Grateful for Abundant Help This Writer Starts A List of It

Two Poems with a Point about writing.

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.

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.

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.

Why I want to write a web log

Here’s my first lesson in WordPresse’s beginning blogger course.

The Art of Thinking

About 1000 to 5000 words can pour out of my typing fingers on any day I sit down to the computer. Lately they have been about my wonderful reading of great classics of literature, and what I want to tell everyone about them. As someone for whom the love of learning shaped my life from childhood on, and never stopped, I find I have such a trove of lore from all I have experienced in a lifetime as, first, a wife and mother, and later a teacher and scholar and artist,that just my daily writings are looking for a place to find readers. The reading I have done for decades, based on promptings from Ernest Dimnet’s book, “The Art of Thinking,” has been a deliberate quest to choose, based on things that resonate with me, the “next most difficult book I can grasp with any pleasure,” and by thus sharing…

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Help Me Focus on Today

“I am really here, right now. Really. Right now. Here.” An odd, stilling, deep breath would go through me, and I’d experience an escape from my ever-spinning thoughts. The yellow walls of our large kitchen came glowing into my view, and I saw I was in its dining nook where, at table, I sat with my back to a window full of glowing Atlanta sunlight. Yes, here. right. now. was in the midst of a vivid energy field lit and warmed by sunlight, cooled by the drop-down window on the kitchen door.  It brought in fresh Piedmont, high pressure air, and a slight scent of red clay earth, damp still with morning dew.

I took for granted this morning brilliance, the 300 feet of open space that formed our backyard and led to a tall railroad bank at its rear. On its side, it dropped down a gullied path through woods that led to a bottomland and a deep creek. I thought every backyard–certainly every one on southwest Atlanta’s Erin Avenue–fought something called erosion, visible as gully-washer rains carried loose red soil down to the right-hand, flattest part of our yard.

This slight plateau led to the leanto from which our Welsh pony stuck out his brown, scruffy-eared head and whinnied.  The area was large enough to serve as a small softball field, unbothered by the yard’s sloping rise on its left, uphill again to a level that lowered the railroad bank down to barely ten feet high.  Yes, our backyard, our whole street, lunged up and down as if above some mountainous faultline.  Our house, and the one next and just above it, had front lawns that were either slightly elevated from the street, or in our case, sunk a few feet below the sidewalk at its edge.  Daddy and our neighbors made conversation of the various ways they contrived to keep their front lawns from washing away. Only three houses up from us on the curving hill of the street, stood a home that had landed atop its steepest part. A concrete stair came down from it and split the white-painted concrete block wall that held in the great bulge of red earth that supported its insecure growth of lawn.

Our red soil bled onto, and stained, everything. Daddy, who made industrious helpers of us, his three pre-teen daughters,  simply hosed concrete, and avoided our backyard and its soil-saving swathes of weeds and ground cover on the hilly parts. On the side that was flat, dusty and fallow, our tomboy middle sister used the ground for a softball field near Tony’s leanto stable.  It was Daddy’s Saturday sport and chore, swing-blading tall dusty weeds, or watering both the slick gray concrete side porch and the green, weedy, front lawn. As wartime accommodation in the 1940’s, this land, once neglected as untenable, had been developed by a hardy builder. At the last house, the red earth sank  as deeply below the road curve and the sidewalk, as, on the other side, it rose steeply above us. The builder had put a long iron-fenced bridge from the road, across the sunken soil to that high-basemented house. We had loved our own place since the day that Daddy took us to stand on the bare floorboards and look out over the woods below, through two-by-four framing sticks that still lacked windows.

We had just, in the rented half of a Virginia-Highlands home, overcome, with an evil-smelling shampoo, the last of the headlice we had brought home from our summer visit to Norfolk, Virginia, where returning ships of troops and sailors, had gifted the population with these incredibily itchy scalps. Mama had helped us keep secret what Daddy would have found a failing of the grandmother we adored, Mama’s mother. This fearless and joyful old Yankee had come south in 1907 for her health, married, stayed, and raised seven children and considerable political Hell. Now, relatively tamed in Virginia, a member of Christ and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, grateful for city life, public transportation, a mail pickup box at the corner across from her Colonial-style home, and glad to cook on a gas stove instead of the one she left in rural North Carolina, heated with scraps of stove-lengths gathered in the backyard in time to cook a meal.

Yes, that was then, and this is now. If I am really here. right. now, I am cooped up like the chickens in Grannie’s long ago-new home in Warren County, North Carolina. There is just one feeling; we are tightly cooped. My little dog Blondie sleeps away her sorrows until fading daylight tells her to whimper and jump back and forth for our hour’s walk. If my personal share of two apartment buildings called St. Mark’s Towers, is cramped, the surrounding grassy grounds, the edging cypress trees and multiple shady liveoaks, are wide open. Blondie’s imperative daily exercise-need, and my own, get me out to walk near the river-bordered marsh that stretches seven miles over to St. Simons Island.  Fresh ocean air wafts in over the marsh and creeks, and elation barely suppressed takes over both of us. Blondie, obedient and good-tempered, is allowed to run and does so, airborne for many yards, her short legs stretching fore and aft and her long ears flying out like wings.

When you stop and think “I am really here. Right now.” and breathe deep, what do you see, or remember seeing?

 

 

 

 

 

Goldilocks Theme from WordPress

Getting it “just right” is my downfall. I can’t make a cup of hazelnut decaf coffee with non-dairy creamer taste “just right” in twenty minutes and more of preparation tries. My little dog Blondie starts jumping at me and whimpering the minute I hit the kitchen for breakfast. She knows if I don’t feed her first, “Miss Perfect-Someday” will take forever on her own meager breakfast. The only “just-right thing” for my coffee is a coffee-yogurt that will not affect my lactose intolerance. However, I am so nearly addicted to that delicious stuff that tastes like coffee ice cream, that I search for alternatives. One I used for years, and could still use with Lactaid milk, is a General Foods Hazelnut iced coffee mix. But even in this mix, it still contains enough powdered real milk, that I have to take a Lactaid pill with it–and that’s a bummer; they cost 9 dollars a bottle at least. Do, “just right ” in trivial matters? It’s what I focus on to ignore my other fault. The nearest thing to avoiding onerous chores is doing them “just right” and that means I take forever. I am just now learning that the only way to compromise and do just enough, is to do “a little bit” of tidying, dish-washing, laundry in a public facility (requires huge loads) organizing of mail and papers, in my three very own rooms in a tiny apartment. Well, since even song writers say that everybody has a heartache of their own, let me explain: Getting small stuff “just right” is a way I avoid thinking about my own griefs of this very year and former years. Maybe I should give them just a little bit of time each day, and stop being so afraid of my sorrow over two lost sons, that I can’t make a good cup of decaf coffee.