The New River, whose headwaters lie in my part of the Appalachian Mountains, is often considered the oldest river on the continent and even the second oldest river in the world—though not all experts agree. So how did it get its ironic name? No one knows for sure. In any case, I wrote this piece at an August writing workshop at New River State Park a couple of years ago as I reminisced about the many canoe excursions the Gnome and I have shared along this wild and scenic river. A Lazy Drift Down the August New Ducklings huddle in bank cuts resisting parents’ push into the current; two deer take a soothing afternoon sip cooling stick-thin legs in mountain-icy water. Holsteins wade across shallows to greener pastures, perhaps, and a Great-Blue stands majestically, its sharp eyes ever watchful for a tasty fish dinner. I bump across rocks and glide over riffles, the sun dappling my legs and arms, my bottom as chilled as drinks in the cooler; I wave to splashing children and paddling picnickers. Trees bear witness to beavers’ work as swallowtails float above; sticks of an osprey nest rest on a boulder ledge. Thirsty gray-green leaves and occasional yellows and reds flutter down and drift along beside me. River’s edge is plastered with signs of autumn— seed-popping touch-me-nots vie for space with sunny goldenrod and mauvy Joe-Pye weed; citrine coneflowers fill every cranny. Clouds playing across the mountains produce ever-changing panoramas of light and dark as they cast reflections of blinding white on the emerald river surface. Floating downstream in the late summer quiet I am lost in the flow of this river of calming mindfulness.
Second day, seventh month, nineteen and seventy-nine our family of four arrived for the first time on our newly-bought mountain land, ours now for keeps. Massive meadows of nodding daisies greeted us, the first of many magical moments in July of ’79. Like the morning when clouds made a foamy sea of white, blue mountain peaks peeking through like islands. Our hearts stood still at the impossible beauty of it. Like our discovery of wild strawberries and highbush blueberries, scrumptious snacks and desserts made all the better because they were ours. All ours. We slept on the ground, cooked over a campfire, drank water from a not-so-nearby spring, made an outdoor privy surrounded by blooming rhododendron. In that 1979 July we bathed in the frigid waters of a babbling brook, our skulls numbed senseless by the cold. Our music came courtesy of birds and insects, our entertainment from read-aloud stories by lantern light, homemade crossword puzzles, and imagination. Formerly housebound cats found freedom to roam; proud hunters dropped field mice at our feet and occasionally a grasshopper. We chopped trees and cleared ground, created designs, drew up plans, and sought official permissions. We built our forever home with our own hands— ours and our children’s— the only ones at work. Now the children are long grown and gone and the cats have found their final resting place on our daisy-covered hillside. Now the sounds of grandchildren laughing in summertime, finding their own magic on our mountain, bring smiles and happy memories of early days. Conveniences these days are modern— and convenient— living on the diagonal. But July of nineteen and seventy-nine? It was the best of times and the best of times.
Every leaf is fresh and lush and green in June apricot-colored azaleas set Appalachian hills on fire and electric-red firepinks dot rocky mountain roadsides The last bell of the year has rung as raucous youngsters race from school yards into back yards to prance through sprinklers and blow iridescent bubbles in barefoot abandon Summer is young in June and full of promise newly planted gardens grow plump succulent strawberries ooze red juices from eager lips country fields are hectic with hay mowing and baling Wrens sing happy songs in sunshine Synchronous fireflies dance in the dark to the music of June’s night insects the air is sweet with the scent of the milkweed and honeysuckle that suckle trembling butterflies Who would want to live in a world without lavish June?
(This is part of my series of monthly poems. I am painfully aware that all is not merry in May, particularly this year, and that May ends with a commemoration of Americans who died in war, including members of my own family. This poem is not meant to disregard or disrespect any of that. In fact, this May has been quite difficult for me personally: I was faced with the senseless and untimely death of a long-time acquaintance and the physical pain and limitations caused by shoulder and neck issues—a trial of aging. But this poem has another intent: to celebrate the glories Nature gives us in May and the excitement that naturally fills the air this time of year.)
The Very Merry Month of May
May Day, May poles, Mother’s Day mark the month of May proms and graduations abound flowers burst forth in explosions of color— pink and purple rhododendrons sensuous irises in every hue cheery cherry blossoms and more. Lilacs perfume the world with scentful blossoms and native magnolias sprinkle the woods with creamy white each spring rain makes Nature’s palette more vibrant. Mountains are transformed as winter’s browns and grays are replaced by countless shades of green undulating and billowing up the hillsides like fluffy viridescent clouds Once again finally again the earth is verdant fragrant breezes embrace us our eyes behold a world of color May is the quintessence of spring a time that feels like summer —only better Spring fever wafts through the air as youthful energy and enthusiasm bounce off the walls like echoes May is when love effloresces as exuberantly as the season’s blossoms May is a rush— A time when we can’t keep up with our own emotions May is for bird trills nestbuilding and frolicking wildlife who also know May is a time of rebirth and rejoicing. If ever there was a time to seize the day it is a magic day in May Nothing can compare to the days of May a month for living laughing loving
JANUS* One tick of the clock exactly the same as the one before the one after Tick Tock Tick Tock Still, we imbue it with awesome power this moment between between the night before, the day after or any other moment in time Tick Tock Tick Tock A new year, we think a new beginning "I resolve . . ." we thrive on contrived ritual Tick Tock Tick Tock This month we live in the dark season yet it lightens minute by imperceptible minute tempting us to look toward spring But wait! Let’s not lose this priceless moment this mysterious, palpable present for the not-yet-here unknown future Tick Tock Tick Tock Long January—the quiet season a time for flannel, books, a cup of tea a time for introspection and self-learning a calm month a time to refresh the spirit May I forget the clock gaze out the window at untrampled snow breathe in, breathe out may I delight in my own renewal * Janus, the Roman god, protector of gates and doorways. Janus is depicted with two faces, one looking to the past, the other to the future.
(My annual holiday story, originally published 12/21/2017)
A little preface may be called for here. Way back in the last century—in the mid-70s—our local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) established a number of consciousness-raising groups. Those of us who were interested were randomly assigned to one group or another.
C-R meetings were safe spaces where women could share our deepest secrets, questions, fears, and issues as women. Initially, C-R groups were meant to be a mass-organizing tool for broad political action, but consciousness raising quickly became a form of political action in its own right.
At C-R gatherings, our sense of isolation imploded as we each discovered our individual experiences were anything but unique, anything but small. As we discussed problems and events from our own lives, our stories became a tool for change. We gained strength and courage to take on systemic, structural sexism wherever it existed—sometimes in our own heads. It’s an on-going process, but one where we learned that indeed the personal is political, a truth we still see in today’s various human rights struggles. And though C-R groups were sometimes pooh-poohed as nothing more than group navel gazing, those who benefited from the institution of sexism soon found the results a power to be reckoned with.
We were eight or nine in number, almost all strangers when our Consciousness-Raising group had been formed. In our short time together, we’d tackled all manner of topics, from workplace discrimination to deeply personal and painful issues to women’s health care to daily gender-based slights. It didn’t take long to bond. We were tight.
Dixie volunteered to host our December meeting, more a holiday celebration than a discussion of feminist politics. We had agreed in advance that, in lieu of tangible gifts, we’d each read a favored poem or essay—any subject. I chose Rod McKuen’s “A Cat Named Sloopy.”
It was an appropriate selection on several levels. I’d always been a cat lover and was owned by two of them at the time. And at our very first group meeting, one of the members observed that I reminded her of a cat with my easy movements and my quiet, sensitive manner.
After the rest of us had read our pieces, it was Dixie’s turn. Instead of pulling out a book, she asked to be excused for a minute. When she returned, she was wearing a big grin and carrying a basket full of small, white gift boxes. Cries of “Oh, Dixie” and the like filled the room. The rest of us had followed our mutual agreement—why was she giving out presents?
But, for reasons of her own, Dixie needed to bring an offering. And it was obvious from the pleased exclamations and laughter as we opened our little boxes and pulled out identical items that what she chose was perfect.
Dixie gave us each an egg. More accurately stated, she gave us each an eggshell, an egg whose contents had been carefully blown out. With red ink, Dixie had drawn facial features on each egg and encircled each one with a fat piece of red yarn tied into a bow at its narrowed top. An ornament hook was stuck into the bow’s knot. My name was written on the back of my egg.
It had to have been a tedious, time-consuming process, likely with more than a few failed attempts. It was a gift of thoughtfulness and love. Dixie found a clever, personal expression of our shared womanhood—the very essence of our relationship.
That was almost forty-five years ago. I still have my egg. The ink has faded, yet it’s an unrivaled possession, safely stored with other treasured holiday ornaments and always ready to play a starring role when it’s brought out for special occasions. In the intervening years, I’ve given a few of my own.
My egg reminds me of more than that heady time and those extraordinary women. It reminds me of change, of the unexpected. My egg has traveled with me across two states; through a wild adventure of leaving behind almost everything I knew to hand-build a home with my soulmate; it’s been with me through child-rearing, a career, and now my life’s vintage chapter.
My fragile, yet enduring, egg is a symbol of the strength of perseverance, courage, and tenacity. It symbolizes the power of knowledge and community of spirit. It symbolizes friendship and freedom of thought. It symbolizes time and all the experience that accompanies it. And it epitomizes the exquisite purity of giving from the heart.
Wherever you are today, dear Dixie, thank you for breaking the rules, thank you for your generous heart, and thank you for opening mine a little wider.
Fleeting fall, first snow quiet sleepy gray November is autumn’s final fling A month almost forgotten when robins and cedar waxwings last birds of fall forage leftover berries before winter’s famine Leathery leaves drift on windless days to carpet the earth a portent of white drifts to come November means feasting contentment grace and comfort giving thanks for food, family, friends A time of remembrance for war’s end and hope for peace November is a state of mind --Carole Coates November 2021
Every once in a while, I share something inspired by a prompt from one of my writing groups. Recently, we were challenged to compose a poem using the title of the Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Crow,” but inserting a noun other than crow (and writing in our own style). As usual, we were given five or ten minutes to complete the task. I composed a list poem using an image which has been close to my heart from my earliest days. (Sorry, I seem unable to set the poem to single space.)
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Mountain Brook
rushing water splashing over fallen boulders
minnows in shallows, trout in deeper water
salmon jumping upstream
sunbathers wading to a rocky slab
picnickers eating Vienna sausage and saltines midstream
mica-sprinkled sand under still, clear pools
sticks floating like tiny kayaks
frogs, algae, and water bugs
miniature lacy waterfalls
quiet water flowing over moss-covered stones
Maya Angelou said, “This is a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this day before. In these days of still limited social activities, days can sometimes feel that they merely bleed into each other. I read a recent magazine article in which the author wrote of this very feeling, asking, “Is it Tuesday or November?”
I understand that sentiment, but it can be dangerous, so I set my mind to considering what makes each day special and unique. Everyone’s experience is different, of course, but my thoughts led me to this essay.
I never know what I’ll wake up to on our ridge. A bank of south-facing, shade-free windows greets my sleepy eyes. Will the sky be cornflower blue or gravel gray? Or will I be enshrouded by pea-soup fog so thick an unknowing person would have no idea our home is surrounded by mountains?
Will the Fraser Firs, planted so long ago as a Christmas tree crop—forgotten until they grew into sixty-foot giants—wave in the breeze as if they are dancing a graceful waltz , or will they be as still as the rocky peaks behind them? Will their branches be spring green or will they be laden with snow or frosted with ice? Will the maple leaves be green, crimson, or gone?
Will rabbits, turkey, deer, or even a bear be wandering across our meadow? Will daisies be in bloom or wild blueberries ready to become pie? Are mushrooms, chickweed, or purslane ripe for foraging? Will daffodils smile their sunny faces at me?
Will spiders have woven gossamer webs on fences? Will garden tomatoes be ready to harvest? Will robins and cedar waxwings be feasting on mountain ash berries? Will hummingbirds flutter at us through the window asking, “Well, I’ve returned, so where’s my nectar?”
Will caterpillars become butterflies today? Will hawks circle overhead as they gather to migrate? Will neighborhood crows hold a cacophonous caucus in the woods? Will I encounter a red salamander or a spade-footed toad on my morning walk? Will Jack-in-the pulpit or trillium be in bloom today?
As I begin to contemplate the never-ending possibilities awaiting me each day, I realize how important it is for me to remember this is a wonderful day. I have never seen this day before.
A few of the scenes, many of them surprises, that have greeted my sometimes weary eyes.
Now that October has come and gone–how did it happen so quickly?–here is a poem I wrote to try to capture the fullness of the tenth month of our calendar.
WINTIRFYLLITH* Golden leaf coins cascade like heaven’s manna; night skies sparkle In October’s crisp air. Sandals and shorts give way to socks and sweats, iced tea to hot cocoa, salads to creamy soups. October is county fairs midway carnies competing for cash Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds cotton candy and caramel corn. Shelves lined with glass jars brim with summer’s vibrance waiting to fill winter-chilled tummies October is bonfires, football and camping hotdogs and marshmallows roasting on open flames hootenannies and folksongs, hand-holding lovers blanketed on hayrides under harvest moon; pumpkin patches and corn mazes sourwood honey, sweet-sour pomes haunted house frights and woolly worm races. Chattering chipmunks and scurrying squirrels clamp tiny jaws ’round walnuts and pecans. Candy corn adorns store shelves; ghostly creatures embellish roofs and yards. Smoky-sweet leaf scents crunched by boot-clad wanderers perfume October air, feed forest floors. Costumed spirits and ghouls crawl Halloween streets crammed with spooky décor for tooth-decaying treats. October is crow caws craft fairs and beer fests frosty mornings, hillside mists a foggy Hunter’s Moon. October is a mellow month like cat paws and clover, more night than day readying us for winter’s shivers. --Carole Coates October, 2021 *Wintirfyllith: Anglo-Saxon word for October meaning the fullness of winter, because the first full moon of winter comes in October.