This Wild and Precious Life

My Wednesday Writing Group is now meeting via email since we are sheltering in place. Our fearless leader’s recent prompt forced me into some deep soul searching. I didn’t know where this piece was going when I picked up my pen, but it turned into something meaningful for me, so meaningful that I’m opening myself up to you now.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Naturalized daffodils in the woods

I remember when our children were young and complained about not having enough time to do the things that really mattered. My go-to response was to remind them that however they spent their time was a demonstration of what truly mattered the most to them (which was often watching TV). Sometimes the response was tears, sometimes an eye roll or two, but it never seemed to change behavior. Maybe that’s because I was better at preaching than practicing. I was chiding myself every bit as much as I was chiding them.

I live in constant awe and envy of many women whose orbit I circle: women who travel to far off places to do good, putting themselves in who-knows-how-much of harm’s way, risking their health and safety. They give their time, their creativity, and their financial resources to help others. They think of others before themselves.

Like theirs, my heart aches for the plight of so many in this world, but that is often as much as I allow. I’m filled with compassion more than passion. I am not moved to activism. A lifetime ago it was different, but I burned my candle down to a nub. I got burned and burned out, and the flame has never reignited.

Still, I find myself looking around me and wondering how I can help, how I can make a difference. I looked close to home—it’s not an easy place to find an answer. I’m surrounded by an enclave of family—theirs, not mine. Much of what they do, all four generations of them, they do together: farming, canning, eating, errands, playing. They are self-contained; they take care of each other. They do not seem to need others, even in times of need.

“Where am I needed? What can I do?”

That was the question I asked myself when one of the older generation among these neighbors received a devastating cancer diagnosis. They certainly didn’t need me to bring food or offer trips to the doctor. I had just recently retired from my far more than  full-time job when it came to me—the one thing I now had that family members did not.

Time. I could visit. While their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren are off at work and school, I could give my time.

I had my answer.

At this stage in my own life, it seems the things I have to offer are the small things. A smile, a word of encouragement, a thank you or a compliment. They are indeed small things, but as I look around, they are things the world seems much in need of right now. These things I can do, and I have learned to be on the alert. Not always, not enough, but so much more than when I was so overworked and overwhelmed that I seemed only to live inside myself.

These days I actively watch for opportunities to smile, to make a small gesture. “Is there something I can get for you from that top shelf?” to the older gentleman in his electric shopping cart. “May I help with that?” to the woman struggling to get her arm into the coat sleeve.

I step out of my comfort zone to say something pleasant to a person who seems vulnerable. It’s an indirect way of saying, “You’re not alone. Here is a safe place.” Sometimes I just watch. How is this clerk from Pakistan being treated by her customers? How are those Latino customers being treated by that cashier? I’m ready to step in, though I have no idea how.

I’ve also learned that things I think and say and write can occasionally make a difference. It’s the main reason I continue to write—in hopes that I will sometimes find some combination of words that will touch someone.

In these ever more uncertain times, I believe it is more important than it ever has been—in my lifetime, at least—to look for the small ways I can help improve someone else’s day. Maybe it’s an extra large tip when my server is having a tough time. Maybe it’s a conversation with the overworked cashier at the big box store. Maybe it’s popping a check in the mail to make up for the appointments I’ll miss with my hairdresser for the current stage of the coronavirus shutdown—with a little something extra added in. Maybe it’s looking for a sliver of silver lining someone’s clouds.

What do I plan to do with my one wild and precious life? I plan to plant a little ray of sunshine wherever I can. Carrie Newcomer sings, “Between here now and forever is so precious little time.” With my precious little time I will seek out tiny acts of kindness to perform, following Mother Teresa’s counsel to do small things with great love.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

–Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems, 1992

 

 

Blackberries and Biscuits: A Review

OK, I’m all puffed up with pride and just can’t help it.

I recently received a lovely, validating  note in the mail from someone who had just finished reading Blackberries and Biscuits. She enclosed a review because, as she said, “I truly believe it deserves literary attention and acclaim.” Wow!

Mind you, we are friends and writing colleagues, but her note and review were completely unsolicited, so I accept that her words are totally from the heart. They made my heart sing, and I’ve just gotta share them with you!

By the way, if you’ve read Blackberries and Biscuits, maybe you’d like to leave a review on Amazon–I’d sure appreciate it. Reviews are important in helping customers make buying decisions.

Review: Blackberries and Biscuits: Life and Times of a Smoky Mountain Girl 

This is a love story that spans multiple generations. By love I mean love of a family through deep kindred roots as well as love between a man and woman that intertwines those kindred roots into a captivating story that stands the test of time. Carole Coates has woven a work of words into a personal, up-close exploration of her own family tree. The family tree branches she shares with her readers surpass common features such as names, birth places and tidbits of local color. Coates’ words dig much deeper than that into the grit, hardship, hunger and belief in faith that make a person stronger. Makes them more resilient and committed to the tasks they set out to achieve. Not the least of these strengths is a true appreciation of humor. Oh yes … humor that makes you smile, giggle and grin.

Taking place on the fringes of Tennessee in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, the life story of Pansy (Pam) Dillard Coates unfolds through an historical sketch of a Daddy, granddaddies, great granddaddies; Mother, grandmothers, great grandmothers; sisters, brothers, cousins and friends. Photos skillfully arranged throughout this novel strengthen the visual image of this family while also providing a micro-cosmic portrayal of a life growing up in the Appalachian mountains – a life, though often hard, that was also rewarding and beautiful.

Kudos to Coates for taking extensive time to research many aspects of this story. She artfully piques the reader’s interest in a time span of history that so few may have encountered or envisioned. She thoughtfully accomplishes what it appears she has set out to do. To engage the reader in reminiscing about family, close ties, anecdotal happenings and the precious sense of timeless love. Truly, Coates has achieved her goal of writing a beautiful, everlasting love story.

Amy C. Millette
Vilas, NC
January 31, 2020

Thanks, Amy! And, in case that isn’t enough shameless self-promotion for one day, if Amy’s review inspires you to read my book, you can find it here.

 

Finding Moments of Joy

Last spring, I heard a writer friend mention the happiness journal—365 days of happiness. I was taken with the concept, but it didn’t quite fit for me. I landed on something similar, but in some ways dramatically different when I began recording one single event each day that I could claim as a personal Moment of Joy (MoJ). I mentioned my Moment of Joy journal here.

I wasn’t looking for things that simply gave me satisfaction or created an exhale of relief. Instead, I wanted to make note of those unexpected moments that take my breath away, that make me want to say to anyone who can hear, “Hey, look at that!” I vowed to exempt personal relationships and everyday happinesses when I recorded a Moment of Joy. Writing that I was happy to wake up next to the GNOME, for instance, could become a cop out and a crutch. Too easy. I’m always happy to wake up next to him. I wanted to become more aware of the little things that are too easy to miss.

I admit I’ve ended a few days scratching my head as I prepared to document an MoJ. Some days are like that. But I’m happy to report that for the most part, I have trouble narrowing down my MoJ experiences to just one or two to record. I’ve been surprised how easy it is to find them. The Gnome’s gotten in on the act, too. We see a rainbow and he says, “That could be your moment of joy today.”

A few months ago, I thought I’d stop keeping an MoJ list. I was practically stumbling over all the moments of joy around me (not a bad thing); maybe I didn’t need a list. But as fall slowly morphed into winter, I changed my mind. I’ve written before about the emotional challenge that the often overcast, always-short-day season can be for me. Of all times to be on intentional alert for moments of joy, this is it.

I’m glad I kept at it. Being attuned to joyful moments after day upon day of gray fog is so good for the soul. As I write this, I glance up every few moments to watch snowflakes lazily drift through the air. Yesterday, all it took was a look outside to notice the heart-stoppingly beautiful scenery with snow on the ground and hoar frost adding its own touch of brilliance to the mountaintops and the tips of branches. The male cardinal wears an especially bright coat of scarlet on days like that.

Last week, we spotted the brightest, biggest, most distinctly colored rainbow I think I’ve ever seen. And when we looked more closely, we could spot an ever-so-faint second rainbow above it. What a WOW moment!

When the world is as naked as it is in winter, I look for subtleties: the patterns and hues of lichen on trees, the grain of tree bark. Winter is the time for noticing the delicate shades of dried grasses in fields and meadows, ranging from sand to bronze to deep burgundy.

My Moments of Joy have ranged from getting an unexpected phone call to listening to wind gusts, from spotting a dandelion puff in winter to discovering a tidbit of information to make an otherwise mundane essay sing, from a stranger’s kindness to seeing five deer standing just outside the window or catching the scent of winter-blooming narcissus.

Being on the lookout for each day’s Moment of Joy quickly became a habit, an almost unconscious one. And that’s the way it should be—being so in the moment and so intuitively aware of the world around me that I never have to be reminded of the many things to be thankful for, of the beauty and potential for joy that surrounds me. Besides, the very best Moments of Joy are those that come unbidden, catching me off guard, sweeping off my feet.

“Hey, look at that!”

 

Thanks Giving

“What is the best moment of your day?” she asked.

That turned out to be a question I couldn’t answer directly. Let me put it this way.

The best moment of my day is . . .

when a sun’s ray beams onto my face, wakes me, and bird songs welcome the day;

when I eat a breakfast of eggs from the happy chickens who live just down the road;

when the cacophonous chatter of crows having their morning “coffee klatch” interrupts the still of my morning;

when I sip a cup of honeyed herbal tea as my mind loosely organizes my day;

when I check on the latest thing to pop up in the vegetable garden on a sunny summer morning—or later in the season, when I harvest what I’ll eat that day and preserve more for chilly winter nights;

when the comfort of a snuggle under the covers overtakes me upon waking in the morning and again as I fall asleep each night;

when a few hours of dedicated writing time come my way;

The best part of my day is . . .

when the all-day antics of squirrels and chipmunks capture my attention as they battle each other’s wits over food intended for birds;

when I take a twilight summer stroll listening to the quiet, watching the synchronicity of fireflies light up our woods, and catching whiffs of honeysuckle;

when I gaze at the star-studded sky on a clear, crisp wintry night and maybe catch a meteor streaking through the atmosphere;

when I spy mountaintops peeking through a sea of clouds;

when the nighttime call of an owl seeps into my consciousness;

when the early springtime sounds of wood frogs and peepers shatter the otherwise quiet of my bedroom—all night long;

when I’m graced with the giggles and confidences of grandchildren;

when the season’s first wild daisy shows itself in our meadow.

The best—and sweetest—moment of my day is a spontaneous embrace anywhere, anytime as my sweetheart and I sway ever so slightly—the way young lovers move to a slow dance at the prom—for no particular reason and for minutes on end.

With all these best moments, I’m reminded of these words from an old hymn: “How can I keep from singing?”

And I give thanks.

 

 

Family History as a Civics Lesson

Once upon a time, I thought it was decidedly macabre for people to wander around cemeteries randomly looking for names on tombstones. Then I turned into one of them—long before I qualified as the kind of person (OLD) who seemed most fascinated by this hobby. 

The Gnome and I found ourselves immersed in genealogy in our earliest forties. At first, it was nothing more than wanting to find the names and origins of our ancestors, but it quickly became so much more. I wanted to know about these people who came before me. And the more I learned, the more I wanted to know: who they were, what they did, how they ended up where they were, what their world looked like. I wanted to round out their stories.

That’s when I realized that, at least for the intellectually curious, one’s family history is really a massive civics and history lesson.

Do you know how roads in the United States were maintained in the early days? If not for genealogy, I wouldn’t. Each locality required all ‘able-bodied’ men to spend a designated number of days on road work. Imagine that today. Fines—maybe worse—were imposed on shirkers. I suspect most of us are happier paying a fuel tax than putting aside our normal work to build roads on demand with pickaxes and shovels in hand. I understand the quality of those roads was somewhat (!) unreliable. It was a serendipitous lesson to discover that history because it helped me understand the nature and evolution of mutual responsibility for public works.

As for my own story, I lucked out when I came upon the account of a pair of ancestors, Jimmie and Jerutha Holland, written by Nellie Holland Russell for her pre-teen nephews. The somewhat fictionalized version of these early Scots-Irish settlers nonetheless told me how desperate things were in the ‘old country,’ how dangerous it was for two teenagers to cross the Atlantic on a rickety boat (‘ship’ is much too generous a word), how their vessel turned out to be run by pirates, how their naiveté in a strange land made them easy marks. In short, it told me I’m darned lucky to be here today.

This historical marker in Wayne County, NC, celebrates my fourth-great-grandparents. Who knew?

Surely it was much the same for millions more immigrants whenever and however they made their own journeys. It’s a piece of our collective history we would all do well to understand.

As the Gnome and I became more involved in learning about our family histories, we found ourselves engrossed in their times. I have precious few details about a great-grandfather and another great-great grandfather who fought in the Civil War. When I came across a book of letters from Confederate soldiers to their families back home, I wildly hoped I’d luck across one signed by one of my ancestors.

 

 

My great-great-grandfather, John Holden, and my great-grandfather William Holland Thomas Dillard were soldiers in the US Civil War.

Of course, I didn’t, but that didn’t make the stories any less compelling—stories of boredom mingled with bloody horror, near starvation, worry about a son or other family member in another unit, prison conditions, anxiety about the women and children back home. In that moment, it didn’t matter whose signature was on a letter or which side of the conflict he was on. I suspect the story was much the same for every soldier.

I read about soldiers returning home to western North Carolina from the prison in Petersburg, Virginia, after the war had ended. I pictured what it would have been like to be in their shoes. Or their bare feet, for some were without shoes. My grandpas weren’t part of that group, but reading about the odyssey told me a lot about how it must feel to return home after war, defeated, carrying the wounded, hungry, walking most of the several hundred miles to reach home, not knowing what one will find upon arriving. Seeing the desolation along the way. No parades, no hordes cheering from the roadsides.

It’s a story that’s been repeated through the ages and still is today in too many corners of the world. Looking through this lens, without the judgment of who’s right or wrong, but simply seeing the human heart, gives a person new perspective.

When I traveled to the heritage center in my dad’s hometown, I was hoping to learn more about my grandparents. What was education all about then? Why did Granddaddy only go to school through the seventh grade? He was eighteen when he finished, and within days he married his teacher, only a few months older than he. What a treat when the center’s director pulled out an old survey which included my great-grandparents’ farm. A little square on the edge of their property designated a school. They donated that bit of land to the county. It’s where Granddaddy went to school and most likely where he met my grandmother. With that tidbit of new knowledge. I felt closer to them.

I learned that school wasn’t compulsory, that children who did attend often started at age eight.

In those days, a three-person committee ran each school independently. In some cases, when they needed money to build a new school house, rather than raising taxes as the committee had the authority to do, they chose instead to close the school for a year and divert the teacher’s salary to purchase building materials. Hmm—no wonder a person didn’t finish seventh grade at age twelve.

I was in my small, local public library browsing some North Carolina history books when I came upon a small volume about tobacco-growing in the state. My dad’s father was a tobacco farmer. Working in tobacco—and cotton—was how Daddy and his brothers grew up. Maybe I’d find something useful in the pages of my book discovery. I did, but not what I was expecting. There was something about mules—how important they were to farm life in earlier days—so important they were considered part of the family. I asked my Uncle Edwin about that. “Noooo! They were never part of the family. I’d chop cotton [one of the most dreaded farm chores] before I’d plow a mule!” Now, that told me something about my dad’s life growing up. And I never would have known it if the only place I’d searched was the genealogy shelf. 

Daddy’s relationships with the family mules were as varied as their personalities. Rhodie was one of his favorites.

Random gleanings from random places. And each one a jewel that deepens my understanding. Our human story is so much more than the bare bones of begats. It’s a broader story, a deeply-textured one. Everyone’s story is different. Whatever yours is, if you let your curiosity guide you, it will teach you civics and history which will inform your knowledge about the world around you, give you an appreciation for where we are now as a society and what our forebears lived through to get us here. You might even discover a new passion.

Because there is a story to tell. You just have to find it.

Country Roads

Alongside the country road I drive most days, I’m sure to find—depending on the time of year—trillium, wild irises, fire pinks, flame azaleas, rhododendron, mountain laurel, Japanese meadowsweet, bee balm, daisies, evening primrose, black-eyed Susans, Turk’s cap lilies, Queen Anne’s lace, wild blackberries, Joe-Pye weed, touch-me-nots, ironweed, snow, and ice. All strikingly beautiful and all worth slowing down for.

 

On a cool but sunny day, I’m as likely as not to find a lazy dog dozing on the asphalt, in no hurry to get out of my way.

It isn’t rare to find myself behind a farmer driving his slow-moving tractor from one field to another. Other times it may be a load of Christmas trees or a flatbed groaning under the weight of too many rolls of hay puttering along in front of me.

A deer, raccoon, possum, chipmunk, squirrel, rabbit, or even a fox or bobcat might scamper—or mosey—across the road any time of day or night.

I often come upon a car or truck at a dead standstill, the driver having stopped to catch up on the latest community ‘news’ with a neighbor. Usually, they’ll look ahead and wave me around; they’re nowhere near ready to move on themselves.

It’s only right to roll down the window for a “Howdy” when couples are out for a morning jog or an evening stroll. Those moments, too, may turn into drawn-out conversations.

One should never be in a hurry on a country road.

Holy Words

Lately, I’ve found myself deeply touched by the words of others. Yes, mere words have lifted me up and given me new hope. There is something of the holy* in their wisdom. (*Etymology lesson of the day: the English word ‘holy’ comes from the Old English word hālig, meaning “whole” as in sound, healthy, complete.Wise words, coming from lessons well-learned, have the potential to make us whole. 

My young friend Emma recently had the opportunity to immerse herself in the life and culture of the Philippines. She came away with this insight: “I am beyond grateful for my life and being able to have the opportunity to come and visit this amazing country, where they are grateful every night for simple things such as a glass of water.”

A cousin who recently suffered a stroke and has a long recovery road ahead of him is taking on the challenge with great determination. He reminds us that “the simplest tasks are the hardest;” he takes pride in every inch of progress including his first day moving to and from his wheelchair with no falls, noting, “You have to learn to appreciate the simple things in life . . . and be glad to have lived through yet another day!!!” He has the saving grace of a sense of humor. After the hard work of putting on and tying his shoes, he realized he’d gotten them on the wrong feet. “You have to learn to laugh a lot,” he said. 

A special friend living with a serious illness said something along these lines: “There have been unexpected blessings on this journey,” as she expounded on the kindnesses of others and a hyperawareness of beauty and truth.

Each of these perceptive people has learned big lessons. Each is a little different, and each one is important. May we all be blessed with the empathy to see and appreciate the daily struggles of others. May we all develop the ability to look around us and honor the unearned bounty that surrounds us. May we learn to laugh at ourselves and to honor our baby steps; they have the potential to turn into giant leaps. And may we recognize and be strengthened by the blessings bestowed by good people, be they professionals, family, neighbors, or strangers.

Whether we want to believe it or not, there is a whole heck of a lot we can’t control in life. But we can learn from it. These inspiring people in my life have learned important life lessons, and they inherently understand the value of passing them on. May we be good students of them and their kind. Be whole.