DAVID RAE SMITH, OPERATIC BARITONE

I had barely put the final touches on my last book Blackberries and Biscuits, the story of my mother’s life and times, last fall when a writer friend asked me what was next. I told her I needed to take a break from writing for a while.

Well, that plan lasted for about a minute. I plunged right into developing a book from previously written anecdotes of a number of my ancestors. Seemed like a pretty easy topic since I’d already done most of the work. But before I got my writing feet wet with that book, I got distracted by one particular story, that of my dad’s first cousin, David Rae Smith. Rae, as he was known in the family, had no descendants to tell his story. Nor did any of his immediate family have any descendants. I found myself a mission–and a new passion.

I’ve been hard at work researching Rae’s story ever since. I’m sad to say it’s still a long way from completion, having been interrupted by all sorts of personal, family, and world issues (can you say COVID-19?) But I’m still hard at work on it.

I think maybe it’s time to share what may become the book’s opening scene. Perhaps sharing will give me a little extra incentive to keep at it.

David Rae Smith, baritone, New York City Opera

Look, Julius, I don’t care if he’s under contract with the Shreveport Civic Opera.. I want David Rae Smith!”

All right, all right, Bev. I’ll make it happen.”

Of course, I don’t know if this was the exact conversation between New York City Opera Impresario Julius Rudel and his resident star mezzo soprano Beverly Sills, but it may well have gone something like that. As the March 29, 1978 issue of The Times of Shreveport, Louisiana, reported, “Smith was released from his contract at the request of Beverly Sills who wants Smith to join her in the cast of a New York City Opera production of The Merry Widow,” a show which would take place four days later.

Whether Rae needed that validation of of his talents or not, it must have felt good to the baritone to know how much the best-known diva of the era valued him. He had performed opposite Sills in San Diego the previous year, a production that was broadcast nationwide on PBS stations in late November and recorded for Angel Records. Sills must have appreciated the dynamic.

Newspapers all over the country publicized the 1977 event, usually beginning with words similar to those in New Mexico’s Deming Headlight: “Public television will present a new English-language production of Franz Lehar’s zesty operetta, The Merry Widow starring Beverly Sills Monday, November 28 on PBS as it was presented earlier this fall at the San Diego Civic Theater.

“Appearing with Miss Sills in this all-new San Diego Opera Company production will be Alan Titus, Nolan Van Way, Glenys Fowles, Ryan Allen and David Rae Smith.”

The company’s musical recording of Widow highlights was the 1978 (February 23) Grammy award winner for Best Opera Recording. (Other 1978 Grammy recipients included Luciano Pavarotti, Steve Martin, Donna Summer, Chick Corea, Al Jarreau, the BeeGees (“Saturday Night Fever”), Orson Welles, the Muppets, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, George Benson, Ann Murray, Barry Manilow, Billy Joel and Earth, Wind and Fire.)

How did the son of an Asheville, North Carolina, letter carrier and a homemaker make his way to the Grammys and the opera and Broadway stages?

In truth, the multi-talented Rae had many career choices, and his path was the result of a multitude of happenstances—in addition, of course, to his great natural abilities.

Based on his early accomplishments, Rae could have been successful at almost any career: politics, acting, the law, concert pianist, vocalist, radio personality, scholar. It must have seemed as if the world was his pearl-studded oyster.

* * *

Rae as Professor Harold Hill in Brevard Music Center production of The Music Man, 1971, with co-stars. Photo courtesy of Brevard Music Center, Overture  magazine, 1972. Used with permission.

The Story I Need to Tell

What story do I need to tell right now? The same story I needed to tell yesterday, last month, last year.

It’s the story of family. The stories that compel me most are of family members who have no one else to tell their story. I want to memorialize their lives.

A few generations’ worth of my forebears

I remember the day (about thirty years ago) I was driving to another county for a meeting. As usual, I tuned into NPR. A man was talking. It was the middle of something—I couldn’t tell what. But I was transfixed as he talked about sitting on the porch under the feet of his aunts and grandmother as they rocked and snapped beans and told and retold stories handed down to them, stories that ultimately led him to hard-to-find discoveries of his personal history.

The man was still talking when I reached my destination, so I didn’t get to find out who he was or exactly what he was talking about. But I was haunted by the bits of his story I heard. His voice stayed in my head. Only years later did I discover, when I heard a snippet of the story again, that I had been listening to a recorded talk given by Alex Haley about his genealogical discoveries that led to the writing of Roots.

My husband surprised me with this album–the haunting story I’d heard on the radio years before.

I will never write a story with the power of Roots. That is not the point. The point is that if a story isn’t preserved, it disappears. I believe our personal histories matter, and even a few random anecdotes about our ancestors can help us better understand who we are. They can give us a sense of self, of belonging, of profound truths.

If I know a story or can ferret one out, it feels like both an obligation and an honor to be the conduit between my past and future. If I can keep a story alive, I can keep the memory of cherished people alive, as well.

When I’m conscious of what my forebears lived through, how they lived through it, how they survived, I see life differently. When I study the history of their times, I feel them holding me up, and I want to do the same in my turn.

The story I need to tell right now is the one of my cousin (once removed) who sang with the New York City Opera for thirty years and left no descendants. And the story of his brother, a P-47 pilot in World War II. He was on a bombing mission to clear the way for Patton’s assault on Germany when he was killed just six weeks before the war in Europe ended. He left no one to tell his story, either.

              

Brothers Rae and Ed Smith, my cousins once removed

Found Poetry, Part VI

Each line of the first four poems is the title of a musical piece. I have put the titles together to form minimalist poetry, or as my cousin says, Almost Haiku. (For more found poetry, click here, here, here, and here.  Leave a note below to tell me what you think.

sea dreams
dancing on the water
on silent wings

 

incandescent voyage
water droplets
whisper of a stream
across the river

 

bathed in moonlight
on the edge of destiny
like smoke through a keyhole

 

tranquil dreams
in the stillness
deep peace
flowing into formlessness

 

 

The next poem was ‘found’ in a different way—personal observation at the edge of a field while watching a paragliding competition.

Swallows and swallowtails
graze the blossoms of chicory,
clover, and Queen Anne’s lace
in a wide meadow
beneath the cloud-dappled sky
where paragliders sail.

 

 

 

 

 

Sanctuary and Salvation

Again, my writing has taken me where I did not want to go. I fear we are all too bombarded by this theme, and I promise to leave it soon.

* * * * *

Home is my sanctuary. It’s where I feel safe, protected, loved. It’s where I am inspired—reborn. But seasonal depression traipses after me like a needy two-year-old, and demands constant vigilance. I know only one ‘cure’—to get Out, listen to bird trills, see the trees wave in the wind, smell the grasses and, when spring finally teases me, the flowers.

If Home is my sanctuary, Out is my salvation. But these days, Out is nearly my undoing. The intensity of it drains me. Out, I am a one-woman SWAT team, always on alert for snipers.

On a walking trail, I’m constantly checking all directions at once, zig-zagging to avoid fellow walkers who seem oblivious to the need for physical distance. Veering far off the path when I spy a jogger gaining on me or a gaggle of young roommates filling the pavement and headed my way. The responsibility for communal safety seems to be mine alone.

woman in face mask shopping in supermarket

Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

In a grocery store, I turn into a one-way aisle only to see someone coming toward me. I stop dead, then wheel my cart around and drive it over two more aisles, down then back up the one between, finally returning to my starting point—only to find someone else illegally coming at me.

When I near the end of an aisle, I pause, then slowly ease my cart into the intersection, anxious that someone may be about to ambush me. I am reminded of the way my nervous Mother used to creep around a blind curve on our mountain road at two miles an hour, madly honking the horn all the way.

Sometimes, another shopper turns in my direction when another is not far behind me. Trapped, I twist and flatten myself against shelves of canned goods like a squirrel plastered to the ground to avoid the predatory hawk. I dare not breathe until the danger has passed and the air might, just might, be slightly clearer than it was a few moments ago.

It is exhausting. I return home—to calm and solace, not knowing when the grayness will again swoop down and envelop me. But knowing it will. And, inevitably, the answer is Out.

I am intoxicated by the thought of Out—just the idea of taking trash to the dump excites me, even though Out is fraught with danger and the perception of danger. While governments ease restrictions, the modified protocols are for others. We elders—‘the vulnerables’—are still expected to stay home. When we do hazard to venture out, we will be at greater risk than ever.

He is okay with that. He says we are warriors. Ready for battle, ready to die for ‘the greater good’ as he thrusts us into the fray. Yes,” he acknowledges, people will die.

People like me.

That’s what warriors do. But how can I be a warrior? Warriors have weapons. I don’t.

She* sees today’s world differently. She encourages us to be meditative and connected—our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Reaching out to each other, not with hands, but with hearts—because our lives are in one another’s hands in ways they have never before been. Our physical distance demands our connectedness to be stronger than ever.

I can live with her take, considering this respite from normal as a sacred time in a sacred place, a time to step away from the chaos of the world and into personal commitment, a time to, as she says, “Reach out all the tendrils of compassion that move, invisibly, where we cannot touch.”

I might even be able to stay sane at home.

_ . _ . _ . _

*     She is poet Lynn Ungar. You can read the entirety of her touching poem here.

 

It’s Still Dark

Note: I have avoided writing about this subject like the plague that it is. But events have drawn me to it in spite of myself. Before reading, you should know that this was written a month ago. It was out of date by the time I finished it. But I have chosen not to change the numbers, so the piece can be an archival record.

water rainy rain raindrops

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

It’s still dark. The room feels stuffy. I leave my bed, open the window, and the sound of rain fills the room. It echoes the sound I hear in my brain.

It sounds as if I’m deep in the woods trying to tune into a low-signal radio station. Static of the worst kind. Angry, crackling dissonance. A constant hissing as terrifying as if all the voices in the world are speaking in my head simultaneously.

This is not the cadence of a gentle rain tickling our metal roof, a meditative thrum to sleep by. This is the sound of nightmares. Of madness. A discordant jumble of sound I cannot make sense of. The sound of nonsense numbers.

Numbers too big to contemplate clamor for attention I do not possess.

Ten is a number I can understand—the size of a family Thanksgiving gathering. Thirty—my grade- school classes. A hundred? Maybe my granddaughter’s high school soccer games.

But twenty thousand. What does that number mean? The population of my town. Have I ever seen all those people together in one place? If I drove to town one day and all 20,000 lay dead in the streets, could my brain take it in?

And yet, the numbers in my head are exponentially bigger than that. And they are real. They are human lives. The raindrops are their voices. I have no space to breathe.

Overnight, the number of deaths in the United States from a single virus passed the 50,000 mark. Overnight. By tomorrow, we will have exceeded a million documented cases. Before I can blink, cases worldwide will rise to 3 million with 200,000 deaths.  How am I supposed to understand those numbers?

I read a New York Magazine piece the other day. The reporter wrote that what we call “under control” is Americans dying in multiples of September 11 every week.” That kind of death toll is being normalized.

My stomach flips, but my mind is disengaged, my heart numbed. Too many numbers, too many voices—too little meaning. A tale of sound and fury, signifying nothing,

But . . .  tonight I am told someone very dear to me has the thing whose name I dare not speak.

Simultaneously I learn that 40-somethings with barely any symptoms are dying of virus-induced strokes. My son’s age. My daughter’s age.

Now, I feel it.

The cold sweat of bone-chilling fear.

Found Poetry, Part V

Poets.org describes found poetry as a literary collage  On occasion I like to play around with this genre that takes random words and phrases from newspaper articles and other prosaic sources and rearranges them into poetry.

Last year, I discovered another rich source for found poetry: titles of musical pieces from the SXM station I most often listen to while in the car. In these short poems, which my cousin calls  Almost Haiku, each line is the title of a musical piece.

In a room without lights
gray sky and bittersweet
invoke the elements
amid the stillness

mountain temple
bathed in moonlight
a welcome sight
on our journey

skipping stones
in tide pools
water diamonds

early autumn
island of woods
prism of life
in unknown country

quiet night
oceans of stars
moon meadow
timeless earth

For more of my Found Poetry click here, here, here, and here.  Leave a note below to tell me what you think.

This Wild and Precious Life

My Wednesday Writing Group is now meeting via email since we are sheltering in place. Our fearless leader’s recent prompt forced me into some deep soul searching. I didn’t know where this piece was going when I picked up my pen, but it turned into something meaningful for me, so meaningful that I’m opening myself up to you now.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Naturalized daffodils in the woods

I remember when our children were young and complained about not having enough time to do the things that really mattered. My go-to response was to remind them that however they spent their time was a demonstration of what truly mattered the most to them (which was often watching TV). Sometimes the response was tears, sometimes an eye roll or two, but it never seemed to change behavior. Maybe that’s because I was better at preaching than practicing. I was chiding myself every bit as much as I was chiding them.

I live in constant awe and envy of many women whose orbit I circle: women who travel to far off places to do good, putting themselves in who-knows-how-much of harm’s way, risking their health and safety. They give their time, their creativity, and their financial resources to help others. They think of others before themselves.

Like theirs, my heart aches for the plight of so many in this world, but that is often as much as I allow. I’m filled with compassion more than passion. I am not moved to activism. A lifetime ago it was different, but I burned my candle down to a nub. I got burned and burned out, and the flame has never reignited.

Still, I find myself looking around me and wondering how I can help, how I can make a difference. I looked close to home—it’s not an easy place to find an answer. I’m surrounded by an enclave of family—theirs, not mine. Much of what they do, all four generations of them, they do together: farming, canning, eating, errands, playing. They are self-contained; they take care of each other. They do not seem to need others, even in times of need.

“Where am I needed? What can I do?”

That was the question I asked myself when one of the older generation among these neighbors received a devastating cancer diagnosis. They certainly didn’t need me to bring food or offer trips to the doctor. I had just recently retired from my far more than  full-time job when it came to me—the one thing I now had that family members did not.

Time. I could visit. While their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren are off at work and school, I could give my time.

I had my answer.

At this stage in my own life, it seems the things I have to offer are the small things. A smile, a word of encouragement, a thank you or a compliment. They are indeed small things, but as I look around, they are things the world seems much in need of right now. These things I can do, and I have learned to be on the alert. Not always, not enough, but so much more than when I was so overworked and overwhelmed that I seemed only to live inside myself.

These days I actively watch for opportunities to smile, to make a small gesture. “Is there something I can get for you from that top shelf?” to the older gentleman in his electric shopping cart. “May I help with that?” to the woman struggling to get her arm into the coat sleeve.

I step out of my comfort zone to say something pleasant to a person who seems vulnerable. It’s an indirect way of saying, “You’re not alone. Here is a safe place.” Sometimes I just watch. How is this clerk from Pakistan being treated by her customers? How are those Latino customers being treated by that cashier? I’m ready to step in, though I have no idea how.

I’ve also learned that things I think and say and write can occasionally make a difference. It’s the main reason I continue to write—in hopes that I will sometimes find some combination of words that will touch someone.

In these ever more uncertain times, I believe it is more important than it ever has been—in my lifetime, at least—to look for the small ways I can help improve someone else’s day. Maybe it’s an extra large tip when my server is having a tough time. Maybe it’s a conversation with the overworked cashier at the big box store. Maybe it’s popping a check in the mail to make up for the appointments I’ll miss with my hairdresser for the current stage of the coronavirus shutdown—with a little something extra added in. Maybe it’s looking for a sliver of silver lining someone’s clouds.

What do I plan to do with my one wild and precious life? I plan to plant a little ray of sunshine wherever I can. Carrie Newcomer sings, “Between here now and forever is so precious little time.” With my precious little time I will seek out tiny acts of kindness to perform, following Mother Teresa’s counsel to do small things with great love.

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

–Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems, 1992

 

 

Blackberries and Biscuits: A Review

OK, I’m all puffed up with pride and just can’t help it.

I recently received a lovely, validating  note in the mail from someone who had just finished reading Blackberries and Biscuits. She enclosed a review because, as she said, “I truly believe it deserves literary attention and acclaim.” Wow!

Mind you, we are friends and writing colleagues, but her note and review were completely unsolicited, so I accept that her words are totally from the heart. They made my heart sing, and I’ve just gotta share them with you!

By the way, if you’ve read Blackberries and Biscuits, maybe you’d like to leave a review on Amazon–I’d sure appreciate it. Reviews are important in helping customers make buying decisions.

Review: Blackberries and Biscuits: Life and Times of a Smoky Mountain Girl 

This is a love story that spans multiple generations. By love I mean love of a family through deep kindred roots as well as love between a man and woman that intertwines those kindred roots into a captivating story that stands the test of time. Carole Coates has woven a work of words into a personal, up-close exploration of her own family tree. The family tree branches she shares with her readers surpass common features such as names, birth places and tidbits of local color. Coates’ words dig much deeper than that into the grit, hardship, hunger and belief in faith that make a person stronger. Makes them more resilient and committed to the tasks they set out to achieve. Not the least of these strengths is a true appreciation of humor. Oh yes … humor that makes you smile, giggle and grin.

Taking place on the fringes of Tennessee in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, the life story of Pansy (Pam) Dillard Coates unfolds through an historical sketch of a Daddy, granddaddies, great granddaddies; Mother, grandmothers, great grandmothers; sisters, brothers, cousins and friends. Photos skillfully arranged throughout this novel strengthen the visual image of this family while also providing a micro-cosmic portrayal of a life growing up in the Appalachian mountains – a life, though often hard, that was also rewarding and beautiful.

Kudos to Coates for taking extensive time to research many aspects of this story. She artfully piques the reader’s interest in a time span of history that so few may have encountered or envisioned. She thoughtfully accomplishes what it appears she has set out to do. To engage the reader in reminiscing about family, close ties, anecdotal happenings and the precious sense of timeless love. Truly, Coates has achieved her goal of writing a beautiful, everlasting love story.

Amy C. Millette
Vilas, NC
January 31, 2020

Thanks, Amy! And, in case that isn’t enough shameless self-promotion for one day, if Amy’s review inspires you to read my book, you can find it here.

 

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 )

Finding Moments of Joy

Last spring, I heard a writer friend mention the happiness journal—365 days of happiness. I was taken with the concept, but it didn’t quite fit for me. I landed on something similar, but in some ways dramatically different when I began recording one single event each day that I could claim as a personal Moment of Joy (MoJ). I mentioned my Moment of Joy journal here.

I wasn’t looking for things that simply gave me satisfaction or created an exhale of relief. Instead, I wanted to make note of those unexpected moments that take my breath away, that make me want to say to anyone who can hear, “Hey, look at that!” I vowed to exempt personal relationships and everyday happinesses when I recorded a Moment of Joy. Writing that I was happy to wake up next to the GNOME, for instance, could become a cop out and a crutch. Too easy. I’m always happy to wake up next to him. I wanted to become more aware of the little things that are too easy to miss.

I admit I’ve ended a few days scratching my head as I prepared to document an MoJ. Some days are like that. But I’m happy to report that for the most part, I have trouble narrowing down my MoJ experiences to just one or two to record. I’ve been surprised how easy it is to find them. The Gnome’s gotten in on the act, too. We see a rainbow and he says, “That could be your moment of joy today.”

A few months ago, I thought I’d stop keeping an MoJ list. I was practically stumbling over all the moments of joy around me (not a bad thing); maybe I didn’t need a list. But as fall slowly morphed into winter, I changed my mind. I’ve written before about the emotional challenge that the often overcast, always-short-day season can be for me. Of all times to be on intentional alert for moments of joy, this is it.

I’m glad I kept at it. Being attuned to joyful moments after day upon day of gray fog is so good for the soul. As I write this, I glance up every few moments to watch snowflakes lazily drift through the air. Yesterday, all it took was a look outside to notice the heart-stoppingly beautiful scenery with snow on the ground and hoar frost adding its own touch of brilliance to the mountaintops and the tips of branches. The male cardinal wears an especially bright coat of scarlet on days like that.

Last week, we spotted the brightest, biggest, most distinctly colored rainbow I think I’ve ever seen. And when we looked more closely, we could spot an ever-so-faint second rainbow above it. What a WOW moment!

When the world is as naked as it is in winter, I look for subtleties: the patterns and hues of lichen on trees, the grain of tree bark. Winter is the time for noticing the delicate shades of dried grasses in fields and meadows, ranging from sand to bronze to deep burgundy.

My Moments of Joy have ranged from getting an unexpected phone call to listening to wind gusts, from spotting a dandelion puff in winter to discovering a tidbit of information to make an otherwise mundane essay sing, from a stranger’s kindness to seeing five deer standing just outside the window or catching the scent of winter-blooming narcissus.

Being on the lookout for each day’s Moment of Joy quickly became a habit, an almost unconscious one. And that’s the way it should be—being so in the moment and so intuitively aware of the world around me that I never have to be reminded of the many things to be thankful for, of the beauty and potential for joy that surrounds me. Besides, the very best Moments of Joy are those that come unbidden, catching me off guard, sweeping off my feet.

“Hey, look at that!”