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.
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?
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?
[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.
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.”
“But this one is.”
Well, you can’t say I didn’t know what I was getting into.
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
(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