March Madness

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?

Sunny Daffodils
Droopy daffies after a five degree March night two weeks ago.

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?



A Love Story: The Beginning

[Hope you enjoy this Valentine’s Day classic. It’s one of my favorites–for obvious reasons, as you will see. And I should point out that today, February 12, is our first date anniversary.]

The place: Furman University dining hall

The time: February 1, 1965, sophomore year; registration day for second semester classes

The scene: a group of friends sharing a long table at lunch. I’m facing the wall of glass that looks out onto the lake and its iconic swans.

My friend and future roommate has just come rushing to the table, practically dragging a guy we’d never seen before along with her. Jan wants to introduce us to this fellow she’s just discovered walking across campus. They are old childhood buddies. She’s bursting with excitement to have found him here, he having just transferred from the University of South Carolina. She’s eager for him to make fast friends and happily settle in to his new life as a Furman student.

* * *

Yes, this was the first time I laid eyes on The Gnome. His eyes twinkled and even then his lips curved into that amiably mischievous smile he’s so well known for. For the next year, our paths crossed in classroom building hallways or in the student center, where we usually stopped for a lighthearted chat. Sometimes we visited in the dining hall when he spotted our little group at a table. How did he approach us? Patty was the key. Whenever he saw Patty, he made his way over to give her a pat on the head saying something like, “Pat, pat, Patty.” She always smiled, but, oh, that little joke must have worn thin.

We’d known each other just over a year when he finally asked me out. As soon as word leaked that we we had a date, Jan and Martha (another of his childhood friends), both so protective of his feelings, started in on me.

“Don’t you hurt him.”

“He’s a sensitive soul.”

“You’d better not break his heart.”

Or words to that effect.

And here I thought it was just a date, a mere basketball game. They had me freaked—I nearly called it off. But I stuck it out. Besides, what was with them? He didn’t strike me as being particularly delicate, and, as far as I knew, I’d never done any heart breaking.

Even though it was a nail-biter of a game and Furman lost to the Citadel by a mere two points, we had a fine time and everything went just great—until evening’s end. Sitting in his car in the circular drive in front of the women’s dorm, we were saying all those nice, if awkward, things two people say when a first date is nearing its end. Then he told me he had a gift for me. Warning bells went off. They turned into ear-piercing alarm bells when he pulled out a little blue velvet box.

My heart leapt into my throat. Oh my gosh! What have I gotten myself into? I should have canceled, I should have canceled, I should have canceled!

But I’d forgotten the mischief that was always dancing at the edge of those green eyes. He opened the box to show me a gaudy adjustable ring featuring a huge—and I do mean huge—chunk of glass. There was a little card inside that read, “Hope Diamond.”

I was so relieved that it didn’t occur to me to be insulted at the implication.

dscf5413

The Hope Diamond 51 years later

It was never stated, but we were a steady couple after that. My dorm sign-out sheet (now, there’s a story!) shows that I only went out with two other people following that February 12th basketball game, and both of those occasions were within the next five days. Chances are those dates had been made well in advance of my first date with the Gnome.

By early in our senior year, a future together seemed like a fait accompli. Without any formal declarations, we’d begun talking about where we’d live, children, things like that. So, when December 2nd rolled around and he took me to Ye Olde Fireplace, the swanky steak restaurant where all Furman couples went for special occasions … well, yes, this time I was thinking about a ring. Even more so when, after dinner, we headed to the top of Paris Mountain, that popular, romantic peak that overlooked the city and its night lights. Surely this was the moment.

Then came the bombshell. With a serious look on his face and an ominously somber tone in his voice, he said, “Carole, I have a confession.” Uh-oh.

“I haven’t been completely honest with you about our relationship, and I have to confess something.” This time my heart thudded into the pit of my stomach.

“Remember our first date?” he asked. “That ring I gave you—it wasn’t a real diamond.”

(Pause)

“But this one is.”

dscf5419

Yes, of course I still have the ring box!

Well, you can’t say I didn’t know what I was getting into.

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

Going to Grandma’s

(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


Dedicated to my inimitable giggling grandmother, Georgia Olive Stillwell Dillard.

Thanks Giving

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 

Thirteen Ways

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

glinting sunbeams

liquid life

sticks floating like tiny kayaks

soggy sneakers

frogs, algae, and water bugs

miniature lacy waterfalls

quiet water flowing over moss-covered stones

This Is a Wonderful Day

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.

I’ve never seen a rainbow so low nor right in front of our mountain.
This walking stick hopped on for a free ride.
Rime ice can make for glorious scenes.
Seeing valley fog from above is pure magic.
Seen on a snowy winter day
One of the best thing about living in the mountains is the sight of native flame azaleas in June.

Connecting the Dots: The Memorable Sol B. Cohen

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.

My latest book is available at Amazon.com.

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.

When Sol was in residence at MacDowell he stayed in the Veltin Studio. Others who lived and worked in this cottage include composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein, thrice Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, and first female Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress Louise Bogan, as well as Thornton Wilder, who put the finishing touches on the play Our Town here.

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.

Young Sol with his Italian-made Gagliano violin.