Two Poems with a Point about writing.
Right here and right now, life is good, and has more of heaven in it than even I, a devout believer of that gospel, had thought. For I have found at least a handful of my ideal readers for the book I have amassed and am trying to edit, called, My Blue Heaven. You see, dear readers, I had thought my life—or the life of Courtenay Prentice Welles, my memoir name, began when she went off to college at Worthington, a small private college that held such splendors to my adoring heart, that I will not pin it to earth by its real name. However, from the surprising reception on Facebook, to my beginning to describe my unique childhood world, I thought my story might begin with the child inside me now and outside then—and what happened to her. That little person was born with a hole in her heart that caused her to be a “blue baby,” because she could turn blue around the mouth and eyes in those long seconds when her heart failed to pump blood. She came back screaming and fighting in her mother’s arms, creating inside, her first broken self—a victim believing that life was a fight and she had to win it or die.
Even writing this, I discover how a memoir can fulfill its first law: it must be the truth. Not that omniscient and much-shared, objective truth pieced together in the best local, national, and world histories. It must be the truth in the worldview of the narrator, the one that keeps that believer yearning toward her own heaven on earth.
However, it was in terror of that demand for the truth, which as we all know, has a dark side, a fallen side—that I found myself blocked in my tracks. Yes, new and deserving readers, that kind of inner block will send you into the most heartrending procrastination. I went from learning that one computer game, an inbox, and online “news” could melt precious hours (hours once scrounged for writing, from my loved time with my sons) to re-organizing what is now my tiny, near-to-hoarding, apartment. In this state of avoidance I created the world’s most perfect recipes and regularly wrecked my kitchen with cooking attempts,(kitchens are famously safe from guilt and writer demons) and then lost hours cleaning it up. By these means and every other, I avoided writing about the fiercest discoveries I had found in my own history. I have put off choosing chapters and sequence for My Blue Heaven, for fatal-to-book-writing, months. This was a sin against the last of my mother’s money which she left to me, money she had saved by scrimping on light bulbs, toilet paper, and fresh fruit, and amassed because Jimmy Carter or some president, had the country’s interest rate on CD’s at the amazing rate of eighteen per cent. Just under two-thousand dollars of her legacy had held my purchased book-publishing rights at Amazon, for fourteen years.
Did I sit at a desk with a half-lit pipe and a glass of Scotch, like say, Stephen Ambrose, writing away for all those years? No indeed. I wrote while hanging on through every one of psychology’s listed most traumatizing events that can happen in a person’s life. Divorce, Bankruptcy, foreclosure, loss of a forty-years home, loss of a business called Artmakers and Wordfinders, followed in 2012, by the loss of one son to a long illness in which I had been his twenty-years shelter and care-giver, and another son, by the next Christmas day—to suicide. In one of the heavens I was enjoying with my then spouse and our three sons on vacation at Callaway Gardens, I took up yet another book on the writing and publishing I longed to do. Peeking at it while standing in the long line for those sumptuous garden vegetables and thin slices of rare roast beef, with fragrant muscadine sauce on the tables, I saw this advice, “Write about what secretly obsesses you.” Oh, dear, oh, my God. Why? How? Well, I would address it very privately and begin. Thus began a writing career based on a fact any male, including God, might think amusing– to their eventual deep sorrow. The fact is that a tender-hearted Christian woman can hold the knowledge of something deeply wrong–a grudge, if you wish–until Hell freezes over.
And I would call that book, “My Blue Heaven.” Heaven on earth was a destination, yet it was also present on my journey, every time I was able to allow it, as I fought my way out of the blue haze into which my brain and my pierced heart, had been born.
That birth defect, not my fair, blonde-haired self, was what made me the constant winner of my father and mother’s attention– to the envy of my two beautiful and brainy younger sisters. It was because, with the help of my grandmother, who rejected the doctor’s prediction that I would not live past six months, Mama and Daddy, by saving my life, had come to think of me as their very own creation. My two sisters, arriving naturally from the hand of God, Diana fourteen months after me and Alexa, fourteen months after her, came far too soon, everyone said. Even the moving man passed judgment when, dodging a three-year-old me and a one-year-old Diana, he lifted a stack of clothing on hangers off a crib, and gasped to find an even tinier baby under it, fast asleep. That was our youngest sister, Alexa. My sisters suffered ever after from the sibling fate of birth order. Neither their loving parents, nor I could ease their mistaken view of my share of attention. Because I clung closely and obediently to my parents, ever a help to success in school and life, my sisters could not see the struggle going on inside me. They saw their frail and skinny older sister, “high-strung,” as the saying went. To them she was also the best reward they could get, for losing her temper at some skilled sister-teasing. But to Courtenay, those explosions of outrage were becoming addictive; adrenaline powered up that heart with its ever faulty mitral valve to pump blood powerfully through her brain and body, making her feel strong indeed. Frailty, “nerves,” and good parenting got her success in school, but it got her scorned and mistreated on the playground. My younger sisters would be chosen first for any team: dodge ball in winter, softball in spring. Bored with waiting to be chosen at all, not just last, I would find a friend who believed that with a nice large notebook we could write a book ourselves, and we two would take shelter under a huge overgrown Legustrum bush, like a low-to-the ground, tree. We would print a sentence or two in pencil in the lined pages, and then lapse into long thoughts about what could possibly come next. We didn’t even know how to dream or imagine a happening, and most of all, we didn’t know that most writers have looked around at real life, and found that if they changed it just enough, names and all, it could enrich the imagined world of each reader. It could also protect the privacy of the people who had inspired the plot and characters. Like a misty, mysterious photograph or movie scene, a book about one’s journey through darkness to light, can thrill the imagination and lead to courageous resolves, compelling thoughts, and a heart newly opened to life’s glories.
Welcome to My Blue Heaven, and my fight against a betrayal that came before I was born.
Two Poems With a Point About Writing
“Those Himalayas of the mind/ Are not so easily possessed/ There’s more than precipice and storm/ between you and your Everest!” ( from a poem in the National Geographic, about a mountain climber and writer. )
“By curious art, the mind, too finely wrought/ Preys upon itself, and is destroyed by thought.” A poem that appeared in something I read, and struck me as a warning not to write obsessively.
April 19, 2019 These two poems above came to help me as I struggled, in a brand new environment, to rescue my archives from repeated challenges to the costs of their storage–and thus to possibly having to trash the archives themselves. One poem comforted me for the mind-bending challenge of finding my voice in writing, and finding the story I can choose to tell without putting into print something more harmful than good. The other cautioned me about a never-ending fear: not, ” will my money last my lifetime?–I am already down to Social Security and the kindness of family members, and happy as ever–but will my mind, tested and tormented by failure to create whatever lines, words, or memoir form that delivers my message–last my lifetime? That is a really scary question, especially for one blessed with a longer-than-average creative life; I am astonished to be now climbing into my mid-eighties. I’ve had every help and aid to completing this book and possibly a second one that I could possibly have. I could write an acknowledgements page that ran longer than a good preface, to My Blue Heaven, as my memoir is known. And to Wildrose, the story of my Suffragette Yankee grandmother who came south with attitude and stayed to pray and help the destitute farmers and jobless former descendants of slaves in a small country village named Wildrose. That list would start with my ex-husband’s family, who helped me finish the undergraduate degree I left off when I married their son and gave them two, then three grandsons into the bargain. They kept the two grade-schoolers, and I took the three-year-old with me to Atlanta. At that time, in 1965-67, six months of schooling for a degree required moving to the university location, a major upheaval, and the whole thing was much more formal and challenging than it seems now. You had to virtually enter the temple of learning (it was always that to me) and be ready, after years of making a life in the real world, to kneel once more at the feet of professors, some suddenly younger than you. I still talk gratefully on Facebook to the children of Pearlie Mae Bryant, who began as our family’s indispensable helper, when that third little boy was born, and never left us until he was thirty years old. It would be a healing act of gratitude to name all the help I had–and one that stands out is the group of nine or ten children from Harrington neighborhood on St. Simons Island, who adopted me as their teacher/mom after two summer programs of “Free School,” called, Chrysalis, in which I volunteered for the summer between my two years of teaching at Burroughs-Mollette, the first year Brunswick integrated its schools. Through their churches our group brought fifty black children and fifty white to come to summer free school and take part in all kinds of healthy activities and learning–led mostly by true believers in excellent and enjoyable school-life and world-opening opportunities. My group of nine–and any child in the Harrington neighborhood who joined us in my long, Blue Chevy Caprice station wagon-has often and blessedly, thanked me for spending so much time taking them places. Right here and now, I want to say that what they brought with them–their manners from home and from First African Baptist Church of St. Simons, their joy and energy tamed to gentleness by those influences–and shared with me in the most healing summer times I ever experienced–was a gift of themselves, and some may note, a strength of their African American culture that is much to be grateful for and valued. We especially loved the beach in summer, outings which I did for–I can’t believe it–seven years-until 1978, when I had some routine-but-major surgery, and had to stop. They had mostly outgrown me, but I missed them. Many of them were actually in the movie made right here on our coast, “The Water is Wide,” Pat Conroy’s story of conducting his own “free school” while working as a teacher on a South Carolina island, and getting fired for his trouble. Beautiful scenes appear in that movie as it ends with his students following him in open boats down a smooth green river through our own Marshes of Glynn. In Pat’s boat, a record player spins the vinyl of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony, which Pat has introduced to them as part of the wonders of education, and the beauty of this life. I can hear those four repeated vibrant notes booming across the water in that film, every time I think of it. It was wonderful to be involved in that year, with the very culture and the very aim–the benefits of good education–as they were being created in the lively turmoil of a first year of integrated schooling here in Brunswick, Georgia. That movie came and went just as if it didn’t depict a miracle, a healing miracle that descended upon our community in the form of, despite every hitch, upheaval and objection, a successful integration, helped by a summer “Free School,” administered by churches and taught by college student-believers in the excitement good education–taught on a continuing outdoor field trip to swamp and planetarium, can be. Image: Susie, a beloved volunteer and role model, dressed in safari tan shirt and camo shorts and backpack, sits on the rumbling school bus with windows open and blowing strands of her short, honey-blonde hair in the sultry air of an hour-long journey to Okefenokee swamp. She has made flashcards for spelling and pulls them from her backpack, to reward her seatmates and those across the aisle with a chance to show off. The mood, in contrast to the constricted school year that has more freedom anyway than earlier generations would imagine–is just daylong joy, laughter, and eager joining in, to everything their young Christian leaders can dream up. Like learning string figure-making called “Cat’s Cradles,” Like starting the first day with leaders and kids both crawling on hands and knees through a clear plastic tunnel held open by electric fans, down the length of the Selden gym floor. Like Standing under a huge storks’ nest high overhead beyond all reaching, and having a group mourning when one baby bird falls to its death from the extreme height. The children spin across ravines on rope tire swings as I film them, and they watch the films weeks later down in my studio. We all swim in the amazing pure aqua water from an Artesian Well piped into the Selden Park Pool. For me it was a gift of time with children who let me enjoy their company without resisting or disrespecting me, and spent many hours in my home and studio and even down the point of St. Clair’s tidal creek–fishing, crabbing, and dining upon our own catch, after a last, early evening swim at the Massengale Park Beach. Once, after we had been to the planetarium in Savannah, to see the starry heavens recreated in a dark dome overhead, and learned new names for them, Deborah, one my group, came up beside me and said, in a soft, reverent voice,”Mrs. Harrell, we were at the beach last night just before dark, –and I saw that “dog star.” Well, it took that much writing to tell that Chrysalis Story, named for the way a gray, blind chrysalis can open and admit a beautiful butterfly into the world–just the way these children will open upon the world all the beauty their souls gathered this one eventful, magical time, in coastal south Georgia.