The Best of Times

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. 
When the daisies–along with a scattering of black-eyed Susans–come back each summer, we smile at the memories of our first July on the diagonal.
Sheer magic.
The children entertained themselves with campfire embers and private jokes.
Could anything taste better than fresh-picked wild mountain strawberries?

Our grasshopper-catching cat joins the Gnome for a well-deserved nap.
We all pitch in to build our home, early on by cutting and placing stakes to lay out foundation. ,

After digging and building the foundation walls, all by hand, it’s time to fill concrete in the top course of blocks to make a bond beam..
It’s hard to beat flowering rhododendron for outhouse walls.
With brute strength the Gnome pushes one of the posts in place.

I’m nailing exterior sheathing over the post and beam wall structure.
Years pass and our first grandchild gets to share the joys of living on the diagonal at the first of many grandparents’ camps.

Bustin’ Out All Over

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?
Wren fledglings prepare for their first flight.
Eastern tiger swallowtail alights on foliage.
Flame azaleas are native to the Appalachian region of the US.
Firepink found at Mammoth Cave National Park. Public domain photo courtesy of National Park Service.

Random Word Challenge

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may recall that I regularly attend a challenging writing workshop, one feature of which is called the Random Word Challenge. When I saw the words listed below it reminded me of the writing style of my grandfather’s cousin, Albert Coates: early to mid-twentieth century lawyer, University of North Carolina professor, and founder of well-known and respected Institute of Government. This challenge is always demanding, but usually leads to entertaining results.

felicitous            risible                contentious       dolorous            elaborate              delineate           

celebrate            mourn              reverence           eternity              antidote               solitude               

rebirth                stillness   (Parts of speech were allowed to be modified.)

Dearest Sister Gwendolyn,

Please allow me the honor of sharing this moment with you via this written communication.  I wanted to let you know about the hours leading up to and following our precious youngest sister’s death. Of course, you are aware of the many contentious doctor and hospital visits where no one seemed to take Ida’s complaints seriously, so I do not need to elaborate on that episode other than to say that once Bryant was able to come on the scene he finally got through to them that her illness was indeed serious. Alas, it was far too late to be of much help other than to give her some degree of comfort in her last days. Had the situation not been so dire, it would have been risible.

Please be assured everyone understands why you could not make the long journey to Natchez. Caring for Warren must be your highest concern in these difficult days. Sometimes it is challenging to delineate between one’s duties and desires, but not in this case. You mourn Ida’s passing with the same sorrow and anguish as do we all, and that does not change based on physical proximity. The spirit is always nearby.

The days leading up to the service were filled with flowers and visits with friends who shared a lifetime of happy memories, which served as a much needed antidote to the otherwise dolorous atmosphere of the home that now belongs only to Stephen and the children. The reminiscences of friends and colleagues presented versions of Ida they would not otherwise have known and allowed them to begin the all-important work of celebrating a life well-lived. The week confirmed the deep love and affection Ida inspired in all those who had the good fortune of her acquaintance.

I offered and was graciously granted the privilege of sitting with the home so the rest could attend the service with no worries. It is indeed the better place for me as I need the solitude of the moment to properly revere our sister’s life.

It is fitting that Ida’s time on earth ends with the blossoming of spring, a time when we are so gloriously reminded of the rebirth of all life. The stillness of these hours gives me the opportunity to reflect and be filled with gratitude for the gift of being born as sweet Ida’s brother.

Life in this sphere must always end. It was never meant to be an eternity. We are only unsure of the timing.

Grace requests that I  send her felicitations.

With deepest affection,

Your brother Aaron

An elegant and loquacious speaker and writer, Albert Coates was the inspiration for this exercise.
The Coates Building, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Originally the Institute of Government, the Coates Building currently houses the school’s geography and Asian studies departments.

(Photos copied from unc.edu.)

A Very Merry Month

(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

Poppies add exotic color and patterns to May.
Bearded iris
Rhododendron in its full May glory

April Is Nature’s Poem

(While spring comes to some places in March, the season is still in its infancy in these parts through all of April. This is my mountainside take on the month everyone surely loves.)

April is a yellow month.
Daffodils, forsythia, and dandelions
(whose future fluffy puffs
delight children everywhere)
dot the landscape.

April is blue, purple, and pink
with wild violets, phlox, and periwinkle
blooming side by side with
hyacinths, tulips, lilacs,
flowering crabapples.

April is green
as spring’s bright tastes
emerge from the earth:
asparagus and rhubarb
along with creasies,
garlic mustard, and folkloric ramps.

April is white—
fabled dogwood shares mountainsides
with legendary serviceberry,
its delicate blooms drifting down 
like flakes of an unexpected spring snow.

April is the month of awakening,
its arrival heralded by
blackbirds red of wing,
bluebirds of the bluest blue,
and the iridescent greens and dazzling
ruby throats of hummingbirds.

April is for spring cleaning.
Time to rid closets and minds
of winter’s cobwebs;
bodies, too, with tonics
of ancient lore:
sassafras, poke, purslane, and more.

Gardeners beware:
April (weather) makes fools of us all
with its first tentative beckoning of spring 
and irrepressible last days when
forest fairies frolic with dancing buds
of bloodroot, trillium, and mayapple—
all interrupted by surprise frosts and snows.

Blossoms and fragrant breezes
awaken us from winter slumber
with April’s ebullient energy
and its whispered promise
of a best yet to come.

Where would we be
without the gentle poetry of Nature
that is April?
A friend says dandelions look like bright yellow buttons in the landscape. Dandelion wine, anyone?

There’s nothing quite like a field of smiling daffodils.

Spring magnolia flowers bring a touch of pink to April.
Sweet violets symbolize faithfulness, honesty, and remembrance. They also make a lovely translucent jelly, or dress up a salad with the pretty petals.

Traditionally, serviceberry blooms mean the snow has melted so circuit-riding preachers can make the rounds for services, including weddings and buryings.

Buttercups represent joy, youth, and friendship. But don’t eat them–unlike dandelions, magnolias, and violets, these bright flowers are poisonous.
Along with rhubarb, asparagus is one of the garden’s earliest vegetables. They are the true taste of spring.
Five-petaled phlox makes a fragrant spring bouquet.

The hills are alive–with tasty ramps, the theme of many a flavorful spring festival. This wild onion with a garlicky flavor has been threatened by overharvesting. But fear not–you can safely forage this tasty treat by cutting the leaves rather than digging up the entire plant. They are just as delicious without being overpowering. Be sure to cut sustainably–only 20% of a cluster. As you can see, if you’re lucky enough to come across a patch, you can easily harvest a bagful while leaving most of these slow-growing perennials to continue producing. They are scrumptious sautéed in a little butter.

Small mounds of delicate bluets with their tiny yellow eyes (unfortunately not visible here) dot many a lawn and field in these parts. Such a welcome sign of spring!

The Long Short Month

Gray skies
Gray Skies

It’s been said February
has nothing 
to recommend it—
except its mere twenty-eight cycles
of twenty-four hours.

But the surly sluggish days hang over us
with their cold and clouds,
gray skies even grayer,
by-now-dirty snow
piled on street corners,
reminding us even
on sixty-degree days
winter is not done with us.

Harbinger of a season it seems
will never come,
this twilight month
of blues and blahs,
passion and penance
taunts us 
as the groundhog 
either lies or disappoints:
spring will always be six weeks away.

The fourteenth is Hallmark Hell
a frantic time 
kept alive by money 
and false hopes, 
a reminder of love lost or never had.

February’s loathsome mirror never lies:
dry skin, cracked lips,
and dull brittle hair
stare with sullen petulance 
into our winter-bleary eyes.
Who can even pronounce
this strange two-R month?


So call me a contrarian,
but I like the second month,
the one beginning with 
National Baked Alaska Day
and ending in honor
of chocolate soufflé.

February is the month of purification:
time to clean closets,
declutter drawers,
waft sage smudge sticks to
cleanse winter’s negativity cobwebs
from our homes and minds.
Let’s revere observances
presidential and Black
and celebrate the mysterious 
Lenten rose.

Tranquil February is time
to discover discernment
and dispel distraction.
This subtle month
asks us to pause, be patient,
to savor the journey
and gift of quiet wisdom.
The Snow Moon month whispers,
“I’m here.
BE.”

For how can we cheer
the spring’s birth of light and color
without knowing
the dark side of the moon?



JANUS

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. 

Beeches

Robert Frost has his birches, but I have . . .


BEECHES

In autumn
stiff leathery leaves 
the color of cinnamon
carpet the earth
excepting 
new-penny copper beeches
tenaciously clinging 
to their branches
fragile and strong as spider silk

They’ll still be there come spring
by then frail and pale
the color of sand
till erin sprigs push them 
unceremoniously 
to the ground 
to join their decaying cousins

		   November 2021

Holydays

twelfth month holy month—
Hanukkah, Rohatsu, Christmas, Yule
Kwanzaa, Posadas Navidenas, Ōmisoka
Advent and midnight Mass

longest night, shortest day
sun’s rebirth at winter solstice
brings winter with
longer, lambent, lucent days ahead

crèches, menorahs, kinaras
twinkling lights and silver bells
carols and dreidels
feasts of food and gifts 
mix with meditation, celebration
reverence and joy 
and sometimes uninvited grief

garlands of holly, ivy, and mistletoe 
deck the halls
pin᷉atas, parades and parties 
eggnog, fruitcake, cranberries
lefse, latkes, kugel
soba and mochi, challah and wassail
signify ritual and tradition

stockings and elves and Charlie Brown
The Nutcracker and gingerbread houses
candy canes, sugar plums, cookie swaps
and a partridge in a pear tree
mark the holiest of months

omega and alpha
ending and beginning
the most wonderful time of the year

		—Carole Coates, December 2021


Cousins singing carols at a holiday-time reunion

The Heart of Dixie: A Holiday Story

(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.

dixie egg

My prized vintage egg from Dixie

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.