearing that question.
I’ve always thought of myself as . . . an equal.
The implications of that question still haunt me, and it’s unsettling. If I intimidate men because I write, then . . . what am I supposed to be doing? Sitting in my leather recliner all day with a Bible in my lap? Praying for other people, like men, to be achieving things? Cooking a meat and three? Lord help me, if I’m supposed to be cleaning the house.
At my age and in this time, should I even be wrestling with the issue of gender equality?
I don’t know how to answer the question or what to think about one who would ask it.
I guess . . . that’s a Baptist for you.