Playing with Words

On several occasions, I have had the delightful fortune of participating in a weekend writing workshop led by a treasure of a writer, teacher, and human being. It is a gift to be in Katerina’s presence, though some of her writing assignments do manage to elicit groans.

In Katerina’s workshop, you can be sure to find one particular exercise. On a flip chart, she provides a list of fifteen or so words with the guidance to write a piece including as many of them as possible. Some of the words are challenging in their own right; to attempt putting them together in any sort of coherent structure is daunting, especially with a brief time limit. The exercise is always good for a laugh.

These were the words we were assigned to incorporate into our writing in the most recent workshop I attended. (Don’t be embarrassed if you have to look up one or two—most of the writers did, as well.)

conjecture     contusion     kleptocrat     polyglot    polymath     cogitate    divulge         strangulate     imminent     eminent     vicissitudes
salubrious     sallow      phlegmatic     congenial      syncope

I decided to have a little fun with this one. Never mind that it will never win any awards—I was happy enough to get in all the words in our limited time. Here’s the result.

* * * * *

A polymath, polyglot, and kleptomaniac walked into a bar [drumroll, please], one vaping; another striking a match to light a bent pipe, a habit she claimed was salubrious; while the third was flicking a lighter for no apparent reason.

The phlegmatic barkeep was congenial but dubious as he cogitated on this odd threesome. One too smart for her own britches, one able to speak every language except street talk, the third a crook of the lowest order. What were they up to?

The imminent arrival of the eminent polygamist physician made the mixologist nervous as he conjectured what might happen once his sallow pyromaniac assistant, who was suspicious of the doc and despised elitists of all stripes, returned from the storeroom.

His anxiety was not unfounded, though the brawl that ensued was not the outcome he had feared. The arrival of the MD, however, turned out to be opportune.

It was later divulged that the polymath’s contusion resulted from a fall precipitated by her syncope rather than by the strangulation prompted by her smart mouth.

Such are the vicissitudes of life.

 

(Image attribution: “dictionary” by stockcatalog is licensed under CC BY 2.0 )

Garland

Note: I am not a writer of fiction. But when faced with a writing workshop challenge to compose a fiction piece from someone else’s perspective, what was I to do? Since I was in the midst of writing a true-story book chapter featuring my grandfather, I called upon a few real-life details to evoke this bit of fantasy. I didn’t even bother to change the names, but you can believe me when I say it is a fictional piece. The thoughts I’ve put in his head came from mine, not his. Besides, my grandfather may have been taciturn, but he was never at a loss for words. Trust me. (And I adored him!)

GARLAND

Born in 1886, Garland grew up with mostly brothers. For three years straight during his twenties, he made the seven-mile walk to Cullowhee Normal School every Monday morning and then back again every Friday afternoon with his younger brother, Odell. During the week, they shared a boardinghouse room.

Garland was used to male company.

When he began teaching school, Garland was surrounded by children. His only adult companionship, such as it was, was with the other teacher in the two-room schoolhouse. She, however, was not male. At night, he went home to his new bride, Georgia. He was all asea in this new world devoid of men.

Ten years later, his family had increased by five—four girls, one boy. One boy, Billy, who turned out to be too much like his father—too smart, too stubborn, too pig-headed—to be much company, even in adulthood. They kept their distance.

The rest of the household hummed with activity: the whir of the treadle sewing machine; the never-ending yackety-yak of Georgia and her quilting friends; sisters playing house or school; the string of neighbor women dropping in to borrow the phone. Why, oh why, had they ever had it put in? And all that girl-crying—was it the answer to everything? The cacophony was a constant cricket chirp in Garland’s ears. Other times, it sounded like fingernails scraping against his schoolroom blackboard.

That’s about the time he gave up teaching in favor of running the little country store just down the road apiece. Once the high schoolers waiting near the door boarded their school bus each morning, it was reassuringly quiet around the place. As the day wore on and morning farm chores completed, farmers began trickling in to pick up their mail, restock their feed supply, or scrounge for a piece of hardware for this or that equipment repair.

They were in no hurry. Whatever emergency awaited them back at the farm wasn’t going anywhere. It would still be there when they returned to their chores. That’s one thing they could count on. There was always time to sit on one of the ladder back chairs or three-legged stools arranged around the pot-belled stove sitting in the middle of the room.

Garland savored those moments. Here, he was in his element. In the company of men. He was never too busy for a bit of fat-chewing with his comrades.

He knew that sooner or later the talk would turn from the weather and the price of cattle to the hot topic of politics. And he knew his face would get as red as the blistering coals in the stove soon as some rube aligned himself with Hoover and his cronies. It was bound to happen. Still, he’d rather engage in a battle of wits with someone in overalls than listen to the incessant yackety-yack of the women who came in to trade their eggs and butter or buy a bolt of fabric.

Retail trade, though, in the midst of the Great Depression, was an even less reliable way to put food on the table than a teacher’s paltry salary. Garland returned to his school room.

Five days a week, nothing but children and women, women and children. Schoolchild rowdiness, sister chatter, housewife gossip, Georgia’s nagging. He retreated into a shell of taciturnity, lonely in places bursting with people. At home, he often slipped off to the barn to get away from it all.

Saturdays, though. Saturdays were his escape. He woke early as usual, dressed, fed the animals and milked the cows like always, then ambled the two miles to town where he could be found standing in the midst of a small clutch of his fellow men, each as anxious as he to escape the drudgery of home life and the grip of their womenfolk.

The man who had nothing to say all week, who felt so out of place on his own property, found a new home on the sidewalks of Sylva. Once again in the company of men, words tumbled from Garland’s mouth as fast and furious as the torrents plunged over the boulders of Black Rock Mountain above his house on their way to Scotts Creek below.

No matter that not one of those men was as whip smart as Garland. No matter that all of them were rock sure they were. No matter that their politics were wrong-headed or that they could argue as long and loud and red-faced as he, as sure of their rightness as he was of his. He had found his place, and for a few hours each week, he was comfortable in his own skin.

The real Garland and Georgia, 50th wedding anniversary. Probably not so comfortable in his own skin at this moment.

The Month of Yellow

April is the month of yellow around these parts.

The daffodils finally burst into bloom last week and dandelions along with them. Country roadsides have exploded into an earthly vision of sunshine with forsythia. The shrubs are packed so tightly together, their branches so thick and intertwined, that even the cleverest rabbit would have a hard time navigating them.

And since yesterday, the goldfinches, those canaries of the wild, have overtaken our bird feeders (at least when they can wrest a few perches from the squirrels). At this very moment, I look outside to see half a dozen of the lemony-yellow birds crowded on the feeder outside the living room window, with more waiting in the wings—flitting in the rhododendron, sitting on branches of the nearby mountain ash, even perching on the windowsill.

Everything about goldfinches is showy—bright yellow feathers glowing next to raven-colored wings, sweet soprano chirps filling the air, bouncing flight patterns giddily announcing, “We’re back!”

Ten days ago, the day heralding April, we watched snow falling outside the very window where the finches now gather. Exactly six months ago, the colors were inverted. At ground level, nature was browning. The color was in the trees-—the rich, muted reds and bronzes of fall. Today, our trees are still bare. To see most of today’s colors requires looking down instead of up, down towards the earth from which they are being birthed.

April yellows are the yellowest yellows. Like spring itself, the yellow of daffodils, dandelions, forsythia, and goldfinches is a symbol of happiness, hope, energy, our very life force.

April is a good time to be alive.

Despised Scent

Have you ever tried to describe a smell? Either a favorite one or one you detest? It’s hard. How do you describe a scent without mentioning the scent itself. That’s what you’d have to do to describe it to someone unfamiliar with it.

Because it’s such a hard thing to write about, writing instructors often require their students to do just that. Our Wednesday writing workshop leader has done it a couple of times. Most recently, I observed that the majority of us chose to write about a distasteful smell rather than one a favorite one, I guess because the power of a detestable smell evokes more powerful thoughts.

It’s what prompted me to write about a loathed aroma. At first, I tried to write about something sweet and beloved, but as I attempted to think of descriptors, I came up blank. Calling up bad smells, however, was visceral. I chose to write about—you guessed it—skunks.

* * * * *

I rather like the musky evidence of skunk—from a distance. It leaves a hint of citrusy lemon aroma in the air. A little fresher skunk scent is more that of burnt coffee—the same smell that makes me wrinkle my nose when I get to close to a coffee shop in the late afternoon. Even that doesn’t bother me too much.

But fresh skunk spray up close and personal—say on my deck—is another matter. My eyes are attacked by a burning sensation that makes them water uncontrollably. My nostrils close up from the stench. I can neither see nor breathe. I choke.

It is the smell of diesel fuel, cigarette smoke, burning meat, and cat urine all rolled into one, as if all those smells are simultaneously stuffed up my nose and down my throat.

Bottle it and that scent would make as powerful and effective a weapon of war as it is a protection from skunk dangers in the wild.

 

“Everything I Need”

Have I mentioned I have the most amazing mom? Really, I do. This woman, 95 today, has never ceased being my mentor and teacher. And I’ll bet she doesn’t even realize it. She’s no longer trying to mold me; that work is done. Yet, her daily, living example does influence me.

I recently came across a March 19, 2018, New York Times article by Jane E. Brody: “Finding Meaning and Happiness in Old Age.” She references several experts in the field of geriatrics with observations such as these:

  • Even when physical decline and losses restrict one’s options, there remains the capacity to appreciate and approach each day with a sense of purpose. It’s all about how you frame what you have.

  • Positive aging is “a state of mind that is positive, optimistic, courageous, and able to adapt and cope in flexible ways with life’s changes.”

  • older people, knowing they face a limited time in front of them, focus their energies on things that give them pleasure in the moment,” not on a future that may never be.

That sounds a lot like Mom, now classified as among ‘the oldest of the old.’

Five years ago, my mother lived in a six-room house filled with antiques and family heirlooms. She and my dad had already downsized once or twice. Today, widowed after sixty years of marriage, she lives in one room in an assisted living facility. She no longer drives. She shares her small room with all her possessions—a chest, a rocking chair, a couple of bedside tables and lamps, a small bookcase overflowing with books and word puzzles, a television set, and a few pictures and pieces of needlework adorning the walls. Aside from her clothing and a bed furnished by the facility, that’s about it. Talk about downsizing!

Having suffered a broken hip, a fractured pelvis, severe osteoarthritis, and several fractured vertebrae that shortened her height by at least five inches, she moves slowly, painfully, and infrequently—with an aluminum walker as her constant companion.

Some people would look at her circumstances and be overcome with sadness. Not Mom. Sometimes when we’re on the phone, she’ll randomly say something like, “Not many ninety-four-year-olds are as lucky as I am,” citing her long and happy marriage, her children, the mountain view from her room, the resident cats that come for daily visits.

On my most recent visit, I asked if there was anything I could pick up for her. She took a cursory glance around, looked me straight in the eyes with a tranquil smile, and said, “You know, I have everything I need.”

I’d say she’s mastered the art of finding meaning and happiness in old age. Now, if only I can be as good a pupil as she is a teacher.    

Mom through the years

 

The Holy in the Here and Now

The Holy in the Here and Now

Someone recently mentioned to me that dogs are more in tune with the earth than we humans. Think about it: they sense moods; they know when a storm is coming. In a car with the window down, they sniff out every scent—apparently with great joy. They know when their beloved human is due to arrive or even when someone unexpected is about to come up the drive.

Chalk it up to heightened sensory skills if you want. But the bottom line is dogs aren’t distracted by the sometimes inane things we allow to get in the way of capturing the moment. They don’t share our incessant ability to fret over the past and agonize about the future. They’re all about the present.

It’s a lucky person who can see what is holy in the here and now:

a child’s laughter,
the wind,
daffodils and cardinals,
redbuds and moss,
the wingbeat of bats,

the architecture of a tree,
a baby’s toes,
sister duets,
cloud shadows drifting across mountains,
the poetry of a shovel’s utility,

dew drops on a spider web,
the songs of spring peepers after an evening shower,
little red wagons,
a seed’s unfurling tiny leaves as they break through the soil,
baseball and kite-flying,

a cow’s bellow or the dignity of a donkey,
food from the field,
a friend’s voice,
leaf mold and mushrooms on the forest floor,
a letter in the mail,

embers of an evening campfire,
grapes fresh off the vine,
the kindness of a stranger,
hope,
a poem,

Spanish moss dripping from oak branches,
a pat on the back,
a smile across the room,
a snowflake caught on the tongue,
a mockingbird’s repertoire or a magpie’s iridescence.

The holy: it’s where we choose to look and how we choose to see.

 

 

Deep Freeze

Winter went into overdrive around here a couple of weeks ago. We live in the high mountains of western North Carolina so, even though we live in the south, we’re used to cold winters. It’s not unusual for temperatures to drop into the single digits or into negative territory. We experienced a frigid -32° one year—and, no, that wasn’t the wind chill factor. Almost always, though, those cold spells are short and interspersed with warmer temps.

This time was a little different. The -5° to +5° days lasted far longer than usual. Long enough for mountain waterfalls to transform themselves into a paradise for ice climbers. (Tip: don’t try this at home, kids!) The damp seeping between rock-lined roadsides turned into massive icicle displays, and our fast-moving mountain streams and rivers froze solid. Nothing out of the ordinary for some parts of the globe, I know, but around here it was unusual enough for the Gnome and me to decide that, in spite of the cold, we wanted to get out there and see some solid water, camera in hand.

It was late afternoon when we left home so we didn’t get to check out as many streams as we’d hoped. Besides, we quickly got sidetracked. Still, it was a fun adventure and we did manage to get a few photos. It finally warmed up some and, with a few exceptions, most of our daylight hours have been above freezing for a while now. Colder weather will return soon enough. Who knows what photo ops we’ll find then. In the meantime, here are a few of the scenes we captured on our field trip.

 

We had to stop the car when we came upon this sight. If you look closely you’ll see a small stream of water shooting out of the icy sculpture created by the fountain (right). The high winds of a few days before had blown the water to the left to create another sculpture. Cool!

Rocky roadside cliffs have turned into giant icicle displays everywhere you turn.

We never pass up an opportunity to observe and photograph deer.

The trees obscure this scene, but we kept coming upon mountainsides covered in ice from peak to base where water had oozed from rock seams to create what looks like frozen waterfalls.

 

 

This great blue heron was clearly frustrated in its search for food on the frozen river. 

rsz_heron_wings_2

We’re not used to seeing dogs walk on top of rivers.

No ice here, but we can never resist the sight of old, abandoned houses. When we saw this one on a distant hillside, we were forced to take a detour.