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
(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?
Oh, cruel fellow! You blow in with your sunny charms melting hearts in your wake they've all fallen for your wiles secure in the warmth of your watchful eye all they see is hope Me? I'm cynical I've seen your kind before you cast your spell and they believe until you turn tail and run just like a swindling tent-revival preacher But this time you stayed so long, seemed so sincere, you lured even me into your lair ready, yearning even, for your promises I packed away my old grievances like heavy raiments I'd held onto for too long I should have known better I know you all too well sure enough just like always you made those innocents fall for you and in a flash you snapped Late one night when they were fast asleep you did your deed just as I always knew you would broke their slender little necks every one So unsuspecting their bright trusting faces full of aspirations lifted to the sky just waiting for the rebirth spring brings poor trusting daffodils Oh, March, how could you?
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* 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.
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
(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.