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.
(Another writing workshop prompt response. This time we were challenged to write a descriptive poem evoking strong memory. We were prohibited from using adverbs.)
Small rock house nestled in sinuous mountain bend signals our nearness to the place of my spirit where my soul sings at giggles like mountain brooks and whiskered bearhugs scratching my face Cuddled by layers of starburst quilts through jet-black country night awakened by wafting hot-biscuit aroma like home should smell Diamonds of dew glitter in the green-apple morning shadowed by blue granite spires as old as time Puffs of white float above while draping branches of the ancient willow like an antebellum ball gown wait to enfold me
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.
My cousin David Rae Smith was only 15 or 16 years old when he met violinist, composer, conductor, and educator Sol B. Cohen, then in his mid-forties, who was teaching and performing in and around Rae’s hometown of Asheville at the time. Hailing from Urbana, Illinois, Cohen had studied with French violinist Emile Sauret in Chicago and Jeno Hubay (also known as Eugen Huber) in Budapest, Hungary. Sol also studied under renowned violinists in Prague and Paris.
In his time, Sol was well-known and highly respected in the music world, perhaps especially in Hollywood during the silent film era of the 1920s. Silent films relied heavily on orchestral music to demonstrate on-screen emotions, and Sol wrote numerous film scores, including those of early filmmaking giants Cecil B. DeMille and D. W. Griffith. He was also a member of the first violin section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and was concertmaster of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, having been instrumental in the Bowl’s development. (Much of this information is courtesy of the Sol B. Cohen Papers, Illinois History and Lincoln Collection, University of Illinois Library.)
I have written about Sol and his equally musical brother Julius in David Rae Smith: A Life in Opera. Since the book’s publication, however, I have discovered a few other bits of information about him, all of which demonstrate his stature and explain why his faith in Rae’s future as a professional vocalist was so significant.
It seems that Sol knew almost everybody, and he maintained voluminous correspondence with a number of those acquaintances, many of whom are noted in my book. Among his many friends and correspondents were William Maxwell and Max Frankel, both of whom had remarkable literary careers.
Fellow Illinoisian William Maxwell, fiction editor of The New Yorker magazine for nearly 40 years, was one of Sol’s contemporaries at the MacDowell Colony the legendary artists’ residency and workshop program in Peterborough, New Hampshire, which was founded by the husband-wife team composer Edward and pianist Marian MacDowell (and is now known simply as MacDowell). Sol participated in the program for ten years, which gave him a chance to meet many dozens of other artistic geniuses.
In the book Conversations with William Maxwell, the author tells this story. “I drove to Lake George with another colonist, the violinist Sol Cohen, from Urbana. He was an impulsive driver and did not read the road signs carefully, and we got lost and at dusk found that we had been driving north when we should have been driving south and east. All around us were mountains . . .” I can believe it. In Sol’s letters to his brother Julius he often mentioned that his car was inoperable for one reason or another. Perhaps the vehicle was a clunker, but his driving may have had something to do with its ongoing problems. Sol had his own story about getting lost. One foggy night he got so turned around he abandoned his car altogether and had to walk to the nearest house, which was not actually very near, to get straightened out.
Pulitzer Prize winner Max Frankel, former long-time executive editor of The New York Times, knew Sol from their shared years at High Valley Camp in Canton, North Carolina, in the 1940s when Frankel was a teen and Sol was a music teacher/counselor who also oversaw the camp’s entertainment programs. Soon after his arrival at the camp as a laborer, Frankel was promoted to camp counselor, making him the youngest staff member. His new role meant he could stay up late with other counselors, learning, as he said in a personal interview, “to smoke Luckies, to drawl out my speech, and to double-clutch to drive a truck full of campers on our weekly trips.” It also meant he got to know Sol better and “we soon collaborated on making music and listening to his record collection.” The two sang “whole albums of songs” and regularly performed at area churches and recitals during Frankel’s four summers there.
In The Times of My Life and My Life with The Times, Frankel shared vivid memories of Sol. Before Frankel turned to journalism, he gave serious consideration to careers in both music and art. At High Valley Camp, Sol became enamored with Frankel’s vocal talent and each year cast him in the lead role of that year’s opera production. Sol corresponded with Julius, voice teacher to a number of future opera standouts, about the boy’s talent. Julius even showed up at camp one year to see for himself. According to Frankel, the two brothers “swore that I could make it to the Metropolitan Opera,” and Frankel became Sol’s “four-year project.” The brothers even made arrangements for further training from a famed New York City voice coach.
In a 1949 letter to Julius, Sol explained he was disinclined to teach at the camp that summer. “Another reason why I’d rather NOT be here is that good Max Frankel will definitely not be here. He writes me pathetically of his decision, and thinks he will, eventually go on with his singing.” Unfortunately for the music world (though not for the world of journalism), soon after Frankel began his formal New York training, he realized the cost and time commitments required for an opera career, including extensive language study in French and Italian, were too much for him and his parents and he “quit opera forever.”
Frankel also held Sol’s tutelage in high regard. The late camp evenings together were the reason the teenager developed a lifelong appreciation of opera and why he learned to value serious symphonic composers such as Stravinsky. In our recent electronic correspondence, Frankel said of Sol, “Though he was a violinist by profession, his piano playing was prodigious. He could recall whole scores of musicals and transpose at will into any key to accommodate singers.” Frankel was equally impressed with Sol’s dynamism. As he penned his memoir fifty years later, he wrote, “Perpetually bent at the sacroiliac, he could nonetheless leap from the piano stool, pluck his violin for a few bars of ‘Buttercup,’ then pound the keys again from a crouched position and, between chords, bare-handedly conduct the H.M.S. Pinafore finale.”
Sol’s letters home often mentioned his back troubles and his attempts to get relief from various practitioners. In 1951 he wrote Julius, “I suddenly wrenched my back again and the old spinal trouble came back with a bang. I felt like an old cripple for a few days. My boys were angelic. They made my bed for me, helped me with dressing, and did everything they could to make my life easier.” Frankel recalled, “Sol was a man of enormous enthusiasms, for music of every kind and for young people he could instruct. He was serious about music but endlessly generous to anyone he deemed responsive.”
However, as is probably true for all teachers, Sol had complaints about some of his charges, though more often those there for the school year than for the summer camp. Once he confided to Julius that the younger boys “have consistently gotten on my nerves all this year.” Another letter noted, “The kids leave me alone not a second.” Yet another grumbled, “I felt all year as if I were a therapist: a job that ill suits me.” Frankel told a different story. “Indefatigable and infinitely tolerant of children of every age, Sol supplied candy before dinner, even lunch, and he let lazy campers hide in his cabin during work period—if, that is, they’d sit still for a symphony.” Indeed, Sol’s overall attitude towards his young students must have been positive, for he continued teaching in boarding schools and camps in Canton, Asheville, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, as well as spending twenty summers at Crystal Lake Camps in Pennsylvania where he led the camp orchestra.
There is far more to the Sol B. Cohen story than is noted in either my book or this blog post, and I anticipate sharing some of it in weeks to come. For now, I hope you, too, have found it fascinating to connect some of the dots between Sol’s own words and what others had to say about him.
Regular readers know I recently published David Rae Smith: A Life in Opera. What you may not know is that due to the Covid-19 pandemic, my research opportunities were limited—and this book called for lots of research. Thankfully, in the age of technology, solid research can be conducted from one’s own living room. But there was one big piece I had to go without.
Rae’s long-time mentor, voice coach, and friend Sol B. Cohen and his brother Julius lived in Urbana, Illinois, home to the University of Illinois, where Rae attended school and studied with Julius. Upon Sol’s death in 1988, his voluminous archives were bequeathed to the university’s Illinois History and Lincoln Collection. I knew those archives had to be rich with helpful information. However, the university was closed to researchers from March 2020 until late August 2021 because of Covid. Though the library graciously downloaded the few items I had been able to positively identify as useful from the collection’s written inventory, publication of the book had to go on without knowledge of most of this treasure trove. And what a trove it was—30+ boxes of 949 folders crammed with correspondence, diaries, photographs, compositions, manuscripts, and more. I simply had to get my hands on that material. Surely there were references to Rae, possibly photographs and other materials, which would help tell his story. Because my curiosity is never-ending, it hardly mattered that this research would be post-publication. I just needed to know.
So, as September rolled around, the Gnome and I made an appointment to travel halfway across the country so we could spend a day and a half in the Archive’s reading room. (Turns out we were the first researchers to grace the place since things shut down eighteen months ago.) There was no way we could go through all 949 folders, especially since they included sixty years’ worth of Sol’s chock-full personal diaries; we had to prioritize. We decided to focus on letters between Sol and Julius when one or the other lived and worked elsewhere, as well as correspondence from other people who were part of Rae’s story.
We knew we might find absolutely nothing of interest. But then again. . . . Well, our bet paid off. Granted, most of our new knowledge is not about Rae so much as it about other personalities central to his life, but that is fascinating too. However, we did learn a few new ‘Rae’ facts and even came across a couple of previously unknown photographs.
During the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some of the finds we discovered: some about Rae, some about Sol’s family, and maybe some about other personalities and places I found intriguing. For now, let me leave you with a few photographs of Sol, whose writing and saving (hoarding?) habits I give great thanks.
I’ve been feeling a little down lately. I’m probably not alone in that with all that’s going on in the world, but a lovely drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway always helps to brighten my mood, so that’s what the Gnome and I did a few days ago.
At 469 miles long, the Parkway is the nation’s longest linear park, stretching from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in far southwestern North Carolina through the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Near Charlottesville, the Parkway turns into Skyline Drive which will take you another hundred miles or so to Front Royal, about 70 miles west of Washington, DC. Both drives are extraordinarily scenic.
But don’t expect to travel the full distance of the Parkway in a day. Or even two. With a 45-mph speed limit and winding roads along ridge tops, you couldn’t if you tried. But with breathtaking vistas all along the way who would want to? You don’t travel the Parkway to get somewhere fast—or necessarily to get anywhere at all. You travel it for relaxation and for the bucolic scenery. You travel it to stop at overlooks and take in spectacular views of valleys and mountains, of trees and wildflowers, of blue skies (sometimes) and clouds. You travel it to stop for a picnic alongside a mountain creek or to take a hike along one the many trails through the woods. The Parkway is a place to slow your pace and soak up Nature’s glory. Nary a billboard will mar the scenery. You’ll find no aggravating traffic lights, not even a stop sign. Just 469 miles of calm.
There’s a lot of history along the Parkway, not all of it particularly uplifting. Folks who lived in the way lost their homes for the most part, and long-standing communities vanished. Today, you will see remnants of those homes and communities in fascinating educational exhibits.
At the same time, Parkway construction created hundreds of jobs during the Great Depression when no other jobs were to be had (as well as hundreds if not thousands more since.) All but the most specialized labor was local. Throughout its 86-year history, tourist dollars from Parkway travelers have filled coffers of nearby towns with untold dollars. And more than half a billion (that’s billion–with a B) have enjoyed its beauty ever since. A 2010 issue of Smithsonian Magazine noted that 16 million people visited the Blue Ridge Parkway the previous year, compared to about 3 million each for Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks.
Some the Parkway’s history involves my family. My Uncle Bill had the contract to construct several of the historic stone tunnels as well as the original tower at Mount Mitchell. A portion of the Parkway sits along the ridge of the mountain behind the home where my mother and her siblings grew up in Jackson County, North Carolina—the very mountain they climbed to pick blackberries for their blackberry and biscuit breakfasts.
Begun in 1935 (when my mom was a teenager), the Parkway was not completed until 1987 (when my own children were teenagers) when the final segment was built around Grandfather Mountain in a stunning piece of engineering genius to protect the fragile ecology of the area.
I consider myself one of the most fortunate of souls to be no more than thirty minutes from a Parkway entrance. And when I get there, I realize I’m in a place that connects my present to my mother’s past, even though I’m maybe a couple of hundred miles, Parkway style, from her childhood home. It’s a special feeling.
Private land still borders the skinny ribbon of roadway, and astute travelers might notice inconspicuous roads going off to the left or right as they pass any number of pastures filled with cows. It’s hard to drive along the Parkway without sighting deer and wild turkey, too. Lucky folks will even come across a fox or a black bear.
On our recent trip, we headed north on one of my favorite sections of the scenic drive. No need to try to explain it. These photos tell the story.
We stopped at the Blue Ridge Music Center near Galax, Virginia, to listen to some good old-fashioned bluegrass music. You can catch live performances every day of the week from noon until four June through October. What a treat! (All the musicians volunteer their time, too.) We spent about an hour in the museum learning about the history of old-time and bluegrass, whose home is in these hills.
As we made the return trip, we stopped by Jeffress Park and hiked the sometimes-treacherous trail through the woods and along the streambed of Falls Creek on its way to The Cascades, an amazingly powerful waterfall. I wish you could hear the roar and see the frothy lace. But I was as impressed by the shallow stream that made its way to the noisy cascade. It was such a restful place where I felt the cool air swirl around my ankles and envelop body and soul as I caught scents of damp earth and mushrooms and leaf litter. It was, as it always is, magical. And I came home uplifted.